Alternatives for Making Language Learning Games More Appealing for Self-Access Learning

Charatdao Intratat, King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi, Thailand

Intratat, C. (2011). Alternatives for making language learning games more appealing for self-access learning. Studies in Self-Access Learning Journal, 2(3), 136-152.

Paginated PDF Version


This investigation of popular computer games in comparison with language learning games was designed to offer an insight into the potential of games to the field of self-access. The study surveyed and analyzed common characteristics of popular computer games and then compared them with characteristics of several language learning games. It also investigated the participants’ recommended characteristics of computer games for learning English. The data were collected from undergraduate students at King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi, Bangkok, Thailand. The results showed that the most conducive characteristics for attractive language learning games included animation, variety, planning strategy, virtual background, challenging action and accumulated reward.

Keywords: game-based learning, language learning games, self-access learning material design


The purpose of this paper is to investigate alternatives for making language learning games more appealing to learners in order to encourage their self-access learning. First, popular computer games were rated by the participants, and then their characteristics were analyzed and compared with language learning games. The study aimed to examine the typical characteristics of popular computer games that the participants recommended for learning English, including games designed specifically for that purpose.

Evolution of Computer Games for Educational Purposes

            In the early days of computer-assisted instruction (CAI), materials were designed drawing on existing paper-based materials and the only changes were the interface. This was due to technological restrictions such as lack of hardware and software equipment, which effected downloading time and accessibility of the materials (Intratat, 2006). Later, with more advances in technology, CAI materials were more elaborately designed in order to motivate the learners and provide positive experiences. These experiences, according to many educational psychologists, stimulate the learner’s behavior and enhance his or her persistence on learning activities (Stipek, 1998).

The popularity of computer games has inspired educators to implement games into the learning process or to develop games for educational purposes. For example, Rosas et al. (2003) evaluated the effects of the introduction of educational videogames on learning, motivation, and classroom dynamics. Teacher reports and classroom observations confirmed an improvement in motivation to learn and a positive technological transfer of the experiment tool. The results suggested that computer games are feasible, entertaining, and an economic alternative to introducing other technology into the classroom. Another study by deHaan (2005) examined how much video game interactivity would help or hinder the noticing and recall of second language vocabulary in Japanese university undergraduates. The participants were divided into 40 pairs, in which one played the game and the other watched an identical video signal of the partner’s game. The individual’s ability to recall vocabulary in the games was compared and the results revealed that the players recalled significantly less vocabulary than the watchers. The researcher suggests that this seems to be a result of the extraneous cognitive load induced by the interactivity of the game. In the study, the researcher evaluated several video game genres and argued that sports, virtual pet, and simulation games are beneficial for language acquisition while role-playing and action/adventure games are not because the later group of games requires more attention and reaction from the players.

Ang and Zaphiris (2008) examined the educational potential of video games in language learning. They discovered that the research of computer game-based language learning focused on two perspectives: the first one studied computer games as a virtual environment that supported language learning on its own (player-game interaction), and the second one studied computer games as a tool or medium to facilitate collaborative learning (player-player interaction). The research of the first type, which aimed to design a better game for teaching languages, found that game interfaces were advantageous for challenging the learners to interact quickly and provided clear feedback for self-assessment. The research of the second type aimed to study the broader social context of games, especially massively multiplayer online games (MMOGS) in which players around the world can communicate.

Digital Game-Based Learning for Autonomous Learning

Many educators, such as Yumuk (2002), state that Internet information search based programs can encourage learners to take more responsibility for their own learning. This matches the increased popularity of games and the characteristics of the learners in the Net Generation, also known as “Net Gen’ers,” who were “digital natives” familiar with the use of computers and the Internet (Van Eck, 2006). Barnes, Marateo, and Ferris (2007) state that the learning styles of these Net Gen’ers tend to be independent and autonomous and these styles come from the habit of seeking and retrieving information from the Internet. They comment that modern class activities are also increasingly moving from traditional lecture to discussion-based classes that allow more individual expression. Since informative websites such as Wikipedia and other multimedia resources or digital storytelling such as YouTube are popular among Net Gen’ers, they recommend that educators can use technology and multimedia in appropriate ways to incorporate autonomous learning activities to foster information literacy and critical thinking skills.

Learning theorists suggest that play is one of the most important venues for learning and games are useful education tools. The effectiveness of computer games as learning tools has also been investigated by several scholars. Certain characteristics of games appeal to players: rules; goals and objectives; outcome and feedback; conflict; competition; challenge; opposition; and interaction and representation, or story (Prensky, 2001). O’Neil and Chen (2005) show that the participants’ problem-solving improves; i.e., their content understanding and problem-solving strategies are significantly increased after the game-playing. Four studies applying self-determination theory show that perception in game autonomy and competence are associated with game enjoyment, preferences, and changes in well-being between pre- and post-play (Ryan, Rigby & Przybylski, 2006).

