Exploring the Potential of Digital Game Based Learning in the EFL Classroom

Examination Thesis, 2011
118 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1 MAIN MENU - An Introduction

2 NEW GAME - Digital Game Based Learning

3 TUTORIAL - Digital Games
3.1 Definition
3.2 Taxonomy of Games
3.3 Why Do People Play? - The Fascinating World of Games

4 LOAD - Game Studies
4.1 What are Game Studies?
4.2 Ludology vs. Narratology
4.3 Narrative & Interactivity
4.4 Cyberdrama & Cinematography
4.5 The Secret Curriculum

5 OPTIONS - Scratching the Surface: Psychological Studies
5.1 Transfer & “Framing Competence”
5.2 Violence

6 RESUME GAME - Didactic Studies
6.1 The Youth of Today: Digital Natives
6.2 How Do People Learn? Learning Theories and Environment . .
6.3 A Bad Start
6.4 Legitimation
6.5 Potential

7 SAVE GAME - The Real Deal: Digital Games in School
7.1 The Spoke in the Wheel: Obstacles
7.2 And Still: Examples for successful uses of COTS games in the classroom
7.2.1 DGBL projects
7.2.2 Teaching material
7.3 Choosing a Game
7.4 Implementing a Game
7.4.1 Games as Learning Systems
7.4.2 Strategies for Teachers
7.4.3 Types of Projects
7.4.4 Planning a Project
7.4.5 DGBL Activities in the EFL Classroom
7.5 Assessing Digital Game Based Learning
7.6 In Session
7.6.1 Draft in Progress
7.6.2 Games in the EFL Classroom

8 QUIT - A Summary

CREDITS - References


List of Figures

1 MAIN MENU - An Introduction

The future has arrived. It ’ s just not evenly distributed. ∼ william gibson

Digital games today play a large role in young people’s lives. According to a recent study among German children and teenagers regarding their media usage, 62% of them (aged 6 to 13) used digital games once or several times a week, 16% of whom even stated that they used digital games almost every day (mpfs 2010: 44)1. Games are directly connected to the life of today’s adolescents. Therefore, digital games should be included and broached as a subject in the classroom, too:

[G]ames are so overwhelmingly popular that at the very minimum schools should help young people to be able to understand them, just as understanding novels, science concepts, mo- ments in history, and geographical phenomena are important to a young person’s education (Williamson 2009: 5).

The ardor and enthusiasm that digital games evoke in teenagers has indeed brought many researchers, school leaders and teachers to the question of if and how games can be used to engage young people and support their learning inside the classroom. Additionally, studies have shown that digital games can enhance various skills such as the ability to concentrate, stamina, tactical aptness, anticipatory thinking, orientation in virtual spaces, and deductive reasoning (cf. Lemmel-Seedorf 2010a: 12). Thus, digital games should have a place in the classroom. There are various possibilities to integrate games in teaching units, some of which will be addressed later on in the paper. Despite these findings, digital games have until now hardly played any role in formal education, due to (among others) the following reasons:

- dubious quality of games (controversy over violence, etc . . . );
- bad technical equipment of schools;
- critical or deprecative attitude toward games.

It seems that, above all, the latter reason is the main argument why the learning with digital games has so far hardly been mentioned and appreciated in didactics (all over the world, and in Germany even less so!). Digital games have a bad image and are mostly considered negative influence on adolescents (cf. chapter 6.4), which does not come as a surprise because skepticism of new media has, it seems, a long tradition in Germany:

Die Errungenschaften moderner Technik werden missbraucht zu tausend- und millionenfachen Vervielfältigungen schamloser Objekte in Kinematographen (Montgelas-Wimpffen 1912: 61).

This is a statement from 1912 by the Bavarian Countess Pauline Montgelas-Wimpffen about the - at that time - new medium ‘film’ which today is utterly established in our medial reception (and in formal learning contexts, too). But in Germany, new media have always been approached with doubt and disaffirmation when they first emerged:

Speziell in Deutschland [...] scheint es eine Tradition zu geben, eher die Risiken und Nebenwirkungen neuer Technologien zu sehen als den Gewinn an Erkenntnis, Genuss und Lebensqualität, der sich aus ihnen ziehen lässt. (Gundelach 2006: 164).

When digital games first emerged in the 1980s, the reactions were very similar to those of Countess Montgelas-Wimpffen. Before those, it was comics and graphic novels which were doomed as “Schmutz- und Schundliteratur” (Gundelach 2006: 165) in the 1950s. In the 18th century it was novels that were supposedly the root of all evil - Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werther was accused of precipitating a series of suicides.

In most cases, it turned out that the alleged dangers and threats did not arise from the media themselves, but rather from the people consuming them. However, at all times the same people have developed the competence to reasonably handle those media. So it seems what we need is media literacy (“Medienkompetenz”) in order to enable students to do exactly that. Media literacy is a competence that German curricula explicitly name to be developed in school, and digital games can contribute their part to that goal.

