Free-Choice Games

One of the most popular public gaming environments in the past decade has been the MMO role-playing game, World of Warcraft (WoW). An estimated 6 million years of people’s time have already been spent playing the game (McGonigal, 2011). Researchers have also found that within this remarkably large and popular online community, there is evidence of scientific inquiry that is aligned with American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) standards for scientific inquiry (Steinkeuhler & Duncan, 2008). These researchers also found that it is not unusual for WoW players to gather data in spreadsheets, create models of the data in the form of simple mathematical equations, and then argue about whose model was “better” in terms of prediction and explanatory scope. Thus, users from all backgrounds have worked together to build situated understandings of important phenomena (e.g., physical laws) that are embedded in the virtual world.

Another intriguing form of public game on the Internet is alternate reality games (ARGs), where the game is based in the real world and occurs in real time, but the narrative is fictionalized. In an ARG, game designers lay out the premise and environment for the game, but often the storyline and content are mutually expanded over time by the designers and players. Games like I Love Bees, have engaged hundreds of thousands of players in knowledge building—gathering and analyzing data to create claims and predictions about fictional or real-world phenomena (McGonigal, 2007). In 2007, over 1800 players convened online for a month to collectively play out and document a fictional oil crisis in World Without Oil (McGonigal, 2011). Some players report to have transformed their real lives as a result. McGonigal claims that the reason that they all came to participate is this:

By turning a real problem into a voluntary obstacle, we activated more genuine interest, curiosity, motivation, effort, and optimism than we would have otherwise. We can change our real-life behaviors in the context of a fictional game precisely because there isn’t any negative pressure surrounding the decision to change. (McGonigal, 2011; p. 311)

In our own work, EdGE exploited the immersive features of an MMO in Martian Boneyards. EdGE designers worked with professional game developers to build an environment in a new high-definition MMO called Blue Mars. The MMO was still in open beta and had a small community of about 50-100 regular adult visitors when EdGE implemented a four-month game of scientific mystery in May to September 2010. The designers of Martian Boneyards placed evidence for a murder mystery in the environment and then played characters (using avatars) to facilitate the game. The designers used an open storyline and provided a dynamic design through their characters. This strategy allowed designers and researchers to interact frequently and directly with players, providing unique insight into players’ activities. Designers were then able to be responsive to players, putting their ideas at the center of the storyline.

The mystery of Martian Boneyards required players to identify and distinguish various skeletons using comparative anatomy (Asbell-Clarke et al., 2011). Players (mostly not science-oriented) used Internet resources to correctly identify and distinguish human, Neanderthal, and chimpanzee skeletons. The game designers did not provide any of the data or methods. Thus, the players needed to gather information on various Internet sites (e.g., the eSkeletons and Smithsonian sites).

EdGE designed game tools for Martian Boneyards that scaffold and measure stages of scientific inquiry framed by theories of argumentation or knowledge building (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1996; Toulmin, 1958; Kuhn, 2005). Players gathered data using their virtual PDAs in the MMO game, used virtual collaborative workstations to analyze the data to generate evidence, and posted their claims and evidence on the community theory-building area, where evidence is coordinated with players’ claims building toward explanatory, peer-reviewed theories. Researchers used the clicks on each of these tools to measure the extent of scientific inquiry contributed by each player. These digital activity logs were used with surveys, interviews, participant observations, and expert review of artifacts to describe the nature of scientific inquiry within the player community.

A panel of three scientists in related areas read all science-related player postings to the theory-building area, the Blue Mars Web-based discussion board, and a small convenience sample of chat. The majority of players’ postings were included in the sample. Reviewers examined over 200 text entries in total. The panel used a rubric and process modified from previous research to review the quality of materials from online science courses (see Rowe & Asbell-Clarke, 2008). Reviewers rated the quality of inquiry along four dimensions on a 5-point scale (ranging from 1 = poor to 5 = excellent). The dimensions included the extent of scientific inquiry; sophistication of the scientific inquiry; accuracy of core ideas in comparative anatomy; and depth of core ideas in comparative anatomy. The panel rated the quality of the inquiry as very good along each dimension when comparing the inquiry in the game to a typical group project conducted in an introductory undergraduate science class for nonscience majors.

The science reviewers also judged that the player community engaged in sustained scientific inquiry—posing questions, making claims, substantiating claims with evidence—to an extent that would be considered very good (rating of 4 out of 5) in an undergraduate introductory science course (Asbell-Clarke et al., 2011). The content generated in comparative anatomy was rated very good (4) on accuracy and good (3) on depth. Reviewers also noted that nearly all Internet resources used by players were from reasonable scientific websites, including accredited sites from universities, national labs, and museums. They also said the game appeared to motivate a level of inquiry among some players that was similar to the very top students in a class.

When reflecting on the learning that took place in Martian Boneyards, to ask how the learning will transfer from the game to the real world feels like a backwards question. The players in the game were challenged by the game to go to the real world to apply what they learned. Players in Martian Boneyards moved fluidly back and forth between the game environment and the Internet while they were solving the scientific mystery. They were not isolating the science to the game. They asked themselves how scientists would identify the bones and used the resources available on sites such as the Smithsonian and eSkeletons to gather methods and data (Asbell-Clarke et al., 2012).

The players were involved in very real acts of prolonged scientific inquiry, in a state that the science reviewers agreed they strive for in their classes. This finding raises the question of how we can invoke that type of inquiry in classrooms. It may not be in the best interest of learning to ask how we can measure game-based learning using school-like metrics (multiple choice or other traditional exams). It may be more interesting to understand how we can measure the learning that takes place naturally in games, and then understand how to leverage that type of learning to make classroom learning and assessment more relevant to the ways students are learning today.

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