Up Seeker’s Folly: Lessons from Pandaren Wisdom

The story below is my second effort to write fan fiction using the voice of my World of Warcraft avatar Lotao and quest content in the Mists of Pandaria expansion. Numbers in parentheses refer to endnotes that link to the quests used; links within the story provide background information.

 My fondness for Lorewalker Cho grows. We’re both seekers of wisdom, but our ways of going about it differ. I’m basically an explorer, learning through action and from experiences with the various peoples, cultures, and terrain I encounter. I joined the Horde expedition to Pandaria to see a new world – but not to see a new war. What was I thinking? Under the leadership of Garrosh Hellscream, whose overweening ambition and thirst for domination were always apparent, I should have known much blood would be shed. What no one foresaw were the horrors our invasion would unleash nor the Horde civil war that would erupt.

Kun-Lai, view from the Temple of the White Tiger

Kun-Lai, view from the Temple of the White Tiger

Even so, I don’t regret coming to Pandaria. Much beauty still remains, despite the sha-infested areas of the Dread Wastes and the Vale of Eternal Blossoms. But it’s the friends I’ve made that keep me here, notably Lorewalker Cho. His path to wisdom is much clearer than mine. Unlike me, he’s at peace with himself, comfortable in his own fur. He’s his own master and knows what he’s after – the wisdom contained in Pandaria’s past, especially that of his hero, Emperor Shaohao.  

Cho initiated me into the wisdom of Emperor Shaohao, the last emperor of Pandaria. It was before the  Horde civil war. I was traveling through Kun-Lai and stopped to rest and resupply at a small Grummle village right off the Burlap Trail. What luck! Cho was there, preparing to climb Mount Neverest, the highest peak in all of Pandaria.

Brother Brokendice and Ji-Lu the Lucky playing at The Lucky Traveler inn in One Keg village

Brother Brokendice and Ji-Lu the Lucky playing at The Lucky Traveler inn in One Keg village

Because Cho isn’t the sort to climb a mountain just because it’s there, I asked, “Why such a treacherous trek?” He replied, “The toughest roads often have the most to teach us…. I will no doubt learn a great deal from following the path of Shaohao” (1).

You see, on this peak 10,000 years ago the spirit of wisdom, embodied in the Jade Serpent, prompted Shaohao’s search for wisdom, the kind of wisdom that comes from conquering one’s own doubts, despair, fears, anger, aggression, and hatred.

When Cho asked if I would like to follow Shaohao’s path, I jumped at the chance, thinking I would accompany him. But first, he said, I had to prepare for the trek by working with Uncle Cloverleaf. The Grummles are known far and wide for their great skill as mountain guides, as well as for their belief that success comes to those who hold “luckydos.”

Uncle Cloverleaf

Uncle Cloverleaf

The preparation seemed absurd to me, like gathering incense, good-luck trinkets, and lost supplies. Whew! It took several days. And when I was finished, I learned from Lucky Bluestring that Cho had gone ahead without me and wanted me to follow – without a guide! – up the mountain path known as Seeker’s Folly, a dangerous trail even by Grummle standards.

“Why didn’t he wait?” I asked. Bluestring repeated Cho’s words: “The priest must endure the trek alone, with only her thoughts. She will honor each shrine before meeting me at the top” (2).

Leather worker at the Grummle Bazaar

Leather worker at the Grummle Bazaar

I packed a few supplies, accepted a couple of luckdos – a cloverleaf and a bluestring – and headed alone up the path. The first shrine, the Shrine of Seeker’s Body, was fairly easy to reach, but its wisdom was locked. I wasn’t about to quit. For one thing, this was the first meaningful quest I’d undertaken in some time.

But I was frustrated and wondered what to do. Hmm, “Seeker’s Body.” Cho said that I had only my thoughts; yet my body, not my thoughts, was growing colder by the second. I needed to keep moving and trudged on.

Seeker's Folly

Seeker’s Folly

Reaching the second shrine wasn’t as easy. Strong whirlwinds spun furiously across the path. I avoided them by hugging the mountainside. Soon I approached the Shrine of Seeker’s Breath. It opened! “Finding peace within will allow you to see obstacles with reason.”