Also, in regard to the above mentioned developments of different media, it seems realistic to opine that several years from now, digital games will be more widely accepted, will be taken for granted in everyday life and digital game based learning (cf. chapter 2) will probably be an accepted method of learning (cf. Prensky 2001: 3).

However, today the situation is still rather difficult - society’s overly critical attitude toward digital games puts anybody who wants to use them in class in a complicated situation; unlike with other media, there exists a “Bringschuld” - an obligation to deliver, namely: evidence in favor of digital games; evidence that (against all odds, it seems) proves digital games to be a legitimate, appropriate and successful means of educating learning goals.

I am now in this “Bringschuld”, too. Which is all the more strange as digital games are on their way of becoming the leading medium of the 21st century. Neitzel (2008: 64) argues that the patterns of action as they can be observed on the computer are “paradigmatisch für unseren Umgang mit digitalen Medien”. Other countries (e. g. Great Britain) have taken up a more open stance on the learning with digital games. This paper will illustrate why that is so, and why it should be alike in Germany.

I will show that digital games are a legitimate subject in the classroom (both as topic and as tool, i. e. method) and which games (types and genres) can be used to fulfill particular purposes. Possible ways of integrating games into teaching units will be presented, next to the abilities and competences that can be enhanced by the use of digital games (both in general and in specific regard to EFL, where there is still a serious deficit of concrete ideas for lesson plans and teaching units). I will show how digital games can be used in a pedagogic way, but I will rather concentrate on how they can be used as a didactic means and method “als ein Bestandteil eines didaktisch- methodischen Werkzeugkoffers” (Lemmel-Seedorf 2010b: 17). Furthermore, particular challenges and problems will be identified that arise when the use of a digital game in class is planned. The subject of psychological effects of digital games on the player will be broached in chapter 5.

The ‘object of investigation’ with the help of which the potential of digital game based learning is to be explored in this paper are so-called commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) games (cf. chapter 3.1). These are games which are designed for leisure and entertainment and mostly the ones that have a strong position in the market. They are the ones which students play in their leisure time and which thus are more accepted and provide the higher motivational potential among students. Additionally, it proves more challenging to identity and develop educational benefits with this type of games. Similar to movies which are not ‘made’ for learning but have to be adapted by the teacher to fit educational goals, COTS games have to be analyzed closely and prepared adequately to fit educational purposes, and I find the task of showing how this can be done highly interesting.

The reader of this paper might find its structure (as seen in the Table of Contents) atypical. The terms in capital letters all refer to representative options on the main menu interface of an average digital game (as can be seen on the picture before the Table of Contents). Thus, this paper follows the structure of exactly those games which give it its reason for being.

2 NEW GAME - Digital Game Based Learning

Anyone who makes a distinction between games and education clearly does not know the first thing about either one.

marshall mcluhan


The term digital game based learning (alternatively also game based learning) (henceforth DGBL) was coined by Marc Prensky (2001). He is the founding father of the concept. Digital game based learning, according to Prensky, is “any marriage of educational content and computer games” (2001: 145). DGBL-oriented approaches try to use the learning and motivational potential of digital games to teach ‘regular’ knowledge and competences. Bober (2010: 7) defines DGBL-experiences as based on activities that:

- have a digital game (for a definition cf. chapter 3.1) at their core, either as the main activity or as a stimulus for other related activities;
- can take place in a formal (e. g. school) or informal (e. g. home) learning environment (cf. chapter 6.5);
- have learning as a desired or incidental outcome.

She also states that it is “important to distinguish between learning directly from playing the game and learning from teacher-led activities associated with the game” (Bober 2010: 7). For the EFL classroom, the higher potential of DGBL will be found in the latter option.

Prensky’s original concept refers more to corporate training in business companies or usage in the military than to usage in the K-12 classroom. He merely branches the subject of DGBL in school. He also mainly understands DGBL as the use of games which have been specifically designed for learning. However, he does not explicitly exclude the use of COTS games: “A small but growing number of commercial games [...] are filled with content that can be very useful for certain types of [...] training” (2001: 146). Nevertheless, DGBL is exactly what this paper aims to explore - namely the teaching of learning content (in this case in the German EFL classroom) by means of digital games.


In this paper, I will only marginally broach the subject of how (both in quantity as in quality) DGBL is actually used around the world, simply because it would go beyond the scope (cf. chapter 7.2). However, at this introductory point I find it useful to do a short ‘reality check’ of how DGBL has been used until today. A study was recently carried out by European Schoolnet2 (Joyce/Gerhard/Debry 2009) in several European countries (Germany was not among them). Its aim was to address the following question: What can digital games bring to classroom teaching, and how are they actually used by teachers? 528 usable responses from teachers of 27 countries were available, 373 of whom said they actually used games in their classes (64). Regardless of whether they used digital games in their teaching, most of the teachers who were surveyed expressed real interest in their potential, as 80% want to know more. 50% of teachers who are not yet using DGBL said they would like to try it out (62).

With the help of questionnaires, the following aspects were covered and evaluated (among others): the teacher’s level of ICT (information and communications technology) skills, frequency of ICT use in teaching, interest in the use of games, game skills level, profile of the teachers (age, gender, student group, subject(s) taught). 20% of teachers using games in their classes are foreign language teachers (65-72). This is the group that is represented second-best after ICT and technology teachers (with 30%).

