World of Warcraft Finds Its Way Into Class

| March 5, 2013 | 21 Comments
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World of Warcraft

Students’ passions can be a powerful driver for deeper and more creative learning. With this knowledge, some educators are using popular commercial games like World of Warcraft (WoW) to create curriculum around the game. And they say they’re seeing success, especially with learners who have had trouble in traditional classrooms.

World of Warcraft is a Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplay (MMOR) game, where players take on the identity of characters in a narrative-rich plot, working together to overcome challenges.

“In my estimation, a well-designed video game is pure, scaffolded, constructivist learning at its best,” said Peggy Sheehy, one of the designers of WoW in Schools, an elective English Language Arts curriculum built around the game. “Mastery of content opens up new content and offers unlimited opportunity for success.” And that’s what learning should be like, she says: interesting, engaging and collaborative. Research on gaming in an educational context corroborates Sheehy’s viewpoint that games demonstrate mastery learning because a player cannot move on until he or she has completed a set of tasks.

“Game designers get that failure is anticipated and celebrated. It’s a learning opportunity.”

Sheehy designs “quests” with particular learning objectives in mind that the students or — “heroes” as they’re called in class — must complete. Quests might include components of comparative writing or characterization exercises. For example, Sheehy had her students read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit as they progressed through the course, and for one assignment, they had to pick a character from the book and categorize that character within World of Warcraft. They were asked to defend their choices in writing, supporting their argument with the text.

“When I bring these to their other teachers, I am consistently told, ‘I don’t get anything like this from them,’” Sheehy said in reference to the writing her students produce. They write complex arguments because they are passionate about the game, the storyline, and the class. “When there is no passion you get dutiful, for the grade work,” she said.

One of the benefits of using a multiplayer, collaborative game is that students also work together to accomplish quests. They post their writing in “guilds” within the game and are asked to critique one another’s writing, creating a constructive peer review.

Perhaps one of the most prominent ways that game-based classes are different from traditional ones is how failure fits into the daily experience of learning. “Failure in a game typically means that you tried the challenge in a new way,” Sheehy said. It’s not bad; it’s creative problem-solving, risk-taking, and a natural outcropping of trying something new. But in most classrooms, kids are programmed to understand failure as shameful at early ages. “Game designers get that failure is anticipated and celebrated. It’s a learning opportunity,” Sheehy said.

[RELATED READING: Money, Time and Tactics: Can Games Be Effective in Schools?]

Those accustomed to having assessments be part of the learning model may wonder how to measure things like reading comprehension, grammar, and vocabulary.

“Assessment and gaming are so contradictory,” Sheehy said. “Gaming is almost like the scientific method. You get your quest, you form a hypothesis, you try it out, you encounter challenges and you draw conclusions.” She thinks that’s assessment enough and is wary that formally assessing students will take the fun and the passion out of what she considers to be a very effective education tool.

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  • http://twitter.com/TotThoughts Tot Thoughts

    I love reading articles like this one which highlight the real and incredible benefits of gaming in child-development. It is undeniable that children learn key skills through these gaming experiences, with the added benefit that they are passionate about learning these skills.

    No doubt, there is great value in finding ways of incorporating gamification into today’s academic curricula and indeed, I view this as a the future of education (not that children will be playing WoW in all day, but rather that we will gradually build in more virtual interactions and gamification strategies into the classroom).

    The key, I think, is to not loose sight of the importance of real, physical, and tangible connections and to find ways of bridging the real-life experiences we have with the virtual ones. Teachers who are able to do that (such as the ones referenced in this article) should be celebrated and imitated. As parents, we do well to borrow a page from this book and strive to find ways of integrating those two worlds within our homes.

    - Karla (www.totthoughts.com)

  • Grace Caruso

    Let’s take a highly addictive substance and feed it to our kids and call it education. So they can get excited about a game and write about their “passion” but don’t turn out “anything like this” on social issues. I call that something to correct not celebrate. and “Warcraft” Really? Wouldn’t two wars and the carnage they have given us be enough to make us throw up at even the word? If my kids were in this class I would ask that they be moved maybe even out of the school. and yes kids can play WoW or any other game all day and they do. Really. Where are the adults???? playing games I bet.

    • ElmQ

      I am curious to know if Ms. Caruso has played World of Warcraft or is aware of games of that sort. I understand that war is horrible, but there are multitudes of games and books out there that are about wars or speak of wars. Are we going to shield our children about that subject if we are to avoid all things that have to do with or discuss war? I am also confused about your quote, ‘”anything like this” on social issues.” What do you mean by “social issues”?

      I looked through the article and the only mention of “anything like this” was in the context of other teachers saying their students do not produce writing comparable to the writing produced for this WoW class. As explained by the teacher, Ms. Sheehy, she clarifies by saying that, “When there is no passion you get dutiful, for the grade work.” Perhaps the issue is more with the fact that children, frankly, are not passionate about their other subjects. I could be the most engaging teacher, but if your child is not interested in history, then they are not going to be passionate about it. And, actually, more students are interested in history BECAUSE of playing games such as “Call of Duty” since games like that are based on historical wars.

      Of course, if your child was in a school that allowed a WoW curriculum, then you would be within your rights to take your child out of that school. But you should count yourself lucky that the administration has allowed for innovation in teaching. With all the salacious media available in the world, it becomes harder and harder to engage children in “traditional” curriculum. The children we have now are definitely NOT the same children of even five years ago. And I don’t know about you, but the intellectual stimulation I get from playing games–online or not–doesn’t make me a bad person. It just means I like to keep my mind sharp.

    • Karla Valenti

      Hi Grace – I understand your concern, but games and gamification can be powerful, healthy, and productive ways of learning (especially for children who struggle in traditional classroom settings). You might want to check out Reality is Broken, a wonderful book by Jane McGonigal (http://janemcgonigal.com/my-book/) that does an excellent job of expanding on this point.

      The key is to use gaming theory as a way of helping children build real skills, collaborate, solve problems, innovate, and make powerful emotional connections. Games like WoW help children do that. That said, not all games are created equal and certainly children should be discouraged from engaging in games that promote extreme violence and aggression.

      At the end of the day, I agree with ElmQ and think that, whether we like it or not, our children are growing up in an era that is quite different from the one that sheltered us (read this –> http://bit.ly/Tuumtz). These activities are unavoidable and we do better as parents to educate ourselves and our children about how best to leverage the technology that is out there (in a healthy and safe manner).

      One last thing, I agree with ElmQ that schools that promote this kind of innovative teaching should be celebrated. This is the future of education and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if games became an increasingly more prevalent teaching tool in years to come.

  • Peggy Sheehy

    Katrina–Wanted to thank you for sharing information about MMO-Schools (formerly WoW in School) and the powerful learning happening each day when students are heroes. I’d just like to add that Lucas Gillispie and Craig Lawson of Pender County Schools (NC) are responsible for The Hero’s Journey Curriculum and that quite a few of the participating schools have opted to use Guild Wars 2 as the game base for the course. Lucas blogs at and I encourage your readers to visit for more great project ideas.

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