Eco, Oort Online, and a host of virtual worlds to keep students busy, and learning

eco-virtualWith the popular explosion of Minecraft among middle schoolers and beyond, it’s worth noting that it isn’t the only open world virtual environment with educational value. Nor is it always the most ideal game for teaching every concept, leading other games to pick up the slack. As a result, inspired educators and students are taking notice and branching out.

“Nobody stays with with one game forever,” said Marianne Malmstrom, an advocate for the use of virtual environments in education and a technology teacher at The Elisabeth Morrow School in New Jersey. “Who plays only solitaire?”

We spoke with several educator gamers about the current landscape of virtual games and what players can expect of the future. What follows is a list of their top picks for the Minecraft generation.

Oort Online. This massive multiplayer sandbox that lets players travel between multiple worlds is only in alpha testing, but early fans say it has great potential. Players assume roles, like hunters or merchants, and build societies that interact with the greater universe. The physics of the environment is rather precise, letting you create things like obstacle courses with slides, trampolines, and structures to swing past with tools like grappling hooks. “I teach game design and development, so for me it comes down to what kinds of games you can build within the environment,” said Steve Isaacs, who teaches at William Annin Middle School in New Jersey. “I could totally see players creating their own American Ninja Warrior-like levels right in that game.”

Next page: A virtual world that teaches sustainability

OpenSim. A piece of open source software, OpenSim lets players create their own virtual worlds, using realistic avatars and building tools, which schools can host on their own servers. The content is entirely user-generated, but there are a number of existing “grids” designed for education, like the Jokaydia Grid out of Australia. Andrew Wheelock, a technology integrator in Buffalo, New York and chair of ISTE’s virtual learning network, has developed various classroom-friendly uses for the game, including a Frank Lloyd Wright building challenge, a medieval society roleplay, and a virtual tour of a “Diary of Anne Frank”-like annex. Malstrom calls OpenSim “reliable and flexible,” adding that “It wasn’t so popular when Minecraft came out, but I’ve had kids that play Minecraft and they’re loving it. They can push the building concepts a little bit further.”

Eco. File under “Something to look forward to,” this still-in-beta virtual world doubles down on Minecraft’s resource mining concept with a sustainability twist. As the logistics get hammered out by the development team via player input, a lot of fun quirks are taking shape that lend to learning, said Isaacs whose class has been involved in beta testing. “When you start the game, you and all the players on the server are presented with a challenge,” he explained. “Maybe you have to build a certain amount of buildings, a little village, but you can’t allow more than one animal to go extinct, or more than one plant species. There’s all this criteria you’re balancing against.” Having to operate within the challenges gives players focus and forces them to be collaborative, another concept the game encourages. “One of the really cool things is they have this mechanism where players in the world can impose laws and other players build on those laws,” Isaacs said. “In order to maintain the population of elks, you might say you can only hunt two elk a day. And if it’s voted on, then that becomes a restraint in the game. The players are self-governing. The idea of where it could be [someday] was tremendous.”

Lego Worlds. Lego’s open sandbox adventure has been described as a more “immediate” Minecraft. Resource mining and multi-step creation processes are kept to a minimum to allow players room to explore. But the lack of multiplayer options and things to do might be offputting, as the game is still in beta. One of its biggest selling points? “It’s a very visually appealing version out of the gate,” said Isaacs. “And you can do a lot with vehicles, and that’s also opened up new possibilities. In Minecraft, you have that whole community that wants it to be bare-bones and create what they can out of that. While something like Lego Worlds will give you a little more to work with.”

Next page: Branching out from the traditional sandbox

Clash of Clans. It’s not an open world environment, but as a strategy game, it does help students master plenty of useful concepts, Malstrom said. In the game, which is available on most mobile platforms, players marshal troops, cast spells, manage resources, and build villages. “It’s a really interesting platform that’s pretty easily accessible for studying strategy, planning, economics, and also to talk about game design,” Malstrom said. “One of the things I really like about these particular games is it gives you immediate feedback so you can develop strategies. It offers some unique opportunities.”

Second Life. At one point this massive multiplayer open world, with social dynamics more akin to a neverending cocktail party than a traditional multiplayer game, looked poised to supplant social networking and gaming as we knew it. Its popularity may have petered out, but its value hasn’t. Like most sandbox worlds, it has the potential to inspire kids with passions for building and creating in a collaborative environment. “The artistic component of second life, for me that’s such a cool opportunity,” Wheelock said. “When you go to an art museum, you look at a picture and admire the artist and walk away. In a virtual world, you can take pictures of that build, you could add to that build, you could build around it. Second Life is drawing some really great artists because of that.” Wheelock has also toyed with embedding mystery-style games, where students must piece together hints and discoveries, “almost like a game of Clue, where you’re trying to solve something, but you’re working together as a team.”

Unity3D. While it’s not a virtual world per se, Unity, a high-powered design engine, can be used to build one. It’s not for the novice gamer, but Wheelock suggests this ultra powerful — but still free — design tool for game development classes, likely at the high school level. If a teacher wants to dig into it, the training is going to be pretty intense,” he cautioned. “It’s not something like Minecraft, but the end product is going to look like a professional game. One of the nice things about Unity is there is a developer’s place where you can buy or get stuff for free. There’s a whole community of builders you can pull from.”