Monday, 15 November 2010

Learning Conversations in World of Warcraft, B. A. Nardi, S. Ly, J. Harris.

This paper describes an investigation into how players learn in WoW through conversational activity. The study focused on the analysis of chat logs but was augmented by interviews and many hours of gameplay.

The authors started their approach was guided by Vygotsky’s notion of the zone of proximal development (ZPD) – the difference between what a learner can do on his/her own and do with the help of teachers or more experienced peers – at first glance a fairly uncontentious suggestion that we can do more with help from more experienced people. And the authors found what they were looking for - there is indeed evidence that players learn from one another through emotionally tempered conversational activity:

“Learning in conversation in World of Warcraft is erratic, spontaneous, contextual, and driven by small events. It is enlivened by playful, lightweight emotions. Such learning can support simple fact finding, the development of tactics and strategy, and the working out of a moral order.” (p9)

However I had some reservations about this paper and the authors provided insufficient information on their data-gathering or analysis to allay my concerns. For instance they do not make clear if they were participants in the conversations analysed or if their analysis was checked with the participants. In any case I felt that the categorical nature of their analysis was unjustified. The reasons why we make a particular remark at a given moment in a conversation are not always clear to us, even immediately after the event - so how much more uncertain might our interpretation of conversations be weeks or months after the conversation took place? Also I was at a loss to understand how the authors could describe the discovery of “emotionally inflected discourse in learning conversations” as “surprising”. Surely the absence of emotion in conversations taking place in the heat of an online battle that would be more remarkable.

I was also troubled by some of the assertions made in the discussion of their findings. For example:

"The presence of emotion in learning conversations is important because it suggests that despite the popularity of video games amongst youth, they are not a panacea for learning [see 12] because the emotion derives in part from the care players have for the game."

This just seems muddled thinking to me. It may well be true that 'video games are not a panacea for learning' but how this is suggested by the presence of emotion in learing conversations is beyond me. The referenced paper "Changing the Game: What Happens When Video Games Enter the Classroom?" argues that many complex factors come into play when games are used as tools for learning, and refrains from drawing easy conclusions. It's not immediately obvious to me that emotion derived in part from a player's 'care for the game' is necessarily a barrier to learning but equally it seems clear that some heightened emotions relating to the game (e.g. stress, anxiety, fear of failure) may indeed be problematic - a more considered treatment of the role of emotion in learing would have been helpful here.

However, despite my reservations, I think that the issues raised in this paper are interesting and merit further investigation.


  1. Yep, I was also a bit surprised that they didn't seem to have expected to find emotion in the conversations. Sort of made me wonder what kind of 'learning conversations' they were expecting?!

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