Are Educational MMOs Failing Students?

Are Educational MMOs Failing Students?

Many video game fans and professionals like the idea of educational massively multiplayer online games (or at least acknowledging the real learning opportunities present in entertainment MMOs). Similarly, educators like the idea of gamified curriculum to engage what they perceive as a gamer generation of kids, so there has been momentum for educational MMOs for many years now.

There are two general approaches that I have noticed again and again in discussions of education MMOs (and there are still far more discussions than produced, playable education MMOs), which are as follows:

  • Take educational curriculum and put it into the visual and experiential language of MMO video games (often with a comic book or cartoon derived art style)
  • Take existing MMOs and create educational curriculum to facilitate the use of these existing MMOs in classroom activities

I think that both approaches completely miss the beneficial points of applying MMO game thinking to real-world education. This article will elaborate a bit on areas that I think should get less emphasis in educational MMO designs (relative to the emphasis they currently enjoy), and some neglected aspects of MMOs that I believe are far more important to make a successful educational MMO.

What Makes MMOs Immersive and Motivating?

Educational MMO makers tend to emphasize only the superficial qualities of commercial MMOs:

  • Fun Graphics – The thinking here is that if you make the educational material look like a cartoon, comic book, or popular video game, you will suck the player into the experience before they realize that it’s nothing more than a textbook hussied up in games’ clothing. The problem here is that this is the exact same philosophy used by other “geniuses” like Chick tracts, which do get read, but also get made fun of and dismissed completely. A game MMO that only tries to wrap the textbook learning in a veneer of gamification is also going to give misleading results as well: People will play it, and maybe even enjoy it, but they might not learn any better than if they’d just been given a more cost-effective textbook or video format. Attention-grabbing aesthetics are only a small part of what makes MMOs popular (and sometimes visuals aren’t even important… just look at the success of Kingdom of Loathing, a great game, and Runescape, another solid title). Also, too much focus on style over substance and solid teaching runs the risk of the medium distorting or dilluting the message, as seemed to happen with Evoke.
  • Any Kind of Interactivity – Too often this means you can move around, click things, and otherwise manipulate a graphical user interface. A textbook where you click from page to page is still just a textbook with hyperlinks. Sometimes there are story elements or mini-game challenges that must be fulfilled to get to the next node in the linear learning path, but that type of play is still a world away from the experience of a successful MMO like World of Warcraft or Happy Farms. Real decision-making, self-directed exploration, achievements and goals chosen to impress the player’s actual friends, and mastery experimentation (trying to figure out optimal ways of doing things better, faster, etc.) are seldom emphasized even though these are the real-world fuels that fire MMO player activity… Not the mere fact that you can click and move around preset points of interest in a virtual world. There is NO additional benefit to standing in an overpriced 3D virtual world and clicking on a premade dialogue so that you can watch a native woman grinding corn in a three-second animation loop, compared to spending three seconds looking passively at a photograph of a woman grinding corn in a textbook, OK?
  • Classroom Integration – Keep the game digestible inside the limited class time available, and help teachers integrate the new world of MMO learning into their extremely old-fashioned classroom-based teaching methods. The bell rings at the end of the day, kids go home, and any potential passion for a classroom MMO is squelched by the reality that you can’t keep progressing on your own and lack any real autonomy or self-direction in the game. The game is the more the school’s and the teacher’s than the student’s in most cases. College courses utilizing very diverse open-ended platforms like Second Life have been a strong exception to this particular problem (I’ve seen wonderful presentations by students and faculty who all learned so much together in relatively open-ended Second Life-based class activities). But seriously, if your game isn’t online and available to students from home, and if said students never voluntarily login outside of class hours, then you’re probably kidding yourself that the game is intrinsically engaging.

What I think is really important about MMOs for education, and what I would focus on if I were designing an educational MMO experience of any kind:

  • Empowerment – Players in MMOs should feel like they are charting their own destiny. Successful MMORPGs let you choose to play. Then they let you choose your class, your skills, your talents, your quests, your play style, and your goals. Even simpler MMOs like farm games let people decide what to plant, who to steal from, which friends to help or hinder, and more.

Beyond the intrinsic gameplay rules, there is nobody telling you what to do; contrast that with a classroom-centric MMO design with a teacher telling the student to get back on task and finish the next class objective when they decide to try a different task, experiment with the game systems just to see what happens, or to chat with friends whilst jumping in circles for 10 minutes until their natural motivation sends them onto the next game challenge.

In many educational MMOs, there is a ridiculous amount of linear design and everyone is on rails so that a whole group can progress in a generic, standardized way that mirrors the generic, standardized educational systems in most mainstream schools. These teacher-centric patterns of engagement defeat some of the most important elements of MMO design that give players an addictive sense of autonomy and personal power.

  • Timeliness – MMOs are there for players when players are in the mood to play. The superiority of any educational resource that can be accessed when and if a person is in a state conducive to learning cannot be stressed enough. This is why I generally think educational MMOs are going to really take off targeting adult sectors, like knowledge workers. Kids’ limited school time is simply too valuable to risk on untested new learning techniques (and teachers are already stressed with the limitations and challenges of mainstream classroom teaching so there is little incentive to try something new and risk lower performance on standardized tests, etc.). However, adults can decide for themselves how to spend their educational time, without government mandated standards and other legal obligations obscuring what is best for each individual learner.

