Muds as Social Learning Environments
by Dianne P. Butler
In an online, virtual based world, many people believe that learning cannot occur and that the games such as muds (Multi-User Domains) are just that, games. Medievia, one such mud, is a place where hundreds of people interact online at a time, with the player base being over 15,000 total. It is a social environment populated by individuals from many different cultural and economic backgrounds. In such a social environment, learning does occur, but much differently than it does in schools, or even in "real life".
Mud Skippers, another society living in mud.
Elizabeth Reid defines a mud as "a set of tools that can be used to create a sociocultural environment. Muds allow the depiction of a physical environment that can be laden with cultural and communicative meaning (Reid, 1995)." Another well-known mud researcher, Amy Bruckman, describes:
In text-based virtual reality environments on the Internet called "muds", participants meet people from all over the world…muds are Constructionist environments in which people build personally meaningful artifacts. But unlike many Constructionist environments, muds place special emphasis on collaboration, encouraging construction within a social setting. (1994)
Muds are online, social places where people can log on from anywhere in the world and become a part of an online fantasy realm where they can interact with others, play and learn.
The game that I will be primarily referring to is called Medievia and adheres closely to the description above, with a few modifications.
Many critics of muds and other similar role-playing adventure games think that games of that nature are too time consuming and shortly become a grave waste of time for the user. According to Vygotsky’s theory of the importance of play, any game is a situation where learning can occur. Muds are similar to any other game as they have a set of rules, both dictated by the administrators and player mediated. Mud players log onto their games to be immersed in an imaginary realm. Vygotsky believes that "every imaginary situation contains rules in a concealed form" and that "every game with rules contains an imaginary situation in a concealed form" (Vygotsky, 1978). Nicolopoulou and Cole state that "play is a crucial prototype of all such activities. Play is enjoyable, it is intrinsically voluntary, and it is at the same time an essentially rule-governed activity: Its two essential components are the presence of an imaginary situation and the rules implicit in this imaginary situation (1993)." Muds encompass the combination of both imaginary situations and rule-governed play.
Nicolopoulou and Cole discuss play:
Play is not necessarily frivolous. On the contrary, if properly understood, it can serve precisely as a prototype of an activity constituted by shared and voluntary accepted rules, within which people can be motivated to strive for excellence and for mastery of the possibilities inherent in that practice (1993).
Medievia and other muds provide an excellent social environment in which users (players) can learn a cornucopia of things about life including, but not limited to: the English language and writing, reading comprehension, typing skills, social interaction, cultural differences, computer programming, people managing skills, economics, memory, game theory, leadership skills, responsibility, and imagination.
In order to find out what and how much players of Medievia and other muds learn, I conducted several online interviews, both in the form of email response and direct one-on-one online conversation. For the players of Medievia, I posted a "News" article on the game that every player sees when they log in.
I also questioned the users of the mud-related Usenet newsgroups rec.games.mud.diku, rec.games.mud.misc and alt.mud as well as to the General Discussions forum at www.mudconnector.com:
The above questions resulted in over 100 email responses to me and about 25 posts to the newsgroups in response. From the emails and posts, it was quite remarkable to see the similarities from the responders about reported learning experiences from muds.
Because muds are completely based in text, the players identified that they were required to learn faster typing skills. In addition, they commented on how Medievia helped them with the speed of their reading and their reading comprehension. Foreign players whose native language is not English responded by saying that playing muds has greatly increased their use of English, not only in reading comprehension but also the acquisition of idiomatic expressions, colloquialisms, slang and word patterns. A few of the players’ quotes on these matters:
"I used to never read because I thought it was boring and time consuming, but soon after I started playing Medievia I read every room description because of its richness of words and how every word jumps off the page and hits you! Medievia has made me want to read a lot more as well!"
"I have introduced the game to my son and he has also increased his typing and his thinking and memory have greatly increased. Since he started playing the game his reading comprehension and his reading speed has increased dramatically."
"I am from Norway and therefore not an English speaker…I wrote correct English, the way we learn it at school over here. But playing Medievia, where most players come from native English countries, my English changed to become more like theirs, and I began writing English like you would have written it. I picked up new words, some more complicated than the ones I would normally have used, but also those small words that make my English more like REAL English."
