Virtual Worlds and Real Life: an autoethnographical journey in online gaming

I stand at the summit, sword in hand. The beast, slain beneath my feet.  It is late and I am exhausted.  At my side are 39 of the most fierce, loyal, brave, and driven companions I have ever fought in battle with.  Five hours of difficult terrain and formidable enemies, minions of the one now dead below my feet, stood between myself and the one I was sent to rid from this world.  Five hours, only to meet the most dangerous foe I have ever encountered.  The battle was not short.  A chess match of wits if you will, between myself and an enemy with an arsenal of tools and weapons.  Standing over fifty feet tall, the battle required every ounce of skill, passion and devotion possible from myself and my comrades.  My hands shake and my mind races as I consider my reward and the rewards for my team.  Rewards of great importance, for the battle did not start five hours ago; it took years of countless hours honing my skills, improving my weaponry, and fortifying my team.  I sacrificed family, money, career and many other things to be able to stand where I am standing today.  Fallen along the way, countless compatriots incapable of seeing the task through to completion.  There were trials no doubt, yet the goal always in sight.  As we make our way back to the city, the tale of our exploits precedes us.  Our force is met with praise and adoration.  The praise though will only last for a few short weeks, for we have heard the rumblings of a new foe, even stronger than the one we just vanquished.  Tonight, we celebrate, for tomorrow we must begin again.  This is of course a story.  Yet let there be no doubt that while this event happened in a virtual world, playing a virtual character, defeating a virtual enemy in the game World of Warcraft, it is absolutely real life, my real life.  The foe, sword, and summit may not have been real, but the time, sacrifice, effort, and years of preparation most certainly were. 

Released in 2004, World of Warcraft (WoW) is an MMORPG: a Massively Multiplayer Role Playing Game.  With over ten million subscribers, paying up to fifteen dollars per month to play, it is one of the largest, most played, most profitable games on the planet.[1]  It is known for deep storylines and its engaging, even addicting, gameplay model which focuses on questing: completing focused tasks for various non-playable characters (NPC’s) and raids or dungeons, which pit a group of players up against very strong enemies in strategic encounters.  This model was not invented by Blizzard Entertainment, the game’s creators, many came before it such as Everquest and Ultima Online, yet it was most certainly perfected by them and is now emulated relentlessly.  In spite of the emergence of hundreds of competitors and what the market would call “WoW clones” World of Warcraft remains the gold-standard in persistent online gaming.

I played World of Warcraft for many reasons.  I was not happy in my career, I enjoyed the company of the people I played with, but most importantly I relished the challenge of being successful in the game. Challenges I was not experiencing in “real life”.  I was a “guild leader” for many of my WoW-playing days.  Guilds are organized groups of real players, who play together on a regular basis.  Guilds usually have a structure, a chain of command, duties and tasks to keep the guild running effectively, as well as resources and materials shared amongst the guild to allow it to grow and prosper.  Guilds are the life-blood of MMORPG’s.  As a guild leader, I managed close to 300 individual players.  I organized our events, our dungeon or raid times, recruitment, a website and voice communication system not to mention the constant flow of those resources and materials necessary for our in-game success.  World of Warcraft was hard work, a daily grind to make your virtual character better than it was the day before.  There were hundreds of paths to that end, plenty of variety, and all I had to do each night was log in and decide which part of Azeroth I wanted to explore.  Managing a guild easily doubled the workload of playing WoW.  I came home from a full-time job, only to virtually have another almost full-time job.  At the peak of my WoW- playing time, I was putting over fifty hours into World of Warcraft per week.  Why do gamers work so hard, and sacrifice so much in order to achieve what amounts to virtual cred?  Why are hundreds of millions of students going home to their computers as I did and participating in marathon gaming sessions in order to achieve virtual rewards?  Why are students not putting the same effort into their schooling as they are into their gaming?  What does gaming have to teach us about motivating students to not only excel but be creative and work together while doing it?  Now, more than ever, it is critically important for educators to understand what is happening in this realm that has for far too long been ignored.  There is a massive chasm which exists between a student’s technological experience at home, and the experience (or lack thereof) which they receive at school. At home students are constantly engaged with technology, be that YouTube, iTunes, using an App on their iPad or playing a video game. These can no longer be seen by educators as a “waste of time”. These are opportunities which are passing us by. Students playing games are reading, solving problems, finding creative solutions to issues, learning about history and science, and working collaboratively to succeed. Games contain elements of motivation, goal setting, achievement and challenging (but not too challenging) objectives which need to be reached to get to the next level. Why are we keeping these educational tools out of the classroom? The questions posed here will begin to inform a new view on gaming and education.  Students are ready to learn, but do so most effectively when teachers are ready to teach them in the ways they want to learn.

