Levelling Up For Higher Learning

Using role-playing games to teach undergraduates about education and more.





In a dark dungeon, a warrior orders his troops to attack a giant fire-breathing dragon. They are working as a team, battling for their lives. This isn’t just a game. The players are working on a homework assignment for a university course.

At Illinois State University, professor of education Rodney Riegle is teaching the world’s first university course entirely on a Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG).

“I am something of a visionary,” says professor of education Rodney Riegle. “I developed the world’s first totally online course and I wanted to take it to the next level. MMORPGs were an obvious choice to me.

The idea of using games as teaching tools is not new, however, with advances in technology, the types of games used and how things are being taught has evolved.

“Any time you can get closer to reality, then you can do more instructionally, and so essentially a virtual environment is much closer to reality than a classroom.”

He teaches an undergraduate course for teachers called Social Foundations of Education using the MMORPG EverQuest II.

Riegle’s schoolwork isn’t typical essays and tests.  His course gives them a chance to learn how to navigate within the game and talk to others. His assignments are in-game missions where students need to get to the next level.

Reigle says for many people, this is a complete environment, better than the real world.

“The drawback to using the real world is that it’s sometimes dangerous, sometimes expensive to do that in terms of time and money. In a virtual environment, it’s very safe; you can die, but you can be revived,” Riegle says.

The target audience for the course is teacher education majors, with content focusing on history, philosophy and sociology of education.
“The purpose of my course is to look at it as a potential instructional environment when they become teachers.”

The aim is to give students a chance to explore MMORPGs as an educational environment and to see if they would like to use it as a teaching tool for themselves in the future, Riegle says.

 But to some like professor Doug Davis, a psychology professor at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, the controls are still too unnatural to be engaging.

“For me [the games are] not nearly good enough yet. It’s too ‘cartoonish,’ he says. “It’s too hard to move the character around. I don’t like typing when I’d rather be talking to somebody with whom I’m interacting.”

However, he says should the games become as advanced as a Star Trek “holo-deck,” he would give playing them a try.

“I find the idea of that quite exciting. If the technology were better, I think I’d be very tempted,” Davis says.

Scott Hartsman, Creative director and senior producer of EverQuest II, was contacted by Riegle with the concept through e-mail and described his idea for the course.

“I just thought that was the greatest idea      . . . It introduces a few of the people to what online games are all about and it gave us a chance to read their blogs and to get another outsider view of some folks in the outside world, what they think and what they feel about our game as they play through it.”

Hartsman says the most important thing players take out of the game is the realization that they are playing with real people. Players can make someone’s day better by helping them, or make them more miserable by being annoying.

The games also help in other aspects of life, Davis says. They allow for people from around the world to interact with each other without traveling or being constrained to a classroom, and they teach leadership skills and interpersonal relations. “You’re learning how to co-operate. You’re learning the skills.”

Simeon Spearman, a futurist at Social Technologies agrees. “In World of Warcraft, you have to be fairly good at interpersonal skills and understanding resource management, understanding how to co-operate with people, relying on people. It may be different from walking up to someone at a bar, but it could have a positive influence on interacting in a team environment.”

But coordinating your team to run a raid in the game can be more challenging than running a team in real life.

When running a development team, there is a financial incentive to do a good job, he says, but that incentive does not exist in the game.

“You do have to make sure that the experience is fun. In some ways it’s more difficult that way. Among people who are inclined to enjoy that sort of thing and want to excel at it already, I think there are a lot of benefits there.”

And the benefits can extend beyond the classroom.

From a navy vessel in the Atlantic Ocean,  Benjamin Clark runs a guild that conducts raids with his wife, Arelys. He says it has helped him with teamwork and leadership skills.

Clark, a Gunner’s Mate First Class in the U.S. Navy says he applies his military skills to the game, such as planning and discipline and would recommend it as a leadership tool on a case-by-case basis.

“It is an addicting game and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone that I think would get easily addicted.”

Clark says the game helps bring him and Arelys closer together.

“I think my relationship with my wife is better because of the game. It helps save money as we can both stay home and enjoy ourselves. It also gives her something to focus on while I’m away, helping her to pass the time. It definitely has brought us closer.”

Spearman sees the next step for game-based education will be designing games to even better reflect real life.

“Virtual worlds, especially, hold potential for simulating scientific experiments or engineering courses, or architecture classes.”

Back in Illinois, Riegle, who has been teaching his class for seven years, says it takes time for people to adjust to new things, but he expects his students to become more appreciative of his technique.

“What I have found with MMORPGs is the same with any change in environment. At the beginning you get about 50/50 like it, 50/50 hate it and then as the population in general gets used to these kinds of environments, it goes up past 90 per cent approval rate.”

And for futurist Hartsman, there is potential in using games for education, but the lack of financing is what is keeping it from becoming more mainstream.

He says in the U.S, the main incentive for making games is financial gain. “There’s not a whole lot of money in education.

“There are plenty of non-United States countries out there where they’re actively looking at the institutional level for new ways to engage their students.”

At work Hartsman and his team have talked about using games for education.

“We’ve had all this practice, all these years of experience teaching people intricate details about fake worlds for entertainment. Wouldn’t it be kind of interesting to teach them about the real world for education? I gotta tell you, there’s definitely something compelling about that possibility.”

Illustration/Mandy James