Online Role-Playing Games for Writing

Today I want to share a fascinating project being developed by Lin Zhou, a graduate student at University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa, which I think will be interesting for writing teachers and other TESOL professionals. Lin is a PhD candidate in Second Language Studies and holds an MA in TESOL from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She grew up in Anhui, China, and attended secondary school in Singapore. When working on her MA degree, she developed an interest in L2 writing because she saw it as an area that offered her broad opportunities for future teaching and research. Her goal after finishing her PhD is to be a professor of language teacher education or writing.

This blog post is an interview with Lin about her dissertation project. Several years ago, she made connections with a high school in China where the students were preparing for a national English language contest. One of the more challenging tasks for the students was writing an essay that asked them to think critically and respond within a short time limit. Working alongside the schoolʻs English teachers, Lin designed a flipped classroom where the students would learn about writing concepts at home so that during class time they could collaboratively play an interactive role-playing computer game she created to engage them in critical thinking and preparation for academic writing. I asked her to explain her design process and reflect on how L2 writing teachers might draw on the ideas in their own teaching.

These are nonplaying characters (NPC) in the game called “God of Time.” NPCs are essential in story construction and quests connection.

What inspired you to design interactive games?

I have been teaching English online for 9 years, and my experience interacting with my students online always made me feel that there was something missing. After reflection and some analysis of my teaching, I found that  “authenticity” and “meaningful interaction” would be the key elements missing in a teacher-led online English classroom. The teacher can provide very detailed analysis in an online format and students would still be following the lecture no matter how short the lecture is. I have tried to make my explanation of grammar point and words as short as possible so that students can practice and produce output as much as possible. Even so, there is no authentic meaningful interaction. Even when students produce some sentences, it is not because they need to. It is because the teacher asked them to do so. Interactive games give students purpose and meaning in their language production, and language learning is a by-product of this game playing. In the future, I am envisioning a big game that can embed different courses.

How does game design foster students’ writing development?

The most important aspect of a game design, from my perspective, is a very solid storyline which can engage students in a series of quests (challenges that need to be completed in order to advance in the game). While completing individual quests, students need to learn relevant linguistic resources. For my dissertation project that focuses on writing, I wanted to engage students in critical thinking during the game-play sessions. The discussions they have during the game-play sessions actually contribute to the writing process. The game playing itself is part of the writing process. Often in EFL contexts, students pay too much attention to the accuracy of their writing and ignore or sacrifice the criticality of the content. The game was designed to let students see that writing is a process and help them learn different ways to look for linguistic resources when they are out of words to express their thoughts and ideas.

How did you develop the games?

Developing games can be a time-consuming process, especially when you have pedagogical objectives. However, once you become familiar with the technical aspects of game designing, it becomes easier and easier. It is very important to first clarify the role of the game(s). Then the designer needs to communicate with the teachers. If the designer is the teacher at the same time, it is crucial to identify the teaching objectives and the game affordances.

Games, when first created, were not intended for educational purposes. Teachers need to understand that educational games are not the same as recreational games. What I am trying to do here is to extract those fun components of a recreational game to create a learning ecology so that students can engage in meaningful and value-laden language use activities.

After listing the teaching objectives and the game affordances, it is time to match types of game quests to teaching objectives. This is the key designing phase, which needs careful revision. There will always be certain teaching objectives that cannot be fulfilled by game quests, so teachers should incorporate other teaching methods. For my case, I have included a flipped classroom model to fill in the gap between the game and the teaching objectives.

Chinese high school students playing role-playing game (photo credit: Lin Zhou)

Steps to Design a Pedagogical Game

  1. Identify the role of the game.
  2. Identify the teaching/pedagogical objectives.
  3. Find out how each objective can be achieved by different game quests.
  4. Locate any mismatches between pedagogical objectives and the game.
    1. Decide how to handle the mismatch.
  5. Move on with game design.
    1. Solid and logical storyline
    2. Reward system (game rules)
    3. Game platform
    4. Quests design (closely related to the storyline)
    5. Connection and progression of quests
  6. Test game play.

What recommendations do you have for teachers interested in developing computer games for their own writing students?

  • Start with small games or just one or two quests. Do not panic when you or students encounter technical problems.
  • Do not focus so much on the game aspect that you forget the pedagogical purposes. After all, we are creating a pedagogical game, and I believe pedagogical games are fundamentally different from recreational games.
  • The important thing is to create good characters, with background stories and motivations. You can do a lot with screencapture software even if you don’t know how to program. Camtasia allows inserting quizzes and other interactive features to make small games within videos. Creating good background images allows you to put illustrations (not animations) in different situations that make it look like the characters are in a setting.

Can you recommend games writing teachers could use if they don’t have the knowledge base to design their own games?

Honestly, right now, there are not many games that are designed for writing. There are a lot of apps for developing linguistic competency, but very few games are created to improve writing. I believe the reason is that to commercialize such a game would need a substantial financial investment. More importantly, such games need a close cooperation between computer engineers and language teachers. I would recommend teachers start with Aris since it is a game development platform that needs no computer engineering background or knowledge of coding languages. Check out the games that have already been created by the Aris team; you can do this by downloading the Aris app.


If you have any suggestions for other games writing teachers could try out, or if you have questions for Lin, please let us know in the comments.

About Betsy Gilliland

Betsy Gilliland
Betsy Gilliland is an associate professor in the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa, where she teaches courses on second language writing, teacher research, and qualitative research methods to undergraduate and graduate students. Co-editor of the Journal of Response to Writing, she is chair of the TESOL Second Language Writing Interest Section and has published in TESOL Journal, Journal of Second Language Writing, and ELT Journal, among others. She was a Fulbright Scholar at the Universidad de Atacama (Chile) in 2018.
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