Sounded wise to me, but how does one find “peace within”? Cho seemed to know, but to reach him I had to honor all three shrines. I took deep breaths, seeker’s breaths, grew calmer, and mountain-hugged my way back to the first shrine – it opened! “Each bodily injury is a lesson learned. Each defeat, an opportunity to grow” (2). Was I growing in wisdom? Perhaps a little.

Shrine of the Seeker's Heart

Shrine of the Seeker’s Heart

The hardest part of the trek was over. I found the Shrine of the Seeker’s Heart, opened it, and received this: “Wisdom can only penetrate a heart that is truly open to it” (2).

Am I open enough? Are my self-doubts closing me off? I’ve mostly overcome despair, rarely experience anger or hatred, am only violent by necessity, or so it seems to me, yet I have much to learn about overcoming fear and doubt. Fear and Doubt, these are my personal demons. “Not the time to think now,” I told myself. “Cho is near.”

Lorewalker Cho at Seeker's Point

Lorewalker Cho at Seeker’s Point

And there he was at Seeker’s Point, bending over a shrine, engrossed in preparing a new task for me, one that would include violence in an attempt to keep the Mogu and Zandalari from resurrecting the Thunder King (3). Oh my, I really didn’t want to get involved in that. I was hoping for more lessons in the wisdom of Shaohao. Clearly that would have to wait.

Lorewalker Cho ritually entranced at Seeker's Point

Lorewalker Cho ritually entranced at Seeker’s Point

Quests used to tell this story:

(1) Path Less Traveled

(2) Seeker’s Folly

(3) The Tongue of Ba-Shon

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Taran Zhu & Lorewalker Cho: Lessons from Pandaren Lore

I’m trying my hand at writing fan fiction using the voice of my World of Warcraft avatar Lotao and specific quest content in the Mists of Pandaria expansion. Numbers in parentheses refer to endnotes that link to these quests; links within the story provide general information about NPCs (non-playing characters) about which readers may be curious. I took the screenshots on-site recently, not at the time Lotao engaged in the quests.  

Thunder Hold in the Jade Forest

Thunder Hold in the Jade Forest

Taran Zhu’s Lesson. I remember meeting my first pandaren, Taran Zhu, Lord of the Shado Pan, and how curious it was, after many years as a Blood Elf adventurer, to hear someone speak of the land as a living being, as an entity that emotionally reacts to war, in this case the endless Horde-Alliance conflict. It was my first day in Pandaria. The Horde troops on our skyship, Hellscream’s Fist, had barely touched ground when General Nazgrim ordered me to storm past the Alliance defenders of Thunder Hold to reach and kill their Captain Doren. Nazgrim was already there. But before either of us could get to Doren, he jumped off the balcony into his gyrocopter. We watched as Doren and his airborne troops attacked our skyship. It exploded in a ball of fire, pieces scattering into the sea and onto the rocky coastline.  

Wreck of Hellscream's Fist

Wreck of Hellscream’s Fist

Nazgrim went totally berserk, overcome with rampaging hatred, as if demon possessed, when suddenly Taran Zhu appeared. His dramatic entrance and garb – red bandana across his mouth and beautifully crafted armor and conical hat – made quite the first impression. Without a word, he waved his hands around Nazgrim, who quickly calmed down, calm for Nazgrim, that is. He is ever the hothead, even in the best of circumstances. Taran Zhu, stern, in full control of his emotions, and apparently gifted with considerable powers, made it clear by his sheer stance that we were unwelcomed. Then he warned:  “Pandaria is not like whatever land you come from; it lives and breaths. YOU should be careful what kind of energy you bring here.” (1)

Taran Zhu & Mayor Honeydew in Honeydew Village

Taran Zhu (right) & Mayor Honeydew in Honeydew Village

Taran Zhu vanished as quickly as he had appeared. Nazgrim, seemingly restored to his gruff self and unfazed by the encounter with Taran Zhu, ordered me to hurry to the nearest town, Honeydew Village, to seek help for troops wounded in the crash. When I arrived, standing next to the village mayor was Taran Zhu, who explained: “This land responds to negative energy in kind. The hatred, doubt, and violence you have brought here now ooze out of Pandaria like blood from an open wound.” (2)  Indeed, visible manifestations of negative energy known as sha were everywhere in and around Thunder Hold, and outside the village were sha-infested tigers, vicious, aimlessly pacing. It dawned on me that a powerful sha was what Taran Zhu had dispelled from Nazgrim.

