Video Game-Based Learning (VGBL) in Foreign/Second Language & Culture Acquisition

My own experiences as a foreign language learner have always played an essential role in guiding my pedagogical approach to the teaching of foreign languages and cultures, and supported the importance of realia that informed my teaching. To this day, I am more likely to remember vocabulary, idioms and irregular verbs from some song, comic book, magazine, TV show or video game. I never deny that foreign language teaching and language classes provided me with very useful, necessary structures, but I feel that it was the time I spent with my pop culture realia, especially interactive games, that bolstered my ability to communicate in multiple languages. These sources reinforced grammatical structures learned through traditional instruction, but they also taught me idioms and slang, all of which I would not have been able to access in a “regular” classroom.

Since I began teaching in the US college classroom in fall 1994, I have always combined traditional teaching methods (grammar; syntax; and the interactive method) with realia, authentic cultural artifacts in the target language. All of my foreign language students, from elementary through advanced, are exposed to literature, poetry, cinema, comics & graphic novels, TV series, songs and games (traditional language-classroom word games; board games; “serious” video games; learning apps; and commercially-available video games).

The rise of video games as a mass phenomenon, which began around 1997 with the Sony PlayStation and with the popularity of the excellent interactive, animated role-playing games (RPGs) of Square Enix, such as the Final Fantasy series, led me to explore the full potential of video games as interactive multimedia narratives in the language classroom. At the time, I was a Graduate Fellow in Italian at Trinity College in Hartford, CT, where they had just received a substantial Mellon Grant for language technology development. This allowed me to obtain the resources to experiment early on with digital realia. Along with my scholarly duties, I was also working as a freelance writer for one of the leading Italian video game magazine at the time, Super Console. The experience further stimulated my intellectual curiosity regarding the potential use of video games in learning. The process for my classroom experimentation in those days was a complex one. It involved using an Italian copy of Final Fantasy VIII (the fist chapter to have been fully localized in Italian) in the PAL (Italian) video standard running on a modified, region-free PlayStation 1 system in the NTSC (North American) television standard connected to a multi-standard projector in a high-end, state-of-the-art multimedia lab.

Things are much easier now thanks to recent technical advancements, namely the advent of HDMI and, as a consequence, region-free and multi-language games. I can purchase a game anywhere in the world and play it anywhere in the world, in multiple languages.

While I do not believe that video games and other digital realia should replace “regular” teaching, I am convinced that they can be used to reinforce and expand vocabulary and structures. Some specific recent video games are fully interactive multimedia experiences combining real-time animation, speech/dialogue, subtitles, writing/textual interaction and, in some cases, even spoken interaction in the form of audio/video chat with other users. Cinematic games can serve as excellent realia, enhancing language and, in some cases, culture acquisition. Such is the case of the Assassin’s Creed series in and outside the classroom.

Based on my research and teaching experience, the use of video games and other related realia (online gaming magazines, YouTube videos, reviews, etc.), both in and outside the classroom, has shown to be a very effective didactic tool for reinforcing linguistic skills and exposing students to contemporary cultures of other nations and groups.

Cinematic games with a high emphasis on communication contain plenty of opportunities to reinforce a variety of grammatical forms and explore new vocabulary through listening and reading comprehension, lexical expansion and problem solving. Each main chapter in the Assassin’s Creed series, with its outstanding recreation of everyday life and culture of the specific era and geographical areas it is set in, allows educators like me, in languages and cultures, but also in other fields such as architecture and the social sciences, to explore first-hand several aspects of life in those times and places in dynamic, immersive and interactive ways.

What I apply in my teaching is game-based learning (GBL). GBL is pedagogy, closely connected to play theory where learners apply critical thinking (Farber M., Gamify your classroom: A Field Guide to Game-Based Learning, 2017, 2nd ed.) My course was developed with the assistance of the SLU Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Leaning in fall 2016, as a recipient of a competitive fellowship. In spring 2017, I used the SLU Reinert Learning Studio (a state-of-the-art, high-tech learning space) to teach Intensive Italian for Gamers, which combines “traditional” intensive language instruction with gaming-based interaction. Within the pedagogical premise that language acquisition is a process that involves, and benefits from, daily interactions in the language in and outside the classroom, the course targeted the specific segment of the 10% (PEW Research Center: of the student population that self-identify as gamers.

Based on my learning experience, teaching experience and research, I believed that a strong, shared interest in gaming would stimulate and enhance the students’ learning process, thus justifying the intensive nature of the course. So, I created an “Affinity Group”, which, as research shows, enhances learning. While more long-term research must be done, initial results through testing and surveys indicate that my premise is correct. You know how excited you get when you communicate with a group of peers that share your exact same interests/passions? Such situations have been shown to foster F/L2 acquisition.

Video games are effective not just because they are fun, but because they are challenging ( They are difficult, and repetition enhances comprehension and memorization.

Total Physical Response (TPR) theory, Csikszentmihályi’s Flow Theory, adrenaline production (since most games are based on quests that involve survival) ­show that video games are effective for learning because they involve both the body and the mind and that the best learning happens when we become oblivious to the passing of time. Gamers often refer to “being in the zone” when they play effectively, all of which have been shown to enhance learning.

Video games involve Total Physical Response (TPR), adrenaline production and Csikszentmihályi’s Flow Theory ­— the best learning happens when we become oblivious to the passing of time. Gamers often refer to “being in the zone” when they play effectively, all of which have been shown to enhance learning.

Gaming-based activities have the advantage of fostering group cooperation and active participation better than other digital lab activities, with agency and problem-solving being the keys.

Photo: Dr. Bregni delivering a 3-hour seminar on Video Games in Foreign/Second Language Acquisition to an audience of approximately 70 first-year students in Modern Languages in Prof. Elisa Corino’s Didattica delle Lingue Moderne course at Università degli Studi di Torino, his Alma Mater, on Friday, March 16, 2018, His presentation format was created with the assistance of the SLU Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning. Dr. Bregni is the 2017 recipient of the James H. Korn Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Award.