"Trying to get them to use modal verbs while they're being chased by a bear"
Todd Bryant on language learning within the online game World of Warcraft
Interview with Todd Bryant (mp3- download with right click) Transcript below
Why did you start using World of Warcraft in the classroom in 2006?
I think I started to think about games whenever Sims Online came out ….I don’t know if you remember it or not. It didn’t get released in Europe, because it was such a huge flop. But the idea was to have the Sims game in a virtual environment that anyone in the world could play. And they planned on releasing localized versions for different countries like Germany, France, Spain and so forth. And if they had done that, that would have been my first foray. But unfortunately, since the game bombed in the US, they never released it in Europe.
So I thought about the game then, and then it kind of died. And then www.nitle.org, an organisation I belong to of liberal arts colleges, their director of research Bryan Alexander started talking about games a lot. So I went back and had another look at games and that’s when I found World of Warcraft. And the reason why it stuck with me was, they had different servers for different languages. So usually in most of these games like Everquest and so forth the languages get mixed up and people tend to default to English for the most part, which isn’t really good for my purposes.
But in World of Warcraft there are German servers, French servers, Spanish servers and English Servers.
What is World of Warcraft?
If anyone ever played Dungeons&Dragons as a kid, it’s that same basic idea. Or Lord of the Rings, except it’s not a clear good versus evil, whichever side you pick in this kind of virtual world of dwarves and magical creatures, your side is good and you see the other side as kind of evil. And it’s a multiplayer massive online game, meaning there are thousands of people playing at anytime with each other. And the game kind of orientated itself towards social interaction, so, usually you meet people, you find a quest, which is to do some task. And then you are off to play together, gain experience and move along the story line which is kind of built into the game.
How do language learning scenarios look like in the game?
My first encounter was with German 101 students after they had had six weeks of German. And they decided they all wanted to be dwarves. So we were all dwarves — and we went into the first town and they found their quest, which was to steal the beer keg from one bar and sneak it into the rival bar’s beer cellar, so they would realize what great beer their bar had. And so the four of us went into the first bar, took the keg, went into the rival bar and someone had to distract the bar keeper and have him run out and chase them, while we snuck in behind the back door and stuck in a different beer keg.
It starts always with these simple silly quests, but it’s basically to learn how the game works.
What’s the difference from conventional language learning?
The principal difference is that everything is kind of dictated by the students’ actions. So you think of the traditional classroom, the teacher sets the whole program for that hour. Whereas once they are in the game, any decision they make affects the outcome of the action thirty seconds later. So the teacher can’t really control what it is they run into or their input or output as we say with their languages. Your pretty much have to follow along with them and when they run into trouble offer some help. But by no means can you dictate what it is they need or what it is they are going to learn in that hour.
So your point is, that benefits language aquisition.
It’s certainly an add-on. I don’t think you can teach German entirely within World of Warcraft. But as an additional hour in the evening, whenever they would otherwise be watching a film or TV in German, I think it’s certainly better than those kinds of activities, because they have to produce language as well as just receive it; they need to speak and they need to write and if they don’t understand something, that affects their gameplay. So they really need to concentrate on the language they are exposed to.
I thought it was really good for them. They were exhausted at the end of an hour – concentrating that long in German after only six weeks of German! And they were really, really, tired, but also very motivated.
Are there any bad sides to it?
As I mentioned, being what we call the guide-on-the side as a professor instead of controlling everything, that certainly makes it harder in some instances – since you don’t know what they’re going to need or run into, so it makes for a more chaotic experience and you have to kind of give up control and so forth. So you can’t review the vocabulary for chapter six and whatever grammar point that had while you are playing World of Warcraft. That is not going to happen. Even though I desperately tried – trying to get them use modal verbs, for example, while they are being chased by a bear, but that just doesn’t work. They’re going be exposed to some German, but you can’t predict what it is going to be. So it is not an organized structure by any means.
So did you meet any “real Germans” or were you just talking about yourself?
