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.


CERCLL Workshop a Success!

We are pleased to announce the successful completion of our CERCLL workshop, featuring much of the content from the Games to Teach project.  We had a total of 18 face-to-face participants and 6 remotely attending from across the United States.  The participants taught Spanish, English, French, German, and library studies at a variety of different levels.  We loved working with everyone! All worked hard and had a lot of fun.

We began our two-day journey by playing a variety games, becoming familiar with both their content and behaviors.  We then explored ways in which various aspects of vernacular games might be evaluated and repurposed for use in L2TL.  We then discussed game-enhanced activity design and creation for L2TL and closed with a discussion of the design and implementation of game-based environments.  Along the way participants were given materials to take with them and given time to work on game-informed project for their classrooms.  We shared many ideas as a group and learned a great deal from the participants as well.

A few comments from workshop attendees include:

“I enjoyed the time to research games and try them out.  I liked the list of resources that was provided.  The company was great and the presenters were knowledgeable.”

“I gained a whole lot more than what I expected. I did not realize that it was going to be this intense. I did not expect gaming to be educational. This was a surprise to me and I am excited about this new found knowledge and can’t wait to share this information with my colleagues and students.”

“I have actually started using the Tesoros game to improve my son’s language skills in Spanish (he currently has strong listening skills but does not speak).  I will also recommend it to my online students and will try to find a way to incorporate it (or another game) into my online course. “

We also gained a lot from participants about what they would like to see next time as well as suggestions they see for the G2T project.  The primary addition to the G2T project, stemming from the workshop, is the addition of a games database highlighting various vernacular games that are especially appropriate for L2TL.  If you have any suggestions for the database, feel free to send them our way!

Thanks to all who participated!  We are looking forward to next year!

-J. Sykes & J. Reinhardt


3D game-based SIE for Learning German

David Neville has recently posted a prototype and development information for an SIE (synthetic immersive environment) he is creating for German.  It is available at: for those who are interested in checking it out or contributing to the project.  We haven’t spent much time with it, but thought some of you interested in game-mediated L2 education more broadly would be interested.

Thanks for sharing David!

-J. Sykes


AAAL 2011, Passionate Affinity Spaces & G2T

Jon and I just returned from AAAL 2011 in Chicago and were excited to hear James Paul Gee present his keynote address on what he calls “passionate affinity spaces.”  Basically, he refers to the online (and offline) contexts in which people come together to engage in complex tasks and discourse(s) related to various types of pop culture media such as video games and fan fiction.  He cited a number of relevant examples such as simulations utilizing the SIMS and teen fan fiction.

Most relevant to the work we are doing in the Games to Teach project was the focus on players’ intense involvement with communities engaged in similar activities.  This is an especially rich source of interaction for language learners to address pragmatic and strategic abilities with a variety of languages.  As part of the G2T project we are presenting on, and writing about, ways in which instructors can utilize digital games and their associated communities to build literacy skills and assist in L2 learning.  This includes analysis of existing communities and eventual participation in these “passionate affinity spaces,” as well as the use of in-game interaction.  We were excited to see Jim’s talk on the AAAL program and look forward to talking more about these issues as related to L2TL on this blog and throughout the G2T project!  We will be talking more about this at our upcoming CERCLL workshop (May 31 – June 1). Thanks to all of you with whom we had the chance to talk with at AAAL.  We look forward to many more conversation in the future!

Happy playing!

-J. Sykes