The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #16 July / August 2015
Playing Games with Language
by Erik Zidowecki
July / August 2015 | 

One of the current ideas being put to use in learning systems online is that of gamification. That 5-syllable word essentially means taking something which is normally a lot of work to do and making it fun, like a game. The idea isn't new. People have been trying to make boring chores fun for decades. Even that famous nanny Mary Poppins explained "In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and snap! The job's a game."

Putting this strategy to work on the web, however, is not always so simple. There are a couple different approaches available that can be using independently or alongside others. Naturally, people have been working to apply these gamification techniques to learning languages. Here are some of the most popular forms:

And the Award Goes To

Giving out awards when someone performs a certain task is the most basic method of funning up your learning. These awards usually take the form of badges, which are just graphic images displayed on a person's profile. The idea is that people will want to show how much they are achieving, and will thus try to earn all the badges they can.

Because a badge can be given out for pretty much anything, this gaming method is the easiest to implement across most systems. For example, on a language site, a person could earn badges just for participating in a forum discussion, responding to a person's question on a language, or uploading a link to a new site. I've even seen a few systems in which you get rewarded just for showing up each day, like an attendance award. That one encourages people to come back daily to the site.

Busuu uses images and icons to show a user's achievements

A popular learning site that takes this method to a unique level is Busuu. This site revolves around the idea of a "language garden", in which your success is reflected in a visual, animated garden. For example, if you have learned the basic vocabulary for fruits, a fruit tree might appear in your garden. If you did a unit on transportation, you might get a car or an airplane.

Furthermore, as you practise on the site, you are awarded "Busuu Berries", which can then be used to "purchase" other items, like a scarecrow or a garden gnome, to fill out your garden. If you pay for the Busuu premium membership, you get a larger variety of extras to add, so the gamification is even used to entice you to buy stuff with real money.

Practice Makes Perfect

Just like trophies in real life, awards can be given in online learning

While handing out badges might be the simplest way to implement a gamification element, actual games would be the most obvious. It is also fairly easy to utilize, but only to a certain point.

For learning languages, you would most likely use vocabulary and phrase learning for this. One game could be simple multiple choice questions, in which the person is given a word or phrase in one language and be asked to select the closest match from a few possible answers in the other language. Multiple choice questions have been used in classrooms for over a century as a means for drilling lessons as well as tests.

Using images as part of a multiple choice exercise

A slightly more modern implementation of the multiple choice system is to enhance the text answers with images, or even remove the text answer completely and let the player choose from the best picture. This is pretty much what passes now for "lessons" in some big name software and language sites, like Rosetta Stone / LiveMocha. Selecting from possible matches might be the only component, or it be part of other testing methods, like filling in an answer, in a single lesson.

Other games which are popular are Memory, in which a person turns over "cards" to find matching pairs of words (one in each language), Word Searches, in which the player looks for words in a two dimensional grid of letters, and Hangman, in which the person tries to guess a word, one letter at a time, without making too many wrong guesses.

Would You Like to Play a Game of Chess?

All of these games listed above are played alone, with the person not competing against anyone else. The next level of gamification is having learners competing with others, either directly or indirectly.

The indirect way looks almost the same to the single player system, except that you earn points from each game and those scores are compared to others. For example, if players Alpha and Beta both play single versions of a memory game and earn points for the fewest wrong answers and time taken to complete, then their scores would be displayed for others to see.

Kids getting excited about winning against an opponent

The displaying of scores can be a very strong component of gamification. People like to see how well they are performing compared to others. While badges let them display their progress personally, direct comparisons on a leaderboard take the competition to a whole new level.

Leaderboards, as the name implies, show which people are scoring the highest, or leading, in any competition. These are normally used in most competitions so people can instantly see who is the best. The Eurovision Song Contest uses a leaderboard to instantly reflect competing countries scores, changing their positions on the board as each vote comes in.

A variant of the indirect competition format is to play in a tournament setting. For this, a certain number of people start playing the same game for a limited amount of time, and the players then get points on who plays the best. For example, if you have four people that start playing a multiple choice game, that game could have a five minute time limit. The time limit is to make sure that all players finish within a certain amount of time so that the overall competition can be decided.

After everyone has finished, the person with the most points would be in first place, the person with the next highest score would be in second place, and so on. This is more direct than competing with everyone else in points without actually playing against another person.

Naturally, the direct way of competing involves two people directly playing the same game against each other. This is a more complicated setup, for it requires both people to be involved in "real time". That means that after one person has a turn in the game, the other person must be ready to play their turn. If one person wanders off, the other one is left waiting forever.

Let's look at the memory game again. In the single approach, the player simple keeps turning over pairs of cards, looking for matches, until they find them all. In a direct version, the people would take turns turning over the pairs of cards. This makes the game more interesting as well as difficult, because any mistake you make may be used by your opponent, and you can also use his mistakes. The one who gets the most matches at the end is the winner.

Now it might seem, then, that both people must be learning the same languages, since they are using the same cards. In the real world, that would be the case, but in the online world, where the players are seeing different interfaces, it is possible to actually syncronyze the cards so that while each player is using different languages, the pairs have the same correlation between both interfaces. In this way player Alpha could be using English and Italian while player Beta is using German and Arabic.

A real world chess board. Even this could be used in teaching languages

Even more complex games could be introduced with this idea. The board game Battleship involves hidden game boards on which each player has placed "ships" of varying length. The players then take turns guessing at the position of the other person's ships, being told each time if it was a "hit" or "miss". Each player keeps track of their guesses, and the first player to sink all of the other's ships is the winner.

Now, that has nothing to do with languages, obviously, so how can that kind of game be used? Well, what you can do is require each player to answer a correct multiple choice question for the languages they are learning in order to complete a hit, or indeed, for every move.

That means that not only do they have to be lucky at guessing positions, but they also need to be good at their new language. And since each player is using their own interface, they can be doing completely different languages and vocabulary categories.

Using the method of requiring a player to answer a language question before taking a move could be applied to almot every game, even chess!

12All pages
Playing Games with Language
Writer: Erik Zidowecki
Busuu: Busuu screen
Rosetta Stone: Multiple choice with images
Bantam Books: Choose Your Own Adventure book
Petey: Trophies; Kids on laptop; Chess board; 3D Minecraft scene
• The screenshot of Busuu belongs to
• The screenshot of Rosetta Stone belongs to Rosetta Stone.
• The cover of "Choose Your Own Adventure book - Cave of Time" is copyright Bantam Books.

Jimmy Mello retains all copyright control over his images. They are used in Parrot Time with his expressed permission.
Maureen Millward retains all copyright control over her images. They are used in Parrot Time with her expressed permission.

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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