This paper presents a study of the viewpoints on video game playing toward second/foreign language learning among ESL/EFL students in Xalapa, Veracruz. The results showed that students’ insights on playing video games aimed at foreign language learning were positive. This paper also made a comparison with factors such as gender and years of playing that support these insights. The results indicated that types of games and English proficiency have strong influences on students’ perceptions. This paper’s purpose is to present several of the latest theories in videogame studies and new media literacies, in addition to theories of language learning. Several examples are shown of how computer video games and web applications such as The Sims 2, Grim Fandango, jumpcut, Apple imovie, Windows movie maker and others could radically change the way in which we approach language learning and instruction.
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The role of technology as an alternative tool for instruction of English foreign language learners increases as educators recognize its possibilities to create both independent and collaborative learning environments in which students can acquire, immerse and practice a new language (Butler-Pascoe, 1997). Through the use of the Internet, word processors, video games multimedia, and practice programs, students can engage in individualized instruction designed to meet their specific needs and participate in cooperative projects that will foster communication with peers in their classrooms and throughout the global community. This research focuses on the potential of video games as a powerful tool for foreign language instruction and acquisition. This is a very important topic for many reasons, the least of which is that so many people do not really understand this medium and regard it in the worst possible manner. What many outsiders of the video game culture do not understand is that video games can be an expressive and interesting medium that can easily compete with the best that other mediums have to offer, and, like any type of expressive medium before them, video games have gone through a harsh trial by those who are bigoted, uninformed and prejudiced against this medium.
This paper provides a great opportunity to explain why computers and video games can take an important part in language learning, and why therein we have an extraordinary opportunity to educate, not only our children but the population at large through video games. Video games can provide the ability to shape events, environments and positions in a way which is not feasible through any other medium. According to Larson (1999) and Li (1999), “the transactional nature and the pedagogical relevance of some state-of-the-art videogame-based interactive technologies make videogames a viable vehicle for foreign language learning”.
This thesis aims to reach the following objectives:
1. – to make the reader aware of new learning strategies and possibilities for all types of learners;
2. – to discover students’ views on the feasibility of videogames for language learning and instruction;
3. – to suggest a new range of activities that can be performed in a classroom using videogames.
This thesis firstly discusses findings from various research studies, as well as current language teaching methodologies, in order to explain how video games can contribute to language acquisition by evaluating several video game genres and emphasizing that “virtual pet”, simulation and “RPG” (Role playing games) are beneficial for language acquisition. It also provides various sample activities that can be performed in the ESL classroom using video games in their own right.
Secondly, the context and participants are presented as well as a research instrument, after which the data is analyzed and given an interpretation and finally pedagogical implications are presented.
Chapter 1: Literature review
This chapter firstly attempts to explain why videogames can be suitable for learning a language based on several studies that are described next. Secondly, it also outlines how videogames are slowly being incorporated into the field of education. Thirdly, it provides the readers with an overview on videogames and modding and finally how teachers can benefit their lessons from modding and how it can be used in the ESL/EFL classroom.
1. – Videogames and Research
Using video games to educate has long been a much thought-of goal, yet rarely an achieved one. Although video games may not yet be able to educate users in a content area effectively, language learners may benefit from video games. Educational software developers have struggled to present a substantial amount of content and context without sacrificing the degree of control game players expect.
Very little research has specifically targeted language acquisition through video games; however, various studies carried out over the years in several universities of the U.S, England and Sweden with students of different majors, as well as current language teaching methodologies support the use of video games to learn language.
Interestingly, in one study Hulstijn & Laufer (2001) found that language acquisition may hinge on the “level of involvement in a task”, and video game players are often quite immersed in game play, a trait that may enable them to acquire language, since video games often contain simultaneously presented aural and textual language.
Another study done by Prensky (2006) suggests that “videogames allow learners to analyze and decode language at their own pace”. During game play learners may use one input channel to decode the other because videogame players have a great deal of control over the game play (various in-game choices can be made, games can be paused, actions can be repeated, and conversations can sometimes be initiated at the players’ own beck and call.
“Dornyei & Clement (2001, p.399) claimed that “one of the main premises for using video games to educate has been to harness learners’ motivation”. Although, motivation is a crucial element in language learning, motivation alone does not guarantee the acquisition of a language. This was stated in another study performed by Prensky (2004) who found out that one of the most difficult things teachers had to do was to aim for a balance between video game interaction and learning its language which may result too strenuous for some players’ cognitive abilities.
