Attitudes, Success, and Engagement: A Comparison of Game and School Contexts

December 19, 2012

PROJECTS: Leveling Up


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During my dissertation work, I interviewed three male youth from the same school: one junior and two seniors, who all had college aspirations of technology or game design, and came from a variety of home situations with varying socioeconomic status (SES).  These youth were avid gamers and were part of my research because they were World of Warcraft players. Despite the fact that they were highly engaged with World of Warcraft (WoW), they had all disengaged from a traditional school setting. When I interviewed them they were current students at an alternative high school called Glenwood (all names are pseudonyms), and all had been enrolled within the previous year. Glenwood enrolled students that had been sent by other schools in the city, usually for disengagement with school, low grades, or behavioral issues. Glenwood offered the students the chance to choose courses aligned with their interests and offer suggestions to supplement the curriculum if a course they were interested in was not offered. My interview with the three was conducted as a group interview, and we discussed gameplay habits, their interest in game communities, and how playing games affected their lives (i.e., did their parents support it? What did they get out of it? Had it affected their career choices?). An interesting pattern emerged when we started talking about school. This post explores the youths’ complicated feelings towards their traditional and non-traditional schools, as well as looking at overlapping qualities that the participants found in both their non-traditional school and leisure space. Gaming provided these youth with new pathways to re-engage with school. By providing them with agency and community, games enabled these students to see how their personal interests could intersect with the school’s agenda.

Noel, a participant whom I had know for a few years, started the conversation. Noel had the most friendly outlook on his traditional school. He said that he liked most of his teachers and all his subjects (especially technology) and was an avid reader. He did not engage with the way his traditional school functioned, and he said that he gamed the system by getting good grades for what he felt like was minimal work, and acting like he knew everything so people would assume he did. Noel enrolled at Glenwood after he stopped taking exams at the end of the first semester of his junior year because he had become extremely disengaged with the traditional schooling model. I asked him what the difference was between the two. He said the difference is that Glenwood is:

“More accountable. It’s not like a butterfly in a hurricane [;] it’s like you have a bat and there is a car and a robber and you could hit the car or the robber who is mugging an old lady. More community, more initiative, way more independence as well which makes people being agents for what they were interested in way easier as well. I feel like I can be a role model for a lot of students who are coming in who aren’t necessarily younger than I  am, going in and helping someone with chemistry isn’t the same as taking someone in and blowing something up with them. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing anything like that outside of Dan and Jesse at [my previous school]. There is actually accountability outside of the school setting, when it’s a learning experience.”

Essentially what he is saying is that instead of feeling helpless and without being able to affect change on his surroundings “like a butterfly in a hurricane” as he did in his traditional school, he feels like his non-traditional school offers him the chance to make choices, have agency, and affect change. Nick’s feeling of being able to affect change and have agency is similar to what he feels like he gets out of WoW. For example, he feels that being active in a guild provides him with the opportunity to help others, contribute to his community, and have his expertise valued.

Roger, also a senior, liked most of his teachers at his traditional school. As far as school subjects were concerned, social studies was his favorite and English was his least favorite, although he loved to read. In his words he “hates school but thinks Glenwood is alright”. When asked to compare the two schools, he said that Glenwood was more personal, had smaller classes, had more accountability, and more community engagement. The size of the school meant that students were closer, sometimes too close for Roger’s taste, and that you could actually make a positive or negative difference in the school. An example of how students could help or hinder the school came from Noel, who helped the school set up its computer lab and website, managed the maintenance and upgrading of both, and helped the school write a grant to get more technology in the classroom. In WoW, Roger felt that he was accountable for his actions and that he could affect positive and negative change in a group, having been kicked out of a previous guild for raiding the guild bank. He realized that that sort of action would not be tolerated and changed his interaction with the guild to be more community focused.

The third interviewee was Nick, a junior. Nick’s favorite subject was computer class, which Noel had actually pushed for and helped design. Nick did not like school, unless the course content was technology related, and would rather be doing other things, although he felt that Glenwood was a good program. Nick’s views of Glenwood was similar to Noel and Roger’s. He felt that the school was more personalized, that smaller class sizes created a better community and more accountability, and it was easy to contribute to the community. He also felt positively about playing WoW, which offered him the chance to personalize his experience, such as being able to choose a character class that fit his play style. In WoW, it was easy to contribute to his local community, which is why he liked participating in his guild.

The reasons that Noel, Roger, and Nick gave for liking Glenwood are similar to what they perceive as the benefits of participating in online game communities, and were characteristics that they did not see in their traditional school settings. They expressed liking World of Warcraft because they were valued for their opinion; they had agency; they had community that shared their interests, and they had a place to share their expertise. For these three youth, a traditional school setting caused them to shut down. However, once offered learning in a context which they viewed as accessible and malleable, their opinion changed. You will notice that these youth did not refer to Glenwood as school, because school for them had become a negative idea, and they did not want to connect their new experience with that. They valued the agency and expert status that they could have in their community around World of Warcraft and that was open to them as a path at Glenwood. For these youth, having the elements that made their game space fulfilling available to them in a school setting was a game changer. Glenwood and World of Warcraft both offer peer-supported culture and a shared purpose, as well as both being interest-powered. With Glenwood, this is all set in the context of a school so it is academically oriented. Making these contexts of leisure, peer, and school culture align, which do not align for many students, is a rare occurrence, but underscores why connected learning is important to youth engagement. The connection of these youth’s interests, as well as the characteristics they liked about their peer and interest spaces, reengaged these students in academics and helped to set them back on a path where they would graduate from high school and pursue degrees in college. Why the drastic change in attitude for three disengaged youth towards education? The ability to engage with the community and effect change tied the experience of learning within an institution to the experiences they have had in informal learning spaces. What can be taken away from this is that students who are disengaged can be reengaged if offered agency, which includes having their voices heard and their interests acknowledged and included.


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