Just like the preceding forms of interactions, peer interactions among learners in distance education are mediated by communication technology. Nevertheless, I would like to discuss the finding s of two studies that observed learner-learner interactions in a face-to-face classroom before moving on to those that were mediated by online games. One is by Kurt Squire and the other by Thorkild Hanghøj.
In Squire's study, affinity groups emerged from the game play (2004). Even though they were playing single-player games, students inside a computer laboratory would interact with one another, even leaving their computer games (during long pauses in the game) and observing the others. They examined each other’s games, advised one another, and shared solutions to certain problems. These affinity groups were the ones that created metagames among themselves. In one class of students “taken as shared meanings arose ... as students played their games and asked one another for advice, examined the consequences of decisions, and predicted how events from one game might relate to the unfolding of others (Squire, 2004).” None of these activities were designed in the game; they developed naturally among the learners. But as was previously presented in Squire's curricular outline for using the game Civilization III, the emergence of affinity groups took time or they grew out from existing friendships.
In Hanghøj's (2008) non-digital debate game we get to see how students interact with one another in a game about interaction. Unlike in Squire's case, the interaction here is designed in the game rather than outside the game. We also see the interactions directly without the mediation of technology unlike the next examples. Hanghøj found out that the students needed three competencies to successfully play the debate game. These are social, communicative, and scenario competencies (Hanghøj, 2008). These competencies were in the context of playing the role of a professional politician. I found most insightful is the varied ways by which the students played out their communicative competency. Hanghøj classified it as parodic, personalised, professionalised and/or reproductive. This finding may be useful in teaching history especially when students are asked to role play historical characters online.
What strike me about the design of these games is that we can afford learner-learner interaction in a game by incorporating it in the rules as a learning goal or task; or by making the game too complex or too difficult for an individual to successfully complete. Simply allowing students to group themselves but giving them a task that can be accomplished individually will neither encourage peer interaction nor greater learning gain for group learning (Boland, 2009). In fact in the latter case the demands of group interaction may just be an added burden. The learning goal and task should demand group work to be accomplished. In Hanghøj case a student can't debate with himself/herself, and in Squire's case the game was so complex that sharing solutions increase the likelihood of successful game play. This theme will manifest itself again when we look at MMOGs like Lineage in Constance Steinkuehler's study and Anarchy Online in Marko Siitonen's research.
There are times when we may wish to replicate these results in distance education. But can students in distance education walk around and observe each other's game play like in face-to-face classrooms? My answer is a qualified yes. Certain genres of games allow us to observe each other's game play via avatars. In MMOGs and MUVEs, avatars are digital representation of the learner. Depending on the extent by which an avatar can be customized it can represent ones gender, ethnicity, and clothing style (Dickey, 1999). It can even represent a user as a fantasy character in the virtual world.
An avatar differentiates the collaborative experience of learners in a text based forum or chat, from a graphical virtual world because the learners presence in the world is communicated to other players simply by placing the avatar in the virtual world (Taylor, 2002). In a forum or chat one has to act consciously by posting messages so that others will know that you are present in the forum. In the virtual world it's the reverse, people may actually think you are present in the virtual world and ignoring them if you do not type afk (away from keyboard) in the in-game chat box. According to Kong Siu Lung, “co-presence is the sense of being there in other places and being together with other people (Biocca et. al., as cited in Kong, 2008). It is the fundamental prerequisite of collaborative learning and it is claimed to be one of the crucial social components of computer-mediated communication (Spears & Lea, as cited in Kong, 2008).” And that “...co-presence is an essential design of multiplayer computer games which facilitates social behavior online (Vogiazou & Eisenstadt, as cited in Kong, 2008, p.8).”
Current MMOGs and MUVEs also allow avatars to move, display gestures, and even show facial expressions. The translation of real life non-verbal behaviour to the virtual environment, usually through an avatar is called embodiment (Dickey, 1999). Rune Klevjer claims that the “... relationship between the player and the avatar is a prosthetic relationship; through a process of learning and habituation, the avatar becomes an extension of the player’s own body (2006). He further said, “The avatar is the embodied manifestation of the player’ engagement with the gameworld; it is the player incarnated (Klevjer, 2006).” In 3d virtual worlds avatars not only serve as a visual representation of the user but also as a camera (Dickey, 1999; Klevjer, 2006). MMOGs and MUVEs usually allow a first person and third person camera view. In the first person view, the camera is in the avatar and the player sees what the avatar sees but cannot see the avatar. In the third person view the camera is outside the avatar and the player sees the world as well as the avatar. When the avatar's head is turned left, right, up or down, the camera follows thus enhancing the feeling of embodiment.
