There has been considerable interest in recent years in the study of virtual worlds and computer/video games. This interest can be broken down roughly into the following four areas:

  1. Pure research
  2. Knowledge and skills acquired while gaming
  3. Games as educational models
  4. Virtual Worlds and Games as teaching/learning tools

In this post we’ll take a look at the first area, pure research, with a focus on virtual worlds.

Virtual worlds with their millions of participants worldwide has drawn considerable interest as a social phenomena. They represent fertile grounds for research and study in such varied fields as psychology, sociology, economics, education and even law. What are the implications for those who spend 20 or more hours per week on average in these spaces and for the future when many more people will be inhabiting these worlds while at work, study, play and when socializing?

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If you’re If you’re interested in taking the leap and exploring a virtual world or two where do you start? Your first decision is to determine whether you want to visit one of the open-ended non-gaming virtual worlds or one of the theme based MMORPGs (massive multi-player online role playing games).

Free-Form Worlds

The first category is most widely used for educational purposes. Second Life is probably the best known of these worlds and offers much to explore. There are also a number of published guides to this world to assist you. However, I have found its interface unique and somewhat complex for beginners.

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Predicting the Future

A friend just sent a link to a presentation by computer scientist and visionary Alan Kay on the topic of predicting the future. It’s a great piece with a lot to consider. There certainly are significant implications in Kay’s observations in terms of education and the use of some of the technologies that are the focus of this blog. Here’s the link along with a few quotes of interest from the presentation:


the best way to predict the future is to invent it.

“Humans beings can’t exist without communication. It’s one of those basic human traits, and we’re always willing to pay more for a better communications amplifier.”

“McLuhan had a great line about the 20th century. He said, ‘the 20th century is the century in which change changed.’ ”

“In some sense our ability to open the future will depend not on how well we learn anymore but how well we are able to unlearn. Can you imagine a course at Stanford on unlearning? That would be revolutionary.”

“I think the weakest way to solve a problem is just to solve it; that’s what they teach in elementary school. In some math and science courses they often teach you it’s better to change the problem. I think it’s much better to change the context in which the problem is being stated. Some years ago, Marvin Minsky said, “You don’t understand something until you understand it more than one way.” I think that what we’re going to have to learn is the notion that we have to have multiple points of view.”

Virtual World Reading

You know an area of interest has hit the mainstream when one of the “Dummies” series of books is published on that topic (Massively Multiplayer Games for Dummies by Scott Jennings (2006)). In recent years a number of books have been published that examine various aspects of the virtual world experience, some of general interest while others take a more academic approach. Having previous experience in one or more worlds will certainly provide a more meaningful context for your reading, but it is not required. In some cases the books may encourage you to explore virtual space. Here are two books that I found of particular interest as starting points:

1. Play Money (2006) by journalist Julian Dibbell reads like an adventure novel as it documents his attempt to make “play” his full time job for a year. For that year he sold virtual coins and objects that he acquired while playing the MMO Ultima Online for real money. In the book he raises a number of thoughtful issues regarding the nature of the virtual worlds and their relationship to real life. Here’s an excerpt from his blog that was written prior to the publication of the book:

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Types of Virtual Worlds

Lord of the Rings Online

There are a large number of virtual worlds in existence with memberships that vary from a few thousand to several million inhabitants. For the most part they can be seen as falling into one of two categories, the open-ended, non-structured (sandbox) virtual worlds, and the theme based, game-like Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (know as MMORPGs or MMOs).

“Real Life” Virtual Worlds

The first category has been more widely used for educational purposes. These worlds allow you to create your own environment as well as utilize environments created by others. They often simulate real life surroundings and activities. Academically, classes can be taught in these spaces, meetings or conference sessions held, and experiments and simulations created.

