Lisa Galarneau & Melanie Zibit. Games and Simulations in Online Learning: Research and Development Frameworks. Editor: David Gibson, Clark Aldrich, Marc Prensky. Hershey, PA: Information Science Publishing, 2007.
The approach of the 21st century has brought a chorus of pronouncements that “the information society” both requires and makes possible new forms of education.
We totally agree with this. But we do not agree that tardiness in translating these declarations into reality can be ascribed, as it often is, to such factors as the lack of money, technology, standards, or teacher training. Obviously there is need for improvement in all of those areas. But the primary lack is something very different—a shortage of bold, coherent, inspiring, yet realistic visions of what education could be like 10 and 20 years from now.
What we mean by vision is not a blueprint but a compelling view of the “look and feel” of the future—its needs, its opportunities, and how we can prepare ourselves now to act on them. Vision allows us to look beyond the problems that beset us today, giving direction to our passage into the future. Even more important, vision energizes that passage by inspiring and guiding us into action. (Seymour Papert and Gaston Caperton at the 91st Annual National Governors’ Association Meeting, St. Louis, Missouri, August 1999)
In recent years there has been no shortage of well-intentioned talk in educational circles about the critical role of vision in the creation of educational systems that properly address 21st century needs. A Japanese proverb says, “Vision without action is a dream; action without vision, a nightmare.” This is how many of us feel about our current education systems: we have far too much action without vision and quite a lot of rhetoric-based vision without action, but not enough of the two combined into a cohesive and effective result. There are, and have been for decades, many visions as to the “look and feel” of the future of education, but they have been largely stymied by an inability to translate via pragmatic means the here-and-now into that ideal. And we have had a great deal of “action” that creates a sense of activity and accountability in the short term, but minus a vision that translates that activity into long-term success. Actionable vision is a problem of connecting the dots, of understanding how the present converges into the future, and what we can do to affect and smooth that passage.
It is a common mistake to overlook the fact that our future is not as mysterious as it might seem, but nor is it a point to which we arrive without first journeying through our present. As author and futurist Bruce Sterling (2003) has commented, the future is already being written in our present, if only we know where to look for the hints of what is to come. This chapter will argue that the vision for learning in the 21st century already exists and is being acted upon by millions of people around the world who engage in digital activity such as sharing online information or collaborating with peers, but most notably in the complex but little understood worlds of online gaming.
Learning in the 21st Century
The world is now coming to grips with the idea that 21st century people require a different set of skills made mandatory by the complexity and pace of life and work in the face of amazing new communications technologies just beginning to entrench themselves in the social, cultural, and economic fabric of our lives. These skills for 21st century, as they are often called, are those that are necessary to succeed in an ever-changing, global society where communication is ubiquitous and instantaneous, and where software tools allow for a range of creative and collaborative options that yield new patterns and results that we are only beginning to see. The skills include critical thinking, teamwork, problem solving, collaboration, facility with technology, information literacy, and more; they are all fundamental to the success of knowledge workers.
But although we have traveled great distances technologically, these needs are not being met in today’s schools, where high-stakes testing and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) policies leave little time for anything besides the standard, highly measurable, content-oriented curriculum. It is striking that many people today are not acquiring 21st century skills through structured learning environments that anticipate these needs, but rather through various “cognitively-demanding leisure” activities they choose to engage with, including to a larger and larger extent, videogames (Johnson, 2005b). Of particular note is the increasing popularity of massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs), a relatively recent videogaming phenomenon enabled by burgeoning broadband penetration and a new generation of computers and consoles that allow rich worlds with thousands of participants to be rendered in real time. Literally millions of people are now playing these games world-wide.
Many of the games are referred to as “virtual worlds” (Bartle, 2003) as they are not simply games in the traditional rules-based sense, but rather “persistent social and material worlds, loosely structured by open-ended (fantasy) narratives, where players are largely free to do as they please” (Steinkuehler, 2004). Still, they are games in the sense that players come to them with a certain expectation to engage in achievement-oriented activity, often in collaboration with other players. It is notable that while we tend to think of videogames as competitive spaces, players are encountering intensely cooperative practices in these online gaming environments. The process of play itself leads to, and at the higher levels requires, a high level of achievement across various dimensions of both cognitive and social intelligence. Our perspective is that players of MMOGs develop 21st century skills in a spontaneous and holistic way as a by-product of play, even though learning these skills is not a direct goal of these games. Unlike an educational or “serious” game, where learning objectives are designed into the game, these skills are developed organically, and often quite unintentionally, as a consequence of playing the game.
This chapter looks at how we can build visions for the future of education by understanding how technology has challenged our learning process, leveraged our capabilities, and increased the demands on our skills. It also contends that young people, socialized into a digital culture, are developing 21st century literacies as they play MMOGs and engage in other digital activity. Reading the seeds of change in his own present in the early 1990s, author Lewis Perelman (1991) foresaw the possibilities of these types of interactions in his seminal book, School’s Out:
The potential impact of advanced simulation and visualization technology on hyperlearning has not yet even been scratched. Einstein developed the special theory of relativity by “riding” a light beam in his mind’s eye—those with less vivid imaginations could share Einstein’s “thought experiments” through VR [virtual reality] imagery. The possibilities exceed imagination (at least most adults’). Kids hundreds or thousands of miles apart could act out Macbeth with computer-generated costumes—or even simulated adult bodies and voices—in a camera-captured and video re-created scene that duplicates the actual Birnham Wood or Dunsinane castle. (p. 49)
Outside of school in myriad online game environments, children and adults “hundreds or thousands of miles apart” are already taking on the roles of simulated characters with a variety of bodies and voices, and learning important skills through participation in fantastic endeavors just like in Perelman’s vision. The difference is that this is not occurring in an educational context at all, but through the entertainment activities of millions of people around the world. It is, in a way, an unwitting grassroots movement to learn the skills necessary to life in the 21st century, regardless of whether they are encountered within the context of one’s formal education.