Nevertheless, Brett (2001) emphasizes in his research that the natural repetition which is present in video games, such as the constant set-up of mini-battles in role-playing games and the frequent use of interactive menus in virtual pet and simulation games, allows a language learner to be continuously exposed to the target language and creates more opportunities for acquisition to occur as opposed to other media, such as movies or books, which often do not reuse the same vocabulary or grammar, making acquisition more difficult and slow-paced. Interestingly enough, the repetition in video games allows a language learner to use their own initiative to use known language (semantic context, vocabulary or grammar) to decode unknown elements through constant exposure.
Furthermore, Crawford (2003, p.261) made a stunning discovery in his research when he stated that “a videogame provides players with a useful kinesthetic link to its language” resulting in players having to give a total physical response to actions prompted. Total Physical Response (TPR) activities are used in order to connect the language item whether, vocabulary or grammar, to a physical action, hopefully making the language easier to grasp, which is quite similar in videogames where players perform on-screen actions that may serve to link the language they learn to their native language.
2. – Video Games and Education
Video games evoke different emotions in people. Some might perceive them as nothing more than a tool of entertainment, while others might consider them useless and tools of bad influence. Academics, such as Gee (2005, p.13), will say that “video games are a new form of interactive media worthy of academic multidisciplinary study” regardless of what videogames may be, it is a well-known fact that they are a distinct yet entertaining way for youngsters to spend their time.
It comes as no surprise that many educators and teachers are trying to add video games to their lessons and curricula design both to catch and retain the attention of students, not to mention to enhance the course content and likability. Many business, medicine, and law schools in northern Europe are implementing video games such as Kristen’s Cookies, Dexter and Objection as part of their curricula, whilst other schools introduce more commercially known titles, for example Brain Age and Trauma Center to their science and math courses. According to Hogg’s research (2006) carried out in some European universities, students’ motivation and therefore grades, have soared exponentially as opposed to slump since the implementation of video games in their curricula.
Video games have become increasingly widespread in their use, both as a hobby and as an educational tool. ESL teachers should be no exception and be able to make use of this technology to help students in teaching grammar points as much as in developing students’ speaking ability.
3. – Video Games and Modding
For over twenty years there have been many attempts at designing educational software with all of them resulting in failure and thus a sense of hopelessness prevailed through much of the educational software community. Fortunately, the emergence of new models have made education and entertainment games stop competing with one another. If we look at today’s entertainment video games, many will be nothing like the games prevalent in the late 90’s when educators and game developers first teamed up in an attempt to insert artificial learning moments inside games. Back then, in-game worlds were relatively fixed and did not have much depth whatsoever, enabling the player only to play out the action of a pre-programmed story.
Today, nonetheless, according to Hansson (2005) games are presumably more open-ended, with many of them encouraging players to take an active role in the construction of the game itself through the use of various ‘mod’ tools. The term ‘mod’ means modification, in videogame terms ‘mod’ refers to a user made add-on to an already existing game. For example, one of 2007’s best selling video games, “The Sims 2” does not determine any explicit goal or winning outcome. Rather, the game presents itself as an open-ended “virtual doll house” in which users play out and share stories with one another should they choose to.
As a result of the enormous flexibility of this game, thousands of players’ created content add-ons or game modifications now available for free on the web. “Surprisingly enough, so far, little has been attempted by educators to use the extensive mod tools available for The Sims 2 to implement learning content in a way that naturally integrates with the in-game experience” (Goldfayn, 2006).
However, mod tools provide full access to all the language data used in all the different international versions of a game. This allows curriculum designers to easily manipulate popular video games to create opportunities for foreign language learning. Johnson,( 2005, p.191) claims that for most educational disciplines, “the main rule when choosing a video game to be modded is that the closer the original contents of the game are to the educational discipline involved, the smoother the process will be”. Most people play video games nowadays and everyone seems to work on a computer, so learning a foreign language through video games can be as viable as learning it through traditional classroom instruction.
For example, in order to make a game like “Civilization III” relevant to a history classroom, one simply needs to edit a few maps, scenarios and variables; while a game like The Sims 2 actually does have a distinct similarity between the contents of the game and the contents of an introductory language textbook (parts of the body, furnishing the house, finding a job/professions, emotions, etc), the fact that almost all games use language in one way or another allows a far wider range of games to be modded for usage in foreign language learning than other educational disciplines.
