At the same event that inspired my previous post I heard another brief talk, this one by a father and daughter team who had produced Bankaroo, a mobile app to better let kids control their budget—keep track of how much money they had, what they were saving for, what their money had been spent on. It served a dual function. It was designed to be both a useful tool and educational software to help teach children how to deal with money. Listening to the talk, it occurred to me that I already knew of a software program that provided at least the educational part of the same service. Bankaroo was proud of having reached several thousand users. My example is a little larger.
It is, of course, World of Warcraft—considered not as a game but as educational software. The player has an income in gold, produced as a byproduct of things he is already doing—killing monsters, doing quests. He can increase that income by doing other things that he otherwise might not do, such as daily quests or crafting. He has things he wants to buy with his income—armor, gear, training of various sorts. The total cost of everything he wants to buy is probably more than he can afford, so he will have to budget his income and make tradeoffs between the value of getting what he wants to buy and the cost of spending time on money making activities he otherwise would not choose to do.
The virtual world he is making these decisions in is in many ways like the real world in which he will make it. There are wealthy individuals, to whom things that seem expensive to him are cheap. There are beggars, people who hope to get money from others without giving anything in exchange. Some wealthy players are wealthy because they have found something that both makes money and is fun, such as auction house games of arbitrage, speculation, cartelization, and the like ... .
And he is doing all of it not because someone makes him, whether parent or teacher, but because he wants to, because it is fun. It is, in that respect, the ideal educational software.
Which brings up another idea, one that WoW has not yet implemented but that it, or one of its rivals, could. Another real world skill that could be learned in a virtual world, perhaps better there than in school, is language. I am imagining a version of World of Warcraft in which the non-player characters sometimes speak French instead of English. At the early levels, it would be very simple French, with the meaning obvious either from parallels to English worlds or from context. As the game progressed, more and more French words would be used and understanding them would become increasingly important in playing the game. Done right, the effect would be not that different from the way in which we normally learn our first language.
I am sure there are other examples of "school skills" that could be taught better, and more entertainingly, in similar ways; commenters are invited to suggest some.