The Educational System and 21st Century Skills
The affordances of modern communications technologies have brought about a transformation that is readily apparent in day-to-day life across the developed world. They have taken us from the industrial revolution to the information age, and now promise a knowledge society of interconnected people who are fluent in the intricacies of online interactions and in the ways to access the information they need, when and where they need it. The world is increasingly more complex and that complexity brings rapid change that is at once unpredictable and nonlinear. No longer can the set of skills we learned in school last a lifetime. Success depends on being mentally agile and willing to embrace new ways of doing things. This factor is increasingly mandatory in light of the challenges we face on the world stage. Author Thomas Friedman (2005a), in his book The World is Flat, contends that failure to develop such capability could irreparably damage the American economy, given a greater propensity in developing countries like China and India to make moves in this direction.
Yet American schools have not caught up with the changes infused into our society by these technological innovations and the cultural shifts that have inevitably followed. As Marshal McLuhan (1967, p. 8) said, “Our age of anxiety is largely the result of trying to do today’s job with yesterday’s tools.” We need students to learn the skills necessary for the 21st century, yet we teach them with yesterday’s tools and measure outcomes using yesterday’s assessments. In fact, our current educational system was designed over one hundred years ago to prepare students for the industrial age. It was incredibly successful at the task of churning out homogeneous, individualistic, and conformity minded factory workers to fuel the rapid, mechanistic, and linear pace of the industrial revolution’s assembly lines. Yet today’s increasingly complex, global world demands that students be outfitted for the unique needs of the 21st century. Initiative, teamwork, decision-making ability, problem-solving, and resourcefulness are the keys to success. Conformity is no longer desirable. Innovation, collaboration, and can-do attitudes are highly valued.
However in too many schools, students sit passively listening to teachers talk or repeat de-contextualized facts in direct response to teachers’ questions, working individually on problems at desks that are lined up in neat rows. This anachronistic tendency is of grave concern to visionaries like Microsoft co-founder and chairman Bill Gates, who recently told America’s governors:
Our high schools were designed 50 years ago to meet the needs of another age. Until we design them to meet the needs of the 21st century, we will keep limiting—even ruining—the lives of millions of Americans every year. (Friedman, 2005b, p. 25)
Gates is not alone in this criticism. Many government officials, not to mention untold numbers of parents and objective onlookers, have called for a “radical redesign of the nation’s antiquated education system” (Murray, 2005, p. 1). High school students themselves are also asking for change. In a national survey in which high school students reflected on what is important, what is needed, and what is missing in their education and in their lives, 90% reported not seeing a connection between what they do in school today and what they might do in the future (NCSA, 2005). Employers, too, have their doubts about today’s schools. A total of 67% of employers believe that “schools are not equipping young people with vital work skills such as team working, communication, and time keeping as cited in a UK survey” (Guardian Unlimited, 2005).
Employers are frustrated that young people of all abilities are finding it harder to cope in their early years at work because they have been stifled in the classroom and textbook learning rather than seeing and experiencing how they learn is applied in the world outside. (Guardian Unlimited, 2005)
It is worth noting that good commercial games, unlike textbook learning, “are already state-of-the-art learning games” that can prepare people for employment (Gee, 2005). Regarding the potential for learning through games, Gee states:
A good instructional game, like many good commercial games, should be built around what I call “authentic professionalism.” In such games, skills, knowledge, and values are distributed between the virtual characters and the real-world player in a way that allows the player to experience first-hand how members of that profession think, behave, and solve problems.
Not only are young people not learning the relevant skills for a knowledge society in school, but their fluency with modern technologies is often disparaged as frivolous or a waste of time. So instead of learning the skills for the 21st century in school, young people are becoming fluent in important communication technologies outside of school, engaging in informal learning online through their communities of interest, via blogs, instant messaging, chats, discussions—and through playing online games.
Information and communication technologies are raising the bar on the competencies needed to succeed in the 21st century, and they are compelling us to revisit many of our assumptions and beliefs. (Burkhardt, Monsour, Valdez, Gunn, Dawson, Lemke, Coughlin, Thadani, & Martin, 2003, p. 49)
To ignore the groundswell of activity among technologically literate children is not simply a missed opportunity, but means ignoring a huge problem in the making. The issue will no longer be the “digital divide,” for nearly all American children will have some kind of access to technology soon enough but rather a “digital-capability divide” in which the monikers “haves” and “have-nots” refer to kids who have or have not grown up developing both the technological and socio-cultural skills necessary to succeed in a complex, digital world:
But what about the children who do not have these opportunities, opportunities now readily available to, and sometimes put to good use by, privileged families? Can they get this in school? Can they get this sort of modern learning system, directed towards preparation for future innovative work, in school? Not in a lot of the public schools we’ve seen. Today’s popular culture has great potential to be recruited into such high value learning systems. But this doesn’t happen all by itself. Kids need a network of parents, teachers, and other mentors to use popular culture as a tool for long-term growth into complex thinking, complex language, complex content, and innovative work. In other words, this ability to leverage modern technologies and popular culture for learning is creating a new and massive equity crisis, a crisis not mitigated by—and perhaps even compounded by—today’s technologically impoverished schools. So the looming crisis—our surrender to the challenge of preparing public school children for innovative work—is going to hit the poor harder than the rich. But that’s cold comfort, since everyone will get to suffer amply unless something is done. (Gee & Schafer, 2005, p. 11)
As the barriers of distance and time dissolve, one crucial question is whether formal learning can stay confined inside a classroom. And as new online forms of collaboration emerge, can we still expect students to work in isolation or to think that there is a benefit to such practices? As interactive programs that actively engage the learner become pervasive, can we still expect students to be passive recipients of information?
In today’s world, everyone is both a learner and a teacher, for learning is facilitated by “a globe-girdling network that links all minds and all knowledge” (Perelman, 1991, p. 22). Not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but if we are to challenge our old assumptions about education and schools, can we then look at the possibility that what young people are doing online, or through games and simulations, may in fact help prepare them for the 21st century? The next few paragraphs provide an overview of what experts—economists, academics, government offcials—defne as 21st century competencies from various perspectives.
Competencies for the 21st Century
1991 was a watershed year. The nation was confronting globalization. Multi-national corporations were moving complex production outside the United States, and the demands of the workplace were changing quickly. Experts voiced concerns about U.S. ability to maintain competitiveness in a fast-paced world economy intricately connected through telecommunication networks. The National Science Foundation lifted its restrictions on the commercial use of the Internet, and various businesses began to take advantage of the network and its commercial opportunities. In 1991, just like in the 1950s Sputnik era, the government was concerned about the need to improve our educational system and undertook a study that resulted in the Secretary of Labor’s Commission Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) report:
The need to keep abreast of technological change and to participate effectively in today’s high-performance workplace requires each worker to possess a set of basic competencies and a foundation of skills and personal qualities. (SCANS, 1991, p. vii)
The basic skills described went far beyond the traditional reading and math to include a whole range of capabilities such as thinking creatively, making decisions, solving problems, knowing how to learn, and reasoning, as well as interpersonal skills like working on teams and teaching others (SCANS, 1991, p. vii).
