Game-based learning: How to improve your English skills with computer games

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Game-based learning: How to improve your English skills with computer games

(Guest post by an English expert, gamer and an enthusiast of using games in language learning - David Dodgson)

Do you play computer/video games? Almost everybody does! Whether it is on a PC, a games console such as the PlayStation or Xbox, or on a mobile device like a smartphone or a tablet, games are everywhere and we are now playing them more than ever.

But gaming is not just about having fun or using our free time. Today’s games are challenging, they have well-written stories and they make us think – all great things for learning.

Before we go any further, I have a question for you about some of the most popular games of recent times. Please take a short time to think about it before you continue reading:


So, what answers did you think of? These are all different genres of games; some are played online, some are played offline; some are realistic, others are fantasy… What is the connection then?

Simple – it’s the English language! If you want to get the most out of these games, you need English. English is the language in which the characters talk to each other; it is the language used to give missions, tasks and information; it is often the language you have to use to respond to characters and other players; and, if you need help with a difficult part of the game, it is usually the language you will need to read or watch guides on internet forums and gaming websites.

However, simply playing a game is not enough to learn a language. In order to improve your language skills while playing, you need to be pro-active and in this post, I will share some advice for how you can do this.

  • Set the language option to English!

Many modern games have long dialogues between characters or detailed written information in the game and many of these games also offer multiple language options. While switching a game to your native language may make it easier to understand, it is better to leave it in English! This will help you with your language skills and also offer a more complete gaming experience as the original language for most games is English so nothing gets lost in translation.

  • Don’t press that ESC button!

Gamers can be impatient people, always ready to start the next quest, level or chapter. This results in us (yes, this includes me!) sometimes hitting ESC or clicking on the mouse button to skip a cut-scene of dialogue between two characters to get back to the action or just clicking on ‘accept’ without reading the mission/quest objectives. However, when we do this we are missing something – we miss information that may help us understand the story of the game, we miss information that may help us complete the next task, we miss the chance to put our language comprehension skills to the test.

Many times in the past, I got confused about the plot of a game or stuck on a mission because I didn’t know where to go or what to do. This happened because I had skipped scenes or read instructions too quickly. I could have enjoyed the game more and completed it faster if I had taken the time to listen and read more carefully.

And if you find the dialogue in cut scenes difficult to follow, many games offer a subtitle feature these days. Switch it on!

  • Make notes

Games can have complex storylines and there might be a lot of information you need to complete a quest or move on to the next part of the game. A good way to keep track of in-game objectives is to make notes (in English of course!) as you play. Notes can help you remember where your character should go and what he/she should do and they can provide extra language support.

I have seen a great example of this from my wife, who is not a native speaker of English. She likes games and showed me notebooks she and her friends kept when they were students and they were playing a game Might and Magic. She says they improved their English a lot while playing that game!

  • Have a dictionary ready

Of course, you will not understand everything in a game, so keep a dictionary near you when you are playing (this could be a traditional dictionary or an online one – whichever you prefer). Make a note of unfamiliar or difficult to understand words and try to find their meanings. This will help you with your English and help you in the game as well.

  • Interact with other gamers online

Many games (Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed, for example) have online options or they are completely online (World of Warcraft, Star Wars: The Old Republic, The Secret World and many, many more!) This offers a great chance to interact with people from around the world using English as a shared language. Several games offer the chance to chat with other gamers while you are playing, either by typing messages or using a microphone for voice chat. These interactions can help you complete multi-player missions in the game and they are also a great way to be social.

Other games (take Football Manager as an example) don’t have any in-game chat features but they do have websites and forums where you can post messages about your game, ask for advice, offer help and interact with other players. There are hundreds of websites like this for specific game titles and for games in general. Some of them are official sites from the creators of the game and some are fan sites from the players of the game. Do a quick internet search for one of your favourite games and you will easily find these forums. Then, you can start interacting with other players!

  • Are you stuck? Search for a game walkthrough!

Another great resource for practicing your language skills are ‘walkthroughs’. These are guides that help players get through difficult levels and missions in their games. They can be written guides that you can read in your web browser while you are playing or videos with English commentary that allow you to see the game and listen to somebody talking about how to play. Just Google the name of the game you are playing and add ‘walkthrough’ and you will find a lot of options to choose from.

Some games also have walkthrough guides inside the game. One example of this is The Secret World. In the game, you can access a search engine to look online for help with missions. Another example is the iPhone app Can You Escape? You can watch walkthrough videos from the game menu so, even though there is no language when you are playing the game, you can still practice your English listening skills when you need some help. :)

  • Like walkthroughs? Try making one!

But why stop at reading and watching walkthrough videos? If you are good at a game, try writing a walkthrough guide to one level or quest (or even making a video – just search online for ‘screencasting’ and you will find lots of websites that can record videos of your game and record your voice at the same time). Share your walkthrough with your friends or post it on a game forum to help other players like you. It’s a great way to practice your writing and/or speaking skills.

Games are fun and motivating and they are a great way to learn too. Next time you are playing a game, concentrate on any English that you hear or read. Make notes, interact with other players and visit game-related websites and you will see that using English goes far beyond the game itself!


Post Author:

David Dodgson

David teaches EFL to young learners in Ankara, Turkey but he is originally from the UK. He has been a gamer ever since he got his first Commodore 64 for Christmas 25 years ago and now looks for ways to unlock the learning potential of games in the language classroom. He writes about language learning and gaming on his website and you can also connect with him on Twitter or Facebook.