Enrichment Games and Instructional Design

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4. Learning with "Player Interaction" Game Systems

By Robert Nagle, June 2001
Summary: Part 4 of this essay looks at the educational uses of "player-interaction game systems."

The third type of gaming environment is the player-interaction system. This term is rather broad and could really encompass any sort of role-playing activity, but here I use it to refer to a computer based game that allows interaction by several players in one common environment. The crucial distinguishing feature is that the game can only be played synchronously. The virtual presence of people is necessary for the game to succeed, and indeed, a player tries hard to create a unique persona or avatar to distinguish him- or herself. These games feed on competition, collaboration and interactions between live people. In fact, the player can communicate with other players and coordinate strategy.

The perfect example of this game is the anarchy game "Everquest." What is an anarchy game? It is a game where anything goes, where monsters and evil people go marauding, and the sole goal seems to be survival. The unique element to Everquest is that players could continue the game online and share a view with other online players. In fact, the online world of the game literally consisted of an unlimited number of players (at the time of this writing, 96,000 people are playing online at the same time).

Anarchy games have no rules. Without a code of conduct, players can do anything and even do. There are backstabbing, treachery, stealing and all sorts of destruction. But with Everquest, vigilante groups have formed to fight back against marauders and to avenge deaths. In other words, an anarchy game with player interaction possibilities allows players to set up civil society and even to decide rules for governing them. In its most primitive form, the slash-and-kill games are about surviving and seem to depend more on finger dexterity than any complex negotiating skills. But as the game allows players to play with one another in addition to against one another, this creates the potential for an online exploration of the nature of the nature of civil society and the basis for its laws. As a Time magazine article put it:

Instead, Everquest thrives on the relationships that develop among players, who talk via chat windows in one of the languages spoken by the game's 12 races (elf, gnome, human, etc.). Players attend concerts, auctions and weddings; bicker over everything from wolf meat to scimitars; and pool talents and resources to quest for distant treasures. "Stuff like that," says McQuaid, "is more binding than shooting your friend with a rocket launcher."

When players are involved, there is more potential for novel situations not anticipated by the game. When interacting in real time, players form strategies and predictions about behavior. They also interact on a personal level, telling jokes, making suggestions and even arguing. It even becomes possible for more experienced players to help less experienced players.

The other problem with all player-interaction games is that the knowledge gained by previous fans is not located within the game itself (although it may be accessible through fan sites). Although Everquest has done more than anything else to open up new player interactions, the player still doesn't create things except using the gaming interface. A player can play; he or she can't create new modules for other people to play. And of course, the commercialism inherent in the game's culture limit the amount of open contributions from the player community at large.

NEXT: 5. Games and Specific Learning Behaviors

Robert Nagle is an technical writer,trainer and linux nut living in Houston, Texas. He has a background in game design and instructional design. He runs imaginaryplanet.net and idiotprogrammer.com Contact me!.

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