- This review assess the potential for game-design enhanced second language teaching and learning of Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. For background reading about the philosophical and linguistic-theoretic foundation for the approach used in this review, see here and here.
Hearthstone: Heros of Warcraft is an online competitive collectable card video game developed by Blizzard Entertainment first in March of 2014. It can be played from multiple platforms including a computer, apple or android phone and tablets. Hearthstone is a multiplayer, free-to-play, card strategy game with additional single player role-playing elements. Hearthstone can be considered a traditional and casual game because of its dynamic player-matching system which intends on matching players against others of a similar ability. It is often promoted as “deceptively simple but epically engaging” because it can appeal to players unfamiliar with both the World of Warcraft universe and collectable card games, but at the same time fosters a play environment for serious, even professional, players.
Hearthstone, while two years old, maintains a high level of critical praise. Meta-review websites like Gamerankings and metacritic, which analyze multiple reviews from various websites in order to give a game a ranking give Hearthstone a 92.50% (out of 100%) and 88 (out of 100) respectively. Reviewers have consistently praised it’s easy to learn game mechanics, user friendly interface and general aesthetic design. The game is available in fourteen different languages including English and Korean.
Players in Hearthstone have two tasks, build a deck of cards based on one of nine specific classes of fighter such as Mage, Warrior or Hunter, and playing one versus one games against either a computer or real people. By playing games, primarily games against real opponents of similar skill via a match-making process, players earn gold and new cards to help them design and build better decks for future games. By crafting better card decks and play strategies, players gain ranks, which pits them against even more skilled players.
Players learn the game by going through a series of tutorial games first. After downloading the game, players are immediately put into a game and given step-by-step visual and spoken language instructions in order to play their first game. They begin with a simple game in which there is no choice given to the player besides playing a single card or not playing at all. The games build up slowly more player agency until the last game which gives the player the freedom to play a normal game. In Sykes and Reinhardt’s (2013) terms, the tutorial can be described as fully learning-driven at the beginning but more learner-driven by the last game. Once the player finishes the tutorial, they must continue unlocking content by playing practice games against the computer or real players. Once the player demonstrates some level of skill in all the basic classes and play-types, the game is fully unlocked and players are free to play the game as they want. There is no real end-point for the game, but each game played against an opponent can last between 10 to 40 minutes, depending on play styles.
Because Hearthstone is narratively based on WoW, all the classes and cards are based on characters and actions that occur in that world. For this reason, the game is designed to look as if the player is entering a WoW inn or tavern. When opening the game, a dwarven innkeeper invites the player to come in and play a game and folk music common to fantasy genres is playing in the background. When playing a game, background noises indicate that there is a “crowd” watching the game as well and they respond to how the game develops.
Besides playing with people in the game, Hearthstone has an active community outside the game on various websites. The official Hearthstone forums at battle.net provides forum discussions focused on the various game types and class types as well as strategies. In addition, questions can be asked which will receive official or “blue” responses from the game developers themselves.
Besides the official forums, Hearthstone has developed other forum-based communities such as reddit.com/r/hearthstone and hearthhead.com. Each of these websites discuss meta-game strategies, hypothesize about styles and report on games they have played. Hearthhead in particular has a visual collection of all the cards along with their audio as a tool to craft card decks without opening the game itself. Content on hearthhead is designed towards strategizing deck builds, whereas the reddit community is oriented towards more casual discussions of gameplay and news. Additionally, the reddit community provides links to casual and professional streamers, which are people who broadcast their games live on websites like twitch.tv. Each streamer has their own community of viewers who can chat with the streamer live, making their games either highly tutorial-like or even like a variety-hour show.
Evaluation Sources and Method
In order to evaluate Hearthstone I first played the game for five consecutive weeks (and have since played the game for close to a year). Each week, game-play was associated with one of the specific criteria in Sykes and Reinhardt (2013; described here) and described in a journal (see the end of this article for an example). Each week I played about 2 hours in game and about 2 hours in the various communities, equally about twenty hours altogether of game and community time. While this was still not enough time to become a complete insider or expert in the game, five weeks and twenty hours did allow me to move beyond first-impressions and change my mind or perspective about various aspects of the game.
