Turning the limelight on language in games

Republished with permission from 5 More Minutes

As a language teacher, games are a curse and a blessing, although not necessarily in that order.

If you ask any non-native English speaker, you’ll find plenty of anecdotes about how playing video games has affected their language learning. Here in Finland, language teachers have been among the first to embrace technology in their classrooms, and we’re just as eager as anyone else to tap into the engagement that digital games invoke in our students. I’m willing to bet teachers across the globe share the sentiment. Games and language learning have a special relationship, and language teachers should pay attention to it, because it’s not without its problems.

First things first: Games and language are indeed good buddies. All but few games have spoken or written language present: It can be the dialogue between the characters, the means of communication in a multiplayer game, the text in the menus or the quest that tells you what to do next. Indeed, the relationship is so deep that when there is no language in a game, it’s considered a statement or a stylistic choice. On the surface this looks great from a language teacher’s point of view: We don’t have to worry about our choice of games, since it’s present practically everywhere!

Journey game

In Journey, communication is completely stripped of the language component and players can only interact via game mechanics.

However, there’s a caveat. While language is inherently part of most games, it hardly ever seems to be the headline. You don’t play the game to read the menus or plan ahead with your team to have a rich conversation while beating the snot out of the opposing team. No, language is merely a means to an end (just like in real world!).

The problem it raises is that while we can be sure students use the target language, we hardly have control over the domain. Let’s say your goal is to teach the past participle and you want to use a game to teach it, how would you go about it? While there are ways to make that happen (listen to dialogue about past events or reflect on a past match) it’s not very straightforward. That makes it difficult for us as teachers to utilize games in everyday classrooms, but on the other hand it makes sure our students will encounter languages whenever they play games.

One way of approaching the situation is to treat games as language immersion: They are yet another environment where the students encounter the target language, just like music and movies. And an effective one, to say the least: In Finland, the effect of playing games on high school English grades are substantial. Even a few hours a week saw an 0.5 increase in English grades:

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The immersion approach recognizes the effect of games but doesn’t really address how teachers could utilize the game. Using games as an environment for communication is a viable method but it requires a lot of effort from the teacher. It has been done in World of Warcraft, Second Life, and Minecraft.

Challenging as it may be, some games and educators tackle the problem of using language as a game mechanic, putting language in the focal point of the gameplay. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many. It’s safe to say we’re not yet sure how to best utilize language as the game mechanic, but here are a couple of bold attempts at making it happen.

Influent

On the surface, one could argue Influent is just an extension of flash cards: in the game, the player explores an apartment with a device that tells them the names of every object in the target language. Want to learn French? Click on an apple and you hear and see “pomme.”

However, there’s more to the game. One of the glaring differences to flash cards is that in Influent, you discover words in their context. Where do you think you’ll find the apple? In the kitchen of course, next to other fruits. Posters are hanging on the walls and clothes can be found in the wardrobe or near the washer. A simple, but powerful addition.

Influent game

Open the fridge in the game and expect to find same items as in real life.

In the game, player explores new vocabulary and the goal is to learn a new language. It’s not a superficial layer of learning that has been slapped onto a game but explicitly the main component. The learning is built into a game experience with the addition of time attack modes, achievements and currency system to unlock new words to give the process more game-like qualities. However, the motivation to play the game stems from the interest to learn a language.

Influent is available for schools in our TG Store, give it a try if you have a chance!

Elegy for a Dead World

Elegy is one of those games that have hardcore gamers asking the ontological questions about its nature: is it a game, writing simulator or something completely different? In Elegy, players explore painting-like two-dimensional worlds that are named after great poets like Wordsworth and Keats.

The dreamy, deserted worlds have a sense of mystery surrounding them and it’s the player’s job to make sense of this. What happened to the inhabitants? Did they flee an impending ecological disaster? Did they dig too deep to discover an ancient evil? Or were they consumed by an intergalactic cookie monster? The tone and the content are up to the player to decide, so it’s definitely worth checking out as a tool for creative writing as well.

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Elegy helps to avoid a blank page syndrome with writing prompts.

Last but not least, Elegy lets you export stunning visual novels about your journey, giving an important concrete outcome of the writing process. Elegy has also seen aspiring and adventurous teachers trying out the game, so it might have a future in classrooms as well.

Despite all the touting about the virtues of games in learning a foreign language and the concerns around utilizing them, it’s important to remember the situation is nothing new. For many teachers, coming to terms with a new medium isn’t an unfamiliar conundrum: They’ve mastered the use of video with VHS, DVD, and YouTube, and music through cassette tapes and CDs.

Video games are still a relatively young, rapidly developing medium, and the same is doubly true for educational games. The industry is still finding its footing and while this happens, we all have front-row seats to enjoy the spectacle. So grab your popcorn, sit back and relax while best practices emerge. Or, if you’re brave enough, jump on the stage and define the future of using games in classroom yourself!

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