Sha shooter at Thunder Hold

Sha shooter at Thunder Hold

Much later, after many an encounter with sha, I reflected on Taran Zhu’s warning: Perhaps each land, not just Pandaria, responds in its own way to the negative energy of those who dwell upon. Why wouldn’t it? The land is the lifeblood of all creatures and plants, of all of us. When it’s contaminated with hatred in whatever form – war, pollution, vicious words and acts against others – we are all diminished, perpetrators and innocent alike, the born and the unborn.

Honeydew Village

Honeydew Village with Thunder Hold in the background

Lorewalker Cho’s Lesson: Temporarily based in Honeydew Village, I continued following Nazgrim’s orders to secure the area, which involved subduing the hozen near the village. Hozen are an armed monkey-like race that, in my view, are more of a nuisance than a serious threat. They scampered around, weapon in hand, like mischievous children. I didn’t want to kill any of them, but I had my orders and ended up killing one of their main chiefs, Dook Ookem – at which point none of the other hozen attacked me; instead, they ran away willy-nilly whenever I approached.

Forest Hozen near Honeydew Village

Forest Hozen near Honeydew Village

I was about to mount up and leave those fear-crazed hozen when Lorewalker Cho jumped down from a path on the ledge above. Cho, a pandaren, heavy-set as all of them are, wearing an intricately patterned cloth robe, greeted me with a smile and twinkle in his eye: “Hallo, stranger! You are making quite an impression with the local hozen. I daresay they’re starting to fear you.” He could easily tell that I was connected to the crashed skyship, an invader and potential occupier, but that didn’t seem to bother this gentle, soft-spoken fellow. He said he’d like to chat over a cup of tea. Why not? I thought. After all, I hadn’t been treated so kindly, not by anyone including my own kind, since I landed in Pandaria. I was happy to join him. Besides, I was exhausted. It’d been an enormously trying day. (3)

Cave of Words exterior

Cave of Words exterior

I followed him up the path to the nearby Cave of Words. Its wall were draped in scrolls, several braziers held low flames, and a small scroll, lantern, and steaming teapot sat on a low wooden table. Sitting on the stone-tiled floor, we sipped green tea. It didn’t take long to realize that Cho had more in mind than casually chatting and giving a war-weary adventurer a bit of a rest. He wanted to enlighten me on the Pandaren’s distant past and, not incidentally, teach me something leadership. He told me about the mogu, a magically powerful race that many millennia ago enslaved the Pandaren – until, learning courage from the first Pandaren monks, they successfully revolted. “You see,” said Cho, “those who lead through fear only stay in power while those they govern lack courage.” Then referring to how fearful the hozen grew after Dook Ookem’s death, he said, “The hozen are many things, but they are not cowards – not for long. If you don’t wish to fight them, you must…. inspire them!” (4)

Cave of Words interior

Cave of Words interior

During our tea, Cho switched from calling me “stranger” to calling me “traveler”; thus I’m pretty sure he could tell that I was in no way a leader of Horde forces. “Traveler” is an appropriate description; “explorer” and “mercenary” fit me too. But even though I do expect money for missions I accomplish for the Horde, including killing Horde foes in fact or potentially so, I think of myself as an adventurer and seeker of wisdom. Perhaps he knew that about me then; he certainly came to know it. We became good friends – actually more than friends. For example, from time to time I’ve had the privilege of assisting him in gathering Pandaren lore, as have other “strangers” that he’s taken a liking to.

