How Can Video Games Enhance Learning English as a Second Language?

Bachelor Thesis, 2016

46 Pages, Grade: 4.5


Table of Contents

A Brief Introduction to the History of Video Games

Chapter 1: The Connection Between Second Language Acquisition and Video Games
1.1 Motivation and Language in Games
1.1.1 Game Theory
1.1.2 What is a Video Game?
1.1.3 Motivation as a Bridge
1.2 Second Language Acquisition in Games
1.3 Learning and Language Skills in a Singleplayer Context
1.4. Learning and Language Skills in a Multiplayer Context

Chapter 2: Individual Experiences
2.1. Research Question
2.2. Research Method
2.3. Introducing the Players
2.4. Findings and Results





The aim of this study is to present the advantages and issues of acquiring English as a second language from video games. In the theoretical part, the motivational factors are discussed and the related Applied Linguistic concepts are connected with the two main platforms of gaming.

In order to find out how the learning process works, I conducted an interview study with three players who were willing to share their experiences. The aim of the second part was to explore the learning processes of the three players in order to discover how playing video games can enhance learning English as a second language.


First and foremost, I would like to thank my consultant, Dr. habil. Horváth József for his devoted help. His feedback helped me to systematise my otherwise chaotic ideas. What is more, at the beginning I was not really sure that I really want to do this topic, because it is difficult and new, but he encouraged me to start it. I am also grateful for the books and articles he sent me, they proved to be useful readings for my thesis.

I would also like to thank Dr. habil Sári László for his useful ideas and feedback on my thesis. As a Professor and gamer, his experiences inspired many ideas of my work.

Finally, I would like to thank my friend from Austraila, Kim Farquharson for her help to make the thesis more academic and accurate.

A Brief Introduction to the History of Video Games

Video gaming is a relatively new, but rapidly emerging form of contemporary entertainment which has made its way into the homes of the United States and some Asian countries like Japan and China very quickly. With the appearance of the World Wide Web, gaming found its way into the European homes as well. Video games are not today’s phenomena, they were already present in the 1970s and 1980s. Mark J. P. Wolf (2008) and Steven L. Kent (2001) both start examining video game history from the release of a game called Pong back in 1972. According to Kent (2001), “in 1980 when Atari released its Space Invaders title, the selling of home version arcade video games have started” (p. 16). With the improving technology, the real growth started in the 90s when the 3D technology and the internet emerged. In 1993, id software releases Doom and the World Wide Web goes worldwide (Wolf, 2008, p. xix). As a result of these technological breakthroughs, the gaming industry has grown to be one of the biggest entertainment industries of today. According to a study based on a 2012 online survey, ran by Ipsos MediaCT and commissioned by ISFE, 31% of the 15,142 European respondents were interested in gaming. The study was conducted in 16 European countries. Today, video games are present in some form in almost every home. PC, consoles or smartphones, video gaming appeared on many digital platforms. The industry today still shows a rapid growth, and this is why it is an interesting subject to take a look at.

It is unquestionable whether the main objective of video games is to entertain.

Moreover, many video games can provide additional benefits for players. For instance, some games possess the ability to mediate language. This means that language can be learned through video games, which can be supportive to institutionalized foreign language learning (FLL) or for individual language learning purposes. Playing a video game is a strong catalyst of language learning. Improving language helps us to be successful in the played game and the game helps us to be better in the second language. The question is, how can video games enhance language learning? “Language learning through gameplay can happen in a wide variety of ways, from a planned learning activity in an instructional environment to an incidental by-product of a gamer’s interactions with the game and its associated online activities" (Godwin Jones, 2014, p. 11).

In my thesis, I will examine the possible relations between video gaming and second language acquisition in the context of English as a second language and explore how video gaming can affect language learning.

I will focus on the “by-product” nature of language learning from video games as a result of which the learning becomes ”extramural, informal” (Godwin Jones, 2014, p. 9) during a gameplay session.

Chapter 1: The Connection Between Second Language Acquisition and Video Games

1.1 Motivation and Language in Games

1.1.1 Game Theory

Before diving into the set of learning possibilities a video game carries in itself, we need to understand the definition of a “game”. Hays (2005) in his book The Effectiveness of Instructional Games: A Literature Review and Discussion gave a smart definition of what a game is. He defined it this way: “A game is an artificially constructed, competitive activity with a specific goal, a set of rules and constraints that is located in a specific context (Hays, 2005, p. 15).

