Some Academic Online Worlds

Edward Castronova and his team, of the Synthetic Worlds Initiative at Indiana UniversityIndiana University, have released their MMO game, ‘Arden: The World of William Shakespeare’. The game is freely available, and may be modified. Well worth a look! But is it a successful world for teaching Shakespeare? Castronova writes:

“In short, lots of Shakespeare. It’s also rather boring, as I’ve said before. We failed to design a gripping game experience. As several of our playtesters said, Where are the monsters? — a good question to ask of any serious-games initiative. We do have monsters, Shakespearean ones even, but they are out in the woods somewhere, not part of the main game experience.
No monsters is a big problem for our larger goal, which is to use virtual worlds to run experiments. No monsters means no fun, no fun means no people, and no people means no experiment. Back to the drawing board. We are taking our experience with Arden I and putting it into “Arden II: London’s Burning,” conceived entirely as a game. In Arden II, we are not trying to put Shakespeare in front of anyone, nor are we seeking historical or textual accuracy in any way. We are making a game; monsters everywhere. The Bard is there too, but this time, he is not getting in the way of the monsters. We expect a decent population in Arden II, and when we get it, we will run experiments. Results will be presented at the International Communications Association meetings in May 2008.

I am releasing Arden I to the public now for two reasons. First, there continues to be tremendous interest in the basic idea of building a virtual world at a university for the purpose of research and education. Arden I splashes lovingly cold water on the face of anyone who dreams about that. The research and education part is easy, as you can see here. You can also see that fun is not so easy. The second reason to release is to encourage other people to build on what we started. If you want to take a traditionally-conceived Shakespeare world and make it fun, please do. I think it would be cool to see where others would go with it. <Full Post @ Terranova>

So he seems rather despondent about the project, but he shouldn’t be. After all, as someone else commented on the original blog post, game designers have had many years to get the knack of building these things; why should academics be expected to build World-of-Warcraft on their first outing? I expect that once people start playing with the game, and begin to modify it, interesting & amazing things will emerge. After all, as I’ve argued before, the meta-game is at least as important as the game itself.

An alternative approach to building an entire world for educational purposes is presented by The New Nexus Project. They build ‘modules’ for Neverwinter Nights 2 that are explicitly designed to teach particular goals. Their first ‘proof of concept’ features a module to teach bronze smithing for a high school chemistry class! Note to Intro to Archaeology teachers: buy the game, download the module, and get your students playing this module! Some actual student feedback:

Typical student feedback after a week of work with this module:

    I’m in Mr. Spence’s chemistry class, and I really enjoyed spending a few days playing this game. First of all, it allowed for a change from the usual schedule and let us learn some chemistry (and history too) in a way that’s much different from the listen-and-take-notes norm. Since all of our classes have us repeatedly scribbling notes day in and day out, it’s really nice to have such a significant change in teaching method for a few days.As for the game itself, I think it is well thought out and well built, and it definitely does have margin for learning about chemistry, what’s involved in the smelting of ores, and crafting of weapons using these metals. Sure, we could have learned the same basic things in the classroom, but the game kept us interested and helped to put ratios and development into perspective. I also liked how there was a specific goal to the game – to craft a bronze sword – because it made me feel like I was actually playing to accomplish something rather than simply throwing some virtual rocks and experimental amounts of charcoal into a forge just to complete a worksheet.It think it would be interesting if some “mini quests” were added – some other goals other than just creating the sword. These quests should probably be linked to chemistry in some way since that is the purpose of the game. Mini-quests would make it feel less linear and keep it interesting. Also, just for efficiency’s sake, it would be nice if some of the items weren’t so heavy so there isn’t so much unecessary teleporting to the place where you’ve dropped all the rocks (or even just to shut the voice up!)I think my entire class has learned a lot about chemistry from this game and I would definitely support doing something like this again.

    -Lauren R., 10th grade”


The Nexus Project’s ultimate aim is to create a tool kit that will enable the easy creation of multiple teaching modules. They summarized the project for the TerraNova Blog:

“The goal of the New Nexus is to see the creation of a software tool set for creating 3D virtual world experiences for learning. This “Dream Kit” should be:

1) free to the public to use or modify

2) easy to use (well, as easy as possible)

3) powerful, flexible and adaptable

4) suited to multiple operating systems (or in different OS flavors)

If and when the Dream Kit is created, educators around the world will be able to use it to create Learning Modules. (My conservative ballpark guess is that a reasonable tool would only be useable by 1%-2% of primary and secondary teachers; at its most user-friendly, it’d still require some tech savvy.) Each new module can be shared on the web and available for free download so that the storehouse of available, ever-improving materials will always be growing. (Alternately, it may be wise to allow some users/organizations to create works for commercial sales, since the incentive to recover costs would allow for more time and energy to be put into a module.)”

I look forward to seeing what happens with this project.