SIMAGES 2014.1 – Using Serious Games to Teach English in Second Life

Using Serious Games to Teach English in Second Life

By Martin Warters

Martin Warters is a Serious Games, virtual worlds and simulation training professional. With a background in English language training, Martin has held senior roles at English language schools including Director of Studies for Castle School in Brighton, UK. Martin has carried out post-graduate research into language acquisition for oil and gas industry professionals on how Serious Gaming in virtual worlds can support English for Specific Purposes language training in the oil and gas industry. Martin is currently based in the USA where he works as a Simulation Learning Developer at TheraSim Inc.


Serious games are an emerging area of education that has attracted attention as an educational approach across a range of divergent fields, from military, government agencies, medicine, and business to non-profit, religious and social activist groups.

There has been extensive research into Virtual Worlds for general education, digital games for teaching English, and initial research into teaching general English through serious games.  Serious games in Second Life offer the potential for a way of learning that can enhance and support the learning of English for Specific Purposes with a particular focus on the Oil and Gas industry.

Videogames and serious games

The established view for many educators is that using any form of videogame in education appears to be at best a curiosity, and at worst detrimental (c.f. Sanders, 2001). However, this view has been challenged (e.g. Bogost, 2011; Aldrich, 2009) and videogames are now becoming more accepted as a viable branch of training and instructional design.

Many courses are now adapting commercial off-the-shelf materials made specifically for instructional needs (Kirriemuir, 2005). It is easy to see why. With commanding budgets, big videogame production companies can produce immersive and engaging experiences for the end user, while also including strong characters and story, with challenges that provide alternative approaches to traditional classroom settings (McGonigal, 2011; Aldrich, 2009; Dille & Zuur Platten, 2007).  Videogames also possess some of the key elements deemed desirable and conducive for second language instruction and learning (Gee, 2003).

However there are arguments that the characteristics that make games fun do not necessarily make them educational; there needs to be challenge, fantasy and curiosity. (Malone, 1980).  An emotionally appealing fantasy needs to be intrinsically related to the skill learned in the activity. Games with no fantasies involve only abstract symbols, (McGonigal, 2011).

Serious games & videogames

Serious games can be used to teach declarative, procedural and conceptual knowledge; enhance existing and develop new cognitive skills, such as problem solving and motor skills; change one’s attitude or intrinsic motivation, and teach people to communicate and work together (Prensky, 2003; Ratan & Ritterfeld, 2009; Wouters et al, 2009; Sitzmann, 2011).  A key feature of serious games that makes them engaging and important as a potential learning resource is discovery.  Having the opportunity to discover new things by oneself may be an important reason why games are fun (e.g. Garzotto, 2007; McGonigal, 2011).

Similarly the challenge of overcoming a tough obstacle that is at a difficulty level just above our current ability is also fun, (Garris et al 2002), and creates a sense of “happy stress” (McGonigal, 2011).  Participation in an activity that stretches our ability is a key factor in serious games, (Csikszentmihalyi & Csikszentmihalyi, 1988). When challenge exceeds the abilities of the user in a serious game setting, the player will feel anxious and will no longer be able to experience the optimal level of flow for learning to take place.  This sensation of flow is highly enjoyable, and has been suggested to improve learning (Kiili, 2005; McGonigal, 2011).

Another strong feature important to serious games and their design is that of autonomy. Experiencing a real and valid choice about going and doing whatever one wants in whatever order during the course of the game is one of the strongest motivational factors available to learners (Przybylski, Rigby and Ryan, 2010).

Virtual Worlds and Second Life

Second Life is a 3D virtual world and is the trademark of Linden Lab. The reasons why Second Life’s environment is appealing to educators are many. The key features of Second Life are that it is customizable, immersive, and has a range of communicative tools within the environment.

In addition, there are other ways to enhance the user experience in Second Life. The ability to fly, teleport, and re-write the laws of physics or history all while having a sense of self are parts of Second Life that bring a new dynamic and open up new areas for instructional design and education. Additionally, if viewed as an online environment for learning English, the sense of immersion and lack of transactional distance (Moore, 1989) are also defining aspects of the potential of Second Life as a learning environment.