4. – Modding in ESL
There has been a recent increase in the number of game environments or engines that allow users to customize their gaming experiences by building and expanding game behavior. What is described here is the use of modifying, or modding, existing games as a means to learn English. A case of game modding in classroom settings is described to illustrate skills learned by students as a result of modding existing games, in this case the game which was modded is “The Sims 2”.
Below are some examples of how you can mod a videogame to suit your needs as a teacher as well as your students’. These are two sample activities that have been put into practice by teachers such as Mylene Catel, (http://www.mylenejcatel.com/) who have put an enormous amount of effort into this. Simply by playing the modded version of the game (The Sims 2), students are gradually exposed to heavy amounts of reading practice in the foreign language. However, designing specific reading comprehension tasks helps the teacher assess learning better. Next, I describe an activity which can be performed using the previously mentioned game:
Step 1. – Students write a description of their favorite imaginary landscape in the foreign language including any number of specific details (“There is a pristine water creek, there are many leafy trees in which birds gather to chirp”, “There is a family having a picnic nestled under the trees “, etc).
Step 1.5. – The teacher helps correct any mistakes in the students’ descriptions.
Step 2. Students randomly exchange their descriptions with one another via the game.
Step 3. Use the cheat mode to give students unlimited money.
Step 4. Students avail themselves of a mod tool given by the teacher and create the landscape outlined in their description.
Step 4.5. The teacher assesses how many of the specific details students correctly incorporated into their creations.
Step 5. Students once again exchange their finished descriptions.
Step 6. Students verbally describe to one another their creation. Students try to discern which landscape is the one they originally designed.
Chapter 2: Methodology
This research was conducted in order to determine whether playing videogames plays a significant role in the personal development and learning of a second language. It weighs the pros and cons of using this medium for learning and expresses what videogames are suitable for learning English and what videogames can enhance students’ reading, listening and speaking skills. I opted to obtain the view of language students from different schools. Specifically, students aged 18-25 from 2 schools within Xalapa were selected for this task, 10th semester students of the teaching area from the English B.A of the Universidad Veracruzana and advanced level students from Bristol Institute as informants from December 2007 to April 2008.
Selected participants answered a questionnaire about the role of videogames in ESL/EFL learning. In order to determine whether videogames play an important role in learning English more efficiently, a total of 20 respondents were asked to participate, 10 of them were from the Universidad Veracruzana and the other 10 were Bristol students.
Instrument. – A questionnaire was administered to collect as much data as possible. The questionnaire consisted of 10 open-ended questions of which five questions had to do with the participants learning English through videogames and the other five questions had to do with the participants’ views on whether or not videogames have enhanced their learning and comprehension of a foreign language. To achieve pertinent information, certain inclusion criteria were imposed. The participants chosen had to be students who had been studying English for at least 4 years. This qualification ensured the participants understanding the nature of this questionnaire and its use for teaching English, making the questionnaire items easy for them to understand.
My questionnaire which was administered to both populations was based on the following criteria:
How much English and how well these students had learnt it by using videogames.
The types of games they preferred in their learning process and how such games had helped acquiring their skills in English.
Procedure. – The administration of the questionnaire to the U.V student population was done when I was studying 10th semester of the English B.A. Therefore, the questionnaire was administered to my classmates at that time. However, to administer my questionnaire to the Bristol student population I had to ask for permission to the school principal, and after granting such, I was able to administer it, all in all both populations seemed to have no problems or questions at the time they answered it.
Chapter 3: Results and Discussion
In this chapter, I will present all data gathered from the questionnaire related to my research questions I administered to several students as well as charts representing the analysis of what was said in each question. The questions will be divided in two sections according to my research questions
How do students learn English through videogames?
What type of games do students play in their learning process and how they help?
Analysis of questions 1, 2,3,4,5 of the questionnaire – refer to section one.
1. – Is vocabulary, rather than syntax, more easily and consistently acquired from video games?
Out of the 20 students who answered this question 16 students said that vocabulary was best learned through this medium while 4 thought that syntax was the one best acquired.
From these answers it can be inferred that these students mostly learn vocabulary, and syntactical patterns from games. Nonetheless, the focus of what is to be learned will fall into what the students’ needs are. From my perspective students also benefit from learning pronunciation subconsciously because speech is present in most games.
2. – What grammatical patterns or chunks of language do you usually learn from videogames?
