Lately I’ve been looking around for a new game. Like I really have time to play but the truth is that gaming adds a bit of spark to my humdrum existence. Sometimes I just like to get away from it all and play a bit.
One of the things I used to do was MUD. That’s a text based MMORPG where you don’t have pictures and such, but room descriptions and rapidly flowing text. I love those things, although they may be a bit dated now. I still think they’d be great reading interventions for middle and high school students. The one thing that MUDding does is give you lots of practice reading. My favorite MUD – Last Outpost – went off line after years of play. We even used it in the 688 Games course a few times.
Recently a house guest – somebody I met while MUDding – showed us Lord of the Rings Online. The service recently went to a Free-to-Play model and the free version works very well indeed at lower levels. A word of warning — it’s an adventure game and in order to advance you have to slay monsters (and sometimes kill animals, people, HUGE spiders, etc.). It’s not terribly violent but there’s certainly an aspect of violence that some will find offensive. On the upside, there is no player-vs-player violence. There’s enough action in the forests.
What I’m finding fascinating from an instructional design and educational gaming perspective is the meta-cognitive view of the game. This is a “level up” game – that is, you gain more skills and powers as you move up the ladders and earn more points of experience. You gain that experience by completing quests that – at least at the level I’m running at so far – involve a lot of running around from here to there and finding people/things that you are looking for. The set up involves race (Human, Elf, Dwarf, Hobbit) and a variety of classes (Hunter, Guardian, Minstrel, Champion, etc). The characters are enhanced with skills and traits to emphasize various aspects of their experience. Elves are agile, dwarves are not. That kind of thing. All told, an interesting and complex set up.
But the game doesn’t stop there.
On top of it all (or under it, depending on your perspective) is the idea of a profession. There are cooks and tailors, smiths and woodworkers. You can specialize in farming or forestry. As with the races/classes, these professions have things that they can do that others cannot. Food turns out to be an important asset that’s sometimes difficult to find. Having a cook means getting sustenance when you need it – like after that huge cave bear chewed your leg half off. Tailors can make armor, Foresters find wood and leather. Miners harvest minerals, and it all feeds into a larger construct of the mutually created world of LOTRO.
The interesting thing to me is how this relates to learning and education. You don’t go to school to learn to play the game. There is a very – and I mean very – brief new player intro where you pick up the basic skills of movement and interaction. There are occasional popups explaining some aspect of the game, its interface, or the experience when you first start out, but basically, you learn by doing – you construct your knowledge and understanding of how to play the game as you play the game. Playing is – literally – learning.
Before anybody gets strung out on the next round of High Stakes Political Gaming, I’m not suggesting that LOTRO is necessarily teaching anything about US History or Earth Science. There are aspects of it that are directly applicable to arithmetic and reading. You really do have to read a lot, and knowing a little math helps a great deal. In that aspect, it’s much more like life than a game.
The interesting aspect – for me as an educator – is how they manage to get all that stuff into a game. When you start, you don’t know a snow spider from a cave claw, a forge from a shopkeeper. You need to learn where to go, how to get there, what to do when you arrive. You have to differentiate among Non Player Characters (NPCs) and other people who are driving their avatars (toons) across the landscape. There are merchants, trainers, facilities, and a plethora of mysteries that all get illuminated as the story unfolds. And there’s even an encyclopedia for the game for when you need to look something up — like “What does Fate do?”
At the moment, I’m still unpacking it. The crafting (profession) aspect of it has features that make the game play much more intriguing, and provide a rationale for interaction beyond “let’s get together and kill stuff” that’s common in many other games. This idea of crafting is not new. I believe it was started by EverQuest and moved along into World of Warcraft (I’ve never played them so I can’t speak with any authority) but I know this isn’t a new idea in a game, but it’s still a fascinating implementation.
Still, as a replacement for my Last Outpost experience, I’m finding LOTRO to be a very satisfying replacement.