BlogNovember 2015

Simulation and Role-playing in Language Classrooms


Nick EinterzNick Einterz, Lecturer at the International English Center, University of Colorado, Boulder.

Russell Moon

Russell Moon, Career Track Instructor at University of Oregon.



From teachers in the STEM fields to the arts, we all set out to simulate situations in which students can develop useful skills and knowledge. With laboratories, vocabulary worksheets, and mathematical story problems, teachers attempt to provide exercises that prepare students for more authentic situations they may encounter later in life.

Communication does not necessarily allow for such simulations. Unlike the scientific method, algebra or laboratory experiments, communication so often occurs spontaneously, unconsciously and in unpredictable environments. Because of these factors, simulating real-world, meaningful situations that require language use is difficult. Although all teachers and teaching methods attempt to bring simulation into the classroom, in language instruction, simulation can be especially difficult to incorporate.

Students understand that the point of in-class activities is to develop language proficiency, but if they lack the motivation (whether that’s a temporary state of affairs or more of a general disdain for language study) the most well-laid plans fall flat. Therefore, a lot of effort is required of teachers in order to sustain student interest in activities, and we ask a lot of students when we expect them to maintain interest in language study for so many hours each week.

This is why games, especially the type of elaborate and immersive experiences offered by role-playing games (RPGs), offer a welcome alternative to dull, disconnected and stake-less experiences of standard language class activities. Games provide an incentive to learn and use language in order to complete game activities that are meaningful (within the context of the game) and fun. There are no stakes in game play (no degrees to be earned or classes to fail) except for those stakes artificially set by the game world itself. If you buy into this world—if play is engaging—then those stakes, irrespective of their lack of connection to the “real” world, are motivating.

In such an environment language usage is secondary, but because it is the sin qua non of participation in the game and cooperative play, it becomes an essential tool. And this is what we we’ve been trying to do the whole time with language simulations:  create meaningful, consequential experiences that require language proficiency for successful negotiation. The game becomes the primary motivator and the language is the gateway to participation.

Interconnectivity in the virtual world can more authentically simulate communicative experiences when the real thing is unavailable. Role playing games (RPGs) in particular appear to provide a smorgasbord of opportunities. These games promote group work, the use of different communicative media, and potentially the use of reading, writing, listening and speaking, all four of the communicative skills language teachers incorporate into curriculum. More impressively, RPGs present interactive opportunities that do not feel so contrived.

The online RPG World of Warcraft, for example, has millions of subscribers and has been expanded continually throughout its 11 years on the market. There is no end to activities (known in the gaming world as “quests”) that can be undertaken by a group of players who must work together to accomplish the quests’ goals. Players communicate through in-game, text-based instant messaging and through well-developed third party software (such as Skype, Teamspeak or Ventrilo) that allows for real-time voice communication.

Beyond games like World of Warcraft, there are sandbox RPGs such as Minecraft that allow players to set their own goals in an open-world environment allowing for greater freedom of action than more scripted and constrained RPGs. Just like in World of Warcraft, players can coordinate their game actions through in-game instant messaging or through third-party voice software. Minecraft has captured the imaginations of a generation of young people because it offers players the ability to build persistent, interactive structures in the game-world. It’s a creative experience that’s not unlike building a sand castle, playing with clay, doodling in a sketchbook, or making a diorama of a city street. However, the logistics of virtual RPGs are far easier to manage. Lastly, many free applications allow students to screen capture their work and record their communication within these games, which gives teachers opportunities for assessment.

Ultimately, providing students with motivating simulations in the classroom is time-consuming and often logistically infeasible. But the established world of virtual RPGs gives teachers a giant cache of larger environments and discrete situations in which students can practice their language skills. The consequences of inadequate communication are more readily apparent to students as they interact within these worlds. Meanwhile, teachers get an opportunity to observe and assess students using target language skills while focusing on primary tasks.

Do you use gaming strategies or RPGs in your language courses? Share your experience with us in the comment section!

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