I’ve played games since I was a toddler, and I’ve been teaching either myself or others since not long after that. Games and teaching/learning are both intricately woven into who I am, so rather than try to separate them, I’ve decided to embrace this delightful marriage. I’m starting today by talking about Final Fantasy XIV in the context of education, technology, and the human process of learning.
Much of my educational work has recently centered on online learning, including massive open online courses (MOOCs) in the form of Coursera or edX, where millions of individuals take university courses for free. In these classes, video lectures guide students through content while quizzes and exams test their progress. What does this have to do with games? Well, if you’ve ever heard the term “theme park” applied (negatively) to an MMO, I’m about to explain just what MOOCs and other online education platforms similar to them have in common with MMOs.
George Siemens recently argued that learning in these online learning systems turns humans into robots essentially, because it reduces their need or even ability to engage in the acts of learning – decision-making, meta-cognition, exploring, etc. He stated:
“Udacity and Knewton [online learning platforms] require the human, the learner, to become a technology, to become a component within their well-architected software system. Sit and click. Sit and click. So much of learning involves decision making, developing meta-cognitive skills, exploring, finding passion, taking peripheral paths. Automation treats the person as an object to which things are done. There is no reason to think, no reason to go through the valuable confusion process of learning, no need to be a human. Simply consume. Simply consume. Click and be knowledgeable.”
Simply consume. No need to be human. Sit and click. Sounds a little like how I’ve heard some critics describe modern MMOs – handholding, theme parks, dumbed down.
One of the platforms George names is Udacity, created by Sebastian Thrun, better-known perhaps for his pioneering work on Google’s self-driven cars. With Udacity, Sebastian says that through the use of AI to analyze learner data, “we effectively reverse-engineer the human learning brain to find out what it means for a person to engage. It’s my dream to make learning as addictive as a video game.”
Let me explain for a moment where George gets “sit-and-click” out of this idealistic(?) view of learning as a game addiction. Udacity is a learning platform where users watch video lectures and take quizzes to test their learning. Unless a learner pays, there is no human feedback on his/her work. A computer tells you if you’ve learned and a computer determines if you’re falling behind. Where George gets hung up is on this automated approach to learning. If a machine decides what you need to learn and a machine presents it to you, all you have to do is sit there and click play.
I want to challenge this though by thinking about sitting and clicking in the context of an MMO.
FFXIV is a themepark MMO. There are many things prepared for you to do, and it’s easy to engage in them. There’s a group finder for dungeons; there’s a long story quest that guides you through the game and unlocks content along the way; there are exclamation points marking quests nearly everywhere; and there are many “well-architected” activities to get you from Level 1 to Level 50 (60). All you have to do is click to play.
Those key elements of learning George points out and says are lacking in a machine-driven approach to learning – decision-making, exploring, taking peripheral paths – that sounds like gameplay to me. In any given MMO, exploration is typically a major feature of the world, side quests offer numerous peripheral paths, and every moment is a process of decision-making as I determine where to go, what to fight, what to create, who to talk to, who to group with, etc. But is that true in a theme park MMO as well? Do I still engage in these kinds of human activities when my hand is being held through content?
The answer is yes. My recent experience leveling a first class in FFXIV was anything but robotic. Each play session was a series of decisions, partly due to FFXIV’s very theme park nature. There are so many things to do that I’m forced to make decisions about how I will engage with the world. The world is so vast that it would take literal weeks to meander down all the peripheral paths. Some of the activities that may appear to be handholding, such as Hunting Logs giving you lists of what to hunt, actually encourage exploration!
The process of leveling in a game is the process of learning that game. And despite being a handholding theme park, my process of learning in FFXIV was one entirely human, unique to me. There are hundreds of thousands of ways to get to level 50 and my way was merely one of those. Now, was I guided? Yes. Did have a framework of possible and mostly-efficient paths? Yes. But I still made those choices, made mistakes, and discovered beauty even though no one told me to. Now it wasn’t the most efficient path, but I still made it and, what’s more, I enjoyed it.
Now, that doesn’t mean George was wrong. Take a look at Realizeit, an adaptive learning system that is analogous to something literally bread-crumbing me all the way from level 1 to level 50.
No list of recommended activities that I can choose from – instead, it gives me one activity and once I mastered it, another one, all the way until I ding that magic number. Level 1 to 50, one guided quest at a time. FFXIV actually offers this with its story questline, but the difference is that nothing actually holds you to that questline. You can wander off and explore. You can run instances or Fates or PvP. You decide your path. In adaptive learning though, the objective is king and only the most-efficient progress towards that point is considered valuable. And who decides that most-efficient path? The AI. The difference is agency.
The obvious question someone may be prompted to ask though is, well if they met the learning objective, isn’t that the point? Or, but if you got to 50 as efficiently as possible – isn’t that the point?