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About CogDis
Exploring Our Collective Cognitive Dissonance  

Catherine Parsons
Peggy Sheehy
Sandy Wagner
Marianne Malmstrom

with
Larry Dugan
Jeff Agamenoni
Eva Guggemos
Lucas Gillispie


A group of educators spending time playing video games?  A gaming guild functioning as learning community?  As an extension of a professional learning network? That is exactly what Cognitive Dissonance has become for a few dozen educators spread across the globe. Searching for an avenue to explore MMORPGs, gaming, and connections to education, World of Warcraft became the environment to support teacher learning, drawing together a range of educators in an affinity structure.  The purpose of this article is to share the development of a game as a learning community and its impact on professional scholarship.

Cognitive Dissonance is an Alliance guild on the Sisters of Elune (US) realm chartered in December of 2007. Cognitive Dissonance is also an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously. It became the name of the guild in honor of the conflict in thought between traditional learning structures and the ubiquitous use of technology in education. General themes of collective learning within the guild have emerged over time. Learning to game together, learning about gaming together, and in general learning from one another constitute the general domains of scholarship investigated by the group.

Learning to Game
Some of the initial members of Cognitive Dissonance had a long history as gamers.  Other members had NEVER delved into the realm of gaming or virtual worlds. World of Warcraft is complex; to master the game one must master a significant amount of information and learn to navigate multiple interconnected systems. The intention was to create a space where educators, many totally new to the gaming environment could learn, (without the pressure/fear of competition)  in a non-threatening, even comfortable social dynamic. The guild became a place that allowed adults to be learners with one another. Where it was "ok" to make mistakes and ask questions (and most of the time no one cares if you get them killed). Veteran members of the guild become mentors to the new players. Experienced players who join the guild share their knowledge and understanding of the game teaching one another how to navigate the environment.  As the guild has progressed it remains true to its origin even as membership grows and changes.

Learning About Gaming
The motivation in forming the guild was not only to learn about gaming through the lens of better understanding the students that we teach, but also to understand the game itself - the engine-  in order to understand the theory of educational possibilities within this context of play. Although World of Warcraft is one of many games, it became immediately obvious of the many possibilities to learn complex concepts through gaming. Economics, social dynamics, problem solving, and very complicated probability mathematics are all incredibly well taught to players.  The higher level the player, the more deeply they must understand these concepts to progress further in the game.

Theories behind gaming and learning began to materialize before us. How is learning structured in the game, how do you advance, what keeps you coming back to the pleasantly frustrating tasks? The guild shares resources for learning, books, articles, journals, and personal experiences in order for everyone to better understand the role of gaming in literacy (the ability to read, write, communicate and comprehend).

As for all that game theory? Things like concepts of self, learning structure and curriculum design? We learn it as we live it. Guild members both knowingly and unknowingly explore concepts of self. Each character (or "toon") in the guild has a unique personality and role. Members identify strongly with their role and take on the responsibility of that role to the larger group (Syz the protector, Marcius the wise...). Interestingly enough guild members that play more than one toon ("alts") portray different personalities when playing different toons.  The role-playing aspects  of a virtual world such as Warcraft are highly developed as well affording opportunities for exploration.

There are very significant curricular connections, related to both the general concepts of gaming and the important themes of classroom learning. World of Warcraft is teaching our kids many concepts more effectively than we are.  Blizzard Entertainment has developed an environment that requires a deep understanding of a number of complex concepts including mathematics, economics, sociology, mythology, and more.  This became obvious to us very quickly as educators. Together we explore the possibilities that there are many other games and look for ways they may be used as tools in classroom practice.

Learning from Each Other
Our more experienced players often take time to work with lower levels.  Working with a group in a comfort zone where asking questions is acceptable and players are not put down for being unaware of more complex aspects of the game is standard practice within the guild.  This is not always the case in the normal game environment.  Resources are shared; websites, journals, books, interviews and presentations are often talked about within the game environment and often extend to subjects other than the game itself.

Networking: Most of those in Cognitive Dissonance met some member of the guild outside the game and were invited to come play through some inquiry or conversation.  Some met in Second Life, some through other social networks, and a few through actual real life connections.  Some of us knew each other prior to playing and some did not.  Many of the members of the guild have since met in person at conferences, made personal journeys to get together, and have even begun to work together professionally.  Cognitive Dissonance members communicate in just about every manner, both traditional and non-traditional, that exists.  We use Twitter, Skype, a guild web site, in-game chat, Second Life, and yes, sometimes the telephone to share ideas.

