Education MMOs: UR Doin It Wrong

Many game people like the idea of educational MMOs (or at least acknowledging the real learning opportunities present in entertainment MMOs), and educators like the idea of gamified curriculum to engage what they perceive as a gamer generation of kids, so there has been momentum for educational MMOs for many years now.

There are two general approaches that I have noticed again and again in discussions of education MMOs (and there are still far more discussions than produced, playable education MMOs):

  • Take educational curriculum and put it into the visual and experiential language of MMO video games (often with a comic book or cartoon derived art style)
  • Take existing MMOs and create educational curriculum to facilitate the use of these existing MMOs in classroom activities

I think that both approaches completely miss the beneficial points of applying MMO game thinking to real-world education. This article will elaborate a bit on areas that I think should get less emphasis in educational MMO designs (relative to the emphasis they currently enjoy), and some neglected aspects of MMOs that I believe are far more important to make a successful educational MMO.

What Makes MMOs Immersive and Motivating?

Educational MMO makers tend to emphasize only the superficial qualities of commercial MMOs:

  • Fun Graphics – The thinking here is that if you make the educational material look like a cartoon, comic book, or popular video game, you will suck the player into the experience before they realize it’s nothing more than a textbook hussied up in games’ clothing. Problem here is that this is the exact same philosophy used by other “geniuses” like Chick tracts (I’m sure comics about Jesus and hellfire handed out to kids at heavy metal concerts really do wonders to convert jaded youth to a new religion). Chick tracts do get read… but they often also get made fun of and dismissed completely. They don’t have the desired effect of communicating the message of Christ most of the time, and a game MMO that only tries to wrap the textbook learning in a veneer of gamification is also going to give misleading results as well: people will play it, and maybe even enjoy it, but they might not learn any better than if they’d just been given a more cost-effective textbook or video format. Attention grabbing aesthetics are only a small part of what makes MMOs popular (and sometimes visuals aren’t even important… just look at the success of Kingdom of Loathing, a great game, and Runescape, a…nother game). Also, too much focus on style over substance and solid teaching runs the risk of the medium distorting or dilluting the message, as seemed to happen with Evoke.
  • Any Kind of Interactivity – Too often this means you can move around, click things, and otherwise manipulate a graphical user interface. A textbook where you click from page to page is still just a textbook with hyperlinks. Sometimes there are story elements or mini-game challenges that must be fulfilled to get to the next node in the linear learning path, but that type of play is still a world away from the experience of a successful MMO like World of Warcraft or Happy Farms. Real decision-making, self-directed exploration, achievements and goals chosen to impress the player’s actual friends, and mastery experimentation (trying to figure out optimal ways of doing things better, faster, etc.) are seldom emphasized even though these are the real-world fuels that fire MMO player activity… not the mere fact that you can click and move around preset points of interest in a virtual world. There is NO additional benefit to standing in an overpriced 3D virtual world and clicking on a premade dialog so that you can watch a native woman grinding corn in a 3 second animation loop, compared to spending 3 seconds looking passively at a photograph of a woman grinding corn in a textbook, okay? If I see one more really crappy edu MMO design for “bringing history to life by immersing players in a 3D recreation of <historical period>” I will shit a laser chicken.
  • Classroom Integration – Keep the game digestible inside the limited class time available, and help teachers integrate the new world of MMO learning into their extremely old-fashioned classroom-based teaching methods. The bell rings at the end of the day, kids go home, and any potential passion for a classroom MMO is squelched by the reality that you can’t keep progressing on your own and lack any real autonomy or self-direction in the game. The game is the more the school’s and the teacher’s than the student’s in most cases. College courses utilizing very diverse open-ended platforms like Second Life have been a strong exception to this particular problem (I’ve seen wonderful presentations by students and faculty who all learned so much together in relatively open-ended SL-based class activities). But seriously, if your game isn’t online and available to students from home, and if said students never voluntarily login outside of class hours… then you’re probably kidding yourself that the game is intrinsically engaging.

What I think is really important about MMOs for education, and what I would focus on if I were designing an educational MMO experience of any kind:

  • Empowerment – Players in MMOs should feel like they are charting their own destiny. Successful MMORPGs let you choose to play (that right there is a big deal… work is something you are obligated to complete, play is purely optional). Then they let you choose your class, your skills, your talents, your quests, your play style, and your goals. Even simpler MMOs like farm games let people decide what to plant, who to steal from, which friends to help or hinder, and more.

