Sunday, August 27, 2006

MMORPG Play and Cognitive Flexibility - LONG but worth the read

First, an apology and explanation to my doc'l gamers. You must have been wondering when I was going to say more. Well, I am one of those ex-English majors that has to swim around in it, immerse in the phenomenon, and wait for my muse, for my insight to surface. It is beginning to do so and this entry is occasioned by my need to convert some mental notes and musings into text.

I was working on a green quest in Tynaqua's quest log. She's a lvl 30 rogue troll. I hate it when quests go gray. This pesky quest has been driving me nuts. It's hard for me. I've tried it on several different days, starting back when it was yellow, and I've died a thousand deaths, so to speak. In exasperation, I checked in to the community knowledge base, thotbott, where I read the usual "I soloed this as a level 23 priest" and such. But this time, I was really compelled to understand why I could not accomplish this task, and then I found an entry by a rogue.

As my kid might say, "OMG!" Here's the post, with boldface player moves I have added for discussion:

Cake With Rogue
Score 0.1 Vote: [-] [+] by Kynmore, 2.5 months ago

Ding'ed to 25 just before i got to him. He has his 22 escourt, which spawns a 3rd escourt, the damned bot.

Cake! First off, use distraction to get Gerenzp to look away, then sap his ass. Take out the escourt, dont worry about her bot. Use vanish, and the bot will go away. Then, distract Gerenzo again, Ambush his ass, and take his arms.

Doesn't get more simple than that.

My jaw dropped when I read this, not because it held the key (because it still might have been more than I could manage), but because it demonstrated a very deep knowledge of the rogue skills and, thereby, a creativity or cognitive flexibility with those skills and that knowledge.

An aside for those unfamiliar with cognitive flexibility. Paragraph one is a defintion. Paragraph two is the reason I have not embraced it much.

Cognitive flexibility theory focuses on the nature of learning in complex and ill-structured domains. Spiro & Jehng (1990, p. 165) state: "By cognitive flexibility, we mean the ability to spontaneously restructure one's knowledge, in many ways, in adaptive response to radically changing situational demands...This is a function of both the way knowledge is represented (e.g., along multiple rather single conceptual dimensions) and the processes that operate on those mental representations (e.g., processes of schema assembly rather than intact schema retrieval)."

The theory is largely concerned with transfer of knowledge and skills beyond their initial learning situation. For this reason, emphasis is placed upon the presentation of information from multiple perspectives and use of many case studies that present diverse examples. The theory also asserts that effective learning is context-dependent, so instruction needs to be very specific. In addition, the theory stresses the importance of constructed knowledge; learners must be given an opportunity to develop their own representations of information in order to properly learn.


So I had gotten all these skills: vanish, sap, distraction. I could also take people out quite effectively. I'm a very good fighting rogue. But when I first got vanish, at lvl 22 I read its functionality and made a judgment about it. True, I went out and bought a 5-stack of flash powder, which it requires. But I put it on a secondary bar, for special case uses, and promptly forgot about it. Why? Because it has a 5 minute cool down, which means you use it once in a situation. Somehow I missed important features, such as its duration, 10 seconds (long time in a battle), and this: Also breaks movement impairing effects. All aggro'd mobs on Rogue will exit combat phase and return to their original locations or turn to other players if the rogue is in a party (WoWWiki entry).

So the lvl 25 rogue who wrote the entry understood vanish better than I do. But, more importantly, he understood how to string it together with a set of other talents, e.g., distraction (another move on my rare use tool bar) to experience the quest as a piece of cake.

How did I miss this?

Immediately I thought of last night's run with Twink and Clivenar and Meranda (me) and Orosquee to finish off the seal of wrynn chain. As we stood around in the garden in the keep, waiting our turn to kill the spy, another player, a kid we "know" as Denaly, was jumping and running around us all I can think of is a balloon that has been blown up and let go of, whirling around the room in random ways.

