Fall 2013

Measuring Student Success

How World of Warcraft Saved Me and My Education

How World of Warcraft Saved Me and My Education

I am not a teacher, administrator, instructional specialist or assessment expert. I am a student; one of the least heard voices in the education reform movement, though it is a movement that has been forged for the sake of my generation and those following. As a student, I can share what I know absolutely does not work and will not work as our educational institutions venture into an ever-increasingly digital age.

I am not a teacher, administrator, instructional specialist or assessment expert. I am a student; one of the least heard voices in the education reform movement, though it is a movement that has been forged for the sake of my generation and those following. As a student, I can share what I know absolutely does not work and will not work as our educational institutions venture into an ever-increasingly digital age. I also can share a promising alternative, one that is admittedly an unorthodox source of inspiration for the future of assessment — games.

My Story

Towards the tail-end of my eighth grade year, I developed severe Anorexia Nervosa. The causes were varied, but the root of it was simple; a sense that I had no control over my future and life, specifically due to school and the rigid confines I felt caged within. Thus, I controlled the only thing I felt I could, myself. This experience, feeling a lack of agency, control and optimism about the future, is not one at all unique to me. Depression and eating disorders are on a steep rise in our schools, and The National Institute of Mental Health reports that about 11 percent of adolescents experience a depressive disorder by the age of 18. This is a systematic issue, with a systemic cause.

My anorexia became severe enough that I was hospitalized for a month, cut off from the world until I became physically healthy. Though being locked away was horrible for many, many reasons, the dark irony was that being taken away was still an escape from the very thing that had ignited the disease — school. In the hospital, I was free of the academic pressures, anxieties, fears, burdens and bars of our education system. I found a spark of hope in the brief friendships I made in the hospital and was eventually released better than I had come in. I was still, however, very depressed when I got out, and not terribly excited to return to school.

So, while I attended school by day, I found a different escape outside of my classes. I went to Azeroth, or as you might know it, the World of Warcraft. It is this game that truly restored me with a sense of resilience and optimism, and it is here I get my inspiration for the future of assessment. You see, in the World of Warcraft only one thing is absolutely certain; you will fail.

Every time you attempt something, a new quest or dungeon, the first time through you are very likely to fail, and possibly the second, third and fourth times as well! But ultimately, you will succeed. This is because World of Warcraft and most other games are exercises in mastery. The goal in games is rarely being “just good enough.” The goal is to really understand the challenge and to have the resilience and resolve to tackle it; to be the best you can be in overcoming a problem. In short, the goal is mastery. It is precisely this sort of learning process we do not foster in our current educational design, and the rise of standardized testing has only crippled student resilience further.

Fear of Failure

In school, we students aren’t taught to embrace a challenge, but rather to fear the prospect of failure. With accountability as currently applied, the lesson ingrained in our hearts and minds is that we don’t get or deserve a second chance, when nothing could be more harmful or further from the truth. Indeed, the only reason I have the opportunity to write in this publication is because I found a second chance not in school, but in an online fantasy game. Our schools, our whole educational institution, fears failure.

From the top levels of our system, which feel compelled to use standardized test scores to demonstrate progress to taxpayers, to the administrators and teachers whose jobs may depend on the results, down to students who must perform well on tests to get good grades, into college or a job, the fear of failure is pervasive. The approach of our current assessment methodology does not lend itself to good learning, and it certainly doesn’t achieve mastery of the material. It is impossible to truly learn something without the opportunity to fail, and more to the point of our education system’s future, it is impossible to innovate when an institution fears failure. It was Edison who found 10,000 ways not to build a light bulb before he got one to flicker to life, and our challenge is not wholly dissimilar.

Of course, we have much more at stake than Edison did, namely an entire generation’s educational wellbeing, and those who follow. There is reason to fear change if it is harmful. Yet I also would pose that damage is being done already, and we don’t need to wait for a few million more kids to develop depression and anorexia. So, let’s return to the World of Warcraft.

Assessments for Learning and Resilience

While the intrinsic power of games to provide mastery is great, this is not the whole picture. My generation has many names, though my favorite is the “Video game generation.” As bestselling author Jane McGonigal states in her work “Reality is Broken,” students between fifth grade and the end of high school play an average of 10,000 hours of video games, roughly the same amount of time that we spend in school between those age brackets, and with good reason as she points out. Games are simply better than real life, especially when compared to school. They provide a safe space for failure and provide the individual a sense of agency and control.

Of course, this is not because games are easy; far from it. Games require commitment, teamwork, struggle and a whole lot of learning. Ten thousand hours is also an interesting number as McGonigal states, because it runs parallel to the idea Malcolm Gladwell presents in his book “Outliers,” that it takes 10,000 hours to become masterful at something. My generation is willing to spend an average of 10,000 hours doing hard work in virtual worlds.

We crave the sense of control and agency games provide that school does not, giving way to widespread feelings of hopelessness and helplessness among students. So let’s imagine an assessment method that could empower learning and resilience as World of Warcraft does, rather than disempower it as we do now. In this system, we must let students fail safely, so that they have the opportunity to succeed meaningfully. Instead of tests being the end, they’re simply the beginning of a better learning process. Checkmarks used to inform learning; rather than have students suffer through them once for no tangible learning goal.

Education should prepare and encourage all teachers to do what good teachers already do best: know their students as individuals so they can provide feedback that helps them progress. 

Assessments also must recognize the individual and put critical thinking at the forefront. My sister has struggled her entire life in our education system, having ADD and terrible test-anxiety. Yet, she is one of the most insightful and kind people I know; most teachers simply never sat down to talk to her rather than place a bubble sheet on her desk. And let’s be clear, a bubble sheet will never do a proper job of assessing critical thinking. Education should prepare and encourage all teachers to do what good teachers already do best: know their students as individuals so they can provide feedback that helps them progress. We shouldn’t be afraid of giving teachers the ability to evaluate student growth and ability without a top-down, factory-style approach.

To end, I want to quote John Dewey, a man who knew that the most powerful force in education was in each individual’s unique qualities, who said “Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.” Life is about resilience, and learning certainly doesn’t end after school. I believe the future of assessment must reflect these values, and we must face our fear of failure, by embracing it instead as a crucial building block to a brighter system of education.

Erik N. Martin is a student and game design consultant. He has worked with the U.S. Department of Energy, the Federation of American Scientists and now FHI 360 on game development for social good. He also has worked as a Page in the U.S. House of Representatives and Maryland General Assembly. Erik is a co-coordinator for the student unconference ScienceOnlineTeen and also is working on new ways to certify schools that provide exemplary opportunities for experiential learning. He is working towards a personalized degree in Civics, New Media and Global Affairs at the University of Maryland, College Park.