It was the same year that Robert Reich wrote The Work of Nations citing the end of economic nationalism and defining a new type of job for the 21st century: symbolic analysts, those who could use technology to solve problems.
The skills people need to develop have to do with problem solving and identification, developing critical facilities, understanding the value of experimentation, and the ability to collaborate … (Reich, 1992, p. 177)
And in 1991, Perelman’s book School’s Out and its vision for hyperlearning served as a wake-up call for educators. For even though it was highly controversial, many of his observations rang true with a range of individuals. He saw the potential of technology to bring new “knowledge-packed porta-tools” that allowed personal “just-in-time” learning wherever and however the opportunity warranted (Perelman, 1991, p. 48). He went so far as to forecast the dissolution of concrete and mortar schools, to be replaced with virtual education. Although Perelman provocatively labeled our educational system obsolete, he was not so far from the SCANS report’s call for educational reform where “learning to know” should not be separated from “learning to do” and should link what students are taught and how they learn to the realities of the work world. After the SCANS report, schools did attempt educational reform as evidenced by the 1997 President’s Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) report on the Use of Technology to Strengthen K-12 Education in the United States. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, computers were added to classrooms so that by the year 2002, 99% of schools had access to the Internet and 84% of students used computers in schools (NCES, 2003).
Fast-forward 10 years to the 21st century. Countries like Australia and New Zealand have integrated softer standards into their curricula, initiating a focus on core life skills in addition to traditional literacies. The International Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has developed five key competencies in education that underscore a global initiative to broaden the scope of education to include skills needed for “a successful life and well-functioning society” (OECD, 2005). However, in the U.S., attempts at reform were short-lived. Educational priorities have shifted from long-term—focused reform to short-term—focused high stakes testing, now the core of the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program. But while American schools are still using traditional methods and are now more than ever focusing on testing, in the world outside schools the pace of change has accelerated. Our increasing use of the computer and other electronic devices, as well as the “enormous effects of instantaneous electronic communication and universal access to knowledge, have pushed the envelope of what is possible, and concomitantly our capacity to perform” (Haste, 2001, p. 94). Again reports call for 21st century skills that echo those in the SCANS report (1991): “digital age literacy, inventive thinking, effective communication, and high productivity” (Burkhardt et al., 2003, p. 49).
Of promise are one-to-one computing initiatives—classrooms in which every student has a computer. The computers allow students access to different modes of learning—sound, pictures, and movies, as well as text and animations. One teacher said, “It’s making us think about what makes things interesting for kids, and instead of just memorizing a bunch of facts, we’re learning there are better ways to teach them and they really retain the concept” (Zucker & McGhee, 2005, p. 18). These projects are leading to very positive gains in student engagement, interest, increases in academic performance, group, and independent work (Bebell, 2005; Zucker & McGhee, 2005). Still in the early phases, it will take some time and effort before teachers can use these 21st century tools to facilitate the learning of 21st century skills, for example, thinking creatively, decision making, and problem solving. Nonetheless, it is progress. Teachers use the computers to enrich the curriculum, for example, accessing current information on the Internet instead of using outdated textbooks, using tools for visualization or manipulation of data to deepen student understanding resulting in increased student interest and, consequently, better retention of the material (Zucker & McGhee, 2005).
Outside the educational system, the corporate world is also coming to grips with the importance of 21st century skills. Referred to by a range of monikers, “soft skills,” “emotional intelligence,” or “enterprise skills,” recognition is now arising that competent employees are a combination of content expertise and skills and capabilities that help them function well in a social, networked world. As Daniel Goleman (2000), author of Working with Emotional Intelligence, has commented:
The rules of work are changing. We’re being judged by a new yardstick: not just how smart we are, or our training and expertise, but by how well we handle ourselves and each other. This yardstick is increasingly applied in choosing who will be hired and who will not, who will be let go and who retained, who passed over and who promoted. (p. 1)
Goleman’s perspective, while somewhat controversial because of its alleged lack of support for “legitimate, empirical construct” for emotional intelligence (Daus & Ashkanasy, 2003), is based, at least loosely, on a well-established psychological tradition looking at emotional intelligence, as well as myriad studies involving tens of thousands of workers in real workplaces. And his core argument is more or less universally accepted: what people know is taking a back seat to how people work together. The star performers are those who display literacy in social practice and interpersonal communication, as well as knowledge of the specific tasks at hand.
The world is definitely waking up to these ideas. In 2005, a news headline announced that North Carolina is the first state with an initiative to infuse 21st century skills into its schools. Although this initiative has admirable goals, “to ensure every child’s success as citizens and workers in the 21st century,” the competencies suggest those outlined 10 years ago: “information and communication technology (ICT) literacy, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, global awareness, and business, economic, and civic literacy.” Today’s requirements go “beyond discrete skills such as literacy and numeracy” (Haste, 2001, p. 94) and beyond those outlined in the SCANS report. The competencies and skills needed for today are about learning; those that help us “learn something, do something or reach an aim,” and they “involve creativity, ability for innovation, mobility, flexibility, endurance, reliability and precision” (Sperber & Dupuy, 2001, p. 75.). “These competencies show an ability to learn from unforeseen situations and circumstances and to cope with life situations” (Sperber & Dupuy, 2001, p. 76). The need for change in America’s educational system is palpable.
The sheer magnitude of human knowledge, world globalization, and the accelerating rate of change due to technology necessitates a shift in our children’s education—from plateaus of knowing to continuous cycles of learning. (Burkhardt, 2003, p. 5)
Learning is a 21st Century Competency
The rapid pace of change and the need for continuous cycles of learning puts the ability to learn at the center of today’s competencies.