Gamers around the world come home from full-time jobs, or school, and sit down at a computer to work hard building up characters and guilds.  According to Dr. Jane McGonigal in “Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better And How They Can Change The World” we choose this hard work because the hard work we do in our day job, or at school is simply not the right type of work for us:

When we don’t choose hard work for ourselves, it’s usually not the right

work, at the right time, for the right person. It’s not perfectly customized

for our strengths, we’re not in control of the work flow, we don’t have a

clear picture of what we are contributing to, and we never see how it all

pays off in the end.  Hard work that someone else requires us to do just

doesn’t activate our happiness systems in the same way.  It all too often

doesn’t absorb us, doesn’t make us optimistic, and doesn’t invigorate us.

What a boost to global net happiness it would be if we could positively

activate the minds and bodies of hundreds of millions of people by

offering then better hard work… That’s exactly what the game industry

is doing today.  It’s fulfilling our need for better hard work – and helping

us choose for ourselves the right work at the right time… All good

gameplay is hard work.[2]

We like hard work.  Hard work makes people feel fulfilled and enriched in life.  When a student is not challenged in the classroom, when the work is neither interesting nor hard, students are unengaged.  Students spend hours upon hours playing games after school because virtually all positive psychologists agree that the hard work of gaming is its own reward.[3]  A primary source of the self-rewarding nature of gaming is in agency.  Gamers seek out hard work, in particular in persistent online worlds, because their actions have direct, meaningful consequences in the world.[4]  A player-base on a typical online gaming server may have ten-thousand regular players.  Of those regular players, only a small percentage play at an extremely high level; the level that fifty hours a week would result in.  In spite of only a small percentage being the hardest of the “hard-core” players, it is these players who are known server-wide.  Finally, hard work and great achievement will generate fame across this small world, and have lasting consequences.  Online gaming fills a critical void that real life, both work and school, do not fill: the fundamental human need achieve, share those achievements, and be praised for them:

We want others to see our strengths, and to reflect our achievements

back to us.  Success, as they say, means nothing alone.  For all the

positive feedback that a game can give us, we crave the praise and

admiration of our friends and family even more.[5]

It is clear that my desire to play games at a high level was driven by multiple factors.  I was driven to achieve because it was hard work which I craved and was not being supplied, at least properly, through my job.  I had a desire to live in a place where my actions had a direct impact on the world.  I believed then, as I believe now, that I have more to offer the world than simply filling out a desk job until I retire to golf.  Games provided the outlet for me to make a meaningful and lasting impact on a world.  The impact of my participation in this online world also yielded recognition and praise from a community I had grown to enjoy and respect.  These elements of game play cannot be understated, and when considering them in the context of education it becomes clear why our children have a lack of desire to achieve in school.  They are not challenged with hard work and do not feel as though their learning has any impact on their world or lives.  Students are not feeling rewarded for their work nor enjoying the company they keep at school, at least not enough to motivate them to work together as a team to learn and achieve, nor to work hard enough to feel as though learning was a reward in and of itself.

