ACM Logo  An ACM Publication  |  CONTRIBUTE  |  FOLLOW    

Virtual worlds, real tasks

By David Jea / September 2008

Print Email
Comments Instapaper

Educators have started recognizing that video games will play a significant role in the future of learning. Online games are the new playground for children and teenagers, and present unique opportunities for rich online learning environments. However, addiction to online games causes educational and social problems for which teachers, parents, and researchers are seeking solutions. And those who create online games bear some responsibility for participants' well-being. I'd like to suggest channeling negative addiction patterns into positive energy by integrating virtual mixed-reality tasks—which can involve real-world community service—into online games.

The Prevalence of MMORPG

MMORPG stands for massive multiplayer online role-playing games. Players create and control fictional characters to interact with others in a fantasy world. The primary goal is to develop the player's character. MMORPG is popular worldwide among young people, but especially in East Asia.

A survey conducted in October 2007 showed that 88.2% of kids age 11 to 14 in Taiwan play online games on a regular basis. On weekdays, 18.5% spend more than 3 hours a day playing online games; 43.8% do so on weekends. In China, a popular MMORPG has reached a peak of 1.66 million players concurrently online. In South Korea, up to 30% of those under 18 (population 2.4 million) are risking Internet addiction. World of Warcraft, a highly popular MMORPG, had 10 million active subscriptions worldwide as of December 2007.

Control Won't Work

In 2005, China introduced a system meant to thwart online game addiction. It cuts in-game awards by half after three hours of continuous play and bans awards after five hours. In 2007, the government forced game publishers to incorporate this mechanism into all online games and use ID numbers to identify players under 18.

But control is not a good solution to this problem. As every parent knows, trying to control young people is extremely difficult and often damaging to familial relationships. And kids always find ways around outside controls: In China, some kids used their parents' ID numbers to avoid limitations. It's clear that we need something besides control.

Channeling the Gaming Desire into Social Services

Why are these games so attractive? Because they have created a "fair" virtual world in which success is not determined by age, social background, or education level. Gamers interact equally with peers and get fulfillment from achievements they cannot attain in the real world. Good-faith effort is rewarded appropriately.

In a MMORPG, players are loyal to characters they create and they drive the game by accomplishing endless "tasks." A task may take several minutes, hours, days, or even months to be completed. Harder tasks come with attraction of greater rewards in forms of experience points or further empowerment of a character. The inevitable desire to make characters stronger and stronger leads a player into addiction.

But these desires can be channeled back into society. A virtual mixed-reality task consists of a virtual task (which is the original task designed in the game) and an alternate reality task. The reality tasks can take the form of community service with rewards in the game. For example, a player can do a one-hour street cleaning to receive a sword in the game, or help out a local fire department to receive experience points. These tasks can be embedded into games for users to complete. This would motivate kids to engage with the real world while reducing potentially addictive continuous game playing.

It's key that players be allowed to choose for themselves between real and virtual tasks, and the real-world tasks should be designed to take less time. Rewards must be comparable between the two. This balance is a crucial part of motivating gamers to stay with the game and not switch to another. We must address the addiction issue in a thoughtful and measured way if we are to fulfill the potential of virtual worlds in education.


  • There are no comments at this time.