Workplace-based guilds: the next step in training?

Long-time gamer and scholar highlights the role of MMOGs in teaching and learning
  • Liz Tay (PC World)
  • 12 March, 2007 11:37

Games may not be the end-all method of teaching and learning, but they do trump traditional textbooks in some respects, claims communications scholar Douglas Thomas.

Presenting at the annual meeting of American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) last month, Thomas argued that Massive Multiplayer Online Games [MMOGs] such as the extremely popular World of Warcraft had the ability to impart leadership and management skills that could be useful in the business world.

To find out what MMOGs have in store for workplace training, Liz Tay spoke with Thomas, a long-time gamer and associate professor in the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication, about his research and opinions.

What role does MMO gaming have in imparting practical life skills?

There are two answers to this question. The first is that there are basic social skills as well as skills of leadership and management which games teach. These might include things such as being treasurer for a guild, where you need to make decisions about allocation of resources.

It is pretty easy to see how games can provide a training simulation for practical skills. However, that is not what we found to be the most interesting aspect of games and learning.

Games are also very good at creating what we have called 'dispositional stances' which are much closer to attitudes one takes toward problem solving. So, for example, a 'questing' disposition teaches you how to find and utilize resources from your environment to solve problems, rather than assume a one size fits all solution.

That kind of learning exercises the imagination and, we believe, fosters innovative thinking.

What skills are MMOGs particularly suited to teach?

What we have seen in MMOs such as World of Warcraft is an explosion of technological innovations and problem solving around the game. There are massive databases for items and quests.

Every guild has its own web site, usually composed of internal message forums, raid tracking software, wikis, membership databases, and event planners. Guilds are themselves extremely flexible, hyper-responsive modern organizations, which change and shift dramatically in response to player and game-driven needs. They provide a model not only for management, but for understanding how players continually position themselves in terms of the needs and goals of the greater organization.

Can these skills be useful in the business world, and how do you suggest job hunters could make potential employers aware of these skills?

How to make employers aware? We were half joking when we wrote [in a research report] that people should start listing their World of Warcraft characters in the resumes -- but only half joking. We are already starting to see business moving into spaces like Second Life; IBM has a significant presence of its workforce there already, for example.

The awareness will happen as people in organizations experience the benefits first-hand. It is starting to creep into popular culture as well. 'The Office' [is a TV series that] has a running theme of employees playing Call of Duty as a team building exercise. Maybe workplace-based guilds are the next step!

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How does gaming compare to traditional learning methods like books? Can gaming ever replace books?

Books and games are good at teaching different things. Games are no better or worse at transmitting information that other forms [of teaching], such as books, TV, [and] lectures.

What games are very good at, however, is experiential learning. Concepts such as ethics, civic engagement, or teaching unintended consequences are very hard to do in the traditional classroom. They are fundamental to games. So teaching someone that certain choices have long term and potentially unforeseen consequences is relatively easy to embed in the mechanics of a game, while it is difficult to communicate in something like a text book.

Likewise, it is much easier to teach someone principles of citizenship by having them actually be a citizen in an environment and by asking them to reflect on that experience than it is to create a list of rules for good citizenship that someone is expected to memorize.

Games, especially MMOGs, are also good at teaching the social, and often times tacit, aspects of knowledge that are communicated through things like apprenticeship and enculturation.

In your research, you assert that MMOGs provide players with a better understanding of both the real and virtual world through 'conceptual blends'. What are 'conceptual blends'?

Conceptual blending is a theory developed by [Cognitive Scientist] Mark Turner to explain how our brains process seemingly impossible ideas, with little or no difficulty.

An example is a talking animal. We know dogs can't speak, but we have no problem watching a cartoon or even a film where they do. The theory holds that we embrace these ideas when the frames (animality and speech in this case) are non-conflicting.

There is no logical reason why dogs can't speak, they just don't. The blends become powerful because they allow each element to have a depth and vividness that blends together; it allows something to be both/and rather than either/or.

With virtual worlds, most of the framing has been contrasting the virtual world with the real world. Our contention is that when you step into a virtual world, you are entering a conceptual blend where you are both in the real world and in the physical world at the same time. As a result, when things like dispositions form, they are being created simultaneously for the character and the player, rather than being something that happens in the game and must then be transferred out into the physical world.