Three factors supporting the widespread public interest in games as learning tools are the ongoing research on the power of digital game-based learning (DGBL). Van Eck (2006) strongly encourages institutions to provide IT support to develop and implement DGBL as a learning revolution for a new generation of learners. Other studies by Chuang and Chen (2007) and Su (2008) show that when compared with traditional CAI, computer-based video games facilitate children’s cognitive learning more effectively. Their results correspond with O’Neil and Chen’s results that computer-based video game-playing effectively facilitated a student’s ability in problem-solving. This practice positively supports the students’ skills for autonomous learning.

Gender and Types of Games

Some studies suggest that males and females prefer different types of games. Kinzie and Joseph (2008) surveyed game activity preferences of middle school-aged children concerning their preferences and attitudes about play activity modes, game characters, setting, and forms of help. They classify game activities into 6 play modes as follows: Explorative, Problem-Solving, Strategic, Social, Active, and Creative. They find gender differences in children’s preferences and attitudes for several types of games such as Active, Strategic, and Creative play modes. They show that the Explorative mode of play appeals to all children especially girls and also recommend for game design to appeal to both boys and girls to build engagement which leads to learning.

As for video game characters, the portrayal of women as sex objects is found by 28% of the 33 most popular Nintendo and Sega Genesis video games (Dietz, 1998). Males are more likely to be heroes and main characters, use more weapons, have more abilities and be more muscular and powerful. Female video game characters are more often supplemental, helpless, and more attractive and sexually provocative than male characters and are less likely to be strong and aggressive (Miller and Summers, 2007). The researchers say that understanding these video game messages is important to understand the effects games and magazines may have on behavior and attitudes.

Social computer games such as The Sims are assumed to influence their players to take gender-specific roles in the games; especially, female-targeted games encourage roles and activities such as shopping and flirting. The study by Fantone (2009) argues that there are contradictory ways to consider the influence of socialization games upon genders because these games offer creative possibilities to players of both genders, even though in practice participation is often reduced to female consumers.  In order to make games for students appealing, the gender factor should be considered.

Computer Games and Language Learning Games in Thailand

Computer games which are imported into Thailand from abroad are very popular mostly because they provide positive experiences to players such as enjoyment when playing and fulfill personal needs such as conquering, interest, curiosity, self-esteem, and self-fulfillment (Facer, 2006; Van Eck, 2006). Many of the games are quite addictive to their target players, both children and adults, such as The Sims, Defense of the Ancient (DotA), and PangYa. On the other hand, as is the case elsewhere in the world, computer games for language learning tend to achieve much less success in attracting players to play (Van Eck, 2006). One reason may be the fact that learning games are usually limited to specific target groups. In Thailand, most commercial learning games are designed for teaching English to young children at primary level. These games frequently focus on teaching basic vocabulary, such as matching vocabulary with pictures, crossword puzzles, and hangman. Only a few of these games respond to the demand of players such as college or university students whose language levels are more advanced. The other reason may be that these language learning games are not as interesting and challenging as popular games. The researcher expects that the materials implementing learning games that are as interesting as popular games would motivate the learner to pay more attention in learning than the material without games. On this basis, this paper reports on a study that investigated popular computer games in Thailand as rated by King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi (KMUTT) students. The features of these computer games were analyzed for motivating characteristics as a guideline to develop good learning games to encourage the students’ self-access language learning.

Aims of the Study

            This study surveyed the opinions of undergraduate students who liked to play computer games. The aims of the study are as follows:

  • To survey and analyze common characteristics of popular games
  • To compare them with characteristics of several language learning games
  • To investigate recommended characteristics of computer games for teaching English


The subjects in this study were one hundred undergraduate students at KMUTT in the first semester of the academic year 2010. All students were studying in the first and second years at the three biggest faculties: Engineering, Science, and Industrial Education Technology. These students, who declared that they liked playing computer games, were chosen as representatives of their groups, using stratified random sampling.

