Monday, January 9, 2012

Academic Interlude: Alternate reality games for language learning

I'm starting a series of posts called "academic interludes" where I summarize an academic article on gaming and use it as a launch point for discussion. I'm more excited about discussing than reading, so we'll see how long this lasts. With any of these articles, feel free to e-mail me for a PDF of the article; my e-mail should be under my profile (experimentally, you can download this article from my Google docs. I say experimentally because maybe someone else might not see it as fair use).

This week I'll be discussing "An alternate reality game for language learning: ARGuing for multlingual motivation" by Thomas M Connolly, Mark Stansfield, and Thomas Hainey. The article focuses on the implementation of a language learning ARG in over 300 European high schools.

Previous Research of Note: A small pilot study found that 6 ESL students playing EverQuest II for four hours a week reinforced their learning. A university in Spain has an island in Second Life, assumedly to help with English learning. Tactical Iraqi, a government-made serious game to teach Arabic language and culture, "greatly increased the [experimental] battalion's operational capability."

The background section continues to cite evidence about how many educational video games lack actual research, and how much research on video games lacks an understanding of how video games work (i.e., one cannot generalize a result from one video game to all video games). There are some good studies out there, one of which found that mentally disabled individuals could learn to make decisions faster after playing a game that required a decision to be made within a fixed time limit.

I admit, when I think of ARGs I don't usually think of computer games, but obsessive people on forums and GPS coordinates. Unfortunately, in order to make an ARG that many students could use at once, it sounds like the researchers (?) had to settle for a glorified Blackboard-like interface, without hidden messages in water balloons under park benches. According to the authors, an ARG is not that different from an MMO game, but with ARGs, the player must be able to affect (in multiple ways) an outcome which is uncertain from the outset. One of the diagrams shows how ARGs use multiple ways of interacting with... the internet, mostly, and I couldn't help but think of how Glitch uses a lot of these same mediums--wikis, instant messaging, forums, Facebook, e-mail, etc. So that's how I see ARGs and MMOGs as similar--they both use multiple online formats to help players collaborate.  

With the ARG in this study, they had the usual pre- and post-tests about how effective/confusing participants thought it was. Most students thought it was interesting, and some were disappointed that it was basically Blackboard with assignments to talk to other students and google in their target language (I'm actually not very clear on this. I would have liked to have some of the assignments from the ARG in the Appendix, although the awesome hyperlinking in the article almost makes up for it).

I'm a little disappointed that they couldn't cook up something more awesome for their little study, game-wise, but I'm very excited that this research is happening at all. Something similar to this, like an MMORPG for foreign language learning, is basically my dream game. However, one of the things I would worry about in a language-learning MMO is that there would be a wiki and you could copy and paste your answers (i.e., the collaborative aspect of the game would actually encourage laziness instead of puzzle-solving). Although I suppose the programmers could introduce an element of randomness to quests so they wouldn't all be exactly the same.

I know this post was kind of long, but I plan to do more of them in the future (my goal is once a week). I'll label them all with the Academic Interlude thing, so if you're too busy you can skip over it (or would it help if I included a break, forcing RSS readers to go here to read the whole thing? I can't decide). Have you ever tried playing a foreign-language MMO? Do you think this kind of thing would be best for self-teaching or to augment school learning? I am happy to discuss these things.