Wizard 101 – MMO for learning

I, (Nicholas Dragonstone) am loving this massive multiplayer called Wizard 101 for several reasons.

You’re a young wizard being trained in the ways of magic at the Ravenwood School of Magical Arts under the care of headmaster Ambrose. As you learn to use mystical powers, you are tasked with saving the school from the evil Malistaire Drake.

Sounds like Harry Potter? Well, it is a lot like Harry Potter; but set in a game system that is a lot more like World of Warcraft.

Lets get the FUD out the way. YES there is a chat system in the game, but several mechanisms are in place to ensure that chat is child safe.

I always smile at people when they freak out about online chat in games – I ask them if they mute their TV and never listen to the radio in the car when their kids are around. A trip to school with a moronic morning breakfast host is far more likely to ruin their sense of innocence in my view, but thousands do it without a second thought.

MMOs are a damn sight safer than web-chat, and there’s very very little research to suggest otherwise.

“It’s great to see kids getting so excited and involved in a game that, as a teacher, I can feel good about recommending for play”Amy Gonzalez, English Teacher, Austin Independent School District

The system can be limited entirely to preset phrases. Alternatively, players on your friends list can be granted additional chat priviledges that allow you to speak more freely.To avoid any shenanigans related to naming characters, names are similarly constructed from presets. Parental controls can be activated on an account so that settings can’t be changed and purchases can’t be made without grown-ups. Parental controls are a feature that should be high on any parents list.

You defeat enemies (NPC) and other players using a magic circle where combatants take turns casting spells at each other by choosing cards from their decks.

Spells are based on a deck of cards selected beforehand – Yu-Gi-Oh! style – from which 7 are drawn each round. Players have less than a minute to play a card or they pass their turn. So if kids are used to playing card games, and not just getting owned in action-based games; the turn taking here is a nice relief. But you cant cast magic all day, you’ll run out of mana (fighting power). It beats the pants of Jumpstart’s online world for engagement. I won’t even compare it to dusty Magic School Bus type CD-Roms.

After casting spells at your enemies, you’ll be mighty tired – and have low mana (Fantasy writer Larry Niven in his novel Not Long Before the End described mana as a natural resource which is used or channeled by wizards to cast magic spells) .Mana is standard measurement of power in most MMOs.

You have several ways to get your mana back. Running around catching wisps while out of combat, which is a little like ‘grinding’, if there are other players around, competition for whisps is fierce. If you have potions you power-up immediately, else it’s a slow regeneration of energy in town. You can  play mini-games for mana. The mini-games are similar to casual titles like Bejeweled, so if you’ve got kids playing on your Facebook account – then this is similar, but a step up in a MMO.

Wizard 101 is a free PC download – I had it running under Bootcamp on OSX, Vista and XP. Mercifully it is not the usual 4 gig download of most MMOs, so you’ll be up and running in 20 mins or so at the outside. Its free to play – but after you hit Level 10, you run out of things to do. This is where they hit you up for money – but to be honest, I think it’s worth it. The game is 10+ Rated; but Mr4 seemed to have no real problem playing with a help reading.

I’d think it will suit 10/11 year olds – though the game will be interesting because of it’s spell-card system, not action – it takes some skill to select a series of spells to cast to beat an opponent.

There is a decent map to explore – and the levelling system is very WoW-esq. My kids loved setting up their character – which seems critical in them deciding to play the game. They hate mini-mmos where you only get to choose some ‘toon-animal’.

The story is presented well, it doesn’t demand reading some novel or bore you with several next buttons to skip though. There are a number of activities that you can also hook into though the community portal – fan art and fan fiction! – so no only can you build a writing task around this – it has a place where they can actually publish it!

This video is a great example of players wanting to make video and share their experience of a game – though a story. It’s well worth watching, as they take you on a tour! – Needless to say my nine year old took to this instantly … I wasn’t too unhappy that he didn’t complete the photocopied maths book worksheet this weekend.

There is a lot you could construct around Wizard 101 without needed to get to the payment level of play in the classroom – and I am sure children would love the interaction, even with chat set on safe-as-boring mode. My kids didn’t want to read or chat – they were too busy working out how to organise and use spells to build their reputation

Where does it fit in game based learning? – I think it would make a great ‘small group’ computer activity, and be a great way of introducing the use of games to the classroom. Keep it simple; spend some time playing yourself, then work towards the fan faction and art. It would give teachers a good introduction; and start them thinking about adapting further games … if you have kids on the Autism spectrum – they are going to love Wizard 101.

Read more at Wired about this game’s details or alternatively, download this english worksheet about the ocean and type ‘games+ignore’ into Google.

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