"As a player, I have learned many different things, the least being the quickening of my typing skills. At the beginning, I was typing about 65 words per minute reading and about 40 words per minute from thought. Right now I am able to type about 85-90 words per minute while reading what I am typing and about 60 words per minute from thoughts. Playing a text-based game not only increases the rate in which you are able to read, but also the rate in which you are able to comprehend what you are reading."
"I showed one of my "kids" this game and she fell in love with it. She was a seven-year-old child of a close friend of mine at the time. On Medievia, she has learned how to read much better than she ever was able to in school since the tone is almost all conversational. At age 9 and starting third grade this fall, she has tested at a reading level of a 6th grader."
Another major response from players was based on social interaction, both on the game and in Real Life (RL). Some players feel that social interaction on muds is completely different than that in RL. For the most part, the players feel that Medievia or other muds serve as a place where they can be social, have friends and "practice" for their interactions outside of the computer in their real lives with real people. Some players are chronically ill and cannot physically leave their houses so muds serve as the total of their social intercourse. Other players simply use muds as different ways to communicate with those people who are dear to them in RL. For the most part however, muds are an excellent place to interact socially without hazard or danger to them in RL. In fact, they serve as a place to harbor stimulating and enlightening relationships that players would not be able to find in real life.
Several players comment on the social interaction aspects of muds:
"I first used Medievia to keep in contact with my girlfriend at college. We kept in contact through the game and eventually got engaged. Without the game I never would have been able to keep in contact with her"
"Around November of last year I purchased a computer for my terminal nephew that was living with me…The game was a way for him to interact with people outside of hospital staff. It gave him joy in his last days and this was a great benefit for him."
"Through talking with people in Medievia, especially in clans, I have learned a lot on people’s life experiences. It is easier to open up and tell all in a game where there are no faces, to someone millions of miles away you you will never see in real life."
"Some people have said that I’m sad because I mud, but one thing that they don’t understand is that socializing can take place regardless of the situation albeit face to face or across the Atlantic ocean."
"I have always been extremely shy in real life, and sort of a misfit in the area I live in. Medievia is such a mixture of places with the disguise of not being able to judge someone by their appearance that I became more comfortable with communicating with people…I have a sort of stability and peace I didn’t have before."
"Eventually I started to develop the ability to think before I spoke, and I because better and better until it started coming naturally."
"Mudding has taught me many things about both how I act and how I think. I find myself reasoning more before I say things, and find that my eloquence (speech skills) in real life has drastically improved. "
Along the lines of social interaction, Medievia has a Clan system in which players may join clans based on similar interests, game philosophies and other like reasons. Many responses from players include how much they have learned from and through their clan. Clan members can become very close, almost like an online family. Players learn how to be involved in teamwork with their clan-mates, as well as working together to achieve a common goal. Clan leaders learn about the importance and difficulties of leadership that most definitely relates to their leadership roles in real life. Clan leaders have such tasks as managing clan members, organizing the creation of their clan town and fending off armies of monsters that attack their town. Specifically, here is what players have said about being a member of a clan on Medievia:
"The clan structure on Medievia is an excellent example of a successful mentoring program."
"We have learned, as a clan, to work together in order to accomplish certain things."
"I believe that some of the clans teach friendship and family values."
"Another educational aspect to the game is the skill of leadership. Each clan has a leader and a co-leader and they have many responsibilities. People who aren’t prominent leaders in real life have a chance to come out and actually be great leaders on Medievia."
"We need the aid of our fellow Medievians to truly move forward…people together are stronger than people apart."
This last quote relates directly to Vygotsky, social learning theory and the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). Because muds have a social atmosphere filled with dynamic personalities, everyone’s ZPD can differ. Fellow clan members or even just other players can assess one’s ZPD and provide the accurate scaffolding and prompting so that the younger, more inexperienced players can learn from the "experts". Wells quotes about the ZPD:
The reciprocity with which the participants adjust their manner of participation to take account of each other’s current levels of knowledge and skill in carrying out the activity and, on the other, the transformation that takes place, in the process, in their individual potential for participation
Clan members and other close members of muds know where each other stand in the acquisition on knowledge about the game and help each other out accordingly to attain certain goals or achievements. This, in turn results in the Clan itself becoming stronger, which benefits all its members.
