Category Archives: Editorial


Gamification in Language Learning

Games and gamification have been popular topics in the language learning field for the past few decades, with the boom of new technology and the rush to be on the cutting edge of digital implementation in education inspiring many teachers to try and motivate and engage students in a fun and exciting way. However, not all of the conversation around games and gamification has been positive. In order to discuss gamification in further detail, it’s important to note the difference between the two terms, as they are not synonymous. Using games in a classroom entails incorporating games and game-like content into existing curricula, or designing curricula around their use. On the contrary, gamification is the use of game-like elements in a non-game context.

According to game designer and author of Reality is Broken Jane McGonigal (2011), the core elements of games are rules, goals, feedback, and voluntary participation. Gamification does not depend on the use of games, but rather these core mechanics. However, many gamified classrooms, whose goals and feedback systems are grade-based, tend to only superimpose points, badges, and leaderboards to engage and motivate. However, when taken out of the game context, points, badges, and leaderboards may be ineffective and consequently decrease motivation. Students are doing the same coursework in the same manner with only a superficial change in how they are rewarded.

According to Pew Research Center, over half of all adults play video games in 2016, with 10% considering themselves gamers. The number is significantly larger for adolescents, with over 96% of teens ages 12-17 play video games regularly. To break the numbers down even more, over half reported that they played games as recently as “yesterday” with 86% owning some type of gaming console or computer. What these numbers tell us is that Americans, especially children and young adults, know a lot about games. For language learners, who are in the majority of game players according to these numbers, these types of superficial changes that do not touch on the core mechanics of what games truly are, will not be taken seriously. So why is it that people play games?

According to gamification expert Yu-Kai Chou (2015), an important element in many successful games is epic meaning. Epic meaning is the sense that the players are part of something bigger than themselves, that they shape and impact not only their own destiny, but the destiny of others. We see this presented in everyday life: the vast number of Wikipedia moderators who normally do not earn wages from their work; buying shoe brands that donate a pair of shoes to less fortunate children around the world; using apps that donate money to others with each use. People like to feel as if they are a part of something bigger than themselves, and that their contribution and effort matters to not only them, but others. Can this idea of epic meaning and calling be incorporated into a language learning classroom?

Let’s look at the goals of a communicative language classroom:

  1. An emphasis on learning to communicate through interaction in the target language.
  2. The introduction of authentic texts into the learning situation.
  3. The provision of opportunities for learners to focus, not only on language but also on the learning process itself.
  4. An enhancement of the learner’s own personal experiences as important contributing elements to classroom learning.
  5. An attempt to link classroom language learning with language activities outside the classroom.

From looking at these goals of CTL, we can see that it is already primed for epic meaning. By structuring the course curriculum around epic meaning and drive, the language classroom can become a place for engagement in learning. But how can we as teachers accomplish this?

In a course I am currently designing for my MA project in the Language Teaching Specialization program at the University of Oregon, I use gamification as a way to encourage collaborative work on a creative writing project. Learners in this creative writing class are called to complete an objective: work together in teams to create a narrative based mobile game they will present in a final showcase showdown. The goals of the gamified experience are to promote autonomy and expression of personal identity as individuals, while allowing students to develop interpersonal communication and pragmatic skills through collaboration. At the same time, learners build a wider vocabulary, strengthen their grammatical competence, and develop composition skills that are transferrable to all genres of writing.

In order to complete their project, they will be called to fulfill different roles in both their team and other teams as well. For example, each person might have different strengths that they, as a team, can decide how to best utilize. In addition, because their games require images to be taken and uploaded into the software, they can choose to include images from the Mystery Box, which are an assortment of scenarios for images that they must find a way to incorporate into their story. The Mystery Box also includes a writing section, in which teams can choose to incorporate a random character, plot point, or setting into their story for additional bonus points. Each team has full control over their game, and can use any resources and props they like, which they are responsible for acquiring. If they choose to collaborate with other teams, they can expand their pool of resources, which benefits all. Cross-collaborating is also beneficial for earning bonus points by playing a role in the creation of others’ games as well, such as by being actors in other teams’ games, or peer-editing and giving creative feedback. By incorporating epic meaning into the core of the curriculum, learners are impacting not only their own projects, but the projects of their peers. The gamified structure also promotes autonomy, creativity, and engagement.

