The Use of Video Games in Second Language Acquisition
Learning a language today, entirely through self-study, is a very accessible thing for those who have the time and an internet connection. There are many ways to go about it and many tools to utilise—books, podcasts, teaching videos, classes with traditional teachers, and, more recently, video games. One well-known, visually appealing online platform is Duolingo. Duolingo’s opening page states, “The free, fun, and effective way to learn a language!” and describes itself as: “The world’s #1 way to learn a language” (Duolingo, n.d.). The reason they can make these claims is due to its element of gamification. Huynh, Zuo and Iida (2016) note that gamification in the education world is still somewhat in its early stages. Duolingo itself is not a game, yet its gamification makes for increased motivation and engagement levels (Huynh et al., 2016). Other features of Duolingo that increase motivation include rewards, levelling up, a leaderboard, badges (Huynh et al., 2016), and its daily streak, which players are encouraged to keep up (Lenkaitis, 2019). Another motivating factor may be the reminders which Duolingo sends by email or smartphone notifications to those signed up, which have evolved into online memes of the bright green owl sending ominous threats if a learner does not complete their language study for the day.
All in all, Duolingo’s model of fun is effective since it fosters good attitudes toward learning, which affects motivation, which, in turn, affects achievement (Lenkaitis, 2019). Lenkaitis (2019) brings up Crowther et al.’s (2017) findings that Duolingo is best used a supplemental and supportive tool, not as the only method for learning a language. Duolingo has room to grow in its teaching of grammar and syntax in its lessons, but this only means that a learner/player must find another source to acquire that aspect of their target language. Video games, in sum, make for fun learning, yet, they, too, are in need of other tools to support a full language learning experience.
Pedagogy of Second Language Acquisition
There are multiple ways of understanding language learning. Three distinct ways are as methods of transmission, transaction, or transformation. Transmission is about linguistic knowledge and rules going from teacher to student, transaction gives more control to the student and values communication over getting the rules right, and transformation is about the student’s experience of language learning, resulting social and personal change (K. Paaten, personal communication, October 13, 2020). Video games as language learning tools fit under transformation because of the interactive, experiential, and non-traditional form of learning it offers. Games are something we play, and play is experimental in nature. When children play, they are not graded poorly for putting Lego blocks together incorrectly. Play is a free space to try and fail safely. There is no judgement from a classroom of peers and a teacher. This is an important aspect of language learning; when anxiety levels are high, students are unable to receive language input or produce language output well (K. Paaten, personal communication, September 15, 2020). So, when students feel comfortable and safe, they are able to learn much better. This is one reason why video games may be helpful for learning, since video games offer a place where one does not need to perform but can play alone and practise new information away from a scrutinizing eye.
One method of language instruction, and one which may work for solitary study as well, takes the anti-anxiety idea to heart: it is known as Suggestopedia. Developed in the 1970s by Bulgarian psychiatrist Georgi Lozanov, this method seeks to make “use of all the possibilities tender suggestion can offer” (Baihaqi & Rutiningsih, 2018, p. 84). Positive suggestion is used with the intention of having students thoroughly enjoy the learning process, and it is said that this leads to language acquisition about three times faster than traditional teaching methods (Baihaqi & Rutiningsih, 2018). A harsh teacher and teaching method may motivate some to get the grades, but the “softness” of Suggestopedia aims for care and transformation of the student. After all, gentleness has more power than we give it credit. This method is employed through “deliberately induced states of relaxation” in a room, and one important element of this is playing calming music; these factors allow students to feel more confident (Baihaqi & Rutiningsih, 2018, p. 90). Another factor of Suggestopedia is its usefulness for teaching vocabulary, in English language learning especially, because vocabulary relates to the four language skills of speaking, listening, reading, and writing (Jordan, 1995, as cited in Baihaqi & Rutiningsih, 2018). Suggestopedia understands that, for the student, learning is not about memorisation but about using the imagination to solve problems (Lozanov & Thresia, 2015, as cited in Baihaqi & Rutiningsih, 2018, p. 94). Does this not sound like gameplay?