In addition, there are times when a group on Medievia will be exploring something totally new to them. In these cases they will have to work together with the knowledge they communally have to solve problems. Wells also comments on this type of activity:
In tackling a difficult task as a group, although no member has expertise beyond his peers, the group as a whole, by working the problem together, is able to construct a solution that none could have achieved alone.
In playing Medievia it is common to see players adventuring alone, but most players choose a partner or group of players to adventure with so that problem solving like that defined above can actually happen. One player states:
There is a focus on teamwork. Generally, as the player progresses, the game gets harder. Therefore, it is necessary for a player to build a network of friends and alliances to receive aid throughout the game. This is a very good life lesson. No one will make it through life by themselves. The game follows suit.
Players who interact with other players and adventure in groups find their experience on Medievia to be more fulfilling, exciting and rewarding.
Another common response from players mentioned the learning of knowledge of different cultures around the globe. Medievia consists of players from all over the world with very different language and cultural entities. A player from the U.S. can interact daily with players from a myriad of countries including England, France, Norway, Australia, Vietnam, Israel, Canada, Singapore, Italy and many others. People can learn different language, cultural customs, speech patterns and so much more. Here’s what the players have to say:
"One thing I have gained, for the first time, is access to people of other cultures and nations. I’ve had vegemite send to me from Australia, German music sent to me on CD, I’ve sent twinkies to New Zealand..Mudding has given me access to the world. It is a cultural exchange of ideas, politics, beliefs, music.. all of those things."
"The one major benefit of the game interaction is the chance to talk to people who are otherwise inaccessible. Europeans, Australians, Americans and people from many countries and regions interact together on the game."
"Well, I also learned that all Americans are not like the ones that appear on Ricki Lake, Oprah or Springer. So, I’d say I learned something about the American culture."
"Medievia gives me a good insight on western culture. Through interaction with fellow players, whom mostly come from the U.S. or other western countries, I learn to understand the way of life, trends, and social dynamics of others not from my nation and not from my own cultural background. By watching what others do, I acquire numerous information on what preferences come to mind of different people facing a current situation. Considering the wide age range of Medievia players, the information I receive is diverse and interesting to study. Interaction and communication in Medievia is like studying sociology in and orthodox way."
"I’m a student from Scotland, in the UK…I’ve learned a lot about the real America and people I hope have learned that not all Scots run about in kilts with bag pipes. Medievia has helped me break down some of the stereotypes and misconceptions about life this side of the pond."
"With Medievia being on the Internet and open to the world, I have come to learn many things about different cultures. I have had long conversations with people from all around the United States, Italy, Australia, Singapore, Canada, Sweden, England and Germany, just to name a few. Being able to hold conversations while enjoying yourself playing a game creates a fun and educational atmosphere if you take the time to listen."
For my research to be as complete as possible, I made a point to interview some administrators of muds to get their impressions of what they have learned from not only playing the game, but also coding it, running it and being a disciplinarian when needed. Administrators look at muds from a unique perspective because the majority of them have played the games to the fullest extent (in Medievia’s example, achieving the level of Hero at 124 levels). These users have then decided to continue their learning and work on the game by becoming an administrator (God, Goddess, Imp, Implementor, Wizard, Immortal, etc.)
Overall, the things that the administrators learn are quite similar to what the players learn with a few additions. Because they are administrators, the Gods and Goddesses on Medievia have many more responsibilities and specific "jobs" that they must take on. Not only do administrators learn the ins and outs of the play of the game, but they also learn: skills in helping players, how to creatively write the areas (zones) of the game, programming skills to create more in-depth areas, leadership skills, people-management skills, and the overall procedures of the game on a day by day basis. They also learn the need to separate their lives as players of the game and administrators of the game to show no favoritism or unjust emotions. Administrators, because they are the ones creating and running the game, also have to learn to deal with the daily criticism and praise they receive for additions and changes to the mud. The following are some quotes from mud administrators:
"Medievia has helped me to learn to code (program) very much. It has helped me to visualize code in a way other than just lines of code. It makes the code come to life and make solutions easier to see."
