In my ongoing quest to locate the pedagogical value of games (via game play, research and dialogue), I have come across an interesting example of situated learning in WoW: The random dungeon, or “PUG.”
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, here is an excellent and educator friendly overview.
“A PUG is a “pick-up-group,” or an informal group of players who don’t already know each other, who are working together on a quest or an instance. PUGs can teach you A LOT about how to play your class and how to interact with others in the game. To be a good pugger, you should know a bit about PUG ettiquette and also a little something about the different roles you might be expected to play in a group.”
Rather than duplicating this description above, I’d like to talk about some of my own, personal, observations and experiences in PUGS and why I think they have value as a form of (radical) gaming-focused PD for educators. Yes, this post is about our / your learning – not that of our students. And when it comes to gaming and education, I feel that it’s educators – not students – who are most in need of emergent “literacy.”
And before I say anything further, the first and foremost reason you should explore PUGs? they’re F-U-N.
A hilarious overview of PUGs
1. Getting out of our comfort zones
Most learning involves stepping out of our comfort zones. As educators, we can be pretty skillfull at perpetually delegating our way out of learning we don’t want to do to those who are ‘already interested in’ that thing. I see a lot of this around gaming. And the usual excuses: 1) I don’t have time (though they do have time for Dancing with the Stars); 2) I’d get addicted (really? how can you get addicted to something you have zero interest in?); 3) it’s too violent (violent? so is hockey and it’s a perfectly acceptable thing for you to watch); 4) I don’t like the whole fantasy thing (yeah but many of your students do. Might be a good time to start exploring their interests/worlds).
There are a lot of “not nice” things in live gaming that you wouldn’t be exposed to in a scripted console game with programmed characters who don’t tell you, directly, that you suck when you keep making the same mistake over and over and over and over again. When I discovered this reality factor (i.e., the presence of people who will comment on your game play) I have to admit that it was one of my reasons for not wanting to explore WOW. But I also found out that I could, if I wanted to, play the game without having those experiences (and I’ve known people who manage to do so – I’ll talk about why this is a bad idea later).
Thing is, the internet is a place with a lot of not so nice things in it as well. Like other people. As with blogs, Twitter, social media, MMOs and any other space where you’re going to encounter any sort of social “randomness” you’re always going to take a risk of finding something unexpected or encountering somebody who maybe disagrees with you – or offers some other challenge to your thinking, expression or behaviour. And it may not always be very nice. If you’re a classroom teacher, then you already deal with some of that exchange on a daily basis. But going to, as Buddhist nun Pema Chodron says, “the places that scare you“, is part of the journey – of life and learning. And as all teachers know, we don’t really gain many insights about conflict if we don’t have any direct experience with it (just one of the reasons teachers go on practicums – to learn about what the classroom is really like and that it can sometimes be a place of discomfort for learners and teachers).
2. Situated Learning
Situated learning is, at its simplest, the informal learning that occurs through an activity that is contextual to the particular environment, skill or knowledge (i.e., learning about farming at an actual farm rather than via a textbook, learning about food by working with it … etc). It’s most of the learning we’ve been doing since we were born. And it is often socially mediated.
Every day, in some form, we will receive some bit of learning from another person. Whether it’s a friend in a social network or the woman on the bus, a stranger, who helped you with directions. Sometimes this learning doesn’t come in a productive form – like the cyclist who flipped you the bird for talking on your cell phone instead of watching the road (!). While you may not have appreciated the form that lesson took, the import and context was situated. And this is where authentic situated learning differs from carefully structured, “skooly” or staged learning experiences produced within institutional spaces. This kind of learning hasn’t been cleaned up for us. It’s raw, unprocessed, and unscripted. It isn’t always pretty but it can be extremely transformative.
Random Dungeons – or PUGS – are a form of situated learning that takes place in the MMO World of Warcraft (WoW). PUGs are contextual, random, instant and mostly self directed (rarely, a tank will give you some instructions – or else you should ask). Players, though similar in level, are brought together randomly and for a very short time to complete a dungeon. You have never met and you will have no more than a few seconds to exchange any information before you begin, but you will work as a team to complete your objective. All you are expected to know is how to play your character’s class (your spell rotation, your gear and your role within a team is your own self directed task). And though the experiences can range from good, bad to ugly, the learning benefit of pugs far outweighs the occasional discomfort of a bad group.
In WOW, you come across the requisite knowledge you’ll need for a dungeon as you progress through the game and via your guild or out-of-game research of user contributed forums. But it isn’t until you team with other players that you begin to appreciate how much or how little you have learned or extend your learning by saying “this is my first time in, anything I should know?”
are also a form of vital informal performance assessment (though it can sometimes be harsh or unproductive). If you are with a “good” group, which is most of the time, the advice or critique will take a more productive, friendly form (i.e., “great work but you’re taking a lot of damage. you might want to get new gear” v. “lol your gear sucks!”).
