Not long ago, if a group of ‘gamers’ got together for Dungeons and Dragons, people saw it as strange. Teenagers bonding by getting together and creating alter egos, or characters and living out a fantasy. Role Playing Gamers were sometimes perceived as a ‘fringe’ group of lost souls that lack a full grip on reality.

To me, Raph Koster’s “A Story About A Tree” is about how the gamers of the past are finding refuge on-line. But what used to be a ‘fringe’ activity is now mainstream. Communities are growing on-line with a multitude of interests, well beyond gaming. Pick an interest and you can find like-minded individuals seeking a group to belong to. And now role playing is something we all do to some extent. How many alter ego’s do you have on the net? (e-mail names, e-bay, pogo, Flickr, elgg, blogs) How many ‘conversations’ have you had with someone in another country or half-way around the world, having never met them, or even known their given name? How many conversations will you have with them before you call them a friend… care for them… plant a tree in their memory?

Benefits to this: A chance to find a community that you feel you ‘belong’ to regardless of age, sex, race, looks, nationality, disability, obesity, personality… Someone alone without anyone to love, or be loved by can connect, create friendships, relate, orate, pontificate, debate, find a date… and subsequently mate. Escape.

Costs: Human touch, a real smile 🙂 , a disconnect with the ‘real’ world, even a dissatisfaction with life. Other potential costs can include a group of acquaintances rather than friends, a child being preyed on, or hate groups making connections and recruiting. More directly, a lack of exercise, apathy, obesity, complacency, indecency. Escape.

Long gone is the era of Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, neighbourhood barbecues, family picnics, going to church, or even helping thy neighbour. We still have sports teams, but what about the unathletic, uncoordinated, and uninterested? What do we have for them now?

What we have is a Second Life where you can watch virtual ‘reality tv’! In this virtual life you can fly, look better, find friends, share time… even talk, (or rather type). Who would pass up such an opportunity when the alternative is an unresponsive television or the realization that “I have nothing else to do”.

This started out as a story about a tree, and it will end with the planting of some seeds…

How will we use the community building aspects of the internet to foster learning in schools?

How do we make schools into ‘modern day’ learning communities?

How do we get students to engage rather than escape?


Useful links:

High Tech, Forget the High Touch
-read this as well as the two contrasting editorials it links to.

Passively Multiplayer Online Games for Schools?
-Learning as a game -watch the video, monitoring your web-life and ‘measuring’ it like you would measure skill sets in Warcraft and other multiplayer games – “myware” not spyware.

Second Life by Bethany aka Old Man Dragonfly (doesn’t that fit well with my alter ego comment) -Good summary of many ideas (including mine:-) A lot of links I should explore!

Second to None by Jonathan Dunn notes that on-line friends are becoming as meaningful to people as their real-world friend. It has links to research as well as to this BBC article Virtual pals ‘soar in importance’.

Originally posted: November 9th, 2006

Reflection upon re-reading and re-posting:

I used a little poetic license with my choice of words on this post!

A lot is still relevant here. Some things have changed, such as how many places most of us can be found online… feels to be nearing countless for me! Also, I can’t imagine what I would have thought of Twitter back then? And probably would have laughed at you if you told me I would be contributing to it 2 years after posting this. The power to meaningfully connect is incredible… We truly are a global village now!

Do read Raph Koster’s “A Story About A Tree“! Here is a great quote:

In the end, the social bonds of the people in a virtual environment make it more than just a game. They make it Real. Sometimes it takes a moment of grief to make people realize it, and sometimes people just come to an awareness over time, but the fundamental fact remains: when we make a friend, hurt someone’s feelings, suffer a loss, or accomplish something in an online world, it’s real. It’s not “just a game.”

I think one of the biggest issues today is the power of our online words and actions to hurt others: I’ve been the victim, I’ve even been the invoker (unintentionally, and apologetically). I’ll comment on this more in future posts, but will make my view clear here:

If we (educators and parents) don’t participate with students online, then we run the risk of having misguided or inexperienced friends, or worse yet bullies, becoming greater influences than us in their lives. Gordon Neufeld calls it ‘peer orientation’ in his book: Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers. This does not mean that we get ‘chummy’ with our students online… we are simply a significant adult presence, modeling appropriate behavior, and connecting with them in a meaningful, respectful way. The internet is no place for an unsupervised playground!