Video games have become a mainstream phenomenon. Despite this, many people don’t realise how beneficial video games can be for language learning, and for learning more generally. Here Marianne Pickles, Assessment Development Team Lead for Cambridge Assessment English, explores the potential benefits of video games for English language learners and challenges some of the common misconceptions that exist about video games.
What’s a video game?
In the context of this article, a video game is any kind of game that is played electronically for entertainment. The device used could be a computer, a console, a mobile, or a tablet. The game genre might be action, adventure, role-playing game (RPG), strategy, puzzle or anything else. We’re speaking quite broadly.
Benefits of video games for learning
There are many education researchers who believe video games can help learners, both in a language learning context and more generally. There are a number of reasons for this. Not all of the features listed below will apply to all video games and some judgement will be required in selecting video games that provide the desired benefits.
In 2018, Newzoo reported that 2.3 billion people across the globe are regular players of video games. This illustrates just how well and how commonly video games capture our attention. Video games are fun. This is why around thirty per cent of the world’s population frequently play them. In education, we know that experiences which are engaging, which capture our attention and our interest, are more memorable and effective than those which are not.
Have you ever been so engrossed in an activity that you lost track of time? This is the psychological state called ‘flow’, which occurs when we become so immersed in what we’re doing that the rest of the world seems to disappear. Video games are good at producing flow in players and flow has been associated with better learning outcomes.
Video games often feature a story and compelling characters. Sometimes the player can change the appearance of the main character to personalise their experience. In other games, the player may be able to make decisions about how the main character acts. The emotional investment that these features create help to make the game experience more memorable. We know from the classroom that personalised activities, which are more relevant to the learner, are more memorable and more effective.
Freedom to fail
Teachers who follow the communicative approach to language learning understand that errors are learning opportunities and are a natural part of the process of learning a second language. Video games are designed to allow players to learn how to complete different actions through trial and error. They provide a safe space in which to learn and practice, which is something all language learners would benefit from.
Meaningful, contextualised language practice
A lot of language practice approaches focus on grammatical forms, or on individual sentences and vocabulary which are not always contextualised well, or at all. In fact, some popular, high-profile apps have been criticised for this by teachers and education specialists. These apps are fun to use, but the lack of focus on meaning and context limits how useful they really are for learning a language. At Cambridge Assessment English, we believe in the value of the communicative approach to language learning. At the heart of this approach is the need to focus on meaning and context. In a video game, every task the player completes is contextualised within the story, and there is a clear purpose for the language to be used. This makes video games an extremely rich resource for language learners.
“21st century skills”
There are several so-called “21st century skills” which video games are considered to help develop. These can include problem solving, collaboration, curiosity, and perseverance. All of these skills are useful for language learning, as well as for learning more generally.
Which games should learners play?
Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to generalise about which games are best because different people will enjoy and benefit from different video games. However, there are some things it’s helpful to consider. Individual interests and preferences will be a factor and beyond that there is also the issue of age appropriateness. In Europe, games have PEGI ratings which indicate what ages the games are suitable for. Additionally, some games feature a lot of language content while others feature very little. Both can be made use of for language learning, but in different ways.
For example, Minecraft is a very popular game which doesn’t feature a lot of language in its own right. However, it could be used as a springboard to meaningful, contextualised language practice as part of a class project. By contrast, Lifeline is an example of a video game for mobile which is entirely text-based. It’s a rich source of contextualised language, but it is unlikely to be suitable for low-level learners. A bit of research is likely to be necessary in order to find the right game to recommend to your learners.
Cambridge and video games
At Cambridge Assessment, we’re very excited about the possibilities that video games open up for language learning and we have a couple of ongoing projects on this topic. You can find out more about The Lighthouse and Ruby Rei by following the links provided.
The reality behind some common misconceptions
Even though video games are now massively popular and a mainstream type of entertainment, some common misconceptions exist about them which can sometimes mean that people view them in a negative way. Here’s a quick guide to the reality about video games.
Video games are for all ages
It is a misconception that video games are for children. In 2018, the Entertainment Software Association reported that the average video gamer age is 34 and that people over the age of 18 make up seventy per cent of the video game playing population.
People play video games… not just males!
There persists the misconception that video games are mostly played by teenage boys. This is simply not true, no matter how pervasive this stereotype may be. In the United States, forty-five per cent of gamers are women. Indeed, data published by the Entertainment Software Association in 2018 showed that there are almost twice as many adult women gamers as male gamers under the age of 18.
Video games build transferable life skills
It is a common refrain that video games are ‘a waste of time’ and that we don’t learn anything from them which transfers beneficially into the other parts of our lives. The reality is that video games can help us to develop the skills of collaboration, communication, problem solving, and strategic thinking as well as perseverance and curiosity, all of which can be extremely valuable life skills.
Communities grow around video games
Another common belief is that video games are isolating and anti-social. While it is certainly possible to play video games, read books, or watch TV in an isolated or anti-social way, it is also true that rich communities of interest exist around video games. Some games are multiplayer and require in-game teamwork, but even single player games can involve social elements, with online discussion groups as well as live events.
Sadly, multiplayer video games can enable bullying
A note of caution is needed when it comes to multiplayer games, especially in relation to young players. Many multi-player games allow the possibility for free communication. We know that the anonymity afforded by the internet can sometimes bring out the worst in people and provide opportunities for cyber-bullying. This means we should use our best judgement in relation to these games. Although multiplayer may hold appeal for language learning in theory due to the necessity for communicating with others, in practice it may not always be an appropriate option.
Not all video games are expensive
While there are certainly expensive video games, there are also those which are free or very cheap. No matter your budget, there will be something available you can use.
The conclusion? Get gaming!
Read more about game-based learning from blog author, Marianne Pickles, in the overview of her session on 'Gamification' versus 'game-based learning' at the Cambridge Assessment Summit of Education where she discussed the differences between these two terms, along with the advantages of each to support learning.