The Theory-Praxis Gap: Teaching Languages with Video Games – Part 1

I haven’t written here for a while (I focused on my own blog), so it’s about time…

Everyone one who has played a computer game knows a few basic things: they are fun, sometimes to the point of addiction: “Just one more round, then I’ll stop!” Great games lead to a state of flow, when we are in the zone, when we are lost in the game. When we play, we technically work: we repeatedly click the mouse button, we play the same sequence over and over again to succeed, we practice, we learn and look up information to find clues or hints.

Many researchers are trying to figure out how to appropriate this powerful intrinsic motivation for learning purpose. Judging from recent publication, recent interest is growing. At the recent Calico/IALLT conference the number of presentations on gaming has increased, and I had some great conversations with fellow gaming researchers. One thing is clear: we’re still at the beginning, but things are moving in the right direction.
In theory, we know much of what makes games so powerful: agency, immersion, identity work, interactivity, rewards, individualization, motivational factors such as challenge, fantasy, and curiosity. But in practice, we are not seeing widespread use of games of language learning. Today I pose the first question: “What keeps us from using games for language learning purposes more often?”

The vast majority of games are unsuitable for educational purposes in general and for language learning and teaching in particular. Many games involve only minimal use of language, and others contain inappropriate content. Indeed, many games are mindless or violent, and their reputation casts a shadow on the whole medium. Also, games that are culturally relevant for the target language are rare.

If not prepared carefully, the use of games can be artificial or awkward at times. It must also be taken into consideration that not all students enjoy playing computer games. Expectations and preconceived notions of how languages ‘should’ be learned may elicit strong opinions from learners, parents, and administrators. Games are often not seen with a critical eye as, say, novels are: few are great, some are good, many are cheap and terrible. Another hurdle is the fact that only very few textbook publishers have entered this market and collaborations with the gaming industry are rare. Finding, evaluating, and learning how to utilize games is time-intensive and for many educators a new area that they have not been trained in. Hardware and software can be pricey, especially when we consider that technology so quickly becomes obsolete.
Well, it’s not all bad. In fact, recent developments in technology, pedagogy, and research are quite exciting and encouraging. And while there are many educators who haven’t explored games as a learning option, some already have. In the second part of this topic, I’ll talk about some concrete examples and present some success stories, answering the question: “What works in practice (leaving theory behind)?”
P.S.: In the meantime, here are some reviews already (with more to come):

Felix Kronenberg is working at Rhodes College in Memphis, TN. His research interests include academic space design, video games and language learning, digital storytelling, and the culture of advertising. He teaches German and language pedagogy, and maintains the Language Technology Boot Camp blog and web site.

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