Virtual worlds Serious games in classes

In serious games the language itself is not the objective, it is a medium.
In serious games the language itself is not the objective, it is a medium. | Photo: Mike Kiev © iStockphoto

Serious games are complex virtual scenarios. We spoke with linguist and language researcher Dr. Gérald Schlemminger from the University of Education Karlsruhe about his views on the chances of success for these games in foreign-language courses. He is directing a European project on language education in the 3D world.

Mr. Schlemminger, what role do digital games play in today's language courses?

At this point, game-based learning, as it is also called, is an integral part of today's textbooks and the associated online learning tools, whether it is for acquiring new vocabulary or grammar, or for practicing everyday conversation. Internet sites for open role-playing and simulation games like Second Life offer students the chance to use avatars – imaginary figures – to interact with one another in more or less guided scenarios.

How do you differentiate serious games from the rest of the now rather traditional games?

Serious games provide a more user-defined and contextually demanding environment. With regard to language learning, the language itself is not the objective. It is a medium. The scenarios are very playful. For example, they will use a range of methods to challenge a student's cognitive problem solving strategies to find a treasure, solve a murder mystery and other things like that. Serious games that are born of consumer games like Action Adventure, Ego Shooter, etc. handle the new technological challenges very well, which in turn allows players to dive into this virtual world. They can move on from the computer, 2D or joystick games and enter the stereoscopic 3D world of a CAVE, a head-mounted display or a 3D monitor. This opens up another dimension of participation and interaction.

But with serious games the content is really the focus, right?

Yes. In my view, serious games provide more of a world of discovery and exploration than a structured learning world. The content is displayed in individual scenarios that are linked with each other through the common narrative. The scenes then change once the tasks at hand have been successfully completed. On a methodological and educational level, serious games are similar to bilingual teaching and learning, in which topic-related content is the focus and everything is done in a language other than the school language.

Do serious games represent a new form of foreign-language learning?

Yes. Immersing oneself in a virtual world can bring out increased sensual and cognitive perception and interaction in people. But we need to keep in mind that the learning process with this medium has to be more structured, the sequence of things has to be more precise, the appropriate feedback messages for students have to be organized, and so on. The technology alone won't do it. From a methodological and education perspective, the medium has to be tighter than in a traditional language learning environment.

How should serious games be designed?

The ideas of immersion and presence are vital in the design of serious games. To me, immersion means using the technology to create the best possible sensory experience in the virtual world, including things like the quality of the field of view, 3D stereoscopy (the impression of depth), realistic graphics and all of that. Presence to me relates to the very subjective, intuitive experience of the individual in that immersive environment. This element depends on whether the individual perceives the virtual world as real. It has been proven that the parameters of 3D stereoscopy, frame speed, tracking movements of the head and the field of view all have positive effects on one's sense of presence. Sound in various formats – music, language, noises – also increase the feeling of presence, as do haptic feedback and physical motions that the players perform themselves.

How can serious games become more of an integral element in foreign-language courses?

Serious games are an amusing but very elaborate “technical gadget” if they are seen as an isolated element of foreign-language learning, that is, as just an add-on to the course. Serious games only really make sense if they aren't just a fictional world. They need to have a strong connection with the learning process both inside and outside of the school environment. We are talking about building an expanded reality. For example, you can imagine a serious game in which the objective is to find a hidden treasure in a cathedral (characters in the virtual world). The content provides players with historical information about the building itself and the region (the connection with the concept of presence), and allows them to visit the cathedral, to look at it, feel how it is to be there (the connection to the world outside the school), and all of it is in the target language, German. We are in the process of building this scenario into our EVEIL project using the cathedral in Strasbourg as an example.

Where do you think the most potential lies for serious games in foreign-language learning?

Language recognition, improved recognition of body language in real time, and the awareness and analysis of direct object manipulation – those things make serious games not only productive for language activities, but also for specific situational behavior that were previously only possible in the real world. It really could be one step closer to so-called holistic learning, which integrates academic, recreational and virtual places of learning.

Adventure German – The Mystery of the Sky Disk
A “serious game” of the Goethe-Institut for people learning German, starting at Level A