Out of the twenty students who answered this question, eleven answered that they usually learn phrasal verbs and idioms from videogames while the other nine students said they revise through videogames grammatical patterns such as reported speech and conditionals.
From these answers it can be inferred that for these students videogames help best as an aid to learn phrasal verbs and fixed expressions while others use them as revising materials.
3. – Do video games help language learners actually acquire language, or do they serve more as a linguistic priming or practicing device?
Out of the twenty students who answered this question twelve believed that videogames help language acquisition whereas the remaining eight believed they just serve as a practicing device
From these answers it can be assumed that videogames can serve as both a learning tool and a practicing device for these students. However, as a teacher you should have in mind the reason why you will employ them.
4. – Can language be acquired more effectively (more quickly and be retained longer) through video games than through other media?
From twenty students who answered this question seventeen agreed on their learning being quicker, more effective and easier to retain through videogames. However, another three said videogames had no benefit for them.
From these answers it can be assumed that for these students videogames are the perfect medium that can enable them to learn faster by learning the language subconsciously through something they might find entertaining because videogames lower their affective filter.
5. – Do students retain lexical or syntactic language studied through video games longer than identical language studied through traditional classroom and self-study activities?
Out of the 20 students who were asked this question, 14 answered that they thought retention was easier and lasted longer for them through videogames whilst other 6 claimed they benefitted more from traditional classroom instruction.
From these answers it can be inferred that even though for these students retention is generally easier through videogames due to their interaction capabilities with players, how well students retain language patterns through either way will depend on what type of memory they possess.
Analysis of questions 6, 7, 8,9,10 of the questionnaire – refer to section two
6. – Which genres of games are the most useful for language learners?
The answer to this question was a bit variant since out of the twenty students fourteen considered themselves to be advanced learners while six considered themselves to be upper-intermediate learners. Therefore the advanced students claimed that the most useful game genres for them were Role playing games (RPG’s) and action/adventure games as they can employ various decoding strategies. While the remaining six said that in their view the most useful game genres were sports videogames because they can benefit from the repetition patterns present in these games
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From these answers it can be inferred that videogames can cater for every mood and personality and can certainly aid these students in their learning process. However, which game genre is most useful to them depends on their language level. Bristol students often resort to playing RPG’s because of their language level while some teaching area students of the English B.A in the Universidad Veracruzana opted for sports games as their games of choice because they feel they benefit more from the language patterns present in such games.
7. – Does the learner’s language level make a difference?
Out of the 20 students who answered this question 19 believed that the language level of a learner made a difference in understanding while just 1 student believed that the level did not matter
From these answers it can be assumed that the level of a learner will play a crucial part in taking full advantage of the videogame approach toward language learning. For example advanced students are always eager to play RPG’s which are more complicated than other game genres while intermediate or basic students try to look for games in which actions can be describe more than once.
8. – Do voice recognition games force native and non-native speakers to modify their pronunciation in unnatural ways?
From twenty students who answered the question thirteen said that voice recognition games were a valuable tool to help their pronunciation subconsciously while the remaining seven said their pronunciation could only be improved through direct interaction with an English native environment which leads to demonstrate that these few students have a conservative way of thinking.
From the answers of these students it can be inferred that voice recognition games are just as good as interacting within an English speaking environment since the pronunciation used in such games is usually done by native English speakers.
9. – Do language learners benefit from having their actions described by a sports video game?
All twenty students who answered this question said they did benefit from this approach because it was quite practical.
From these answers it can be assumed that videogames can come as a new refreshing approach toward language instruction that students would really appreciate since both males and females showed much interest in sports videogames
10. – How long would it take a learner to acquire a language through a video game rather than through classroom instruction or self-study textbook?
All students had different views on this particular question. Eleven believed you could learn English through this medium in one year while another four believed you could learn it in six months time, two more students said in a few weeks and yet another three claimed the time you learn it was entirely up to the learner.
From the answers given by these students it can be inferred that there’s no agreement on a learning curve. According to these students how fast students learn the language depends on other factors such as motivation and what kind of learners they are.
Conclusion: In these data most of these students claim that they can learn a language using videogame classroom instruction. According to them not only is it a refreshing new approach but it is also quite beneficial for vocabulary acquisition and the subconscious learning of pronunciation. However, a teacher should always keep in mind the objective as to why they will use videogames.
