Imagining Future Worlds

Are MMO platforms only suited for games? As these virtual worlds become more complex, more realistic, and more pervasive, what might they become? This article explores non-game uses of MMO environments that are plausible and make sense.


MMORPGs are designed with game mechanics that purposely encourage time investment as well as some level of emotional and social investment. Some MMORPG players are comfortable claiming that MMORPGs are inherently addictive. Currently, the reward cycles in the games shape the players to pursue arbitrary goals of camping and killing mobs, but what if we created goals with educational value? Can we not harness the game mechanics of MMORPGs to create pedagogical tools?

When I was attending Haverford College, a Quaker School (middle school) in the neighborhood used what is called a "Story Path Curriculum". The curriculum of a typical semester is embedded in an ongoing story-line set in a historically interesting period. For example, the students in the class are each assigned a character-role in a hypothetical late 19th-century iron-forging village in England. From baker to tax collector, from blacksmith to local pastor, they have a good variety of roles covered. For English class, they may be asked to write a creative piece of "a day in the life of Ö". For History class, they may be asked to research the common social or seasonal problems an iron-forging village faced. For Math class, they may be asked to determine the optimal proportion of crops to plant or to calculate the most profitable trade routes. For Art class, they may be asked to create a small-scale model of the village. For Social Studies, the students may have to decide how to deal with a local epidemic of scarlet fever.

Thus, instead of having disparate subjects that students may not find relevant in their lives, the point of a Story Path Curriculum is to create a fun and interesting hook to draw the students in and then embedding the traditional subjects in a relevant and memorable way. And of course, the Story Path Curriculum makes sense in a grander scale in an MMO environment where students from different schools and states or countries have their own village in a larger virtual country Ė each having influence on their microcosm while being part of an interconnected macrocosm. Elements of discovery and collaboration can be built into the environment to encourage different forms of collaboration. For example, perhaps a new technology or crop variety can be found but requires multiple villages to pool their resources together. Students from different schools may have to coordinate and share their research in order to achieve these goals.

Learning should be fun and engaging, and an MMO paradigm can make sense. It provides an environment where different teachers can follow their own schedules and pedagogical goals. It also puts a twist on addiction. What do we say when our kids are addicted to learning?


Personality Assessment

The most currently-used personality assessment tools of our age are questionnaire-based inventory statements usually with 5 or 7 answer options. The statements are typically of the similar to the following:

- "I usually doubt othersí intentions."
- "I make plans and stick to them."
- "I believe in the importance of art."

There are many problems that these kinds of assessments have to deal with. First of all, the point and social acceptability of the statements are usually very obvious, and itís easy for individuals to "cheat" on these assessments, especially when they are given in a job screening assessment where questions like the following are typically used:

- "I donít mind telling a lie if I know I can get away with it."
- "I take orders and follow them."

The other problem is that different people view the 5 or 7 point scale differently. The scales are usually labeled with "Strongly Agree" or "Strongly Disagree" as the extremes. Some people will never use the most extreme choices, while others use them liberally. In a large aggregated data set (on the order of 100 samples or more), these differences do not affect the outcome analyses much, but when comparing individual to individual, itís impossible to tell how much the response bias factored into the results. Itís also not possible to just mathematically scale the responses because some people do indeed feel more ambivalent about the statements.

In an MMO space, we can think about personality assessment in an entirely different way. We project our own personalities into anything we are emotionally and personally invested in. The reason we know that players project and express their personalities in the game is because we know how much most players care about their avatars, and the successes and failures they encounter in the game. And when we are personally invested in an activity, every decision we make in that space becomes personally revealing.

The MMO world also provides us with a way to directly access and store any relevant personality information. We are no longer in the realm of needing to ask people to rank how they feel about something. We can just measure it unobtrusively. And because we are the ones doing the measuring, we donít have the response bias to worry about. Consider the following kinds of data we could collect from current MMORPG players:

- Assertiveness: How often a player hedges what they say in group/public/private chat. A hedge is a use of a phrase that softens the objectiveness of the sentence, such as "I think", "What if", "IMHO", "Perhaps if we tried" Ö
- Gregariousness: We can measure the sum of all the players that have been in the same group as the player and then divide this by total hours played.
- Leadership: The weighted sum of all the times the player has been a group leader, a chat group leader, a guild leader etc.
- Close Bonds: The number of all private tells sent and received divided by total hours played.
- Extraversion/Adventurousness: A measure of how likely a player stays in the same zones as opposed to constantly being in different places. A measure of need for familiarity.
- Social Network: Calculating how many other peopleís buddy lists this player is on. Mapping whether this player is a hub or outlier. Could also do this the long way with private tells sent and received.
-There are also things we could measure that are not immediately clear what they imply, such as the proportion of gender-bended characters, whether the player typically creates "tall" or "small" avatars in games that allow more detailed customization, as well as race selection.

Of course one assumption we are making is that people behave and act as they really do behave and not some extended masquerade. But the thing is that we all wear masks in real life so we can fit in to our social context. In a sense, even though people may act differently in the virtual world than the real world, we have good reason to believe that how they act in the anonymous and safe space of virtual worlds is truer to who they are. In fact, people are more likely to masquerade in the real world where they are constantly judged by their family and peers.


Leadership Training

Anyone who has tried to lead a mid-level group in any MMORPG knows that this is not a trivial task. There are many problems that the group leader has to face. Among these are outlining a clear vision and goal, getting the members to commit to this goal, understanding member capabilities and delegating appropriate roles, dealing with discouraging and inappropriate behaviors, resolving tension, motivating a group with low morale, and reacting to sudden crises among others. Performing these tasks well means both an expertise in the domain knowledge of these games (what different spells do, what the strength and weakness of each class is) and in the general knowledge of leadership and small-group management. While the domain knowledge is non-transferable to the real world, it is clear that leadership skills can transfer both ways. After all, leadership is dealing with people, with all their individual idiosyncrasies, motivations and needs, in both the real and virtual world.

For a newcomer to an existing group, the rules and strategies to slowly gain the trust of the groupís members and become the tacit leader are the same for both an EQ hunting group as they are for a real world group. Experienced leaders know that the person who has the highest official title is not always the one who ends up having the most say in a decision-making process. In fact, all the lessons of Machiavelli or Sun Tzu can be applied, learned, or perfected in an MMORPG, especially when we talk about guild leaders or raid leaders.

What is clear is that it does take real leadership skill to lead any kind of group in an MMORPG because you are dealing with real people. The diversity of an MMORPG group is probably higher than that of a real world group if only because of the age range. And all the human emotions and motivations are always there: greed, pride, altruism, shame, guilt, cowardice or brashness.

Now imagine how we could harness all this for leadership training. We could imagine asking individuals to perform these kinds of tasks:

- Join an existing group of at least 4 members. After gaining their trust and loyalty, persuade the group to hunt at a different spot.
- Start a group, and then get the group to a designated location deep within a level-appropriate dungeon to get a drop from a specific mob.
- The leader of a guild that is about to fracture over a long-standing issue has just stepped down from the position. Keep this leaderless guild together while keeping attrition to a minimum.
- Create a guild of at least 50 active members with a weekly attrition of not more than 5%.

These tasks would clearly need to be embedded into a reading or lecture course on leadership techniques and strategies to be effective. But the MMORPG tasks allow individuals to apply, learn and reinforce a variety of leadership skills. Leadership is one of those skills that is more about experience than about theory, and the MMORPG space is well-suited to this kind of training.