Another affordable action of avatars commonly discussed in the literature is identity experimentation. Identity in virtual worlds is established by unique usernames and personalization of avatars. The avatar allows a player to distinguish himself/herself from other players and to establish a reputation in the virtual world. Identity is essential for establishing trust and accountability (Dickey, 1999), that in turn is important to establishing long term social relationships online. Other players know you through your avatar. Since players may also be allowed to have more than one avatar and to change their avatars, they can experiment with other identities. This is very useful for role playing in history as players can take on different genders, age, race, form etc. and see how people or things were treated by others in different times and different cultures.
The other affordable actions allowed by avatars included richer communication, affiliation, and socialization (Taylor, 2002). In communicating with others the player is no longer confined to emoticons and may include a limited set of body and facial expression. Players can also signify their affiliation by giving their avatars the same look as the group they belong to. Within the virtual world you can hold almost any social activity that involve gathering somewhere like dances, conferences, and even virtual classrooms. An avatar affords the player to act on a game world. It is a virtual body that inhabits an environment and allows us the metaphor of place-of being somewhere in the game.
A feature of MMOGs and MUVEs that encourage social networking (and a virtual economy) is the persistence of the game. Participants of MMOG cannot restart the game or practice “save-and-load” strategy, and restore the game play progress back to their desired state, therefore when they disconnect from the game and return later on the results of the social activities and game play will remain. It creates an in-game history and in-game biography for an avatar. The game ends only when it is abandoned by the company that created it.
MMOG and MUVE's virtual world had been praised for affording the establishment of communities of learners and communities of practice. The difference between the two learning communities is that the community of practice is more dedicated to some professional activity. This had been lauded as a natural environment for learning, that is, people come there to learn voluntarily. They organize themselves and sustain their communities by learning from one another (Steinkuehler, 2005). Would it not be great to see self-driven, self-organizing students who can sustain their own learning in a collaborative learning community? Perhaps by briefly looking at the dynamics of community building and disbandment in online multiplayer games we could learn how to design games that will afford this form of collaborative learning.
How gamers form communities
As previously mentioned MMOGs were studied by Steinkuehler and Siitonen. Siitonen in particular observed two types of communities of gamers, the casual gamers and the competitive gamers (2007). The casual gamers emphasize getting along and having fun rather than winning and efficiency. In certain MMOG these communities are called guilds or clans.
These communities could start from players who do not know each other or from players with real life relations such as relatives, friends or work mates (Siitonen, 2007). Those who found the community form the initial core group of the social network. Then they recruit other members based on the emergent values and norms of the communities. Casual gamers for example would recruit members who are fun to be with and easy to work with, while competitive players may value game skills over interpersonal skills. The new members and occasional players compose the periphery of the network, and moving to the core requires commitment and participation. Each community has leaders. The leaders manage the activity of the community, like quests, meetings, and other projects. Some leaders are autocratic, while others are more democratic. This brief description would already have suggested to the reader that online multiplayer communities are just like real life communities or groups.
In MMOGs players take on roles to do quests collaboratively. The quests are usually very difficult such that an individual cannot complete it by himself/herself. Sometimes there are too many monsters to kill in a dungeon. The roles may then be divided into those who fight and those who heal the fighters so they could fight longer. Of course we know from Bartle (1996) that there are players who prefer to just socialize with other players rather than kill monsters. We may need to provide a safe venue for socializers in same way that course designers usually put a General Discussion forum in an LMS.
Online gamers' communities according to Siitonen last only for months. They are then disbanded and the players move on to other communities or even to other newer online games. Sometimes the community is disbanded because of conflict among members. Misunderstanding could arise, or there are conflicts in the interpretation of the norms and values of the community. Sometimes the community just withers away as members lose interest; or their real life situation changes that affect their time to play (Siitonen, 2007). Again let me reiterate that the lesson here is that social networks or social relationships may be developed in a game even when players or learners are geographically separated.
What do gamers learn in a community?