1.1.2 What is a Video Game?

Video gaming, often also referred as one word as “videogame”, is a form of modern entertainment or, depending on the genre, it can be viewed as a new contemporary form of narrative as well. As Wolf (2008) defined the concept of a video game, it is a “game” which uses “video” technology. Based on his description we can claim that a video game is a computer software which uses video technology and behaves like a game. Wolf (2008) argues that even the definitions of “game” can vary; however, there are some elements that are expected to be in a game. According to Wolf (2008), these elements are “conflict (against an opponent or circumstances), rules (determining what can and cannot be done and when), use of some player ability (such as skill, strategy, or luck), and some kind of valuated outcome (such as winning vs losing, or the attaining of the highest score or fastest time for completing the task) ” (p. 3). “All these are usually present in video games in some manner, though to different degrees” (Wolf, 2008, p. 3). “Most games are commercial products, designed for entertainment, not education. This doesn't mean they don't have educational value, including general benefits such as enhancement of digital literacy, increasing socialization, and/or building self-confidence” as Arnseth (2006) and Steinkuehler (2007) argue (as cited in Godwin-Jones, 2014, p. 11 ). As Ahmad and Jaafar (2011) emphasized in their study of educational games, the main characteristic of an educational game must be motivation (p. 516). This is also true for non-educational games. Whether we examine language learning in games as a “planned activity” or “by-product” of the gameplay session, motivation is the most important aspect of game based learning in both of these forms suggested by Godwin Jones (2014, p. 11).

The present study is concerned only with games that can serve as an input of English language. (For game examples, see Chapter 2)

1.1.3 Motivation as a bridge

Motivation is one of the key elements in language learning. A very simple definition of what motivation is has been given by Deci and Ryan (2000), they claimed that “to be motivated means to be moved to do something”, this implies that “the lack of impetus or inspiration to act is characterized as unmotivated” ( Deci & Ryan, 2000, p. 54). However, it is crucial to point out that a distinction has to be made between motivation and L2 motivation, as suggested by Dörnyei. “The motivational basis of language attainment is not directly comparable to that of the mastery of other subject matters” (Dörnyei, 1998, p.118).

He argues that L2 is not only a communication code, but a representative of the L2 culture (Dörnyei & Cohen, 2002, p. 172). More importantly, “it involves the development of L2 identity” (Dörnyei, 1998, p. 118). Here I am concerned with L2 motivation and the motivation provided by the game itself. From the language learning perspective of motivation, it “provides the primary impetus to initiate learning the L2” (Dörnyei, 1998, p. 117). At this point the question arises that how can a game motivate someone to learn a second language? The game involves a different motivation as it sets a goal for a player. (See sections 1.1.1 and 1.1.2). If the design, the gameplay mechanics, or the story is pleasant, then the player will be motivated to reach the goal. As a result of this the player will develop an intrinsic motivation towards the game. “Intrinsic motivation is defined as the doing of an activity for its inherent satisfactions rather than for some separable consequence” (Deci & Ryan, 2000, p. 56).

According to Dörnyei (2001), “motivation is a dynamic process” and first “It needs to be generated” (as cited in Dörnyei & Cohen, 2002, p. 173). As Dörnyei (2001) claimed “The motivational dimension related to this initial phase can be referred to as 'choice motivation' because the motivation that is generated then leads to the selection of the goal or task to be pursued” (as cited in Dörnyei & Cohen, 2002, p. 173). If we take a closer look at how motivation works in video games we can see that motivation in games is not a choice motivation because of the nature of the game. The goal is given by the game and the player in most cases cannot choose another goal. The player has to achieve that given goal. However, the motivation to reach that goal in the game will be a similar motivation to what drives the player to understand the game's language.

Language is the key to understand the rules of the game. Therefore, a great interest towards a game can result in L2 development. Motivation serves as a bridge between SLA and gaming. It can bring closer the two concepts L2 motivation and gaming motivation, but more importantly it keeps the player in the game and it encourages him to repeat the game session, thus the player will encounter the ingame language more frequently. This is why it is crucial what Dörnyei (2001) claimed, “that motivation must be maintained and protected” ( as cited in Dörnyei & Cohen, 2002, p. 173). If the player loses the motivation which was generated by the game, she will stop playing and will not encounter in-game language anymore. The player becomes unmotivated. Thus, the effect that playing the video game had on the language learning process stops.

