MMORPG stands for Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game. Wikipedia has an exceptionally well-developed article on the background of MMORPGs, so I’ll refrain from trying to duplicate it.
MMORPGs (aka MMOGs or MMOs), are generally social spaces in which a player can interact with other players from around the world. Depending upon the game, this interaction may be more or less necessary to playing.
Some games (like Guild Wars and even Lineage in later stages) are virtually impossible to play alone, requiring coordination with other players (in groups called guilds or pledges) over long periods of time – often months or even years. This sort of long-term coordination takes advantage of solid team development and management and may even help players practice or develop team-based social skills. Some wags have called games like World of Warcraft the new geek-golf – an essential part of social networking in the information age.
Interestingly, World of Warcraft, although often cited as a social game, is one in which a player can advance with little actual interaction with other players. As a casual game, players can solo quests up to the current maximum level (70 as of this writing), only interacting with other players as much as the average shopper interacts with others at the supermarket. While it allows and even structures complex interactive social play, it does not require it.
Some theorists (such as Constance Steinkuehler) are looking at MMOGs as third spaces (see Oldenburg’s research), which function as neutral gathering points for networking and informal socializing between acquaintances. Like an old-fashioned pub, these places allow the development of loose ties among people of diverse groups, potentially extending players out of their usual comfort zones and into contact with members of different social groups, holding different political and social views.
For the educator, this provides an opportunity for students to expand their horizons and practice a number of team-building and strategy skills. Text-based chat also has been seen to encourage some students to develop greater proficiency with typing and even language arts skills.
Whether these potentials actually come to fruition depends upon the situation, the teacher, and the student.