The U.S. military is facing the challenge raised by the need to rapidly prepare forces to respond to an ever-changing enemy. Asymmetrical warfare requires troops who are well trained to analyze patterns and change their tactics, techniques, and procedures to defeat the enemy. Nowhere is this need more profound than in preparing troops for dealing with improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The number of IED attacks has averaged about 100 a week since February 2004, with about half of the devices detonating. Among the skills needed to address the current adversaries’ ability to innovate and readily change their techniques, the American military must focus on the following overarching skills:

  • Cultural awareness and knowledge of local language
  • Higher-order thinking skills to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate information
  • Knowing how to think and what to do with what you know, not what to think
  • Adaptability and flexibility in the face of a constantly changing, decentralized adversary

While various strategies can address these skills, role playing is among those recommended for training troops to counter IEDs. Applying this strategy in online gaming environments, specifically massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs), would seem to be a logical opportunity for using this strategy, but what does the research say about the effectiveness of such training interventions? What is known about learning from games in general, and MMOGs in particular? Can essential characteristics of MMOGs be designed to promote learning and transfer?

This page examines the literature on the use of MMOGs to achieve learning outcomes in teams. Our targeted focus is on what is known about the use of MMOGs for instruction and training and how MMOG environments might be used for IED training. We begin with a discussion of games in general and clarify the terminology used to describe them. Next, we focus on the instructional games and the links between learning theory and the use of games and game elements. The following section focuses on elements of MMOGs that make this environment suitable for learning and the research supporting the use of MMOGs to achieve learning outcomes. Finally, we look at how MMOG environments and the specific characteristics associated with MMOGs can be used to fill training gaps.

Gaming Environments: What We Know About Instructional Games

Gaming EnviromentsGames

We define a game as a voluntary activity in the form of play that is artificially constructed and competitive. A game resembles portions of reality and involves one or more players who assume roles while trying to achieve a goal within a specific context. It provides a competitive environment for a player by challenging him or her to reach a goal. In games, rules that are freely accepted are binding and determine what the players are permitted to do or define constraints on allowable actions. Subsequently, rules have a bearing on available resources and influence the state of the game space.

Recent uses of technology have moved the world of games beyond the deck of cards or board games of generations gone by. Technology has produced changes in game complexity, the number of players who can participate, and the very nature of game goal structures. For example, multi-user dungeons (MUDs) create virtual worlds with no specific goal, scoring system, or beginning or end. In MUDs, players have the ability to add new objects to the database, but are seen by some to be more of a social learning environment than a game. Furthermore, its been found that participatory simulations such as MUDs, where players have the ability to introduce new objects into the environment, are not consistent environments for effective instruction because changes in initial conditions can have a profound effect on how the system reacts. While this may be a shortcoming for some types of instruction, instructional goals for IED training focus on developing adaptability and problem-solving skills that may make the ability to introduce new information an advantage.

Clearly games can be used for instructional purposes, but there is no empirical evidence that games are the best instructional method for all situations. In other words, converting content to a game does not ensure its viability as a learning tool. The same is true of almost any instructional strategy, objective, subject matter, resource, intended audience, and context matter. Although some games may show indications of being an effective form of instruction for specified purposes, results may not generalize to other games or instructional content. Deliberate efforts to address instructional goals have been associated with the serious games movement.

Serious Games

The serious games movement is a trend toward designing and analyzing games to support formal training objectives and learning outcomes. This trend is consistent with the proposition that play is a suitable goal for training situations that require creative higher-order thinking coupled with intense personal commitment and involvement. Two types of games that have evolved to meet this proposition are live action role playing (LARP) games and hybrid reality games (HRGs).

The core of a LARP is role playing guided by rules, where players usually have full control of decision making at the character level. LARPs are usually set in a virtual context of fictional reality, and game play is governed or supervised by a game master (the instructor or facilitator). Hybrid reality games transform physical spaces into interactive game boards. They make use of the physical context by merging the physical world and digital spaces. Training that uses HRGs is usually delivered through traditional technologies such as handheld computers or personal digital assistants.

Massively Multiplayer Online Games

A game that is attracting the attention of the education and training field is the MMOG. The key distinction between MMOGs and other types of games is the fact that players interact with other players, as well as with the gaming software. MMOGs enable groups ranging in size up to hundreds of thousands of players to participate in an online game simultaneously.

MMOGs are usually set in a persistent world that continues to evolve when a player leaves the gaming environment. Players entering the MMOG environment take ona role or persona with a specific and unique identity that is represented in the gaming environment as an avatar. Thus, the latest term for such role-playing games is massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs). An MMORPG is a cooperative, distributed-access, non-goal-seeking game. MMORPGs are played by equally large numbers of players as MMOGs, but in smaller groups at one time. Such games include The Sims Online and America’s Army.

For the purpose of this review, we will not distinguish between MMOGs and MMORPGs as we examine the opportunities they offer for team training. The interaction between players and the capacity to support various-sized groups are features that make these environments well suited for their use as instructional games.

Gaming Environments: What Makes a Game an Instructional Game

When training is deliberately added to gaming environments or when gaming aspects are deliberately incorporated into training, we create instructional games. Despite the current attention to instructional games, most of these games to date have been produced in the absence of any coherent theory of learning or underlying body of research. Instructional games do evidence principles and strategies that can be viewed as instructional elements, however. Instructional game elements are often viewed through the lenses of experiential learning, situated learning, flexibly adaptive instruction, discovery learning, activity theory, game-based learning, or a mix of symbolic and situative viewpoints. Researchers have used these theories to demonstrate the instructional potential of games. Depictions of games as evidence of experiential learning focus on the real world participation aspect of the game. Supporters of experiential learning believe that understanding is derived and modified through experience and that action and reflection are necessary components of meaningful learning.

Games can also be viewed as opportunities for social learning. From the situated learning perspective, learning is fundamentally a social process that can be generalized to other social groups. They liken it to using mathematics in the ‘‘real world’ during a shopping trip.

Proponents of flexibly adaptive instruction recommend that educational products be designed and developed in a way to allow easy reconfiguration by teachers or others using the product. Giving users more control is consistent with discovery learning, a theory that supports the idea that learning is most effective when the learning process involves inquiry rather than memorization. Research, however, indicates that providing some structure within the learning environment is more effective than pure exploration for achieving certain types of learning outcomes; therefore, providing the instructor with the ability to shape instructional events would be beneficial. Interactions within games are viewed by some through the lens of activity theory, which proposes that the mechanisms underlying the influence of social context on learning and development are mutual transformations between the individual and collective activities. Through activity theory, there are three distinct phases of games:

  • external coordination of individual activities
  • emerging group identity
  • transfer of group experience to individual activities

Similarly, game-based learning theory purports that learning is often experience based or exploratory and relies on experiential, problem-based, or exploratory learning approaches.

Other theoretical perspectives of learning in gaming environments include apprenticeship learning, user-centered learning, and cooperative learning. In short, research suggests that the instructional potential of games can be grounded in various learning theories. The greatest impact may be that a merging of various theories will result in a new methodological approach that will be superior to any other viewpoint standing alone. They believe that this new theory of cognition will be capable of providing a broader understanding of learning and education through the world of games.