When asked what they expected from the use of digital games, the answers were very diverse. Several of them have to do with how the use of games can be integrated in the learning process: games should be tools that motivate students and allow them to have fun while playing the game. Many find it important that games can be used in a flexible way (e. g. different levels, allowing students to progress at different speeds). Some teachers stressed the importance of a good didactic approach (or at least the possibility of using a game in the classroom in a beneficial didactic way), in particular the opportunity for immediate feedback. Other expectations have to do with the content of the game. It should be consistent with the educational goals for a particular class.

The content of the games should also be “valid”, i. e. not containing factual errors that would contradict what is taught in other courses (e. g. historical facts). Another clear requirement is that it should be possible to integrate a game into the curriculum and adapt it to the specific needs of each class. Also, teachers would like the games to be easy to use (simple installation, no technical problems) (73-74).

When asked to give reasons why and for what learning purposes they used games in their teaching, teachers most frequently named the following:

- to facilitate learning certain subjects and developing specific skills;
- to motivate students and raise their interest;
- to better reflect students’ environments (digital games and playing are ‘normal’ for them);
- to make learning enjoyable (75).

Roughly a quarter of the games used in teaching are intended to improve language learning (both mother-tongue and foreign languages). Games are also used to improve certain skills, such as teamwork skills, mental skills, ICT skills, and motor skills (cf. chapter 6.5) (76).

Various obstacles to and reasons for not using games in the classroom were named. These findings will be included and discussed in chapter 7.1.

In the survey, teachers were also asked to assess the potential and possible educational impact of games on the students and their learning. The following figure (Figure 1) shows frequently named aspects and their pedagogical value as assessed by the teachers. Overall, teachers who use games are fairly or very positive about the impact of games on the development of students’ competences. They are most positive about how games contribute to the students’ motivation. Only 10% found that using games has little visible effect (85-86).


During the last years (especially from 2005 onward) there has been a significant increase in the literature on the potential educational benefits and use of digital games in both

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Figure 1: Teachers’ Opinions on the Educational Impact of Using Games (Joyce/Gerhard/Debry 2009: 85).

formal and informal learning contexts as the interest has grown in the potential use of COTS games for learning:

A key driver for this interest is the often cited view that young people are both increasingly disengaged with education and increasingly motivated by the digital games culture outside school. Incorporating computer games into learning environments, it is hoped by many, will enhance student engagement with learning (Sandford et al. 2006: 6).

However, to date the majority of research on that subject has focused on informal, out-of-school contexts (i. a. Gebel/Gurt/Wagner 2004 and 2005, Gebel 2006a, Kraam- Aulenbach 2005, Fromme 2008). The positions which are taken in the literature suggest:

- “dass Computerspiele Aufgaben und Anforderungen beinhalten, deren Bewältigung Kompetenzen erfordern, die beim Spielen selbst erworben werden können und müssen” (Fromme 2008: 8).
- “that computer games are designed ‘to be learned’ and therefore provide models of good learning practices, and that by playing games young people are developing practical competencies and social practices that are equipping them for 21st century workplaces, communication, and social lives” (Sandford/Williamson 2005: 2)
- “that when young people are playing computer and video games they are engaged in learning activities that are more complex and challenging than most of their formal school tasks” (Sandford/Williamson 2005: 3)

While these positions might be correct, the above-stated informal potential of digital games is not sufficient to justify their use in a curriculum-oriented and tight schedule in the classroom. What would, however, justify it is the potential education of skills and knowledge which are explicitly demanded by the curriculum (cf. chapters 6.4 and 6.5). Curtain up for those studies which explore and examine exactly that: how the potential of COTS games can be used in formal (= school) learning contexts. Those studies are now growing in number, too (although not in Germany!), and they are showing promising results: digital games do indeed possess educational benefits (cf. chapter 6.5) but at the same time also pose various challenges (cf. chapter 7.1) (i. a. Sandford/Williamson 2005, Ellis et al. 2006, Sandford et al. 2006, Joyce/Gerhard/Debry 2009, Williamson 2009, Bober 2010, Groff/Howells/Cranmer 2010, Kearney 2010).

Most research that has been carried out subscribes to one of the following approaches to the use of digital games: pedagogic versus didactic3. Pedagogic approaches, which are larger in number, use digital games as topic (e. g. for discussion) (e. g. Fileccia et al. 2010). Nevertheless, didactic approaches are beginning to appear on the market, too, which use games as tool (e. g. Joyce/Gerhard/Debry 2009, Groff/Howells/Cranmer 2010). In this paper, I will mainly concentrate on the didactic approach4.

3 TUTORIAL - Digital Games

3.1 Definition

Video games ruined my life. Good thing I have two extra lives. ∼ threadless t-shirt slogan

The field of digital games covers a large spectrum of technologies including video and console games (e. g. played on the Sony PlayStation, Microsoft XBox, Nintendo Wii), computer games (played on the PC or Mac), and handheld games (such as the Nintendo DS, PlayStation Portable)5. A digital game is defined as one that (Kirriemuir/McFarlane 2004: 6):

- “provides some visual digital information or substance to one or more players;
- takes some input from the players;
- processes the input according to a set of programmed rules;
- alters the digital information provided to the players”.

