ArticlesMarch 2018

Gamified Imagined Community Simulations (ImSims) for Language Learning

By Felix Kronenberg, Associate Professor at Rhodes College and President of IALLT (International Association for Language Learning Technology).


In a multi-year project at Rhodes College, beginning, intermediate, and advanced students of German have created the virtual city of “Pfefferhausen.” Utilizing a number of hybrid learning spaces, such as gamification engines, virtual and physical makerspaces, creative production technologies, digital storytelling, games, and social media tools, the virtual city is conceptualized here as what I call an “Imagined Community Simulation” (ImSim).

An Imagined Community Simulation is a framework of continually constructed discourses, and, as such, it is not a method or even an approach. ImSims are related to global simulations and alternate reality games, but are less goal-oriented and give learners more agency. Borrowing from video gaming language, they are a type of sandbox game, which asks players to be active agents in developing goals, tasks, and connections within the simulation environment. The emerging narrative is experienced differently by each user and plays out in a less controlled way than in alternate reality games or global simulations. The framework is flexible enough to allow each instructor and each student to interpret the community differently. While there is a public face of “Pfefferhausen” at , the learning spaces are created through the many interactions that take place physically and virtually.

At Rhodes, the growth within the community follows the progress in the program’s textbook. Students develop their identity in the first semester, “being born” and learning about numbers, colors, people, and the immediate environment. Then they “grow up,” learning about food, customs, holidays, geography, and history. Their alter egos, or avatars, go to school, later to college, and then work on their CVs and open a business in the city of Pfefferhausen. During this process, each professor involves a shifting array of face-to-face teaching and communicative technologies. For example, students create an alter ego Twitter account, describe their development, and follow each other and actual German speakers. They may create a business or “Wohngemeinschaft”(WG) website, they may participate in a shark tank or elevator pitch activity, which can take place in a physical location or through a digital platform, such as Voicethread or Flipgrid. They may create digital or physical promotional materials for their business, a video for their WG, or participate in a business mixer.  

The community is inspired by the concepts of third place (Oldenburg, 1999), communities of practice (Wenger, 1998), and imagined communities (Pavlenko & Norton, 2007). It is situated in multiple hybrid spaces, also sometimes referred to as blended or as “phigital,” which Stoner (2017) describes as the “recently coined name for those who don’t draw a distinction between the physical and digital worlds and are comfortable in both.” Place and time, Edwards & Usher (2008) argue, “no longer signify the firm boundaries of the possible that they once were, with rhizomatic practices taking precedence over linearity. To put it another way, boundaries have become more permeable, porous and traversable with greater ease.” (p. 121-122) ImSims, like everyday life, are constituted by such practices.

During the project’s first semester in the fall of 2015, students were given a series of tasks that they were to complete. It quickly became apparent that such a top-down approach did not take full advantage of the students’ imagination, individual interests and agency. Therefore, a gamification approach was developed and first tested the following fall semester of 2016 (Prof. Kronenberg’s German 201). Different technical platforms were tested, such as Game On, Gradecraft, and ARIS. Ultimately, we ended up using Rezzly (previously called 3D Game Lab), which can be best described as a gamified course management system. The number of tasks was greatly expanded, and each was assigned a point value. For example, the “city builder” task is worth 150 points and students are asked to do the following: “Write a page for our virtual city website. You could write about a city service, a city institution, etc. Please come with a first draft to your German professor and then submit a final draft through 3dGamelab.” Determining the number of points is a crucial endeavor, and it forced the faculty teaching the section to discuss how much we  value each activity. The project therefore lead to not only increased communication among colleagues, it also started a conversation about which types of student work the program values.

Students had to reach 1000 points in order to complete the project. Tasks were evaluated on a pass/fail basis, and students were allowed to repeat the task. The system was based on game design principles, and as other instructors adopted the system, the weighing, sequencing, and design of tasks was continuously and collaboratively improved. ImSims go beyond simplistic approaches to gamification based merely on PBL (Points, Badges, Leaderboards) by focusing on meaningful narrative and good instructional design. The technological platform allows the students to look at their choices, see their progress in relation to the class goal and their peers’ progress, to submit work directly to the instructor and receive individual feedback. We are currently testing other platforms, and Goosechase appears to be even more suitable for our needs because of its mobile nature and more streamlined features.

I argue that the gamification engine (currently Rezzly) is more of an organizing tool than a game. The guiding principle behind the ImSim is the idea of play. Johnson (2016) argues that “[b]ecause play is often about breaking rules and experimenting with new conventions, it turns out to be the seedbed for many innovations that ultimately develop into much sturdier and more significant forms.” (p. 15) Indeed, the playful nature of the project allowed us instructors to rejuvenate our introductory and intermediate courses, and we truly enjoyed how the students created and contributed to the emerging community. Even colleagues from other departments started being interested in what was happening in Pfefferhausen. “Playful interaction,” Brown and Vaughan, (2014) posit, “allows a penalty-free rehearsal of the normal give-and-take necessary in social groups.” (p. 32) We experienced this not only among the students, but also in student-instructor interactions and among colleagues.


The innovation of ImSims stems not from any particular technology but rather comes from the flexible framework that allows educators to implement such simulations. They can be implemented through high-tech, low-tech, and no-tech approaches and used with different textbooks or in a textbook-free approach. The gamification approach is particularly exciting because it allows students to choose different paths and guides them through the imagined virtual or hybrid world. By allowing students to develop imagined selves, they have multiple ways to connect their language study to their majors, minors, and professional and personal interests.

It was the goal of this article to briefly introduce this project. More information can be found on the project web site at  It will also be discussed in more depth in my upcoming monograph project titled “Physical, digital, hybrid: New engaging spaces for language learning and teaching.”


Dr. Felix Kronenberg is an Associate Professor of Modern Languages and Literatures and the Director of the Language Learning Center at Rhodes College in Memphis, TN (USA).

His research and professional interests include physical, virtual, and hybrid learning spaces: classroom and informal learning space design, language center design, digital storytelling, computer simulations/games and L2 acquisition, and blended learning.

Dr. Kronenberg is currently the president of the International Association for Language Learning Technology and an advisory board member of the Learning Spaces Collaboratory. He has served as the president of the SouthWest Association for Language Learning Technology, has been a fellow for the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, has been a learning spaces and language center design consultant for various colleges and universities and a keynote and plenary speaker at local, state, regional, national and international conferences.

Professional homepage:


Brown, S., & Vaughan, C. (2014). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. New York: Avery. Retrieved from

Edwards, R., & Usher, R. (2008). Globalisation and pedagogy: Space, place and identity (2nd ed.). London; New York: Routledge.

Johnson, S. (2016). Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World. New York: Riverhead Books.

Oldenburg, R. (1999). The great good place: Cafés, coffee shops, bookstores, bars, hair salons, and other hangouts at the heart of a community. New York, NY: Marlowe ; Distributed by Publishers Group West.

Pavlenko, A., & Norton, B. (2007). Imagined communities, identity, and English language learning. In J. Cummins & C. Davidson (Eds.), International handbook of English language teaching (Vol. 2, pp. 669–680). New York: Springer. Retrieved from

The Coming of the Phigital Generation — and Reality | Inside Higher Ed. (2017, May 18). Retrieved November 13, 2017, from

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice : learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, U.K.; New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press.


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