I’ve been thinking about digital games for language learning quite a bit lately and a number of questions have come up, the biggest of which is: Why are so many educational games so lame? I love the idea of learning through play, but many educational games fail to move past drill-and-kill exercises. When you compare this to commercially available immersive games like World of Warcraft or Grand Theft Auto, there is a remarkable gap.
For a while, I thought Second Life held some potential because that virtual environment could be designed and built specifically for a given topic. But building in Second Life (at least to me) proved to be extremely time-intensive and I didn’t feel like the results were worth the energy I had to invest.
The notion of augmented reality has also been floating around in my subconscious for a while, but it never really stuck; it’s really cool, but how could I work with it? All of these things coalesced for me today after sitting through a couple of presentations at CALICO.
Julie Sykes, who developed an immersive gaming environment focused on Spanish pragmatics called Croquelandia, has been working on a mobile place-based murder / mystery game for learning Spanish in an historic neighborhood near the University of New Mexico campus. The iPod / iPhone-based game, called Mentira, is built on the ARIS platform, which makes it very easy to cut and paste text and other media files into a branching story line to create the game. To progress through the story, students have to input clues from the real environment (the street address of the old church, for example) to unlock parts of the story. (An alternative would be to use GPS to unlock the story when students actually visited the location, but this would require iPhones and exclude iPod Touches.)
I was most amazed by the forehead-slappingly simple concept that we don’t need to create a virtual world for students to interact with because there is a pretty robust world right outside the classroom for them to interact with. And finding a target language-rich environment is even easier if the target language is English (at least for me).
It’s soon to be a cliche (if it isn’t already) but being able to take a computer into the real world so easily is going to be a game changer. Think of botany students looking up plants on their smartphones. It’s been said that there are no more arguments about baseball statistics in sportsbars because it’s too easy to get the answers to that information. Information is literally at our finger tips. But I digress.
The user experience within a place-based game like Mentira, if well designed, can compete with big commercial games because it can be specifically tailored right down to the details of a given neighborhood. Instead of taking time to create dazzling multi-media experiences, educators can really focus on the content. And, being text-based, lowers the barrier even further. Julie reported that her students were eager to contribute to the story and some had plans to use ARIS to create their own games. Enabling students to become game-producers, not just players — in their target language — is astounding to me.
I’m not sure that a game that sends students into the real world will be able to lower their affective filters or allow them to have multiple repeat experiences if they want to practice in the same way as a relatively low-risk virtual environment might. But a game could be designed to be played several times with different outcomes. There is also a potential risk in sending students out into the world, depending on where they are sent (clearly this is not the time to recreate Grand Theft Auto) but the risk could certainly be minimized. It’s also important to respect the real residents of the real world into which students are sent. Having them congregate on someone’s front lawn to solve a mystery likely would not be appreciated. Julie reported that some residents were eager to talk about their neighborhood with her students and even seemed flattered that their neighborhood was chosen. This is the ideal to strive for.
Unfortunately, ARIS just updated it’s app and as of today there are only four ARIS games available. Several others, including Mentira were built on a previous version which means it will take some work to get the game moved onto the new platform. I will update this post if / when it becomes available. In the meantime, we have to make due with this trailer which can be downloaded from the ARIS Games website. The trailer serves as the introduction to the game and does a nice job setting the tone for the game. Unfortunately, it just makes me want to play the game even more.