Learning in virtual worlds: using Communities of Practice to explain how people learn from play
Martin Oliver & Diane Carr
Abstract: Although there is considerable interest in the relationship between learning and virtual worlds, much current writing focuses on educational potentials rather than explaining actual learning experiences. One reason for this is the complexity of the phenomenon under investigation: so much happens when virtual worlds are used that it can be difficult to identify what might reasonably be described as ‘learning’. Moreover, although the situation is clearer when virtual worlds are designed in support of the curriculum – for example, because what counts as learning is framed by formalised assessment – such situations are less important to understand. This is because the design elements and motivations that authors such as Gee claim results in good learning are typically lost when games are institutionalised.
In this paper, a study is described that illustrates how taking a social perspective can to identify and analyse learning in virtual worlds. Rather than studying a virtual world designed for educational use, we focus here on learning in the context of the MMORPG World of Warcraft. Specifically, we draw on Wenger’s ideas about Communities of Practice to analyse players’ accounts in order to identify what they learnt and how they learnt it. In order to focus on social interactions in a manageable, contained way, we conducted interviews with five couples who play together. These were theoretically sampled, in order to provide diversity for the analysis; however, the purpose of this study was to develop a theoretical understanding of learning in this context, so generalising from these specific findings should be done with caution. The transcripts were analysed by iteratively gategorising excerpts (statements or exchanges that made sense as self-contained fragments) to provide a stable overview of the data set. For the purposes of this paper, only categories that related to learning were considered. These were analysed using concepts from Community of Practice theory – specifically, legitimate peripheral participation, trajectories of participation, mutual accountability, risk and the nexus of multi-membership.
This analysis provided an account of players’ learning, understood as a social practice performed in a way that is acceptable to a community of peers. It showed how players began with low-risk, solo play, before developing greater responsibility for in-game resources, specialist expertise (for example, in relation to geography, tactics or interface modification), out-of-game resources (such as time spent together or access to a computer) and cooperative tasks. Issues of gaining feedback, both wanted and unwanted, were also considered.
The paper concludes by reconsidering the relationship between learning and formal educational curricula, again drawing on the idea of communities and situated practices.