I found it mildly annoying, more amusing, but just kid behavior. He was also telling us he'd managed 500 HK (honor kills) in BGs that day. OMG, that's an amazing amount. This morning, while I pondered the rogue quest problem, those two fact collided. In BGs that very behavior is a valuable skill and strategy for rogues. I had an idea. I was reminded of ethology studies of baby primates play-fighting with each other to learn to be adult primates fighting for real. Denaly, and my own kid, Orosquee, play like this inside the game at idle moments. A lot times we find it hugely annoying, but it may serve a similar novice practice function. It may open up possibilities for them to experience their skills/moves separate from any particular use-context that would make them a tool for X, and instead more deeply embue them with the context of things I can do as a rogue, and thus available to me in all my rogue contexts. We adults, we encounter a new talent and think about how it fits our game play -- our past game play -- and make a decision about its role and utility, and promptly pigeon hole it.

After all, quests are deliciously ill-defined problem spaces that ask us to just get the jorb done however we see fit, with the tools and insights at our disposal. I certainly limit what's at my disposal. I didn't see vanish as a tool I might use on my quest. I just didn't see it. When I read the entry, my reaction was first, jees that's a lot of stuff to remember to do... and then, DOH! only for me, the dweeb who has locked her tools in a fixed game play style. I'm just burning through the levels with the rogue. I want to level her up. And ironically that very reconceptualization of quests as barriers to levels is what made the task hard. Hey stupid, it's a R O L E playing game. As Woody Allen intones in the film, Antz, be the ball. I need to BE the rogue.

And I know this. I have read earlier Thotbott postings about some grinding task that someone was bitching about, which occasioned the reply posting that went something like this: Dude, that's how BLizzard gets you to practice that skill. It's better than some stupid tutorial; you get points for it. So STFU and stop complaining, n00b. How could I read that, agree with and get it, and still not get it?

Wow, am I a n00b, eight months later, despite my several high level characters!

And, this returns me to the initial point. I want to look through the postings for evidence of this sort of exploration. I want to watch players like Denaly and Akmalla, both hugely annoying at times when they are goofing around with new skills (a reconstruction of the

Now at some preconscious level I knew this. I had already begun looking around in the literature for work on the role of play, beyond the ethologist point of view though. Dorothy Holland and LS Vygotsky, himself, have things to say about play and learning, and so I am heading back to reread books they've written that I already own.


Thursday, August 24, 2006

When tribalism dies

Something that I'd perhaps subtly understood before came into stark relief with the last patch for WoW, and that's that change, which is so often gradual in RL, is distinct and identifiable in a world that is defined by software. Patch Tuesday is like a virtual Sept. 11 or the assassination of JFK - there's a before and an after, and each side of the demarcation has its own assumptions.

The deployment of the 1.12 patch, which brought cross-realm battlegrounds to WoW, will be looked back on as a point when, for valid and defensible reasons, Blizzard sacrificed the sense of server community on the altar of shorter BG queues. And, while I'm generally pleased with the new world we're living in, the change was abrupt enough that I'm a little sad, or perhaps nostalgic, for what once was.

I've been playing in the Khaz Modan BGs now for several months, long enough to get to know names on the Horde side, and a lot of the regulars on the Alliance side. I read through the Khaz Modan forums regularly, know a lot of the regular forum trolls there, and generally feel like part of a larger community, even if I didn't contribute much to it directly. 10,000 people, or whatever a WoW realm holds, actually felt like a much smaller town when I ran in the BGs, or the forums, because of the smaller subset that frequented those areas.

Now, however, going into WSG is kind of like flying into LAX - there are 12 contests going at any one time, and there's little or no expectation of seeing anyone you know. Sometimes the group is good, sometimes not, but what's interesting is how anonymous it can feel. The Horde I kill feel a lot like the person I cut off on the 405 - I'll never see them again.

But I love the speed of the queues, so complaining is a little silly. As a game, the change was a superior choice; as community, it reminds me of the arrival of air travel or railroads to the rural dwellers - a whole wide world opened up, but at the same time, something got a little lost too. Fascinating.

Friday, August 18, 2006

stuff 'n things

Julian Dibbell wrote me an email today inviting me to join his Horde guild group on another realm. His email reply came approximately 5 months after my last email to him and was clearly occasioned by his cleaning out his email. At any rate, it sent me traipsing over to TN to see what was up over there, and suddenly I found myself generating replies to two separate postings, one of which led me to another blog, which led me to another project. These last two items are sufficiently compelling to post here right before your eyes to encourage your perusal of them.