Based on this, we can say that language learning through video games is only possible if there is some kind of motivation, either L2 motivation or motivation towards the game. Without motivation, language learning through the game is possible, but slower and more difficult and is probably driven by some kind of extrinsic motivation. “Extrinsic motivation is a construct that pertains whenever an activity is done in order to attain some separable outcome” (Deci & Ryan, 2000, p. 60). In other words, an external task or a goal motivates the person to work, play or train. There is a chance that in-game language can even become an obstacle for the player and because of this and the lack of motivation generated by the game the player completely loses interest in playing. If the input language provided by the game is excessively high, then the player will not understand it. Also, the persistence of the motivation is largely dependent on the quality of the game.

One maintainer of motivation is what Dörnyei (2001) calls “termed motivational retrospection” right after the completion of the action (as cited in Dörnyei & Cohen, 2002, p. 173). Which is, in this case, how the player evaluates what happened after the game.

This is important because, if the player thinks what has happened is satisfying, then there is a chance of continuation and repetition for the game session. This means the continuation of L2 development through the game as well.

This notion by Godwin-Jones summarises my ideas very well about the importance of motivation when it comes to gaming and language learning. “Because of the strong motivational factors involved, game playing can be a powerful agent for learner autonomy, a potential resource for long-term language maintenance, and an entry-point for gaining interest in learning new languages” (Godwin- Jones, 2014, p.11). The simplest motivation towards a game can be driven by the sense of achievement after each gameplay session or an interest towards the game’s story and narrative, or the online community of the game’s culture into which the player wants to integrate.

1.2 Second Language Acquisition in games

Language learning through games can happen in a variety of ways. Each of the two great platforms of gaming involves different language skills. Before investigating how language acquisition occurs in different game contexts, we need to understand the concepts of language acquisition and language learning.

A distinction between these two terms has been made by Krashen, in his book

Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition (1982). “Language acquisition is a subconscious process; language acquirers are not usually aware of the fact that they are acquiring language, but are only aware of the fact that they are using the language for communication” (Krashen 1982. p.13-14). A simple definition of language acquisition was given by Krashen (1982) as “in non-technical language, acquisition is “picking up” a language” (p. 14). As we are discussing the acquisition of English as a second language, the term Second Language Acquisition (SLA) has to be defined. As Gass and Selinker (2013) defined it “SLA refers to the learning of a non-native language after the learning of the native language” (Gass & Selinker, 2013, p. 7).

Krashen (1982) states that language acquisition can be viewed as a subconscious process as language acquirers are usually not aware of the fact that they are acquiring language. He adds that the second way to develop competence in a second language is by language learning. According to him, “this is the conscious way of learning the rules of the second language, being aware of them and being able to talk about them”(Krashen, 1982, p.14). An other term, Foreign Language Learning (FLL) on the other hand, “refers to the learning of a non-native language in the environment of one’s native language (e.g., French speakers learning English in France)” (Gass & Selinker, 2013, p. 7). It is necessary to distinguish between the two terms, because when playing commercial video games SLA is involved, while “FLL is most commonly done within the context of the classroom” (Gass & Selinker, 2013, p. 7).

The two outcomes of the two processes are different as well. Krashen (1982) suggests that the result of language acquisition is that the acquired competence is subconscious, this means that, we have a “feel for correctness” and we do not know what grammatical rule was violated ( p. 14). While, the result of the other process is grammatical knowledge of the target language. Target Language (TL) “refers to the language being learned” (Gass & Selinker, 2013, p. 7).

In this study, I am more concerned with language acquisition than language learning, but I will discuss some examples of language learning related to gaming as well. Most players do not concentrate on the language of the game if it is only partly involved in the gameplay. However, in some video game genres understanding the language is the key to succeed. Here the question arises: Is it necessary to be aware of the grammatical rules when playing? Not necessarily but, if the player has some knowledge of English language it might help the acquisition process. I will elaborate on this in the next point.

SLA takes place differently in the two great platforms of gaming: singleplayer and multiplayer, because each platform requires the use of different language skills of the player/learner. Thus, it is worth discussing the two contexts separately.


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How Can Video Games Enhance Learning English as a Second Language?
University of Pécs  (Institute of English Studies)
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language, acquisition, english, game, games, video games, learning, learner, SLA, FLL, Technology, IT, linguistics
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Mátyás Blénessy (Author), 2016, How Can Video Games Enhance Learning English as a Second Language?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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