The most valuable skills someone can acquire are the skills to learn rapidly and efficiently and to go into almost any situation and figure out what has to be learned. (Morrison, 2001)
Technology has, in a sense, caused a cognitive earthquake. With the introduction of each new technology, the techno-plates shift, requiring us to learn new skills and develop new competencies. There is an ongoing relationship between our increasing innovation with technology and the need and development of these competencies. One begets the other. As each technology is mastered, new possibilities are revealed. Tools are enhanced or modified, each requiring further refinement of our skills. These cycles bring ever-increasing levels of complexity with them. For most of us, e-mail was our first experience with Internet-based communication. After obtaining a level of comfort with it, some branched out to e-mail distribution lists (listservs) or bulletin boards, followed by synchronous discussions or chats and conferencing systems. For the adventurous, there were the text-based collaborative games referred to as multi-user dungeons (MUDs) and MUD object oriented (MOOs). Now in our communications portfolio are also instant messaging (IM), blogs, Webcasts, social software, and “folksonomies” (social meta-tagging services), as well as combinations of all of them.
Although technology is impacting all areas of skill and competency, Harvard’s Christopher Dede (2000), in a chapter titled “A New Century Demands New Ways of Learning” has identified three specific abilities that are of growing importance:
- Collaborate with diverse teams of people—face-to-face or at a distance—to accomplish a task
- Create, share, and master knowledge by assessing and filtering quasi-accurate information
- Thrive on chaos, that is, be able to make rapid decisions based on incomplete information in order to resolve novel dilemmas
The following paragraphs describe what has happened to make these three abilities so important, as well as explore their implications for learning and provide examples of how young people who have grown up with digital technologies have already developed these abilities. Later in this chapter, we take these same three categories of abilities and show how playing online games can lead to their development.
21st Century Skills: Knowledge-Sharing and Collaboration
The advent of computer and network technology has been both a blessing and a burden in terms of the information that it makes available. The amount of information in the world is increasing so rapidly that the storage of new information increases at a rate of over 30% per year.3 The results of this growth have raised the level at which we need to think critically about information: its authenticity, its value, and its embedded assumptions, whether on the Web, or through various media, or through face-to-face and online communication. Both explicit knowledge “know-what” and tacit knowledge “know-how” can be distributed widely among people as shared understandings or network-based resources (Brown & Campione, 1994; Gee, 2003). No one person can have enough expertise to master or assess broad categories of information or have access to enough knowledge to go it alone. Siemens (2005) states:
In a knowledge economy, the flow of information is the equivalent of the oil pipe in the industrial economy. Creating, preserving, and utilizing information flow should be a key organizational activity. The new reality is that it takes the collaborative efforts of people with different skills and different expertise to create innovative solutions (Schrage, 1990). Learning, although seemingly an individual accomplishment, is a social process, today more than ever influenced and accomplished through a network of peers, colleagues, friends, and family. (Riel & Polin, 2004; Seely-Brown, 2002b)
As our need for collaboration grows, so too have the tools that connect us in social networks and support the creation of online communities (Haste, 2001; Schrage, 1990). Online communications facilitate groups of people coming together over the network to discuss any issue imaginable, to ask questions, and share provocative insights to which others can respond (Educom Staff, 1997; Lessig, 2001). These online social environments can evolve into “online learning communities” when they foster participants to actively engage in sharing ideas with others, furthering their own learning while at the same time advancing the collective knowledge of the group (Bielaczyc & Collins, 1999; Bruner, 1973; Cole, 1988; Lave, 1988; Mehan, 1983; Norman, 1980; Riel & Polin, 2004; Rogoff, 1994; Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1994; Wertsch, 1997). These learning communities support social constructivist learning in which:
Knowledge is generated through social intercourse, and through this interaction we gradually accumulate advances in our levels of knowing, theories derived from Dewey and Vygotsky. (Anderson & Kanuka, 1998)
People come together with varying levels of skills, providing an opportunity for novices to learn effective techniques and approaches from skilled practitioners who impart “tricks of the trade” (Bielaczyc & Collins, 1999; Brown & Campione, 1994; Collins & Bielaczyc, 1997; Collins, Hawkins, & Carver, 1997; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Riel & Polin, 2004). Over time, roles change as novices increase their skills and they, in turn, share their knowledge with new members, serving as a vehicle for passing on expertise and competence as well as norms and cultural expectations of the community (Haste, 2001; Riel & Polin, 2004).
Scardamalia and Bereiter, educational researchers who have worked extensively with students to build knowledge communities using a tool they developed called CSILE, have found that knowledge communities in schools foster “the progressive problem-solving that generates the vast informal knowledge that has been found to characterize expert competence” (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1994). Bielaczyc and Collins (1999) articulate a vision for the redesign of schooling around learning communities:
Classroom situations where students learn to synthesize multiple perspectives, to solve problems in a variety of ways, and to use each other’s diverse knowledge and skills as resources to collaboratively solve problems and advance their understanding. (p. 272)
Yet with all that we know about the benefits of using learning communities to foster the social construction of knowledge, their use is the exception. The routines and structure of schools are not conducive to supporting learning in this way. In schools today, students learn in chunks of 45 to 90 minute periods, subjects are taught in isolation of each other, learning happens only inside the school walls, and students lack the option to participate or not, making it difficult to characterize students as active participants in learning communities (Riel & Polin, 2004). In fact, when learners do collaborate and share knowledge with one another, more often than not we call it “cheating.” But in fact, the modern world requires that knowledge not be limited to one individual’s thinking, but rather shared and accessed in a variety of ways. It is our collective intelligence and the communication bridges from one individual to another that represent the possibility of an exponential leap forward in terms of knowledge capability on a large scale.
21st Century Skill: Thriving on Chaos
The third ability listed by Dede involves the ability to thrive on chaos and make rapid decisions. This echoes the competency defined by Haste as the “ability to learn from unforeseen situations and circumstances” (Canto-Sperber & Dupuy, 2001, p. 46). A person has to have creativity to thrive on chaos, to make sense of disparate ideas and make decisions based on incomplete information. Our creativity is of growing importance in the quest to harvest the potential from these new and ever changing innovations. Daniel Pink (2005) argues in his Wired article “Revenge of the Right Brain” that today’s world calls for people who not only have the ability to think logically and sequentially as traditionally taught in school, but also to use their creative “right brain” facilities:
In a world upended by outsourcing, deluged with data, and choked with choices, the abilities that matter most are now closer in spirit to the specialties of the right [brain] hemisphere—artistry, empathy, seeing the big picture, and pursuing the transcendent. (p. 1)
In Got Game: How the Gamer Generation is Reshaping Business Forever, authors John C. Beck and Mitchell Wade (2004) describe this capability as a unique characteristic native to many gamers: the tendency to “go meta” or view problems or situations from a variety of angles, allowing for a range of creative solutions that might not be obvious to those limited to particular points-of-view.
