It's Not Just a Game—It's Skills for Life

from Educators' eZine

How would you answer this question?

Q: Your students are most likely to be learning the real-world skills that employers demand when they are:

a) In the classroom, following the lessons in the textbook.
b) At home, completing assigned homework.
c) On line, playing World of Warcraft.
d) On a class field trip, visiting the offices of a local corporation.

More and more, educators, scientists, and business executives are coming to believe that the correct answer might be (c) "On line, playing World of Warcraft." The Federation of American Scientists, in its recent Summit on Educational Games, concluded that many video games require players to master skills in demand by today's employers. Their recommendation: "Schools of education, and teacher professional development providers should create new training materials and make developing skills to support game-based learning an integral part of new and incumbent teacher training."

Video games in the classroom?

Clearly, not all computer and video games belong in school. Some games, such as puzzle games, are certainly appropriate for classroom use, and have been used for some time. Other games, such as the now-infamous Grand Theft Auto, would be wildly inappropriate.

Then there are new "serious" games, such as Food Force, which teaches how the United Nations delivers food to starving people around the world. Another, SimSweatShop, teaches what it would be like to work in a developing-world sweatshop. Those would certainly be appropriate for many classes.

There is one category of mainstream computer games that I believe should be a standard part of the curriculum in every high school: Computer role-playing games. RPGs, because of their complex structure and emphasis on team building, can teach many things that will benefit the students in the future, both in their academic work and in their careers. These games teach important critical thinking and teamwork skills that can be applied in many situations. They can promote social interaction among students who might not otherwise interact with each other. They can bring many of the benefits of school sports programs to students who are unable to participate in those programs. In addition, the lessons learned from a computer game are likely to stick with the student longer than lessons taught through other media.

What are role-playing games, and where did they come from?

Role-playing games were inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Central to these books is the concept of a group of adventurers, each contributing different skills to achieve a common objective. In The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins is enlisted as a "burglar" to help the dwarves reclaim their treasure from a dragon's hoard; in The Lord of the Rings, a party of nine is formed—The Fellowship of the Ring—in which each member's abilities contribute to the success of the mission. Role-playing games, originating with Dungeons & Dragons, are not so much games to be played as stories to be lived. When a player creates a character for the game scenario, he or she will play the role of that character throughout the game, living the story, making decisions, and acting not as he or she would in real life, but as the character would given its unique personality and abilities.

Computer role-playing games began as text-only games, but soon grew up to add graphics and animation to the stories. Currently there are many varieties of role-playing games, or RPGs; the fastest-growing category is the Massively-Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, or MMORPG, such as Everquest or World of Warcraft. These games create huge, fully realized worlds to explore, and there are typically thousands of players logged on to each server at any given moment. The game world is big enough, usually several continents, so that it never seems crowded, but it is well enough populated that it is usually easy to find a group to help with a quest.

Characters and Role Playing

The essence of role playing is to create a character and then become that character for the duration of the game. This is nothing like pushing a marker around a Monopoly board; in games like that, you are playing as yourself. In an RPG, you are your character, and in a true role-playing environment you are expected to act as your character would. If I were role-playing a healer, for example, and a warrior in my party killed a harmless animal for no reason, I would be true to my role if I refused to continue in the group because the action of that member was contrary to my principles. Now it may be that the other player is actually a very gentle soul in real life but is role-playing a heartless fighting machine and was simply being true to his or her character. Perhaps we could come to an agreement that in return for my healing, the group would refrain from doing anything that would compromise my values. Now it's no longer just a game; it's a story with real people in it. It must be said, though, that it is often very difficult to determine whether another player is really a jerk or is simply role-playing a jerk.

In RPGs, the player typically has a choice of races, such as human, elf, dwarf, or halfling, from Tolkien's hobbits, in creating a character. The choice of race is most often determined by the class chosen for the character, typically warrior, paladin, rogue, priest, druid, hunter, and wizard. For example, an elf is often assumed to have superior archery skills (think of Legolas in The Lord of the Rings), so that would be the best racial choice for a hunter character. Each class has its own abilities and limitations. Warriors and paladins (commonly referred to as "tanks") can wear the heaviest armor and use shields, but they will also be the focus of aggression during a fight. A rogue can hide in shadows, sneak up on the enemy, and pick the locks on treasure chests but can wear only leather armor. Priests and mages have powerful spells but can generally wear only cloth armor, making them extremely vulnerable (squishies, in game slang). In a well-balanced group, however, the mix of abilities can far outweigh the limitations of some characters.

Grouping and Teamwork

Many people think of teamwork as simply dividing up the work to be done the way you would cut up a pie. Each member does his or her slice of the total job. In many situations, however, this is not the best way to run a team. Many tasks require a combination of different skills, and the best team for those tasks will offer a variety of abilities, with each person doing the part he or she can do best. Most sports teams are set up this way. Once the team is formed, the members must learn to trust each other and each member must show the others that he or she is dependable and worthy of trust.