According to Marc Prensky (2001: 118-119), there are six structural elements that characterize digital games, some of which overlap with the criteria identified above. Most of these elements will be picked up and discussed later in this paper:

- rules
- goals and objectives
- outcomes and feedback
- conflict/competition/challenge/opposition
- interaction
- representation or story.

In the context of the field of digital games and learning, various terms and concepts have emerged which partly mean the same and partly refer to different aspects. This includes for instance: edutainment, serious games, e-learning, learning games, COTS. Efforts to utilize especially the motivational power of digital games have led to the emer- gence of the so-called edutainment industry which produces games that unite aspects of both education and entertainment - these are often called serious games and are “games that have serious purposes” (Purdy 2007: 3), specifically designed to help peo- ple learn particular skills and facts. Although these learning-oriented games use modern gaming techniques, they tend to be plainer in composition and graphics since they are produced on much lower budgets than commercial games. Additionally, their learning objective often becomes quite evident to the player and thus reduces their ‘entertaining’ effect: “Schnell entdecken sie [die Schüler] hier auch, wie früher in (nicht digitalen) Lern- spielen, den pädagogischen Zeigefinger, der den Spielspaß überlagert oder ganz erstickt, sodass nur noch Arbeit übrig bleibt” (Fileccia et al. 2010: 45). This is one of the main reasons why serious games are only moderately successful.

The ‘big brother’ of serious games are commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) games (sometimes also referred to as entertainment or mainstream games). These are purely designed for leisure and entertainment and mostly the ones that have a strong position in the market. Although they might not be invented for educational purposes, it will be shown that COTS games possess both intrinsic learning potential for cognitive, spatial, motor skills and ICT skills (cf. Felicia 2009: 7) as well learning potential that can unfold when used as a stimulus (cf. chapter 6.5).

E-learning refers to all learning that is based on digital media, e. g. consoles, computers, increasingly cell phones, too. Thus, next to above mentioned serious games, e-learning also includes learning software such as vocabulary trainers.

3.2 Taxonomy of Games

This paper will continuously mention digital games of different kinds and genres. As will come to show, the appropriateness and ‘educational quality’ of a game is in some cases closely connected to the genre it belongs to or the type it subscribes to. Therefore I find it necessary to provide an overview of existing game types and genres and typical examples. Almost any comprehensive work or study on digital games provides a list of game genres (= a taxonomy). Taxonomies differentiate games according to their different principles of play. In comparison, most taxonomies show many similarities but of course also differences - naturally, the categories that games are put into overlap to some extent. Some games fit into several categories. Some genres are ambiguous or known under different names. Some genres are defined so vaguely that they consist of a variety of sub-genres. Reviewing several existing taxonomies, I am presenting one that represents and summarizes what is on the market and what is relevant for this paper (cf. Prensky 2001: 130-131, Grosch 2002: 21-32, Felicia 2009: 16-18, Groff/Howells/Cranmer 2010: 93-94). The list can be found in Appendix A.

3.3 Why Do People Play? - The Fascinating World of Games

Fascination. Fascination. It ’ s just the way we feel . . .


Much literature has been published on the question of why people play digital games

- what makes them so fascinating and captivating that some people spend hours in front of their computer screens (i. a. Fritz 1995/2005/2006, Fritz/Fehr 1997, Kir- riemuir/McFarlane 2004, Klimmt 2004, Johnson 2005, Sleegers/Witting 2008, Fileccia 2010).

One of the earliest and most cited works is by Thomas Malone (1981) who identified three main ways in which games motivated players: fantasy, challenge, and curiosity. Other research has built upon and expanded these findings. Five components can be identified as catering to the motivational potential of digital games (cf. Fileccia 2008, Grosch 2008, Sleegers/Witting 2008):

- interactivity
- power and control
- personal relation
- social dimension
- balanced challenge (between tasks that demand too little / too much)

Interactivity. All games are interactive - unlike novels or movies, the plot of digital games is inevitably actively influenced and shaped by the player. Often, the term ‘in- teractive game’ is used; however, Mäyrä (2008: 6) argues that “[g]ames are interactive by heart, to the degree that it is tautology to use the expression ‘interactive games’”. When a game is started, it is not yet clear and given how it will end, whether the player succeeds or fails. The player interacts with the game, and as s/he sees how his/her de- cisions and abilities actually have an influence on the plotline and game world, this can have a highly motivating effect (for a more detailed analysis of the interactivity aspect in games, cf. chapter 4.3).

