Massive multiplayer online gaming and persistent synthetic worlds, initially popularized in the entertainment world, are now finding growing interest in education and training environments. There is increasing recognition that these synthetic environments and games can serve as powerful "hands-on" tools for teaching a range of complex subjects.
Virtual worlds with scientifically accurate simulations could permit learners to tinker with chemical reactions in living cells, practice operating and repairing expensive equipment, and experience microgravity, making it easier to grasp complex concepts and transfer this understanding quickly to practical problems. Massively multi-player online games, or MMOGs, help players develop and exercise a skill set closely matching the thinking, planning, learning, and technical skills increasingly in demand by employers. These skills include strategic thinking, interpretative analysis, problem solving, plan formulation and execution, team-building and cooperation, and adaptation to rapid change. In addition, today’s students who have grownup with digital technology and video games are especially poised to take advantage of the MMOG communications and community building tools to collaborate on complex projects and ask for help from teachers and experts from around the world.
NASA’s eEducation program has committed to develop a commercial quality MMOG based on NASA’s vision and mission. The MMOG will be based on game technology with accurate physics rendering. NASA’s goal is to provide a sciberspace where students and teachers, engineers and scientists, researchers and designers can immerse themselves in accurate representations of NASA facilities, missions, careers and data (Laughlin, 2007).
NASA is not alone in its interest in MMOGs and persistent synthetic worlds as learning environments. Educational MMOGs have been discussed at several meetings and conferences including the Serious Games Summit 2005 and 2006, the Federation of American Scientists’ Summit on Educational Games 2005, and the National Academies Game-based Learning Workshop, 2005. The Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health have funded development of educational games.
To date, however, there has been no coherent strategy employed to guide the development and assessment of an educational MMOG. There is a general consensus that educational games are not the same as today’s commercial video games. Educational games represent a new type of product — where the knowledge of pedagogy is integrated with the features of games that are so motivating, engaging, and rewarding to users (FAS, 2006). This requires expertise beyond the specialists that design commercial entertainment games. There is a pressing need for a research road map to guide developmental efforts.
To address this need, NASA eEducation and the Federation of American Scientists collaborated to develop this road map to raise awareness of key research challenges, and to encourage dialogue and partnerships in carrying out activities needed to support the development and design of educational MMOGs and massively multi-user virtual environments (MUVEs).
The research strategy identified in this road map will guide NASA’s eEducation effort to build upon a collaborative framework. By developing an MMOG with specific research questions identified in an advance, research consideration can be factored into development.