December 15, 2010 § Leave a comment
Early this week, Blizzard Entertainment released the third expansion pack “Cataclysm” for the massively multi-player online role-playing game (mmorpg), World of Warcraft (WoW). I have not had the chance to play it for a couple of reasons, the main one being my level 68 mage gnome avatar had been “killed off” and removed from my account as I have not logged in to WoW for more than a year. It is very sad indeed and I am not sure if I have fully gotten over the disappearance of my avatar. This post, however, is not about avatar or identity nor is it a review of WoW. Instead, given the launch of the game expansion, it seems timely to do a brief review of Bonnie A. Nardi’s book “My life as a night elf priest: An anthropological account of World of Warcraft”. There are many interesting aspects in this book but this review will focus mainly on the notion of play in a game like WoW.
In this book, Nardi reports on her three-year long ethnographic study carried out in WoW, Southern California and China. Nardi begins by talking about how she first found out about the game from her students. She “didn’t expect to like the game” (p. 4) but after playing it for the first time together with her son, she “was secretly smitten with the beautiful WoW graphics and charmed to be a character called a Night Elf” (p. 5). Yet, what she found most interesting was her being there together with other players, and that they were interacting with her. Nardi gives an engaging account of a typical day of her playing WoW. She recounts how she and her guild mates work together to bring down the bosses, Lurker Below and Hydross the Unstable. In the process, they communicate using voice chat to assess their performance and plan their next moves. Her fellow guild members take these group raids seriously as shown by the pre-preparation that they do, such as finding relevant information on game forums, blogs, wikis and from You-Tube videos. Through her interaction with her guild and interviews with her informants, Nardi observes that guilds are task-oriented and most of the chat that takes place in the guild channel is about the game itself. Occasionally guild members may reveal personal details about themselves, but such information sharing takes place more often in private chat.
Nardi describes WoW as “an exemplar of a new means of forming and sustaining human relationships and collaborations through digital technology” (p. 5). However, she stresses that WoW is not just about socialising and learning how to work with and collaborate with others through the online medium. Mastery of the game is also a crucial aspect. Citing Hunter and Lastowka (2004), she notes that for games like WoW, the main goal “is to develop a character, enabling it to perform more and more difficult challenges” (p. 13). These observations led her to suggest that “while WoW was a voluntary activity, players experienced certain aspects of play as worklike” (p. 98) and that “play is, at the highest level, a freely chosen activity while at the same time opening the potential for worklike results”.
Overall, Nardi has provided us with a fascinating, in-depth account of WoW and its players, in the US and in China. She has also presented readers with a well-developed argument of the notion of play in WoW. Nardi describes play to be a fascinating activity that us humans engage in, and which is uniquely distinctive across different cultural contexts. Digital technology, Nardi argues, has the ability to further shape the notion of play. How this notion of play can add to our understanding of how people learn within and outside of online game environments is a complex issue however, one which deserves a separate discussion.
October 25, 2010 § Leave a comment
In recent years, the adoption of several hands-on interactive technologies has taken many ‘Do Not Touch’ signs out of museums. These tools have made so-called ‘boring’ and ‘unapproachable’ documents and displays more accessible and available. In some cases, however, they can overshadow the authentic objects they are designed to make appealing, leading visitors to ignore the significance of the actual artefacts and making museums somewhat like an educational theme park. On the other hand, one can also argue that this is hardly a bad idea. Museums are places many of us visited as children, and places to which we return when we have children—like Disneyland, only with shorter queues and fewer nausea-inducing rides.
The imbalance in museum budgets—particularly the large expenditures on technology—has been discussed and debated in many museum-learning studies. How does one increase young visitors’ engagement with a museum, anyway? The traditional kid’s activity handout pales beside an interactive interpretation station—after all, which would the average ten-year-old prefer, a word search about a naval battle or a computer game giving him the chance to sink his classmates’ armadas? There is no disputing the fact that we live in a digital world, but one persistent question is whether we employ technological devices to their full potential as learning tools. Several large public museums, such as the Ashmolean museum in Oxford, the Natural History Museum of London, and the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, have spent enormous sums on reconstruction and renovation, including millions budgeted for technological innovation and collaboration in an effort to ‘update’ the museums and increase visitor attraction. But how much of an impact have these changes rendered, and how much do visitors learn from these devices? Many researchers have remained sceptical that technological devices can fully enhance authentic objects—if you can be inside a real spaceship, they argue, why go to the fake one?
Of course, not every museum has a real spaceship, and even those that do may not permit visitors to play inside them. In many museums, new technologies make it possible for visitors to virtually interact with artefacts unavailable to the public. For example, many artefacts in the Churchill Museum in London are far too delicate to touch—consider the damage that could be done to Winston Churchill’s school report, letters, and childhood photograph if visitors were allowed to handle them. What the museum did was create a huge digital table consisting of document from Churchill’s life, thereby allowing visitors to safely browse through them. Thanks to technological innovation, the doors to the old ‘cabinet of curiosities’ can be opened and its contents examined, if only virtually.
At the end of the day, the question is not whether a museum should use technology or not, but rather how technology can be best employed, which depends on the collection, the exhibit, and the curator. Learning in museums should be informal and experiential. Museums are not places to test one’s memory, nor simple theme parks, but research institutes. Still, research is most effective when shared, and sharing this knowledge with visitors by using technology somehow still seems more exciting
September 13, 2010 § Leave a comment
Aleks Krotoski recently wrote an article on games, which was published in the journal, Nature. In it, she used computer-based games such as Fate of the World and World Without Oil to illustrate her point that these games could be used as platforms for learning, particularly for Science. In response to the article, Anthony D. Pellegrini cautioned that “games and play mean different things in an educational context” and that it is incorrect for Krotoski to use the two terms interchangeably. Yet when I read the article again, I struggled to find instances where Krotoski used games and play interchangeably. In the few rare occasions when she did, she was referring to the action of playing the game, rather than play itself. It didn’t help that the introductory sentence of the article, “Sophisticated multimedia experiments offer platforms for learning about science through play”, seemed to place the emphasis on play instead of games.
Whilst I agree with Pellegrini that care has to be taken when defining and using terminology, I fail to see why this should be a contentious point in the context of Krotoski’s article. The whole point of Krotoski’s article is to highlight the potential of computer-based games in learning. Even if the meaning of “play” has been synonymously associated with “games”, my opinion is that the difference in semantics is subtle, especially for non-domain experts. This is not to say that I condone a loose use of terminologies in technical writing. What I am questioning is whether one should see an article in its entirety and appreciate the ideas it is trying to convey, or zoom in to dissect the definition of a single term used in the passage. There is, after all, a danger of missing the forest for the trees.
Nevertheless, if I may play a game with words myself, I’ll say that I agree with Pellegrini that Krotoski’s article did little to support her suggestion that “computer-based play can support learning in schools“. It did, however, give the readers some idea of how “computer-based play can support learning”, though not necessarily in schools or in the formal educational context.