Power and control. Regardless of the role a player performs in a game, s/he takes control over the actions of his/her virtual character. Two conditions have to be fulfilled so that the player can exercise control and power. First, s/he has to know the game controls (which buttons trigger which actions) and his/her way around in the game world. Mastery of game controls is especially needed in games that require fast reactions and hand-eye coordination (such as shooters). Second, the player must understand the rules underlying the game. S/he needs to know what is ‘allowed’ and demanded in the game in order to strategically and tactically plan actions. If the player fulfills both conditions, s/he can be the ruler in and over the virtual world:

Gamer erfahren sich dabei in besonderem Maße als selbstwirksam und einflussreich, wenn der Computer unmittelbar auf die gemachten Eingaben reagiert und die gewünschte Reaktion zeigt. In andern Lebensbereichen ist eine derart intensive Erfahrung eigener Wirksamkeit und Kontrolle kaum zu realisieren (Sleegers/Witting 2008: 10).

According to Klimmt (2004: 8), self-efficacy as the player experiences it in games is the most motivating factor in digital games.

Social dimension. In a digital game, the player always plays with or against some- body. In a single player game, the ‘somebody’ is the computer; in a multi player or online game, it is other players. The knowledge and mastery of digital games (“game literacy”) functions as ‘social currency’ in some peer groups (cf. Sleegers/Witting 2008: 10) - competences in regard to digital games are frequent topics, form friendships and help build new relationships and make those adolescents who possess these competences ‘experts’ who are respected for it. Many teenagers prefer games that can be played together or against one another:

Dabei wird das Spielen gegen menschliche Gegner als herausfordernder erlebt, weil ein menschlicher Gegner über ein größeres Handlungsrepertoire verfügt und auch zu nicht vorhersehbaren Reaktionen fähig ist (Sleegers/Witting 2008: 10).

Thus, there exist many virtual communities in which the players feel like they ‘belong’ and are respected. Additionally, many teenagers play digital games together with their friends, an activity they share like going to the movies, etc . . .

Balanced challenge. The difficulty and complexity of a game and the degree of challenge that each player experiences subjectively factor into the decision whether a game is played over a longer period of time. A game that is perceived as too easy or too difficult will not engage players continuously. The challenge of the game between tasks that demand too little or too much (and thus between fascination and frustration) needs to be balanced. A player who rushes through the game, overcoming all obstacles effortlessly will miss the challenge. Similarly, a player who constantly fails in solving tasks will quickly be frustrated. Usually, games are designed to meet all kinds of different ‘game literacies’ of players by providing various difficulty or game play modes, and/or increasing the difficulty of the game as it progresses (cf. chapter 4.5):

In einem Rennspiel werden beispielsweise die Strecken immer schwieriger, die Konkurrenz immer stärker oder das Zeitlimit geringer. Bei einem Strategie- oder Actionspiel passt sich wohlmöglich der Computergegner an die eigene Spielweise an, so dass er sich im Spielverlauf immer schneller und raffinierter verteidigt oder angreift (Sleegers/Witting 2008: 11).

The player needs to have the impression that s/he can master the given tasks with reasonable effort, even if some training is required. Whenever a player feels positively challenged over a longer period of time, s/he might get entirely carried away with the game world. Psychologist Mihály Csikszentmihályi calls this feeling of getting carried away in a game and of being positively challenged ‘flow’ (1985):

It is a state in which [users] can forget about their surroundings and become totally engaged and focused on the task in hand. In this state [...], players will strive to achieve their goal, regardless of the challenges encountered (Felicia 2009: 12-13).

People can enter a state of flow (cf. Figure 2) not only when playing digital games, but also during other activities which are challenging (e. g. playing an instrument, doing sports). In the state of flow, the required abilities are fully exhausted and explicit feedback on their effect is given.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Figure 2: The Flow Theory (Masuch w.y.: 32).

Generally, this state, which according to Poole (2004: 168) is “the ‘Zen’ experience of playing a good videogame”, does not differ remarkably from the so-called ‘immer- sion’, which Gunzenhäuser (2003: 63) defines as “Eintauchen in einen Raum oder in ein Geschehen, das völlige, distanzlose Aufgehen in einer Computerspielwelt, das Vergessen des Interface.”

Flow and immersion are desired states in digital games both by players and designers. For players, the more immersed they feel in a game, the more intensive their game experience becomes. Thus, designers are anxious to provide elements in games that help players achieve flow and immersion. Research on immersion also focuses on transfer processes of virtual, simulated experiences on reality. These transfer processes and their relation to immersion will be looked at in chapter 5.1.

Popular scientist Steven Johnson (2005) has found yet another explanation of why digital games fascinate people. According to his findings, games “tap into the brain’s natural reward circuitry” (2005: 34). Games’ perfectly designed gratification systems instill a motivation (the ‘seeking’) in players which drives them to put effort into the game in order to receive the next reward (next level, new items, new areas, etc . . . ):

If you create a system where rewards are both clearly defined and achieved by exploring an environment, you’ll find human brains drawn to those systems [...]. It’s the reward system that draws those players in, and keeps their famously short attention span locked on the screen (Johnson 2005: 38).

