The science of language, community, and MMORPGs

Johannes Jansson

Back in August, Massively wrote a little post about Swedish research on MMOs and language learning. That article provoked me, a gamer and teacher of English for speakers of other languages (ESOL), to hunt down the original research and talk directly to the researchers, Dr. Liss Kerstin Sylvén from the University of Gothenburg and Dr. Pia Sundqvist from Karlstad University, to better understand their research and findings.

Note that we'll be talking here about games and language learning specifically, not other forms of game-related education. Also, Sylvén and Sundqvist don't consider themselves "gamers." Sundqvist remembers Pac-Man as her first game, both admit to playing Angry Birds on their cell phones, and Sundqvist is "allowed" to sometimes watch her 17-year-old son play League of Legends. I find this interesting because they are non-gamers who seriously consider games capable of being educational without specifically being developed to do so. This isn't a simple merger of a hobby with work; this is work in a field of interest that's still being explored.

According to Sylvén and Sundqvist, immersion is a big factor in both games and language learning, primarily reading and writing, but speaking and listening might be another strong suit if you're using voice chat as well. Interaction is key as well because players aren't just speaking words but being spoken to. These are conversations. Even when you're arguing about your favorite sports team in general chat, you see general chat as a place, an environment. For a language learner, it's not a learning tool because it wasn't developed to be one, but because a language learner is immersed in the language, she's trying to learn (the "target language") while participating in normal activities, general chat and online games in general become a learning environment.

In language learning, immersion tends to mean making heavy (even exclusive) use of the target language to create an environment where foreign language use feels natural. Compare that to immersion in games: A good game hides the fact that you're trying to find a pixel that increases your statistics by about 2% through killing a mob that has a 12% drop rate but appears only once a week in a specific location. As soon as the Sword of Awesomeness dropped by the Goblin Slaver King is reduced to numbers and pixels, people quit the game and move onto something else. Whether you're in the classroom or game, you need to feel that it's a different place, so much so that when you're outside of it, you plan how to tackle it.

And when you lose that immersion, you lose your audience. My students who don't have to use English in English class generally do poorly, but it's not that they're not good at English; they're very good at grammar. The problem is that language is used for communication, not just completing tests. They can fill out a worksheet, but many can't even introduce themselves in their foreign language. Just like someone who uses auto-leveling in a game, these students often see the subject is something to be mastered simply because someone requires it, not because it's enjoyable. However, the person with the now high-level character will be motivated to do something with that character, while the language learner will often pass the test and put the lessons behind him. There's little desire to use the skill once it's been developed.

This is the second strength of MMOs as learning environments: motivation. School's important, but it's often not enough on its own to inspire an average student. Sylvén and Sundqvist found one example I think that might resonate with some members of the MMO community:

"One boy we interviewed -- he was 14 at the time -- told us how he had spent more or less every afternoon after school, for two years, watching others play World of Warcraft; he was about 11 when he started doing this. He was totally drawn to the game because he really wanted to be able to understand what was happening! And he didn't know much English to begin with. Somehow, he realized that there was a story in the background somewhere, and he was desperate to learn more about what was going on, and he wanted to be able to participate. Thus, he listened and watched, listened and watched, listened and watched, put one piece of information to the other, and eventually dared to start playing on his own, when he was only 13 and had cracked the code for English. Not only is it amazing that he put so much time and effort into learning to play the game, but he did all this in a foreign language! In fact, English was his third language. Motivation is everything!"

Now, WoW's lore was never that impressive to me, but I know I wouldn't have studied quite as much Japanese if I had believed Mother 3 would have ever come to the states officially (still waiting, Nintendo!). A student who wants to learn usually does significantly better than one who doesn't. However, with online games, not only are students in an immersive environment that's creating a specific mood to guide their actions, but there's motivation to stay there. It could be the love of English, a wish to play with friends, or a desire to smash game bosses for loot; it doesn't matter if all types of people share the same space and work together.

This brings us to a somewhat controversial third "strength": mundane tasks. MMOs require grinding. That's the basic formula for pretty much every MMO. Put players into some environment with lots of repetitive actions needed before they get to do something fun. It sounds awful, but Sylvén and Sundqvist build on P. Stenberg's (another researcher) unpublished doctorate dissertation in which it's claimed that these mundane tasks are precisely what allow people to build virtual communities.

During your herb searches or rat farming, you're bored. You talk to people around you, group with others if there's a mechanic that makes the process faster, and build bonds, similar to employees at the same company or students in a classroom who see each other day in and day out. Yes, some people listen to music or watch TV while playing too, but traditionally, MMO gamers communicated because failure wasn't something that could be overcome by clicking a button to gather more people for you. And when you're not just playing with people but communicating with them and building something with them, you make connections, even if they don't last or always go well. Sure, maybe you hated your old guild leader, but meeting someone from your new guild who remembers how he left makes that person more familiar to you, and if you met that person a year later in a different game, it gives you more of a bond.