"People who code definitely have an advantage for learning from others, especially by observing their code, asking questions about how things work, and imitating what they discover."
"Name approvals and zone building provides some with a beginning to seek out more knowledge about legends, history, and more literature so that they can make educated judgements over things people introduce to the game."
"One of the first things I learned in my god role was to never let a player get you to a point where you show your temper publicly."
"The best part of my job as a goddess of Medievia was meeting new people from all over the world and helping them get started on how to play the game."
"I have learnt the value of politics. I have learnt how important it is to have a network of friends."
"As a goddess, I have learned that you are able to do a "job" while having fun. You are able to learn how to balance responsibility on top of having a lot of fun. "
"There is so much going on at one time in the land. As a god or goddess (administrator), you have to learn how to deal with many problem situations or you fail. This calls for quick decision and as full of comprehension of the situation as you are able to get within a short period of time."
"One of the things I learned is to not judge unless you’ve walked a mile in someone’s shoes. I’ve only walked a few paces in a deity’s slippers and already I understand the problems they face in dealing with a game as vast and involved as Medievia"
"It has also helped with my plans to become a business administrator in that it is very much like managing a team of people and helping them out when they need it."
Administrators of muds learn just as much, if not more, than the players themselves. The statements above prove that just merely playing a game on a daily basis is enough to gain substantial learning, but that volunteering to help in the administration of a game like a mud is a much richer and exhilarating learning experience.
All of the above examples illustrate how muds and other similar online adventure games can be environments in which learning occurs. The respondents clearly see what they learn and how. There are many other mud players and administrators out there who have not yet seen this revelation. Some of the responses I received were negative in nature, stating that muds are not reality and therefore nothing can be learned from them. One such respondent said, "Other then learning how to code, and become an anonymous administrator, I don't think there is much a mud can teach people, muds mirror reality, they are not reality." In response to that statement, another respondent states, "Too true, I don't think there are any life lessons/skills to be brought out of a mud other then those you took in. " Of course, one can go into any situation with a closed mind, but in the end, people learn from games like muds whether they realize it or not.
Because games like Medievia and other muds exist on the Internet, the potential for further building and research is quite amazing. Muds are definitely a place where learning can occur in various ways, from learning to type faster to learning how to become a counselor to a friend in need. Mud administrators could tap into this learning resource by making different muds that would be more specific in nature. For example, a mud could be developed that would be highly educational in nature. Developers could create an environment in which children would create their own areas, objects and worlds to explore. One such mud, called MOOSE Crossing, was developed by Amy Bruckman:
MOOSE Crossing is a text-based virtual reality environment (or mud) designed to be a constructionist learning environment for children ages eight to thirteen. The constructionist philosophy of education argues that learning through designing and constructing personally meaningful projects is better than learning by being told. Children on MOOSE Crossing learn computer programming and improve their reading and writing by working on self-selected projects in a self-motivated, peer-supported fashion. In experience with over 180 children and 90 adults using the system since October 1995, we have found that the community provides essential support for the children’s learning experiences. The community provides role models; situated, ubiquitous project models; emotional support to overcome technophobia; technical support; and an appreciative audience for completed work. (Bruckman, 1998)
This idea can be taken further with all disciplines and levels of curriculum. Teachers, school administrators and parents should tap into this wonderful resource for learning.
Another avenue that muds could take would be in the way of psychological therapy. According to Sempsey, "there is evidence to suggest that mud environments indeed promote the types of social climates that are positively associated with established and successful forms of psychotherapy and the formation of close relationships (Sempsey, 1998)." Because of this, doctors and counselors could meet their patients online in groups or one-on-one to conduct therapy.
The Internet is still in its child phase and there is so much potential to what can be accomplished online. The Internet is so vast that it is virtually impossible to know all that is out there to gain from it. Muds and other games like Medievia are only one avenue in which users can learn from the Internet. What the future of the Internet holds is yet to be known, but it is my hope that it will continue to provide games such as muds on which users can play, interact socially, learn about different cultures, heighten their reading, writing and typing skills, learn leadership and responsibility. Muds provide a vast realm of other possibilities for the users besides those mentioned here and it is my hope to see them implemented in more dynamic ways in the future.
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August 1999 Imaginary Realities, the magazine of your mind.
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