Game-Design Enhanced Language Teaching

Let me start by saying this: “Game-design” language teaching is not the gamification of teaching. It is not “playing games” in a class in order to boost “fun”, though that is certainly a benefit. Game-design language teaching is something much bolder. (Check here for a brief definition of the differences). What follows here are a few principles of game-design and how they can be leveraged to teach languages in ways that address some of the hardest problems in language teaching. Namely, authentic communities of practice, learner-driven tasks and Dynamic, just-in-time feedback. This article will lay the foundation for future, praxis-oriented, content such as specific games for language teaching and specific language-learning plans.



Although, for me, Age empires would have been blue

Games in language teaching are, without question, seen as an integral and essential part of most teachers’ lesson plans. The intensity or involvement in any given game varies from teacher to teacher, class to class. From language puzzles like crosswords and hangman to active Dungeons and Dragons-esque RPGs. Researchers, too, have for decades recommended games in the language classroom for various reasons including the development of positive attitudes towards learning, providing clear goals and engagement (Palmer & Rodgers, 1983). Games, however, often only serve one specific goal for teachers: student engagement. Games are fun. The rise of gamification is related to this problem and it is an attempt to solve the same kinds of problems.

For this reason, there often is not much thought or discussion given to why we should play games, or how the games are beneficial language learning tools. Anecdotally, many teachers like myself know that games engage students and help scaffold their language production. But still, how? If it is true that games fundamentally help language learning, what principles of games and game design lead to these kinds of outcomes? These are the kinds of questions that researchers like Julie Skyes and James Paul Gee have begun to address. What follows here is a brief introduction and foundation to ground theoretically what will hopefully become a repository of useful information regarding games for second language learning and teaching (L2TL).

While many researchers have examined the language learning effects from games in themselves, as teachers many of us are interested in the ways we can effectively coordinate and implement games, particularly digital games relevant to our “digital native” (Prensky, 2003) students, in and around our classrooms. While games in general may be found to be effective language learning tools, how game-design, and in particular digital game-design can be leverage to improve pedagogy and classroom outcomes.

Some Assumptions

Language socialization 

Before going forward, I want to briefly mention some of the underlying theory and philosophy that leads many researchers and teachers like myself to believe that there is real value in using games to teach language. A game-design approach to L2TL takes a principled approach based on socio-cultural theories of language and teaching, in particular, language socialization (LS) (Ochs & Schieffelin, 1995) and tasked-based language teaching (TBLT) (Willis, 1996). An LS perspective views language and language learning as means-end oriented. That is, children come to learn and use language as a tool, or means, to achieve some goal, or end. These means and ends from an LS perspective are enforced by culture.

Ochs and Schieffelin’s perhaps most well-known example relates to how children are addressed differently in different cultures. They note that middle-class American caregivers are very likely to spend a lot of time directing their speech to their pre-linguistic infants. The speech is not random however. Nor is it monologue. It is conversational. Caregivers in these communities greet, ask questions and correct behavior all the while knowing the child can neither understand nor respond to them. Additionally, these caregivers go above and beyond normal conversational behavior to maintain the attention of the infant by exaggerating their tone of voice and body gesture.

Ochs and Schieffelin then go on to describe a different cultural practice by some Mayan (and many other) communities. Caregivers in these communities do not interact directly with pre-verbal infants. Adults in these communities do not view infants as appropriate conversational partners and so do not engage them directly with language until they already know how to talk.

The brilliance of the theory of Language Socialization then, is its ability to account for both of these cultural practices. Importantly, there is no single rule that governs the language development in these cultures. It is not the case that middle-class Americans learn language by direct conversation with their caregivers, nor is it the case that Mayan babies don’t learn language. Instead, LS says that different communities organize around the central principles of acceptable participation and evolutionary-driven needs (e.g. food, attention, touch and so on) that infants need to obtain. “novices”, as the children in each case are called, operate on the periphery of language communities. They are “peripheral members”. Core members of the community are those individuals and groups who have power and influence. These are generally adults, but can be other non-center groups who are nontheless closer to the center than the infant (such as older children). For us language teachers, it is easy to recognize that our L2 learners are peripheral members of their L2 language communities too.

