The Theory-Praxis Gap: Teaching Languages with Games – Part 2

Last time I wrote about what keeps us from using games for language learning purposes more often.  Now that the hectic weeks of the semester start are behind me and the routine of mid-semester kicks in, I’d like to write about what works in practice.

First of all, the user/learner has to enjoy the game. There are many educational games that simply are traditional language exercises thinly disguised as games; but they are not inherently fun. In order to really leverage the benefits of games, we must not forget about their most important criterion: fun. That may mean to make tough choices: a highly motivating game may not teach you anything about the past perfect, nor will it cover the exact vocabulary items found on assessment lists or a particular textbook. If that is the goal, then games are probably not the best way to learn that material. But if we accept the notion that language learning is often incidental and should be attached to authentic and relevant content, then the number of possibly relevant games grow.

So what makes games good? Compelling narratives, well spaced tasks of increasing difficulty, accommodating different levels of skill and expertise, useful, situation-sensitive feedback information, and a constant stream of rewards (e.g. badges, upgrades, new items or traits, points, ranks, …).

This all sounds good in theory, but which games can we actually use in the classroom or in more informal settings? Here’s a brief list of games I’ve used and their benefits. I’ve written about these before on my own blog, so I’m copying a few sentences from that post here and include links to the different posts.

My favorite game because it’s intuitive, social, and adaptable. Here’s how it works: up to 8 players each take a wireless controller, which sports 4 brightly colored buttons and a large “Buzz” button. Players choose their own avatars and buzzing sounds and then compete in a quiz game show, somewhere along the lines of “Who wants to be a Millionaire” and “Jeopardy”. It’s so simple, you give someone a buzzer and he/she knows what to do. It’s available in a number of languages, depending on where you buy it. You can use the quizzes on the disc, or you (or your students…) can make your own for free by using a web interface. More…

Narrative Games: StoryLines, StoryWheel, and Dear Esther
In StoryLines, the player chooses an expression or a saying and draws it on a mobile device. This work of art is passed on to another player, (by passing the device or through the internet), who is charged to title the drawing. The next user creates another drawing based on the previous person’s title, and so on. More…

In StoryWheel player 1 will see a random image and then is prompted to record a narrated voice-over, which should correspond to the animated image. After that, he/she passes the iOS device on to the next player, who continues the story in the same fashion, and so on until the story is finished and published. Of course this could also be played by only one player. The final result an animated, narrated digital story that can be published as an iBook or online. (You can find some online, public examples here). More…

In Dear Esther, You roam an island in the Hebrides and explore it. When you enter certain invisible  “zones” on the island, you hear a fragmented narrative (incl. subtitles). Each time you play the game again, these fragments will be somewhat different from the last time. The experience is quite immersive and feels personal. It’s like being immersed in an epistolary novel. I felt that I had agency, that I was “there.” The island, rendered in 3D, is detailed and beautiful. More…

The free platform called ARIS combines gaming and storytelling elements by using a location-aware iOS app. You can build your own game by using a web interface, thus being able to adapt everything to your needs and situation. Definitely look at the Mentira project at the University of New Mexico to see one possible use of implementing this augmented reality gaming engine.

Quest for the Rest
Quest for the Rest is a great little browser game that lends itself for one language class and that I’ve been using for quite some time now. The game free and easily accessible here without any downloads. There is no text in this brief adventure game. Instead, players click on different parts of the scene to make certain things happen. No language? Where’s the practice in that? Well, as with most games for learning, it’s the activities, the scaffolding, and the debriefing that are crucial. Students discuss strategies, negotiate meaning, and write down their progress as they advance in the adventure. More…

Other Games
It’s very time-consuming to find good games for language learning and teaching purposes. There are more that I or colleagues have used successfully, for example World of Warcraft, The Sims, and various adventure games. Using games in formal classroom settings can be very challenging as they often do not fit into existing curricula. So very often we use them outside of the classroom, for example during game evenings in the language center. On those evenings, some students choose computer games, while other play board games. Which are excellent for language learning, by the way. That’s why I’ll write about them in one of my next blog post!

Are any of you using games for language learning? I’d like to know!

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.


  1. Peter Rettig · September 21, 2012 Reply

    We very much agree with your analysis that “there are many educational games that simply are traditional language exercises thinly disguised as games” – including our own online courses. We realize that we will also have to make “the tough choices” to create more compelling, i.e. fun games and are currently working through a few ideas.

  2. Trip Kirjpatrick · December 3, 2012 Reply

    Have you successfully created something with ARIS yet? I tried earlier this semester and so wanted it to work but could not make it happen. It’s possible that my circumstances (including PEBKAC) might have led to the negative outcome, of course, but if you have succeeded then I can draft off you.

    • Felix · December 3, 2012 Reply

      I’ve played around with the game mechanics and tried out all the options. I’ve thought a lot about different scenarios. I concluded that producing something meaningful will take quite some time and probably team of people. Since I’m here by myself, I can’t do it by myself. But I’d be up for working on this in a team. I was going to propose an IALLT Gaming SiG, and hopefully a panel for IALLt 2013. Let me know if you’re interested. I still think it’s a great piece of software with lots of potential!

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