No other medium provides such a “cocktail of reward and exploration” (38). The neurotransmitter dopamine plays a large role in it. Its function is to direct the human brain to goals, and it is released when a task is completed successfully (cf. Rosenfelder 2008: 63):

Das Dopaminsignal führt letzlich zu einer Freisetzung unterschiedlicher Substanzen in ver- schiedenen Hirnarealen. Diese Freisetzung stellt subjektiv einen Belohnungseffekt dar. Das dopaminerge System merkt sich zu erwartende Belohnungen, und wenn diese ausbleiben, sinkt der Dopaminspiegel, was für einen Anreiz sorgt, die Umwelt ständig nach Möglichkeiten der Belohnung abzusuchen. Im Gehirn löst das unbefriedigte Verlangen den Impuls aus, Din- gen auf den Grund zu gehen, Aufgaben selbständig zu lösen und Lösungen für Probleme zu finden, sprich: Neues zu lernen (cf. Spitzer 2007: 180 in Marr 2010: 38).

No clear consensus can be found on why people like to play digital games, which does not come as a surprise since there exists an enormous spectrum of entirely different games, and the individuality of players plays a large role. As Poole (2004: 29) puts it:

Videogames are powerful, but they are nothing without humans to play them. So the inner life of videogames - how they work - is bound up with the inner life of the player.

4 LOAD - Game Studies

4.1 What are Game Studies?

Go easy on the reasons

You thought I would be too hard to define. ∼ gregory & the hawk

In a study on youth, games and learning it is stated that the “debate around the value of games and gaming has been to date overly polemic and surprisingly shallow” (Salen 2008). In many cases, it is the lack of a profound, science-based approach to games and the culture of gaming which lead to uninformed, polemic fearmongering. Unfortunately it is those texts which shape the public opinion of digital games, so it does not come as a suprise that games have a bad reputation in our society. To countervail this image, one has to take a closer look at how games are built and to learn about the creation of game worlds in order to see what makes them ‘tick’, in order to reach “analytical appreciation and enhanced understanding” (Mäyrä 2008: 1) of games.

I find it crucial to unveil the complexity and aesthetics that many contemporary digital games possess and thus to show that indeed many games are real “Kulturgüter” and not just “low culture trash” (Aarseth 2005: 7) - even when violence plays a considerable role. However, this can only happen if the basic principles of how digital games are created are explored. The knowledge (and capability of partial analysis) of these principles is adamant for developing a computer-specific media competence and literacy (“Medienkompetenz”) (as will be specified in chapter 6.5).

The basic principles can be allocated to particular perspectives, from which digital games are viewed and analyzed. Thus, the aim of this chapter is to present and explain these different perspectives which form the field of study that is called ‘Game Studies’. This very young discipline, which (albeit having existed for several decades already) was officially termed in 2001 (with the publication of Game Studies - the international jour- nal of computer game research - the first journal to scientifically approach the subject) is an interdisciplinary field of study in which scholars of literature, sociology, and com- puter sciences can explore and research various aspects of digital games from different perspectives:

One of the key foci of game studies is analysis of games, which involves capacity to make meaningful distinctions within and among games, and between different factors related to playing them (Mäyrä 2008: 17).

Although still so young, game studies are continuously expanding in popularity as are their objects of study: digital games are a “significant cultural force, which [have] a prominent role in the lives particularly of those people who are living in industrialized countries” (Mäyrä 2008: 4). This reflects in game studies having “reached the point where it has become established both as a field of scientific enquiry and as a branch of knowledge formally taught at universities” (ibid: 4). Most research has been carried out on the subject of possible transfer and effects of digital games on players’ behavior- however, theoretical approaches to the games themselves (their basic characteristics, principles of creation, narration techniques, genre specifics, rule structures) have been scarce.

Thus, game studies are still in the fledgling stages - the idea of scholars of various sciences working together and benefiting from each other’s finding is yet a theoretical one; the reality looks different. In most cases, the field of game studies is split into different perspectives, each of which wants to comprehend and analyze games on their terms (see below). However, these partial perspectives are one-sided and fail to do justice to the complexity and diversity of today’s digital game landscape. The application of merely one approach does not allow for a comprehensive analysis of a game. It is therefore desirable to apply various perspectives to games, as e. g. Kringiel (2009) has done in his dissertation6. He distinguishes between (slightly altered):

- ludology
- narratology
- cyberdrama
- cinematography

These perspectives will be described in more detail in the following chapters. Naturally, there are overlaps between these categories, and single design elements (as will come to show) can be discussed in the course of several perspectives (e. g. cutscenes can be viewed as either a narrative or cinematographic device).

4.2 Ludology vs. Narratology

We walk the same path, but got on different shoes; live in the same building, but we got different views. ∼ lil wayne

The first perspective from which digital games can be viewed and analyzed is that of ‘ludology’ which, above all, regards digital games as a new form of ‘play’ and thus primarily examines their structural elements that are uniquely ‘play’-related, such as rules, genre, game goals, game tasks, game conflict, level of difficulty and interactivity. The term was coined by game theorist Gonzalo Frasca.

Albeit a short one, the history of game studies has produced a raging debate between ludologists (supporters of this perspective) and narratologists, who, in a nutshell, comprehend games as texts and want to apply narrative theory to them. The question is: who gets to claim the field?

