Fear and Humiliation as Legitimate Teaching Methods

His anthropology research leaves Alex Golub with an uncomfortable conclusion: Sometimes a "sink or swim" pedagogy makes sense.

October 28, 2008

A psychoanalytically inclined friend of mine once told me that you can tell the important dreams not because you know what they mean, but because you can't get them out of your head. As an anthropologist I've noticed something similar about ethnographic fieldwork: You live through moments that immediately seem important to you, but it is only after chewing them over that you realize why. I had one such moment recently that taught me, deep down, that I firmly believe in the power of fear and humiliation as teaching methods. This insight came to me late last month in the course of having my ass kicked repeatedly by Kael'thas Sunstrider, son of Anasterian, prince of Quel'Thalas, and servant of Kil'jaeden the Deceiver.

This high valuation of fear and humiliation is not the sort of thing that you hear at the pep talks organized at your campus teaching and learning center. Perhaps this is not surprising given the non-traditional subject which provoked it. I study people who play World of Warcraft. Warcraft is one of the world's most popular videogames, home to over 10 million people who enter its high-fantasy world to become murloc-slaying gnomes and felsteel-smelting blacksmiths.

As players slay monsters and explore dungeons their characters progress, become more powerful, and develop an inventory of every more powerful gear. There are lots of things you can do in-game, from player-versus-player battle fields reminiscent of arcade game shoot ‘em ups to obsessive hoarding of gold earned by, for instance, picking rare herbs and selling them to players.

People play Warcraft for many reasons, but the guild that I am studying plays it to raid. Four times a week we get a posse of 25 people together to spend four hours to explore the most inaccessible, difficult dungeons in the game, find computer-controlled “bosses” of ever-increasing difficulty, and slay them. Of all of the things to do in World of Warcraft, raiding is the hardest and most intense. It requires powerful characters and careful planning. Of the 10 million people who play Warcraft, 9 million have have never even stepped foot inside the places we have been, much less kicked the ass of the bad guys that we found there. We have a Web site, we have headsets, and we are serious. I don't study “the video game as genre.” I study the way American cultures of teamwork and achievement shape online interaction. As an observer my mind boggles at the 20-80 hours my guildies spend in-game every week. As a participant I'm super proud of our accomplishments.

Enough exposition. In late September our target was Kael'thas Sunstrider, the blood elf prince who broods in the floating Naaru citadel of Tempest Keep. The fight against Kael is legendary for its intricacy: First the raid must defeat each of his four advisors in turn. Then his arsenal of magic weapons must be overcome and turned against the advisors, who Kael resurrects. Finally the raid has the opportunity to fight Kael and his pet phoenix. In the final stage of the fight, the raid must struggle to down Kael as he removes the gravity from the room and leaves the raid hanging, literally, in mid-air. Whole guilds have broken up in rancorous self-hatred after struggling unsuccessfully to down him.

Recently we tried to get some help by inviting to our raid members of another guild, which had already downed Kael. Almost immediately I could see why its members were successful -- their raid leader did not pull his punches. In the middle of fight I would hear him saying things like "Xibby, don't think I don't see you healing melee -- please do your job and focus on the tank." At times -- like when our Paladin failed repeatedly to engage Thaladred the Darkener, who responded by repeatedly blowing up our warlocks -- voices were raised.

I was impressed by their professionalism, their commitment to high standards, and their leader's willingness to call people out when they made mistakes, but most of my guildmates didn't feel that way when we chatted after the raid in our online guild chat.

"i’m sorry but my husband dosen’t curse at me and no guy on wow will either" said Darkembrace, a shadowpriest who was also a stay-at-home mom in Virginia with a 3 year old daughter and a 75 pound rottweiler in the IM discussion.

"yeah," said our 18 year old tree druid Algernon, summing up the mood succinctly. "fuk them please never invite them back lol"

That raid passed into the guild's collective memory without further ado but, like an important dream, it kept running through my head. I had always known that raiding is a form of learning. It takes weeks of time and dozens of deaths before a guild-first boss kill, and even more time until a boss is so routinely killable that he is, as we say, “on farm.” But it wasn't until those Kael attempts that I realized just how similar raiding and teaching are.

A 25-person raid is the same size as a class, and like a class its leader can only take it to places places that it is willing to go. Teaching, like learning to down a boss, is about helping people grow their comfort zone by getting them to spend time outside of it. The question is how to push people so that they will be ready to learn, instead of ready to tear their hair out.

Raiding has taught me that being a good teacher requires laying down strict guidelines while simultaneously demonstrating real care for your students. The stronger the ties of trust and respect between teacher and student, the more weight they will bear. In the past I've cringed when my raid leaders cheerfully announced that we would spend the next four hours dying over, and over, and over again to a boss who seemed impossible to defeat. But I've trusted them, done my job, and ultimately we have triumphed because they insisted on perseverance. The visiting raid leader who took us through the Kael raid lacked that history with us -- he was too much of a stranger to ask us to dig deep and give big.

A willingness to take risks can also be shored up by commitment and drive. Our guest leader drove my guildies nuts, but impressed me with his professionalism. Does this mean that after graduate school even generous doses of sadism seem unremarkable? Perhaps. But it also indicates that I was willing to work hard to see Kael dead, even if it meant catching some flack. For them, it was a game, and when it stopped being fun they lost interest.

What I learned that night was that I believe in the power of fear and humiliation as teaching methods. Obviously, I don't think they are teaching methods that should be used often, or be at the heart of our pedagogy. But I do think that there are occasions when it is appropriate to let people know that there is no safety net. There are times -- not all the time, or most of the time, but occasionally and inevitably -- when you have to tell people to shut up and do their job. I’m not happy to discover that I believe this, and in some ways I wish I didn’t. But Warcraft has taught me that I there is a place for "sink or swim" methods in teaching.

We never did get Kael down. Shortly after our shared guild run the powers that rule the World of Warcraft decided that the Kael fight was too hard and have "nerfed" it -- made him lighter, fluffier, and easier to kill. We’re headed back in on Thursday, but our victory now seems as hollow as it will be inevitable. My guildies will take the nerf and love it, because burning down a boss that used to wipe them out will make them feel like gods. To me it will be a disappointment, because their pleasure in victory will be proof that we were never willing to do what we had to in order to become the kind of people who didn’t need the nerf.

Teaching is about empowering students, and Warcraft has taught me that there is a difference between being powerful and feeling powerful. We had a chance to grow as a guild, but in the end we just couldn't hack it. In the course of all this I learned that I am a person whose believes that there are some things in life too important for us to give up just because achieving them might make us uncomfortable.

Anthropologists love to tell stories of their emotional communion with the people they study. This story ends on a darker note, because what I learned from my attempts to kill Kael'thas Sunstrider was that I was not the same kind of person as my guildies -- a fact made even more disconcerting by the fact that we are supposed to be members of the "same" culture. My fieldwork has not taught me to find commonality across cultures, but to see diversity within my own. Playing Warcraft has taught me that I have a dark side when it comes to pedagogy which I wish I didn't have -- I’ve realized that a seam of commitment that surfaced in one place in my biography lies hidden in another. Does this mean my guildies need to care more, or that I need to learn to care less? It’s a question that I try not to ask, because I’m afraid I might not like the answer.


Alex Golub is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who blogs at Savage Minds.


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