Scenery outside the Cave of Words

Scenery outside the Cave of Words

But that’s another story. There in the Cave of Words, during my too-brief respite from the war, I think he was presenting me with a kind of riddle: how could I “win hearts and minds,” as the old phrase goes; how could I inspire rather than fight? There was no way that General Nazgrim would even try; his goal was to use brute force to subdue and dominate whoever stood in his way. I haven’t solved the riddle yet, although I do suspect that part of the answer lies in learning how persons like Cho, and even someone as different from him as Taran Zhu, inspire their followers. In any case, one lesson I did take from that afternoon with Cho is that lore holds much wisdom, if we devote time to its study.


The Mists of Pandaria quests used to tell this story:

(1) The Final Blow!

(2) You’re Either With Us Or. . .

(3) Lay of the Land

(4) Stay a While, and Listen

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Why Virtual Worlds, why not Earth? – Four Reasons from Edward Castronova

Happy people, those actively and successfully pursuing their goals, generally don’t ask “what’s the meaning of life?” or “why am I doing this and not that?” They’ve taken paths that suit them, are satisfied with their progress, and enjoy what they’re doing. Likewise, happy gamers generally don’t ask “why am I wasting my time with this game – why not be more productive?” I admit it: sometimes I get frustrated playing World of Warcraft, usually because I’m not as good in raids as I’d like. Nevertheless, the day after a disappointing performance, I’m back questing, crafting, exploring, and/or joining guildies in various activities, including an occasional raid. Why?

Game economist Edward Castronova, in a book I recently picked up, Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games (U of Chicago P, 2005, p. 68), frames the question this way: “why cyberspace – why not Earth”? Writing back when World of Warcraft, for example, was only half a million strong, he correctly predicts that virtual worlds will see tremendous growth in popularity as 3D-game technology improves. Real life, after all, is chock full of frustrations too. But why virtual worlds and not other ways of transcending the frustrations and tedium of daily life (of which there are many – meditation, TV, sports, novels, music, even sleep, etc.)? Drawing on the works of theorists and other thinkers, Castronova seeks to explain. I’ve cobbled together four of his reasons:

Throne of the Four Winds, Southern Uldum, World of Warcraft

Throne of the Four Winds, Southern Uldum, World of Warcraft

1. Playful Communication. From a professional perspective, virtual worlds (what he calls “synthetic worlds”) offer new ways of communicating. People can “mingle with one another in a world-like space” with less expense and better quality time than modes like telephone or video conferencing – and game spaces have the added advantage of mixing business with pleasure (68-69). Virtual worlds are “not simply gaming worlds” but also sites of “very real social dynamics” (71). For instance, I belong to an educator’s guild in World of Warcraft. The other night in guild chat, two people from different parts of the country – one playing an orc, let’s say, and another an elf – made plans to spend in-game time discussing their educational projects. This kind of professional interaction, a “mixing of play and not-play,” frequently happens in my guild.

Throne of the Four Winds

Throne of the Four Winds

2. Rebellion against the Joyless. In the way of cultural critique, Castronova notes that ordinary life offers too few opportunities for play. He reminds us that “play brings us joy … [and] motivates us to learn and train and grow” (69-70). As the saying goes, “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.” Thus a person may go to a virtual world “because it offers emotional joys that the Game of Life does not.” So, asks Castronova, “[I]f a person rejects a bad game in favor of a good one, who can blame her?” (76). Such a rejection, he says, is a political statement, even a rebellious act against cultural norms and institutions that dull the senses and stifle creativity (77). Similarly, a student who texts and does Facebook during class could be viewed as making a political statement.

Throne of the Four Winds final boss, Al'Akir

Throne of the Four Winds’ final boss, Al’Akir

3. Personal Empowerment. Thoreau famously wrote in Walden (1854), “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” I venture to say this is as true today as it was then, especially in a culture in which one’s social standing and sense of well being are largely based on income and possessions acquisition. Yet the desire to make a positive difference in the world and be recognized as Somebody remains strong in most of us. Virtual worlds, as Castronova argues, provide opportunities to achieve, explore, create, communicate, socialize – to make a difference, to be Somebody – in ways that are not available or possible in ordinary life (73). He quotes David Rickey, the developer of EverQuest and other games, who said: “At the most fundamental level, these games are about empowerment and achievement, providing a never-ending sense of increasing importance and power to the player…. [They] provide a vacation from the pointlessness of life’s rat race, where no amount of effort can ensure you do more than tread water, because in the end, only a few people can be the big winners in the Game of Life” (75).

