Learning in Massively Multiplayer Online Games – Constance Steinkuehler

Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) have exploded in the last few years, with games such as World of Warcraft (9 million monthly subscribers) and Second Life regularly appearing in pop-culture.

World of Warcraft screenshot
These are games (or virtual worlds if you prefer) where any number of people can explore and interact in (and with) a virtual environment online, breaking down previous barriers of time and space as well as what is possible in the real world. The possibilities for teaching and learning are still being explored but appear to be constrained only by the imagination of the teacher.

Constance Steinkuehler spent nearly two years undertaking what might be considered an ethnographic study of the people who play these MMOGs – in this case one called Lineage. (Interestingly, Lineage 2 is currently the most populated MMOG in the world with over 14 million subscribers).

Her research into how players of these games learn and share their knowledge is a fascinating overview and offers a number of useful tips to educators thinking about making use of these spaces. Her observations (featuring many transcripts of in-game chat sessions) about the way experienced players mentor newbys are particular interesting.

This is my potted take on her report, which you can read in full here.

Steinkuehler, Constance A. (2004) “Learning in Massively Multiplayer Online Games” In Y. B. Kafai, W. A. Sandoval, N. Enyedy, A. S. Nixon, & F. Herrera (Eds.), Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference of the Learning Sciences (pp.521-528). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Central theme and scope:

This study investigates the nature of learning in Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs), networked 3D gaming environments that allow players to interact with objects and characters in the game as well as other (real) players.

Steinkuehler posits that players of MMOGs have rich learning experiences as a result of the “situated meanings people construct and the definitive role of communities in that meaning making process”.(p.4) She notes that it is the interactions of the members of the community in these types of games that promote learning far more than any embedded content might and that designers developing educational MMOGs need to give in-game social practice as much (if not more) attention as instructional content.

Intended audience:

This paper, which presents the preliminary findings of nearly two years research is targetted at educators interested in using games as well as developers of games for education.


Steinkuehler has taken an ethnographic approach to this research, immersing herself in an MMOG called Lineage for 19 months. Lineage is a game set during medieval times and is centred around guilds (a.k.a blood pledges) which vie for control of castles in a virtual kingdom.

She devised four key questions to structure her research, these being:

  • What are the social and material practices of MMOGaming?
  • What forms of participation mark community membership in such settings?
  • What means for learning are embedded not in the game as designed but rather in the community practice of those who inhabit it?
  • What import does participation in this community have for the situated (on and off screen) identities of its members? (p.2)

Her investigations involved participating overtly in the daily life of the game while taking “field” notes and screen capture video, noting conversations and asking questions. She interviewed other players informally in-game, through semi-structured topic specific phone interviews as well as in structured formats.

In addition to these primary resources, she also gathered data from community sources including player-authored user manuals, fan discussion boards, chatrooms and fan generated fiction.

Steinkuehler found that players learn primarily in collaboration with other, more experienced players. “During collaboration, the focus is on the activity, with information (e.g., manuals, guidebooks, websites) playing only a secondary and supporting role.”(p.7) Feedback comes from the game system (e.g., error-produced death) as well as other players and pushing yourself beyond the edge of your current competency is highly valued by the community.

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1 Response to Learning in Massively Multiplayer Online Games – Constance Steinkuehler

  1. Pingback: The Game Learner » Playing: Team Fortress 2 on Xbox Live

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