The ludologists (whose most popular representatives are Gonzalo Frasca, Espen Aar- seth, Jesper Juul) argue that simulation is the basis of each game, which runs contrary to the principles of narratives. In his Masters thesis, Juul considered “interactive fiction as a utopia (even if an interesting one), because of the fundamental conflicts between the player-controlled interactivity happening in present time, which is at the heart of games, and narrator-organized representation of events, at the heart of narratives” (Mäyrä 2008:

9). Frasca specified that “games cannot be understood through theories derived from narrative” (Frasca 2001). Ludologists see games as games, and nothing else, which is problematic because it can be “taken to mean that the formal properties of video games would thus be more imporant, more intrinsic, than the stories in the games” (Egenfeldt et al. 2008: 196). The ludologists accuse the narratologists of neglecting ludic (= ‘play’-specific) aspects such as interactivity, visual aesthetics, rules. However, the narratologists argue that “the puzzles in a work of interactive fiction function to control the revelation of the narrative; they are part of an interactive process that generates narrative” (Montfort 2005: 3). They in turn criticize the basic idea of ludology, where stories are “just uninteresting ornaments or gift wrappings to games” (Eskelinen 2001). Today the radicalness of the debate has slowed down (Mäyrä 2008: 10):

No one actually seems to be willing [anymore] to reduce games either into stories, or claim that they are only interaction, or gameplay, pure and simple, without any potential for storytelling. [ ] Looking for narratives, one can find (or construct) them, and it is equally possible to search and find the essence of games in their interactive character - in their gameplay.

Remarkably, certain ludologists have come to agree with the importance of narrative in games; Juul, for example, has altered his formerly radical view on narrative in games (2003b: 168):

On a formal level, games are themable, meaning that a set of rules can be assigned a new fictional world without modifying the rules. A game can always be changed from one setting to another; the gun can become a green rectangle, the players can control wooden figures rather than humanoid characters. But on an experiential level, fiction matters in games, and it is important to remember the duality of the formal and the experiential perspective on fiction in games.

Of course, not all digital games contain a narrative (cf. chapter 4.3). But those which do must not be neglected in regard to their narrative potential. There exist games that contain complex narratives which could in fact (at least partly) be analyzed with means of narrative theory (as established by Franz K. Stanzel or Gérard Genette). Highly narrative games are especially useful in the EFL classroom, since the analysis of narrative pieces of work is a fundamental aspect in classes 11 and 12. But: it is the specifically ludic elements which render the game a unique medium and distinguish it from e. g. films, so these specific elements must be appreciated, too.

The following chapter explains in more detail the specifics of narrative in digital games. It will be shown which problems arise when traditional narrative theory is applied to digital games, and how these problems can be solved. The nature of plot in games will be discussed, and various types of possible narrative situations will be identified.

4.3 Narrative & Interactivity

There is fiction in the space between Write it down but it doesn ’ t mean

You ’ re not just telling stories. ∼ tracy chapman

As indicated in the previous chapter, the type of narrative in games differs from that in books or movies as it is interactive. This chapter aims at providing an explanation of what narrative is and how it is relevant for interactive media such as digital games. Both concepts - narrative and interactivity - will be explained, the nature of plot in games will be specified, and various types of narrative will be categorized as they occur in digital games.


Many definitions have been given on what constitutes interactivity, all of which can be categorized into one of the following three main views: technology oriented, communication-setting oriented, individual oriented. All of the approaches have their flaws (cf. Lee/Park/Jin 2006: 261-263):

Technology oriented approaches have viewed interactivity as a characteristic of new technologies, but they are problematic because even the same medium can have a different degree of interactivity, depending on how it is actually used by a person. Not the medium has the interactivity, but the user perceives it.

Communication-setting oriented views consider interactivity as a “process-related characteristic of a communication setting” (Lee/Park/Jin 2006: 261), but their assumptions are unrealistic in that not every participant in a communication setting wants the same amount of information exchange; even more - interactivity does not even require any actual exchange of information (observation might suffice).

Individual oriented approaches have defined interactivity from a user’s viewpoint, but they were made in the context of human-to-human interactions, and are therefore not applicable to human-technology interactions.

Instead, Lee/Park/Jin (2006: 263) propose a definition that considers interactivity as a “perceived characteristic of a communication act, which varies according to a commu- nicating actor’s perception”. The more experienced and immersed a player becomes in his/her game play, the higher a level of interactivity s/he will perceive:

Interactivity is a perceived degree that a person in a communication process with at least one more intelligent being can bring a reciprocal effect to other participants of the communication process by turn-taking, feedback, and choice behaviors (Lee/Park/Jin 2006: 263).


