Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs)

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Overview and common mechanics

Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) are a sub-genre of RPGs in which players inhabit the same game world as a great number of other human players. MMORPGs blend many of the elements of traditional role-playing video games with social game mechanics and interactions that are made possible by the presence of hundreds of even thousands of players at one time. MMORPGs often offer players a wide choice of activities, and as a result the genre is favored by players looking for all kinds of different experiences. Examples of common player activities in MMORPGs include:

  • adventuring together with other online player characters, fighting monsters and gaining treasure and experience (player vs. environment or "PvE" playing)
  • fighting other player characters for treasure, equipment or prestige (player vs. player or "PvP" combat)
  • "farming" the game world for rewards in the form of treasure or raw materials
  • crafting raw materials into useful items, such as weapons or armor, according to specific "recipes" defined by the game
  • commercial trading of treasure or raw materials to sell to the highest bidder at designated auction houses
  • cooperating with other player characters to defeat challenging "boss" monsters, often employing complex tactics that requires close communication and significant practice
  • communicating with other players to plan activities like those above, or simply to socialize; when formally organized, such groups are often called "guilds"


Entirely text-based multiplayer role-playing games first appeared in the 1970s. The genre continued to develop as computing power and internet access became more readily available. In 1991, America Online introduced the original video game version of Neverwinter Nights (not to be confused with a later game of the same name referenced in other articles on TEGD), a fully graphical online role-playing game that allowed dozens of players to inhabit the same world. Ultima Online, introduced in 1997, is considered the first MMORPG to exhibit most of the features associated with the genre, including guilds, a fully functional virtual economy, an item-crafting system, and player vs. player as well as player vs. environment gameplay. Since 1997 there have been many popular entries in the genre, with Everquest and World of Warcraft perhaps the most notable examples.

Educational potential

In comparison to other video  game genres, MMORPGs have been studied fairly extensively as possible tools or platforms for education. One reason for this is likely the connectivity central to the genre. Like distance learning technologies, MMORPGs offer users many ways to interact remotely, so that users can easily develop online relationships and broader communities of practice. Unlike most distance learning platforms, however, MMORPGs also offer the advantage of a shared virtual space that can simulate aspects of experiential learning.

For those interested in more general background about MMORPGs and other virtual world technologies in education, Whitton and Hollins offer a useful overview in their paper Collaborative virtual gaming worlds in higher education.[1]

MMORPGs have several unique characteristics among video game genres, which can offer advantages for specific educational purposes. Some examples follow:

English as a second language (ESL)

The international nature of the player base in popular MMORPGs like World of Warcraft means that native and non-native English speakers are often playing alongside each other, collaborating, competing and interacting in a congenial, social atmosphere. This has not escapted the notice of English as a second language (ESL) teachers.

ESL teacher Nasreddine Mohammed Sarsar identified World of Warcraft as a popular out-of-school literacy activity among her male high school students in the United Arab Emirates. Sarsar distributed a survey to these students, who reported that their English skills had improved due to the online relationships developed during gameplay. Despite concerns about the potential for addiction to MMORPGs, Sarsar concluded in her paper What Children Can Learn from MMORPGs that "the positive effects [of game-based learning] largely outweigh the disadvantages."[2]

ESL teacher and game researcher Edd Schneider conducted a case study using World of Warcraft and other online games as a platform for ESL learning. College students in New York state were paired with Chinese middle school students for trans-global gaming sessions. In a [3] John K. Waters quotes Schneider's presentation at that year's Games for Change conference:

"You can teach left and right in a classroom setting, but in World of Warcraft, they get a chance to use it," [Schneider] says. "They went from being afraid to say anything to telling my students, 'This time, I'm going to kick your butt!'" Schneider also observed that the Chinese students were highly motivated to acquire English because it helped to advance them in the game. "Nothing is more motivating than these online games," he says.

Waters' article also offers perspectives from other ESL researchers working with online games.


Like nearly all RPGs, most MMORPGs include quite a bit of math. Some of this number-crunching is hidden from the player, but much of it is visible to players who are looking to optimize the power of their character. In World of Warcraft, for example, nearly everything is broken down into statistical representations, from the speed of a horse to the protective power of piece of armor to the likelihood that killing a monster will reward the player with a desired item. The World of Warcraft in School wiki, a collaborative website cataloguing lesson plans based on World of Warcraft, has a page with suggestions for game-based math activities.


The complex virtual economies present in many MMORPGs present unique research opportunities for students in macroeconomics. In their paper A Pedagogy of Play: Integrating Computer Games into the Writing Classroom, Rebekah Schultz Colby and Richard Colby[4] propose a hypothetical example of precisely this type of research:

"Josh, an experienced WoW player and economics major, decides to write a strategy guide for one of the professions within the game. As such guides often fail to take into account the game’s economy in relation to different professions, Josh’s own interests prove purposeful. He decides on a quantitative research approach along with some textual research to provide evidence for this research gap. Because a certain number of pages need to be collaboratively composed in the class, he asks Brad, an economics major who is new to the game, to co-author a post at WowWiki about a profession in the game, jewelcrafting. After doing a cost, production, and consumption analysis of jewelcrafting materials purchased in the in-game auction house, they create a hypothesis, test their hypothesis by selling various jewelcrafting items, and then write up the results for Wowwiki. Finally, they write reflective essays addressing the rhetorical and research choices they used."

Literature, creative writing and language arts

The World of Warcraft in School wiki, a site devoted to collecting lesson plans based on the popular MMO game, features a number of writing projects. Instructional items for poetry, creative writing, formal writing, and analytical writing can be found on this page.

New media literacy

The World of Warcraft in School wiki also features suggestions for activities that build and showcase new media skills and literacy (also known as 21st-century skills). Suggested projects are listed on this page, and focus on topics and formats including machinima (in-game filmmaking), podcasts, wikis, digital citizenship, online security, and more.

A note about Second Life

Second Life is a virtual world that in many ways resembles an MMORPG, and some educators have described it as such in research about the educational potential of this game genre. Second Life is designed to allow individual users as well as organizations a high degree of control over the game world, and this—coupled with a fee structure that offers steep discounts to educational institutions—has helped Second Life developer Linden Labs to gain a strong foothold in the higher education community. However, Second Life lacks one fundamental characteristic inherent to both MMORPGs and to games in general: in and of itself, Second Life contains no goal or objective for the user. In short, while Second Life has been the subject of extensive research into learning within a virtual world, it is not a game, and will not be covered in this article despite the error of some researchers in categorizing it as an MMORPG. A separate article will be created on TEGD to cover Second Life and similar virtual worlds, also known as multi-user virtual environments ("MUVEs").


  1. Whitton, Nicola and Paul Hollins. Collaborative Virtual Gaming Worlds in Higher Education. ALT-J, Research in Learning Technology (2008) vol. 16 (3) pp. 221-229. Retrieved from
  2. Sarsar, Nasreddine. M. (2008). What Children Can Learn from MMORPGs. Retrieved from
  3. Waters, John K. On a Quest for English. THE Journal, 1 October 2007. Retrieved from
  4. Shultz Colby, Rebekah and Richard Colby. A Pedagogy of Play: Integrating computer games into the writing classroom. Computers and Composition (2008) vol. 25 (3) pp. 300-312.
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