Beyond the intrinsic gameplay rules, there is nobody telling you what to do; contrast that with a classroom-centric MMO design with a teacher telling the student to get back on task and finish the next class objective when they decide to try a different task, experiment with the game systems just to see what happens, or to chat with friends whilst jumping in circles for 10 minutes until their natural motivation sends them onto the next game challenge.

In many educational MMOs there is a ridiculous amount of linear design and everyone is on rails so that a whole group can progress in a generic, standardized way that mirrors the generic, standardized educational systems in most mainstream schools. These teacher-centric patterns of engagement defeat some of the most important elements of MMO design that give players an exciting sense of autonomy and personal power.

  • Timeliness – MMOs are there for players when players are in the mood to play. The superiority of any educational resource that can be accessed when and if a person is in a state conducive to learn cannot be stressed enough. This is why I generally think educational MMOs are going to really take off targeting adult sectors, like knowledge workers. Kids’ limited school time is simply too valuable to risk on untested new learning techniques (and teachers are already stressed with the limitations and challenges of mainstream classroom teaching so there is little incentive to try something new and risk lower performance on standardized tests, etc.). However, adults can decide for themselves how to spend their educational time, without government mandated “standards” and other legal obligations obscuring what is best for each individual learner.

Also, adults are now facing continuing educational demands that no other generation has faced (it used to be that you just learned on the job through something like an apprenticeship or family business, then higher learning cropped up and we got the college system of today with undergraduate and graduate degrees… but those things are now becoming obsolete as the pace of change necessitates continual adult learning, not just 4, 6, or 8 years of post-secondary education). In the future, I see a world where adults don’t just pursue a degree program then call it quits—they subscribe to online colleges for most of their working lives (but with options to meet in shared, multi-college, classroom and lab space in the physical world). Online study becomes a continuous, self-directed process, not unlike the ongoing challenges of a typical MMORPG, except the character is you and the challenge is to develop your real-world knowledge and career (this is the type of educational MMO I’m pitching right now… will let you know if anyone bites).

  • Incentives – Whether they are based on social status or extrinsic rewards like cool mounts and new gear, MMOs are fantastic at creating compelling reward systems that make players genuinely want to achieve the goals modeled by the game system.

For example, I’m attending online business school right now, and I’m training pretty heavily to improve my arena rank on my main WOW character. For college, I’m doing the readings and whatever assignments and discussion is required to get my full points, but nothing more than that. For WOW, I’m doing the minimum in-game PVP to actually try to increase my skills, AND I’m searching for new information online, reading supplemental resources, watching player videos, and practicing in battlegrounds that don’t contribute directly to my arena ranking. It’s certainly not because I care more about WOW than I care about my business education, but the incentives in the WOW activities are a hell of a lot more gratifying today (and we all have a tendency to prefer action that rewards us now versus action that rewards us far in the future). If I were learning about a real-world, work-applicable skill with the more effective WOW-style reward system, I could see myself spending the same amount of voluntary time and enthusiasm on what would otherwise be a boring grind (like studying for any CompTIA certification, no offense to their curriculum developers).

However, part of why MMO incentives work so well in MMORPG games is that the player has a ton of autonomy to decide which incentives appeal to them. Once you put the player on the rails and tell them what their goals are, you significantly reduce the emotional pull of the incentives (and you reduce the likelihood that the incentives play into the social status that matters to an individual and their peers). Imagine if all of the raiders in WOW were told they needed a minimum PVP arena score to pass the “PVP module” of their WOW experience, and that’s pretty much the magic-busting effect that I think most education MMOs have when they tell a group of players that they all have identical, rather than parallel or complimentary optional goals in an educational game. As an added bonus, if you have different groups of players working on different self-selected goals in the game, then you have opportunities to design challenges for “cross-functional” teams that draw on unique strengths and abilities between players (that the players hopefully were able to tailor to their own preferences and self-concepts). To really work the MMO magic, I think that strategic incentives can be dictated by teachers/curriculum, but that tactical incentives need to be chosen by players.