Teamwork skills are necessary in many areas of life, but they are not formally taught in our schools. Those few students who are able to survive the selection process and get picked for a school athletic team will learn about teamwork, but that is an extremely small, elite group. Computer RPGs can give the rest of the students the same grounding in teamwork and teambuilding while giving everyone the same level of experience, with no bench sitters.

The basic premise of an RPG is that a group of adventurers, each with different skills and handicaps, can conquer anything by working together. Computer RPGs feature many quests that require grouping simply because they would be impossible to accomplish solo. Many of these require the party to travel through some sort of dungeon, often to eliminate a particular "boss" monster at the end. This is where teamwork, trust, and dependability become vital. The party will be attacked by various monsters as they traverse the dungeon, and they must cooperate to keep each other alive.

Teamwork in Practice

It is obvious to me from my experiences playing MMORPGs (Everquest, Dark Age of Camelot, Star Wars Galaxies, World of Warcraft, Dungeons and Dragons Online, Vanguard, and Lord of the Rings Online so far) that few players come to the game with a clear concept of what a team should be. It's often just a group of soloists hoping that they can kill all the monsters before everybody dies. This can be frustrating. A great many quests end in disaster because one of the players tries to do something that should have been left to another player whose character has the appropriate skills for that task. An example: My main character in World of Warcraft was a priest. He was a healer. He could not wear anything but cloth armor. He did have a few offensive spells, but using them in a dungeon would attract all the nearby monsters to him, which is bad. So he concentrated on healing the fighters who were heavily armored and good at whacking monsters. Sometimes the healing itself drew the monsters' attention, and the monsters converged on the healer and started whacking him. Now, experienced healers know that if you run, you die. If you try to fight back, you die. And if the healer dies, everybody dies. But if you stand your ground, use whatever defensive spells you have, and keep healing until the tanks come to the rescue, you live. Sometimes just barely, but you live. It's all a matter of trust: the fighters need to know that they will be healed when they confront the monsters. The healers need to know that the fighters will come to the rescue if they draw the aggression of the monsters. And all must understand that they may need to sacrifice themselves to keep the healer alive, because he or she will be able to resurrect them if they die.

When people truly understand the strengths and limitations of their characters, the experience can be very fine. One evening on World of Warcraft I joined an excellent group with my priest character. We went through a difficult dungeon and even though we were technically underpowered, everyone did his or her job correctly and I kept them alive all the way through. On another night with a different and more powerful group, everybody died horribly numerous times because they either didn't know or didn't care what their jobs were supposed to be. I believe that students would learn much from experiencing both kinds of situations. They would also gain an intuitive grasp of Alexander Pope's dictum from An Essay on Man:

"Honor and shame from no condition rise;
Act well your part, there all the honor lies."

But what about the violence?

First of all, note that there is a difference between RPG's and first-person shooting games. Violence in the latter is getting a lot of press now, but the research is still inconclusive. Yes, studies show that children who play violent video games tend to act more aggressively. But they do not show that the games cause the behavior. It is just as likely that children who act in more aggressive ways choose to play more violent video games. It may also be that the aggressive behavior is not a result of the violence, but is simply a symptom of the lack of socialization resulting from playing video games (or watching TV) excessively instead of going outside and playing with other children.

As far as I know, there are no studies comparing role-playing games with first-person shooters and other action games. I suspect that a clear difference would be seen between RPGs, which emphasize grouping, socialization, and involvement in the storytelling, and shooters, which emphasize solo kill-everything-that-moves action. I also suspect that everyone playing RPGs—and probably shooters too—really does know the difference between game violence and real violence. Furthermore, the violence may actually be an asset in using the game as a learning tool. It is well established that lessons are learned best when there is a strong emotional content, and watching a couple of trolls pound your character into the ground like a tent stake because somebody didn't do his or her job can be quite a visceral experience.

The payoff: real-world skills

Some students will go on to college after high school, and some will go into the workforce. Both groups will benefit from having had teambuilding experience. In college, students commonly form study groups. In most cases, the group's workload is simply cut up like a pie. But what if a student had the ability to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of his study group mates and organize the group to take better advantage of each individual's skills, as he or she learned to do when forming a group to conquer a dungeon? That might be a far more successful study group.

If I were interviewing people to fill a job opening, I would ask candidates about the computer games they play. Those who are knowledgeable about what makes a good RPG group would float to the top of my list because they already understand the basics of teamwork. I understand very well that to many companies, a "team player" is someone who follows orders and doesn't rock the boat. But to successful companies, a team player is one who is able to get the most out of any group he or she is in by using each team member's skills to the best advantage.

Whether they go directly into the workforce after high school or attend college first, today's students are the workers, managers, and executives of the future. By making computer role-playing games a standard part of the high school curriculum, we can give them an education in practical teamwork that will help them be the best at whatever they do in the future.

Email:Dennis Southwood