MMO communities are my personal concern. Sylvén and Sundqvist note that when we reduce the more tedious aspects of a game, "there is a risk that there will be [fewer] opportunities to form gaming cultures, and many opportunities for language learning will be lost." Note that language learning opportunities is the secondary effect. The researchers note the loss of community first.

Perhaps this is why LoL introduced ranked restrictions for toxic players. The game itself can be the "mundane" action when you're climbing the ranks, but it's also the meat of the game. A person who doesn't realize that this is one and the same for some people but never meets others with similar goals may take out their frustration on fellow players without worrying about an "instanced" community. A punishment that slows down the process of getting to the "meat" of the game works because it forces socialization and rehabilitates trolls. Proper behavior in the "mundane" part of the game is used as motivation for people to stick around and pursue the more "gamey" parts of the game.

When a group in a purer MMO isn't hand-picked by a player leader, people don't always see eye-to-eye on the group's goals, let alone value the other members. They might not even speak the same language. Instanced dungeons encourage people to leave and try again when frustrated. A group put together by hand knows in advance about limitations, like physical handicaps or language barriers, which ensures sympathy within a temporary culture where people at least need if not want to communicate. When the "community" is a LFG-click away and requires no investment, you risk misusing people as simple dungeon fodder rather than meeting them as valuable group members.

Some commenters (and teachers!) may still find internet idiocy makes online games too poor a learning environment to help anyone learn anything other than how to be a troll, but Sylvén and Sundqvist disagree. "The fact that gamers sometimes do not use correct spelling and/or grammar, doesn't disqualify them as language users," they argue. "The important thing, again, is that they use English to communicate. And there is evidence, at group level, that at least frequent gamers are better at several aspects of English than non-gamers or those who only play very little."

Think about your everyday activities. How often do people restart a sentence ("I just... I thought that... I mean, do you still have the pumpkin milkshakes?")? How often do people misuse a word, don't quite say what they mean, or re-explain their sentence? People don't need perfect English all the time to learn it; they just need it as the primary mode of communication and to receive feedback that shows them that what they said will get results, even if those results aren't what they expected. For example, I had a Japanese friend learn to use "french fries" in America after her request for "fried potato" (the Japanese term for them) was met with blank stares; eventually a baked potato was chucked into the deep fryer for her. Even though she made a "mistake," she learned from it because she was interacting with a native speaker.

To those who think no one should "waste money" on research of this sort, Sylvén and Sundqvist argue that "even 'obvious' facts need to be scientifically proven in order for anybody to claim the truth of such facts." I currently teach English in Japan, and students often will respond to queries about why they do certain things with, "It's natural." When I explain how what they perceive is natural might be different in other cultures -- for example, how a "weak" handshake to Americans feels unnatural -- it makes them think about why the opposite is true in their own culture. Knowing why or how something works is just as important as knowing it works in the first place. How else can you build on it?

Likewise, if teachers or parents are suspicious of using online games for learning, we need to remind them that the normal use of language is to communicate. As Sylvén and Sundqvist argue,

"The important thing to remember is that gamers use English for communication, and that is what language learning is all about – to learn the language well enough to be able to communicate (both orally and in writing) with other speakers of that language in various situations. In fact, in the Swedish curriculum for language learning, the communicative aspect is at the forefront, toning down the importance of always being grammatically fully accurate. Having said that, though, we believe that language teachers have a big role to play in bridging the gap between the language students come across outside of school and the more academically oriented language which will help students forward in their learning process and formal language development."

In other words, we shouldn't expect students to learn academic English from games. In fact, when I mentioned that some institutions use online games, including WoW, in their classrooms, Sylvén and Sundqvist told me directly, "[W]e don't believe that such games should be used in the classroom."

There are bigger problems for games as teaching aids in the classrom besides public perception, internet trolls, and cost. The first is structure. How do you get students to "study" in a game? Most online game actions require players to collect levels or items. Do you make students grind to the level cap for homework? Do you grind in class? A sandbox might be better, but you still need materials, which is a mundane task students are doing instead of "mundane" classes. We can't expect game companies to provide servers/items for education, and building our own games means teachers need to be programmers in addition to being educators. Yes, Second Life does let you build a lot without harvesting resources, but often these "classes" are only virtual spaces, glorified chatrooms, not games. Overall, games aren't the perfect environment for language learning, just a good one for communication, especially when students use their own time to do it.

It is this emphasis on communication that gives online games their advantage over offline ones. Communities provide people to interact with. While you can watch movies or write essays in your target language, you need someone to interpret and react to what you've said or written, as my Japanese friend and her deep-fried potato learned. Offline games do help you practice reading, but a localization patch or notes can easily bypass this requirement (if it is one for the game you're playing). I know I've done that a few times when I've gotten stuck in games. Online, though, I can ask for help, and if I find someone patient enough, he or she can help me figure out exactly how to feed my pet horse o it'll stop being a cute baby horse and turn into something I can ride.

Of course, people who play online games can also just play with other people that speak their language, creating a sort of language "ghetto" where the community members are on the fringes of the game's society and may rely on translations or more proficient speakers of the local language in order to function in the game. When I brought this up to Sylvén and Sundqvist, they explained,

"We believe that working with people from the same language group is a good way into the world of games for novice gamers. To start with, they have the support from that group, and then, the more they play, the more they will dare move into other groups. There are highly interesting uses of language going on in such groups, so-called hybrid languages, where several languages are mixed, which is understood by everybody involved."