  • Deep Personalization – Speaking of player preferences and self-concepts, deep emotionally significant personalization is a pretty big part of why any MMO is fun or not. Can the player be the best version of themselves in the game or are they being forced to pick from personas, avatars, and self-concepts that do not resonate at all. Personalization needs to go a lot deeper than letting someone pick the gender, hair, and shirt color of their avatar. It’s about giving players a perspective or viewpoint in the game world that resonates with their own real life perspective or viewpoint. Moreover, it’s about creating opportunities for the player to project themselves onto the game experience in ways that are not actually supported by the raw game mechanics or interface. Who my Lord of the Rings character is to me is much more than what any Turbine developer can see, even if they watch me in-game for hours and look over every aspect of my player info in their logs and databases. That game is one I play mostly with the love of my life, and there are all kinds of sweet little bits of our real romance tied up in that toon and the experiences I’ve had there.

A good educational game will allow time and space for players to really invest emotionally, to play around with their friends, to flirt with that cute kid in class, and to really project a part of themselves into that virtual place. If an educational MMO fails to engender genuinely human emotional experiences in the game, then it’s not really tapping the kind of experiences that make real social MMOs tick so much as it’s taking single-player games and adding people-puppeteered NPCs to them.

What do you think? Are education MMOs effectively targeting the aspects of MMO design that really get players engaged and motivated, or are they focusing too much on making the sale and pleasing whoever is paying for the game development? Educate me. Please also share the links for any good online adult/professional education MMOs if you know of some… I have been having a hell of a time finding any good ones (and Project Evoke is over, but I’m looking for more info about their challenges and successes too).

7 thoughts on “Education MMOs: UR Doin It Wrong

  1. i appreciate your insight, and i agree completely… in fact i had a very similar idea and found your blog entry when i searched online. i would like to be involved in making this a reality…please view my google doc … it’s an informal proposal soliciting support and expertise….

    1. Hi Randall, I appreciate your comment and I checked out your Google Doc. Here is some straight-forward feedback that I hope you find useful:

      1. Start a free blog here on and pick a descriptive name like You can link to the collaborative Google Doc from there but it will give you a better forum to communicate your idea.

      2. Be careful pitching your idea as a game proposal, game design, or any such thing to developers (most will not review anyone’s idea just as most Hollywood people won’t read anyone’s unsolicited script). All of us have too many ideas of our own and the fact that you’re shopping for support/info rather than posting paid job offers clues us in that your project is not funded or (probably) seriously viable. I read your pitch though, and I see what you are doing is soliciting thought leaders for research/collaboration, not trying to get people to work free on your dream game. Still, market it more obviously as a PhD level research project to get much more buy-in and response.

      3. Research = good! Most game innovators are college-educated and pay attention to current research (and many have been employed in academics or have a great interest in education, aka “serious”, games). But likewise, most game innovators are very busy and have many cool projects to consider because their skills are in high demand. That’s why I recommend that you build your research project around this issue and give something to get something: help game thinkers learn more about the state of education (or whatever you’d like to focus on) and give them material they can use so they see you as a collaborator, not a panhandler for their expertise. Students of game design right now are interested in quality peer-reviewed research about game-related topics in education, and you may be able to attract many allies in that arena.

      4. Court people who are opportunity-oriented and consider structuring your project as an opensource community endeavor. Make the design, documentation, and technology choices so that any educator, student, or game developer can participate a little or a lot (Joomla! CMS community is a good example of a functional opensource project community to emulate, but there are many, many others). If you try to do this closed-walled or are secretly hoping for funding/money to make it happen, you’ll probably face lots of false-starts and ultimate disappointment. If you find a creative way to initiate this yourself, go for it using the boot-strapping tools that any other startup might use (in or out of education).

      Some specific suggestions:

      1. Consider demonstrating success by designing small summer school programs targeting specific populations with well-defined needs. Create an online game-structured curriculum experience for kids to use during summer break and then measure your success. Just this would still be a HUGE undertaking, recruiting qualified educators to help facilitate may prove impossible since their summer breaks mean so much to them too… but your fastest way to get acceptance is to show encouraging results.

      2. Consider free technologies like the Multiverse platform (you don’t pay them unless you make money on the project). They are working on Flash integration too so the 3D MMO client would run on a desktop (Windows only) but the Flash client would run anything that can play Flash movies. Unity 3D also has some good options, but I am not familiar with their pricing for educators/non-profit projects.