In a time when nothing stays the same for long, business needs people who can creatively organize what at times is overwhelming amounts of information, who can use their creative insight to find patterns, analyze, and synthesize disparate facts, who can take what exists and discover new directions, and apply ideas and tools in new ways. So-called right-brainers are those people we turn to for solving hard problems, who invent one solution and when that does not work invent another, or search through collections of data looking for a spark of insight, hypothesize and then create a way to test and verify their hypothesis. This kind of thinking and creativity is now evident in the way the younger, digital generation lives and thinks. Seely-Brown (2002a) compares the learning process of adults who “do not want to try things unless we already know them to young people who like to get in and muck around, and see what works. Today’s kids get on the Web to link, lurk, and watch how other people are doing things, then try it themselves” (p. 19). Seely-Brown points out that this is learning in situ: learning situated in action.
The gamer generation lives in a world “where anything is possible. Gamers have amassed thousands of hours of rapidly analyzing new situations, interacting with characters they don’t really know, and solving problems quickly and independently” (Beck & Wade, 2004, p. 12). The learning process that gamers use sounds strikingly similar to three of Bloom’s higher levels of learning:
- Application: Uses a concept in a new situation;
- Analysis: Separates material or concepts into component parts so that its organizational structure may be understood;
- Synthesis: Builds a structure or pattern from diverse elements (Clark, 2000).
Speaking at the Front End of Innovation Conference in 2004, Seely-Brown aptly compared the creative process for adults who have grown up without technology to today’s digital generation:
We [adults] think of consciously designing things, but … today’s kids are so busy multitasking that they “smell” their way through the Web rather than navigate, and for them the Internet is like breathing, they don’t think of it as technology. In today’s networld, you pull stuff off the Web and co-create new stuff and put it out there with your name on it and gain identity thereby. (Seely-Brown as quoted in Tucker’s Blog, 2004)
This “smelling” one’s way through the digital world is an internalized capability that reflects an extreme level of comfort with the dynamic nature of knowledge. It is also a fundamental and intuitive part of the larger activity of sensemaking, the “process by which individuals (or organizations) create an understanding so that they can act in a principled and informed manner” (Palo Alto Research Center [PARC], n.d.), or as immortalized by Douglas Rushkoff (1994) in the bookCyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace, that ability to “ride the crest of the informational wave” (p. 60).
Recent research has highlighted the competencies and work habits of today’s digital generation documenting how they align with the competencies necessary for the 21st century. Gamers are more social, readily learn through chats and online learning communities around videogame playing, and use technology tools transparently as productivity aids. The skills gained from interacting in the complex, multi-leveled worlds of simulations and games transfer to using decision-support systems that analyze complex problems such as global warming, terrorist threats, and long-term investments in infrastructure (Beck & Wade, 2004). The vice president of Charles Schwab’s call center commented on his employees:
The people who play games are into technology, can handle more information, can synthesize more complex data, solve operational design problems, lead change and bring organizations through change. (Antonucci, 2005)
The Opportunity: Online Games as a Practice Arena for 21st Century Skills
Of the myriad communications platforms available today, none of them demonstrate the complexity of 21st century social interaction strategies quite like massively multiplayer online games. As “the first interactive mass medium to unite entertainment and communication in one phenomenon” (Filiciak, 2003, p. 88), MMOGs present a tremendous opportunity to explore a nascent area of media convergence, while possibly understanding how the naturally occurring phenomenon of self-motivated, social learning and collaborative problem-solving reflects the growing need and understanding of 21st century skills.
In many respects, massively multiplayer online games are a graphical extension of the text-based MUDs, MOOs, and so forth that peaked in popularity in the 1980s and 1990s. The MUDs led to a variety of new paradigms in social interaction that are now flourishing and evolving in massively multiplayer environments. Many MMOGs rely on traditional role-playing and gameplay within familiar fantasy and science fiction universes and involve classic pursuits like building up characters, defeating enemies, and fulfilling quests, all classic elements of traditional pen-and-paper and digital role playing games (RPGs). MMOGs, sometimes referred to as MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role playing games) are graphically similar to many contemporary single-player games in the role-playing game (RPG) genre where the player’s character is represented by a player-selected, and often player-designed, avatar that has point-based characteristics and a range of skills and abilities. These games are unique, however, in that they also require an Internet connection and an account on one of many game servers to be played. At any one time, hundreds of thousands of people might be playing. Because of technological constraints, however, players are typically limited to one server, where still a few thousand players might be in the accessible game universe at any one time. The most popular of these games to date, World of Warcraft, has approximately 6.5 five million subscribed players (IGN Entertainment, Inc., 2006). Other popular games, Lineage and its successor Lineage 2 have over four million players world-wide. Other popular MMOG titles include Everquest and Everquest 2, Guild Wars, the Matrix Online, Star Wars: Galaxies, City of Heroes, and City of Villains.
The process required to achieve game goals and reach the pinnacle of achievement, typically a high-level character, can result from a range of approaches and quite often involves hundreds of hours of collaborative play in a multi-user environment. For while they can be played individually to greater or lesser degrees depending on the game, the game play mechanics are generally such that true mastery of the game can often only be achieved by working cooperatively with other players. In fact, some of the games are designed specifically to require interdependence between players:
The game [Everquest] is designed in a way that makes grouping essential for achieving success, a concept that has been central in role-playing games since the days they were played with rulebooks, pen and paper … It is only through working with other players that individual gamers achieve maximum results. (Jakobsson & Taylor, 2003, p. 88)
The development of “soft” skills such as collaboration, cognitive, and social intelligence are not the desired end, but are a form of collateral learning (Johnson, 2005b), the means that allow players to be successful in these environments. Players that do not achieve mastery in navigating the social terrain of the game are often unable to find grouping partners or maintain relationships, and therefore unable to tackle some of the more difficult missions in the game.
