Why teach and learn foreign/second languages with digital games?

Why use digital games in L2 instruction? First, learning is involved, and language learning can be part of it. Learning to play requires figuring out the rules, strategizing, and solving the puzzles and problems built into the game. Usually this requires reading, exploring, hypothesis testing, and interacting with other players, all of which can involve the meaningful use of language. Also, they’re motivating, and not just because of the cool graphics. Most games, the successful ones anyway, have figured out how to balance just the right amount of challenge and reward to keep the players engaged. Players are given just what they need when they need it, and the reward for successful play is more and better resources. Games are designed to hook players and motivate them. If we use games, maybe some of this motivation can transfer to language learning.

There’s also the argument that digital games are hugely popular, and the best way to reach a learner is to use familiar means to do so. In the 19th century era of industrial schooling, teachers used chalkboards, students sat in immovable rows facing the teacher, and everyone was controlled by bells and schedules. If you buy the argument that this model served the needs of society for factory workers in the 1800’s, then you should realize that we don’t really need factory workers in the 2000’s anymore, so the model no longer works. The differences between how students are educated in school, and how they use technology and information outside of school is an ever-widening gap, and maybe, a reason why education is in crisis. In 2010, we need critical and creative thinkers who can use different languages in the ways that expert speakers of those languages use them, which means we need to think about literacy, learning, and teaching in new ways.

So digital games have potential. But how can games be used to teach what L2 learners need to learn? This is where teachers enter, in the form of ‘pedagogical mediation’. Ask a foreign language teacher if they’d use a movie or a non-scholastic/non-academic book in their classroom, and they’d answer “of course!”. Using realia like movies effectively, however, takes a lot of mediation by the teacher, for example, designing specific listening, writing, vocabulary, or grammar activities around the content and language of the movie. The same argument can be made for games, in that they are cultural products just like movies and books, and in the same way, they require pedagogic mediation. Yet games are different from movies, in that their strengths lie not necessarily in offering windows into the culture of study (although some do), but that they demand players interact and make choices about the game content, which, if mediated appropriately, can fit with learner needs and curricular objectives. They’re interactive in ways that books and movies are not, although this doesn’t guarantee learning. Playing just any game won’t necessarily teach you a foreign language, just as sitting in front of a TV and watching a show in that language wouldn’t do too much either, not unless it’s right for you, and you’re prepared.

It’s important to realize that all games are not created equal. There are literally thousands of commercially available digital games out there, of dozens of different genres, like first-person shooter, role play, real-time strategy, and simulation/management. Some are meant for solo play, others for multiplayer play. Some are very complex and take many hours to learn to play well, while others are easy to figure out. Some are rich in language and the use of story, and others are possible to play without any language use at all.  In some games, winning means beating the system in cooperation with other players, while in other games, winning means defeating an opponent. When deciding on which games to use for L2 teaching and learning, all of these features require  consideration.

The purpose of the Games To Teach project is to give L2 instructors the tools they need to effectively evaluate and mediate digital games. To do this, we’re comparing game design theory and theories of L2 learning and teaching, and coming up with frameworks and rubrics for designing game-enhanced L2 learning activities. We’ll make these frameworks available here, in the form of game reviews, downloadable manuals and materials, and white papers on related topics, for an audience of L2 instructors, researchers, and even game designers. We’re working with Spanish, German, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Russian, but the frameworks will be applicable to any game in any language. We hope that by becoming aware of these issues and utilizing these resources, the foreign/second language educator community can become active, rather than passive, participants in a digital game-based L2 teaching and learning future.

– J. Reinhardt


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