Well, I’ve finally gone and done it. I’ve downloaded the trial version of World of Warcraft.

I feel terrible about this, because I know I have a tendency to be obsessive about entertainment (not just games, but books, TV shows and other things too), and WoW has quite the reputation in that line. It’s a blight on social lives, the bane of relationships, the ruiner of study habits everywhere.

I strongly suspected that I would enjoy WoW, which is a big part of why I avoided it like the plague. But if I want to design games for the future of our educational system, then I have to know what’s out there. I may not be able to play everything, but I can’t completely ignore the biggest new genre of the past 15 years. So you see, I’m not doing this for me—I’m doing it for your children.

The verdict so far, after about 3 hours of total play time: yeah, it’s great. The art design is fantastic, so good that the game looks beautiful even on my 3-year old G4 Mac laptop. (Seriously, I’m practically running this thing with flat-shaded polys. This reminds me of when I used to play Myth over a dial-up AOL connection and half in virtual memory.) I’m having fun doing everything, from character creation, to running around the environment, to undertaking quests.

It’s even fun to kill boars, which I was pretty sure would be the most painful part of the game. And that’s where I got my first game design lesson from WoW: motivation is the key. If you can’t make every single part of the game fun—and I do think that educational content is going to prove an obstacle to fun in some cases—then make it as fun as you can, and cover for it by providing the player with a reason to want to accomplish the task at hand. For me, there are two things keeping me clicking on boars, even though it’s not that great of an experience in and of itself:

  1. I like leveling up characters, both in terms of stats and loot.
  2. World of Warcraft lets you know before you accept a quest exactly what you will be able to select as a reward.

Even this simple lesson, which I think is an important one, raises questions for me. First of all, I believe that no one game will be the best way for all students to learn a particular subject. People learn in different ways, and for some—whether due to learning style or game style—a quest-based educational game will not be the way to go. Given that, I still wonder whether many students would be motivated to continue playing and learning by a stats-based character development system. Is a more social system better (i.e. points with which to buy clothes, style hair, and generally customize character design)? What about a progression system that provides new abilities that allow access to new areas, rich with new content, eye-candy and minigames?

The possibilities of an educational MMO, or even of a single-player game that mimics certain aspects of MMOs, are incredibly enticing. Second Life incorporates a limited web browser within the game. Imagine providing a limited in-game web that young players could use for research, as they attempt to answer questions to gain entrance into an in-game science club. A mock-web would allow players to gain real-web research skills without forcing the game developer to try to control inappropriate content. At the same time, it would allow project-based learning, ARG-like experiences within the world of the game, and more.