Of course in terms of content one learns in-game content rather than school subject matter content. But as Becker (2008) had shown with single player games, the content is irrelevant to the fact that games have the appropriate pedagogy to teach novices. Learning is through full participation in genuine game play with more knowledgeable or more skilled others (Steinkuehler, 2005). The manuals are supplementary materials to learning. Contrast this with the traditional face-to-face classroom were the textbook or manual takes precedence in learning. The virtual world looks more like a richer learning environment than common impoverished classrooms in the Philippines not only because of the digital objects in the virtual world but also because of the many potential mentors that you can meet (just like in the real world outside the school). In the school students are limited to one teacher every 45 minutes or 1 ½ hour.
Note that nothing stops learners in a virtual world to organize a more intentional and formal class as shown by Magine's class in Michele Dickey's study (1999). Magine is a player who organized a class on building digital objects. Her class is part of the player organized Active Worlds University that offered virtual classes on technical stuff about digital objects in the MUVE Active Worlds.
Steinkuehler also emphasized the literacy learned in online multiplayer games (2005). Because players usually have to communicate through chat, reading and writing is an everyday activity. Not only have students had to learn to interpret a lot of symbols in the game. And they would even analyze games mathematically as well as write essays in blogs or websites about the game play. They would also discuss and even analyze strategies in forums. In this web environment they would manipulate not only text but multimedia like screenshots or video recording of their games. Steinkuehler's study seems to suggest that gamers may produce more written material than a student in class. Players do not waste their time playing online games because it’s not all about pushing buttons. What advocates of using games in school are saying is that if only we could motivate students in school to organize themselves as learning communities like these gamers perhaps they will learn more and retain more of what they have learned.
Dangers in MMOGs and MUVEs
However, just like in the real world, when minors enter an open game world there are dangers. The persistence of games that affords social networking also affords overuse which may result in physical or mental health risks discussed above. At least with single player stand-alone video games there is a natural ending. And usually when a player finishes a video game, he/she loses interest in replaying that video game again. There may be a need to design pauses or breaks in MUVEs and MMOG used for teaching and learning not only to avoid overuse but promote reflection as well.
There are other perils aside from overuse. Commercial MUVE and MMOG internet services like Second Life and World of Warcraft have policies regarding misbehaviour in their games. Second Life does not allow users who are under 18 years old. In the teen version of Second Life only 13-17 years old are allowed to participate (Linden Research, 2010). Second Life and Teen Second Life have community standards, formal rules of behaviour. The goal of the Second Life community standards is stated as “...treat each other with respect and without harassment, adhere to local standards as indicated by simulator ratings, and refrain from any hate activity which slurs a real-world individual or real-world community (Linden Research, n.d.)”. Teen Second Life's community standard goal is to “...enjoy a safe, fun Second Life experience and always treat each other with respect. (Linden Lab, n.d.)”. In particular Teen Second Life has rules about respect for others, anonymity, password protection, privacy, vulgar language, expletives, nudity, sexual content, strong violence, harassment, assault, disturbing of the peace, etc (Linden Research, n.d.). This list reads like a student manual in school. The list is self-explanatory except assault. How do you assault someone virtually? MUVEs like Second Life have simulated physics which allow players in to push, shove and even shoot others. This behaviour is restricted in combat zones or PVP (player versus player) zones.
There are players who misbehave intentionally and are known as griefers. According to Wikipedia a griefer is a player in a multiplayer video game that purposely irritates and harasses other players (Griefer, 2010). It is the equivalent of an internet troll in chats, forums, and blogs (Troll in Wikipedia, 2010). Internet games may even be used for cyber-bullying where the intention is to divulge embarrassing or hurtful information about people (Cyber-Bullying in Wikipedia, 2010). Hekki Jungman studied criminal and offensive behaviour in multi-user virtual worlds and found that common offenses and crimes is connected to money e.g. getting one’s account password to steal the virtual assets, and sell them for real-world money (2009).
Second Life had dealt with minor offenses by suspending accounts and banishing people to a virtual detention centre called the corn field. When a player is sent to this virtual place he cannot teleport (travel to another place just by clicking a link or entering an URL address) elsewhere. He cannot communicate with anyone, and cannot create objects. All he will see is the corn field and a tractor. In other words the misbehaving player is punished with boredom (Walsh, 2006). But more serious offenses are punished differently. In World of Warcraft, a player who breaks the game play policy is punished in this order: warning, suspension, final warning, and account closure (Blizzard Entertainment, 2010). It would be wise to study the rules of existing MUVEs and MMOGs as part of the design of an educational game project.
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