The Adventures of an Unschooler on the Virtual High Seas

One of the best features of the educational path that is becoming known as “unschooling” is the opportunity for “deep learning”, that is, delving into something of great interest with all your mind, heart and soul, to whatever extent your inspiration and/or need takes you, instead of being told it is now time to learn something else. Even more so than her pursuit of learning the French language (see my post “The Unschool Pursuit of French”), our daughter found the opportunity to deep learn when she got involved in an Internet-based role-playing game community over the course of several years.

Starting in the fall of 2003 at age 14, in the midst of ninth grade (what would turn out to be her last year of school), her older brother Eric turned our daughter Emma on to a “massively multi-player online role-playing game” (or MMORPG) called “Never Winter Nights” which was his favorite among several such games that he had played. This is one of those games where you create a character and the avatar (representation) of that character which you then navigate through the various environs of a fantasy world, along with or encountering other avatars controlled by other people logged into and playing the game. You communicate with other players by typing, and little dialog bubbles appear above your avatar’s head.

The typical MMORPG like the very popular “World of Warcraft”, involves thousands of players logged on simultaneously to a fantasy world going on quests or killing creatures to gain points enough to move up to the next “level”. The focus is almost entirely on the fighting and finding valuable objects, and rarely on the actual role-playing interactions between the characters.

Never Winter Nights allowed players to create their own worlds, and this one, that its creators dubbed “Caenyr” had maybe just a couple hundred players participating in it. Being a smaller and more cohesive group, the players got to know each other, and living their characters lives in this very 21st Century virtual world wove intricate and extensive fantasy stories together. There were also the player forums, where game participants could carry on more extensive written conversations with each other (in character) and further develop their shared story lines. According to Emma…

I could literally write out a scene in prose, with various other players linking their prose to mine, in threads that could range anywhere from a couple to a hundred posts long, depending on the content.

It was in the forums where Emma was inspired and able to do extensive writing in the voice of her characters and began to find her muse as a fiction writer.
After completing her last semester of conventional schooling in ninth grade Emma started unschooling, which meant her schedule was completely her own, with no particular daily routine she had to follow other than ones she set herself. Since some of the other key players she collaborated with lived as far away as Great Britain, Sweden, and Australia, she preferred the nighttime for playing “in game”, and daytime for writing posts on the forums. She would generally spend anywhere from 4 to 10 hours a day.

Emma found herself drawn particularly to the forums, and would write long posts (in character) in forum “threads” (a series of posts weaving the same story line) where other players were posting in character as well. Sometimes she would spend hours writing one post alone, eager to make it well written and captivating, honing her budding craft as a writer in the process. As she told me…

A good role-play thread was the highlight of my day, and I’d constantly check to see if my writing partners had written their own pieces so I could follow on their heels.

Although Emma created and brought to life many characters, her most memorable was a female elf she named “Eldeen Alencia”. Eldeen was an elven noble, who ran away from home and all the privilege it entailed, and struggled for many years, overcoming hardships and losses. She ended up becoming the first mate on a pirate ship captained by another player (logging into the game from Australia, who she eventually flew across the Pacific to visit in person). Emma spun the tale of the pirate elf for several years “in game” and on the forums through adventures of triumph and tragedy.

Woven into her tale were such things as a secret illuminati organization, a guild of duplicitous seamen known as “The Brotherhood”, a betrayal and subsequent blood-letting, a “complicated” love relationship between her and the captain (who unlike her character was a human), and all that sort of grist for pulp fantasy, swashbuckling and soap opera.

Day after day, Emma wrestled with the choices her character would make given the array of changing circumstances (introduced by the decisions of the other players) that confronted her buccaneer elf. As Emma wrote me replying to my recent email, enquiring about the details of what I knew was a very formative experience for her…

I made the choice to let her life unfold organically instead of doctoring what I thought would be a compelling story, and I could not predict all of the fabulous role-play that came out of that decision. At times I was a mere passenger to what felt like her emotions and the decisions that stemmed from them… I learned how to lose myself in a character’s inner self, and be guided by their thoughts and emotions, often to the point of being moved by them myself.

The simple wisdom on how to become a good writer is to write as much as you possibly can, and day and night Emma was in her room on the computer or talking across the world to her writing comrades (for free) using Skype. She was not thinking of it as teaching herself how to write. She was just having fun using her imagination to collaborate with others and build a grand tale. It was learning while following ones bliss. She had all the time she needed to settle into the creative writing process and develop her own style of prose, and learn the critical skills on how to collaborate creatively with others.

Eventually, she tired of some of her online community’s internal drama (out of game) and her real life situation began to change. No longer a recluse in her room, she got involved in the Unitarian-Universalist older youth community (see my post “Camps, Cons & Compasses”) plus scoped out and got a job in her favorite little local coffee place (see my post “Mom & Pop Coffee Shop”). Now with some real-life adventures, she could not devote the same amount of time to her role-play. Plus, she was frustrated that all of her writing was tied to the writing of others, and she did not have a story she could call her own.

Finally in 2008, at age 18, after not writing much of anything for a couple years, Emma got back to her computer and over the course of eight months made a first attempt at a science-fiction novel, writing a 20,000 word draft of an unfinished story. Since then she has ditched the story, but kept the characters and the initial concept. She enrolled in a novel writing class through UCLA extension. After completing the class, she and a handful of her classmates started a writer’s group, which has met every week for the past six months and continues to do so. With the help of her comrades, who act as both an audience and a sounding board, Emma feels confident enough to push forward on her novel, and is now about 40 pages into her manuscript.

Says Emma…

I do have other interests, but this is my primary career goal at the moment. Of course I grew up in a rich environment full of great science fiction literature. I’ve always loved escaping into other worlds with larger than life characters, but you can partly thank Eldeen for opening my eyes to my potential. In fact, had I been able to pursue this interest from day one, instead of having to spend my time in school, I might have realized long before age 14 that I had the chops to be a fiction writer, and there’s a good chance my first novel would already be completed.

I certainly did read her and her brother a heck of a lot of science-fiction books when they were little, and encouraged her to read other books once her own reading skills were up to the task. By the age of 12 she was reading very sophisticated stuff like John Varley’s “Gaea Trilogy” and Isaac Asimov’s seven-book “Foundation” series. (See my posts “Foundation” and “The Mists of Avalon”)

FYI… Emma (now 20) has a “day job” working at a small local woman-owned restaurant where she works two days a week waiting tables and two others as the manager. She moved into her own apartment last December, leads her own busy life, and unfortunately we don’t see her as often as we would like.

Looking back at letting her leave school after ninth grade, I am more convinced that it was the right choice for her. Unschooling is not for everyone, but it was the right ticket for our daughter. Had we forced her to finish high school, she might have more knowledge of a range of subjects she was not so passionate about, but she would not be nearly so far along in pursuing her muse.

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