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Spontaneous Communities of Learning: A Social Analysis of Learning Ecosystems in Massively Multiplayer Online Gaming (MMOG) Environments

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This research project is comprised of a cross-cultural ethnography and social network analysis that seeks to illuminate the spontaneous communities of learning/practice that emerge around the relatively recent phenomenon of massively multiplayer online games. While these games can be played individually to greater or lesser degrees depending on the game, the game play mechanics are generally such that true mastery of the game can often only be achieved by working collaboratively with other players. As a result, groups of players emerge in an entirely decentralised and self-organised way, engaging in groups pursuits and assisting each other to learn how the game world functions. This group emergence follows the classic rules of emergence in biological systems. The way in which players learn mastery of the games runs contrary to many of the assumptions we make about instruction. Players seldom read manuals or learn how to play in formal training sessions. Instead, video games are often designed as ‘learning machines’ (Gee, 2003) that rely on intuitive, convention-based game design to scaffold a player’s learning of the mechanics of game play and the game environment as player ‘curiosity takes the form of explorative coping’ (Grodal, 2003). But as "the first interactive mass medium to unite entertainment and communication in one phenomenon" (Filiciak, 2003), the dynamic and collaboration-based MMOG environments also foster a rich culture of learning support. Not only is interdependence designed into the games, but the flexible parameters specified by game designers involve creating an interactive world where environments are in constant flux: rules change, documentation is scarce, and the mastery of the game relies on a host of skills well-beyond the game’s manual. Indeed, these games and the strategies for playing them, are exercises in co-creation where players, as co-producers, (Papert, 1993) can influence the rules, affect the outcome, and create a rich universe of social interactions and culture that ultimately become the core of game play, rather than the periphery (Downes, 2004). In particular, this project looks at how these groups form a complex learning ecosystem, as players engage in symbiotic learning relationships, assisting each other towards greater mastery of the game. Individuals also interact with one another outside the game, using the game as the cornerstone of a rich web of ‘meta-game’ social and learning interactions, extending the web of community into different virtual spaces and even real life, then back again. There are obvious analogues between this phenomenon and social learning patterns in other physical and virtual spaces. Social groupings that support a community’s learning and evolution have been described as ‘communities of practice’ (Lave & Wenger, 1991) in a professional context and ‘communities of learning’ in the educational context. Massively multiplayer online games present a tremendous opportunity to explore a nascent area of media convergence, while understanding how the naturally occurring phenomenon of self-motivated social learning and collaborative problem-solving can be leveraged into other contexts. "As Lave and Wenger (1991) argue, understanding the shape of learning in naturally occurring contexts, and not just formal ones (e.g. classrooms) is crucial if we are to forward educational theory and practice beyond the contexts we ourselves contrive .. We ought to investigate more naturally occurring, self-sustaining indigenous virtual cultures so that out theory might be a more accurate reflection of them and our practice a better reflection on them in days to come." (Steinkuehler, 2004) [open or closed session is fine]
Contact: Lisa Galarneau, The University of Waikato, New Zealand,
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