The use of computer games and especially online games for educational purposes is growing in popularity. In this chapter we attempt to summarize findings from the area of social psychology as a basis to form propositions, guidelines, and research questions that will help develop effective multiplayer environments for learning. We are particularly interested in how to foster collaborative learning in multiplayer environments by exploiting the naturally occurring structures and features of popular massively multiplayer games. Where possible, we offer examples of how these features can be used to support learning and highlight areas in need of future research.
It is often the case that people will attempt to create new applications for technologies developed for other purposes. This is especially true in education, where instructional designers have developed educational materials based on everything from board games (Ogershok & Cotrell, 2004) to movies (Schank, 1994) to podcasts (Maag, 2006). It is not surprising, then, that a current trend is to try and leverage the recent, explosive popularity of computer games for educational purposes (Prensky, 2003; Squire, 2003).
It is further not surprising that many instructional designers are also leveraging computer networks, the Internet, and tools resident on the World Wide Web such as search engines and wikis in the service of learning. These technologies have created new opportunities to incorporate collaboration and communication into group learning environments. In fact, a number of investigators have developed platforms to exploit this kind of online learning opportunity. For the most part, these applications have been text based (Hrastinsky & Keller, 2007). However, graphical, game-based platforms are starting to be used more frequently (Vogel et al., 2006).
Unfortunately, many of these systems have been less than fully effective. Indeed, although it is tempting to assume that connecting people with computer networks will facilitate collaborative learning, the data is clear that obtaining the benefits of these technologies requires far more planning and thought than merely enabling the behaviors. For example, it has been demonstrated that poorly designed online learning environments can lead to feelings of isolation, which in turn lead to poor motivation to continue (Curry, 2000; Cereijo, Young, & Wilhelm, 2001; McInnerney & Roberts, 2004). Others have expressed concerns that exclusively text-based systems may thwart observational learning, an important aspect of complex learning (Tu, 2000a).
It has also been noted that aspects of some online group learning systems may actually hamper interactions, defeating a key factor associated with the potential success of these systems (Fung, 2004; Tu, 2000b; Tu & McIsaac, 2002). Consequently, there has been a great deal of effort targeted towards designing more effective group learning systems. However, it is clear that effective systems require not just better programming, but a more sophisticated understanding of the complex social phenomena that are associated with collaborative learning, and how technology interacts with these behavioral phenomena (Reeves, Herrington, & Oliver, 2004).