Social: A guild develops it's own "personality" - and is a tapestry of  participatory culture that supports different affinity groups that emerge within.  In our guild play time and age and level of toon don't necessarily equate with leadership.  Leaders do emerge, whether  based upon personality, or skill and like any other social entity, dynamics shift with the human condition layered upon the game play.   Toon identity, real identity and the persona that emerges when the two combine in game creates the daily medley of different interactions.  As in the family structure of most cultures, you have your immediate family, and then the extended one - you have those for whom you feel a closeness and others whom you "tolerate" because they are part of your family. These relationships may shift with time and circumstance.  So it is in Azeroth.

Guild Dynamic: Many of us had previously forged friendships within Second Life - which led us to educational conferences where we met in real life.  Some in the guild maintain a semblance of anonymity although some more active members of the guild have taken the time to get to know all members on a more personal level (ie real life name and station such as student, teacher, spouse, etc). No one seems to be uncomfortable disclosing real life information after spending time together in game.  A few have taken it upon themselves to get together socially as well.

Personal Reflections
Collectively it is our personal stories that tell the true tale of Cognitive Dissonance...

Catherine Parsons: Vyktorea (Level 80 Night Elf Rogue): I read the manual on an airplane on the way to a virtual worlds conference. That was my introduction to World of Warcraft. I had no experience in MMORPGs as a genre of virtual worlds but knew that I needed to understand these platforms. Pretty much any MMORPG would have sufficed, but this was the first I had stumbled upon. I wanted to know why they were engaging, how they were structured, and how (if at all) they connected to K - 12 education. I am a district level administrator with a focus on curriculum and instruction. Playing alone at first, then with an established role play guild, I learned the core skills of the game, the core concepts of the social structure, and created for myself more questions than answers. What better way to look for and extend understanding than inviting your friends to come explore with you! I rallied up a few of my Second Life colleagues, went to Darnassus, purchased a guild charter, and the rest is history. Guildmaster became more of a responsibility than I would have predicted. I learned quickly that I needed assistance and Syzyrgy acts in that role as the steady and rational voice while reminding me why I play. Reflecting, CogDis is exactly what it was meant to be on so many more levels that originally intended. It forces me to examine my learning, my leadership and management skills, my friendships, my loyalties, and myself. Whatever is evolving before me I get to be a part of and I am honored by that. I get to Venn in and out of relationships with so many brilliant and multi-dimensional people. CogDis has grown to be a place beyond learning for many of us. It’s a place of social interaction, friendships, and recreation. It’s important to me that we continue to exist, grow and come together to make CogDis a group on that is pleasurable to belong to.
 
Sandy Wagner: Syzyrgy (Level 80 Draenei Warrior): Gaming has always been a part of how I wind down. The exploration of virtual worlds being used in education and the possibilities of what the gaming world had to offer led to extend my exploration from Second Life to World of Warcraft. A year has gone by, and what I have learned in WoW about economics, social dynamics, and probability based mathematics is far beyond what I learned in school.  The Guild is more than just a place to play and learn though.  I have forged relationships, both personal and professional with members of the guild and enjoy time both in and out of game with members of Cognitive Dissonance. They have become close colleagues, best friends, and gaming partners. Conversations in guild chat will range from gaming strategy to educational practice to strategies for getting our kids to bed.  Although I have always been a gamer and have been a teacher for longer than I will admit, helping educators new to the gaming environment, particularly the massive multiplayer environment has been a real joy and something I constantly learn from.

Peggy Sheehy: Maratsade (Level 80 Human Paladin): After a rich and rewarding experience in Second Life, which is NOT a game but rather a MUVE wherein the user creates the experience, I was invited to play WoW under the guise of "research". I remember the first login (Thanksgiving night 2007) where the intensely rich graphics and the absolutely majestic music carried my online experience to a whole new level! A true novice in that I had never had a "game" experience, I set out on my way - fearless, and excited and totally clueless about the level of complexity that awaited me.  As the magic of scaffolded learning unfolded, I continued to stay on the edge of comfortability- yet realizing death resulted in resurrection, and collaboration afforded success- I was driven to try again, try a different approach, or ask my guild to explain, to suggest, or to come to my rescue.  I am not the champion in my guild, nor am I a bottom dweller.  I seem to cycle in my play intensity, in my time investment, and in my attitude towards the play.  Whereas I used to be consumed with leveling up, I'm now more relaxed  and more reflective about the play.  I have added other toons and explored other skills and perspectives. Game no longer takes precedence over other recreational activities, yet I enjoy it more than ever. I have experienced for myself the excruciating angst of failure, the immense gratification of success, and the sense of relief when I remember that I can "try it again".  That I am always given another chance for success. This is a critical factor of what I find missing in our education system.  We funnel our children through a system designed to teach every child the same thing at the same time and assess them against a generalized standard, rather than looking at the standard of personal growth.