So, how do the infant-directed approaches to language fit into this system of center and peripheral membership? For the Mayan children, they are required to follow their mother where ever she goes. The communal aspect of the every day life, on average, means that the child will be exposed to a great deal of language and conversation between their caregiver and other adults in the community. In the terms of Ochs and Schieffelin, the children become overhearers. They are legitimate peripheral members of the community. They are welcome to be present. For the American middle-class child however, particularly in traditional nuclear families, the child may spend days in the company of primarily one adult. The child in this situation then, is not overhearing much language at all. And hence, the effort of the caregiver to directly engage the pre-language infant.

For us, the L2TL educator, their are many other important insights that the LS perspective brings, but I just want to highlight the importance of this initial insight. Language learning is always the result of socializing into a community. And to do so, it is necessary to move from the periphery of that community towards the center. For our L2TL students then, helping them gain a legitimate and authentic position as a peripheral member of a community is a crucial step.

It is often assumed that the language classroom itself is that legitimate and authentic community. However, the goal of the language classroom is not to create a community of language classroom L2 users. But instead, to transfer the skills developed and honed in the classroom into a real community of speakers. Creating a positive and welcoming language classroom community is a real and important goal, but it is not itself the community we are aiming for. At least because the language classroom is necessary transitional and temporary, necessarily unstable.

  • So, we see a few important insights, as well as important challenges for L2TL. Membership in a language community is vital, but how to do so in a mostly inauthentic classroom setting?

Task-based Learning and Teaching (TBLT)

The general structure of a TBLT lesson

Traditionally, TBLT was motivated by the failures of methods such as audio-lingual  and Communicative Language Teaching (CLT). Importantly, how each of those methods failed to incorporate vital aspects of the other. In the case of the grammar-translation and audio-lingual, it was the complete lack of social knowledge needed to actually use the grammar rules or pronunciations learned through those methods. And in the case of CLT, the fact that students seemed to make great gains in comprehension of content language, but failed to make similar gains in functional aspects of grammar. TBLT attempts to fix these problems and also motivate students, but marrying real-life language use with problems that needed to be solved through language.

TBLT, in relation to LS, can be seen as a pedagogical means-end approach to L2TL. Sykes and Reinhardt (2013) situate the theoretical foundation of TBLT in communicative language teaching related to functional approaches to language. From this view, it was important that L2TL be applicable to real-world situations and not just the learning of language rules and forms. This end, communication in real-world situations, is achieved through pedagogically valid tasks that act as means to those ends.

A classic example is a hotel checklist task. Originally designed for immigrant ESL learners who had been employed in hotels as maids or other staff. The task, following the diagram above, gives a pair of students the task of cleaning a hotel room. Each learner has a different set of tasks that they have either “done” or “not done”. Most of the tasks, between the two learners, have been done. The goal of the learners is to determine what still needs to be done to successfully prepare the hotel room.

This task has the benefit of being immediately applicable to the learners, it involves words and language structures that will be immediately important and useful to them (words related to working in a hotel). Additionally, the learners must negotiate together to recognize and notice BOTH the content (what still needs to be done) and also the LANGUAGE (by carefully reading through their lists). There are also several problems with tasks like this, and if you’ve been teaching, you may be able to recognize any number of them. What follows is a short list (not comprehensive) of some of the problems that TBLT sometimes face, and how game-design can help us overcome them.

A critique of TBLT from a Game-Design Perspective

For L2TL at the moment, TBLT is the target most teachers are trying to hit. And there are many different approaches, pedagogues and lesson plans that utilize TBLT. However, some have recognized several short-comings in TBLT. In particular, researchers interested in game-design have discovered a short list of items that could be improved, and ways to do it.

