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15 Minutes of Fame: WoW 101 -- yes, WoW for college credit


15 Minutes of Fame is our look at World of Warcraft players of all shapes and sizes – from the renowned to the relatively anonymous, the remarkable to the player next door. Tip us off to players you'd like to hear more about.'s Adam Holisky has been itching to take a WoW course for quite a while now -- so Adam, this 15 Minutes of Fame is for you. While some people still don't get that playing WoW doesn't lead to becoming a college dropout, there are plenty of others who recognize the game to be a rich resource not only as entertainment but even as a venue for anthropological research.

And now, this: "Warcraft: Culture, Gender and Identity," a credit-awarding class being offered at Inver Hills Community College in Minnesota. At the helm of this innovative course is Landon Pirius, Ph.D., also known as Nodnal the Gnome Warrior of Blackwater Raiders-US. No stranger to the convergence of WoW and academia, Dr. Pirius wrote his doctoral dissertation on "Massively Multiplayer Online Virtual Environments: A Potential Locale for Intercultural Training." We didn't go quite that deep in this interview; we simply visited with him about his wildly successful college course and how it's helping shape modern educational methodologies.

And before you ask -- yes, Dr. Pirius returned the answers to our interview questions in impeccable outline form.

Main character Nodnal
Server Blackwater Raiders

15 Minutes of Fame: A gaming professor who teaches courses that take place inside the World of Warcraft -- obviously, gaming runs in your blood. What's your personal gaming history?
Dr. Pirius: I began playing games back when the Atari 2600 came out and was hooked ever since. I used to love going to a friend's house to play the Odyssey system. Then I got the first Nintendo for Christmas the first year it was out. I played for hours on end and spent many nights playing through the night. I have owned every Nintendo console system and played many games. I also own the original Xbox.

I played many multiplayer games before WoW including Starcraft, Age of Empires and Halo. We would have huge LAN parties at our house and play the entire weekend.

My first and only MMO is World of Warcraft. I began playing in October of 2006, the same month Blackwater Raiders came online. I started this game because I did my Ph.D. dissertation using the game. I was looking at how the game's virtual environment could be utilized for intercultural training and cross-cultural communication. I had a research assistant with me in the game. We began a guild, many of whom still play together today.

We understand that this semester was the first time you've offered this class. What was the inspiration?
I began playing the game for research purposes. I completed my dissertation in May 2007 but continued playing. I took some time off, but eventually came back. Inver Hills Community College is a college very interested in employing active learning techniques in classes as a way to engage students and hopefully improve student learning. I began a discussion circle on campus about how to utilize games in the classroom and eventually decided to create this class. The class is largely based on my dissertation research.

Was selling the class to the college administration problematic?
The college administration was extremely supportive. They encouraged me to offer the class as a special topics course. A special topics course is designed for faculty to try out new courses and see if they work. If they work, you then make the course permanent. I had many conversations with the vice president and the deans about the course, and they kept saying that the college had to move in this direction.

What type of educational requirements was this class designed to fulfill?
The course was designed to fulfill three educational requirements, but since it was a special topics course, I only received approval to fulfill two requirements. Here are the requirements it was designed to fulfill:

  • Minnesota Transfer Curriculum Goal 2: Critical thinking Develop thinkers who are able to unify faculty, creative, rational, and value-sensitive modes of thought
  • Minnesota Transfer Curriculum Goal 5: History, Social Sciences, and Behavioral Sciences Increase students' knowledge of how historians and social and behavioral scientists discover, describe and explain the behaviors and interactions among individuals, groups, institutions, events and ideas
  • Minnesota Transfer Curriculum Goal 7: Human Diversity Increase students' understanding of individual and group differences (e.g. race, gender and class)
When a student completes a course with transfer curriculum goals attached to them, they can transfer that course to any public institution in Minnesota with no problems.

How was the course's reception by the students?
The course filled up. There was a limit of 28 students. Most of the students who registered for the course couldn't believe they could do the thing they loved (playing WoW) and earn college credit. I assured them that they would have to do more than just play WoW to do well in the course.

By the end of the semester, every student in the class thoroughly enjoyed the course. I only had a couple of students withdraw from the course; the others wrote many nice comments on the course evaluation about how much they learned about culture, identity and gender. Everyone highly recommended offering the course again.

What about the reaction from other teachers?
I had two college instructors in the course and one dean of an academic area. They were there to learn how I would teach the course using a game, so that they could teach courses in the future using games. So my example helped at least three other people learn how to teach using games, and they are planning on offering courses using games in the next academic year. I am most happy with this, because more students will get to benefit from a game used for teaching and will likely be more engaged in their class as a result.

For the most part, other teachers on campus were supportive. They were very excited to see how the course would go, and some have asked for help with their own designing of courses using games. One instructor is building a course using Guitar Hero, another using Second Life, and a third is using Fantasy Congress. It is exciting to see the enthusiasm.

That said, with any change, there is resistance. There were a handful of instructors who were not supportive of the course and would have preferred it not run. In general though, the response was much more positive than negative.

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