I was amused to see that the well-known Stanford professor of Communications Byron Reeves has added his voice to the choir of John Seely Brown and James Paul Gee in singing the praises of World of Warcraft (WoW). Reeves, in an interview with the Washington Post, remarks on the capacity WoW has for building leadership qualities in players, and in fostering team skills. It was the user comments on the story which made me grin. Typically, one commenter suspects the good professor of looking for excuses to get paid for playing WoW. I know the player demographics of WoW are perhaps not what the stereotype would suggest--the average age of male players is 28 rather than 14 as you might expect--but there is something incongruous about seeing middle-aged academics earnestly discussing the merits of games environments. (I must admit I belong to this number myself.) There is, in fact, some very interesting research at Wisconsin in which Constance Steinkuler analyses the sorts of collaborative interactions that take place between members of the same guild within massively multi-player games. Such productive interactions discovered in “the wild” tend to be of interest to educators and business people because the players are displaying high levels of collaboration in a task which they perform purely from intrinsic motivation. That is, no one has to pay Wow players to put in 40-hour weeks. In fact, somehow Blizzard manages to convince the players to pay them. Of course what us academics are trying to do is distil the design principles which make such games so successful in order to apply them to more “serious” settings, and this is a reasonable strategy. But occasionally I wonder whether it is possible to transplant fun in such a way. Are we leaching the joy out of play?
I was at an excellent talk by Kristina Hook the other day where she was talking about affective interface designs in a leisure context. A captain of industry in the audience asked her whether she had done any work on such systems for call centres so managers could monitor the emotional states of the call centre workers to prevent them from pissing off the customers when they got too stressed. (Reeves also mentions a possible application of giving call centre workers support from their team by inventing a game type scenario in which they all take part). I liked Professor Hook's response. She made a face and said “I don't do work.” Her serious point was that there is a need for interaction design R&D for leisure settings because leisure is a hugely important part of people's lives in its own right. Maybe games academics should leave players to enjoy their MMO games in peace without trying to subvert them for serious (aka boring) purposes. Or maybe not, as this would require me to change my research agenda of the last decade! Just a thought.