Using computer games in language teaching continues to be a rising trend, with more research and practice being conducted around the world. It's a subject that continues to attract me as I think the surface has only just been scratched and there is so much potential out there. As computer games develop, as they become more mainstream, so the ways in which they are used in language teaching will grow. Mykhailo Noshchenko's presentation on Teaching English via computer games: merits and critique is the second games-related presentation of the IATEFL Online recordings, although the other presentation, by Karenne Sylvester, was concerned with gamification (the use of game elements in non-game contexts).
My interest comes principally from having co-written the first book on exploiting computer games for language teachers, Digital Play: computer games and language aims (Delta, 2011), and participating in the accompanying blog of the same name. In both of these, Kyle Mawer and myself concentrate on adapting already existing free online games for the language classroom. The book and blog are meant to be practical guides to using these games for busy teachers (Part B of the book), with an introductory essay (Part A) meant to put forward our argument for using computer games and then ideas for extending further into the topic (Part C). We recommend using existing computer games rather than specially made educational games, because most of the latter are simply not good games, and the worst of these are dull and badly disguised exercises that leave learners cold. Fortunately, there are some exceptions, but that's for another day.
Since we published our book, there have been other, more academic studies published. One of these is digital games in language learning and teaching (ed. Reinders, 2012, Palgrave Macmillan). Of interest mostly to researchers, many of the chapters are concerned with World of Warcraft or other games that most teachers would find difficult to actually use with learners.
A more recent book is Language at Play: Digital Games in Second and Foreign Language Teaching and Learning (Sykes, JM & Reinhardt, J, 2013, Pearson), which uses a greater variety of games as examples, although most of these are expensive and require either games consoles, tablets or high specification PCs, most of which would not be available to the average teacher. Nevertheless, there is much food for thought in the book for language teachers interested in the use of game-based-learning.
Now, back to the presentation. One of the other Harrogate Online registered bloggers, Dave Dodgeson, has already written his live review of this here. The presentation itself is Mykhailo's "personal three-year experience in teaching English via computer games to various groups of students" and his presentation is available to download here.
Skyrim for language learning
One of the games that Mykhailo talks about is Skyrim, which, like Dave Dogeson, I found interesting, because I am also familiar with the game. In fact, when I bought the game for the PS3, I ended up with a version in French by mistake, and this led to me starting a blog about my efforts to learn French in Skyrim, although the blogging ran out of steam as I got more and more hooked on the game. I still have the idea of returning to the game and to learning some more French by using the game - I didn't finish it (hardly surprising as the game world is enormous), and will most likely go back to it after I finish the two PS3 games I'm playing at the moment, the disappointing Beyond: Two Souls and the marvelous The Last of Us.
Mykhailo is a teacher of International Relations at Kiev University, teaching primarily translation studies, though what the presentation at the conference is a personal undertaking that is nevertheless supported by the university. He became interested in the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (to give it its full title) because of its potential for learner autonomy and CLIL. The aim of his presentation is to help raise the role of computer games in ELT, which he believes are particularly relevant because they provide immersion in more than just language.
Taking his cue from Karenne, Mykhailo joked that rather than the gamification of learning, he was goign to talk about the learnification of gaming. Genres that he recommends for ELT are Role-Playing Games (RPG) and Turn-Based Strategies (TBS). He doesn't recommend MMORPGS (surprising, as this genre features in the books mentioned above), Real Time Strategies or First Person Shooters.
Mykhailo talks about his approach to using video games in the classroom as guided gaming, which he explained involved asking the students to play the Skyrim game and under his supervision, assume certain roles. The benefits of using this game are related to it being an open world role-playing game, so the students are free to do almost anything in the game, from "picking mushrooms to...saving the world from impending doom."
Mykhailo guided the students in their choice of path. They were not just playing the game during class. The students also had to present their ideas about the world in writing, and were asked to "compose their makeshift vocabulary of unknown words" and to undertake a dictation related to that vocabulary. Another thing the game presented the students with was a large amount of reading material.
note: this is a major feature of the Skyrim game and adds a lot of background knowledge about the underlying story - it is also an excellent feature for language learners, although there is far too much for students to read.
This type of game, according to Mykhailo, is a "linguistic sandbox", which he defined as being "a virtual worldspace that enables students to experience different close-to-life challenges while on the couch." The merits include "uninhibited lexis with high-quality visualisations and vocalisations" and "thought-provoking material presented in a way that does not involve and real-life edgy moments." Playing the game also allows students the "possibility for advanced students to learn more than just textbook lexis."
Using a game such as this can also "foster education of reluctant students" if properly guided, because they then think that "English is fun!" and even without a task, students can "absorb a score of language skills while playing any computer game on their own."
Mykhailo stated that "without proper reasoning, gaming as an ELT method could be successful mostly with people familiar with it "whereas "others may be reluctant to participate, dismissing it as immature, counterproductive or even frivolous."
note: I see this as a problem with fantasy role-playing games such as Skyrim, which are usually only popular with a certain section of the population - this prejudice against them, however, might go away depending on how the game was presented and what the students actually do when 'in-world' in the game.
Mykhailo also mentioned the reluctance that some female students may have with this type of game and also adult learners of English, who he believes "demand more task-specific English material." Another problem Mykhailo mentioned was the lack of speaking practice involved when playing this sort of game.
A video of Mykhailo's students followed, with them talking about the game and the benefits that they found to their learning. These testimonials were very interesting - they clearly found it beneficial to their language learning.
As I do, Mykhailo believes that video games will "receive more traction" and that it's worth trying to utilise them in the English classroom. He urged the audience and the ELT community as a whole to participate and also urged developers of computer games to "fully realize the cultural relevance of their work and to enhance the quality of their products."
To finish, Mykhailo shared a fun fact with the audience, that he owes half of the vocabulary he uses and his use of English skills to the games he has played as a student.