To answer our questions, is Hearthstone good for game-design enchanced L2TL, then, I examined the answers given each week to the various question prompts from Sykes and Reinhardt (2013) that approach each criteria from various angles in order to determine Hearthstone’s applicability to L2TL. Finally, Hearthstone is given a categorical ranking based each criteria as either not useful, somewhat useful or useful.
As can be seen in the table below, Hearthstone is a mostly useful for game-enhanced L2TL activities, with some problematic aspects. The most useful parts of the game relate to the use of in-game tasks and goals and game feedback. Somewhat useful aspects include game interactions, narratives and motivation.
Using Goals and Tasks
At the same time however, the game provides various ways to play and rarely forces the player to play a single play type. Daily quests can be completed in one of the three main play types Ranked play, Tavern Brawl or Arena. The player chooses, for any given game, what type of game they want to play, in addition to choosing their class and card deck.The most useful aspects of Hearthstone for L2TL activities involve the multimodal and dynamic mechanisms for player feedback and goals and tasks that support player autonomy and agency. For Sykes and Reinhardt (2013) an important aspect of goals and tasks in games is the way tasks build up or lead to bigger or more global goals. Cycles of task and reward help motivate and signpost to the player that they are moving in a good direction.
In the case of Hearthstone the game provides a highly repeatable and simple cycle of
1) building a card deck and
2) playing against an opponent.
The combination of (1) and (2) leads to
3) rewards that lead to better cards
4) building better decks.
This broad cycle of card acquisition and playing individual games is supported by smaller daily quests and game events that provide players with explicit goals for each game they may be playing. In addition to these explicitly stated quests, the game also provides secret quests that, when completed, grant a surprise reward to the player. The main cycles of play, along with explicitly given quests with important and clear rewards gives the player a clear view of the direction they are heading in the game.
In-game feedback is rich in detail. If a player attempts to complete an illegal move (such as playing a card that costs more mana than they have), the game informs the player that this is not possible by: spoken message, a pop-up banner with a written message and a chat bubble from the player’s avatar that provides the spoken message in written format. In addition an indexical error sound is heard and the message banner in the center of the screen has a bright white color as a border.
In-game feedback also comes in the form of crowd cheers for good plays, highlighted cards that can be played during a players turn and differently colored information on the cards that indicate either a cards normal state (black) an improvement (green) or damage dealt to a card’s health (red).While the games tasks and goals are provide the player with autonomy and agency, the game’s feedback mechanisms clearly communicate to the player in the moment they need it, what their current status in the game is. Following the table of feedback mechanisms listed in Sykes and Reinhardt (2013) Hearthstone provides feedback related to all eight, often in multimodal forms (e.g. spoken and written language simultaneously).
Somewhat useful aspects
A major area of contention amongst players, and in this evaluation, centers around the in-game communication system Hearthstone uses to facilitate player-to-player interaction. Hearthstone uses an emoting system instead of an in-game chat program which only allows players to send one of six pre-determined messages. Players on the forums continually complain about the lack of in-game chat and the vagueness of the emoting system. For their part, Blizzard has defended their emoting system in large part because it prevents serious acts of online bullying that are common to other types of games. The trade-off for this safety however, is what some players have said makes Hearthstone a lonely multiplayer game. Additionally, because the emotes are so vague, some players feel that all emotes could be taken sarcastically and therefore as a type of taunting.
However, while the in-game communication may be weak, this could drive more players to the attendent communities in order to talk, perhaps generating even more conversation about the game.
A separate problematic area involves the narrative of Hearthstone. While Hearthstone is clearly built around the WoW universe, it may not be entirely obvious to players that they are entering a WoW tavern when they open up the game to play. Nor is knowledge of the game narrative or lore of WoW necessary to play the game. Hearthstone players can and do effectively play the game without any knowledge of WoW. In some ways this is a positive aspect, as it allows players to have fun playing the card game mechanics without spending too much time understanding why the cards are the way they are, but in other ways, the lack of explicit story-driven narrative can lead to difficulties in understanding the game. Such as why different classes have different abilities and cards, or why some minions seem to work better with certain classes.
