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Saving Bear Cubs in Cataclysm - or - the Story of Why E-learning Needs Game Designers

This week Cataclysm, the third, long-awaited expansion for the massively multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft (WoW), has finally been released. The expansion brought many changes to the game and completely redesigned Kalimdor and Eastern Kingdoms, the two old continents that have been part of the game since its launch. In a sense, it does feel like a new game all together, and even experienced players have to relearn many aspects of the game.

But I’m not here to talk about all the game changes and complain about the missing portals in Outland and Northrend. Instead, I’d like to play a bit with some of the new elements of the game that facilitate learning and could be used to improve serious (aka not fun) online learning.

It must be said that WoW has never been a difficult game to learn. The basic mechanics and interface elements are pretty straightforward and easy to pick up even for casual players like myself. But I’ve got a feeling they took everything even a step further in the new expansion. Let’s take a look at examples I’ve encountered so far as I’m trying to level up my gnome mage to level 85. So please, hop on my flying gryphon, so I can show you around.

Just in time learning

Cataclysm seems to be really good at providing simple tips to guide you through the game. For instance, as you reach a new level, you get notified of any new abilities or talent points that are available to you. A small, but very useful reminder.

Similar tips have also been implemented in some of the quests (missions you complete in the game). Apart from tips and hints in the quest instructions, you now also get easy to follow tips as you do the quest. For instance, tips on the procedure needed to complete the quest: 1) equip the lance, 2) now mount the bird, 3) ok, now click the button to flap the wings and make the bird fly! Easy to understand, and displayed just when you need it; you’re not told how to fly the bird unless you’ve got your lance ready and have saddled up the bird.

Sounds simple, yes? So why don’t we display tips like that in our online learning environments? “Stuck on the task? Head to the forum and ask for help!” And by the way, by tips I don’t mean a whole set of complex instructions; we all know few people read the manual. By tips I mean simple to understand one line suggestions on what you should do next. For example, “Don’t forget to replace the lance with your main weapon after you’ve completed the quest!”

Challenges you care about

While they are still many “Kill n of X, so I can make Y” quests in Cataclysm, you now often get quests that are more meaningful and more fun to do. For instance, one of the quests asked me to climb a tree, pick up the young bear cubs stuck in the trees, climb to the top, and toss them on a trampoline, so they can return to safety. I’ve got to admit I wanted to keep saving the cubs even after I saved the required amount for the quest!

What makes this quest great is that players can easily relate to the theme. You surely don’t want to leave adorable bear cubs stranded in the trees, do you? The quest isn’t just something you have to do to get more experience points, but something you want to do because you care about the bears (and because it’s fun to climb trees).

Similarly, we’re all more willing to learn about things we care about. And we care about things that are relevant to us, about things that touch us on an emotional level. And that can be achieved by telling great stories. Not stories like “Annie has 6 marbles and loses 2, how many does she have left?” (who the hell is Annie and why should I care?), but stories that capture our imagination, that get us involved. How do I save the bears? Won’t they get hurt after I toss them on the trampoline?

Making the player feel part of something bigger

Games have always done a great job at making players feel special. You’re the hero, the future of the world is in your hands; only you can save the princess! And WoW has always emphasized the importance of your actions through quests texts and interactions with various non-player characters in the game. But in Cataclysm, there is even more emphasis on making your storyline personalized (using phasing technology), especially in the starting zones that you go through as a new character.

The experience of starting a new worgen character is a great story on its own, told over and over again for each new player. You start as a human character, helping your people defend your city, which is under attack by the savage worgen beasts. As you’re trying to get more help, you get bitten by one of the creatures, and at one point, you find yourself in jail, accused of turning wild. The world changes around you and the non-player characters help you to fill in the story of what’s going on.

Similarly, as a high level player you are told to take a mercenary ship that will take you to one of the new continents of the expansion. While you wait for the ship to arrive, a group of Stormwind soldiers chatters around you about the recent world events, the Cataclysm. And just by listening to the soldiers, you can learn about what’s new and about Deathwing, the dragon that is the cause of all the changes brought by Cataclysm.

It doesn’t feel like homework, like something you have to do. You just casually listen in to the conversation the characters around you are having. It feels authentic, and it makes the Cataclysm story seem more believable, more tangible.

And a meaningful narrative is often what we fail to convey in online learning environments. We provide students with a series of resources and activities that will supposedly guide them to achieve the desired learning outcomes, but it’s usually all boring, disconnected from reality, just an endless to-do list… Well, it isn’t learning if it isn’t hard, right? Well, no, I believe there must be a way to place fun and learning in the same bag.

Being an active member of the group pays well

Speaking of making the player feel special; Cataclysm also introduced a guild leveling system. Guilds (groups of players) now get experience points through various activities by their members. As a guild levels up, its members can get special perks and abilities. In order to use guild abilities, you have to build up your reputation with your guild by being an active player. So basically, it pays well to be loyal and active in your guild.

WoW Guild (source: WoWCataclysm.net)

Compare that to how groups usually work in our classes. Students, who do nothing, often get rewarded by choosing an active group that covers up for the inactive “player”. Sucks, right? Well, it could be fixed if we also measured a student’s “loyalty” to the group, just like in WoW. Unless you contribute enough, you just can’t get the group perks (i.e. a good grade), so you’re encouraged to play nicely with others and complete group tasks.

But my class just can’t compete with WoW …

I know what you might be thinking - it’s easy to talk about having fun in immersive games like WoW, but making learning fun is just too difficult. Well, guess what? Making games fun isn’t an easy job either! Good game design is both science and art that is difficult to master, and it takes tons of trials and errors to get it just right. WoW has been around since 2004 and in every expansion you can see big, gradual improvements in game design.

So, what I’m suggesting is that we find better ways to apply the lessons learned by game designers to our online learning environments and instructional design. E-learning will probably never be as fun as playing WoW, but can’t we all just try a little harder to make learning a bit more engaging than flipping through sleep inducing “interactive” courseware, and to start telling our students meaningful stories? Perhaps we won’t be saving bear cubs in class, but there are many other missions we all care about and can teach us about what we need to know along the way.

And it doesn’t need to be in 3D or full immersive environments. With a little imagination and clever game design I suspect we could turn our boring text-centered Learning Management Systems into Learning Experience Enabling Technology - LEET systems. We all know many teachers are great storytellers; we just need to find a way to enable them to tell better stories online as well.

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Originally published at http://ialja.blogspot.com/2010/12/saving-bear-cubs-in-cataclysm-or-story.html