Learning in virtual worlds: using Communities of Practice to explain how people learn from play

Martin Oliver & Diane Carr

Journal article 

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.

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