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Language learning & Video games

The topic of playing games—not just video games—and learning has been well-researched, and I’d like to write specifically about video games & language learning. The most successful language learners are those that use the target language regularly, in natural environments, and by interacting with their peers. Many people view playing video games as a waste of time and argue that no or very little learning happens when we play video games.

The popularity of video games is wide-spread across genders, age groups, ethnicities and economic classes[1]. James Paul Gee—a Regents professor working in psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, bilingual education, and other areas—argues that games are often problem-based and project-based learning. Gee states that “Human beings don’t learn primarily from generalizations and abstractions. They learn from experiences they have had and shared with others.” [2] We surely can learn a language by memorizing grammar structures—indeed people have—but it’s quite difficult and it is much more meaningful to learn alongside others whilst experiencing things. There are video games specifically tailored for this (i.e. learning Spanish by playing a game where you interact with the environment and by completing tasks; like ordering food at a restaurant). Playing and games have huge implications for learning.

MMORPGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games) are fantastic grounds for researching how people learn. Various studies have demonstrated positive effects for learning a second language by using MMORPGS.

Bytheway’s study [3] is particularly interesting as it explored how English language learners autonomously learn vocabulary while playing MMORPGs. The results revealed 15 vocabulary strategies including: noticing frequency of words, recognizing knowledge gaps, selecting words for attention, equating images and actions to words, giving and receiving explanations and feedback, observing players, using words to learn words, reading in-game information, and using Google/dictionaries. The author analyzed WoW (World of Warcraft) because it’s the biggest and most popular MMORPG to date. She notes that WoW interfaces, “provide a wealth of linguistic resources, including written instructions and storylines, optional pop-up tips, accessible manuals, animated film clips with spoken audio and captions, as well as access to synchronous and asynchronous (chat) messaging, real-time skype conversations…” From my personal experience, I’ve heard from people that learn a foreign language by playing these games in the target language. They are forced to interact—to do tasks and complete quests—with people that use the language they want to learn. And games are fun and beat working through a textbook or memorizing decontextualized vocabulary words.

Gee argues that gaming lowers the cost of failure so players will explore, take risks, seek alternative solutions, and try new styles of play and learning. A Vietnamese student, in Bytheway’s study stated: “Just like practice more… write more… so just type in and don’t worry about the stuff”. Because they create a new identity—usually in the form of an avatar—these learners take risks that they wouldn’t in ‘real life.’ They are able to experiment—like a playing child—with various hypothesis and that, ultimately, leads to better learning. Creating a new identity also comes into play here. Learners usually create a new avatar, with a new name, and that facilitates language learning. I still remember my German name from my high school class. I know from personal experience (playing MMORPGs) that often people become totally immersed in the game and actually ‘become’ that character. Another area of research concerns beyond-game cultures where people find more about the game, strategies, and so forth.

 Ryu [4]argues that “Though participants engage in beyond-game culture primarily to enhance their skills as players, interactions with peers can result in language learning.” The people in his study were really motivated to practice English so that they could learn about the game. Even when interviewed some didn’t realize they were getting better at English. Ryu mentions a study done on Everquest (another popular MMORPG): “Results showed that learners who played the game with native speakers recorded higher rates of comprehension vocabulary items and that communication patterns were characteristic of collaborative social interaction in the context.”

Since many of our students are familiar with games then it is absolutely essential for teachers and parents to at least consider the learning potential of games; especially MMORPGs in ESL/EFL contexts.

Mr Fabian Senday-Alfaro

English teacher

[1] Yee, N. (2006). The Daedalus project: The psychology of MMORPGs.


[2] Gee, J. P. (2013). Games for learning. Educational Horizons, 91(4), 16-20.


[3] Bytheway, J. (2015). A taxonomy of vocabulary learning strategies used in massively multiplayer online role-playing games. Calico Journal, 32(3), 508-527.


[4] Ryu, D. (2013). Play to learn, learn to play: Language learning through gaming culture.