The social complexity of massively multiplayer online gaming environments is often unmentioned in discussions about the possibility of videogames for learning. In the past, the majority of attention on videogames, when positive at all, has focused on the possibility of using games to achieve certain predetermined objectives related to established curricula. Yet the opportunity with game environments like MMOGs is far greater than motivating apathetic learners or transferring information in a somewhat more engaging fashion. The play activity that learners engage in is, in fact, the learning opportunity, though our established institutions may struggle with the “fuzziness” and organic nature of this learning:
Important knowledge (now usually gained in school) is content in the sense of information rooted in, or, at least, related to, intellectual domains or academic disciplines like physics, history, art, or literature. Work that does not involve such learning is “meaningless.” Activities that are entertaining but that themselves do not involve such learning are just “meaningless play.” Of course videogames fall into this category. (Gee, 2003, p. 21)
Yet this is precisely the point. People are learning tremendous skills and developing important real-world capabilities in these games, but somehow this is all occurring outside our educational system. Game environments are “learning cultures consisting of shared and contested meanings whose perpetual evolution lies at the very heart of [the] learning processes. Learning cultures move beyond the popular conception of learning as an activity that is bounded by teaching, educational institutions and learning prescriptions to one which recognizes that learning invariably transcends such boundaries” (James & Bloomer, 2001, p. 9).
In fact, “the level of skills [players] achieve in the pursuit of active and committed citizenship in virtual communities may exceed expectations of teachers in schools.” For example, “the literacy skills children attain through playing Gathering of the Elves, as evidenced by their written role-playing language, reflects a high lexical density and complexity, detailed descriptive nominal groups, and a high degree of symbolism and figurative expressions” (Thomas, 2005, p. 31). This sense of citizenship is not limited to online environments, either. Researcher Dmitri Williams (2005) found that his participants were more likely to engage in off-line civic activity after experiencing the agency of activities in virtual worlds.
John Seely-Brown (2004) has commented on the sophistication of the learning environment afforded by massively multiplayer games:
Understanding the social practices and constructivist ecologies being created around open source and massively multiplayer games will provide a glimpse into new kinds of innovation ecologies and some of the ways that meaning is created for these kids—ages 10 to 40. Perhaps our generation focused on information, but these kids focus on meaning—how does information take on meaning?
Perhaps the dissonance between our expectations of school and the realities of digital life boils down to the puritanical notion that learning must involve hard work and certainly no fun. Yet play may be the thing that prepares us best for navigating our increasingly complex lives, social spaces, work environments, and personal relationships. Play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith (2004) has suggested that play represents a “consoling phenomenon” that prepares the player for dealing with life, offering a mechanism for psychologically and cognitively navigating the challenges and difficulties of life. In the past, many of these needs were met through physical play. But in a world where opportunities for physical play are dwindling, it is likely that virtual worlds are emerging as a way to fulfil some fundamental human needs. Henry Jenkins (1998) explains this phenomenon even more fully, arguing that videogames represent an “intensity of experience” and “complete freedom of movement” that has disappeared as children (and adults) have less physical spaces to play in. As Sutton-Smith (2004) describes it, play is a way of achieving both competence and confidence in the world. Play is a refuge, but it is also more than that; it is a fundamental necessity for many aspects of human development. Or, in the words of Howard Rheingold (1992), “play is a way of organizing our models of the world and models of ourselves, of testing hypotheses about ourselves and the world, and of discerning new relationships or patterns in the jumble of our perceptions” (p. 374).
We are now seeing a shift toward play in virtual environments. But how does one learn to play? And what does “learning to play” really mean? It has been observed that videogames are often designed as “learning machines” (Gee, 2004) that rely on intuitive, convention-based game design to scaffold a player’s learning of the mechanics of gameplay and the game environment as player “curiosity takes the form of explorative coping” (Grodal, 2003, p. 149). But in the dynamic, sophisticated, and collaboration-based MMOG environments also emerges a rich culture of learning support. Not only is interdependence designed into the games, but the flexible parameters specified by game designers involve creating an interactive world where environments are in constant flux: rules change, documentation is scarce, and the mastery of the game relies on a host of skills well beyond the game’s manual. Indeed, these games and the strategies for playing them are exercises in co-creation where players, as co-producers, can influence the rules, affect the outcome, and create a rich universe of social interactions and culture that ultimately become the core of gameplay, rather than the periphery.
The learning support mechanisms are underpinned by flexible and ever-changing social networks of senior and junior players who engage in a symbiotic relationship, exchanging game tips and artifacts, scaffolding the learning of less experienced players and allowing more senior players to make their knowledge explicit. Further, there is an ongoing process of behavior modelling that allows players to continue to evolve their social approaches within the game and understand the shifting nuances of an emerging culture. This aspect also allows for legitimate peripheral participation where players learn from proximity to learning in the game, often in a very explicit manner as they observe conversations between players. And even beyond the necessary interactions wired into games through designing interdependence, there are a variety of sociocultural mechanisms at work for helping people through the game, “as people’s intentions to learn are engaged and the meaning of learning is configured through the process of becoming a full participant in sociocultural practice” (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 29).
One way to look at it is that players self-organize into communities of practice united around the activity of gameplay, yet this self-organization results in the development of a range of capabilities toward which the players are not directly striving, yet are fundamental to mastery within the environment:
Players acquire knowledge in context and in pursuit of immediate goals. Learning is done in the service of game goals … players are immersed in an environment and the learning is done incidentally through problem solving … Players have to figure out everything they need to know to feed themselves, stay safe, rise in experience, acquire the items they covet, and navigate the world around them. But, in this game, they do it by picking up some knowledge that actually has some use in the real world. The game’s design is not meant to trick people into learning. It’s meant to give players the tools they need to succeed in the virtual world, but tools that might be useful in the real world, as well. (Kelly, 2004, p. 185)
These self-organizing and collaborative communities are what Robert Putnam (1995) in his article “Bowling Alone,” describes as networks of “social engagement, fostering sturdy norms of generalized reciprocity and encouraging the emergence of social trust. Such networks facilitate coordination and communication, amplify reputations, and thus allow dilemmas of collective action to be resolved” (Putnam, 1995). Putnam’s work is a lamentation on the absence of civic engagement in contemporary society, yet MMOGs are increasingly a powerful form of such engagement. Contrary to popular concern about media and games decreasing social and civic interactions, MMOGs have been found to foster bridging ties (broad but weak social networks), while having little of the perceived negative impact on stronger ties like family (Steinkeuhler & Williams, 2005). Indeed, many nuclear families and romantic couples are playing together, and extended families and social networks are finding it a practical and fun way to keep in touch (Yee, 2005b). A digital futures project (2005) study reveals that more than 40% of respondents say that use of the Internet has increased or greatly increased contact with family and friends.