According to Gass (2000) (as cited in Peterson, 2010), second language acquisition is best fostered when students have the opportunity to deconstruct and reconstruct language through “goal-based communicative activities” (p. 73). Long (1985) (as cited in Peterson, 2010) suggests that the process of negotiation of meaning achieves this. Negotiation of meaning is a process that happens in an interaction where interlocutors figure out what each other is saying. When there is a language barrier, this will often include rephrasing and asking for clarification. Peterson (2010) goes on to describe how games can present a great deal of language input for the player as well as goal-based, “task-focused” interaction (p. 74). Multiplayer games offer the chance for something close to a live conversation over text-based or voice chat, and this is prime for “the development of communicative competence” (Peterson, 2005, as cited in Peterson, 2010, p. 74). (However, Zheng, Young, Brewer, and Wagner’s (2009) research (as cited in Hung, de Haan, & Lee, 2018) suggests that language assessment in school is much different than how language is used in game worlds). Games may create the same effect as Suggestopedia seeks to: the control that games give to the learner and the “anonymity afforded” are factors that can reduce anxiety in learning contexts, something discussed earlier as a hindrance (Krashen, 1985, and Warschauer, Turbee, & Roberts, 1996, as cited in Peterson, 2010, p. 74). Games are seen as enjoyable and motivating for students, as well as immersive and providing good places for trying out the linguistic knowledge one has accumulated (Peterson, 2010).
Video Games in the Classroom
Games have been cited as positive up until now in this essay, but Hung, deHaan, & Lee (2018) point out that games are not the perfect tool for teaching, since teachers and game designers educate differently. These authors cite deHaan, Reed, & Kuwada’s study from 2010 where they had undergraduate students play a music video game to help with their English vocabulary. The results showed that while video games are a sure method of language input, some games present simply too much input for students to process the visuals, audio, and foreign language elements all at once; Hung et al. (2018) cite the “cognitive load” idea of Mayer (2009) (p. 4). However, students in the 2010 study who were watching someone else play did not experience the overload but were able to concentrate on the linguistic input (Hung et al., 2018). Hung et al. (2018) also look at Lee’s (2014) study, similar to deHaan et al.’s (2010) study, and note that learning can be seriously hindered by games unless teachers and students “can have more control over when and how linguistic input is presented” (p. 4). Hung et al. also look at Zheng et al.’s (2009) study done on two groups of English language students, one who studied tests and the other who played a video game with native English speakers playing in other countries. The group that studied tests then received higher essay scores, but those who practised by gaming had a more positive view of learning English, were more innovative in how they used English, and grew in their cultural awareness (Hung et al., 2018). So, while games may not be ideal for practise in writing essays, they can lead to students making the language their own and experiencing positive transformation.
Hung et al. (2018) continue to discuss what using games in the classroom looks like. They note that video games should not be used directly as they are when brought into school contexts but require “significant modification” in order to be helpful for education (p. 6). Hung et al. cite the suggestions of Zheng et al. (2009), Miller and Hegelheimer (2006), Renalli (2008), and Lave (1998) that say giving time for students to take notes, digest linguistic input, and discuss what they are learning in the game would be a helpful way to integrate games into the classroom. Where Duolingo is an education tool gamified, teachers can make games “educafied.” Purushotma, Thorne, and Wheatley (2009) (as cited in Hung et al., 2018), assert that games should be centred on teaching meaning and doing tasks before focusing on grammar rules and forms, since meaning is more engaging, and tasks make it so that learners apply what they know and only learn what they need for the task. Hung et al. note that learning only what one needs, and which has been directly applied to gameplay, helps students’ vocabulary recall and makes for better flow in a game.
