Education, Education Education, and Virtual War

Written by Xander Cosgrave, MPhil (Trinity College Dublin)

Everything we do is either a simulation, or the real thing. We go to school to learn so we’re able to take skills and apply them to situations beyond the classroom. As children, we play to learn how to interact with each other. Animal cubs play fight so they know how to hunt or defend themselves. In 2017 we have simulations for a huge number of situations that hopefully we won’t find ourselves in, but still engage with for pleasure. That’s right, today I’m talking about games, and why they’re useful. Not just as a very straight practice for the real world, like chess was as a game for kings in the past, but as a learning tool for a wide variety of situations and skills that we need today to function in society. This isn’t a new idea. Dungeons and Dragons is often presented as an example for team building and communication, (Donahoe 2014)​ but with the modern development of games and society, we have access to a far broader range of games than we did even a few decades ago, and these games are much more accessible than more traditional tabletop games. I’m not trying to cast aspersions on these classic games, they are the foundation on which our modern conception of gaming is built, but what we could do with games in the 70’s and 80’s when companies like TSR and Games Workshop were building the complex rules, narratives and design structures that are a given today, is far behind what gaming has become in 2017.

I’m going to be referring back to tabletop games occasionally here, because we need to understand not just the state of play in video games, but also how their tabletop counterparts have developed in a digital society. As a digital humanist, I think it’s important that we see the analog and digital side by side. One of the best examples of the crossover between what we can learn in real life, and what we can learn in the digital realm is Second Life. Like Lego, or even more appropriately, Minecraft, it is less a game and more a world where you create the scenarios you engage with, from simple virtual chat to a full on orchestrated adventure. A prime example of this is the study here that shows how virtual worlds can be used for the purposes of medical education and examination. The conclusion of this research was broadly that the virtual world was incredibly useful for the purposes of constructivist learning in medicine, as well as the huge potential for development into the future (Eysenbach 2010). ​This is a very specific case, far more than the broad team building ideas that I used to introduce the concept of games and learning. So let’s step back and take a look at something that is more accessible than the very specific aspects of medical learning, such as the game EVE online, a MMORPG that is sold as a space combat simulator, but is usually jokingly referred to by its player base as the galactic market simulator. EVE has a huge amount of player creation and control built in, as well as a fully player led economy to the point where the games overarching story is built around player factions, and every month there are full reports on the games economy released for player analysis and consumption. I have attached here one of the recent destroyed value charts, and if you want to look at the breadth and depth of the economic information made available to players, you can find the October 2017 Report here. The point of this is simple, to play the game at high levels, you need to be able to become comfortable not only with traditional video game skills, like hand eye coordination, but also broad economic management and infrastructure planning skills, that the game slowly eases you into.

Destroyed values chart, EVE Online, October 2017

In our two examples, we have two different approaches to how e-learning in games can work. Through one, they have taken a game with a very broad base of abilities to produce some extremely specialised learning capabilities, and through the other, a similarly broad game, but on a different scope, requires you to learn skills to play the game. To go back to the tabletop side of things, if you were to try and learn some of these skills in a non virtual environment, it would be more difficult, and harder to gamify. Using Dungeons and Dragons to learn about diabetes may be possible, but would miss the point of the game, it would stop being fun to learn. Comparatively, there are numerous board games with economic and diplomatic functions just as robust and opaque as EVE online, and these too have robust learning opportunities. The ability to play out various scenarios allows you a depth of understanding, but beyond that, you can learn a huge amount from creating games, because you have to understand more than just taking a constructed concept and applying it for a situation. To create games you need to understand the backbone of what makes certain things true and functional. UCC’s Mike Cosgrave talks about the benefits of Analog Games here and how making students not only play but create them helps develop their learning skills. Games are more than just a simple point and click to go forward experience, but actually represent an important tool in learning, both intentionally, but also incidentally, as we can see in something like EVE online. And when you give players the tools and freedom to create in these games, you end up with people learning and gaming smarter and more efficiently.


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2) Donahoe R, 3/5/2014, Team Building exercise, Dungeons and Dragons, Thoughtlab.
3) Eysenbach G, 23/1/2010, Learning in a Virtual World: Experience With Using Second Life for Medical Education, Journal of Medical Internet research.
4) Eve Developers, 10/1//17, October monthly economic report. CCP Games,