No,no,no. We spoke with Germans all the time. I had played the game beforehand, so I had kind of scouted out areas where I knew we could meet people that I had some aquaintanceship with being in the game earlier. And as with any quest, usually you need help from other people, if nothing else than as directions for advice. And people also came along to talk. As soon they saw we were Amercians, they would talk, walk over and chat – what were we doing here and so forth. They had quite a bit of chatting with all of the Germans. The way we had it set up was, that I would be on with them on Skype. And then they would chat with the Germans, so I could then see their chat on screen so if they needed help I could prompt them on Skype for words they needed.
Do you still use this as a method today?
We will use it again, but I am not teaching this semester. But if I teach again, then we will use it again. And I think it will be better this time around since World of Warcraft now has the in-game-voice-chat, which will be much easier than using Skype.
Did all your students buy into it?
All the ones that played liked it a lot. Although I should mention that they had a choice. They could either do this game with me in the evenings or they could do a language exchange with a native German speaker in Bremen via Skype once a week. So all the students who were playing had chosen that as their option.
How many chose the game?
About half and half. And for the most part the more introverted students chose the game with me and the more extroverted students chose to speak with the native German speaker live via the video conference.
Did you get a reaction from your colleagues?
I did. Some were impressed, others more amused. Many were both. No one had any outrage – this was an extra class hour that was tacked on top of regular course work. And we do this kind of things a fair amount at Dickinson, where they come in to watch a film or a TV-program together or something like that. With the difference being with the game they have to produce their language as well, not just sitting there and watching something. Overall I think it was a pretty positive experience for the students and I’m generally getting positive feedback from the students and the faculty as well.
Do you see a future in second language aquisition and virtual worlds?
Yes – I guess it could go two ways. We see these virtual worlds go in different directions. Second Life, which is kind of a stand-alone thing with user content creating a whole world, there are kind of add-ons like Lively with Google which are basically attached to sites like Facebook. And then you have the games like World of Warcraft. I don’t know, if one or two of those will shake out, but what I hope for sure is, that whatever format it is, that it takes some division between the languages. If it is like Second Life where everyone can go over the entire space, it’s going to be hard to recreate that immersive experience that we did with World of Warcraft in German.
You have another project, Mixxer. What is it all about and is it connected to gaming?
The Mixxer is a website for language exchanges. Similar to the Tandem programme that’s all over Europe. People sign in with their Skype-account and say what language they are learning and which they speak natively and then they find the opposite. So a native English speaker searches for a German native speaker learning English. They will then meet and talk via Skype.
And right now there is no game component. Although I considered adding “games I play” to the profile. Unfortunately at this point most games have some kind of restriction between players in the US and in Europe, between Europe and Asia. And I didn’t think the average user on Mixxer would be able to clear those hurdles to play on a different server.
Your website states over 20,000 users – is this number for real or are there in reality only 500 active users?
No no, there are real people, those are just straight out of the user data base; we use it frequently here to find partners for our own students. It is a very active community.
How does Mixxer work exactly?
It is pretty loose; I have a FAQ to get people to get started, if they’re not familiar with the tandem program. Basically how it works, is that you would send them an email, you agree on a time. Most people agree on about an hour – half a hour in one language, half a hour in the other. They speak via Skype.
Recently I also added a writing component. So that people have their own documents, and they can write on their documents in their target language and then ask native speakers for help.
We use Wetpaint and Injected Technology for that. That is all embedded in the site now.
Any plans to go commercial?
No, I don’t think it will go commercial. There are certainly no plans for that in the immdiate future. I think it will just stay as an educational free site.
What’s the diffence to our site babbel.com?
I saw Babbel and I liked a lot. I compare it kind of to a free version of Rosetta Stone. I always thought that was kind of a scam that Rosetta Stone would charge us so much for vocabulary retention and Babbel does it very well.
I noticed as well that Babbel’s integrating the user – that users can upload their own content and create lessons and flash card sets for others as well. I think that component, that Web 2.0 idea, that users create most of the content is common in both sites.