Language Learning with Digital Games: Worth a Closer Look

Language Learning with Digital Games: Worth a Closer Look

By: Louise Ohashi

We all know that games can be engaging and educational, so it’s unsurprising that many teachers include them in their courses and recommend them to students for self-study. When I first started teaching English, boardgames and card games made regular appearances in my lessons and I still get requests for an encore whenever my students play with an old deck of Taboo cards. In the last decade though, digital games have taken on a bigger role in my educational toolkit. I have seen the pros and cons of them first-hand, both as a teacher and a language learner, but there is always something else to discover, right? To learn more, I decided to read up on the use of digital games in language education then conducted a survey with 88 English teachers and 102 English students at Japanese universities. In this article, I’ll share some of the spoils of my labour.

Digital Games in Language Education

We all know the word “game” but what does it actually mean to you? Something fun and entertaining? Educational? I doubt I’d lose money if I bet you had learnt something from a game at some point in your life. In fact, it was my own learning experiences with digital games that prompted me to consider how they could help my students. Pioneering video-game scholar James Gee argued back in 2003 that “schools, workplaces, families, and academic researchers have a lot to learn about learning from good computer and video games. Such games incorporate a whole set of fundamentally sound learning principles, principles that can be used in other settings” (2003, p. 1). This includes language education, as many researchers have since shown (for examples, scroll through publications by Reinders, Reinhardt, Buendgens-Kosten and Cornille). When examining the learning principles of video games, Gee (2005) identified “good games” as those that assist with identity formation, facilitate interaction, encourage risk taking, allow users to produce rather than just consume, are customizable to suit different users, and have well-ordered problems. He also said they should be challenging, pleasantly frustrating, and promote lateral thinking. When selecting games for our students, we can decide which of these elements are important within our context and choose games accordingly.

In the educational context, the way students may learn through them has been differentiated by deHaan into game-based language learning, defined as “learning language from games without a teacher’s assistance (the learning can happen incidentally or intentionally)” (2020, p. 118) and game-based language teaching “learning language from games and a teacher (the learning results from an explicit pedagogical intervention)” (p. 118). As teachers, we can address the former category by asking our students what they do to widen our knowledge and gain deeper understanding. For the latter category, we can take a more active role in guiding our students.

I wanted to find out more about my local context, so in late 2016, I conducted a study with English teachers and students in universities throughout Japan to gauge their experiences of and views on digital games. I asked about their use of games in English on various devices both in-class and out-of-class. I found that 31% of the students surveyed had played digital games in English in class within the previous 12 months but that this figure rose to 50% for out-of-class use in English. In other words, English gameplay occupied a greater role in out-of-class learning.

Although not all students had played digital games in English, many had played them on at least one device. Is the breakdown below what you expected? Would it be the same in your classes? How about polling your students?

If you poll your students, you may be surprised at the games they have tried. In my survey, students were asked to share the names of games they had played in English both in and out of class. Try to predict them before reading on. To my mind, they fit into two categories. The first category is games that were not designed for English education, such as: Call of Duty, Battlefield, FIFA, Pro Evolution Soccer, Biohazard, Second Life, Pokemon Go, Grand Theft Auto, and Puzzle & Dragons. Those in the second category were designed for language learners or were created as educational tools: Lyrics Training (now also known as LingoClip), Kahoot, Quizlet, Polyglots, and Net Academy.

Teachers were also asked to list games they had introduced to their students. Perhaps unsurprisingly, their list of tools tended to be more clearly linked to language learning, with some repetition of tools mentioned by students plus others like Duolingo, Mikan, Socrative, Madlibs, and Boggle. For academic writing, there was the dated-looking but still useful Goblin Threat Plagiarism Game. Although a name search did not help me find each and every game listed, most of those I found had some of the learning principles Gee (2005) mentioned or  “game-like” elements, such as points, time-limits and rewards for passing stages.

