‘Words have a great deal of power. They have a power to lift people up, to give people courage and strength, to make it a better world and they have the power to break down, be hurtful and destroy.
We want our words to build and lift and bring up to the light.’
Peggy Sheehy, spoken to a Grade 7 class during a ‘teachable moment’
Why Suffern Middle School?
Suffern Middle School is a pleasant hour’s train ride from New York City. It is a co-education public school that caters to just over 1000 students. Students at Suffern have access to both a diverse sporting and musical curriculum and are clearly successful in both as well as in academic pursuits.
Suffern is proud of its Full Value program which consists of seven core values. These are proudly displayed and were frequently referred to during my visit. These values are not school rules to be obeyed but rather qualities to enact which will enhance their experience of learning and assist in building positive experiences for others. The seven Full Values are –
- Be Here
- Be Safe
- Be Honest
- Have Fun
- Care for Self and Others
- Let Go and Move On
- Set Goals.
Like many Middle Schools, there are numerous clubs, societies and other affiliations to stimulate student engagement. Regarding clubs, Suffern was the first school to begin a learning presence in Teen Second Life and is presently championing the role of World of Warcraft in learning.
I came to Suffern with a big question – do massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) promote positive values and build connections between young people and the world? And who better than to ask that question of than the one who first brought virtual worlds to Suffern than Peggy Sheehy.
Who is Peggy Sheehy?
Peggy is more than a teacher. She is an inspiration and an educational force of nature.
Following 25 years as a professional vocalist, Peggy pursued further learning in education that led her to receiving multiple Teacher of the Year awards in multiple counties. In her role as a ITF/Media Specialist at Suffern, she is dedicated to integrating technology in the curriculum in meaningful ways. This commitment led to the creation of the first learning space for middle aged students in Teen Second Life. Peggy is a popular presenter at national technology in education conventions and district wide teacher training. Her clear, informed, no nonsense approach on the future of education is sought out by educators around the world.
Peggy Sheehy is a notorious figure in the American Computers in Education community. I use the word notorious affectionately and with respect for her fierce defense of freedom, of inquiry and the rights of young people to negotiate their own learning. She is an inspiring leader who is now leading the field in using the commercial World of Warcraft as a learning tool.
What is World of Warcraft?
WoW (as it is most commonly called by players), is a multiperson online fantasy role playing game in which individuals and groups (Guilds) complete quests in order to gain skills, equipment and points. Their trajectory through the complex narratives is dependent upon their success with this individual and group tasks. It is an engaging allegorical vehicle for young people to explore a number of issues and concepts in a relatively safe environment.
‘Relatively safe?’ Online role playing is violent. Doesn’t it inspire violence?
In the US alone, Peggy cites research from the US Department of Justice and the Bureau of Statistics that indicates juvenile violent crime is at a 30 year low. The graph she shares in presentations which is copied below shows the advent of some signficant consoles and games that have at one time or another been used to link gaming to violence. But the facts just don’t add up as you can see.
Kids have played violent games of one sort or another prior to the creation of computers and adult fears of growing violent streaks in young people are constantly raised but frequently unfounded. They are more likely to be exposed to real violence on television, cartoons, fairy tales and in sporting competitions.
So why are these spaces only ‘relatively safe’? These spaces can be unpredictable and as such are hard to completely control. It is the open possibilities that attract young people and encourage exploration and experimentation. It should also be argued that, as Helen Keller remarked in a quote I have used earlier ‘safety does not exist in nature.’ Our streets are only ‘relatively safe. That meal on our plate is only ‘relatively safe’ depending upon, for example, your relationships to nuts or shellfish. Even one’s opinions are only ‘relatively safe’ depending with whom you share them. Relatively safe is utterly normal.
Ok, not violence inducing then, but it sure is socially isolating!