– Becky Lawrence & Emily Letcher



McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world. New York: Penguin Press.

Chou, Y. (2015). Actionable gamification: Beyond points, badges, and leaderboards. Fremont, CA: Octalysis Media.


Co-Presence, Situatedness, and Mobile Game-Enhanced Learning

The great power of mobile smart devices is that they can connect us with people, ideas, and places with which we do not share the same physical space, and conversely, they allow us to share our selves, ideas and places with those remote others. Location dependent technology can connect us to the world around us, but we can also connect to things anywhere, at any time, from anywhere. In the wider scheme of things, however, sometimes the consequences of instant accessibility are not always positive. If, to gain freedom of time and space, we connect more through our networks than we do with things that are actually in our physical proximity, we may lose the benefits of immediate (meaning “un-mediated”) experience. Even as we gain knowledge, social intimacy, or pleasure when losing ourselves in a website, chat, or game, we may also be losing an awareness of co-inhabited place that can potentially ground and center us.

Artist Eric Pickersgill captures the potential consequences of being connected more to the remote than to the immediate in his photography series “Removed”—powerful images of what it really looks like, in his words, to feel “as connected to someone on the other side of the planet as to the person on the other side of the couch.” His images hint at the loss of co-presence. For those of us who were adults before the age of ubiquitous devices may remember, being co-present with other humans, objects, or places offers the potential for experiential and situated learning precisely because that space cannot be escaped so easily by connecting to somewhere else. Co-presence enhances situatedness—contextual involvement at cultural, historical, social, and cognitive levels—which is a key component of learning. Paradoxically, mobile device technology—the ability to be anywhere, anytime—can both diminish and enhance physical situatedness.

Well-designed mobile digital games have the potential to re-connect people to the immediate world around them and help establish situatedness. Insofar as the world around us is culturally and historically mediated by language, mobile games have real potential for enhancing situated second or foreign language learning (as evidenced by the many examples in this blog). Games like Mentira make use of mobile technology to involve Spanish learners in local cultural and historical contexts and help them make connections between the sometimes abstract content of the language classroom with the situatedness of the real world. Inspired by Mentira and other ARIS games, I was recently involved in a similar application to develop mobile games for educators of Indigenous American Indian languages—in this case, the Mojave language once spoken widely around the Colorado River in northwestern Arizona.

My colleagues and I were inspired by anthropological work by anthropologist Keith Basso, whose work “Wisdom Sits in Places” explains how some Indigenous languages and cultures in the southwestern US are highly interconnected with the physical landscape, so that the learning of everyday wisdom and knowledge is literally situated in the histories and mythologies of ancestral places. Though it was modest, our game ‘Analy Nyuwiich, developed with Mojave educators, sought to teach environmental and cultural knowledge about the mesquite tree, which has a central place in Mojave culture. The game was situated around an actual tree on the schoolgrounds where it would be played by high school age learners. Our website describes the project and offers educators of other Indigenous languages resources for developing their own, similar games.

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Fig. 1: Screenshots of ‘Analy Nyuwiich 

For learners of languages like Spanish in Albuquerque, or heritage learners of Mojave in northwestern Arizona, a well-designed mobile game can be a highly effective means for situated, experiential learning. For languages not used historically in or near the location they are being learned, however, a slightly different approach may be required.

In designing such a game, the challenge becomes how to situate and engage learners in a location where they simply cannot be physically. Inspired by ARIS games like Terri Nelson’s Paris Occupé, Kayo Shintaku at the University of Arizona designed a game that is heavily reliant on the map feature of ARIS, and requires students to navigate maps in Japanese in order to play, even though they are in a classroom in the US. In the game, players navigate the streets of Hiroshima and Miyajima Island, Japan, taking trains and ferries, interacting with a variety of people and animals, and ultimately completing a quest initiated by an A-bomb survivor. Key to creating a sense of place were realistic conversations and dialogues, images, videos, and sounds, and choices that were consequential to the game outcome. Also key were well designed supplementary pedagogical materials that directed students to make connections between the language, culture, and history that they encountered in the game and their own understandings, and that compelled them to practice the new language and engage with the new content in meaningful ways.