First, Kuurian Expedition blog, which I got to from the Synthetic Worlds Initiative at I.U. Wow, who knew. So check them out too. The Kuurian Expedition -- oh duh I just got Korean, DOH! -- is also playing WoW, though if they are doing Deadmines runs, they aren't too far along. They are also meeting inside Second Life.
Jonas Karlsson announces that the Kuurian Expedition, a Community Relations project of the Indiana University Synthetic Worlds Initiative, has now established a guild inside of Second Life. Journalists, researchers, authors and anyone else interested in being introduced to Synthetic Worlds are encouraged to join each Synthetic World's Kuurian Expedition for friendly, mature, professional, and fun exploration.

Somehow I got here too, from the SWI page. Democracy Island...VIcky, they are inviting the locals to plan the park in a virtual sketchpad. The cool thing here is the transport of the wiki notion to a visual collaboration.

I think we are finding SL's meaning and it isn't formal, intentional education. It might be a redefinition of collaboration software, per both the uses described in this post.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Distinguishing characteristics/patterns of successful and less successful group tasks in WoW

Here's a thought, after having played another bad dungeon that didn't go far before everyone bailed.

You get a group of folks to agree that, when the dungeon is done or when they leave the party, they will give you a signal: 1, 2, 3, where 1 = great; 2 = okay; and 3 = awful. You capture the chat, as a participant observer, and hopefully capture the video stream. When done, folks give rating. You do a debrief with as many as you can get to show up. You tape their remarks (Second Life would be good for this.)

You go back through your data sets, where one set = one dungeon, BG, or raid (with chat, video, ratings, and hopefully debrief). You sort them by ratings, taking care to put disputed sets (mixed ratings) in their own pile. You go through each pile of datasets trying to identify common themes in that set. Then you look across sets at what differentiates the good, the bad, and the mediocre...and the mixed bag. What do the good ones have in common? How do they differ from the others?

Maybe it will be leadership. Maybe it will be communication. Maybe it will experience (expertise in group). etc etc.

At write up, you make the case for dungeons or BGs or instances as cases of a particular kind of collaborative work. If this kind of collaborative work occurs in the real world, at work or at school or in-between, you can make discuss what you've found out about what makes more and less successful task or project collaborations.

You could do something similar with guilds... You have to have insider ratings to use to differentiate the variations based upon criteria identified by the users, e.g.,BG twink guilds serve different needs than endgame raiding guilds. The you look in the clearly demarcated grouping for what is common within the group, and how the grouping is differentiated from others.

These two studies should also give you a predictive power that you can check out. Then, of course, you'll want to move it to a real world setting and see if the principles hold true.

Friday, August 11, 2006

OK, a chance for Linda to go all "Professorial" on my ass

Ok, I've held off on this because I wanted to think a little more about it, see if I could come up with some answers before exposing my ignorance. But I think we're at a crossroads in our discussions here, so I'll ask the question:

Why's Nick Yee's work so fatally flawed?

Here's the context of the question as I see it. Yee acknowledges that he's working with a self-selected sample of the population, and I think I understand the inherent problem that self-selection brings. However, in statistics, isn't there a certain numerical point where a sample size, regardless of selection method, crosses a threshold and begins to become significant? Maybe I'm wrong, but at a certain point I'd assume that the sheer power of numbers begins to overwhelm the self-selection, and the sample becomes a valid representation of the population.

Further, how can we overcome the problems that you seen in Yee's methodology? It seems to me that if we're studying customers of proprietary virtual worlds, and the owners of those worlds either can't or won't make the population available to us for us to draw a statistically relevant sample, how do we proceed? If we go out with an open call for feedback, don't screen the responses, and get back 50,000 responses, isn't that an adequate sample to make some judgments on?

I guess I look at it like this - if we're studying the incidence of a type of cancer in the general population, there's really no one that "owns" the right to look at medical data or "cause of death" data, so researchers with some skill can get access to the information they need. But in the situation of Blizzard or Sony Online, they could make the argument that it would be detrimental to their relationship with their subscribers/players/customers, and detrimental to the players' in-game experience, to allow researchers to contact players for research purposes. From the game developers' perspective, facilitating research becomes not just a hassle, but actually a negative outcome. If that's true, and as a researcher you're still committed to garnering player opinions, how do you avoid something that looks a lot like Yee's solution?

