Social Capital and Community Development in the Pursuit of Dragon Slaying

What can the massively multiplayer game ‘World of Warcraft’ teach us about how to facilitate learning communities? Below is a video of the talk I gave at the Games Learning and Society conference in Madison Wisconsin. (Running time 26 minutes)

If you want more details before watching here is the abstract…

This presentation is an evaluation of ethnographic field work conducted in and around the World of Warcraft MMO. The study focuses on the motivation of guild members to construct communities of practice both to learn and to socialize. This suggests that the guilds can act as useful models for understanding how online social networks function and how they could influence the ideology of next generation e-learning services.

Successful collaborative learning can only be sustained if the individuals involved feel part of a group or community in which they can trust. The most robust communities tend to be those that form via a collective aim or interest; their formation has a social underpinning and is not totally utilitarian.

If an aspiration of e-learning is to move away from simply providing online programs of study, demarcated by subject, to increasingly fluid spaces in which students can build social networks, then we need to understand how contemporary collaborative and participatory environments encourage the formation of these types of groupings.

Some of the most sophisticated examples of online community creation and management take place in and around MMO environments. The current apex of this field is the ‘guild’ system which suffuses the World of Warcraft MMO. Guilds are effectively goal-oriented clubs or societies, many of which utilize the latest Web 2.0 technologies out-of-game and multi-channel text chat and VOIP systems in-game both to organize and to socialize.

This paper is based on data collected over a period of six months from an ongoing ethnographic study comprising self-reflexive observation and semi-structured interviews conducted in World of Warcraft and face-to-face with guild members. This extends into a study of the social software used out-of-game by community members that acts as a communication base for the guilds.

The data is evaluated using Wenger’s notion of communities of practice, which highlights the interweaving of goal-orientated learning and the immersion of those participating in trusted social networks. This has the effect of generating and communicating what Bourdieu calls cultural capital, the lack of which often makes online learning a poor second to traditional face-to-face learning.

The challenge here is how to abstract underpinning principles and practice that will be of value to e-learning away from the immediate goals or ideology of a particular MMO. This is not to suggest that killing dragons in collaborative groups is the future of e-learning. Instead it proposes that much can be gained from reflecting on the success of MMOs in motivating the formation of vibrant online communities and the ways in which these communities interweave socializing and learning.

12 Responses to “Social Capital and Community Development in the Pursuit of Dragon Slaying”

  1. Howard Noble Says:

    I think the use of tools by a CoP is less elegant than a Rhizome.

    In fact I’d say groups rarely adopt optimal tool sets, they adopt the easiest tools to use based on the least skilled members. This would be especially true in distributed communities where it would be too difficult to organise training.

    In summary I don’t think distributed communities convalesce around “perfect tool environments”, more a mess of tools that rarely optimise performance.

  2. Juliette White » Games and learning Says:

    […] too if you want to transfer your finding to other online environments There was recently a good presentation by David White starting to look at this. I always find it a bit odd when academics talk about these games without […]

  3. TALL blog » Blog Archive » Poster with bloated title wins award at ALT-C Says:

    […] gave my talk on ‘Social Capital and Community Development in the pursute of Slaying Dragons’ at the ALT-C  e-learning conference last week. The talk was well received which was very […]

  4. sean Says:

    i feel a bit bad posting this, as i was directed to this blog because the work yr doing on MMOs is very similar to the work i’m doing, and yr work on the social processes of guilds is fascinating and stimulating.

    but… yr not talking about Baudelaire, yr talking about Pierre Bourdieu, and yr not talking about Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital (which refers, bluntly, levels of educational attainment) but to his notion of social capital.

    social capital is “the sum of the resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or a group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalised relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition” (from ‘An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology’)

    cultural capital is often the foundation for social capital (the old school tie; the need to ‘L2P’ before being invited to a good guild), but they’re very different things – and in terms of what guilds do, and what e-learning can learn from it, yr looking at the benefits that accrue from the interactions that occur between guild (oe e-learning) members: ie, social capital.

    Bourdieu’s article “The Forms of Capital”, which is collected in many sociology readers, is a good place to if yr interested in Bourdieu’s notions of capital.

  5. Dave White Says:

    You are right. The Baudelaire/Bourdeiu problem was a slip-up on my part and I agree that my use of Bourdeius’ terms is rough. I’m learning as I go… thanks for the pointer to “The Forms of Capital” article.

    Taking these mistakes into account I hope you can still see the value of the work.

  6. Dave White Says:

    I should also say that I have corrected Baudelaire to Bourdeiu in the post.

  7. Max Bittman Says:

    Thanks for this interesting post – I think I definitely want to dig deeper into this subject matter. It’s amazing that games like WOW are actually useful for research purposes – I didn’t expect that until today!


  8. David Harrison Says:

    Excellent work on interactive gaming, simulations as guides for DL.
    Have you considered Vygotsky’s mediation tools, intra-cultural mentor processes, tracking application of new skills (content in context) and issues of identity, in terms of Poloni’s ‘Being and Knowing’.

  9. Wow account Says:

    Excellent work on interacting and explaining about WOW games.

  10. Sam Says:

    Really interesting stuff, I ran a guild for many years before I started writing wow leveling guides and watching the way the community began to form their lives around the game and the impact it had on the different people that made up my guild (from all over the world) was definately a worthwhile and odd experience. It taught me a lot about people management.

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