Martian Boneyards: Scientific Inquiry in an MMO Game

Martian Boneyards: Scientific Inquiry in an MMO Game

Jodi Asbell-Clarke (TERC, USA), Teon Edwards (TERC, USA), Elizabeth Rowe (TERC, USA), Jamie Larsen (TERC, USA), Elisabeth Sylvan (TERC, USA) and Jim Hewitt (University of Toronto, Canada)
Copyright: © 2012 |Pages: 25
DOI: 10.4018/ijgbl.2012010104
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Abstract

This paper reports on research of a game designed for scientific inquiry in a new and publicly available massively-multiplayer online environment (MMO). Educators and game designers worked together to create a highly immersive environment, a compelling storyline, and research-grounded tools for scientific inquiry within the game. The designers also played characters within the game that allowed them to deliver an evolving and responsive game narrative while also serving as participant observers for the research. Researchers integrated these observations with survey data, log data, artifact review, and interviews, to provide a broad picture of the player experience and the gaming environment. This study provides evidence that sustained scientific inquiry can be nurtured in an MMO game and that gamers’ relationships with characters in the game and other players may help facilitate that inquiry.
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The Potential For Scientific Inquiry In Social Games

Youth and adults, both male and female, are spending increasing amounts of time playing computer games (Ito et al., 2008; Lenhart, 2010). These games often use high-end graphical engines, creating realistic and spectacular imagery. MMO environments, where players use avatars to represent themselves in online communities, are becoming a popular new venue for socializing (Castronova, 2007; Gartner, 2008).

A growing body of research is examining innovative ways of learning that may occur in social digital gaming environments (Barab, Arcici, & Jackson, 2005; de Freitas, Rebolledo-Mendez, Liarokapis, Magoulas, & Poulovassilis, 2010; Gee, 2003; Ketelhut, 2007). In many popular role-playing games (e.g., World of Warcraft), practices such as peer-review, collaboration, sharing and analysis of data, and evidence-based reasoning take place among the players (Steinkuehler & Duncan, 2008). These gaming activities appear similar to the habits of practicing scientists in professional communities who share data and observations, challenge and confirm each others’ claims, and work together to build theories through a well-recognized and explicit peer-review system (Dunbar, 2000).

Gamers’ activities are also suggestive of well-established situated learning models such as communities of practice. In a community of practice, people work together on domain-specific knowledge-building using common habits, language, and communally-accepted rules of engagement (Lave, 1988; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1996). Vygotsky (1978) recognized the mediating affects of a community and tools, and the inextricability of environment and community as they mediate the learning process. Vygotsky also described a zone of proximal development (ZPD) that is the difference between what a learner can do individually and what s/he could do with assistance from others. Interestingly, a similar tenet of many game-design models is that tasks must be just outside the current grasp of a player—doable, yet challenging—and often requiring the assistance of other players and/or tools within the game (McGonigal, 2011). A good social game always has a new task to be accomplished and a group of people to help.

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