Are the benefits associated with cognitive blending and learning unique to MMOGs, or do online RTS and FPS games offer such benefits too?

I am not sure if I would say unique. But we find that the most interesting learning that happens is in the space around the game. Games are often the impetus to create learning systems to solve problems and organize players. Not surprisingly, a lot of what we are finding in these game spaces is also providing some insight into other technologies that youth are engaging, such as Myspace.

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What characteristics of a game create learning systems that would lend it to teaching and learning?

There are two different questions here. And it is important to mark how different they are. There is one school of thought that says 'games teach'. The idea being that students are more likely to engage with games than with standard pedagogical methods such as text books, so they will have more incentive to learn.

A game like Civilization can teach history or SimCity can teach city planning. There seems to be some evidence that this is in fact true. So games can be a good teaching platform. And it is most useful when you have particular learning objectives you want to impart.

But for us, the second part of the formula is this: players learn. This is where our work on imagination is the most central. What players are doing in these environments is engaging in what [psychologist] John Dewey called 'productive inquiry'. They are using the resources they have at hand to learn how to do the things they want to do.

As my colleague John Seely Brown talks about this, they are inverting the traditional learning hierarchy. Where students used to learn about things in order to learn how to be things -- [for example, learning] math, design and engineering in order to become an architect -- they are now using these new learning environments to be what they want to be and falling back to traditional notions of 'learning about' when they get stuck. For example, you just start building and when you need to learn something to help solve a problem, you go read up on it.

It is a whole new way of thinking about learning, where practice and engagement with the world comes first and knowledge and learning in the older sense is a tool for problem solving, rather than the basis for an identity or professional behaviour.

You mentioned the prevalence of team bonding and social skills in your paper. How much of these social skills translate to the real world, and how do you feel about the 'socially-inept gamer' stereotype?

This is a difficult question to answer, because it is hard to know what the "real world" is. We need to stop thinking about these domains as separate. When you are playing with a group of guildmates and you learn to read their social cues, you are not learning to read World of Warcraft social cues, you are learning to read social cues period.

No one asks the question the other way around. How much of what we know about people's real world behaviour translates inside the game? All of it does! If someone in the game says 'Stop talking about how much you dislike Bob, it is getting on my nerves,' no one pauses to say, 'I understand he is annoyed in the real world but how seriously should I take that in the game space, how much of his real world annoyance is transferring into the virtual world?"

So why should we think of it any differently working the other way? From our perspective, the things you are learning in the space of MMOs you are learning in the virtual and physical worlds at the same time.

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Do you think online games like MMOGs will significantly change our social interactions in the future?

I think we are seeing it [happen] already. We are starting to see the emergence of a 'networked imagination'. There are millions of people who now spend extensive amounts of time together, negotiating and completing very difficult tasks and who are in direct communication for several hours a day, but who have never met face to face. They have a set of very deep and very real shared experiences, which define for them a close relationship.

In some cases guild members may have been playing together for five or ten years, often every day, and have no contact with each other except for the game and the connections around it.

That seems to me to be a new form of sociality which is both significant and likely to change some of how we think about friendship, social interaction, and connections between people.

Those kinds of relationships are different from our more traditional face to face relationship and are not designed to replace them. They do point to the possibility of forming significant and meaningful social relationships in an age of globalization where face to face interaction may be difficult, costly, or even impossible.

What do you think is most significant about your research, and what are your plans for further studies?

I think our educational system is currently training people for the jobs of the 20th century. The next generation needs to be a generation of innovative thinkers who understand the importance of imagination and who are able to deploy knowledge in interesting ways.

We continue to look at the ways in which MMOs can tell us something about learning practices. There is no shortage of creativity, innovation, and fun happening with kids today. The trick is to figure out what practices kids are adopting and harness them to reshape our educational institutions to embrace them.

Games and MMOs are not the only tools we have for learning, nor are they always the best or most appropriate ones, but there are some things they do better than anything else. Our goal should be one of matching the right tools to the right job and if we can succeed at that, the payoffs will be tremendous.