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If you’re new to virtual worlds and are curious about this social phenomena and its educational potential, this post will attempt to introduce you to some basics to get you started. The concept of a virtual world is very difficult to explain in a meaningful way if you’ve not experienced one directly. Most adults over the age of 40 have never visited a virtual world, nor did they grow up with computer and video games. Those of us in this age bracket who have had this experience came to it through our children or as an interest later in life. This post will deal with the more modern worlds that make use of graphics and sounds rather than the early worlds which were text based (MOOs, MUDs, MUSHs).

It’s Not Just a Cartoon!

When first exposed to a virtual world many adults describe what they are viewing as looking something like a cartoon or one of the video games children play. Certainly the graphics employ some of the same technology used in the creation of video and computer games, and the imagery is more like an animated film than a photorealistic environment. The difference is that many of the animated characters you are viewing are controlled by real people.

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Virtual Rejection

For my second visit to the virtual world of Everquest, I created a new character (an elf) and began exploring the surrounding area. I noticed activity on a nearby hill and upon coming closer spotted a group of avatars defending the hill from an onslaught of foul looking creatures (orcs as I recall). The group leader sent me a message to ask if I would like to join them. I was delighted to be invited and for the next hour or so I became a member of the team, using my abilities to help defend the high ground against the “evil” enemy. When we appeared to have succeeded and the number of orcs attacking us became fewer, we decided to disband the group and go on our separate ways. We congratulated each other on our success as a team and vowed to work together in the future. I recall feeling quite energized by the experience and it reminded me of times I had gone on “adventures” with my friends as a child. I was struck by how effectively this virtual world had recreated that experience.

What a Difference a Day Makes

The very next day I logged on and went straight to the same hill to see if any members of the team had returned. Continue Reading »

Finding Neverland

My First Virtual World Experience

In 2001, ten years after my my first computer game experience with Sid Meier’s Civilization, I was teaching an online course entitled Psychology of the Internet. Our text was a title by the same name authored by Patricia Wallace. Although somewhat dated (1999), it’s still a good read, filled with research comparing online and real life behavior. Wallace made several references in her book to Metaworlds which she described as “Internet based graphical multiuser worlds.” While I had heard of text based virtual worlds such as MUDs and MOOs, I was unfamiliar with the online worlds that included sound and graphics. Given the nature of the course, it seemed to me that I should have some first hand knowledge of these online environments.

My stereotyped image of a virtual world was that of a glorified chat room for teens with graphics. Definitely not a place I would want to hang out for an extended period of time. My plan was to visit one of these worlds for a couple of hours, snoop around, and then be able to say that I had been there. Not enough time to be an expert, but enough to avoid looking like a total novice on the topic. Looking back, I had no clue as to what would await me.

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Positive Side Effects

There were a couple of memories and observations that remain with me from the days of using the Zoombinis and the other thinking games mentioned in the previous post.

Multiple Intelligences

There were often a few students in the critical and creative thinking course that had difficulty with the intensive writing in the course. They seemed to struggle when attempting to effectively express their thoughts and thinking skills in writing (and also in their oral communication). However, a number of these students did quite well with the computer thinking games. While observing them playing, I could see that they possessed considerable intelligence and some strong thinking and problem solving skills. The games had revealed abilities that had not been apparent in the more traditional measures of assessing student performance and achievement. I suspect that learning disabilities may have been a factor in at least some of the difficulties with language expression. The games were allowing them to both demonstrate their abilities and experience a sense of success and accomplishment, while also providing the teacher with a more complete assessment of their talents and thinking skills. Traditional forms of educational assessment may very well overlook these forms of intelligence to the detriment of student development and growth.

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Thinking Games

After using Civilization in 1991 for a semester, my next use of educational computer games occurred in the mid 90’s when a few “thinking games” were added to a critical and creative thinking course. The development of the this new course “The Mind at Work, The Mind at Play” was inspired by the difficulty students displayed with a variety of thinking skills as they attempted to play the game Civilization.

Students were required to complete the assignments for one of the games (they could do more for additional credit) and they had their choice of a few games. The course was held in the college’s Center for Self-Paced Studies so I was able to work individually with students.

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