Information Age Education
   Issue Number 40
April, 2010   

This free Information Age Education Newsletter is written by David Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age Education project. See and the end of this newsletter.

Real World and Video Game Realities

Go ahead and accept the premise of the question, that economics is a real-world concern. That's the easy part. The hard part is realizing that the things going on inside these video games are also the real world. In terms of human interactions, these places are real. (Edward Castronova;

Computers have the potential to greatly improve our education system. So far, however, their contributions have been modest. For example, students now have much better access to library materials–especially those available on the Web. Students now make use of a word processor, which is certainly a great aid to producing a neatly “typed” document–perhaps containing graphics and graphs–and to doing editing of their writing.

Many students make use of computer-assisted learning materials, especially materials that focus on the lower order end of Bloom's taxonomy of the cognitive domain. Progress is occurring in developing highly interactive intelligent computer-assisted learning materials that target the higher end of the cognitive domain.

This issue of the IAE Newsletter focuses on ideas from Dr. Jane McGonigal about how computer games are going to help solve major problems our world faces–problems such as hunger, poverty, disease, global conflict, and sustainability. Her current professional life focuses on developing video games in which players work on understanding and helping to solve challenging, real-world problems.

Jane McGonigal

Jane McGonigal is a video game designer and researcher. She specializes in pervasive gaming and alternate reality games. In 2006, she was named one of the world's top innovators under the age of 35 by MIT's Technology Review. Before reading further, you might want to watch a 20 minute talk she gave earlier this year. See

Edward Castronova is an economist. He is an associate professor in the Department of Telecommunications and Director of Graduate Studies at Indiana University. His quote given above captures the essence of a major change going on in our world. Jane McGonigal's research and game development focus on ways to help our education system understand and benefit by the changes that Castronova foresees.

McGonigal has spent considerable time exploring the online game World of Warcraft (WoW). This is a very popular massively multiplayer online role-playing game that has well over 10 million players. In massively multiplayer role-playing games, individuals and teams of individuals undertake quite challenging tasks. In the process, their avatars gain in characteristics such as strength, wealth, and wisdom. According to McGonical's video talk, WoW players average about 22 hours a week playing the game.

A January 2010 report from the Kaiser Family Foundation indicates that 8-18 year old children in the U.S. spend an average of over 53 hours a week using entertainment media. See This includes gaming, television, music, and so on. It does not include telephone use and instant text messaging.

Ten Thousand Hours

Average children growing up today in the U.S. will have spent 10,000 hours playing online games by the time they are 21. See the video at Ten thousand hours is frequently quoted as the amount of serious time and effort it takes a person to become about as good as they can become in a particular area. If a person has appropriate athletic natural talents and perseverance, 10,000 hours of practice guided by well-qualified coaches and trainers will bring them to a world-class level in various Olympic sports. For chess players and musicians with natural gifts, the number is apt to be 15,000 hours or so to become world class. A faculty member in a high quality research university has typically put in at least 15,000 hours of concentrated study and research effort to achieve promotion to the associate professor level with tenure.

These numbers help us understand the tremendous amount of serious involvement time and effort that young people are now spending in games such as WoW. Through this extended learning effort, they become highly skilled in game playing. What drives people to become virtuoso gamers? Each of these is subject to the difficulty of garbage in, garbage out. Each presents learning and use challenges to solving information processing and retrieval tasks.

Four Key Aspects of Games Such as WoW

Jane McGonigal has identified four key ideas in successful multiplayer online games. The games provide:

  1. An Epic Mission. Within the virtual world of the game, plays go on epic “save the world” types of missions. Players face missions that are doable with their level of skill and experience–but the missions are quite challenging.
  2. Collaboration. A mission (a challenging task) is undertaken by a group of players working together. Collaborative teamwork is a critical aspect of the game. For many online gamers, gaming is an important part of their social life.
  3. Epic Story. For example, WoW is an epic and growing story. The WoW Wiki at contains over 80,000 articles that help to tell and explain the story.
  4. Epic Win. This idea is common in many computer games. Players have the opportunity for an epic victory or epic achievement. As they gain in skill and experience, they face greater challenges and the opportunity for greater epic wins. Over a period of time, a player can achieve many epic wins. Think about a player being involved in an epic win versus a student getting the top score in a math course quiz or exam. For a great many students, an epic win is a much more satisfying achievement than scoring well on an exam.

