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Using Data to Kill Demons: Learning from World of Warcraft

By Justin Reich — August 24, 2012 3 min read

One of my favorite books from the last year is Mark Chen’s Leet Noobs: The Life and Death of an Expert Player Group in World of Warcraft. Mark is a gamer’s gamer, committed to play, community, and exploration, and he’s also an anthropologist and player researcher. He loves games; he plays games; he researchers games and gamers.

His dissertation, recently published as a book, is the story of his raiding group in the early days of World of Warcraft: how they came together, became friends, slew demons, and then broke up. It’s a carefully written participant ethnography, and will bring back memories to those of us who played a little WoW, and it’s accessible enough for newcomers to begin to make sense of the virtual worlds where millions of people spend millions of hours of their time.

The highlight of the book is chapter 3, “Assembling to Kill Ragnaros,” the story of how Chen’s guild organized a 40-person team to work collaboratively over months to learn to kill one of the most challenging enemies in the game. The heart of the story is how a technical interface, the KLH Threat Meter, becomes a member of their team.

KLH Threat Meter is a special interface that can be loaded into a player’s World of Warcraft on-screen dashboard that provides data on which players are drawing the most attention from enemies (and therefore getting attacked the most by enemies). In short, KTM Threat Meter identifies which players in the raid group are really pissing off the bad guys and are going to get killed next. Useful information.

Chen draws on Actor-Network Theory, a framework for looking at the world that is relatively liberal about granting agency to both human and non-human actors. It’s a tool for looking at systems, and it’s particularly helpful for examining systems with interactions between humans and technology.

In Chen’s story, Actor-Network Theory explains how KLH Threat Meter becomes the 41st member of the raid group, changes the group’s perspective on what’s happening in their attempt to kill Ragnaros, and ultimately provides them with information that changes their strategy (to make sure that the most heavily armored characters are always the one’s generating the most threat to the demon) and allows them, after months of effort, to kill the bad guy and rescue the princess (actually, there is no princess).

In other words, Leet Noobs is a story of collaborative, technology-mediated learning. To some extent, it’s a story about how people experience learning in gaming environments, which educators should take an interest in because an unbelievable amount of learning happens in these online spaces. What was the last time you worked together in a 40 person group for months to figure out how to solve a puzzle, failing over and over again until you succeed?

More broadly, however, it’s a story about how technology shapes human interactions, human collaboration, and human effort. Chapter 3 provides a story about how KLH Threat Meter shaped the interactions of people learning how to defeat a boss in World of Warcraft. But the larger model of Actor-Network theory could be applied to situations much closer to the instructional core. How does the introduction of a smartboard change the information available to students? How does a student act upon a smartboard? How does a smartboard act upon an individual student? Upon a group? How does the introduction of tablets into a system change the information available to students, or the possibility space for action? If we posit that the tablet is an actor, what roles does it play in the system? What relationship does it have to the other actors in the system? What happens to our perspective if we think of technology not just as something we use, but as something that acts upon us?

Leet Noobs is a fun way to look deeply into the culture of Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games. It’s real virtue, though, is in providing an example of how to think more deeply about the interaction between humans and technology in complex, technology mediated systems, like, you know, schools.

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