      3. Consider enlisting high school and college students to help with asset building (code, art, sound effects, etc.). Or you could also try to design only using basic web technologies (even the afore-mentioned Joomla CMS could be extended easily to create a simple 2D persistent world application). I don’t suggest a paper-pen based design with no online component because I believe learners need that ubiquitous access to their school environment that online tools can provide (this lets kids study/engage even when they are not in the narrowly defined classroom hours, which will be a big boon to kids who need more time to digest things than fast learners). There are a lot of game industry hopefuls who just want to do some published work and get a credit on a finished game. They will work for next to nothing (seriously, $5 per 3D model, $50 per design doc, this is all fine as long as you pay something so that your project can “own” the assets and use them legally).

      Lastly, if you get serious on this, be sure to figure out a good legal structure if you are considering building this kind of project/program. If you are just doing the research and planning to create papers, publish a book, that sort of thing… then all the logistics here don’t apply, but they’re good to look into since whoever does build out a gamified curriculum will need to solve those problems.

      Also, I would focus on talking to people running charter schools, alternative schools, and online schools. I don’t think today’s mainstream school systems have the capacity to really do something great with gamification (or should I say with current psychology and what we know now works and does not work in education).

      Hope this helped, good luck on your project!

    2. Hi Randall… My name is John Wilson and I live in San Antonio, Texas. I also recently found Kelly’s blog and was taken by her swift response to you and the depth of her reply and perception in this field. I also, have been working on a fairly large project for the last 4 years …..with a short vacation taking care of a cancer issue which is now cleared up thankfully….During the last couple of days I have been reading every thing that I can find that Kelly has written and have grown more impressed on each reading. Now, to my point of messaging you. You sent Kelly a link (?) to your “Google doc. I attempted to locate it to no avail. Her reply sparked my curiosity as well as helped me make some strategic decisions in the case of my own plans. I will be contacting Kelly soon to discuss the possibility of a business relationship between she, or her company, and my project and would like to see your document that started all of this. Ha! I hope b now that you have been able to take some of her advice successfully and have made the progress that you had hoped for….With no promises at this point if your project is what it sounds like, reading between the lines, there could be additional support form my end. I will be happy to send you a confidential briefing paper on our project as I understand your plans and interests. My email is and cell is 210-316-8655. I look forward to hearing from you.

  2. Kelly,
    thanks for taking these ideas seriously…you are as responsible for the upcoming changes as i will be (after all, you did say it first!)

    anyway, i am still digesting your advice…

    i will definitely open up a blog and/or collaborative document (probably both) to obtain widespread viewpoints and input.

    i will likely approach several non-mainstream ed systems with the ideas.

    SCVNGR’s Kellian Adams (Ed Tech) has connected me with someone from the Mobile Learning Institute which is involved in teaching game-building to students.

    i have sent an unsolicited proposal for a paper to the Foundation for Curriculum Theory outlining the new curriculum paradigm. (link attached)

    may i name you as a collaborator on that paper? (again, your “insight from outside” education has been invaluable)

    thanks again,

  3. Hi Randall,

    You may want to reach out to some of the many education programs already using games in the class room. You may be interested in the IGDA’s groups for Positive Impact games ( and game education ( though the latter is more about training people to be game developers now days (there used to be an IGDA serious games group that was more focused on education applications of games in non-entertainment/non-developer domains).

    Feel free to cite anything on my blog as a source in your research, though I am not a best-fit collaborator for your project. I primarily work on marketing games. 😉

    Good luck on your project, and check out some serious game books for more history and case studies from the game-based education space. There are many good books about education games, including Serious Games by Sande Chen.

  4. Very thought provoking article.

    A few more or less related comments:

    I worked for a while with a group that used Team Fortress (then made their own game, GODD) as a platform for human development and spiritual training.

    Your article also made me think about Buckminster Fuller’s World Game, in which people practice running parts of the world. I think over the years it’s been developed in various versions. But I’m not sure it’s ever been all it could be.

    Years ago, some friends and I talked about making “the karma game.” Ultimately, like the world game, it could be pretty reflective of the real world, since one version of The World Game and the Karma Game is always already happening, in “reality.”

    Those friends went on to make a project that involves both a MMO and ARG…which they are still developing.

    My own work on Selfport includes the idea that we can generate an “education based economy.” Like your comment that people will be life long learners, on the Selfport platform (already developed…not really launched yet) people can learn and teach as a micro business.

    The idea is that with a rapid turn around from student to teacher, and back to student, charging micro fees for classes, actual money that people can use to eat and pay rent, becomes the incentive system. A unique algorithm scores people at how they do, and helps qualify them.

    Reading your article has made me consider if there might be ways to embed our completely open system in a more VR like context.

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