Online learning at its most effective?

Recently, I've been enjoying playing the MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) Final Fantasy XI. The premise is simple - progress through the story by defeating increasingly tough monsters and boosting your character's strength.

What has struck me today is that it provides a fascinating parallel KM universe. Bear with me...

After an initial period of alignment to learn rules and achieve basic competency, it soon becomes apparent that collaboration is preferable to going it alone. Thus, by level 10, most players abandon the solo approach and begin to form parties with others.

These parties have their own microcosmic team dynamics: leadership, concensus, teamworking. Agreed roles and responsibilities are essential: a White Mage heals other characters, a Warrior deals damage, etc. Parties must, of course, contain a good cross-section of skills and abilities - for instance a party of 6 Warriors simply won't work. There are some obvious parallels here with teamwork in the business environment and the benefits of, say, Belbin profiling.

The most notable product of this team work is a remarkable culture of altruism that persists throughout FFXI. The developers have intelligently avoided spoon-feeding players, meaning that interaction with others is vital to proceed in the game. Even our old friend the Community of Practice is represented via linkshells, virtual groups of like-minded friends. As with CoPs, the best provide a platform for social networking, healthy debate and learning for the good of all.

Players often give up valuable time to help others, either through the official mentoring scheme, helping newer adventurers to fight ("power-levelling"), or simply answering questions asked by those at the end of their tethers.

Why do they invest this time? (See also the old KM chestnut: "What's in it for me?") I'm convinced that the lack of competition between players is a major factor. Players cannot attack each other or hinder others' progress in any meaningful way*. In this utopian world, knowledge is not a means of preserving an advantage over others - it is, instead, a way to further the pursuit of goals.

Perhaps I'm wrong and FFXI is just an escapist world where politics, war and rivalry mean little. Perhaps it's just a place for people to go to act in ways they would never in real life. Still, it's worth considering how we can reduce the competitive element of knowledge sharing and attempt to foster the 'what's mine is yours' approach in the real world.

*As an aside, other MMORPGs that have allowed competition have, perhaps unsurprisingly, spawned online homicide, cons and muggings. Sometimes thefts have even deprived players of items that have value in the real world.

Cennydd Bowles