It is difficult for foreign language instructors to motivate students to participate in classroom discussions. However, in order to achieve proficiency and fluency in a foreign language, it is imperative that the student moves beyond just reading and writing. Many universities have third year abroad programs in a foreign country that provide the language immersion that has proved so successful in helping a student to learn the target language. Massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPG) have become popular in the last decade, not only for the game itself, but also for the ability to socialize with people from all around the world. Many MMORPGs have dedicated servers in several languages and players either have to learn how to communicate and cooperate or they wont be able to complete quests and achieve goals in the game. Teachers who do not have the resources to develop educational 3D virtual worlds are looking at the existing commercial virtual worlds to determine if they might offer adequate immersion in a target language.
In “Learn English or Die: The Effects of Digital Games on Interaction and Willingness to Communicate in a Foreign Language,” research by Reinders and Wattana (2010) investigates the educational possibilities of a MMORPG in Thailand called Ragnarok Online. Their research questions are: “1) What effects does playing a MMORPG have on the quantity and b) quality of second language interaction? 2) What effects does playing a MMORPG have on learners’ willingness to communicate” (Reinders & Wattana, 2010, p. 4)? Their research seeks to provide an empirical study of the actual usage of the target language and if the game environment is perceived as engaging and fun and if that actually motivates the students to speak more of the target language.
The authors are located in Thailand, so their convenience sample consisted of 10 male and 6 female students between the ages of 21 and 26. They were undergraduate IT students that had all played the MMORPG Ragnarok Online before. Tests and grades from classes estimated their English proficiency to be between beginning and intermediate levels. On average, they played digital games for 27 hours a week in their private lives (Reinders & Wattana, 2010, p. 9). This means that their familiarity with the game would preclude technical problems with navigating in the virtual environment and they could focus on the tasks and using the target language. The students were randomly divided into text-based chat or voice-based chat groups.
The study used an experimental design that included a pre-test, a post-test, and the intervention of playing the MMORPG game. Before the game sessions began, the students were briefed on what was expected, vocabulary and grammar, netiquette, and the difference between collaboration and cheating in solving tasks. They were told to only use the target foreign language of English when communication in game.
In order to accurately analyze the quantity of target language usage, voice recordings were made of the Skype calls and the Skype chats were printed out. After each game session, the students completed a questionnaire and participated in a discussion about their experiences. The language usage was analyzed to count the complete sentences, the length of the sentences, the number of words, and other characteristics that are pertinent to language use. The number of turns each player took in speaking was also recorded. The questionnaire used a Likert scale to quantify the different aspects of motivation and willingness-to-speak on the part of the students.
The mean and standard deviation were calculated for both the first and third game sessions of both types of chat. Comparisons were made between the language usage of the text-based chat and the voice-based chat, and between the two gaming sessions. The paired t-test was used, along with Cronbachs alpha, and Cohens d to establish statistical significance, internal consistency, and effect size. There was a 95% confidence level. The mean, standard deviation and the frequency of the responses on the questionnaire were tabulated for two game sessions.
The results of the tests found that students participated more in the text-basted chats than in the voice-based chats. Target language usage also increased between the first session and the third session. The students indicated that they were more willing to communicate in the virtual game and that it was more engaging and fun.
This is a good beginning for a pilot study. However, all that was really tested is whether the students could perform a task, navigate the virtual world, and whether the text and voice communication systems function as a means of enabling collaboration. It was so isolated that it completely precluded any social or linguistic interaction with native speakers of the target language. The next study should use a real commercial MMORPG that is already functioning online. There are a few informal anecdotal essays available about experiences that foreign language instructors have had using MMORPGs with their students. These informal trips to the virtual world of MMORPGs need to be quantified so that it can be used as evidence-based research. It needs to be determined of whether an existing commercial MMORPG can be used as a supplementary educational resource. The quest or assignment should stipulate the vocabulary and a grammar structure that will be practiced. Impromptu language interaction with other native language avatars in the target language should be encouraged and can be recorded. It would also be interesting to determine whether an existing quest within the game could be used constructively for promoting target language usage among the students and native speakers. It would also be interesting if foreign language teachers could coordinate group activities online between two countries. The course material should prepare the students for the vocabulary and grammatical structures necessary to read the information. Teachers should investigate supporting Web 2.0 information that gamers already use, such as blogs, wikis, forums, websites, etc., as supplementary target language text for the students.
The authors discussed the limitations of the small sample size and that it might not generalize to the larger population of other foreign language students. Since the authors were aware that Thai students are reluctant to speak the target language, this may also skew the findings and limit its generalization. It is possible that a different student population would show a greater usage of the target language due to fewer cultural inhibitions. Isolating the game server also prevented it from being a true MMORPG. By altering so much of the game content, the game environment became just a more graphically elaborate version of previously constructed primitive 3D environments by educators for their students. In this article, a more appropriate research question would be to replace the acronym MMORPG with 3D virtual world to accurately describe the study. There is also the question of whether the reserved Thai students would attempt to speak English in a real MMORPG with thousands of live players. If they were still rather timid among only16 fellow study participants, they might not even attempt to communicate in a true MMORPG with live peoples avatars.
This was supposedly a study of a MMORPG. However, one of the key aspects of a true MMORPG is that there are thousands of players from all over the world at any given time playing the game. The MMORPG in this research project was more akin to a 3D virtual environment than a MMORPG. It was isolated on a dedicated server, the content and the language were modified, and the number of players was restricted to 16 students. A MMORPG with only 16 players is a ghost town and cannot be labeled as massively multiplayer. There was no opportunity to see how these 16 students would actually interact with avatars controlled by real people from other countries in impromptu situations. The language and social interaction was limited to other students from Thailand, who had a set agenda planned out for them that did not allow interference from hundreds of other players who might speak the target foreign language. An instructor was also not present in the MMORPG during game time in order to provide immediate answers and scaffolding for the students. In addition, although the students were able to practice their English, it wasnt clear if they learned any new grammar or vocabulary during their sessions. In real exposure to native speakers, it is common to learn new vocabulary and language structures through feedback. The tasks were limited to 40 minutes so as to fit within the class timeframe, however MMORPG quests and tasks frequently take much longer. For this reason, all progress is automatically recorded and saved for the players until the next time they log in. This means that students are not under pressure in a MMORPG to complete a task quickly and have time to stop and chat with native speakers as the opportunity arises.
The authors believe that commercial games can be adapted for use in second language acquisition and teaching. Because the students increase their social interaction when playing games, it is likely that there will also be a greater usage of the target foreign language. Text-based chat produced fewer errors than voice-based chat which may be encouraging because many games are text-chat based. However, both text and chat require the speaker to access the new language and produce recognizable content quickly in order to communicate with the other players. If games increase the students enthusiasm and lower their anxiety level for speaking the target foreign language, then teachers may have found a valuable complimentary activity for their classroom instruction.
Reinders, H., & Wattana, S.. (2010). Learn English or die: The effects of digital games on interaction and willingness to communicate in a foreign language. Digital Culture & Education (DCE), 3(1) 3-28. Retrieved from http://www.digitalcultureandeducation.com/cms/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/dce1049_reinders_2011.pdf