A task-based game that was big in 2020 is Among Us. Among Us is a mafia-type game set in a spaceship where each player is assigned a role only known to them, either as a crewmate or the imposter, and they work together to oust the imposter or to off all the crewmates, depending on their role. York (2020) examines the game as a language educator, and notes its use of past, past continuous, and perfect tense, as well as persuasion, asking questions, and giving advice. If using this game in a class, York (2020) recommends teachers take care to bring students’ in-game language use out with them when they finish playing because, “just as a boxer removes their gloves after a fight, once students step outside of the magic circle of gameplay, their use of the target language may end also” (p. 272). York (2020) also breaks down a teaching model for using this game in five steps. First, a class should learn the rules of the game together, look at vocabulary and phrases they will need, and first play the game in their most comfortable language. Secondly, they play the game, using the target language as much as they can. After playing, they discuss what they were not able to say in the target language, and then work on translating it so that they can say it. They also reflect on mistakes and, interestingly, watch streamed videos of gameplay to see how native speakers of the target language talk when they play. Next, a class should play again and repeat the after-play step. For further study, students can write about the game in a short essay or go online and look for Among Us communities to be a part of (York, 2020). This model shows that, for best results, a game needs before and after study to optimize learning. Simply playing the game may help students learn some basics, like colours, but structured study and peer interaction deepen and reinforce the learning.
Game Analysis: SpaceteamESL
Some games are designed as things of play, and educators can take those into their classrooms with modification, and some games are designed as things of play with language learning in mind. One game of the latter type is SpaceteamESL (English as a Second Language) made by researchers at Concordia University. The original game, Spaceteam, is described as a “cooperative shouting game” (Spaceteam, n.d.) and was then adapted for ESL learners. In the original, every player (2-8), on their own device, has a control panel with nonsensically named levers, buttons, and switches. Each player, all on a doomed and breaking down spaceship, must call out the instructions on their screen, such as “Engage Eigenthrottle” or “Turn on Dangling Shunter,” and such commands correspond to another player’s control panel, and they then carry out the command.
The ESL version works in the same way, except without the nonsense words—learners of English have a lot to handle as is; they do not need to navigate what words are real and which are not! The commands, although still silly, use more real words, such as: “Activate red guys” and “Set random goat to 1.” Other features of this game include options to slow down the game speed from normal, to slow, to very slow, as well as the option to choose the word level in gameplay, from level one to five. These are very important elements because they give the learner control; they will not be faced with rapid, incomprehensible content if they have not selected that. This game also presents a simple task: to call out the words, and then if one hears a command spoken that shows up on one’s control panel, one then presses it. Simple instruction allows for focus on the linguistic information. One last feature is the ability to practise speaking before or after playing. There are five levels of three categories: verbs, adjectives, and nouns. A player can listen to the individual words and then record oneself saying them and keep the recordings. This quick party game uses learner control, reinforcement, and simple tasks that aid in learning English. However, let us now look at a game that is not specifically designed for language learning.
Game Analysis: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is an action, open-world, role-playing game set in a fantasy world embroiled in war and intergroup conflict, and doomed by a malevolent dragon. The player assumes the heroic role of the one who comes to be known as the “Dragonborn.” This game, if it were to be played in one’s target language, requires the player to be at a more advanced level, at least intermediate. The linguistic input comes in full sentences as dialogue and at a natural pace. Subtitles are available—in general and for dialogue. These can also be turned off if the player wishes to focus on listening practise. While the dialogue of others plays at a normal speed, the player is afforded as much time as they need to read and weigh the dialogue choices for their own character, which is somewhat like real life. The game here offers that space to process and take one’s time without being judged as slow or incompetent. However, the question is whether Skyrim is a medium able to be “educafied” for purposes of self-study and classroom use, or whether it is better left as a form of play.
This game is, of course, centred on meaning and story, which helps with engagement and pulling the player to the game again, thus continuing language practise. In the beginning of the game, the character is a prisoner on the way to be executed, and similar to York’s (2020) advice of watching a game before playing it, the player must watch the others get executed, which allows the player to understand what is going on even if they do not understand all the talk of war and the Empire that the characters are mumbling about. The beginning eases the player into not only the fantasy world but also the linguistic atmosphere. An example is how the player is ordered to follow a captain and the character does it without the player controlling it. If the player did not understand the command, they see what it would mean to have understood. In this way, the player is “babied” into the gameplay and comprehending language on their own. Next, after the dragon ravages the town, the player has different characters to follow, and there are points on the map to go to, so even if the player does not understand what they are told, they are not altogether lost.
