Case Study 6 : World of Warcraft

David White, University of Oxford

World of Warcraft (WoW) is a Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) game in which players battle with mythical creatures in a 3D world which is a thematic and aesthetic rendering of the fantasy genre. The phenomenal success of the game and it’s realization of a Tolkien-style world often mask the sophisticated processes and structures which motivate the players to learn. In many respects this form of gaming is the apex of online social and collaborative spaces. When abstracted away from the slaying of dragons WoW foregrounds numerous technical and social principles which can be applied to e-learning in a more generally. This form of gaming is in many respects the apex of online social and collaborative spaces.

The core aim of the game in WoW is to reach the highest experience level by completing tasks. These start as very simple quests which can be done quickly by individual player and gradually scale-up until in the later stages of the game it requires up to 25 players working as a team hours per session to progress. Players can choose a version of the game in which they can fight each other, fight the environment (computer generated characters) or simply role-play. The player against environment version is of most interest as the competitive aspect of play is driven by a range of factors all of which are amplified by the games ability to support a society of players. In a single player game you are competing solely against the computer (the leader board in traditional arcade games is a notable exception which moves the single player game to one that is socially competitive) in WoW and other MMO games elements such as experience points and game gear (amour, swords, spells etc) become embodied forms of social capital. So whilst an individual players primary focus will be to move up through the levels their motivation is as much to gain the respect of their in-world peers as it is to complete the game. In addition this social dimension encourages other more complex motivations such as being known as trustworthy or as a good team player.

WoW uses a number of techniques to encourage the formation of communities of players rather than simply having multiple individuals in the same space. The three most significant being their management of presence, the formation of multi-skilled teams and the pursuit of clear goals within an overarching narrative. The first two of these are, in my opinion, areas which have not been properly investigated by those designing online leaning spaces or programmes of study.

A crucial factor in harnessing the motivation that can come from being part of a community of learners is gaining the trust of the individuals who take part. They need to know that the environment is safe but they also need to trust that there are other people present in that environment who will react to their contributions in some form. This factor is what motivates participation/communication and is a necessary precursor to cooperation and forms of social constructivist learning. In WoW the player is immediately aware of the social presence of other via their realization as avatars (i.e. they can literally see them walking around) and by the General chat channel which is open by default. This chat channel is available to all players. Its movement as individuals contribute is an indication that there are other real people in the environment. These forms of presence are often not explicitly engaged with by the new player but they give an ambient sense of others which builds a feeling of potential community and allows the new player to learn the etiquette and right of passages of the world without having to initially risk visible engagement. These low risk forms of presence shift the satisfaction of completing game goals from the personal to the social.

WoW has been designed to encourage the formation of teams. When players choose a character to tackle the game they are selecting a specific range of potential skills such as magic, healing or fighting. In the later stages of the game goals can only be reached by groups of players made up from a range of races and classes to balance out these skills. Each player learns their role within the society of the game as they progress then joins a multi-skilled team in the later stages. The explicit assignment of roles in this manner encourages collaboration and through this collaboration the sense of belonging and worth of an individual within the game world is amplified. The format of the game allows players to experiment with different characters and therefore different roles to find the one they excel at or have the most fun with. The majority of players will have more than one character they can play at any one time depending on the type of role they wish to play in any given session.

In terms of teaching and learning assigning roles is crucial to collaboration. Often the roles need to evolve within a student group and cannot be made as explicit as within a game. Nevertheless the design of goals which actually require a mutli-skilled team rather than simply more person hours than an individual can cope with is often not properly considered when designing online learning. In some cases making roles more explicit whilst allowing the flexibility to change roles often could aid successful collaborative learning rather than simply working with an expectation that once certain communication tools are provided team work will follow. It is certainly the case that shared endeavor is a key factor in the facilitation of communities of learners.

The practice of teaching and learning online should be influenced by the games designers as many techniques both technical and social can be abstracted away from gaming genres which could be effective in the service of e-learning. I am not making a case that all leaning should be ‘gamed’ nor that it is possible to mask subjects in fantasy or science fiction genres it is simply that many of the challenges that the games designers face in terms of motivation, engagement and learning are similar to those faced by those designing the next generation of e-learning which hopes to take advantage of the expansion of social media tools/spaces on the web.


  • Don't try and teach in WoW – the genre and aesthetic is too strong.
  • Watch someone playing the game and try to understand what is motivating them.
  • If you don't think that social aspects of learning are important don't look at WoW.
  • The breath of communication channels and activities from the formal to the informal, from the private to the public are what makes this game a success. Consider which of these types of channels/activities are needed in the context of your own teaching bearing in mind that all communities spend much of their time interacting off-topic.