Throne of the Four Winds, raid group (specks in the middle) taking victory “laps”

Throne of the Four Winds, raid group (specks in the middle) taking a victory “lap”

4. The Reality Factor. But how satisfying can experiences in virtual worlds actually be? How successful are they as substitutes for real life activities – for feeling connected and empowered? After all, a person’s avatar is a digital animation in a computer-generated world. Yet, notes Castronova, the avatar becomes “an extension of your body into a new space” (45), a character with your mind that does your bidding through the medium of a console or mouse and keyboard. Virtual worlds, says Castronova, “involve the stories of … avatars whose every behavior is motivated by the decision of an actual human mind…. [that] have things like Love, Property, Justice, Profit, War, and Exploration hard-wired into them” (48). The avatar’s experiences are one’s own. And as an avatar’s skills, achievements, and inventory increase, a player becomes more emotionally invested in its welfare. Moreover, in multiplayer games like World of Warcraft, especially in a guild, many “other people are in that other place to validate your feelings and achievements as genuine. For indeed, everyone there will treat the place as genuine – as a place, not a fantasy” (78).

Uldum, World of Warcraft

Uldum, World of Warcraft

For reasons similar to these four – as well as others Castronova has not focused on at this point in his book, like the beauty of the graphics, joy of animation, and depth of friendships – I keep coming back. Even so, my inner nag sometimes kicks in: Shouldn’t I be spending less time in Azeroth and more time making a difference on Earth?

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Educational Benefits of Minecraft: More from the Minecraft and More Unsymposium

The more I learn about Minecraft, the more impressed I become with its versatility as a learning tool. This morning, for example, I ran across a piece from Southern California Public Radio headlined “Minecraft blowing up the classroom; educators say the game can teach everything from math to genetics” (Anthony Perez, 8/14/13). In it Professor Linda Polin is quoted as saying, “Part of what it creates is habits of mind, kind of a sense of how to be a learner, how to be someone who’s successful at learning.” That’s powerful stuff and quite the claim to make about a seemingly simple video game. Kids learning to be successful learners was a recurring theme of educators who presented during the Minecraft and More Unsymposium. Following-up on my previous post, here I share some of the educational benefits that presenters noted. The heading of each section links to the videotaped session named.

Winner of the Unsymposium's Minecraft Challenge

Winner of the Unsymposium’s Minecraft Challenge

1. Minecraft and Science Possibilities. During this session, Farah Bennani, Lucas Gillispie, and Chris Lucas discussed the uses and benefits of Minecraft in the science curriculum. For example, students can learn about cell structure by building cells out of virtual blocks and comparing their creations to actual cells. Constructing virtual 3-D models is engaged, active learning and is mastery learning in that students persist despite repeated failures. As one presenter said, Minecraft “gives students more opportunities to try things out and fail” – to troubleshoot and try again. They can explore possibilities, experiment, and collaborate with each other in playful ways, all the while improving their computer skills and using critical thinking. Moreover, Minecraft is inexpensive and relatively easy to learn.

A question arose on whether or not to make a class’s Minecraft server available to children 24/7 to work on projects and play at their home. Lucas Gillispie noted that the limited time available in the school setting is a “killer,” so he’s leaning more toward “free-range education” with 24/7 access to educational tools. His approach for engaging students in Minecraft projects is to give them loosely defined problems with minimal criteria. He says to students, “I’m not telling you anything else. You go to it.” With the freedom that 24/7 access and minimal direction bring, he’s “seeing amazing things happening.”