Also, adults are now facing continuing educational demands that no other generation has faced (it used to be that you just learned on the job through something like an apprenticeship or family business, then higher learning cropped up and we got the college system of today with undergraduate and graduate degrees). But those things are now becoming obsolete as the pace of change necessitates continual adult learning, not just 4, 6, or 8 years of post-secondary education. In the future, I see a world where adults don’t just pursue a degree program then call it quits—they subscribe to online colleges for most of their working lives (but with options to meet in shared, multi-college, classroom and lab space in the physical world). Online study becomes a continuous, self-directed process, not unlike the ongoing challenges of a typical MMORPG, except the character is you and the challenge is to develop your real-world knowledge and career.

  • Incentives – Whether they are based on social status or extrinsic rewards like cool mounts and new gear, MMOs are fantastic at creating compelling reward systems that make players genuinely want to achieve the goals modeled by the game system.

For example, I’m attending online business school right now, and I’m training pretty heavily to improve my arena rank on my main WOW character. For college, I’m doing the readings and whatever assignments and discussion is required to get my full points, but nothing more than that. For WOW, I’m doing the minimum in-game PVP to actually try to increase my skills, AND I’m searching for new information online, reading supplemental resources, watching player videos, and practicing in battlegrounds that don’t contribute directly to my arena ranking. It’s certainly not because I care more about WOW than I care about my business education, but the incentives in the WOW activities are a hell of a lot more gratifying today (and we all have a tendency to prefer action that rewards us now versus action that rewards us far in the future). If I were learning about a real-world, work-applicable skill with the more effective WOW-style reward system, I could see myself spending the same amount of voluntary time and enthusiasm on what would otherwise be a boring grind (like studying for any CompTIA certification, no offense to their curriculum developers).

However, part of why MMO incentives work so well in MMORPG games is that the player has a ton of autonomy to decide which incentives appeal to them. Once you put the player on the rails and tell them what their goals are, you significantly reduce the emotional pull of the incentives (and you reduce the likelihood that the incentives play into the social status that matters to an individual and their peers). Imagine if all of the raiders in WOW were told they needed a minimum PVP arena score to pass the “PVP module” of their WOW experience, and that’s pretty much the magic-busting effect that I think most education MMOs have when they tell a group of players that they all have identical, rather than parallel or complimentary optional goals in an educational game. As an added bonus, if you have different groups of players working on different self-selected goals in the game, then you have opportunities to design challenges for “cross-functional” teams that draw on unique strengths and abilities between players (that the players hopefully were able to tailor to their own preferences and self-concepts). To really work the MMO magic, I think that strategic incentives can be dictated by teachers/curriculum, but that tactical incentives need to be chosen by players.

  • Deep Personalization – Speaking of player preferences and self-concepts, deep emotionally significant personalization is a pretty big part of why any MMO is fun or not. Can the player be the best version of themselves in the game or are they being forced to pick from personas, avatars, and self-concepts that do not resonate at all. Personalization needs to go a lot deeper than letting someone pick the gender, hair, and shirt color of their avatar. It’s about giving players a perspective or viewpoint in the game world that resonates with their own real life perspective or viewpoint. Moreover, it’s about creating opportunities for the player to project themselves onto the game experience in ways that are not actually supported by the raw game mechanics or interface. Who my Lord of the Rings character is to me is much more than what any Turbine developer can see, even if they watch me in-game for hours and look over every aspect of my player info in their logs and databases.

A good educational game will allow time and space for players to really invest emotionally, to play around with their friends, to flirt with that cute kid in class, and to really project a part of themselves into that virtual place. If an educational MMO fails to engender genuinely human emotional experiences in the game, then it’s not really tapping the kind of experiences that make real social MMOs tick so much as it’s taking single-player games and adding people-puppeteered NPCs to them.

What do you think? Are education MMOs effectively targeting the aspects of MMO design that really get players engaged and motivated, or are they focusing too much on making the sale and pleasing whoever is paying for the game development? Educate me. Please also share the links for any good online adult/professional education MMOs if you know of some… I have been having a hell of a time finding any good ones (and Project Evoke is over, but I’m looking for more info about their challenges and successes too).

About Kelly Rued
Kelly Rued is an entrepreneur, entertainment designer and Internet marketer specializing in adult markets. She designs websites and apps that target measurable business results. Her blog explores marketing games, user engagement and productivity/entertainment.


  1. As a training developer in a corporate setting, I completely concur that most development is top-down directed with little autonomy. A bit of a forced-march toward X goal that company Y sets for employee Z.

    Love the article above, but I actually think the secret sauce of gamification in curriculum (whether business or more purely “education”) is that I don’t see any educational constructs today fairly assessing users in dynamic roles. MMOs seem to have game mechanics and algorithms that enable the system to track a users changing roles and contributions in these dynamic roles as they work.

    Current educational systems don’t do this, which is a serious gap because as far as I can see, no worker truly works independently, but as part of a team. Each team member must change their actions based on the interactions of the whole team against and objective, not just their own individual contributions.

    MMOs seem to have more of the secrets to measuring this worked out than any traditional training development tool or measurement construct I have seen (tinkering with the idea of pursuing this as my MEd thesis).

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