Sykes and Reinhardt’s perspective of game-informed language socialization and task-based L2TL are categorized in five problematic areas:

  1. goals and tasks – lack of student agency
  2. interaction – promotes good ideational (semantic) interaction, but can fail to promote adquate interpersonal interaction
  3. feedback – Delayed, hard to give the correct feedback in the moment it will help
  4. context and narrative – Tasks can often be divorced from broader societal narratives and context that drives language learning (from an LS perspective).
  5. motivation – Tasks may motivate for awhile, but often do not lead to sustained, motivated attention over multiple class sessions..

A game-design TBLT perspective views each of the five areas of criteria differently than traditional views might. For this reason, we will briefly introduce them in this section along with a description of what good games do with the five TBLT areas mentioned above.

Sykes and Reinhardt describe goals and tasks in game-designed TBLT as centering around two main ideas: having learner driven tasks and goal-orienting. Learner-driven tasks contrast with learning driven tasks and the difference lies with who gets to decide how learning will happen. A game-informed TBLT perspective focuses on giving students agency and multiple routes of task completion with continually updated goals.

Interaction, Sykes and Reinhardt mention, is possibly the most defining aspect of games when compared with other types of media. For Sykes and Reinhardt, game-designed interaction is built on four levels of interaction. Ideational (or the interaction between learner and language, i.e., their own mind), Interpersonal (the interaction between speakers of a language) and cultural (the interaction of an individual user with the cultural expectations and values). Digital game-informed TBLT improves upon traditional applications by situating the learner into a game-oriented culture. Beyond multiplayer games, which promote both ideational language use and interpersonal, the communities that exist around games is vitally important. Using internet communities to learn, discuss and discover important information to better play the game is a fountain of possible interactions and provides the language learner with literally thousands of possible interpersonal partners.

Feedback in games is the primary way game-designers communicate to players whether or not they are progressing in the game. Actions taken by the player may lead to failure or success. Important then, for game design, is how to communicate to the player that they are failing or succeeding. For Sykes and Reinhardt feedback in games needs to be individualized, discernable and given “exactly at the moment it is needed” (p. 59). Feedback then, can be given both explicitly through the use of messages on the screen, level-ups, and tooltips. Or, it can be implicit through sound effects, or well-scaffolded tasks which teach the player step-by-step through each level of their development.

Narrative for Sykes and Reinhardt, is described as the way people transmit culture. Games generally have very well defined game-designed narratives. However, these narratives are never presented without a player and the player interaction with the game-designed narrative can lead to emergent, different narratives than perhaps the designed one. IThis is markedly different from other media genres such as books or movies. For example, game designers will intentionally create a narrative, build a world and populate it with characters and conflicts. However, unlike a book or a movie, the player then moves about that world making defined choices. Like in other genres, inside the players head there is an interpretation of the world designed by the creators. Unlike those genres however, an emergent narrative can unfold in the game-world itself, and not just in the attendant communities that surround it (such as fan fiction sites).

Motivation, finally, is described by Sykes and Reinhardt in terms of player engagement and flow. Motivation in games is not seen to reside within the individual player, but as an emerging factor in the interaction between the game-design and the player. Motivation in this view, then, is dynamic and continually negotiated and not simply an intrinsic property of the player or game. How the game uses the other four factors listed, it can help or hinder the motivation that the player brings to it themselves. The interactive nature of games can easily lead to a state of flow, or extended focus on the present moment. Flow is something of a mystical feature. We’ve all had the experience of being engrossed in a particularly good book, movie, conversation or other event. This in-the-momentness can lead to extensive exposure to whatever the game is exposing.


So, how can games be leveraged then? Do we just play games in English/Spanish/Korean and assume these principles will play out and, viola, language learned? Of course not. Though, then again, maybe. Some(1) researchers(2) have found(3) that just playing games leads inherently to learning outcomes, and this can be language learning in some cases.

But certainly, with the help of a Vygostkian helper, we can bring our language learners along faster. Reinhardt and Sykes help us with this and developed what they call a “bridging activities” cycle (example). In these cycles teachers help students explore these game worlds, analysis them and then perform them back in their authentic contexts.



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