About a month ago I began playing World of Warcraft (WoW) with Mike Skocko, a friend of mine (who also happens to be the guy that inspired and shepherds the Game On plugin that I use for running my course-game). We play once a week and discuss the way the game runs, aspects we notice (positively or negatively) and how those might translate into classroom practice.  Our goal is to improve our course games by observing closely how one of the most engaging games of all time works.

Mike is an old hand at WoW, having built up and topped out multiple characters, while I am a newby with just a handful of hours played, total.  Some of the things we’re noticing are already built into our course games, some we already knew about and plan to incorporate (or not), and others are new to our respective games.  It’s been a pretty fun journey and one I’m eager to continue each week.

There are several things that we’ve noticed already (we’re kind of tracking the ongoing conversation over in our Game On forum).  There are three that I think really differentiate the game environment from a typical school environment, two of which I’ve seen written about numerous places and one of which I haven’t.

Complete Freedom to Fail

The first really big mechanic I’ve noticed is that in WoW, I have complete freedom to fail. I can try as many times as I want to complete a quest or craft a product.  There are no time limitations nor attempt limitations.  I first noticed this when I foolishly took on a foe larger than I could handle.  It was actually accidental: I was trying to catch up to Mike and ran through a village of Murlocks before I noticed they were there.  They quickly surrounded me and started attacking. I saw my health meter dipping precipitously and my heartbeat rose while I started breathing faster.  Shortly, my character died.

My heart dropped.  Now, I thought, I’d have to start all over.  But instead, the world turned to shades of gray and another “quest” appeared on my dashboard.  To my surprise, and unlike other video games I’d played in the past, getting killed wasn’t the end of the game.  I had to shepherd my spirit back to the place my body lay, finding my way there from a graveyard.  I waited until there weren’t any more Murlocks by my body, then resurrected and continued playing.  Wow!  Even death isn’t the end, it’s just a chance to learn.  The whole game, at least as far as I’ve played to date (level 25) has been like that.  Endless chances to come back and learn how to do better.

Rich story/world with no driving purpose

Screen Shot 2015-05-18 at 1448.39Another really interesting thing I’ve noticed is that in WoW, there is a very rich story/world, which so far seems completely lacking in a driving storyline or purpose.  There are definitely quests I pursue, but after the initial introduction, I choose which ones and there seem to be a wide variety of opportunities.  There are also mini-stories related to every single quest shown.  I have yet to get a quest that just says “do this” without at least a minimal bit of storytelling thrown in as well.

This is in great contrast to the way I developed  my story/world for the ’14-’15 school year.  Gnimmargorp definitely had a driving story line, although there were a few side quests, deviations and amusements.  I had a vision of where I wanted students to go and steered consistently toward that spot.  Some of the quests I built had information directly leading into the story line.  Others had none, and no story.

When I started playing WoW a few weeks ago, I was pleased to notice that the game clearly had a storyline, which is introduced from the very beginning via a cinematic style fly-over of the land with a narration of your character’s race’s recent history.  But as I played, I realized that every single quest had a little storyline associated with it.  They didn’t seem to tie together in other than a really loose fashion, contributing to the overall sense of a world recovering from a major disaster.  Some of the story bits tied together into small narratives, such as one in which I accomplished several small quests gathering materials for a fellow in what looked like a run-down church at the edge of town.  Then, it turned out, he used those to raise a zombie and sent it into town on a rampage, so I had to help kill it to save the townsfolk.

That series of 5 quests, and others like it, confirmed my belief that storyline enhances the game experience.  It contrasted starkly with my prior belief that an overarching storyline is needed in order to achieve that enhancement.  There may still be an overarching storyline I simply haven’t seen enough of the game to understand.  But this experience has given me the idea and the courage to build small storylines within the overall experience of my world.  I enjoy both the connection with the world and the feeling of freedom the lack of a driving storyline allows.

Tiny chunks with lots of repetition and iteration

A sample quest. Note that you don’t go get the outfit, this is just about pulling the required money out of the bank. One small step at at time.

One thing I noticed right away and which I continue to notice is how tiny the quests are.  I’m at level 25 and I have yet to receive a quest that requires me to really puzzle through what I’m supposed to do.  The game scaffolding is so fine-grained that I’m never in the slightest doubt, yet, regarding how to accomplish the quests I’ve been given.  The steps I need to take are both tiny and clearly laid out for me.  There is a progression, but it’s a very slow ramp and I always feel I am more that capable of finishing the next quest.

As I built my quests for Gnimmargorp, I planned them based on the assignments I would have given had it been a regular class.  To begin with, this worked out fine.  Later on, the assignments became larger and more complicated, as I wanted to provide sufficient challenge as students’ skill grew.

After the initial skills were learned, I offered students the chance to choose whether they followed my game or used one of several other options to structure their path, such as codecademy or The New Boston.  When students did choose another option, I asked why.  The overwhelming answer was that my game was too difficult, with too little step-by-step instruction.  Now that I’ve played WoW, I can understand better how I might restructure my game to lead players through learning the skills they need in smaller chunks.

The flip-side of that tiny-ness is the vast number of repetitions I go through for every skill in WoW.  Literally dozens of quests to practice every single new skill that is introduced, each of which is so small that I know I can complete it.  In order to level up, I need to do many of them, so iterative practice of my skill is essential to my game progress (sound like any classroom pedagogies you’re familiar with?).  This is a model I can replicate, but it’s going to take a lot of quest writing to ensure I have enough quests to make this work.

Renovations & refurbishment

Now that I’ve sorted out these three major differences between my game world and WoW, I have a lot of work to do this summer.  I need to build a completely new set of quests which each contain a bit of story but don’t necessarily have to connect in a direct way with my overarching storyline, and which are numerous, so iterative practice of the concepts and skills in the course are built into the game.  Whew!