Understand that I'm not arguing for sloppy research, but looking at both Yee and the PARC Play On projects, both seem hamstrung by the gatekeeping function of the publishers. Are we left to wait until we can somehow garner support from the publishers, or can we take half steps (which is how I'd see Yee's work) until such time as the playing field shifts?

As I said, I've been hesitant to ask because I have the feeling I'm asking something I should have already understood about academic research, but since I clearly don't... I'm looking forward to being enlightened.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

A WoW wedding

Thought this might be of interest - I thought I'd attend to see what it looked like. A gnome and a NElf getting hitched.


A wedding, followed by world PVP - woohoo!

Friday, August 04, 2006

I Hang out in SL not WoW - Why?

A worthwhile angle for consideration in understanding the value of and motivation for spending time in a virtual world might turn up if folks help me cogitate over why I've not played WoW for a while now. I could say it was because I was finishing up my coursework and looking for a job - and of course, that is true. But it is also true the WoW isn't very high on my priority list for scarce time (and I can't trade sleeptime for playtime, like some of my time-pressed colleagues). And - during this same period, I've spent hours in Second Life and interacting with my SL colleagues both out- and in-world. And - when I've had free time since end of coursework, I've been reading (living in totally imaginary worlds). Actually, when I log on to my computer I always start up SL (because I can truly multi-task with it, leaving an SL window open while I go about my other activities).

Maybe it is because I have never reallly been a gamer. I don't know how much that goes along with my disinterest in sports; collective striving in a competitive environment has never engaged me for some reason. I don't even watch sports on tv, or attend sporting events. (Don't report me to Homeland Security, please, I really am an American). My "sport" in high school was modern dancing. The only activity that I enjoy that is only loosely classified as a sport is swimming.

I do enjoy WoW, and likely could get addicted to it. Now that may seem contradictory. But the pull and emotion that I feel toward WoW is very like my relationship to potato chips. I love potato chips - the greasier and at the same time the crisper the better. If I have a bag of potato chips in the house, they might last a day. But if I never buy potato chips, they just pass out of my conscious awareness, and I don't think about them (chocolate on the other hand never goes out of my consciousness). When I start playing WoW, I go to another place where time just disappears - but in fact, it is very similar to the kind of place I go when I read. I'm the kind of reader who sits down to read a book, and looks up four hours later answering "huh?" to friend or family who've been trying to get my attention for thirty minutes. But if I don't play for a while, I don't miss it.

I'm NOT saying that I think that there is more "there" in SL than in WoW, although I know that several of you believe the converse. I think what I'm saying is that my connection with WoW is perhaps both more narrow and shallower than for the rest of the playlate gang. On the other hand, my relationship to SL is more like one that I would have to this fantastic coffeehouse where I can go to talk about things I care about with people who also care, or collaborate on some project that matters to us, or listen to music from a fresh new independent band, or watch kinetic art.

In SL, I can disappear into building, but mostly it is solo. But my most satisfying interactions are with my SL buds - I've got 30 friends on my friends list. Some of them are from CadreX (the Dissertation Club Crew - we've already gotten together in the Cafe Malibu, the coffeehouse I put on our island). I'm a member of the RL EdD/PhD Graduate Students Colony in SL, and get with people both for formal meetings and just as I run into them (SL lets me know when/where friends are when they come in-world). I've rediscovered people who were important to me in my other life (NLII) in SL. I get together regularly with different people in-world, and talk about what is important to us - teaching and learning and virtual worlds. We argue about immersion, presence, spatiality in virtual worlds, and the value of these dimensions for learning. We show each other cool new toys and utilities we've developed - you guys would have loved the incredible show that Karla Pixie did last week with her particle generator (I've asked her to the grand opening of Malibu Island I'm thinking about setting up for end of August). And I meet people like the NASA guy who is incorporating games into their work with educators.

Perhaps it is a question of identity: Wendy Widget is a more representative of RL Vicki; Perrenelle is a good vacation from RL Vicki. That's all I can identify in this first pass at understanding the differences in appeal between the two. This is not to say that I will stop playing WoW; I plan on making it a Friday evening activity. But I've gotten out of synch with everyone else in the playlate group, and will need to figure out some bridging efforts that I might carry out - which is thought-provoking in itself, in the context of communities of practice and legitimate peripheral participation.