The role of choice-making in goal-orienting

After a great summer, we’re back in class and working on several projects related to digital games, including a book that should be out next year. One concept we discuss in the book is the idea of ‘game-informed’ second/foreign language teaching and learning (L2TL), which means using theories and principles from game design and games studies to inform L2TL, even when it doesn’t involve a game. In laymen’s terms, this is ‘gamification’, or taking non-game activities and applying game principles to reinvent them or see them in a new way.

One concept we introduce in our book is ‘goal-orienting’, a different way of seeing ‘goal-orientation’. Every activity, whether in learning a language or playing a game, has a goal, a purpose, or an objective. We use the phrase ‘goal-oriented’ to describe someone or something that keeps this goal in mind when completing the activity. Instead of ‘oriented’, however, we argue that the term ‘orienting’ is a better way to think about this concept, since the progressive form ‘orienting’ reflects the agency of the doer rather than a state or quality. If we think about working towards goals not as something that is an inherent quality, but rather as an ongoing, dynamic process of continuous choice-making, we are forced to recognize that an actor is involved.

In game playing, players are constantly goal-orienting. They know why they’re playing, what the object of the game is, and what they can do next, based on the individualized, just-in-time feedback provided by the game. Their choices are directed (but not dictated) by the game design to lead players to do what is appropriate for their level. Choices must have discernable impact on gameplay, or else they seem pointless.

There’s a parallel in the L2TL concept of task—an activity that learners complete in order to meet an objective.  What game design tells us, however, is that if the learners themselves aren’t doing the goal-orienting, that is, making relevant choices, targeted at their individualized level, based on just the right amount of feedback, just when it is needed, then they’re probably not learning effectively. Goals might be set by the instructor, assessment demands, or implied by a learning theory, but if the learner is not aware and involved, the activity is probably ineffective. Perceived agency is key.

So what are the game-informed implications of this idea? For one, make sure learners know the objective of a particular task, and guide them to set their own objectives whenever possible, to align with curricular objectives, but also provide for choice. Ask both open-ended and limited set-answer questions (e.g. yes/no, true/false, or multiple choice) on a single concept to help learners gauge how much or what parts of a concept they understand. When possible, accept multiple answers and let learners make explicit what they know about a particular concept, and what they do not. Allow learners to choose from a variety of activities on an assignment, or to choose which questions or activities should be weighted more on a test. Consider using tests as instructional tools, where learners take a test multiple times, with partial credit for corrected answers. Any of these techniques can give learners a sense of agency, and ultimately develop a sense of goal-orienting as something one does, rather than as something one has.