I find it especially interesting, that in my "professional life" I am considered a competent and knowledgeable "go to person" yet in WoW, I am on the other end of the learning curve.  It is humbling, and it is a wonderful balance in my life,  as it is a powerful reminder of how my students may feel when confronted with a new concept, a difficult task or a challenging assignment. It reminds me that we all learn at different rates, in different modalities, and under different circumstances.  Once again, as was my experience in Second Life,  my "teacher lens" has kicked in - and I know... I know why my middle school students are spending hours in game.  I know why scores of websites and blogs are being populated with directions, go arounds, cheats and tips.   I've started learning the back-story to the game- (as detailed and complicated as any epic on the shelf) and I now have an answer for the parents and teachers who moan about their kids not reading-not writing - and not capable of critical thinking.  Given the proper motivation - given the dynamics of socialization and the sharing of newly mastered mental constructs, given the ability to challenge themselves and others, games are teaching our kids many of the skills we struggle with in the classroom, and it is teaching them within the realms of rigor, differentiation and self direction.

Larry Dugan: Marcius (Level 80, Dwarf Warrior): I am a college administrator and former professor of computer science. After spending some time as a Second Life evangelist, and console gamer, I was introduced to the concept of MMORPG's as a tool for teaching by my fellow guild mates. I have listened to my college students complain that Second Life was "just too boring" as an environment to spend that much time in, and I was baffled. Around the same time, a professor at the college was teaching online personality class in WoW. I was intrigued. I took my SL colleagues up on the offer and joined CogDis. What an eye opener. I started making the connection between SL and WoW and how it relates to my area of online learning. It became obvious that students success in online classes as well as SL is governed far more by the evolution of community, the challenge of overcoming seemingly insurmountable tasks as a group, and a collaboration on a level I have never seen in any learning community before. The challenge now is taking what we see in our group dynamic and applying it to the best practices we know work in online instructional design. How can we hope to compete with the visual stimulation and challenges we find in online gaming. From what I see, we can't. But the theory is, maybe we don't have to. Instead, what are the elements that make up the community that make it so engaging (some may say addicting). To be part of a process that is immersive that what you take away from it becomes so well ingrained that the learning that takes place is lifelong. Can we take these elements, apply them to learning theory, and develop a new pedagogy that transcends the game? My latest application and experiment is a course taught partially in Lord of the Rings Online. 15 adult students studying the literature of Tolkien using 3 mediums. Books, game and movie.

Marianne Malmstrom: Knowclue (Level 31 Night Elf Druid): I hold the distinction of being one of the oldest members of the guild holding the lowest rank.  What I may lack in gaming knowledge and skill, I make up for in perseverance.  I must confess that I used to be one of those teachers who worried about kids wasting too much time playing video games.  When I became a middle school technology teacher, I realized that it was unfair to judge something I didn’t understand.  So began my quest to gain experiential knowledge of the technologies used by kids. The journey has been a complete surprise and has absolutely transformed my thinking about gaming and the future of education. The sheer complexity of games like World of Warcraft require a great deal of thinking, problem solving, and collaboration; the same skills emphasized by educators as necessary 21st Century skills. Although overwhelmed at first, I found World of Warcraft to be fascinating and highly engaging.  I love the challenge and it never gets old because there is so much to learn.  It is a safe place to fail because you get “do-overs” and you can always find someone willing to help.  Personally, I learn best when I’m having fun or making mistakes.  World of Warcraft has given me ample opportunity to do both.  As teachers, there are many lessons we can learn if only we are willing to allow ourselves to play a little.

Jeff Agamenoni: Henzimer (Level 77 Dwarf Paladin): I am a middle school math teacher (soon to be switching to gifted education) living in Great Falls, Montana.  Montana is very spread out and an easy place to get isolated. New technologies seem to be getting here slowly.  I have always enjoyed role playing games spending a great deal of time with Myst and Riven in the late 1990's.  I even developed a literature unit to go along with the game of Riven.  Those games were extremely immersive to me as well; however, the connections to other players was missing in those early games. My computer has connected me to a wonderful group of educators, not only through Second Life and WoW, but through Twitter, my blog, and other social networking tools as well.   I very quickly became immersed in Second Life and found that I was learning new things at an astounding rate due to all the connections I was making with other teachers. I believe that WoW and Second Life are giant Social Networks that are very conducive to learning.  I never really considered myself an interpersonal learner until I discovered Second Life where learning from and questioning others is very easy to do.  Early in my WoW career, I was extremely obsessed with leveling and sometimes found it difficult to set the game aside.  I believe there is a principle called reward reinforcement that is in effect in the game of WoW, pushing players to achieve new goals, complete quests, and collaborate with other players to gain those rewards.  Although I have been playing a little less recently, I still find a few hours each week as it is a great way to unwind.   The most rewarding aspect of playing WoW and collaborating in Second Life has been the connections I have made with other teachers.  It continues to boggle my mind how helpful on-line educators have been to me.