There is strong support for including “gamification” features like these in educational contexts. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, gamification “refers to the incorporation of game elements, like point and reward systems, to tasks as incentives for people to participate. In other words, gamification is about making something potentially tedious into a game. Gamification is effective because it taps into people’s natural desires for competition and achievement. Teachers, managers, and others use gamification to increase participation and improve productivity.” It is well accepted even at governmental levels. For example, the Australian Department of Education (2022) encourages it, explaining: “Gamification in education is about increasing student engagement and learning by including game-like elements in learning.” They warn that gamification can be a distraction when not linked to learning objectives and should be part of a wider array of teaching approaches as it is not appropriate for all learning. Nonetheless, they advocate its use because it “supports curiosity and experimentation, cultivates a positive attitude to failure, delivers individualised learning appropriate to the level and pace of the students [and] can facilitate focus and flow.”

Do Teachers and Students Value Games Equally?

From the usage graphs above it is clear students played digital games in English more outside of class than in class. Does this indicate divergence in teachers’ and students’ perceptions of digital games? It is hard to be sure given the small sample size of my surveys, but a comparison of my data revealed major differences in the value university-level teachers and students attach to games.

 As shown above, while opinions came closer for self-study (60% versus 79%), students valued games much more than teachers did for in-class learning (26% versus 62%) and assigned homework (44% versus 70%). Do students see something teachers don’t see? Perhaps it is time we explored some advantages.

Tell Me the Benefits

There have been a number of attempts to synthesize the merits of digital games. Yudintseva (2015) conducted a review of 26 studies published between 2005 and 2015 that examined the effect of digital games in language learning, concluding that both games designed for language learning and commercial games that were designed for other purposes could lead to positive learning outcomes for language learners, particularly for vocabulary acquisition. In a study with English language learners at a university in Japan, Bolliger et al. (2015) found that students believed that playing games could increase motivation to study, attend classes, and actively participate. They also believed gameplay would raise interest and enthusiasm for learning English and assist with vocabulary acquisition. Mifsud et. al (2013) showed how this potential can become a reality through a study with English learners in Malta. Pre-test mean scores showed no significant difference between a control group that then followed the regular course program and an experimental group that had video games integrated into their classes. In the post-test, the control group made significant gains in only two of the nine key areas tested, but the experimental group made statistically significant gains in all areas evaluated.

Quotes[1] from students in my study highlighted valuable benefits of digital gameplay:

    1. 1. Increased Motivation: “It’s a good way for students, because we can keep our motivation high. We always use a textbook and do homework or read passages or write something. It’s sometimes boring. I want to use other ways to improve my English skills. That’s why we should use English games in classes.”
    2. English Skill Development: “My current English proficiency was influenced considerably by the games I played frequently in junior and senior high school. I hardly studied English, but since I was listening to English during the games and doing things like shadowing, it helped me to get about 650 points on the TOEIC test.”
    3. High Accessibility: “I spend a lot of time on the train travelling to university, so games that can be played on a smartphone make it easier to use the time effectively on the train, as it is usually a bit too cramped to open books and other materials.”
    4. Positioning English as a Practical Skill: “Here in Japan, the ‘English’ students are supposed to study is not practical. Even though they start studying English when entering junior high school, many people almost panic when spoken to by someone in English. This clearly shows that the education system for English should be re-considered […]. Thus, the most important thing we must tackle immediately is to spread the idea that English is not a subject for paper tests, but a way to interact with people around the world. Online games, which might be easily embraced by young people, would be helpful so that they can appreciate the meaning of studying English.”

Not all students had positive experiences with digital games, but most were open to using them and believed they offered benefits.

[1] Quotes have been translated from Japanese or had minor corrections made to increase readability. 

Although only a quarter of the teachers surveyed echoed the positivity of students for in-class digital gameplay, 60% agreed it was useful for self-study, which means teachers can see potential benefits. A major obstacle—and one I have faced myself—is that digital games are not always easily accessible in classrooms due to issues with devices, software, and Wi-Fi. Furthermore, accessibility outside of class varies by student. However, teachers’ survey responses also shed light on several other reasons for choosing not to encourage digital gameplay:

