When asked to describe virtual worlds to my colleagues I struggle in giving an adequate definition. There is a game quality in virtual worlds, and we know that game based learning is motivating and effective. I run into newcomers “inworld” who ask “how do you play this game?”, a loaded question requiring either the instructions for technical aspects of using the controls and/or the possibilities that a virtual world offers. In a virtual world “how you play” depends. Regardless of the precise “game or rules” virtual worlds are learning places. Participants have an opportunity to learn from experts, learn from game playing and learn from encounters with others and the environment. Opportunities to learn in the virtual world are unique but they may also mirror real world options.
Participation in Virtual worlds and computer simulations can help participants improve communication, behaviors, content knowledge and social interaction. These environments are being used for training and teaching in multiple areas offering possibilities for simultaneous learning on multiple levels. A recently published book by the National Research Council, Learning Science: Computer Games, Simulations, and Education, cites some of this research. Studies indicate increased motivation, conceptual understanding, and student learning gains in the area of science. Schools are using massive multiplayer online games (MMOs) with measurable success. Of note is the use of World Of Warcraft in schools. Visit the WOW in Schools Wiki for specific information on how students respond to and participate in the game for academic and behavioral learning.
Whether defined as a game, a platform, or a digital environment, all have the potential of teaching and learning. The degree to which this happens is dependent largely on the design, appropriateness and relevance of the virtual activity and the alignment to learning objectives.