An entry in the Minecraft Challenge

An entry in the Minecraft Challenge

2. Minecraft and Machinima. In this session, Tanya Martin, Vasili Giannoutsos, Kae Novak, and Chareen Snelson discussed educational uses of machinima. Early on Tanya told us that although teachers can create machinimas as instructional tools, student creation is more powerful, especially in “project-based learning where students are using it as a way to document something they have learned or are learning.” By-products of such creations include gaining collaborative and communication skills; plus students are “learning to use various tools like editing, they’re performing, they’re adding music, they’re learning about intellectual property. So there’s a whole lot they’re learning by creating something…. The process is as important if not more important than the product.” Vasili mentioned that creating machinimas is becoming a 21st century skill that teachers and students alike would do well to learn. Chareen noted the wealth of useful tutorials that many young people voluntarily create and post on YouTube to help others learn aspects of games like Minecraft and World of Warcraft. And Kae added that showing machinimas in professional development settings is a way to interest and involve teachers in game-based learning.

Perhaps my all-time favorite machinima is “Crumple’s Pet Skunk Tutorial” (2 minutes) in which a young child explains how to make a pet skunk in Minecraft. When his first attempt fails, he immediately offers this advice: “Don’t sit down and cry if you fail one time. Just do it again.” After successfully constructing the skunk, he woots, “Yahoo! I got my new skunk pet!” and makes up a little song of celebration. It’s so cute! You must see it. Learning not to let failure stand in the way of success is important for kids and adults alike. It’s definitely an attitude Minecraft fosters.

Hogwarts build in Massively@Jokaydia

Hogwarts build in Massively@Jokaydia

3. How to Start a Minecraft Club. After-school clubs can serve as the “back door” to game-based learning, says Trish Cloud, especially in districts that don’t support classroom use of video games. In this session, Trish offers suggestions on setting up and maintaining a Minecraft club. So why Minecraft and not some other game? For one thing, it appeals to all age groups; for another, it doesn’t carry the negative connotations that games like World of Warcraft do. More importantly, it empowers kids: “One of the greatest things I’ve seen come out of the Minecraft Club,” Trish says, “is that it can make a rock star out of a kid who is generally not considered one of the popular kids…. It can give them an avenue to shine…. Minecraft is the great equalizer socially.”

Trish adds that a student’s engagement in Minecraft can lead to engaged writing, particularly for boys who are often reluctant writers: they can “make up a story about Minecraft, tell you how to survive your first night, or give you a step-by-step guide on how to build something.” Other skills that the game furthers include computer literacy and digital citizenship. If you are thinking of starting a Minecraft after-school club, this session is a video to watch. It includes slides, comments and questions from several guest speakers, and streamed scenes from the Massively@Jokadia server.

Hogwarts build in Massively@Jokaydia

Hogwarts build in Massively@Jokaydia

4. Massively@Jokaydia Server Tour. In the session above, Trish recommended the Massively server to parents as a safe game space for their children. Parents are welcomed too. Its website site tells us that Massively “is a Guild based learning community for kids aged 4-16 who are interested in developing digital media skills, exploring their creativity and developing online social skills by playing games!” It has “over 700 registered players from around the world.”

During this session, Jokay and some of the miners (as Minecraft players are called) gave us a tour of Massively. Right off we learned that respect, cooperation, and kindness are primary values in the miners’ charter. We learned that kids develop leadership skills by participating in quests and missions and earning awards for doing such activities as building a robot, demonstrating a scientific concept, posting in the forum, writing stories, researching and constructing a historical build. Kids learn from each other through projects, guild chat, and the guild forum; and some extend their skills to include blogging, modding, programming, tweeting, creating machinima, role-playing (as in the student-built, researched-based Medieval City), and much more. Plus, because players come from many countries, cultural learning takes place. Playful learning in a safe digital environment! Woot!

SantaLand in Massively@Jokaydia

SantaLand in Massively@Jokaydia

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Minecraft and More: Reflections on the Morrowcraft Tour

I’m a notetaker. I keep a steno pad near my keyboard to jot down interesting comments and ideas, especially when I’m in student mode, as I was this past weekend during the “Minecraft and More Unsymposium” (all sessions archived here on YouTube). In this post, I reflect on some notes I took during the Morrowcraft tour, led by Marianne Malmstrom and a few of her students. I hope to reflect on other sessions later.

