What empirical evidence exists as to the efficacy of gaming as an instructional strategy? More specifically, how can massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORGs) be used to learn a second language? Gaming provides situated learning of content in a problem-based learning (PBL) format (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989). Therefore, language learning games are generally created with an adventure, problem-solving scenario. For example, Trace Effects, a 3-D multimedia interactive video game, was designed specifically for English language learners (ELLs) ages 12-16 by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. It’s an adventure game where the protagonist goes through the task of trying to get enrolled in an American university and become familiar with its surrounding community/city. The various levels of the game take you to different American communities (e.g., New Orleans) for rich situated learning among the varied cultural settings. PBL provides meaningful learning, resulting in deeper understandings and longer retention (Hung, Bailey, & Jonassen, 2003). PBL in simulated environments offers a variety of language-based scenarios with nonplaying characters providing model language support for vocabulary and grammar development. Prior to Trace Effects (2012), there were very few effective games created specifically for ELLs. Therefore, research focused on the use of existing commercial simulated games combined with language support material to determine if gaming was an effective strategy for language learning.
In such a study, it was found that MMORGs combined with second language acquisition theory aided student learning of languages (Rankin, Gold, & Gooch, 2006). Four intermediate and advanced level, college-aged ELLs played with playing and nonplaying characters on Ever Quest 2 (EQ2), a commercial adventure game not specifically created for ELLs. EQ2 provides opportunities for the characters to speak; nonplaying characters verbalize the rules and alerts to players. In this study, they questioned whether EQ2 would aid ELLs and how; they also wanted to find out if there was sufficient support for ELLs within the game. Students played the game four hours a week for four weeks. The researchers analyzed their game log scripts for vocabulary for testing purposes. No supporting English language material was used with the game. Overall, solely from interacting with nonplaying characters, participants increased their English language vocabulary by 40%. The nonplaying characters provided support by modeling language; in fact, the more they modeled, the higher the accuracy in vocabulary meaning. Rankin et al. did not gather data on vocabulary acquisition with the playing characters. The authors acknowledged their small sample size and called for more investigations of this type given the positive outcomes.