Last night I was mining Gold Omber in the asteroid belt near Erindur VI, and I can't begin to tell you what an accomplishment that was. (This post is not just about spaceships, but about pacifists, Ethiopia and education, so non-gaming educators and therapists keep reading.) OK, let me tell you why it was an accomplishment. I am talking about playing the MMO EVE Online, which involves piloting spaceships across vast amounts of space in order to mine, trade, build or pirate among other things. In essence, your spaceship is your character, with the ship's parts being the equivalent of your armor and weapons in games like World of Warcraft. But you can only build or use these parts as your pilot acquires skills, ranging from engineering to planetology to cybernetics, so in that way the player's pilot is the character in the game. But at the start of the game you're told that the pilot is actually a clone (this becomes important later on) and as someone was explaining to me last night the whole cloning thing has its own complications once you start using implants to modify individual clones, which you can only do after you've trained the skill of Cybernetics. And why all that is important is because once you use implants you can learn skills more quickly.
If you think that is confusing, try learning how to use the sprawling user interface or UI, which one of my friends says "was made by demons who hate people, hate their hopes and dreams. Know that you are playing with toys made by demons for their amusement and tread lightly." Another way of putting it is that you have keep trying to remember what window you opened in the game to do what, and often have multiple windows open simultaneously in order to figure out what you're doing or buying or training. There is a robot tutorial program in the game that helps somewhat, but the whole thing is very frustrating and intriguing for the first several hours of game play. During this time I was ganked repeatedly, lost lots of loot and ore I had mined, as well as a nice spaceship or two. So to get to the point where I had learned enough skills to be able to warp halfway across the galaxy, lock onto an asteroid, orbit and mine it while defending myself from marauders was extremely exciting. I was only able to do this because my above-mentioned friend had given me a much bigger and safer ship than I had started out with, as well as lots of instructions on how to do things; and because I was chatting with people in the game who offered great tips. Of course one of those people then clicked on my profile in chat to then locate me and gank me again (bye-bye nice ship,) but the knowledge is mine to keep.
By now you may be asking "what has any of this got to do with psychotherapy, social work or education?" so I'll explain. I had tried EVE months ago, and given up after about a week of on and off attempts, but this past month I have begun teaching an online course for college educators and MSWs about integrating technology into psychotherapy and education. One of the required exercises in the course is for the students to get a trial account of World of Warcraft and level a character to 20. There has been a lot of good-natured reluctance and resistance to doing this, in this class and others: I have been asked to justify this course material in a way I have never had to justify other learning materials to students. This included several objecting to playing the game because of violent content prior to playing it much or at all. It's as if people were not initially able to perceive the course material of World of Warcraft as being in the same oeuvre as required readings or videos. It is one thing to bring up in your English literature class that you found the violence in "Ivanhoe" or the sex in "The Monk" objectionable after reading it, but I've not heard of cases where students have refused to read these books for class based on those objections. So I was curious, what made video games so different in people's minds?
Things became easier for several folks after I set up times to meet them in the game world, and help them learn and play through the first few quests. As I chatted with them and tried to explain the basic game mechanics I realized that I had learned to take for granted certain knowledge and skills, such as running, jumping, and clicking on characters to speak with them. I started to suspect that the resistance to playing these games was perhaps connected to the tremendous amount of learning that was having to go on in order to even begin to play the game. In literacy education circles we would call this learning pre-readiness skills. Being thrown into a learning environment in front of peers and your instructor was unsettling, immediate, and potentially embarrassing. And I think being educators may have actually made this even harder. Education in the dominant paradigm of the 20th and 21st century seeks to create literary critics and professors as the ultimate outcome of education, according to Ken Robinson. So here are a group of people who have excelled at reading and writing suddenly being asked to learn and develop an entirely new and different skill set within the framework of a college course: Of course they were frustrated.
So I started playing EVE again not just to have fun, but to have a little refresher course in empathy. I have leveled to 90 in WoW, so I know how to do things there, and had begun to forget how frustrating and bewildering learning new games can be. In EVE I have been clueless and failing repeatedly, and getting in touch with how frustrating that learning curve can be. I have also been re-experiencing how thrilling it is the first time I make a connection between too concepts or actions in the game: When I realized that there was a difference between my "Assets" and my "Inventory" I wanted to shout it from the rooftops. I have begun to see and help my students reflect on similar "learning rushes" when they get them as well. They are now , in short, rocking the house in Azeroth.
We forget how thrilling and confusing it can be to learn sometimes, especially to the large population on the planet that doesn't necessarily want to be a college professor or psychotherapist. We forget that our patients and students are asked to master these frustrations and resistances every day with little notice or credit.
There is a village in Ethiopia, where 20 children were given Xoom tablet computers last year. The researchers/founders of One Laptop Per Child dropped them off in boxes to these children, who had never learned to read or write. They were offered no instruction and the only restriction placed on the tablet was to disable the camera. Within minutes the children had opened the box and learned how to turn the computers on; within weeks they were learning their ABCs and writing; and within months they had learned how to hack into the tablet and turn the camera back on, all without teachers. This story inspires and terrifies many. It is inspiring in that it tells the story of what children can learn if they are allowed to be experimental and playful. It is terrifying because if all this was done without a teacher to lecture or a therapist to raise self-esteem, it raises the question "do we still need them?"
Having played EVE, and taught academics in World of Warcraft, let me assure you that the world still needs teachers and therapists. But the world needs us to begin to learn how to teach and help in a different way. If EVE had nothing but online tutorials I would have probably struggled more and given up. I needed to remain social and related to ask for help, listen to tips, and get the occasional leg up. We need to retrain ourselves in empathic attunement by going to the places that scare or frustrate us, even if those places are video games. The relationship is still important; to inspire, encourage and enjoy when learning happens in its myriad forms. But we need to remember that there are many literacies and that not all human beings aspire to teach an infinitely recurring scholasticism to others. We need to remember how embarrassing it can be to "not get it," and how the people we work with every day are heroic that they can continue to show up to live and be educated in a system that humiliates them.
What's exciting and promising, though, is this simple fact: Learning is happening everywhere, all the time! Whether it's a village in Ethiopia, Elwynn Forest in Azeroth, or in orbit around Erindur VI; learning is happening. Across worlds real and imagined, rich and poor, learning IS happening.
And we get to keep all the knowledge we find.