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ETAS Journal Editors’ Choice Number 40

Marianne Pickles and Amy Devine: How video games can help people to learn English

ETAS Journal Volume 37, Number 1 (Winter 2019), pp. 28-30

I chose this very well researched and intelligent article by Marianne Pickles and Any Devine because it is pertinent to the current situation of educators around the world. Despite the fact that the authors wrote the article before our world as we knew it changed dramatically at the beginning of this year, the information that it contains is highly recommended for both newbies as well as masters of (language) pedagogy in the online era. 

The topic is video games. The authors

  • discuss the theory that supports using video games for educational purposes; 
  • offer guidance in choosing the right type of game to make their learners’ experience as fruitful as possible; 
  • contrast language-light and language-rich entertainment games;
  • include a paragraph about games designed specifically for educational purposes.

If you are interested in improving your digital literacy and you want to make online learning fun for your students, invest a quarter of an hour in reading this excellent article.

Trudy Krkoska

How Video games can help people to learn English

Marianne Pickles and Amy Devine

The idea of using games with English language learners is not new. Be it anything from Pelmanism to hangman, teachers have been using games to provide motivation, energy and interest to their classrooms for many years. But in the digital age, games have taken on new significance. 

Recent research reported that there are 2.3 billion active players of video games in the world, across all genres and platforms Newzoo, 2018). Seventy per cent of those players are aged 18 or over and around 50 per cent are women. Video games have become a mainstream form of entertainment. 

This new-found prevalence of video games has understandably led theorists and researchers in second language acquisition and other fields to hypothesise about how the appeal of these games could be harnessed for educational purposes. What this means for teachers is that video games present them not only with the opportunity to provide their students with rich learning experiences, but also with the challenge of developing the digital literacy required to make best use of this content. 

This article will discuss the theory behind the benefits of video games for language learning, and learning in general, as well as providing some insights into where the theory intersects with practice. 

Game or gamification? 

It is important first to clarify the difference between video games and gamification. Gamification refers to the process of taking features commonly found in games and applying those to an activity which is not fundamentally a game in its own right. One example of gamification could be popular polling apps, used in classrooms to add excitement to multiple choice quiz questions by making use of timers, points, and leaderboards. Another example could be the way that some self-access language learning apps present progress in the form of levels and experience points. The activity the learners are engaged in here is answering language questions, typically based on grammar or vocabulary so the underlying activity is not a game. 

Video games, on the other hand, can be considered engaging and immersive experiences in and of themselves. There are many different genres of video games, including puzzle games, adventure games that involve problem solving, role-playing games (RPGs) that involve a compelling story and characters, and many more, but what they all have in common is that the activity at the heart of each of the experiences can be considered fun or engaging in its own right. 

Benefits of playing video games – the theory 

The theoretical and empirical research literature suggests several emotional, cognitive and motivational benefits of video games for learning (Plass, Homer, & Kinzer, 2015). There is an inter-relationship between many of these factors and they should not necessarily be viewed as independent from one another. With regards to emotion, narrative-based and character-driven games are theorised to provide their players with more enjoyable experiences (Hefner, Klimmt & Vorderer, 2007). Increased emotional connection to the characters, story and other game content can lead to greater emotional connections with language use and language learning, which can encourage learners to practice their language skills (Driver, 2017; Sykes, Oskoz, & Thorne, 2008). 

Of particular relevance for language learners is the fact that video games are hypothesised to encourage meaningful and authentic communicative practices, providing players with a genuine purpose for completing the tasks within the game and therefore also for using the language (Gee, 2007). One study found that seven- and eight-year-old students learned more from an educational game that fully integrated learning content and gameplay in a way that was intrinsically motivating (i.e. rewarding in its own right) than a version of the same game in which the learning content and gameplay were not intrinsically integrated (Habgood & Ainsworth, 2011). This suggests that video games designed for educational purposes should strive to ensure that learning takes place through the gameplay itself, rather than learning material being tacked on to gameplay mechanics which do nothing to further the students’ learning and simply serve as a “reward”. 

