Why multi-player on-line games?

During the past few years, we have been studying the world of massively multiplayer on line role playing games (MMORPGs) and exploring whether we can effectively use them to produce the embodied learning of skills that are critical for effective teamwork and leadership: skills for coordination and collaboration; skills for building trust; skills for listening and working cross-culturally; skills for building networks; skills for building a team and committing to a shared purpose; skills for being sensitive to background moods that may hinder the ability to accomplish our goals and for shifting out these moods when necessary; and skills for coping with change and uncertainty on an ongoing basis. For many people, these games are a fun distraction, but not much else. In the last few years, there is a growing sentiment that they can be much more. We agree, and we are convinced that these kinds of games can play an important role in the delivery of a new kind of education.

Education is not about the transfer of knowledge and application of concepts. It is about enabling others to take new actions that they were not able to take before. It is about enabling people to learn to articulate and re-articulate their identities in an ongoing and recurrent manner as the world changes around them. Learning, in the end, does not happen simply by reading or learning about a new theory. It happens in the body. A person can be said to “know” once he or she is able to do something he was not able to do before. What is great about these games as a learning tool is that they allow us to very quickly move our students from theory to practice by providing us with a virtual, yet complex, architecture that compels them to work with others in the game to make things happen. In every immersive program we have led that included a MMORPG as part of our design, we have found it to be a very rich tool for recurrent practice and for helping to produce embodied learning.


Why not workshops or other types of on site courses?

We have led many workshops in the past, and will continue to do so, albeit in a much smaller scale, in the future. However, they can certainly be enriched, if not entirely replaced, by well-designed virtual learning laboratories.

Workshops are powerful because they can produce an opening for people -- their interaction with the conference leaders and the other participants introduces them to new possibilities and has some impact upon their bodies -- which is where all learning happens, but they have one big limitation: they only last a short time and they do not allow participants to practice their learning in an ongoing manner once the workshops end. Of course you can assign homework, and can have certain communication with participants afterwards, but that is not sufficient. All real learning leads to a “reformulation of your body”, which requires recurrent cycles of interaction.

In these laboratories, we can design recurrent cycles of interaction where people go on quests together, take actions with others, work as a team, make things happen, and observe themselves in action. It is important to note that when we play the game for this purpose, we are not trying to simply “level up” and master the game, but rather, we are engaged in what we call, our own “meta game,” where “winning” means developing our ability to learn new skills that will enable us to engage much more effectively with other people and do things that we could not do before the program. In order to accomplish this, it is important that we not only play a game, but that we also reflect on what we are learning together. Over the last few years, we’ve designed and delivered multiple programs where we combined our 1) know-how about how people work together, 2) group experiences in a game, and 3) guided discussions and reflection, with impressive results. We have been very pleased with the learning experienced by the participants (as well as our own!) You can, of course, learn these skills in other ways, such as by participating in long-term courses or work initiatives. We have been involved in long term learning courses in the past, and they can work. But they are expensive and they can take a lot of time. The virtual learning environments that we have created demonstrate that we can design learning programs that produce very intense, hands-on, learning experiences for people in a short amount of time.


Can we really learn about leadership simply by playing these games?

There is much discussion about these games being good places for people to “hone their leadership skills” and to learn new ways of leading that they can then bring back to their “real” work. See, for example, Steve Gillete (Starbuck’s CIO and EVP of Digital Ventures)’s statement that everything he learned about leadership he learned from playing World of Warcraft. http://theguildcio.blogspot.com.  See, also,  Harvard Business Review Article, Leadership’s Online Labs, http://hbr.org/2008/05/leaderships-online-labs/ar/1 and from MMO to CEO http://www.forbes.com/2008/07/16/leadership-online-videogames-lead-cx_mk....

MMORPGs can be helpful for learning about leadership, but first, we have to define what we mean by leadership. Leadership is the capacity to mobilize others to a future that is possible, but that is not yet available because it requires many things to happen, such as innovation, re-organization, coordinated efforts, trust building, and someone to build a team by convening people to work together to achieve a common objective. In general, people are not good at doing all of these things spontaneously. A good leader is one that creates the space for all of this to happen. A leader does not necessarily have to be the person that has the best vision, or is the most knowledgeable, but rather, a leader is the person who commits to make the future possibility happen and attracts people to work on his or her team that are committed to making it happen too. Just as important as the ability to innovate, is the ability to effectively convene people and make things happen.

