I was hugely excited to hear about a proper, grown-up scientific conference taking place in my second home, World of Warcraft. Excitement waned a bit when I discovered that it was a) on a US server (which means acquiring a copy of the US version of the game) and b) in the past, both being factors that rather limited my ability to participate, but I was keen to learn more about this intriguing event.
I’ve idly wondered in the past how an event like this might work in WoW, and reluctantly concluded that it was impractical, so I was impressed to see how smoothly it seems to have run. One of the big problems I’d come up against was the inability to provide a secure, private space within WoW: unlike an environment like Second Life, where sim owners can forbid access to anyone not ‘on the list’, the entire WoW world is open to any player who chooses to go there, making events vulnerable to (intentional or otherwise) disruption. The conference organisers minimised this risk by selecting locations that would be relatively easy for low level characters to reach but unlikely to be stumbled upon by passers by, such as the sewers of Undercity and the battlements outside Booty Bay.
The conference attracted around 130 participants, who attended sessions on research and WoW, relationships between WoW and the ‘real world’, and the future of virtual worlds. In sympathy with the unconventional surroundings, the organisers attempted to create a ‘spontaneous and creative‘ discussion rather than ‘the (dreary) experience of traditional academic conventions, where high-status individuals read aloud long papers, while the low-status masses in the audience sit like victims rather than engaging in a more equal debate’.
Much as I loved the idea of this conference, in both content and location, I’m inclined to sympathise with Giulio Prisco’s comments on the practicality of WoW for such events. It doesn’t, and shouldn’t, provide such mundane but essential facilities as streaming video or PowerPoint presentations, and the reality of travelling through a world environment specifically designed to be dangerous and challenging is rather more frustrating than simply entering coordinates and teleporting to the meeting location as in Second Life.
WoW has been subject to a great deal of research into its educational aspects, but the real lessons to be learned can’t realistically be applied within the game by educators. It’s incredibly engaging, but part of the engagement is the rapid early progress that comes from the extensive scaffolding beginning characters receive, with quests designed to introduce them to the world and to the skills and abilities which their characters slowly acquire as they level. Particularly in the early stages, learning players are subjected to considerable hand (or hoof) holding which is at odds with the free-form, unstructured approach implied by this conference or by this video: what frustrates me about the video in particular is that progress in the game is achieved precisely not by sitting around talking but by acting and doing. There’s a very real place for theorycrafting, but to support success in precisely defined and structured challenges.