Personally, I’d rather get to raiding (the wow endgame) with other guildies who have done a lot of randoms (and learned how to be effective teammates) than with guildies who have quested their way up through the ranks without ever having to be tested (or challenged) in a random context. Unlike a PUG, a raid often requires a fairly lengthy time commitment (several hours in which everybody has agreed to play together). Even a well geared, knowledgeable, skilled group is faced with a time commitment. A player who has not learned what they ought to know by this stage in the game is going to either lead to a lot of wipes (everybody dies and has to start over) or a much longer time commitment for the raid (that has impact on many others beyond the game – like the family members or partners of your guildies who have already agreed to your several hours of gameplay).
3. Smack talk (and other ugly things we’d rather avoid but need to learn about)
I’m not into aggressive, macho culture. I never related to the tough kids at school and didn’t do team sports largely because of the aggressive behaviour I associated with it. I only now reflect on the lost learning I might have acquired from doing so – and how my aversion from this way of relating served more to limit my knowledge than extend it. I figure this out in time to gain some really valuable insights about worlds and interests that took me out of my comfort zone – like playing wow, for example.
Far from justifying the highly unproductive (and offensive) communication that occurs in a random, I would argue that smack also serves as a component of the game itself – for some – in the form of smack talk. And for many players, the objective of smack talk is tactical (however misguided, meanspirited or adolescent). This expression can range from subtle criticisms to all out insults. I could write a whole critique of this aspect of the game and how we can and should critique it (with our students) and I will. For the teacher planning on using these games with students, random game play presents a great opportunity for inquiry – particularly around social norms. Smack talk that goes beyond tactical response to inequitable abuse (sexist, racist, homophobic remarks) is not a part of what I’m talking about – and it is entirely unacceptable from any player. Calling somebody a ‘noob’ is one thing, using race, gender or sexual orientation as an insult is quite another.
Though you cannot control what other players do or say, you can control your own response, lack of response or actions towards those who use smack talk as a form of oppression or abuse. One of the virtues of the game is that you can “kick” players from a group who start to engage in abuse. You can also simply choose to leave. Or, you can creatively defy it (I’ll talk about this at the end of the post). I’d say only a small percentage of my experiences in pugs could be described as abusive. For the most part, any criticisms of my gameplay are often innocuous and, quite often, earned (i.e,. if I went afk and caused the group to wipe – or else aggro’d too often because I’m using the wrong cast or casting too early).
Teachers, especially, can benefit from observing these kinds of exchanges in social cultures that are very far from our equitable comfort zones. In some cases, we may conclude – quite correctly – that we are visitors inhabiting a space with very different codes and rules than the ones we support or engage. It may be ugly, but it is a highly coded form of language between players that communicates one’s belonging to this culture.
4. Cultivating collaboration
Given some of the negative aspects I mentioned above, one of the most valuable reasons to take part in PUGS is to cultivate the kind of game play you believe in. For me, that’s about contributing positive and productive comments (teaching others around me by modeling what a productive response sounds and looks like) and defaulting to shared – rather than targeted – humour. For example, cultivating a context in which the player who wiped us gets another chance or admitting my own faults in a lighthearted way “I’m undergeared. might be too fail for this dungeon.”Even the act of expressing or admitting our own faults goes a long way to cultivating a community where people take intrinsic ownership of their challenges – and their response to those challenges – rather than relying on extrinsic punishment.
I recently found myself in a PUG with three players all in the same family. They had entered as a group (something you can do) and offered nothing but fun and support throughout (it was my first time through the dungeon). Not only did I get xp and a fast, efficient run through the dungeon but I was with some really genuinely nice players who invited me to join them for another dungeon right afterwards. This is really the best outcome if you’ve got a limited amount of time and want to do a few pugs. It was a fun hour and a half of game play for all. Last night, I ran a pug in a new dungeon. We all got killed by a dragon. Our dungeon master said: two of you weren’t jumping. So I said, “but I was trying to cast. I need to stay still while casting.” Instead of insulting me for not knowing how to stay alive, he said “jump, jump, cast. Jump, jump, cast. Use your instants. Forget about the longer casts” – so I did. And I lived. And I learned the proper mechanic for that particular boss fight. We slayed the dragon quickly and didn’t die. And now I know how to do that particular instance thanks to a good, random, teacher. Goodbye stranger, and thanks for the lesson.
Finally, as progressive person playing a game that is informed by the dominant hegemony, I can take my gameplay as an opportunity to be a change agent — and so can you. If I want to see less sexist, macho, inequitable gameplay/culture you are going to have have to get in there and help create that. If not, who will? And that is my challenge to teachers who wish to explore emergent learning spaces like mmos. And if you can’t do so, take time to learn from your kids (or the kids in your classes).
WoW.com: Pro Tips for Lowbie dungeon runners
Here are a few more reasons why educators should explore WoW …