Chapter 4: Pedagogical Implications
In this chapter, I provide some examples of how videogames can be exploited to design many immersion activities for the ESL/EFL classroom. This chapter is organized into the following sections: RPG’s, RPG’s and the ESL classroom, elements of literature, debates on cultures, portfolios, character analysis, oral presentations, quizzes/tests and suggested games for classroom use.
1. – Role Playing Games
Not all video games can be considered classroom-safe. Many video games, while being visually stunning games in their own right, may either be too violent or too devoid of content to be used in an ESL classroom. There is, however, one genre of video games that is ideal for the ESL classroom: Role Playing Games (RPG’s) (Goldfayn, 2006). Traditionally, role plays are associated with a person pretending to be someone else. This is exactly what a RPG is. In RPGs, players take control of a character and embark on chilling journeys similar to those told in Edgar Allan Poe’s horror novels or heart-pounding adventures like those told in Jules Verne stories. According to Din (2002) “students become exposed to long hours of in-game dialogue, as well as substantial amounts of written text” while being immersed in a quest, perhaps one to save a kingdom, slay a demon or vampire, or save the world. As players retrieve information by interacting with other characters, they advance through the game with the purpose of reaching a final goal and objective just like in any lesson plan.
2. – RPGs in the ESL Classroom
If there were to be any kind of video games in an ESL classroom, it would be RPGs. In a video game ESL classroom session, the students will play through the game. During this play time the students become exposed to English language dialogue with various accents, which undoubtedly helps students develop their aural skills. RPGs also help them develop their reading skills, as the game will not continue unless the players, in this case students, meet certain requirements which are communicated to them through either spoken communication or written dialogue. Truly, exposure to a language or text does not create bilingual students; it is just not enough. That is why the teacher should plan certain activities to encourage students to share the experiences they just had playing the game and some other complementary activities to reinforce what they learned in the game.
3. – Elements of Literature (writing activity)
Every story, just like every game, has an introduction, action development, a climax, descending action, and an ending. Many stories, just like many games, have flashbacks, foreshadowing, and personification. It is always advisable to give students a brief introduction regarding these elements, so that they may be familiar with them when they run into them while playing through a game.
4. – Cultural Debates (oral activity)
The majority of RPGs have good stories, and all good stories have a setting. Before students get round to playing a game, the teacher should survey students’ knowledge of other cultures. Getting the students to start a debate on the similarities and differences in their culture or on different cultures in general is always a good way to start. You may begin the class by asking the students what they know about other cultures, a discussion on the Mayan culture, Feudal Japan or the American civil war usually get the students in a talkative and lively mood, as they can bring forth experiences they have had throughout their lives whether these be by watching movies, reading books or personal experiences. After the discussion, the teacher explains to students they are about to play a video game that has elements of different cultures in its world. The teacher should then provide a little information on the game and its characters, so that the students do not feel completely lost when they begin.
5. – The Portfolios
A portfolio is a collection of evidence that represents achievement and learning within a module/course or programme of study. The portfolio is a tool that can be used once a week, after playing the game. The student would have to write a short summary of what happened in the game as well as comment on the events from the game that they liked or disliked most. If students are at an advanced level they could be asked to comment on some of the more abstract concepts that appear in the game, such as love, friendship, and parenthood. Once the students have finished the game, they could be asked to write an entry regarding the elements of literature in the video game they played. Their writings would have to include short summaries of the events that happened in the game, so they would sort those events into the introduction, the rising action, the climax, the descending action, and the resolution of the game. Some games have open endings and require the players to fill in the gaps with their imagination. In case of such games, a good entry to ask the students for would be one in which they will have to account for what they think happened after the game ended.
6. – Character Analysis (oral activity)
Students can be asked to analyze their favorite character from the game. Starting with a drawing of the character, intermediate or beginner students could discuss how the character looks, speaks, and acts, while higher level students could discuss their character’s behavior, thoughts, and purposes. The student should always say what their chosen characters stand for (for example, Alex from “Lunar: the Silver Star” for the “Playstation” could be seen as someone who represents friendship, love, and heroism). This would be a great opportunity to teach students to empathize by asking them questions like “how would you have felt during this specific event in the game, had you been the character?”
7. – Oral Presentations
Another course of action is having students make short oral presentations on characters, themes, or plot segments of the game. If there is enough time and resources, the whole class could put together a play about an event or events from the game.
8. – Quizzes / Tests
A quiz or a test about a video game would be conducted in the same way a quiz or test about a short story or novel would be done.
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