Blog Post

Popular Culture, Media, Video Games in the (Language) Classroom

Following off Federico's post, I'd like to suggest that video games, like film and other media, have a place in the foreign language classroom. Recently, Todd Hughes and I have been working with other colleagues on using video games for learning hard-to-access languages (like medieval ones!). My questions are similar to Federico's: when are video games useful? How do instructors use games, digital and other, in the classroom? Do students connect better with games than traditional media? Is it gendered? (I've read that women play as much as men do, but the types of games differ.)

Here's some of what we've come across:

            Modern methods of language teaching emphasize sociocultural approaches, bringing culture and context into play as students use the target language as native speakers do in everyday life. 3D environments promise immersive experiences in fantastic or historical environments, immersive experiences that are rapidly blurring the line between virtual and real worlds. These experiences can be harnessed to improve interest in and increase accessibility to earlier periods, as well as facilitate language and culture acquisition. In addition, language and culture acquisition is highly suited to video gaming. Games, digital and otherwise, are often used in language learning because students find them engaging, they provide useful instructional affordances, and they lower the inhibition of the language learner (Holden and Sykes; Neville; Sykes, Oskoz, and Thorne). As Kurt Squire notes, “video games create what the psychologist Eric Erickson has called a psychosocial moratorium -- that is, a learning space in which the learner can take risks where real-world consequences are lowered" (Squire and Jenkins 59). Real-world identities that limit learning, such as a belief that "I am not good at learning languages,” no longer hold. Games are also quite useful at teaching cultural situations and values. James Gee points out that learning the rules, i.e., how to play the game, is no different from learning how to "do" another academic subject, like biology (Gee 4). Understanding of the game system, and thus the culture it represents, emerges diachronically, through a process of choices and consequences linked to a sense of agency and a (virtual) body that interacts with its world. Such technological affordances would be extremely helpful in teaching medieval language and cultures. For instance, in terms of medieval travel it is one thing for a reader/learner to understand the challenges, but it is quite another for a gamer/learner to experience from a first-person perspective, even in a speculative way, how access to materials and food sources might have been negotiated through extended networks. Who must visit and talk to whom? How does this happen over long and difficult terrain? As these questions make clear, the process of system discovery through embodied agency has immense potential value for research and teaching the Middle Ages through critical empathy (Gee). 3D modeling has become commonplace in certain academic fields like archeology and art history because of the ability to safely explore and share fragile or inaccessible artifacts and environments.

            Literary and language studies have not embraced the use of 3D media to the same degree, perhaps due to continued appreciation for the printed page. In addition, literary scholars and avid readers are long used to constructing imaginative worlds in their minds as they read, so some may find that a 3D model of the environment falls short of what the brain can construct, or they may not wish to impose a monolithic reading via a 3D reconstruction of a literary world. Partially as a result of the great variety of experiences that video games can offer, scholars have yet to reach a consensus on their benefits for language acquisition. Margaret de Jong Derrington has studied the possibility of teaching English as a second language through immersion in the virtual world Second Life and concluded that the immersive possibilities of Second Life allowed her students to take on new personas and progress rapidly in their learning. However, a study by Jonathan deHaan, focusing on students' ability to notice and recall words in Japanese, found that, due to cognitive overload, players of a game recalled fewer vocabulary items than their peers who merely watched (deHaan 104). Perhaps due to the complexities of in-house game production, studies have focused on games produced for entertainment (most commonly, MMORPGs) but co-opted into a classroom setting to be played in a target language (deHaan, Hitosugi, Milton, Rama, Thorne, Zheng). Advances in technology have only now made game production in a classroom setting viable. David Neville's work shows that instructor (or student) produced games can be highly effective.

Here's a quick bibliography of the sources mentioned above, plus a few others, that can get you going in the field if you're interested:

  • deHaan, Jonathan, W. Michael Reed, and Katsuko Kuwada. “The Effect of Interactivity with a Music Video Game on Second Language Vocabulary Recall.” About Language Learning & Technology 74 (2010): 74–94. Print.
  • Gee, James Paul. Good Video Games and Good Learning: Collected Essays on Video Games, Learning, and Literacy. New York: Peter Lang, 2007. Print.
  • Hitosugi, Claire Ikumi, Matthew Schmidt, and Kentaro Hayashi. “Digital Game-Based Learning (DGBL) in the L2 Classroom: The Impact of the UN’s off-the-Shelf Videogame, Food Force, on Learner Affect and Vocabulary Retention.” CALICO Journal 31 (2014): 19+. Web.
  • Milton, J. et al. “Foreign Language Vocabulary Development through Activities in an Online 3D Environment.” The Language Learning Journal 40.1 (2012): 99–112. Print.
  • Neville, David O. “The Story in the Mind: The Effect of 3D Gameplay on the Structuring of Written L2 Narratives.” ReCALL: The Journal of EUROCALL (European Association for Computer Assisted Language Learning) 27.1 (2015): 21–37. Print.
  • Neville, David O., and B. Shelton. “Literary and Historical 3D-DBGL: Design Guidelines.” Simulation & Gaming 2010: 607–629. Print.
  • Nutt, Christian. “The Road To Hell: The Creative Direction of Dante’s Inferno.” Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Games. N.p., 5 Feb. 2010. Web. 10 Sept. 2015.
  • Peterson, Mark. “Computerized Games and Simulations in Computer-Assisted Language Learning: A Meta-Analysis of Research.” Simulation & Gaming 41 (2014): 72–93. Web.
  • Rama, P. et al. “Affordances for Second Language Learning in World of Warcraft.” ReCALL: The Journal of EUROCALL (European Association for Computer Assisted Language Learning) 24.3 (2012): 322–338. Print.
  • Reinders, Hayo, ed. Digital Games in Language Learning and Teaching. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Print. Excerpt.
  • Rigney, Ryan. “The Portrayal Of Joan Of Arc In Age Of Empires II.” Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Games. N.p., 9 Aug. 2011. Web. 10 Sept. 2015.
  • Sykes, Julie M., and Jonathon Reinhardt. Language at Play: Digital Games in Second and Foreign Language Teaching and Learning. Boston: Pearson Education, 2013. Print. Excerpt.
  • Squire, Kurt, and Henry Jenkins. “Harnessing the Power of Games in Education.” Insight 3 (2003): 5–33. Print.
  • ---. Video Games and Learning : Teaching and Participatory Culture in the Digital Age. New York: Teachers College Press, 2011. Print. Excerpt.
  • Thorne, S., I. Fischer, and X. Lu. “The Semiotic Ecology and Linguistic Complexity of an Online Game World.” ReCALL: The Journal of EUROCALL (European Association for Computer Assisted Language Learning) 24.3 (2012): 279–301. Print.
  • Zheng, D., K. Newgarden, and M. Young. “Multimodal Analysis of Language Learning in World of Warcraft Play: Languaging as Values-Realizing.” ReCALL: The Journal of EUROCALL (European Association for Computer Assisted Language Learning) 24.3 (2012): 339–360. Print.


Outstanding resources, Lynn!  I think that this will give anyone who is interested in the subject matter a great start!  If there were one or two that might be good for a "beginner," which would you recommend and why?


That is really, really useful! When you come to Belfast we HAVE to organise a meeting with the staff of Modern Languages - I would think that no one there currently uses videogames...