However, as players get experience with each of the different classes, they are likely to enjoy playing certain classes over others. In addition, each class has specific play-styles that may seem more suitable than others. In this way, the player-narrative that emerges from interaction with the game classes and play styles does provide context and player identity. Players in the community forums will often discuss their preferred class and play-style (or deck build) and many of them will choose to play a certain class and style, even though it may be considered a bad play-style by many others in the community. With nine classes and thirty cards to create a deck, the number of potential play-styles is very high and so also too, player identities.
Typical, random conversation on the official forums
In general then, Hearthstone provides a foundation of player agency, well-defined and repeated tasks and goals along with dynamic feedback about player progression through the in-game match-making system. These aspects recommend Hearthstone for L2TL game-enhanced activities. Potential problems come from the game’s social interactivity and narrative. This evaluation will now turn to a discussion of the applicability of these aspects to L2TL.
Through over twenty hours playing the game and participating in the player communities surrounding the game, it is the determination of this evaluation that Hearthstone does have potential for game-enhanced activities based on the five criteria from Sykes and Reinhardt (2013; see this explanatory post). How to implement or leverage these aspects of good game-informed TBLT L2TL will be the main focus of this discussion.
Crucial to TBLT is the idea of tasks and goals, and in game-informed TBLT, these tasks and goals are learner-driven and not just designed for learning. Hearthstone provides two key aspects that can help in this area. The first is that tasks are highly repeatable without being boring or monotonous and the second is that Hearthstone provides various play styles along with play types. More competitive players will enjoy playing Ranked play in the dynamic match-making system that pits players against other players of similar rank. Other players may be more interested in building a random deck and seeing how their deck plays against others. For them, the Arena is a good option. Finally, thematic games with special play and win conditions are offered every month in the Tavern Brawl. Brawls diverge significantly from other play types and add even more variety.
This variety of tasks and goals can be leverage by in the L2TL class by building students strategic and linguistic knowledge necessary to complete tasks or participate in different play types. Additionally, building students explicit awareness of what their goals are during any given play session can help them and their teacher see how their goals in the game and possibly in relation to language learning may change over time. Many of the daily quests offered by the game relate to winning games with specific classes. Learners will need therefore, to play a variety of games with a variety of classes, many of which they may not be entirely comfortable playing with. Learners can be instructed to use community websites such as Hearthhead to learn important deck-building concepts and get templates for good class-specific deck builds from the community. All of which has an sociocultural-linguistic component.
As these potential activities also relate to feedback, learners could also be instructed to get feedback on the card decks they have built. Instructors would direct learner’s attention to various examples in the community of deck reviews, which are a popular topic in the community, and observe what language appears to be vital in order for a deck to be reviewed and other important information, attitudes and linguistic functions used to elicit the most high quality responses from the community.
Hearthstone’s other feedback mechanisms are also well-developed and several areas can be used for L2TL. As seen in the image above, the player’s quest log represents all their various class levels, point ranks and daily quests. Learners can be asked to reflect on their quest log after a play session, make note of their various levels and create personal goals based on their log for their next play sessions. Over time, and as their levels increase, players can reflect back on their previous goals and consider their future goals.
Leveraging the somewhat useful game-design
Importantly for Hearthstone and L2TL, learners need to learn to use and navigate the in-game emoting system. As noted above, this is a contentious aspect of Hearthstone. For L2TL however, the emote system also represents an opportunity to teach communicative pragmatics and flouting. Students could be directed to a video of a popular streamer play several games, or a series of screenshots, capturing emote-use. Students would discover what the player intended to communicate and also what they interpreted from their opponent. Students could then practice in real games using the emote system to try and communicate with their opponent and record the results.