Morrowcraft slice6Beyond refrigerator art. Looking at a student’s build, a guest teacher asked, “How long does it take to build something like this?” The young builder replied, “A good amount of time.” I chuckled. Not sure why. Perhaps because the student’s response was both sophisticated and elusive. After a pause, the student added, “one or two days.” So much time put into virtual creations is impressive. Then again, creating is fun. Moreover, collaborating with others to build and having others (like in-game peers) enjoy and admire one’s build make it all worthwhile. People (yes, little kids too) seek to make a positive difference in other people’s lives, which includes time creating together and having an appreciative audience. It pleases us to please others. For example, at any time my refrigerator door holds some of my grandkids’ recent art work and poems (you may have a kids’ or grandkids’ gallery too); it makes me happy, and it delights them to see their work displayed when they visit.

Morrowcraft slice1Quoth the teacher.  “Ask really hard questions, then step back and give students time and space to solve them.”   ~Marianne Malmstrom

Play Spaces. Critics of video games complain that kids aren’t interacting with the physical world enough, that too often they’re glued to a digital device playing games. I concede that there is reason for concern. Yet we know that responsible parents monitor their kids’ in-game time, know what games and with what age-group they’re playing, talk with them about the games, and ideally play games with them now and then. Marianne Malmstrom defended Minecraft as a learning space, a socialization space, and a play space. Regarding the latter, she told us about her childhood, one much like my own, when neighborhood kids played together outdoors way after dark. Today it seems that as much as anything parents’ fear (reasonable or not) keeps kids inside. Is TV, which many parents seem glued to, a better alternative than multiplayer video games – after homework is done? I think not. Reading, conversation, board games, and the like with family and friends, for sure! At other times, such games as Minecraft played with local children and children across the globe, why not? Many video games are interactive, creative, mind-expanding, visually exciting, and collaborative play spaces where learning occurs. Minecraft is one of them.

Morrowcraft slice8Quoth the teacher: “Every teacher has access to experts if we can just get over our nervous adult selves – that we have to control everything…. Get to the kids and get to the conversation with them…. I think that’s the only way we’re going to move forward, by bringing all the players to the table and letting the kids help. It’s so much more fun.”  ~Marianne Malmstrom

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Minecraft & More UnSymposium

Here’s a great opportunity for those of you interested in what educators and students are doing in Minecraft (a sandbox video game): the Minecraft & More Unsymposium, happening online this Friday and Saturday, December 6th from 6:00-10:00 pm EST and December 7th from 2:00-8:00 pm EST. You can attend some or all of the events.

For background and a look at the schedule, visit http://inevitablebetrayal.shivtr.com/pages/minecraftandmoremission.

To see the trailer and cool images from Minecraft, visit http://youtu.be/ca8NkYakc6U.

To watch the events streamed live, go to https://www.youtube.com/gamesmooc.

Should you wish to register for the Unsymposium, go to http://bit.ly/minecraftandmore soon.

First sunset in my new Minecraft world in Creative mode

First sunset in my new Minecraft world in Creative mode

Learn and enjoy!

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Our Brain Online: Four Research-Based Articles Annotated

I’m teaching a new (for me) course next semester called “Technology, Values and Society.” It’s been in the catalog for some time, which may be why the description doesn’t mention digital technology as transformative. But that’s the approach I’m taking, with a focus on social media, information technology, and video games. Tangential to my academic planning, I’ve begun keeping an annotated list of related websites. Perhaps the four below will interest you. Each suggests that rather than dumbing us down, our digital technology is actually making us smarter.