Current Pedagogy in Virtual worlds

Virtual Worlds have numerous potentialities across a range of educational disciplines. Common grounded pedagogical approaches for general education focus around Situated Learning (Lave & Wenger, 1990), socio-cultural theories (Vygoysky,1978a), action learning (e.g. Lizzio & Wilson, 2004), and Task-Based Learning (Willis,1996; Skehan,1998).  All, it can be argued, are readily applicable to a Virtual World course for English for Specific Purposes.

Although it would be naïve and inappropriate to categorically state that there is a best method or approach for learning English for Specific Purposes in Virtual Worlds s (e.g. Prabhu,1990; Richards & Rodgers, 2001), the learning designs outlined above intuitively fit the options available in Second Life.

Representations of real, recreated, abstract, or imagined environments may otherwise be of impractical size, distance,  or cost, or may present too significant a hazard to experience in person, (Baylis, 2000; Bartle, 2003). This fits exceptionally well with the idea of learning in virtual worlds and the untapped potential of serious games in such an environment to teach English for Specific Purposes for the oil and gas industry.

Language Lab & English City was founded in 2005 with the commitment to “transform language learning using the capabilities of virtual worlds.” At Language Lab, students can join free language learning events and enter English City to practice English inside the environment with other students. English City is a self-contained series of simulations in Second Life, which offers full immersion in English. It has all the amenities and infrastructure one would expect to find in a medium-sized European or North American city.

In early 2012, started providing classes in English for Aviation and expanding its involvement with English for Specific Purposes courses. At the time of this writing, a new Oil and Gas course was under development, which will include the use of an off-shore oil rig.

The pedagogical approach of task-based learning implemented by language lab has a very strong narrative theme running throughout the teaching in the city. Here, character-driven learning (Gulz, 2004; Dickey, 2007) is the norm. Teachers are expected to remain in character while they teach. Plot and story lines are driven internally, but are also proactive and reactive to real-world and student events. Recently there was a wedding ceremony that followed the real life wedding of one of the teachers, and there were recent events in the city that revolved around Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympic Games. Clearly there is potential for a serious game in Second Life to draw upon such a storyline to create a learning platform that enhances learning opportunities for English for Specific Purposes students by aiding comprehension, explanation and awareness of the subject area.

The needs of students for the Oil and Gas Industry

High-pressured and dangerous professions require clear and precise communication. The Oil and Gas Industry is one such industry. Most major oil disasters are linked to a combination of factors including lack of communication, lack of training, and cost-cutting measures. Research suggests that the handover of duties at the end of a shift is an especially dangerous event (Rios de Campos Rosa, 2002).

It seems that many oil and gas companies hire several subcontractors to do different parts of the job and often there is miscommunication between them which leads to accidents, as was the case recently in the Deep water Horizon tragedy (Kletz, 2001; Lee, 2005).  However, it is difficult to prove that lack of English is ever the sole cause; miscommunication can arise between native speakers as well. This suggests that there is a need for students to be aware of and have exposure to professionals in the industry from all over the world, something that is not always available in the real world of training.

Like any other area of English for Specific Purposes, there is an immediate need for systematic English training in this industry (Johns, 1991; Jordan, 1997). Due to the international nature of the Oil and Gas Industry, and the fact that English is the lingua franca for many companies, there is a need for professionals in this industry to be able to operate in English comfortably to prevent potentially devastating accidents.

Virtual Worlds

3-D virtual worlds, including online role-play games, have a somewhat long history that extends back to earlier text-based, social-interactive gaming and role-playing cultures (e.g. Bartle, 2003).  Participants engage in these environments through an avatar.

Inducing a sense of immersion in the environment, and consequently creating a sense of investment in the learning, is an important goal of the design, and a potential outcome of a Virtual World.  It is positively correlated with heightened emotions (Riva et al., 2007) and is a prerequisite for learning goals that require the player to experience being a part of the Virtual World (cf. Herrington et al., 2003). This sense of immersion and investment is something that is particularly relevant and desirable for this area of research within the oil and gas industry.

Communication in Virtual Worlds can take both verbal and nonverbal forms (Robbins, 2007). Verbal communication is typically established synchronously with the text-based chat function, which is usually available in the virtual world environments. Nonverbal communication can be established through avatar appearance, posturing, and gestures (Robbins, 2007). The use of synchronous chat is an excellent way to scaffold, clarify, and correct language points.