These characteristics drive the game players. Moreover, games such as WoW have been substantially improved over the years. The games get better through the work of a large team of game designers and programmers, research in various aspects of computer science such as artificial intelligence and computer graphics, and through progress in the development of more powerful computers. For many players–including many who are now well into adulthood–such games become increasingly addictive over time.

Contrast with K-12 Schooling

Some aspects of schooling are similar to the four gaming ideas listed above. For example, consider students in a musical group or athletic team. The students are growing both physically and mentally. They work together in a collaborative manner. They receive timely feedback from themselves, their peers, and their instructors. Their participation in the group is an important component of their day-to-day lives, and it can continue year after year. The same situation may well exist for students in a Journalism course/club that puts out a school newspaper, or in a Drama course/club that puts on school plays. In all of these examples there is some sort of Epic Story, event, or activity that gets talked about both at school and outside of school. Students are actively engaged in doing things that are noticed by, and may well affect, people throughout the school and the community.

Now consider students in “core” academic areas such as Language Arts, Math, Science, and Social Studies. State and national assessments, as well as international comparisons, focus on some of these areas. For many students in such courses, there is a huge difference from the types of activities mentioned in the previous paragraph. Typically, such coursework lacks most of the key ideas of the types of video games that children and adults spend so much time playing.

Of course, some students excel in these various academic courses. They compete against other students for high grades. For them, an Epic Win might be to be the top student in a course, to graduate with a very high grade point average, or to win a prestigious scholarship and admission to a top college or university. Such Epic Wins are infrequent as compared to their frequency in massively multiplayer role-playing games. In traditional school core subject learning environments, it is helpful to be able to deal with delayed gratification--indeed, with gratification that is delayed for quite a long time. See In our current society, a great many people are not good at dealing with such delayed gratification.

You have heard the expressions “different strokes for different folks” and “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.” What is currently going on in education in the United States is an increasing emphasis on “core academic” coursework. At the same time, there is very large growth in student participation in gaming and other activities outside of school hours. Student time spent on gaming and other electronic media per year is well over twice the time spent in school and doing homework. Our country is good at producing virtuoso gamers.

Educational Implications

Jane McGonigal is interested in developing educational games that have the characteristics and addictive nature of games such as WoW. The idea is simple enough. Develop virtual realities in which students are presented with increasingly challenging real-world problems. Design games that make it possible for players to do real-world implementations of the solutions they figure out in the virtual realities.

Many people are working on producing high quality educational game-like learning environments. Considerable success has been achieved in various components of areas such as business education, driver education, medical education, military education, and airplane pilot training. The games are called serious games. Quoting from

A serious game (SG) may be a simulation which has the look and feel of a game, but corresponds to non-game events or processes, including business operations and military operations. The games are intended to provide an engaging, self-reinforcing context in which to motivate and educate the players. Other purposes for such games include marketing and advertisement. The largest users of SGs are the US government and medical professionals.

A free eBook “Beyond Fun: Serious Games and Media” is available at

The types of simulations used in serious games are quite similar to the types of simulations used in representing and helping to solve real-world problems. They are a fundamental component of Computational Thinking. See

McGonigal's most recent serious game project is named EVOKE. The World Bank Institute funded the project. See

About Information Age Education, Inc.

Information Age Education is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving education for learners of all ages throughout the world. IAE is a project of the Science Factory, a 501(c)(3) science and technology museum located in Eugene, Oregon. Current IAE activities include a Wiki with address, a Website containing free books and articles at, and the free newsletter you are now reading.

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