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Twenty English language learners, gathered at an East Boston community-based organization, are playing a storytelling game on their mobile phones. After beating the game and receiving a check mark for a successful mission, the players return to a virtual world where they, as their avatars, mingle with players in Florida. They chat by typing messages and arrange to play a word-guessing game together.

This is English Innovations, a blended English language learning model combining a classroom environment with self-paced online tools. One of the tools, Xenos, uses single- and multi-player social games to help adults build English language skills. Overall, the model delivers a flexible learning environment for adult learners with jobs and families, keeping them immersed and engaged.

It’s an exciting model, but one that is all too rare.

While game-based learning has gained traction in K-12 learning, there’s still reluctance to use games for adult education. Isn’t play just for fun? Aren’t games a distraction from real work? Aren’t games for kids? When do adults have time to play? How, as an educator, would I use games?

The truth is that games offer “hard fun” that keep players engaged in complex problem-solving for long stretches of time. Games come in all genres and are played by all demographics: compare Candy Crush to Grand Theft Auto. And, in the last few years, the explosion in device ownership means technology hurdles – both in access and digital literacy – are lowering.

It also turns out that games use many of the features that learning science has revealed as effective pedagogy. Games offer all the important pedagogies we hear associated with the K-12 market while holding equal weight with adult learners – task-based learning, individualized learning, scaffolding – and the player has the freedom to experiment and fail (and try again). After all, it’s only a game!

Let’s revisit our friends in Boston and Florida to understand how these concepts apply in practice. The major barriers to English language learning are a lack of practice, a lack of confidence, and the fear of failure. Xenos, as a game, offers a safe practice space, reducing the stakes of getting something wrong. The amount of practice is also maximized by providing a playful experience accessible whenever the learner opens the app. Xenos’ engaging narrative and its built-in progress tracking also motivate continued use. Finally, game goals offer an authentic challenge, albeit in a fantastical, virtual world, that Xenos tailors to the player’s specific level of learning.

And it’s not just language learning; games can be used across any domain. Take Commonwealth’s Bite Club, a resource management game for improving financial skills. Players learn about the importance of paying off debt and saving for eternal retirement by taking on the role of a vampire night club owner! They experiment with money management techniques without any real risk, and immediate feedback is given, drastically reducing the time it takes to see the impact of your choices – another advantage of the game world.

Although there are still many challenges in implementing games – including educator training and scaling-up – in the adult education space, there’s a growing body of research that shows the value of well-designed learning games and the opportunity to make a large impact.

Play, by definition, is fun. Intuitively, we know that learning should be fun too. Leveraging the growing game-based learning approach and community has the potential to transform adult learning, by engaging these learners in new ways to inspire them to keep learning.

Join me on December 7 at 12pm EST as I host a Digital Promise webinar to dig deeper into the research behind educational gaming for adults. We will also explore effective design of games for adult learners. Register here, and I look forward to seeing you there!


About Peter Stidwill

Peter is a digital producer and designer at FableVision Studios with over twelve years of experience in game-based learning and educational technology. He has produced award-winning interactive content for the Learning Games Network, the BBC and the UK Parliament.

One Comment

  • Peter Rettig says:

    Well, we at Gamesforlanguage certainly agree with you. And yes, many adult learners still believe that you can’t learn a foreign language with games. We are combining a travel story with games, and the challenge remains for acquiring fluency: Interactive games will have to also require speaking, not just listening and reading and clicking on the correct answer.

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