Self-realized positivity, hard work, and agency are critical factors in the influence of gaming on education.  While crucial, they do not answer one of the most critical questions a teacher will ask: how do video games make my practice better?  Games are a premiere multi-modal literacy tool which require students to read, write, and think critically, while providing an entertaining environment for those activities to take place.[6]  Students playing games are actively engaging in high level literacy, without even realizing it.  Students, especially when playing in online or co-operative worlds, are writing and responding with a critical mind, they are reading and assessing text by seeking out critical information in quests.  Students are solving problems and responding to emergencies in addition to, according to John Paul Gee, 36 different “learning principles” that video games promote.[7]  When considering the massive amounts of information on a computer screen at any given time, but especially during a World of Warcraft raid, there is a selective process occurring with the text and numbers on the screen being assessed, at incredible speed.  A highly effective player must not only clearly understand their position relative to an enemy, but the positions of all their teammates, while closely monitoring their damage output and intake and monitoring their “threat” level relative to their enemy.  Every word and every number is important in a raid encounter in World of Warcraft, and an effective “raider” will be fully capable of reading, comprehending, analyzing, and responding to each and every one of them.[8]  It is critical to note that in typical high level gaming situations, there is not only textual communication occurring on screen while the game is being played, but also voice communication, be it via Skype, Ventrilo or on board voice communication systems such as the one found in the Xbox Live service.  There should be little doubt that gaming is a multi-modal literacy power tool for teaching.  While games have broad appeal, and children of all ages, races and genders enjoy them, boys have the most to gain from using video games and are increasingly the most at risk of being disengaged from their education.  It is with boys that the technology use experience gap is most pronounced.  The Government of Ontario, when addressing the issues pertaining to boys literacy, explicitly referenced the value of gaming:

Some schools recognized that playing computer games can be

beneficial for students, and that establishing gaming centres

in the school can form part of a setting and culture of

information-seeking behaviours. By decoding images and

recognizing their references, students can develop the ability

for critical thinking about the visual world. Many games involve

contributing to forums and discussion boards to share

strategies, questions, and ideas, and to write stories that revolve

around characters and scenes from the games. Playing games

can also help students develop and transfer skills and abilities related to

inquiry-based learning. A few schools created a physical space to

house computers and related gaming activities. In other cases,

gaming centres were set up within classrooms to house activities,

which were periodically changed to offer fresh challenges.[9]

Gaming has been shunned in education for far too long.  The industry is, and has been for many years, a catalyst for creativity, imagination and entertainment and could be the same for education if only teachers and administrators would let it.  Gaming provides unique opportunities to challenge, motivate, reward and recognize student achievement.  It encourages students to set goals and seek to surpass them.  It turns ordinary students, who slip through the cracks of a boring and uninspired teaching program into dynamic learners with a passion for discovery.  Gaming reaches our boys like no other media can.  Instead of forcing our students to come into the same old school experience, teachers must come closer to the experiences students are having outside of the classroom.  Outside classrooms around the world, students are exploring new lands, climbing to the summit of a peak once thought unattainable, and raising their arms in victory after missions accomplished.  They aren’t doing that in school and it needs to change.


Alexander, Jonathan . "Gaming, Student Literacies, and the Composition Classroom: Some Possibilities for Transformation." College Composition and Communication 61, no. 1 (2009): 35-63. (accessed February 27, 2013).

McGonigal, Jane. Reality is broken: why games make us better and how they can change the world. New York: Penguin Press, 2011. Kindle Edition.

Me Read? And How! Ontario teachers report on how to improve boys' literacy skills.. Toronto: Government of Ontario, 2009.

Tribe Gaming. "Tribe Gaming - WOW - 25M Normal Dragon Soul - Spine of Deathwing - YouTube." YouTube. (accessed March 21, 2013).

WoW Insider. "World of Warcraft subscriber numbers remain over 10 million." WoW Insider - WoW News, Guides, and Analysis. (accessed March 1, 2013).

[1] WoW Insider. "World of Warcraft subscriber numbers remain over 10 million." WoW Insider - WoW News, Guides, and Analysis.

[2] Jane McGonigal, Reality is broken: why games make us better and how they can change the world, New York: Penguin Press, 2011. Kindle Edition, Loc 502.

[3] Reality is Broken, Loc 778.

[4] Reality is Broken, Loc 1032.

[5] Reality is Broken, Loc 1305.

[6]Jonathan Alexander, "Gaming, Student Literacies, and the Composition Classroom: Some Possibilities for Transformation." College Composition and Communication 61, no. 1 (2009), 36.

[7] Gaming, Student Literacies, and the Composition Classroom, 39.

[8] Tribe Gaming. "Tribe Gaming - WOW - 25M Normal Dragon Soul - Spine of Deathwing - YouTube." YouTube.

[9] Me Read? And How! Ontario teachers report on how to improve boys' literacy skills.. Toronto: Government of Ontario, 2009, 54.

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