Sorry, but once again the research does not back up that assumption. Peggy cites data from a number of researchers which states –
‘Almost 60 percent of frequent gamers play with friends. Thirty-three percent play with siblings and 25 percent play with spouses or parents. Even games designed for single players are often played socially, with one person giving advice to another holding a joystick.‘ Peggy Sheehy, World of Warcraft in Schools ppt
She goes on to cite those games in which young people pit themselves against each other in combat, attempted to destroy the other and in the process forge stronger friendships in the real world. Gaming is simply not the individual opportunity for personal point collection that many of us first experienced in the 1980s with Galaga, Frogger and the ubiquitous Space Invaders. Games are social but challenge our definition of what socialising looks, sounds and feels like. Games like WoW build into their game-play the opportunity to form groups or Guilds that can function in a number of ways.
What exactly is a Guild?
Peggy argues that Guilds are the Bowling teams of the 21st century (not to suggest that ten pin bowling is an outmoded form of social interaction by any means.) A Guild is a Community of like-minded yet diverse individuals who meet for a common purpose. They form relationships with the Guild as a whole and with individuals within the guild. Guilds also become a collective, a library of stories and remembrances where favourite and not-so-favourite moments are recalled and shared.
Guild Case study: ‘The Legacy’
Although I had the opportunity of sitting in on several classes during the day and speaking with teachers, the highlight came after school when I met members of The Legacy. These five students were experienced WoW players and were the subject of a trial carried out last year. Whilst in some respects they matched my preconceived expectations of ‘Gamers’ that don’t bear repeating, they completely floored me with their level of self knowledge, their ability to articulate and their sound understanding of that it means to be part of a community.
I took a ‘Devils Advocate’ approach with ‘The Legacy’ and asked them, ostensibly, to defend this program on educational grounds only. It must be said that they were not coached or prompted by Peggy. Their responses were delivered with honest conviction and passion. I’ve adapted their responses below.
Mr Caldwell: So, guys, this is it… Just five of you?
Legacy: Oh no, more are joining the Guild next week. We have some trouble with time zones so its hard to get us all together.
Mr Caldwell: Sorry, time zones? What do you mean?
Legacy: Well, we’re just part of the Guild. There’s a school in North Carolina and a new one just starting up in Florida. It’s gonna be a busy time training and supporting them so they can join us on quests.
Mr Caldwell: Train them? So you’re the leaders, then?
Legacy: No, we had elections but decided against having one leader to boss us around, rather we are all we have office bearers in each of the states. We talk in chat and on Skype to make decisions for the Guild.
Peggy has supported these young people to reflect on leadership and to reach out to other schools to join the guild. The students manage a Guild Wiki and share their adventures – often writing narratives based on their avatars or sharing game tips. The game itself has a number of structures that support community. Besides the narrative in which one sides with one of two groups striving collectively against foes, there are opportunities to trade and store communal items.
Watching them play and talk was a lot of fun. Yes, they were defeating monsters but they were also engaging in narrative and helping others to succeed. They have learned some useful groups management skills and grown familiar with the tools that make long distance team work possible. But what have they taken away from the game that has been applied to their daily life?
This Youtube video made my members of the Guild from another school and, indeed, another State says more than I could about the value of their time in WoW.
The legacy of ‘The Legacy’
The skills WoW exposes students to are the skills we need in the twenty first century. Teamwork, communication, social responsibility, map reading/orienteering, goal setting, resource and time management, new media literacies and traditional text-based literacies are all developed within the game platform. Employers are acknowledging the team skills consolidated in gaming environments to the point of asking if prospective employees are gamers.
But it goes deeper than this. Peggy is unequivocal about this next point – this is a program for character development. It’s not just character point development, as in ‘I have more strength points than you’, but moral development and values formulation. Our avatars allow us to, in her words, ‘Put our best faces, our best thoughts, our best ideas, our best dream and our best honour forward’ into the world. As a reinforcement, she addresses the Guild not as students, not as kids but as Heroes – affirming them with agency and noble ideals.
Members of the Legacy who may once have been social isolates are now effective, collaborative team members communicating purposefully between state lines in an attempt to make their communal fantasy world a better place by contacting that which is noblest within them. In so doing, they are learning skills and life-affirming qualities that, in the future, just might save ours.