The Game Is On – a new study on the use of video games in language teaching

Balancing the time young students spend on their studies and playing video games is a frequent topic of discussion in schools and households alike. When children spend their evenings on gaming instead of homework, it hurts their academic careers. Right?

Samuli Grönfors, an MA graduate from the University of Helsinki, suggests the issue is not as black and white as one may think. Grönfors’ thesis, titled Game On: A fantasy-themed escape room as a learning environment for English as a foreign language, approaches the binary issue of “homework versus games” from an entirely different perspective. Could games be used as tools for learning purposes?

Having played a plethora of video games since the age of 5, Grönfors noticed from a young age that speaking and learning English came naturally to him. He feels like online role-playing games such as RuneScape have positively affected his English communication skills, which carried over to school. As Grönfors began his master’s studies, the decision to combine education, English and video games was a no-brainer.

“Gaming is not bad; let your kids play!”

By the time Grönfors was to start his master’s thesis, he had completed the teacher training program and gained some teaching experience. The idea for the digital fantasy-themed escape room as an optimal learning environment was born from a vision of a World of Warcraft-like platform on which students could learn in class as well as spend some leisure time. The game would combine informal and formal learning and was feasible on a low budget.

Grönfors’ extensive experience with gaming and his creative drive made the project quite easy for him. “Making up the stories was the most fun part”, he laughs. The exercises, vocabulary and grammar were drawn from an English course book.

According to Grönfors, when something is familiar and interesting, it makes any endeavor easier. He tested his final product on 26 Finnish upper secondary schoolers and their teacher. The main findings were that motivation in students increases while playing, be it at school or at home. Thus, Grönfors’ recommendation goes: “Gaming is not bad – let your kids play!”

Upon graduating from the University of Helsinki, Grönfors landed a job as an English teacher at a secondary school in Turku, where he has been working since the beginning of this school year. Grönfors was hired because the principal was impressed by his eagerness to incorporate more games. He has not yet had the chance to try out the escape room in his class, but he dreams of creating a curriculum with more gamification.

Nonetheless, his students already play various types of virtual games, such as Kahoot! and Blooket, and sometimes traditional board games. Whenever there is a game in the textbook, his students of course get to play it, induced with a touch of Grönfors’ creative pen; he likes to make the storyline and characters more interesting and resonate with the players.

Games evoke the most important feature of language, communication, so even if not everyone ‘likes’ to play games otherwise, the experience is different in the classroom and anonymity lowers the threshold to participate. It is where communication and teamwork are practiced. “Language is also used to learn other life skills,” Grönfors comments.

A new market for game development companies

Grönfors believes that educational games could create a new market for game development companies: “If the games were made interesting, students would be excited to play games in class and continue at home”. Younger generations of teachers see the potential; however, older teachers are tough to convince about the educational advantages of games.

The main dilemma lies in the funding of educational games. “Selling this type of ‘entertainment’ to the government is difficult from a company’s perspective,” Grönfors laments. In a situation where skepticism still prevails, funding applications do not tend to have a good reception. “Only time will tell when video games will be commonly used in education”, Grönfors concludes.

“I am proud of my thesis,” Grönfors tells us with a humble smile. And he should be because the topic of games in education is both current and futuristic. His ideas and suggestions have the potential to impact education in Finland and possibly beyond.

When Grönfors was still a student himself, he thought, “if I were a teacher, I would want my classes to be enjoyable. And if the kids are already spending their free time playing video games, why not try and make learning more fun through games as well?”. For now, it is already helping him create fun and more meaningful English classes.