With the term of narrative, it is similar to interactivity - a variety of definitions exist. Mallon/Webb (2000: 270) have argued that “narrative is one of the oldest constructs humans use for understanding and giving meanings to the world”. As can be expected from the long history of narratives, there have been many theoretical concepts and definitions, some of which disagree with others. Abbott (2009: 12) defined narrative as “the representation of an event or a series of events”. This definition and others, too, cater (or at least do not object) to the assumption that every narrative consists of two major elements, namely story and plot. Story is the chronological sequence of events as they unfold, whereas plot is the way/order in which the story is conveyed (and which is not necessarily chronological) (cf. Figure 3). A story is always constructed by a plot.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Figure 3: Story and Plot


When applying Abbott’s definition to interactive media such as digital games, several problems arise. It is exactly these problems that encouraged convinced ludologists to form their viewpoints (as presented in chapter 4.2). However, their objections prove to be perfectly valid (cf. Juul 2001 and Lee/Park/Jin 2006):

- the definition of narrative in regard to games - the traditional definition views narrative as a predetermined structure and was created with a specific medium in mind (e. g. books, movies) which allows for passive participation. However, interactive media are characterized by the active participation of a user.

- a “die mediale Spezifität ignorierende Überstülpung von aus dem Printmedium generierten Erzähltheorien auf ein digitales Medium” (Kocher 2006: 33) - the type of narrative in digital games differs from that in traditional media: “Computer- game players could change the course of the narrative or even construct a new nar- rative by changing their behaviors and performance during a game” (Lee/Park/Jin 2006: 260).


But, as Ryan correctly points out (2001):

The inability of literary narratology to account for the experience of games does not mean that we should throw away the concept of narrative in ludology; it rather means that we need to expand the catalog of narrative modalities beyond the diegetic and the dramatic, by adding a phenomenological category tailor-made for games.

And various researchers have indeed dedicated their time to finding a solution for the dilemma of traditional narratology not ‘fitting’ digital games. Two different approaches will be presented here (Lee/Park/Jin 2006 and Kocher 2006). Lee/Park/Jin propose an alternative definition which can easily be applied to interactive media (2006: 265):

Narrative is a representation of events that provides a cognitive structure whereby media users can tie causes to effects, convert the complexity of events to a story that makes sense, and thus satisfy their primitive urges to understand the physical and social worlds.

In their opinion, a narrative can be transmitted through any kind of oral or writ- ten technology or medium (such as body language, utterance, book, TV, movie, digital game). The above definition proposes a psychological (rather than a structural) approach to narratives, which has two benefits: the definition of narrative at a psychological level gives an understanding of human cognition and motivation and contributes to the question of ‘why’ narrative is important in understanding an event. It also makes it easier to apply the definition to new interactive media.

As her dissertation project, Kocher (2006) developed the ludo-literary model, which aims at arbitrating between ludologic and narratologic approaches by modifying the narra- tology theory by Franz K. Stanzel according to media-specific characteristics7. Stanzel’s theory, which establishes three different types of narrative situations (authorial, first- person, figural) has not been acknowledged in the field of game studies so far. Kocher argues that the theory can be a good starting point for describing and analyzing narra- tive sequences such as diary entries, freeze frames or cutscenes8 (2006: 34):

Tagebücher, beispielhafte Ich-Erzählsituationen, stellen durch ihre Innenperspektivik und die Einladung zur Identifikation ein geeignetes Mittel dar, um den Tagebuch-Leser in seiner Ein- stellung zur dargestellten Geschichte zu manipulieren. [D]ie Frage nach der Glaubwürdigkeit der Protagonisten, die in dieser subjektiven Form tendenziell vermindert ist, stellt eines der literarischen als auch ludischen Schlüsselmomente beispielsweise der Myst -Reihe dar.

However, Kocher also identifies the flaws of Stanzel’s theory:

- it does not involve the recipient (= player) and his/her reaction to any interactivity strategies of a game
- only few types of games can be analyzed with this theory (mainly adventure and role play games)

To overcome these flaws, Kocher created the so-called ludo-literary typological circle 9 to whose circle-axis-intersections different types of games can be assigned (cf. Figure 4): Interactivity. Static refers to games in which the player has little influence on the events in the game, whereas games are dynamic when the player has high influence on these events.


1 The KIM study examines the media usage of adolescents and is carried out every year. The figures above are from the study of 2010.

2 On their homepage, the European Schoolnet (EUN) describes itself as “a network of 31 Ministries of Education in Europe and beyond. EUN was created more than 10 years ago with the aim to bring about innovation in teaching and learning to its key stakeholders: Ministries of Education, schools,teachers and researchers.” (http://www.eun.org/web/guest/about/thisiseun)

3 German Medienp ä gagogik and Mediendidaktik.

4 For a more detailed description of the two approaches, cf. chapter 7.5.

5 For the sake of simplicity, this paper henceforth uses the term digital game or simply game to refer to all kinds of contemporary games played on any machine, unless otherwise indicated.

6 In this dissertation he develops a ‘toolbox’ to help with the systematic and broad analysis of games, thereby taking into account various approaches and perspectives. He then applies this toolbox to one particular game, Max Payne 2.

7 A more detailed version of this model can be found in Kocher 2007.

8 Especially the cutscene will also be discussed as element of the cinematographic perspective on games (in chapter 4.4).

9 German ludoliterarischer Typenkreis

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Exploring the Potential of Digital Game Based Learning in the EFL Classroom
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