Anyone who's played on a mixed server at least learns a bit of the other language, whether you're a member of the dominant language group or not. We've all met people who know various Russian or Brazilian insults from the games they've played, and just about anyone who plays online games with English speakers usually learn the four letter words pretty fast -- and I'm not just talking about "n00b." You might not become fluent in the language, but you still learn something.

So what critera do we use to judge whether online games are "better" for learning than offline games -- better than watching foreign movies/television? Sadly, the answer isn't simple:

"Well, that is what the results on our language tests correlated with background information tell us, and that is how we now know that the activities in connection with online games are more beneficial for language learning than are those found in the more "passive" offline games as well as other sources of "passive" language input, such as watching TV or films. Pia's dissertation revealed that, relatively speaking, gaming, using the Internet and reading books (all three activities generally requiring the learner to be "active", relying on his or her own language abilities) were more beneficial for vocabulary and oral proficiency in English than watching TV or films, or listening to music (which are more "passive" activities, generally not requiring the learner to be "active")."

In short, it means you have to dive into the research and look at the results (there's a list at the end of this article). Sylvén and Sundqvist have worked on multiple projects in this field. For example, one study by Sundqvist in 2009 involved following 74 ninth grade students for one school year, documenting their after-school activities and how long they spent on them on a daily basis, then giving them a different speaking test five times during the study. Sundqvist found that students who spent the most time playing online games not only scored higher than other students but had more positive attitudes toward English. The research suggests that games create an immersive environment suitable for language learning, generating motivating factors to attract learners and making use of mundane tasks to keep them glued to the game.

One thing to note: The online games in Sylvén and Sundqvist's study were played mostly by male subjects. The female subjects did play games, but they preferred games like The Sims to MMOs. The girls tended to funnel their social activity into websites like Facebook rather than online games. The researches concede that traditionally, video games have been aimed at white, heterosexual males; software designed "for girls" has been less successful. Moreover, women face sexism and harassment in certain gaming contexts, which "undoubtedly has implications for [girls'] playing habits and possible second language learning." While women can enjoy online games, publishers' chosen target audience is mostly male, and until gender divides are overcome, the overall view that games are "for boys" will remain.

For those interested in further reading, Sylvén and Sundqvist have provided links to their ongoing research, in English -- here's Liss Kerstin Sylvén's research and Pia Sundqvist's research. They suggest beginning with Sundqvist and Sylvén (2012), "World of VocCraft". For students who might be a little further along in their studies, consider the duo's additional recommendations as well:

  • Dietz, T. L. (1998). An examination of violence and gender role portrayals in video games: Implications for gender socialization and aggresive behavior. Sex Roles, 38(5/6), 425–442.

  • Higgins, C. (2010). Gender identities in language education. In N. H. Hornberger & S. Lee McKay (Eds.), Sociolinguistics and language education (pp. 370-397). Bristol: Multilingual Matters.Jansz, J., & Martis, R. G. (2003). The representation of gender and ethnicity in digital interactive games. In M. Copier & J. Raessens (Eds.), Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference (pp. 260–269). Utrecht: Utrecht University.

  • Piirainen-Marsh, A. and Tainio, L. (2009) 'Other-repetition as a resource for participation in the activity of playing a video game', The Modern Language Journal, 93(2), 153-169.

  • Ryu, D. (2013). Play to learn, Learn to play: Language learning through gaming culture. ReCALL, 25(2), 286-301. doi: 10.1017/S0958344013000050

  • Sarkeesian, A. (Producer). (4 December 2012, 18 September 2013). The mirror. Retrieved from

  • Sundqvist, P., & Sylvén, L. K. (2014). Language-related computer use: Focus on young L2 English learners in Sweden. ReCALL, 26(1), 3-20. doi: 10.1017/S0958344013000232

  • Sylvén, L. K., & Sundqvist, P. (2012). Gaming as extramural English L2 learning and L2 proficiency among young learners. ReCALL, 24(3), 302–321. doi: 10.1017/S095834401200016X

  • Sundqvist, P. (2011). A possible path to progress: Out-of-school English language learners in Sweden. In P. Benson & H. Reinders (Eds.), Beyond the language classroom (pp. 106-118). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Sundqvist, P. (2009). Extramural English matters: Out-of-school English and its impact on Swedish ninth graders' oral proficiency and vocabulary. (Diss.), Karlstad University, Karlstad.

  • Sylvén, L. K. (2004/2010). Teaching in English or English teaching? On the effects of content and language integrated learning on Swedish learners' incidental vocabulary acquisition. (Diss.), Acta Universitatis Gothoburgensis, Gothenburg.

  • Sundqvist, P., & Wikström, P. (Under review). Out-of-school digital gameplay and in-school L2 English proficiency.

We'd like to thank Dr. Sylvén and Dr. Sundqvist for speaking with us about their research.