But aside from developing a deeper sense of community, players develop competency in the three areas that Dede outlined as critical to long-term success in modern work environments:
Collaborate with Diverse Teams of People
When groups form in MMOG environments, they are initially quite often chaotic and disorganized. But over a period of time, a spontaneous order emerges as players learn to sync their behaviors to the behaviors of other players. This is akin to the activity undertaken by musicians in a band finding their collective rhythm, or fireflies lighting up synchronously after a short period of each adjusting to their neighbors’ patterns (Strogatz, 2004). Just as “learning is done incidentally through problem-solving” (Kelly, 2004, p. 185) in these environments, increased social capability is a by-product of practice.
As people playing MMOGs span age groups, gender, and cultures, diversity is also a fundamental aspect of play. While certainly not always the case, it is extraordinary how well such a diverse group of people manage to play together, and how well they can self-manage conflicts when they do arise. Many types of intolerant behavior are self-disciplined within the context of play groups, or players who do not “play nice” are simply marginalized, sometimes an equally effective “punishment.”
Create, Share, and Master Knowledge
In order for players to be successful in these environments, they must share knowledge, access available resources, and navigate their social milieu successfully in order to get the answers they need when they need them. Players often become expert nodes, available to be questioned about in-game particulars or strategies. Often these players opt to set up permanent resources in the form of Web sites, lists, FAQs (frequently-asked-questions), and other reference materials. They are not compensated for these activities other than in the form of increased social capital and the fulfilment of their desire to contribute to the game environment in some way. In fact, it is not uncommon for these contributors to see their contributions ripple through the player population as some previously unknown bit of knowledge makes it way into the larger player consciousness and into gameplay practice. As Gee says, “the effectiveness of the circulation of information among peers suggests that engagement in practice, rather than being its object, may well be a condition for the effectiveness of learning” (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 93).
Of key importance is the idea that individuals learn within this environment, but so too do their contributions and learning impact the learning of the groups and in-game communities to which they belong. The players take it upon themselves to devise and share strategies that help them master the game. Sometimes these strategies include the discovery of game “loopholes,” exploited by players contrary to the intent of the game designers. As such, there is no documentation about these opportunities, yet players pass the knowledge from one player to another, until a “tipping point” is reached and a majority of players begin engaging in the activity.
Information literacy is the flip side of the knowledge-sharing coin and perhaps the most difficult 21st century skill to master. If many people are sharing information, how does one distinguish what is valid and useful from what is erroneous or irrelevant? Gamers learn to understand the importance of context in online environments. Who authored the information? Who are they affiliated with? What agenda might they have? Do they really know what they are talking about? These are all key questions in any critical assessment of the possible validity of an information source.
These skills will become increasingly important in a world that accommodates massive amounts of information, much of which is resident and accessible through the network. Gordon Bell and Jim Gray are quoted in the Social Life of Information with the prediction:
By 2047 … all information about physical objects, including humans, buildings, process and organizations, will all be online. This is both desirable and inevitable. (Seely-Brown & Duguid, 2002, p. 1)
Thrive on Chaos
To an outsider, MMOGs are profoundly chaotic environments, but as with chaos in biological systems, a structure and logic can be found if one looks closely enough. For instance, it is common practice within MMOG environments that players have to self-organize into playgroups. This process involves self-marketing and negotiation, as well as knowledge of the subtleties of etiquette within these environments. Groupings may occur on a casual or longer-term basis. The more permanent groupings involve organization into often massive guilds or clans, often subject to all the intricacies of politics in any human social settings.
In a self-organized environment it is often imperative that someone manage the chaos by stepping, even temporarily, into a somewhat more directive role. This is especially common when things do not appear to be going well within the context of a battle, or when a conflict requires mediation. The particularly extraordinary thing about this phenomenon is that the leaders often come from unexpected corners. Even young players can step into this role, and as long as they are making a productive contribution and behaving maturely, their self-selection is rarely challenged. This aspect of meritocracy allows many players to explore facets of themselves that may have gone unexplored in their real lives, sometimes leading to quite significant changes in their careers or perspectives.
This ability to thrive on chaos is also apparent in the rapid decision making capabilities that players exhibit. MMOG environments are dynamic and complex, often requiring players to share strategies and discuss moves, both well in advance and in the heat of battle. Players are continually analyzing and interpreting variables, making rapid decisions based on just-in-time information. Gee (2003, p. 70) characterizes players as being pushed to “operate at the outer edge of their regime of competence causing them to rethink their routinized mastery and move, within the game and within themselves to a new level.”
It is the U.S. military, interestingly, that has taken the most interest in the idea of massively multiplayer online games as a practice arena for important military skills. In a recent report, Massive Multiplayer Online Gaming: A Research Framework for Military Training and Education, developed by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) in collaboration with researchers from Indiana University and Florida State University, the seriousness of interest in the phenomena surrounding these games becomes explicit:
With this focus on emerging technologies, the military is clearly interested in exploring the use of online collaborative games to train staff on the modern day intricacies of combat and noncombat operations. At the same time, the increasing focus on remote-controlled agents has raised expectations and excitement for realistic simulations and games—especially MMORPGs. The military is developing games that could host thousands of networked players. In these games, players potentially could participate for months or years in different roles and later reflect on the consequences of their decisions and actions. Debriefings or reflective processing of these games could help the user understand the purpose of the game and generalize it to different situations. The immediate goal, of course, is to enhance decision-making, problem solving, and refection skills in the context of a military operation. (Bonk & Dennen, 2005, p. 11)
This is not to say that there are not areas of concern when it comes to videogames generally and online games in particular. There has been a tremendous amount of media coverage in recent years that concerns itself with possible media “effects” of videogame play. And while these effects have never been strongly proven, having relied on loose correlation studies with a notable lack of reliable long-term data, it seems intuitive that having kids interact with violent imagery cannot possibly be good for them. But even apparently violent squad tactics games like Counter-strike can offer many benefits in terms of skill development because they are fundamentally cooperative games where one team must work together to defeat another, just like in most sports activities. For those parents and educators concerned about violence, it is useful to consider studies that suggest that for most players, the ability to use videogames as an outlet for aggression can have a positive outcome on feelings after a gameplay session. Many young male players, while experiencing elevated heartbeats during play, appear and report being much calmer after play, thus substantiating the idea of catharsis put forth by some researchers (Ivory, 2001).
