June 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Becoming Lore Keepers | The Gaming Life

If you had asked me six years ago when Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft (WoW), the popular MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplay Game), launched if I would be spearheading an effort to bring it into the classroom, it is very likely that I would have laughed. It isn’t that I would have thought it was a bad idea, but there would have been so many barriers that it would have been impractical. Over time, however, many of those obstacles have disappeared and today we are entering our second full year of using WoW as a language arts enrichment course for eighth grade students in Pender County Schools in Burgaw, NC.

There’s a great deal of talk about using games in our schools and libraries, but many are simply unsure how to get a game-based program off the ground. After presenting on the topic, I am often approached by passionate educators with a common question: “How did you make this happen?” The following are some practical tips and observations on how you can get a similar project started in your library.

Do some reading

If you haven’t explored What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (Macmillan, 2007 rev. ed.) by James Paul Gee of the University of Arizona, then, by all means, start there. Gee’s work in the area of video games and their educational value is foundational. If you need a good book to pass along to administrators or curious parents, consider Don’t Bother Me Mom – I’m Learning (Paragon House, 2007) by Marc Prensky. He assures us that rather than wasting the last remaining brain cells in their heads, our gaming youth are actually strengthening their cognitive skills by engaging in the complex and often social problem-solving environments that good games use to challenge players.

You don’t have to be a gamer

“But I don’t play these games.” I’ve heard that statement from many educators who fear a lack of prior knowledge would be a barrier. Rather than considering a lack of gaming experience as a handicap, view it as a strength. I can’t think of a better environment to demonstrate to students that we’re lifelong learners than to bring an area where they’re clearly the experts into the educational environment. Let them take leadership and ownership of your program. What this means, though, is that you should be playing with them. Seize every opportunity to ask them for their expertise in what may be uncharted territory for you. You’ll have countless opportunities to model metacognitive thinking. No, you don’t have to be a gamer. You do, however, have to love your learners and a little adventure.

Tackle the technical

Many of the barriers to using World of Warcraft in a school setting in the past were simply technical. Few schools had computers capable of handling games requiring 3D graphics. Today’s typical school lab computer can probably play WoW at an acceptable level of performance. If you are unsure whether or not the computers in your library will perform at acceptable levels, be sure to check out the game’s system requirements on Blizard Entertainment’s official website (http://tinyurl.com/22vq8h8). Headsets with microphones are also handy. While not a requirement, they’re a must if you want your kids to use a voice-over IP (Internet Protocol) program like Ventrilo (http://www.ventrilo.com/) to communicate with other players from around the world by voice.

Get your IT department on board

Make sure to get your IT deparatment on board. Network administrators, in particular, can be powerful allies or huge barriers. Having them on your side is advantageous, and if it takes cookies to win them over, it’s worth it. Most school networks utilize a firewall system that allows for a great deal of control of the flow of network traffic. Keep in mind, your network folks have the challenging job of keeping your servers and desktops safe from the constant bombardment from outside intruders. The firewall is our friend. You’ll need to work closely with your network administrator to get necessary ports opened to ensure optimal performance. We’ve been running the program for two years now and opening these ports has caused no problems. You can learn more about working with your firewall on Blizzard’s official website, http://tinyurl.com/3wvc9ou.

There are two additional technical areas you should be mindful of when implementing this project: your school filter and bandwidth usage. Rest assured, these barriers aren’t really barriers. Again, working closely with your network administrator, make sure that your filter allows traffic to and from the game’s servers and relevant websites. As for bandwidth issues, that’s one of the first things we tested before launching our program. Using our monitoring tools we measured WoW’s network traffic. Frankly, I was blown away at how little bandwidth the game used.

We measured traffic across typical game play activities. From logging a character into the world to entering a capital city to logging out and the background downloader kicking in, bandwidth usage remained relatively low. By comparison, we tested a typical access of a gmail inbox and found that it used more bandwidth than playing WoW. Voice communication programs like Ventrilo also require bandwidth.

Find a safe place to fail

In a world of high-stakes testing, your administrators may not be ready to take such an adventurous program into the regular school day. You might find it easier to sell the idea as an after-school program or a club since they are safe places to experiment in school. If things don’t work out as planned, test scores are unlikely to be impacted. Once you’ve established the program, you can then consider moving it into the regular curricular program if that’s the direction you wish to take.

Curriculum connections

Though I certainly feel there’s value in simply “following the learning” that’s taking place in immersive game spaces like WoW, it might be easier to sell the idea of bringing an MMORPG into the school if you have curricular connections and goals in mind. For our program, the easiest connection was in the area of language arts. The opportunities to explore reading and writing abound in this literacy-rich, quest-based game. Why not explore leadership and digital citizenship in an arena where there’s actually relevance and context?

We designed a variety of learning quests for our students. In many cases, we simply adapted activities commonly found in fan-based communities and used them in the classroom. For example, having students write from the point of view of their character provided ample opportunities to brush up on grammar, spelling, and sentence structure. For more formal writing, learners wrote argumentatively, connecting game experiences to characters’ adventures in Tolkien’s The Hobbit while citing their references in MLA format. Quest and game lore analysis provided great opportunities for discussing the elements of fiction writing in an engaging context.

Fortunately, for ambitious educators, Craig Lawson, a language arts teacher in Pender County Schools and long-time gamer, and I have done most of the language arts curricular work for you. Over the past year, we’ve taken our entire WoWinSchool: A Hero’s Journey course and have compiled it into a year-long course, aligned to the Common Core standards for eighth grade language arts. You can download the PDF version from the project wiki (http://wowinschool.pbworks.com). It’s free! While you’re on the wiki, be sure to check out lesson ideas from other areas such as math and social studies tied directly to World of Warcraft.

You aren’t going into this alone. Watch any group of kids playing games. They don’t play alone. Gaming is best when it’s social, and some would argue the same is true of learning. If you do launch your own World of Warcraft program, we’d love to have you come and play with us. This can only broaden opportunities for our learners and offer them a connection to a global community.

Lucas Gillispie is instructional technology coordinator, Pender County Schools, Burgaw, NC.