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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Social Networking Through Games in the E-Learning Organization

People play video games. It is impossible to fight it, so why try? People seem to derive as much enjoyment from “serious” games and simulations as the entertaining ones, when the conditions are right and the games are multiplayer, multilevel, entertaining, and emotionally engaging. ( has plans to create a social networking opportunity with its games and game portal. The idea is to share games as well as ideas and projects. They suggest that one might house the games or the game portal within an e-learning organization, perhaps even within the learning management system and a course.
Doof, a fully integrated social networking site, allows individuals to choose among dozens of free games, playing at any time and any place via flash player, thus avoiding tedious downloads. While doof is still in its beta phase, it's clear that it is more than a game space. In the last few weeks, doof has added doofspaces, games, video sharing, image sharing, news, rss feeds, and more.

One of the more amazing features of doof is the ability to sync and import facebook information into doofspaces. This could be the portal of choice for many individuals who want and need a place to network, and they like games, and they would like to be able to share information.

Doof is still under development, so it's hard to say what other features will be included. A very powerful and useful feature could be to include the ability to create groups and subcommunities. It would be a fantastic way to blend elearning and social networking and gaming. Elearners could go to doofspace for all their entertainment and educational needs. The portal to the school and/or course management system could be in a doof community.

The efficacy of serious games and simulations for creating an environment conducive to skill-building cannot be disputed. Serious games such as the United Nation-sponsored Darfur Is Dying can be helpful in allowing students to role-play as a Darfur refugee and to understand the challenges of obtaining water and basic sustenance in an exceedingly hostile environment.

Darfur Is Dying shows learners the human impact of conflict and it lets one see exactly how conflict can play itself out in real life. Enactments of conflict, role-playing, and creative problem-solving all result in the development of empathy and empathic responses. In addition, the game allows learners to understand the complex network of circumstances, conditions, and geopolitical realities that underlie policy-making and problem-solving.
Serious games containing a bit of whimsy help learners overcome anxiety about the technology and role-playing. The games can be quite disarming, and learners find it to be very encouraging to form teams, collaborate, and make strategic decisions. An example are business simulations produced by ExperiencePoint which focus on decision-making, conflict resolution, organizational behavior, and motivation. In the past, ExperiencePoint has employed unique strategies, and has added a very effective measure of whimsy in free simulation demos that incorporate scenarios that range from organizing elves in Santa’s workshop to deciding how to go about recruiting a star player for one’s hockey team.
Serious games and simulations are available online and by means of CD-ROMs. Perhaps the most engaging ones, however, are the ones that allow multiple players and a great deal of interaction. Such game are being used by the military to recruit soldiers, to train military personnel, to fly planes, to respond to patients in a hospital emergency room, and to plan a city.
However, what about “unserious” games, and games that are played purely for entertainment? Do they have a place in the e-learning organization?
Traditionally, “classic” games such as Pong, Galaga, and Tetris, often played on cell phones as well as on one’s personal computer, not to mention massively multiplayer role-playing games have been considered the enemy of learning. In fact, some have even been blamed for school violence. At best, video games have been considered time-wasters, and potentially addicting. Reports that a young man in China died after going three days without sleep while on an online gaming binge did not help correct negative perceptions. Instead, it led to the inevitable conclusion (however flawed), that online gaming can kill.
No matter how “time-wasting” or “dangerous,” people will play online games. Now, with iPhones, smartphones, handheld computers and widespread wifi, multiplayer possibilities have expanded. Portals to interactive games and downloads continue to be quite popular.
What is the next step? Is there any way to harness the power and enthusiasm of gamers and to guide them to something useful while still being “unserious”?

The idea that one might use non-serious games as the foundation of a social network of people who share educational goals is an interesting notion. The first questions that come to mind are:
1---If it is not an outcomes-focused game, how do students stay motivated to do school work? Won’t they go into the virtual game room and stay there?
2---How are the games not a distraction?
3---Can games like Pong or Galaga be used to get people to share ideas from their course?
4---Could games and the “games space” be a part of a “virtual student lounge”? It would probably be a highly trafficked portal. If so, might it be a great place to disseminate information and general announcements? Some people would check the game space before they would check their student e-mail. It could be a good place to post the academic calendar, key deadlines, and announcements about games, scholarships, jobs, deadlines.
Using games and game portals as a way to drive traffic to a certain place in the e-learning space is a good idea. Here are a few ways to that the institution might use the game space productively:
1---Require students to click through announcements as they authenticate in order to access the games;
2---Create a time limit for games. Perhaps they can only play for 10 minutes per hour.
3---Tie time-on-task in practice tests and drills with more free access to the “unserious” games. Fifteen minutes on practice tests means two minutes of free Minesweeper (or one’s favorite game)?
Online learning will undoubtedly undergo massive changes as technology evolves and students gravitate toward the kinds of programs that reinforce and reward the behaviors they already exhibit.
Social networking through “unserious” games may lead to strategies for developing learning communities and effective social networking, team-building, motivation, and higher attrition in school.

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