Game Theory

Bella Noche, the wood-elf priestess, wanders through the forests of Antonica. After months of training, she finally feels comfortable strolling through the territory unaccompanied. She has mined ore, rehearsed healing rituals, and defeated countless gnolls and Turian sentries in battle. She has even joined the hallowed ranks of the guild known as The Vindicators.

Her guildmate Rodge has traveled beyond the kingdom to explore the Thundering Steppes. The noble Kerran looks like a tiger, but walks upright like “Puss in Boots.” He travels with an impish blue-skinned amphibian named Exorcimus. The kindly frog makes a pleasant companion, but his poor sense of direction is legendary throughout the land.

And then class is over. It’s 9:30 p.m. on a Wednesday in April, and it is time for these Trinity students to go back to their dorms and finish their other homework. Bella Noche (who goes by the name of Megan in this reality), Rodge (Nick), and Exorcimus (Manny), have reading to do and papers to write.

I should know. I’m their professor.

For the past four months, 15 communication students have been exploring Everquest II on the role-playing server Antonia Bayle. When class is in session, these students are apprentice adventurers and apprentice communication researchers. Fully trained in the ethical principles that guide social-science research, each student is pursuing a different question that will be answered through a combination of quantitative and qualitative research methods.

“How are online guild structures similar to fraternities and sororities?” asks Chris (the real-life president of a Greek organization on campus).

Jason wants to know about dreams, Matt and Travis care about regulatory structures, Kathryn is concerned about violence, and Sarah is fascinated by the lure of evil behavior.

For most of these students, it is the first time that they have undertaken a research project of this scope. And, since reciprocity is an important obligation for every researcher, they have promised to make their papers available on-line when the semester is finished. I keep warning the students that there will be an audience for their work, but they seem skeptical. After all, who really reads term papers?

Flash forward to the present day, and ask Rodge if anyone reads these papers. Within the first few weeks, more than 1,350 people downloaded copies of his paper on “aesthetics and sexual gratification in virtual worlds.” His work was covered by The Guardian UK, and he was invited to expand his paper into an article in American Sexuality Magazine.

Or, speak with Bella Noche about the outcome of her paper entitled “Elves and faeries in the hospital: Virtual worlds to affect the quality of life among child oncology patients.” Megan is convinced that virtual worlds can improve the quality of life for children with cancer, and she is starting a nonprofit organization that will make this a reality.

As Megan explains, “The characters created by cancer patients can provide an outlet for children to run and jump and have long hair — whatever their wish may be. A virtual world can cater to dreams and fantasies. It can be an environment for them to gain confidence and escape their reality for a little while.”

Or, you might want to chat with Exorcimus (Manny), the direction-impaired frog who hopes to someday use virtual worlds such as Second Life to teach math or science at the high-school level. As he notes in the introduction to his paper, these virtual worlds are a “sleeping giant in education.”

And this, really, is the key point. Virtual worlds have enormous potential as a teaching tool and experiments such as this one are unfolding on campuses across the country.

At Ball State University, Sarah (“Intellagirl”) Robbins uses Second Life to teach a section of a core-curriculum English class. At Bradley University, Professor Ed Lamoureaux is preparing to use Second Life to lead a three-work course on digital research methods.

Virtual worlds will never replace face-to-face interaction, but they might encourage instructors to reconsider the practices that unfold within the traditional classroom. For example, most of the courses described above are premised on something known as “situated learning.” The idea is that students will gradually acquire knowledge through a process of apprenticeship in a broader community of practice.

By their very nature, virtual worlds nurture these types of communities. Interaction, cooperation, and knowledge-sharing are central to their enjoyment. This approach stands in marked contrast to dominant approaches. Learning is sometimes viewed as a highly individualized activity that stops at the classroom door. Even today, many teachers discourage students from collaborating on homework assignments, viewing such behavior as “cheating.”

University administrators should be commended for allowing these online experiments to take place, and companies like Linden Lab (the force behind Second Life) should be lauded for their dedication to supporting the educational community.

The virtual classroom is here to stay, and the doors are always open. Isn’t it time that you stopped by to see what you’ve been missing?

To find copies of the student papers, visit the search engine of your choice and type “trinity MMO papers.” To track down information about courses offered in Second Life, visit the same search engine and type “nmc second life.”
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