Finally, Hearthstone is part of a narratively-rich and expansive world that goes beyond the video games WoW and Hearthstone and involves books, music and movies. All of these other media could be potentially used to supplement and contextualize student knowledge about the world of Hearthstone. An easy way perhaps to do this would be to show the short trailers that Blizzard produces for each expansion of both WoW and Hearthstone. These short trailers are themselves short stories that provide an introduction and context for the story the games are intending to communicate.
As mentioned above however, the emergent narrative from the player-game interaction is also an important aspect to use, particularly as it relates to learner agency. After learners build and play a few decks and games, they could be directed to Hearthhead and asked to find the names for specific class/deck combinations (such as Patron Warrior, Fatigue Mage and so on) and to write them down. Learners could be tasked with providing reasons these archetypes exist and what type of player would want to play them (e.g. Control warrior would be someone who likes to play a long and deliberate game). Learners could then decide on a class/deck style that best fits their own personality and perceived playstyle or to try on a playstyle they perceive as their opposite.
As can be seen from this discussion, the use of games and particularly Hearthstone in L2TL can both teach specific linguistic forms and functions (e.g. through in-game emoting pragmatics) and facilitate playfulness with learner identity. Hearthstone is also an ideal game in comparison with its bigger brother WoW, in that it requires less time to play, is playable on a variety of devices and is free to play. However, like all games, particular people and classes may view games in general negatively and Hearthstone does not avoid that. Additionally, the fantasy genre may feel less than applicable for many L2TL contexts that maybe are more focused on real-life communicative situations. While there is certainly an argument that can be made for the transferability of skills, teachers and students alike may not enjoy playing a fantasy card game that appears so far removed from their real-life communicative needs.
This evaluation proposed to examine Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, a card strategy game based on the World of Warcraft for their usefulness in developing game-enhanced L2TL strategies. Five areas of game-informed TBLT L2TL were borrowed from Sykes and Reinhardt (2013) and used as our criteria. We found that overall Hearthstone is useful, with some problematic areas.
Positive aspects are related to the cyclical and explicit tasks and goals along with a variety of play options, which promote a learner-driven teaching environment. Hearthstone’s dynamic ranked match-making system and interactive quest log provide useful and just-in-time feedback related to player skill and ability. Problematic areas involve the poor social interactivity of what is mostly a multiplayer game due to a limited in-game communication chat system. Narrative too was found to be too implicit and possibly confusing for players unfamiliar with WoW and its context.
This evaluation recommends using Hearthstone by building off the goals and tasks provided by the game to motivate learners and promote their own agency. Teachers should also directly confront the problematic areas by giving learners explicit instruction in the pragmatic features of the in-game emote system and helping learners develop their own emerging narrative with the game through other online communities.
Sykes, J. M., & Reinhardt, J. (2013). Language at play: Digital games in second and foreign language teaching and learning. Boston, MA: Pearson.
Our minimum requirement for playing sessions is one hour, though you are welcome and encouraged to play longer. Playing sessions consists of the combined time spent playing the game and visiting the communities surrounding it. After the playing session, complete the two sections below.
Section I. General information
1. Briefly describe your playing session (for example, what did you do in the game and in the community).
2. Overall, how do you feel about this playing session? Why?
3. What, if anything, did you learn about playing the game?
Section II. Reflecting on playing sessions through learning concepts
1. Go to the wiki find the “S & R areas and criteria” page. Copy and paste the weekly focus area criteria from that page to here.
Then, respond to the questions. Refer to the game evaluations in the Sykes and Reinhardt folder on the wiki for models and ideas.
2. “Other” learning experiences and criteria:
a. Through your participation, did you learn or notice any new linguistic (L1 or L2), digital (e.g., images, videos, sound), or other forms of knowledge (e.g., values, practices, ideologies, stances) related to particular groups or sub-groups, or that were common to the online place/space?
b. Aside from the conceptual criteria listed in Sykes and Reinhardt, did you notice any other ways that engaging in gameplay or participating in community activity can assist L2 learning (for example, socialization processes or support from the digital environment itself)?