Eva Guggemos: Grenhilda (Level 54, Dwarf Priest): I am the reference librarian for the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University. I have played electronic RPGs ever since the "King's Quest" series in the 1980's, when I was in elementary school. I had always shied away from the MMORPG genre, though, probably because I did not want to pay a monthly subscription fee. But in the fall of 2008, when I saw the documentary "Monster Camp" (which featured Warcraft among other roleplaying games), I decided to give it a try. I expected to fly right through the game, but instead I was surprised at how much I needed to learn. The graphics and the entry-level quests were simpler than other games I had played recently (Oblivion, for example), but the dynamics of playing in a world populated with other real humans were drastically different than what I was used to. In most games, for example, your character can earn enough gold to stop worrying about economics after level 25 or so. In World of Warcraft, on the other hand, a more true-to-life economy evolves on each server through the in-game Auction House. Learning how to make money and spend it wisely was -- and remains -- one of the more difficult things in the game. What materials should your character "farm" (i.e. collect) in order to make gold efficiently? When is it best to pool your resources with others? At a certain point around level 30, I realized that instead of muddling through these and other questions I was having, I should really join up with a guild that could help mentor me through the world. There would also be the benefit of having a richer, more social and even more immersive experience. I found Cog Dis through some online searches for like-minded people. The fact that the guild was made up of educators really appealed to me, both because I knew they would be good at educating ME, and because I too was interested in how the gaming environment might fit into instructional programs for libraries. I am still not sure how virtual worlds might help people learn to decode Medieval manuscripts or sift through archives, but the challenges and fun of playing in Warcraft make me want to find a way.

Lucas Gillispie:  Pantego (Level 80, Draenei Shaman):  My fascination with virtual worlds dates back to the mid-1990's.  While in college, I discovered the world of MUDs, and participated in LambdaMOO, which might be considered a text-based forerunner of Second Life.  It wasn't until my second year as a high school science teacher that I discovered MMORPGs.  One of my students, Ryan, knowing my hobby of computer-based gaming and love of the fantasy genre, encouraged me to try out Sony's EverQuest.  That experience marked the beginning of what has become a nearly ten year fascination with online gaming.  I immediately began to recruit friends and students to play with me, and many did.  It was around this time that I decided to try my hand at guild leadership, too, mostly as a way of organizing the activities of my friends and students while we played.  Realizing the educational potential of these environments also occurred about this same time.  In EverQuest, there was a great deal of running from one place to another.  As Ryan, playing his Cleric, and I traversed the Plains of Karana en route to a nearby dungeon, I would quiz him on his Physical Science in preparation for upcoming tests.  It was quite effective, fun, and allowed me to have an element of rapport with a group of students who were often overlooked.  My classroom was always the place where "the gamers" could hang out.

Nearly ten years have passed since then and I continue to lead that same guild, now on the Cenarion Circle server, consisting of friends, students and former students, and even a few teachers from my school district.  We have progressed through several MMORPGs since:  EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot, Warhammer Online, and World of Warcraft.  I have since left the classroom, having taught for nine years, to serve as the instructional technology coordinator for my district in southeastern North Carolina.  I had the fortune to cross paths with Peggy Sheehy (a.k.a. Maratsade) while presenting some of my graduate work at the 2008 Games, Learning, and Society Conference in Madison, Wisconsin.  It was about this time that I was embracing the idea of online professional learning networks.  She brought me into the Cognitive Dissonance guild, and I opted to transfer my shaman to the server to fill a need for healing.  

Gaming with students (and now other education professionals) is and has always been a logical progression of who I am as an educator and video game enthusiast.  I have always taken it for granted.  Today, I am amused when technology leaders stress that our students need to learn skills such as online collaboration, leadership, cultural awareness, and strategic decision-making.  Don't they see?  My World of Warcraft students do this every day when they get home.  They already excel at these skills!

Conclusion
Cognitive Dissonance was chartered as a group of educators exploring the concept of MMORPGs and their relationship to education. It's the individual stories of our members that make up the whole and create the web of connections between each of us. It has grown to a guild of colleagues and friends exploring the platform and experiencing the implications and applications to teaching and learning while having fun. Remembering the concept of "play" being an integral part of learning, we have established an arena in which to recall it for ourselves and include it within our teaching. A MMORPG guild has become for all of us an extension of our personal learning network. We are educators... who play.

Interested in exploring? Information on how to join us can be found at http://cognitivedissonance.guildportal.com.  Bring your creativity, your curiosity, your collaboration, and your courage!
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