Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Game design and learning: a conjectural analysis of how massively multiple online role-playing games (MMORPGs) foster intrinsic motivation

In this scholarly article published in 2007, the author - Michele Dickey provides an analysis of how the structure of massively multiple online role-playing games (MMORPGs) might influence the design of interactive learning and game based learning environments.

The author primarily looks at how "character design" and "narrative environment" - the two key elements of MMORPGs can support intrinsic motivation which might foster learning.

The assumption behind interactive learning environments is that, learning happens by interacting with information, tools and materials as well as by collaborating with other learners. The author states that computer / video games fundamentally have these features and MMORPGs (such as World of Warcraft, ToonTown) more so; because MMORPGs are persistent, networked, interactive narrative environments where players collaborate, strategize, plan and interact with objects, resources and other players.

Character Design:
By having the freedom to choose a character and determine its specific traits and characters, the author argues (by referencing several research studies) that it is essentially a form of role playing in a simulated environment. To quote a 1995 study on Multi-User Dungeons - predecessor to MMORPGs "virtual environments allow users to experiment in a safe, non-threatening environment and to expand, explore and reflect on different aspects of themselves".

The players also have an emotional connection to their characters as they invest significant amounts of time and make critical choices in developing their character (by the addition of skills, capabilities or adornments) which is in a sense, the player taking on a particular role.

Narrative environment:
The narrative environment in a MMORPG fosters exploration. Players continually explore various regions to find quest givers, characters, objects and tools related to completing small quests which can help them advance in the game. Players often make critical choices about the most economical way to complete a variety of small quests. The author goes on to list the various types of small quests ( such as "Collection quests", "Bounty quests") and how they aid in acquiring knowledge and learning.

To illustrate:

Research has identified and characterized four different types of knowledge:

- Declarative: Knowledge of facts, data and principles
- Procedural: Knowledge of how to perform a task / action / process
- Strategic: Awareness of applying knowledge, principles and experiences to various situations
- Metacognitive: Reflection and regulation of one's thinking during an activity

The author explains that a bounty quest for instance - which requires the player / players to defeat a character / characters are often challenging and requires players to analyze their character's strengths and weaknesses and to balance those against the environmental factors they may encounter - helps in gaining "strategic knowledge".

In a bounty quest the player continuously applies the knowledge gained from exploration / interaction or experience from past quests to succeed in this new situation thus enhancing strategic knowledge.

The author goes on to explain in detail the various types of knowledge and their equivalent quest types in her article which, can be accessed here.


This article is well researched and does make a solid case for using MMORPGs as a tool for learning. The way the author has classified the different types of quests and mapped them to knowledge domains is particularly interesting and does corroborate personal experiences with such games.

Apart from all this, MMORPGs as a tool for learning would certainly be more fun.


  1. As an avid gamer I agree with much of the articles thoughts and statements...Personally I'd like to see a study comparing different game types from table-top through MMOs,evaluating the potential learning value for each. While MMORPGs grab the hype it seems like people loose focus on any other type.

    Additionally I'd be curious to see more on limitations. From personal experience playing MMO games they often hindered by the players and other factors.

  2. Nick, I think that would be really interesting to look at the associations between learning and other forms of games. Aside from limitations, I think it would be cool to look at the ease of learning and how effective each of these games are at teaching a certain subject or set of tactics. I think you could even transition from table top games to possibly sports and see what utility they offer in terms of learning. That could be a neat follow-up study.