Learning from Games: Making Decisions for Others

Chris McNutt
March 12, 2021
Even the most well-intentioned changes can have horrific outcomes.
Learning from Games: Making Decisions for Others
           Pictured: A screenshot of Star Wars Galaxies with science fiction-clad characters gathered around a player.


Back in 2003, I was obsessed with the online multiplayer RPG: Star Wars Galaxies (SWG.) Joining hundreds of thousands of other players, enthusiastic aspiring-Jedi, bounty hunters, and Bantha herders, sprung into a massive, open Star Wars universe for the first time. Verant Interactive Inc. (later acquired and renamed to Sony Online Entertainment (SOE)) and LucasArts teamed up to release the widely anticipated title, and expected their widely ambitious game to make millions upon millions of dollars.

Star Wars Galaxies was confusing and filled with technical issues. It required players to read pages upon pages of tutorials to understand what was going on, had many unintuitive systems that made no sense, and frequently "bugged out." Despite these underlying issues, SWG maintained a quarter of a million players after its launch. Charging $15/mo, SOE was generating millions in revenue.

Yet, in 2004, World of Warcraft, a direct competitor, launched to millions of subscription numbers. SOE was floored: how could another game, so much like their own (and not Star Wars!) have so many players? They started producing a ton of new content from piloting TIE fighters and X-wings to releasing new areas to explore. Nonetheless, subscriber numbers remained relatively the same.

Obsessed with being able to compete with World of Warcraft, SOE took drastic measures. Even though they were generating a profit, it wasn't enough. They implemented a seemingly random, out of nowhere, notorious change called New Game Enhancements, which drastically overhauled the game - from changing how players interacted with the world, to changing core components of player identities, to completing reinventing combat and exploring. Players were outraged, and subscriber numbers dropped to below 10,000. Essentially, this was the end of SWG: without enough players to sustain itself, the project was closed down.

What makes New Game Enhancements interesting is that, in retrospect, a lot of these changes were for the best. NGE fixed many of the underlying problems of the game, made it less convoluted, and solved issues that led to many early players leaving. However, it was sprung on the community randomly with no forewarning. Players were left confused and betrayed. Some of the changes wiped out player achievements. Players who were involved with SWG for hundreds of hours over multiple years, and now it was completely different. Despite their best efforts, SOE couldn't replicate the success of World of Warcraft, destroying their customer base in the process.

Player Feedback and Community Building

I bring up the story of Star Wars Galaxies because it showcases a critical point for educators: the importance of asking, listening, and learning. Oftentimes, our professional development is no different than a game developer's board meeting - we bring up issues, attempt to solve them, then spring them on others - all without ever asking them what they want. It isn't that there aren't problems, or that we shouldn't attempt to make things better. And it isn't that educators and administrators can't develop plans to solve these problems. Instead, it's that we listen to young people too: we have to ask for feedback, listen to opinions, and validate concerns.

Our entire approach to schooling is rooted in positivist pedagogy: students are at the whim of the teacher - the teacher gives out a bunch of information, then students state what they've learned on a test. Many educators put spins on this: gamifying learning, offering multiple paths each lesson, or making open-note tests. Yet at the end of the day, we're trying to solve the problem by guessing what will improve this process. We aren't asking, nor are we questioning the basis of the pedagogy itself.

Co-developing a classroom is an arduous task. It requires us to go slowly, something we often feel is impossible in the grueling game of standards-based learning and standardized testing. We have to build a culture of feedback through long discussions, providing tools for students to speak out, and rethinking our lessons/projects.

Even the most well-intended changes to the classroom can have horrific outcomes. When I first dove into progressive pedagogy, I believed I had the perfect solution to low engagement: multiple projects that were student-led with various ways to participate and community connections. On paper, I thought it was very cool. Quickly into the process I realized that a sizable number of students hated the entire thing. They asked me why we weren't learning anything. (As in, why are we not writing a research paper, or engaging in more teacher-led lessons?) I wrote it off, after all…this is what the research says: if we create hands-on, student-driven lessons, the students will learn more! This was an arrogant and terrible take.

Just like New Game Enhancements, the final product that we produced was pretty darn interesting: students created amazing projects relative to what we were doing before. I was blown away by their resourcefulness, creativity, and ability to learn in an entirely new way. But, they didn't necessarily appreciate it. Feedback showed that although some students loved what we were doing, many didn't understand why we were doing it. I barely spent any time at all co-developing the process with students or explaining the why. As a result, we walked away with some great skills but not a love of learning.

This is the not-so-subtle problem many progressive educators face: in our path to reform classrooms and create new, human-centered systems, we ignore the voice of students. We may create systems that allow for student voice, but the actual contextualization and creation of those systems didn't include them. For school reform to be successful, we need young people to co-develop these processes with us.

In later years, I shifted this process. We don't open with many progressive shifts. In fact, we start off relatively traditional (with some changes to assessment, discipline, and other non-student-centered ideas, which we talk about in detail.) As the year progresses, we engage in multiple conversations about the purpose of school and what learners hope to achieve - then, we co-design a classroom that features many progressive ideas. Of course, I already know what these changes may look like…and I may steer students in a certain direction, but it always ends up looking different each time, and likely more traditional than I would envision.

These progressive changes are important and research backs it up, but having students "take their medicine" of progressive ed. is no different than positivist pedagogy. Involving students in the process legitimizes what we're doing, develops a community framework, and engages. Further, it teaches the skills progressive schooling aims to foster: democratic thinking, learning-by-doing, and building an equitable power-dynamic. Our students must work together, discuss what's going on, open up, and raise their voices to decide what needs to change.

In closing, no matter how great our ideas, how high our aims, or how worried we are about what's going on at other schools, on standardized tests, or on national mandates, we must always center the voices in the classroom. We cannot exemplify the colonial, white saviorism that envelops classroom management. And, we must be careful of making grandiose changes without warning, without the voices of our community. Otherwise, we'll lose the community we're trying to help.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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