Using a MMORPG for an Immersive
Communicative Foreign Language Activity
INTRODUCTION – Part 1
In May of 2009, I was recuperating from a sprained ankle and minor surgery on the shoulder. I was restricted to the couch for a while and my daughters, who are full-blown Generation Y Millennial children offered me a solution to ease my boredom. With much hesitation, they suggested that I create an avatar and join them in an immersive virtual world known all over the world as Runescape. It is a testimony to the degree of boredom, that I succumbed and complied. I had never been even remotely interested in TV or computer games. I had seen the first Ping-Pong game produced by Magnavox and was only momentarily awed. My daughters sat on either side of me and coached me through the game’s Tutorial Island where a player learns how to operate his avatar and learn what combat skills are. As a novice, I was hopeless. I almost gave up and became a permanent resident of Tutorial Island. However, my patient children donated thirty minutes to making sure I killed the chicken and got off the island intact. Thus began the adventures of FoggyDreamer. First of all, let me say that I was enthralled to find that I could chat with all of my six children when they were in-game, even though they lived in different states. My second son took me up to some magic arena and explained how to play the game. We spent a very enjoyable hour hurling spells and chatting about what he was doing in college and his part-time job. The next day, another daughter logged-on and showed me how to complete a quest that she assured me would grant all kinds of envious privileges in the game. While we trotted our avatars around the continents gathering up the quest items, she filled me in on how her new job was going where she had moved a few months before. Later, two of my daughters, who both lived in different cities, joined me on-line to complete another quest and exchange the latest news in their life. I was now totally enthusiastic about the social aspects of being able to talk to my children and relate to them on a completely different social level. The only thing that bothered me in the back of my mind was that I had forbidden my children to play any kind of computer games the entire time I was raising them. Now, not only did I find out that they had five years of history in this game, but I was envious of their ability to play together regardless of geography or time zones. What I had denounced as a waste of time had become the only way I could socialize with my children on a level playing field. I was no longer the mom and they were no longer the children. They were fellow collaborators in solving puzzles, completing quests, and locating hard to find items for tasks. If I had to fight a monster, they would rally behind me with encouragement. When my avatar died in battle, they rescued my armor.
At first, I played on whichever world the game placed me on. As I became more game savvy, I realized that Runescape had a Spanish world. I immediately abandoned the English speaking worlds and headed on over to the world with the red and yellow flag and settled in for the next few months. Almost everyone I met spoke Spanish and we exchanged information about different countries and vocabulary. As a foreign language major, I was in seventh heaven. I was living in the middle of the southern United States and yet I could talk Spanish all day with native Spanish speakers if I wanted. I made friends with college students from Kuwait, Scandinavian countries, and most of the Spanish speaking countries. I joined Latino clans that only spoke Spanish. I translated quests into Spanish for other players who couldn’t read English. In addition, I was able to ask these young people the exact meanings of various slang words that I couldn’t find in the dictionary. Quite a few of the Spanish speaking players mentioned that they had to learn English to complete the quests.
Then someone mentioned the servers dedicated to French, German, Portuguese and Dutch. As soon as I found out how to get on those, I switched worlds again. I joined a Portuguese clan and began brushing up on my Portuguese language skills. Other players were kind enough to help with translations when needed, but with a dictionary, Google translator, and BabbleFish on the screen, it was pretty fast to look up anything I didn’t know. After a while, I switched to the French server and worked on my French skills. Most of the French speakers that I met were from Quebec and were very enthusiastic about exchanging grammar corrections and vocabulary.
In the back of my mind, I kept wondering why none of my professors had ever mentioned the language learning opportunities that these immersive virtual games provide. It was apparent from my conversations with other players that they were using Runescape to practice language skills in addition to playing. My friend from Kuwait has used it for the last three years to keep his English fluent. Obviously, a virtual game cannot replace a language class. However, I never had any assignments that provided so much real-life fun in speaking with real native speakers in real-time either. I also met a lot of adults of all ages and from all walks of life that are multi-lingual. It is fascinating to chat in Spanish with so many people from around the world about a wide variety of topics.
When I teach classes of English as a Foreign Language, I wish I could tell my students to sign onto Runescape and start chatting. When you have to answer someone during the game in order to survive, you get faster and faster at producing sentences and retrieving the correct vocabulary. I couldn’t admit to playing an online game and risk being seen as frittering my time away by the unconverted segments of society, so I never suggested it to anyone as a wonderful tool for practicing foreign language skills. I lacked the evidence-based research to back up my theories and that would give me the courage to suggest the radical notion of using a frivolous game for a serious pursuit.
As I began my research for this topic, I found that I am not the only foreign language teacher who has been eyeing the commercial immersive virtual worlds that are already up and running and just waiting to be put to good use. Many other language instructors around the world have logged-on with their students and found that there is something unique about the experience that truly motivates the student to want to learn the language. As I read the literature, all the pieces of the puzzle fell neatly into place. The one thing that I regretted when I studied foreign languages is that I would never meet anyone else who spoke it and I would never be able to use it. That is a serious regret when one has dedicated an entire college career to four languages. Here was an answer that instructors in Thailand, Japan, Germany, the United States, Australia and essentially all over the globe were writing research papers about. Immersive virtual games do have positive attributes. We just need to find some more foreign language instructors that know how to play them.