Monday, November 22, 2010

WoW: Guidelines for Addiction

Monday morning and we're getting washed and dressed and we'll be taking things down to the truck in just a little bit. NCTE has given me a lot to think about - in some ways, it has raised more questions than it answered.

So at the conference, rockstar teacher-author Carol Jago gave her NCTE Presidential address. She also posted it to the EC Ning.

In her speech, she brought up an issue that I've been thinking about a lot lately, so I'm going to strike while the keyboard is hot, so to speak, even though I plan to continue thinking about it and fine-tuning my ideas.

In the transcript, Carol writes:

Jane McGonigal, a game designer working at the Institute for the Future, thinks this idea has merit. She explains that online games are so compelling because they promote “blissful productivity.” Players of games like World of Warcraft feel they are accomplishing something important, that the battles they are fighting have “epic meaning,” and that they can be their best selves in this virtual environment. She has a point. Why else would people all over the world invest three billion hours a week playing video games? By the age of 21 the average gamer will have spent 10,000 hours playing video games, approximately the same amount of time spent in school between grades 5 and 12. It is no wonder that a generation of children, the same children whose NAEP reading and writing scores are below proficient, are becoming expert gamers. Imagine if students put a comparable amount of effort into reading and writing that they do into World of Warcraft. Imagine if students felt so “blissfully productive” at the end of every school day that they were eager to return on the morrow for more.

That last sentence is what I'm working on for my classroom - even though I disagree with just about every other point in the paragraph.

Full disclosure? I had no idea who the heck Jane McGonigal was. Heck, after googling her name and reading her blog, I still don't much know who she is. (She loses points for discussing games that change the world without mentioning FreeRice, though.)


Granted, my evidence is purely anecdotal, based on the gamers I know. But I know quite a few - heck, I am one. And I can say with a fair amount of confidence that none of the gamers I have EVER met "feel they are accomplishing something important" by playing video games.

And it is certainly not true that "the battles they are fighting have 'epic meaning'" - in a static world, which is the case with every MMO that actually exists, player characters can make no significant or lasting changes to the game world. In short, nothing the players do matters at all. But that, I would say, is part of what makes the game so attractive.

The addictive quality of RPGs - particularly MMOs, which involve not just the purchase of the game itself, but also a continued subscription to access the online game-world - is not inherent, but derived from carefully-researched market strategies.

1) Immediate choice. Even before players can enter the game world, they must at least choose race and class for their characters. They may also choose the name, facial features, hair color, eye color, and other minor details (in WoW, it varies by race - some have tattoos, some have jewelry, etc.) for the character, but this is optional. Names can be randomized, and there is a 'default' for the appearance. What's interesting is that even though only race and class affect actual game play, players choose their characters' appearance carefully - it was a big deal when an update to WoW introduced barber shops, allowing players to change characters' hairstyles at will.

Choice is vital, particularly in a culture that darn near idolizes individuality and personal expression. This continues throughout the game - players can advance their characters in many different ways: exploring new areas, completing quests, killing monsters, and even gathering materials like herbs and ores.

2) Repeated investment. So right away, even before beginning to play the game, customers have put something into the character. This is key, and it continues cyclically throughout play. As each new objective is met, or a new choice is made, the level of investment increases. There's this feeling that you can't give up now - you've already put so much "work" into the character! This is part of what gets players to persevere (and keep paying!) despite the frustration of failing a quest multiple times, or of being unable to find certain materials.

3) Expectation of success. As the investment at the start of play is slight, a successful experience must follow as quickly as possible. There's not a whole lot tying the player to the game yet (psychologically speaking). So the first batch of quests is quite easy, allowing even the newest players to experience a positive return on their initial efforts. Additionally, there are all kinds of resources available for help (for example, I like to use Thottbot when I want to know where to find a particular NPC or item).

3) Graduated success. Of course, if there's no payoff for that effort, eventually the frustration will outweigh the investment. Therefore, rewards must be seen as equivalent to effort. Next time, the quest will be harder, but that's okay, because you'll get a better reward. The additional challenge also helps keep it interesting.

4) Success unlocks additional content. This is huge. The rewards received are directly tied to further play! You don't get a discount on the cost of playing because you've progressed your character to a certain level - rather, you might be able to have your character learn to ride (level 20), cutting down on travel time. Or your character can learn to use heavier armor (level 40), which decreases the amount of damage taken from attacks.

5) Failure is almost risk-free. When your character fails at a quest, there's a 'dong!' sound and the quest is marked 'Failed' in the quest-log. No problem - the character can just go back to the NPC from whom the quest was obtained and get another chance. Death is also a minor inconvenience: your character's spirit appears in the graveyard, and you must choose either to reanimate there (away from whatever she was doing AND with abilities temporarily decreased) or to move the spirit-form all the way back to where the character died and reanimate there (at half-health and possibly in range of whatever killed it). The character also loses the benefit of any spells that were cast on her, and her items are slightly damaged. However, most spells can be re-purchased, and item damage can be repaired in just about every town. Death is effectively about a five-minute setback.

6) It doesn't matter. This kind of piggybacks off of #5. There is absolutely no pressure. If your character agrees to go slay the wolves that have been marauding the town, and you decide to have him go and pick herbs for a few hours first, hey! no problem! The townspeople will be just as happy to be saved a few hours - or even several weeks - later. Contrariwise, if your character goes back to the town the day after slaying all the wolves, guess what! (I bet you can guess.) The wolves are back in full force!

Finally, I would like to note that gaming does not "lead to a dangerous disengagement from the real" any more than reading does. Indeed, through reading good books, we enter virtual worlds as engaging as any of the continents on Azeroth.

Image thanks to


J said...

Interesting--I just started working for a company that aims to take that demographic (students who play a lot of video games) and turn their attention to education, by combining it. If you're interested, I'll send you the name and you can try it out!

Sarah said...

I know of someone who plays WOW in every spare minute of his waking hours. He plays before he goes to work, and he plays when he gets home at night to the expense of his family, his relationships, meals - everything.

He does not have time for personal hygiene, and his wife tells me he does not shower at all. The only thing in his life is WOW.

If something breaks down in the house, she has to get a repair man in and pay him to do the work which her husband could have otherwise done.

They never go out shopping or on outings. He does not attend school parent evenings. Once he lost track of the days and forgot to go to work.

It is very sad. He denies that he is addicted, but spends all of his time on the computer.
His wife has told me she has reached the end of the line now and wants a divorce. He has been playing WOW for six years non stop.

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