In a regular class, we can read a lot about leadership concepts and give people homework that allows them to further understand these concepts, but we cannot practice them in action. Again, what has appealed most to us about these games is that they bring a new dimension to our ability to practice that did not exist before. By design, the architecture of some of these games, particularly the one we have being studying for quite some time now, World of Warcraft, require players to work as a team, sometimes in large groups of 30 to 40 people, to complete big missions. The leader or leaders of these groups must often times do things such as recruit new members, convene people to join them, and keep them motivated and focused on their missions. There are many dimensions of leadership that are built into the architecture of World of Warcraft. It has political drama, economies, experience requirements, assessment of merit, etc., making it a great laboratory for learning about and practicing leadership. Of course, there are some dimensions of being a leader that do not come into play in this game, such as an active concern for innovation. However, the dimensions that are there make it a great space to practice being a leader on an ongoing recurrent basis.

With few exceptions, however, we think that simply playing the game alone is not enough to learn about leadership, or any of the other skills we believe are possible to learn as a result of engaging with us in one of these laboratories. Many people will play for hundreds if not thousands of hours, and with a few exceptions, will probably not learn anything about what we are talking about here. People will usually get immersed in the game as the game, not as a laboratory for learning, and will simply experience the game as entertainment. However, if you couple the environment provided by these games, one or two of them in particular, with our theory of action and with guided spaces for discussion and reflection, then you have an enormous laboratory for recurrently practicing new distinctions in action.

As one student says of his experience: “[t]he method of guided self-discovery used in the course is so much more powerful than transfer of cognitive information about what I ‘should’ be doing. The program’s environment (course design, staff and team members) led to what felt like self discovered nuances and self-corrections that made enormous differences for me.” By immersing themselves fully in a new environment and taking risks with each other as they intentionally practice new ways of moving, we have observed that participants in these programs begin to embody what they are learning and begin to move differently in the way they lead, and generally interact with others: when they see disorientation, they can produce orientation; when they observe distrust, they can produce trust; when they see anomalies in the way something is getting done, they can explore them and take timely action. The learning is gradual and real. In the words of another student: “I have taken various leadership courses over the years. What I found most valuable in Working Effectively in Small Teams was the theories were put into practice over a long duration. I believe this is the only way to change your behavior.”


What can we learn from MMORPGs?

MMORPGs are an important technology, and we recommend that you pay attention to them whether or not you participate in one of our learning programs. In just the last few years the movement of online games in education has grown quite a bit. But putting that aside for the moment, these games are a wave that is coming strongly, and they give us a window to the younger members of our work force, and a window to the world that is coming in terms of the way people interact and collaborate with one another. These games, you could say, are an anticipation of the web 3.0 or 4.0.

Millions of people play these games today already. World of Warcraft alone, has over 11 million players worldwide. This is a wave that is here to stay. For those of us who did not grow up playing these games, it is important to understand them so that we can understand the younger members of the workforce, and those who have yet to join. Younger people are growing up with these games, and as they begin to join the workforce, there is substantial research that suggests that they will run their businesses differently, perhaps with more flexibility in the way they design their roles, or with less of a commitment to fixed organizational structure and a readiness to assemble contingent networked relations when needed instead. Not surprisingly, many major businesses are utilizing some form of gaming technology in their training programs. A study released a couple of years ago by the Entertainment Software Association said that back then that 70% of major employers in the U.S. utilized some form of this technology for training purposes.

With the rise of the web-enabled networks, corporate participation in them is inevitable. According to the Gartner Group, by the end of 2012, half of all U.S. companies will have “networked virtual environments” and 80% of Internet users will have avatars or digital versions of themselves for work and play. Hence, “networked virtual environments” will increasingly become the medium by which people interact with each other to get things done. We can bemoan the “loss of physical connection”, but in today’s global and culturally diverse environment, this is a reality that it is here to stay. As such, it is important that we explore these new environments, see what is possible to do in them, and work to ensure that they provide a space where people can indeed collaborate and work effectively and creatively with one another, build trust, build empathy and care for others, and overall mobilize to get things done. “Going local” is a laudable goal in many ways, but in today’s global environment it is impossible to isolate yourself from the world. If we pay attention to what people are doing in these kinds of environments, and explore what can be done, we may be learn to develop communities where people are not simply connected to one another, but where they can really engage with each other in a committed and caring way.

In the Web 2.0, the world of action is still primarily limited to anonymous commercial and financial transactions. People are not expected to share their identities with others, their ambitions, their emotions -- there is no common purpose with others, no common mission, no shared background. Well-designed games give players the opportunity to build a shared interpretation of what they are doing, and organize themselves around teams to achieve common purposes. As people begin to interact with each other in a different manner, the obvious question becomes: why can’t we do this in the “real world?” By engaging in these environments with the right kinds of questions and reflections, we can begin to explore what is possible and to participate in the design of the next generation of the web.

Play with us and see for yourself the learning that is possible!

Design and development Tinca