Digital game-based language learning with Interactive Fiction (PART 1) via



This is a guest post I wrote for the fantastic Classroom Aid website. It’s part 1 of a planned series, so please follow the link read the whole article.

Digital game-based language learning with Interactive Fiction (PART 1) | Classroom Aid.


Video games (also called digital games) are serious. While the people who play them have known this for a long time, it’s taken over three decades for society in general to accept them as something other than a way to pass the time in virtue of doing “more serious” work. The fact is, video games are serious – if not to the casual observer, then certainly to their players.

What makes people want to spend so much time and money playing video games? According to McGonnigal (2011), it’s because it makes them feel ‘good’.

Of course, the specific source of this ‘good’ feeling is subjective and depends on the person playing the game as well as the game being played, but in video games, feeling good can come often from:

  • Taking on the identity of someone else and controlling their actions
  • Being involved in the telling of a story
  • Being put in a situation you would not normally be in (yet being safe)
  • Facing challenges and having to overcome them

Linguist James Gee (2012) defines a digital game as being:

“a play-based, well-designed, problem-solving experience meant to create motivation, engagement, and often creativity” and adds that “humans learn best from well-mentored, guided experience centered on interesting problems to solve, clear goals, copious feedback, and a relatively low cost for failure. This is what good games supply”.

It’s because of these inherent motivating, engaging and creative characteristics of video games – because they are serious, that they can be applied to teaching and learning.

Digital Game-based language Learning

As a teacher of English as foreign language, and an avid gamer, I have long been interested in using digital game-based learning (DGBL) with my students. For language learning, video games can be used in two ways:

  1. Language is provided by the game itself during game-play, which learners must interact with in order to make progress in it (eg.  reading/listening to information that gives back story or that informs you of immediate goals).
  2. The game promotes language use around game-play, through pre-, while- and post-playing tasks (eg. a pre-playing discussion based on the topic of the game; a post-playing focus on form task based on happenings in the game – eg. the third conditional : “If she hadn’t rung the bell, she wouldn’t have …”).

Modern theories of second language acquisition (SLA) state that language is learned by using it – more specifically, by making mistakes, noticing them (yours and others’), making the necessary changes to correct them and then using the language successfully without errors. For DGBL, the most complete source of input and output needed for SLA can be found in collaborative online games where a strong speaking and listening component exists alongside the need to read and write. However, it may be difficult to implement social-based online games in the classroom due to the absence of short, contained tasks, in addition to the often high technological requirements and experience necessary to play them. It is this last point – experience (or lack thereof) which keeps many teachers from experimenting with DGBL in the classroom – video games just look too complicated and many teachers feel completely out of their depth in their ability to play and relate to them in a classroom context. Granted, many modern games do have complex graphical user-interfaces and fiddly control mechanics which add a learning curve to the potential technical issues which may need to be resolved. However, not all video games look and behave the same.

When I first began teaching, I quickly noticed that most of my students did not have good reading habits. They did not read outside of the classroom to practise reading fluency or for the simple pleasure of reading (neither in English, nor in Portuguese). Furthermore, and perhaps linked to this, many of them were not very imaginative and had difficulties in thinking critically and laterally in order to solve logical problems – they were unable to ‘think outside the box’.

When I began to look into how to help them overcome these barriers, I realised that I knew of a genre of video game (one that I had been playing since I was 10 years old) which is:

  • Extremely interactive and more engaging to read than a standard text – thus, potentially a way for learners to improve their reading fluency
  • Usable in the classroom and at home – the perfect tool for autonomous reading practice, possibly leading to an interest in reading for pleasure
  • In line with modern principles of SLA, especially with regards to the ‘input/output hypotheses’ of Krashen (1985) and Swain (1995)
  • An example of authentic material with a meaningful goal as per the communicative language teaching approach (CLT)
  • A game where the totality of the game-play involves interacting directly with language, mostly through reading and writing
  • A game perfectly suited for additional speaking and listening activities and grammar-focused activities through the implementation of pre-, while- and post-playing tasks designed around the content of the game
  • Heavily dependent on problem-solving skills and a healthy imagination
  • Completely text-based with natural language input and output. No confusing graphical interface, no complicated control schemes: a perfect primer to DGBL for language teachers, as they are experts in the domain of  language, thus giving them a feeling of empowerment in a area where students often have the upper-hand.

This video game genre – ‘Interactive Fiction’ (first called ‘text adventures’), could, in my view, be used very effectively for digital game-based (language) learning. And it was – and continues to be effectively used, with all my students.


Digital game-based language learning with Interactive Fiction (PART 1) | Classroom Aid.

About Joe Pereira

Joe Pereira is an English as a foreign language teacher in Portugal. He is interested in digital game-based learning, especially with Interactive Fiction.

Posted on January 18, 2013, in Interactive Fiction and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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