Videogames for Extracurricular Second Language Acquisition Activities

Photo by Emma Kim

Massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) provide English language learners (ELLs) with various gameplay situations and narratives to learn language functions in interactive, fun, and effective ways. Commercial MMORGs like World of Warcraft (WOW) provide numerous opportunities to practice information literacy activities such as interpreting, seeking, synthesizing, and disseminating information (Martin & Steinkuehler, 2010).  According to Krashen’s (1982) acquisition versus learning hypothesis, these would be great conduits for informal second language acquisition (SLA).  When a player enters WOW to complete a quest, generally they interact with other players and non-player characters (NPCs) to find and share information. These are examples of information literacy activities, which are linguistically described as heuristic (infer), instrumental (seek), and informative (disseminate and synthesize) language functions (Yahya, 2012). ELLs need to practice these and other types of language functions in all sorts of situations to achieve English language fluency.

MMORPGs provide an informal learning environment with a narrative structure to learn language functions via observation and interaction with others.  This resonates with Bandura’s (1978) social learning theory.  Bandura posited learning occurs through observation of others and without formal reinforcement of learning.  Hence, learning is viewed as a cognitive process where one can learn vicariously through others, which can occur with the NPCs and other gamers during the role-play aspect of WOW. Krashen also posited that SLA can occur unconsciously through passive learning activities.  I extrapolate this idea to the passive learning of language functions via gameplay.  Dickey (2007) described the narrative structure of MMORPGs in her typology of quests as follows: bounty, collection, escort, FedEx, goodwill, and messenger.  For example, the bounty quest is an assignment to hunt for certain players or things within the game.  As a subject matter expert in SLA, I could work with script writers to identify the language functions that correlate to each type of quest per character and game level to develop a list of the language functions and their corresponding level of difficulty (beginner, intermediate, advance).  This document would become a curriculum map of language functions for ELLs and could be marketed as an afterschool program to schools and/or to ELLs directly.

MMORPGs make the target language understandable.  MMORPGs provide affordances to make the conversation comprehensible via animation, sound alerts, written rules, NPCs, and other players verbal input and actions. Krashen (1982) posited in his input hypothesis that learners need comprehensible input (i + 1) before moving to a higher level of understanding.  Besides the aforementioned affordances, the story narrative of MMORPGs provide multiple reinforcers to make the input comprehensible. For instance, the narrative structure has a logical sequence of beginning, middle, and end, as well as an appeal to the senses. In a somewhat similar theory, Vygotsky (1978) proposed that all learning takes place at the edge of one’s understanding with the help of others or a support system.  This is known as the zone of proximal development (ZPD). The role-playing aspect of the videogame provides ELLs with an opportunity to go beyond their own ability and access their ZPD with the help of their partners and NPCs within gameplay. Based on these theories, I propose MMORPGs as a way to informally learn a second language during afterschool extracurricular activities.


Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Oxford, UK: Prentice-Hall.

Dickey, M. (2007).  Game design and learning: A conjectural analysis of how massively multiple online role-playing games (MMORPGs) foster intrinsic motivation.  Educational Technology Research & Development, 55(3), 253-273.  doi:10.1007/s11423-006-9004-7

Krashen, S. (1982).  Principles and practices in second language acquisition.  Oxford, UK: Pergamon Press.

Martin, C., & Steinkuehler, C. (2010).  Collective information literacy in massively multiplayer online games.  E-Learning and Digital Media, 7(4), 355.  doi:10.2304/elea.2010.7.4.355

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Yahya, N. (2011). English language oral development and instruction. In H. Zainuddin, N. Yahya, C. A. Morales-Jones, & E. N. Whelan Ariza (Eds.) Fundamentals of teaching English to speakers of other languages in K-12 mainstream classrooms (3rd ed) (pp. 151-171).  Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Publishing Company.

Where Learning Happens

Young boy riding a wave
My Godchild Surfing (Photo source: Ed Compo)

During the flow of a task, at the edge of our zone of proximal development (ZPD), via our selective attention, rehearsal, and metacognition is where learning happens.  I acknowledge that this description short shrifts other important cognitive and behavioral learning processes; nevertheless, these are what I recognize as most important in creating an optimal learning experience. To be certain, many other constructs come into play such as ability, attitude, emotion, motivation, and personality.

Csikszentmihalyi’s (1990) flow theory describes the conditions for flow.  It occurs when there are rules, goals, feedback, and potential for participant control. His flow theory is not specific to learning, but rather generic to all of life’s activities. He described flow as an optimal experience; I translate that to “being in the zone”, which comes to us from popular culture (not the ZPD). In reading his work, I saw similarities to learning in his descriptions of flow in how it motivates one to higher levels of performance. For example, for an activity to engender enjoyment, it should provide manageable tasks, deep concentration, clear goals, immediate feedback, effortless involvement, learner autonomy, metamorphosis of self, and suspension of time. As an instructional designer, I want to utilize these aspects of flow to create optimal learning experiences.

Vygotsky’s (1978) proposed that learning takes place at the edge of one’s understanding with the help of others or a support system. This is known as the ZPD. This means that learning will not take place if the activity is too easy or too difficult. Csikszentmihalyi also described flow occurring for activities within a channel with just the right type of challenge to match a person’s skills. This channel exists somewhere between anxiety and boredom. Educators understand the need for differentiated instruction to meet each individual learner’s needs, but the reality of trying to make this happen in a classroom of diverse learners is almost impossible to do all of the time. Grouping according to ability is a solution but can cause equity issues if overdone. Computer-adaptive software programs, peer mentoring, cross-age tutoring, well-designed educational games, and pull-out programs for gifted or remediation are some solutions to providing the ZPD for our learners.

Self-regulation processes include rehearsal, selection of important information, and metacognitive strategies. Self-regulation aids working memory by stretching the time the information is held in storage, as well as enhancing transfer to and retrieval from long-term memory. A helpful example of self-regulation would be self-directed speech. Students might not think this is helpful, so an educator should model this behavior or otherwise teach it explicitly. Other useful learning strategies specific to self-regulation are mnemonics, reciprocal teaching, and reflection (written, verbal, or artistic formats).

Where do you think learning occurs? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

Sandra Rogers


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.