Hiroshima3      Hiroshima2      Hiroshima1

Fig. 2: Screenshots of Shintaku’s Hiroshima Game

Games that must be played in a certain location, or that must be played with other learners and a teacher, accompanied by supplemental materials, may in some ways seem antithetical to the idea that educational games should promote autonomous, independent learning, and should perhaps therefore be self-contained and “teacher-proof” to a certain extent. In truth, however, a game has meaning to its player only within its context of play (see Sykes & Reinhardt, 2012, p. 73)— and an involved teacher can help shape that context by drawing attention not just to the language and culture of study, but to how one can and should learn with mobile games, and why one should play critically. The immediate co-presence of a teacher and other learners can be leveraged to help situate mobile game-mediated learning and raise critical awareness, both with games that require players to be in a physical location, and those that have students imagine themselves to be in one. Bringing learners’ attention to how their smart devices can remove them from their immediate linguistic, cultural, and environmental landscape, with all its potentials for learning, by showing them how their devices can be used instead to ground and center them to the landscape, is crucial to effective mobile game-mediated learning, and key to critical learning.

-Jon Reinhardt, University of Arizona


Commercial Games and the World Language Classroom

Commercial Games and the World Language Classroom

A few weeks ago, at CALICO (Computer-Assisted Language Instruction Consortium) 2016, Johnathon Beals, Phillip Cameron, Brenda Imber, and Val Waldron gave a workshop entitled, “Meaningful Play: Gamers as Teachers.” This workshop addressed how to appropriately integrate commercially available games into course content. According to Reneé Marshall, workshop attendee, the workshop showed “how games can thoughtfully be used in the language classroom…this workshop [was] fun, informative and practical.”

As part of the workshop, presenters covered the Taxonomy Alignment for Gaming ( featured below.


This taxonomy alignment is particularly helpful for instructors trying to determine which games would be most appropriate to incorporate into the classroom.  As one can see, vocabulary and grammar memorization games like Duolingo, the games that are most readily-available and content-specific, involve the lowest order of thinking skills and are not always the best games to use. While the games certainly make the sometimes arduous task of memorization more fun, they do not necessarily serve to develop a learner’s language proficiency.

The potential for a game to aid a learner in improving his or her target language proficiency increases as one moves up the taxonomy featured here. Let us consider as our example Plague Inc., a digital commercial game (

This game, a game in which the player pretends that he or she is the CEO of a company trying to develop a disease that will successfully infect the entire world, involves a great deal of strategy, and to a lesser extent, exploration. While these aren’t the highest levels of cognition featured on the Taxonomy, the game provides for a clear example of how one might incorporate commercial games into the classroom.

To begin gameplay, each player names his or her disease. After that, the player picks a country to infect with the disease first. Before selecting the country, the player is able to find out additional information (socioeconomic standing, climate, topography, and population density) about the country in question in order to inform his or her selection.


As the player plays and the disease begins to spread, the player earns DNA points that can be used to evolve the disease in order to adapt it to the new countries that it enters.


At any point, the player can see the overall progression of the disease and can monitor any research being undertaken in order to combat the disease. This information will inform subsequent decision making.



So why use a game like this?

The answer to this question is multi-faceted and related to the high levels of active cognition employed both during gameplay and in potential follow-up activities. At the most basic level, the visual design of games like this provide players with so much visual context that even novice learners are able to infer the meaning of many targeted vocabulary words. Additionally, commercial games like Plague Inc. allow learners to explore and evaluate such concepts as innovation, community, and internationalism. These concepts ignite student engagement given their cross-curricular relevance. Finally, these games can serve as an inciting incident of sorts to springboard further classroom communication and exploration that is both authentic and contextualized. Novice learners can create semantic maps with the knowledge that the acquire through gameplay, intermediate learners can practice summarizing major events through live tweeting gameplay, and advanced learners can engage in roleplay scenarios in which the imagine the conversations that characters in the game would have. It is important to note that any of these activities should be supplemented by additional classroom discussion and instruction. In essence, the game not only involves contextualized language interpretation, but it also inspires contextualized and authentic language output on both the individual and classroom levels.