Regardless of what the effects data look like, parental involvement in videogame play is an incredible opportunity to engage kids and ask them tough questions about their violent play, for instance, mediate or maintain a watchful eye when appropriate over their relationships with online friends (especially in the case of younger children), or provide jumping off points to areas of interest that might have been cultivated by the play.
But the other area of grave concern is so-called online game “addiction,” a phenomenon that researcher Nick Yee (2005a) prefers to term “problematic usage.” This is a tricky area, as a small percentage of players do exhibit undesirable behaviors when they neglect real-life needs as a result of their enthusiastic gameplay. But this is certainly the exception rather than the rule, and really only proves the point that given the opportunity, certain individuals will take any behavior to an extreme. Again, adult involvement is critical here. Parents and educators can help kids avoid the issue of problematic usage by helping them to moderate the amount of time they spend playing, an important consideration given the highly rewarding nature of online game environments, especially for the socially withdrawn. And for both kids and adults, it is critical that we help people learn to transfer the skills that they develop in virtual worlds to off-line environments, as well. Otherwise it can be too easy for some players to withdraw into those worlds, lacking the perspective that an online game need not be the only vehicle for meaningful social relationships.
Preparing Ourselves for the Future
Is it conceivable that massively multiplayer online games might be officially leveraged into practice arenas for 21st century skills? As the platform evolves, it seems likely that production and maintenance costs will be lowered and we might see “the splintering of MMORPG environments into hundreds of different forms, each aimed at a very particular audience” as they move “out of the pure entertainment space” and into educational and business uses.” We may even see that “many kinds of employee training will be done in virtuo using corporate and public MMORPGs as training grounds” (Kelly, 2004, p. 185). But will this possibility result in the social and cultural shift needed, or merely result in shoving the square peg of traditional curricula into the round hole of open-ended, self-organized, egalitarian environments? Will our institutions be willing and able to relinquish control to make self-organization and respect for individual autonomy a reality?
For what the world really needs is a shift in the way we view people and their contributions. In our workplaces, we need to engage in a process of “seeing people as resources, not job descriptions,” recognizing that “valuable talents, knowledge and experience” “often remain concealed and untapped” as people stick to their “job descriptions and chains of command” (Kline & Saunders, 1997, pp. 132-152). But what we also need is a shift away from thinking of learning as stuffing information into individual heads with the hope that it somehow manages to be actionable. In fact, a major shift is to understand that people are part of a network of resources, distributed across the vastness of physical and virtual space:
The power of distribution—of storing knowledge in other people, texts, tools and technologies—is really the way in which all of these things are networked together. The really important knowledge is in the network—that is, in other people, their texts, their tools, and technologies, and crucially, the ways in which they are interconnected—not in any one “node” (person, text, tool or technology), but in the network as a whole. Does the network store lots of powerful knowledge? Does it ensure that this knowledge moves quickly and well to the parts of the system that need it now? Does it adapt to changed conditions by learning new things quickly and well? These are the most crucial knowledge questions we can ask in the modern world. They are hardly reflected at all in how we organize schooling and assessment in schooling. (Gee, 2003, p. 185)
There is a big lesson from MMOG environments. People are enormously capable when given the space and motivation, even through simple gameplay, to flex their cognitive and social muscle in an environment where anything is possible and experimentation is safe, permissible, and desirable. Among the many equalizing phenomena of virtual worlds, players describe a complex meritocracy in which they are “judged by their characters’ actions,” enjoy “spontaneous kindness” leading to “genuine friendships,” and most importantly, feel like “they are making progress on an emotional level. They’re not just getting ahead in the virtual world, but actually maturing, growing, learning from their experiments with behavior, and reformulating their views of themselves and their fellow human beings as a result of their experiences in the virtual world” (Kelly, 2004, pp. 62-85). These experiences represent opportunities for growth, expression and personal transformation that may not be available elsewhere. Yet this type of growth is exactly what a world focused on soft skills and emotional intelligence requires. In many respects, MMOGs represent the ideal state for any organization, one in which “each individual makes a unique contribution by marching to a different drummer but with an underlying common sense of purpose and direction” (Kline & Saunders, 1997, p. 139). Is this to say that classrooms should be replaced with MMOGs? Not at all. It is only to say that we should be paying close attention to the complex social structures and learning mechanisms that are inherent in such environments, rather than dismissing them as a “waste-of-time” or mere child’s play.
Paying close attention means funnelling resources into official studies of emergent phenomena and spontaneous learning in a range of digital environments. With this data in hand, we may find ourselves better equipped to envision a future where learning is a natural, yet guided process that fits the curves and nuances of our complex lives.
Imagining things being otherwise may be a first step toward acting on the belief that they can be changed. (Greene, 1995, p. 19)
Modern communication technologies, and the knowledge economy, have brought unprecedented change requiring both new skills and competencies. For over a decade, young people have been increasing their socio-cultural literacy through their participation in online digital worlds. The lessons we are learning are inherent in the social structures and dynamics of online learning. Whether in communities of practice or through games and simulations, online environments can be an effective means for obtaining essential 21st century competencies. Instead of trying to close the gap between the U.S. and other nations based on test scores, we could be taking a leadership position and developing creative solutions to replace our outdated schools with the knowledge and technology-based models so needed to meet 21st century demands. In many respects education and learning are about breaking down barriers of what is known to bring understanding of what is possible. It is time to break down the boundaries of today’s schooling and build the models made possible through the advances of technology and online learning environments.
In a way, these models for the future are what the younger generation follows as they embrace modern communications technologies and play in virtual environments. As Dede argues, necessary skills in the 21st century revolve around forging connections, handling information and thriving in chaotic environments. Learning is about achieving those competencies, not memorizing and repeating facts out of context. It is about confidence and competence in the face of uncertainty, novelty, chaos and fuzziness. A new world order is being wrought by younger generations who understand the skills that are relevant to their current worlds, and to the world they will help create in the future. It’s time for us all to catch up.