When another character tells the player to search around a room for weapons or other items, indicating markers appear around the room, and when the player approaches them, simple instructions or options appear: “Unlock cage door,” “Take,” “Talk to Farengar.” Sometimes these instructions relate to a new mission and can be found in the quest menu. Each quest gives a few sentences on context and who wants the player to do what and why, and beneath this, there is the simple instruction, such as, “Retrieve the Dragonstone.” As the bare-bone instruction is there for gamers who do not feel like reading the paragraph above, so is it there for those are not familiar with terms in the paragraph or need a comprehension check. Another example of something very close to direct language teaching is when the “sneak” control is introduced, first used to evade a deadly bear. The other character tells the player to avoid being seen by the animal, and if the player does not understand what is spoken, the game still tells them to press “control” to sneak, and then the Dragonborn crouches as they move about the cave. The player sees the typed-out verb “to sneak” and gets a moving visual of what it means.
Possible Downsides and Individual Modification in Playing Skyrim
One thing is for sure: this game is not conducive to a state of relaxation. It is not a game of prancing through medieval-looking towns and stumbling upon new vocabulary along the way. The player is quickly equipped with a weapon and met with disdainful opponents in every quest. The soundtrack complements excellently to the context of the current gameplay, meaning it intensifies when danger approaches, and every sense of calm is shaken and incited into alert fight or flight (hopefully fight). As a non-gamer myself, I experienced the opposite of a Suggestopedic atmosphere when playing, yet, I realize that for serious gamers, the balance of the challenge of defeating monstrous spiders, the motivation of levelling up, and the dextrous skills they have up their sleeves can lead to a flow state (Csikszentmihalyi as cited in Schut, 2013) perhaps similar to the aimed state of the Suggestopedia method. However, very little language is presented in such fight scenes. However again, the music does continue beyond intense battle scenes and into more peaceful travelling and free milling about. Therefore, a case can be made for flow state in general Skyrim gameplay, kindled further by the music.
Yet, some elements of this particular Skyrim game are not helpful. For one, there is no time whatsoever to read the information on load screens! A player may feel they are such a slow reader for not being able to read it before the game is ready to play. At times, the characters the player are supposed to follow will go off screen, and the player is left unsure of what to do. Rather than only misunderstanding normally (as if playing in their native language), they do not understand what to do in another language, which can be more frustrating. It is worth asking whether this immersive game can lead to cognitive overload, if playing in another language. I asked my twenty-three-year-old sibling, a gamer himself, whether playing in, say, French, would make a game frustrating for him. He answered that you do not have understand everything in a game in order to enjoy it (G. Scott, personal communication, October 16, 2021). I experienced something similar as I played—not understanding what to do next because game mechanics is quite like another language for me—yet I still could enjoy playing. Cognitive overload will vary according to the individual, and, for Skyrim, I would suggest shorter gaming sessions or taking breaks to process new linguistic information to avoid this.
Finally, there is something called god mode, a cheat which one can enable when playing Skyrim, which gives the player invincibility—they cannot die. If the stress of gameplay and having to constantly fight off enemies detracts from absorbing language meaningfully, then god mode allows the player to fight if they want to, or just explore the world and the story and focus on language learning. This is a modification, something suggested by Hung et al. (2018) if one wants to not only play a video game but use a video game for educational purposes.
The elements of video games which aid people in learning languages include ones inherent to the nature of games—motivation, engaging material, and a sense of activeness. In games there can also be aspects present that stem from language teaching methods, such as Suggestopedia, which creates the best atmosphere, and task-based teaching, which gives the learner practical linguistic material. Other factors include learner control, no overload of media or sensory input, and a centredness on meaning. The pedagogy cited in this work heavily suggests that video games are supplementive tools, like Duolingo. To acquire a second language, one cannot solely play a game but needs some kind of modification and extras techniques—like notetaking, first watching another play the game, learning phrases and terms beforehand, playing the game in one’s native language first, and studying the linguistic information once again after playing. All in all, if someone earnestly would like to learn using video games, they can mold their media to work on their side for language acquisition. Surely there is more research to be done on gamified learning and “learningified” gaming, more games to be made with language in mind, and definitely more games to be played.
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