    1. Lack of Experience: “I am not inherently against their use for language learning. It’s just that I have never really used digital games myself, for learning or for any other reason, so I don’t feel I am in a position to recommend them for others. There are plenty of other on- and off-line tools out there, so I don’t feel that me or my students are missing out.”
    2. The Belief that Games Don’t Belong in University Courses: “At university level, asking the students to play games in English does not meet the requirements of the course.” This sentiment was echoed though the notion of university classes being ‘academic’, as shown by this quote: “My students do academic coursework. They don’t play games.”
    3. Views of Games as Inappropriate for Specific Course Content: “My students are science majors, and they don’t use technology in class, other than some who use cell phones or electronic dictionaries to check word meanings. I don’t see the point in playing games.” Interestingly, the quote about gamification I shared above from the Australian Department of Education was specifically targeting STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, yet this teacher did not see a potential connection between English, science, and games.
    4. An Aversion to Edutainment[2]: “I think the focus on ‘fun’ English is the problem with English education here in Japan. We have one extreme of Grammar-Translation and another of ‘Let’s Play in English.’ I have learned various foreign languages, but I wouldn’t consider playing ‘games’ to get good at them. I think enjoying study is very different from ‘having fun playing games’.” For one respondent, rejection of edutainment seemed to be tied to the belief that playing games with students would make that teacher seem a less ‘serious’ educator than Japanese colleagues, noting: “I’m a foreigner in Japan. That does not make me a game monkey to entertain you.”
    5. The Belief Students Don’t Want to Play: “I have not recommended that my students play digital games in English as homework or to aid in their self-study. My main reason for not doing so is I believe that many students are not interested in or don’t have time to play digital games in English.”

These feelings are understandable as it has probably been ingrained into many of us that university study is ‘academic’ and games are ‘fun.’ Consequently, it is not unexpected that games had not been fully embraced and explored. However, teachers’ attitudes may have already changed as the survey was conducted before the pandemic and the role digital technology plays in language education has certainly taken a turn. Furthermore, there has been an explosion in game-based learning and recent developments in artificial intelligence (AI) will take games to another level in the near future. When more teachers know about these developments, I imagine uptake will increase. On March 14, Duolingo integrated GPT-4 (the latest release from OpenAI that out-performs ChatGPT) into their gamified language learning app, noting it will make their content more personalized, give explanations when requested and create roleplays. According to the Duolingo site: “Roleplay allows learners to practice real-world conversation skills with world characters in the app. […]. What will you talk about? We’ll guide you through different scenarios! Learners might discuss future vacation plans with Lin, order coffee at a café in Paris, go furniture shopping with Eddy, or ask a friend to go for a hike.” As AI starts to be integrated into more games, finding ones that address content that teachers want their learners to focus on is going to become much easier.

[2] “Entertainment (as by games, films, or shows) that is designed to be educational” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

The Final Word

My foray into this area allowed me to understand that teachers and students can have quite different points of view about digital games, with students tending to favour them more than teachers. Now, I am not suggesting that this means games should be randomly thrown into courses. Obviously, pedagogy needs to lead our choices. As one teacher in my study noted: “It seems to me that too often teachers deploy games uncritically and without a deep enough interrogation of what their role in their students’ learning is or should be.” However, there is a multitude of digital games out there that can be used for various learning purposes. Why couldn’t a game like Quizlet Live be used to get students to review vocabulary? Why not suggest they use the song-based game modes on Lyrics Training or LingoClip to improve their spelling, vocabulary, and listening skills and sing along to improve pronunciation?

Digital games are not the be all and end all of language education, but my experiences with them as a language learner, my students’ feedback, and my research all tell me they are worth considering for in-class and out-of-class learning. If this article has sparked your interest in them, then click on some of the links I’ve added to try them out, open up discussions with your colleagues and students (who better than the people in your own educational context?), read the rest of this special Think Tank issue, and make 2023 the year that you add more digital games to your language education toolkit.


Dr. Louise Ohashi (Gakushuin University) specializes in SLA and researches learner autonomy, motivation, and language learning/teaching with technology. She’s Chair of EUROCALL’s AI SIG and an avid language learner who speaks Japanese, Italian, and French (plus her L1, English). She’s also begun her journey with Spanish and German. Twitter: @OhashiLou

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