Brain meditating

Brain meditating*

1. Google & the Brain. Tina Barseghian in “How Technology Wires the Learning Brain” (Mind/Shift, 2-23-11) reports on the work of neuroscientist Gary Small and begins this way: “Kids between the ages of 8 and 18 spend 11.5 hours a day using technology — whether that’s computers, television, mobile phones, or video games – and usually more than one at a time.” Many of us do – and that’s the majority of our waking hours. So what’s that doing to our brains? According to Small, the negatives include less face-to-face conversation and eye contact – with the danger of less empathy and less time reflecting and thinking in in-depth ways. The positives are that “technology trains the brain to be nimble and to process new ideas quickly. We become more open to new ideas, and communicate more freely and frequently.”

One of Small’s research studies compared brain activity of the “Internet-naïve” (mostly older folk) and the “Internet savvy.” He and his team found that while they were conducting a Google search, the “Internet savvy” had “twice as much brain activity in all parts of the brain than while…reading a book”; moreover, after a week of Googling, the “Internet-naïve” group had “a significant burst in frontal lobe activity, which controls short-term memory and decision-making.” Small’s conclusion: “Google is making us smart. Searching online is brain exercise.” Small also mentioned that surgeons “who play video games … make fewer surgical errors” and “have improved reaction time,” as well as “better peripheral vision.”

Brain sensing

Brain sensing

2. Super Mario 64 & Bigger Brains. The journal Molecular Psychiatry recently published a study conducted at the Max Planck Institute on 23 adults trained to play Super Mario 64. Based on this small sample, the researchers concluded that gaming “augments GM [gray matter] in brain areas crucial for spatial navigation, strategic planning, working memory and motor performance going along with evidence for behavioral changes of navigation strategy.” They predicted that “video game training could therefore be used to counteract known risk factors for mental disease…for example, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia and neurodegenerative disease [like Alzheimer’s]” (see KurzweilAI, 2-1-13).

Brain flying

Brain flying

3. Social Media & the Brain. Elise Hu’s short article “How Blogging and Twitter Are Making Us Smarter” (NPR, 9-17-13) led me to an excerpt of Clive Thompson’s book Smarter than You Think (Wired, Sep 2013). One of Thompson’s arguments is that even though much writing in social media – blogs, Twitter, Facebook, email – is far from brilliant, “The fact that so many of us are writing — sharing our ideas, good and bad, for the world to see — has changed the way we think. Just as we now live in public, so do we think in public. And that is accelerating the creation of new ideas and the advancement of global knowledge.”

To support his argument, Thompson cites studies which show that students write better, take more interest in the subject about which they’re writing, and thus learn more when they know that a real audience (not simply the teacher) will read their work (the “audience effect”) – and it doesn’t have to be a big audience either. “Having an audience,” says Thompson, “can clarify thinking. It’s easy to win an argument inside your head. But when you face a real audience, you have to be truly convincing…. Once thinking is public, connections take over…. Propelled by the hyperlink, the Internet is a connection-making machine. And making connections is a big deal in the history of thought—and its future.” He calls the Internet “the world’s most powerful engine for putting heads together.”

Brain admiring

Brain admiring

4. The Interest-Driven Brain.  Constance Steinkuehler, a game-based learning scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,  argues for “interest-driven learning” in a  Big Thinkers video that features her work with literacy, games, and boys in an after-school program (Edutopia, 4-17-13). The largest population of gamers and of students who aren’t doing well in school are teenage boys. What’s going on? She compared reading they do in school with reading they do about online games. For example, one 10th-grade boy who tested at a 6th-grade reading level in school could read with 94-96% accuracy a World of Warcraft graphic novel with a 15th-grade reading level. “What it came down to,” Steinkuehler says, “was something called self-correction rates. When they choose the text, when they care about it, they actually fix their own comprehension problems more than two times as often as when they don’t care about the text…. If you care about understanding the topic…you will persist in the face of challenge….”

Brain nuking

Brain nuking

Just for fun: “Out, damned spot!”  Researchers at the University of Luxembourg reported in 2012 that inexperienced players of violent video games buy more hygienic products after playing. Apparently the players’ moral distress led to the need to cleanse themselves, what’s called the “Macbeth effect.” Actually, it should be called the “Lady Macbeth effect” :)

Brain celebrating

Brain celebrating

*I took the screenshots in this post in World of Warcraft.

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