Games that have been designed to induce positive emotions in players can also be beneficial for motivation. Many immersive games bring about a psychological state called “flow”, which is characterised by heightened concentration and enjoyment (Csíkszentmihàlyi, 1990). Essentially, flow refers to when we become so engrossed in an activity that we lose track of time. Flow is thought to involve intrinsic motivation, that is, enjoyment of an activity for its own sake rather than for external rewards (Deci, 1975) and research suggests that a flow state can lead to better learning outcomes (Engeser & Rheinberg, 2008). 

A further feature of video games considered to be beneficial for learning is that many immersive games allow players the freedom to fail and provide them with feedback so that players can learn from their errors. Having the freedom to fail can encourage risk taking and exploration, gives players agency and allows them to try strategies to complete in-game tasks (Hoffman & Nadelson, 2010). In addition, having the freedom to fail may reduce anxiety around the learning process. In the case of language learning, lower anxiety can encourage the practice of language skills, and may be especially helpful for developing speaking confidence, as some games allow players to practice their speaking skills in a safe environment (García-Carbonell, Rising, Montero, & Watts, 2001). Language teachers know that making errors is an important part of the learning process. 

Lastly, depending on their design elements, some video games can lead to improvements in so-called 21st century skills such as creativity, persistence, problem solving, and collaboration, skills that are all useful for language learning as well as learning more generally (Qian & Clark, 2016; Shute, Ventura, & Todd, 2013). 

Which type of game to choose? 

Aside from considerations such as game genre, topic or theme, and the age rating of the content, teachers are presented with three broad categories of video game to choose from. There are video games which have been designed specifically with language learning in mind. Then there are video games which have been designed for entertainment purposes, some of which are rich sources of language in their own right and others which contain minimal language content. Each of these types of video game can be made use of with language learners. 

Using language-light entertainment games 

It might seem counter-intuitive to make use of video games which do not feature a large amount of language. However, language-light entertainment games can provide an excellent springboard to all kinds of communicative activities. Popular sandbox games which involve collecting materials and building structures are one example of a video game of this type. Another would be video games which simulate the creation of neighbourhoods or communities. 

While learners may not be using a great deal of language within the game itself, use of the game provides students with a topic they are motivated to communicate about. The gameplay itself can be set as homework and the communicative activities around this can be done in class. For example, students can tell each other what they have been doing in the game, invent their own stories about the characters and the world they have created, produce guides for other players about how to play the game, record reviews of what they like and don’t like, and so on. There are many free games of these types available across a range of devices. 

Using language-rich entertainment games 

Video games which feature a narrative, or which are text-based, can provide engaging and authentic language exposure for learners. The considerations to be made in selecting the right game are slightly different here. For instance, the amount, type and level of language as well as the speed with which the player is expected to interact with it will all be factors. In recent years, video games which are interactive narrative experiences with branching decision points have become more and more common. Some feature a time limit for decision-making while others do not. Similarly, there are many popular RPGs which rely heavily on conversation mechanics to progress the game and the story. many of these feature audio and text, while others solely require large amounts of reading. When it comes to choosing the right games in this context, the teacher will need to take account of which types of authentic language it would be most valuable for the students to get more exposure to. 

Using games designed with education in mind 

In many ways, the ideal solution could be viewed as a video game which has been designed specifically to support language learners. These do indeed exist. However, many attempts to make games of this type are unsuccessful. This is generally either because the game does not have sufficient educational value, or because it is not engaging for the players. The top criteria a teacher will have in mind when selecting an educational game will therefore be: ‘will my students enjoy this?’, and ‘does this align with my learning objectives for the class?’. Games of this type could be used as part of a flipped classroom. Alternatively, students could take it in turns to play the game projected onto the wall or whiteboard, while the rest of the class watch and comment. 


This article has outlined a number of educational benefits of video games, including the idea that they provide a safe environment in which to try things out, practice, fail, try again, succeed, and progress to a higher level of challenge. In that spirit, we would seek to encourage teachers to find out about the types of video games their students like and don’t like, research video games which might support their learning objectives, try things out, practice, fail, try again, succeed, and progress to a higher level of digital literacy. In doing so, not only will teachers be able to provide their students with rich and meaningful learning experiences through video games, but also to model the kind of attitude to learning and experimentation which we will all need in order to thrive in the ever- changing landscape of the digital world. 


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