Situated Language Learning

Situated learning is one of the main pedagogical principles in second language acquisition. Krashen, (1997a, 1997b) has shown that adult learners acquire a second language more easily and that their knowledge is better anchored if they are exposed to real, lifelike situations and applications of the target structure.

Escape from Planet Arizona is an example of early attempts to integrate traditional learning content (i.e. focused and pre-determined vocabulary with integrated grammar exercises) in a situational context – in this instance an adventure story with a strong narrative plot.  More recently, some research on computer aided second language acquisition has focused on using online 3D virtual reality environments and video game technology for teaching languages. For example, Thethis (Segond et al 2005) uses a web application for the language training of hotel receptionists, thus creating a sense of immersion, and a realistic arena for potential language transfer (Hymes, 1972, Gagne & Briggs, 1974; Bransford et al, 2000).

Immersive, situated experiences play a fundamental role in learning a foreign language due to the complexity of this process, which requires not only the acquisition of the grammar rules of the target language but also knowledge of the societal and cultural habits of the native speakers of that language (Schmidt, 1995, 2001).  The strength of Virtual Worlds with this approach becomes more apparent when it is related directly to the oil and gas industry, where opportunities for language instruction on a working rig are limited.

Virtual environments motivate learning by providing challenge while promoting curiosity, beauty, fantasy, fun, and social recognition.  Likewise, videogames immerse players in a virtual environment where learning can occur because students are engaged.

Employers in the oil and gas industry (ADNOC, Shell, BP, and TOTALFINAELF) increasingly express explicit interest in skills, competencies, and performance. Accrediting bodies (ABET) want to know about levels, standards, outcomes and assessment. Here, there is a very strong case for using situated learning.

Suggestions for synthesized framework from Situated Learning

The instructor can monitor user interactions while offering the learner feedback that takes into account language proficiency and, to a certain degree, the changing needs of the learner during the lesson.  Additionally, the instructor can readily take advantage of constructivist, peer-learning in this environment.

There is a need not just to create a learning environment that sets up natural usage of a language point, but also to make the learner aware that direct instruction is taking place.  This again can be achieved through scaffolding and peer learning, through taking advantage of the various communication channels in Second Life.

Game Design

Johnson, (2006) argues that video games are full of sophisticated situations in which players must analyze patterns, develop goals, and make decisions. This presents cognitive challenges where players must develop systems and lateral approaches to thinking.  Players must take on new identities, solve problems through trial and error, and gain expertise to be successful in a game.

Hoeken and Van Vliet (2000) identified different narrative methods that can be used to enrich understanding of a text: suspense, curiosity and surprise. Of these, the surprising event proved to be the most effective; it improved comprehension of the text as well as increasing appreciation for the story (Wouters et al, 2011).

Surprising events are central factors in games because they are not intuitively a rational consequence of what came before.  The player has to reevaluate their preconceptions and determine whether they have missed something (Kintsch, 1980), thereby forcing a retrieval and update of a current mental model (Zwaan, Langston & Graesser, 1995).  A surprising event, therefore, stimulates the integration process in learning from multimedia (Van Der Spek, 2011), something that can be seen as both vital and desirable for language learning.

How can Serious Games augment learning in Second Life with a particular focus on English for Specific Purposes?

A Serious Game’s real strength is through its fundamental ability to produce learning that is tied to emotional involvement and investment with the situation, thus increasing engagement with the materials (Witmer & Singer, 1998).  This has the potential to increase transfer of knowledge from the environment to the real world and make the learning more memorable (Grenfell & Harris, 1999).

The various communication channels are a key aspect of Second Life.  They enhanced learning, helped develop a sense of immersion, and provided multimodalities for instruction (E.g. Hampel, 2006). In addition to this, the artifacts available in Second Life are a way that it supports the implementation. Second Life Marketplace, has an extensive array of artifacts that can be used for teaching purposes.  To create a virtual oil rig requires intense skill, and a large budget.  Having a strong company like Language Lab operating in Second Life will help with implementation by pitching to oil and gas workers and securing contracts that are normally beyond the skill set and desires of many language teachers. This means that someone with sound Second Life skills is needed as an instructor.

Although it is not a perfect environment, the immersive nature of the Virtual World of Second Life still allows for a successful Serious Game – especially when it is integrated into a blended learning course as opposed to a course taught entirely through Serious Games.

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