If you are interested in checking out activities to supplement Plague Inc. and a variety of other commercial games, check out what we have created at


Games for Change: A Tool to Facilitate Cross-Curricular Planning for World Language Teachers

Creating a cohesive and meaningful learning experience across subject areas is valuable work. As Erikson (2012) discusses, learners enjoy a greater permanence in learning when they are able to organize the many facts that they must internalize into concepts. Concepts, ideas like “beauty”, “community”, and “change”, engender connections across subject areas that facilitate cross-curricular planning.  Teachers simply have to work together to identify concepts that they can teach simultaneously, and cross-curricular units are born.

Seems simple enough, right? If only that were the case! Consider the life of an average world language teacher. She may have 200 students of which 20 percent have Individualized Education Programs that require a good deal of differentiation outside of what she normally does in class. She is committed to giving feedback to her students, so she grades nightly and on the weekends. She also wants to find interesting and authentic sources, so she spends her time driving listening to podcasts in the target language. When she gets home from those drives, she plans and executes the activities that go along with the podcasts.  Needless to say, the time required to think about and plan cross-curricular units of study with educators from other fields is difficult to come by.

What do we do as educators then when we simply need time to think about concepts to use in our planning but have none of it to spare? There is no way, for example, that I can come up with a meaningful unit of study and/or project that involves myself as the world language teacher, the math teacher down the hall, the history teacher next door, and the science teacher on the other side of the building without setting aside time to work with those individuals to make sure that the concepts and topics that we discuss are both cohesive and coherent. Otherwise, the students will see the work for what it is-superficial, or worse, inauthentic.

Fortunately, the website Games for Change ( can really help educators to understand what a good cross-curricular unit or project might look like. The games that are included deal with global themes like humanitarian issues, environmental issues, civics, conflict, and poverty. The treatment of these themes belongs to all subject areas, not just one.

Parable of the Polygons ( is a game featured on the website that perfectly demonstrates cross-curricular alignment via the exploration of historical segregation bred by racism (or, by extension, any other differences that exist among populations of people). In this game (available in English, Spanish, Dutch, French, Portuguese, Chinese, and more), players are given a simple task: to make a slightly “shapist” society’s members happy by moving their residences. Each polygon wants to live in a diverse neighborhood, but each polygon is only happy if at least 1/3 of its neighbors are the same type of polygon. As the player begins to reorganize the neighborhood so that all of its residents are happy, he or she is able to observe how segregated it becomes overtime in a graph.



Figure 1: Screen shot of player’s experience segregating neighborhood


Subsequent tasks allow players to interact with and witness what happens if individual polygons have a higher or lower tolerance for diversity and allow them to consider what exactly changes in neighborhoods that were built with slightly shapist preferences once those preferences go away. Questions to guide players’ thinking regarding these changes are posted throughout (saving planning time for teachers!).

So how might this game be used in multiple classrooms at once? Though the possible answers to this question are infinite, an easy way to conceptualize using this game for teaching is to consider gameplay to be an experience to prime students for learning. Essentially, the game will allow learners to explore the tough issue of segregation in an unthreatening way and will prepare them to understand the content being disseminated in all of their classes. In the world language class, once learners are done working to negotiate meaning in the target language throughout gameplay, they can turn their attention to understanding the historical precedent of caste systems in the countries in which the target language is spoken. History teachers can use the initial gameplay experience to walk students through the Civil Rights movement and the long-term impact of segregation in the United States. Math teachers can help learners to gain numeracy skills by having them predict to what extent changing ratios and/or percentages of diversity tolerance in a given society will impact segregation. Essentially, in using this short game, teachers give their learners not only the experience needed to understand the topics of racism and segregation more profoundly than they may have once understood them, but also to see the interconnectedness of the disciplines that they are studying. In a very real way, what students are learning in math class impacts and adds meaning to what they are learning in Spanish class and vice versa.

-Stephanie Knight


Erikson, H. L. (2012). “Concept-based teaching and learning”. IB Position Papers. Retrieved from