World of Warcraft and scientific habits of mind

by bledsoe on September 11, 2008

Clive Thompson of Wired Magazine points us to an interesting paper soon to be published in the Journal of Science & Technology. It's titled Scientific Habits of Mind in Virtual Worlds, and it presents the results of an analysis that two University of Wisconsin researchers performed on a sample of posts to a World of Warcraft discussion forum. They coded the posts based on standard benchmarks for science literacy established by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, then analyzed them.

Some of the findings were that fully 86% of the posts indicated the poster was engaging in "social knowledge construction" rather than just social banter; over half of the posts demonstrated "systems-based reasoning"; and almost two-thirds displayed "an evaluative epistemology in which knowledge is treated as an open-ended process of evaluation and argument." Or, to put it more simply, the discussion participants were doing science.

This will no doubt come as something of a shock to those of us who tend to think of online games as a harmless diversion at best, and a colossal waste of time at worst. As a father of three teen/preteen boys, I often find myself annoyed with how much time my sons would spend playing video games if only I'd allow it. While I'm not yet ready to suggest that video games are necessarily a good substitute for more traditional educational activities, this paper certainly contains some good food for thought.

Something the paper doesn't directly address is just who exactly are the people who are engaging in all this scientific thinking on the WoW discussion boards? As one would expect, Steinkuehler and Duncan, the paper's authors, selected the posts randomly from one of the class-related forums (i.e., a forum focused on a particular character class as opposed to one focused on, say bug reporting), but there's no way to know whether the people whose posts were analyzed were high school kids or NASA engineers. (The authors acknowledge this when discussing the implications of their work for science education and future research, noting "…we should ask ourselves how these practices are distributed across various groups by demographic variables known to be important, such as age, education level, and income.")

Nevertheless, the authors suggest that these types of games "might well be a worthy vehicle of learning for those who value intellectual and academic play" and that the games might also be a "viable alternative... to textbooks and science labs as educational experiences about the inquiry process." Before the naysayers among us reject this idea out of hand, we should probably keep in mind (as at least one gameplayer notes in a Techdirt discussion about the Wired article) that the authors of this paper examined a very specific type of video game, a so-called massively multiplayer online role-playing game; MMORPGs are notably different from shoot-em-ups or arcade games like Pac-Man, and may indeed require or encourage not only more problem-solving type behavior, but also more active analysis and offline collaboration among players, behaviors that are indeed scientific habits of mind.

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