The instrument used in the study was a set of questionnaires on the students’ opinion of the characteristics of their favorite computer games. The questionnaires consisted of open-ended questions and questions with Likert scale answers. There were 3 parts as follows:

In the first part, the questions were open-ended. The subjects listed the 5 most popular computer games in their opinion from the fact that they personally like to play. In the second part, the subjects rated their favorites in the Likert rating scale from the most (5) to the least (1) out of the language games that were listed from the common classroom games. Examples of these games are Hang Man, Puzzle Words, Snakes and Ladders, and Matching Game. The last part included questions where subjects rated their recommendations for characteristics of computer games for teaching English with the Likert rating scale from the most (5) to the least (1). Several characteristics were listed, such as animation, sound effects, action, and reward gathering. These characteristics were previously surveyed by Intratat (2009b) as the most desirable functions in CALL materials as rated by the students.

The data obtained from the questionnaires were computed by case summary test, frequency test, t-test and ANOVA with post-hoc Scheffe test. Statistical significance was set at p < .05. The results of students’ opinions were interpreted, applying the ranking by Best (1981) as follows:

1.00 – 1.70                   = the least
1.80 – 2.50                  = less
2.60 – 3.30                  = moderate
3.40 – 4.10                  = much
4.20 – 5.00                  = the most

Results of the study

            The subjects listed the 5 most popular computer games in their opinion. The scores of the games were computed for frequency. All together, the subjects listed 99 computer games. The top ten computer games rated by the subjects were shown with percentages as follows: 1- Facebook games (31%), 2- The Sims (26%), 3- DotA (22%), 4- Super Mario (18%), 5- Audition (11%), 6- PangYa (9%), 7- Barking (8%), 8- PES 2010 (6%), 9- Plants vs. Zombies (5%), and 10- FIFA Online (5%). Descriptions of these games are listed in Appendix 1.

Table 1. Top Ten Popular Computer Games

The subjects rated their preferences from the most (5) to the least (1) for in-house computer-based and paper-based language games that were listed. The rated scores of the games were computed for means and S.D. The language games were ranked according to their popularity as follows. The game that was rated as most popular was Detective game (x-bar = 3.46, S.D. = 1.424). The games that were rated as moderately popular were Hangman (x-bar = 3.37, S.D. = 1.488); Matching pictures with vocabulary (x-bar = 3.19, S.D. = 1.426); Guessing vocabulary from hints (x-bar = 3.08, S.D. = 1.300); Crossword puzzle (x-bar = 3.03, S.D. = 1.306); Scrabble (x-bar = 2.94, S.D. = 1.476); Ten Questions (x-bar = 2.88, S.D. = 1.281); Snakes and Ladders (x-bar = 2.81, S.D. = 1.405) and Odd one Out (x-bar = 2.70, S.D. = 1.210).

Table 2. Most Popular Language Games

The subjects rated their recommendation for the listed characteristics of computer-based and paper-based language games with the Likert rating scale from the most (5) to the least (1). The rated scores were computed for means and S.D. The characteristics that were recommended by the subjects were as follows. The characteristics that were rated as much recommended were animation (x-bar = 3.91, S.D. = 1.364); variety at each play (x-bar = 3.66, S.D. = 1.334); virtual scenario (x-bar= 3.63, S.D. = 1.323); challenge or action (x-bar = 3.60, S.D. = 1.449); planning strategies (x-bar = 3.59, S.D. = 1.334); music or sound effect (x-bar = 3.57, S.D. = 1.312); interactive with player (x-bar = 3.51, S.D. = 1.322); collecting points or rewards (x-bar = 3.51, S.D. = 1.411); and conversation (x-bar = 3.51, S.D. = 1.367). The characteristic that was rated as moderately recommended was time limit (x-bar = 3.16, S.D. = 1.339).

Gender Variations

            In developing language games for both male and female students, it is essential to consider the gender factor and game types.  As surveyed by Kinzie and Joseph (2008) about the gender variations in preference of computer games in children, it is interesting to study about this variation in undergraduate students. The participants in the study composed of 58% male students and 42% female students. There was a statistically significant difference at 0.05 levels between genders in only one popular game that is PES 2010. As computed by t-test, the means of female students who chose PES 2010 were higher than the means of male students. The details of this comparison are in Table 3 as follows:

Table 3. Comparison of Computer Games Between Genders


From the study, ten popular computer games as rated by the subjects included several common characteristics as follows:

  • Animation: all of them are totally animated with elaborate graphic design and distinctive characters.
  • Challenge, competition or fighting: they provide a variety of challenge, whether in speedy action, fighting, racing, or problem-solving.
  • Sound effect and/or music: there usually are typical melodies that correspond to the players’ every action.
  • Rewards for successful action: they are in several forms such as marks to get more power in fighting, extra lives, upgrading levels, and treasure such as gold coins to buy more accessories,
  • Interaction with players: the immediate interface with players is the heart of an appealing game as well as clear feedback to the players’ task. Moreover, most casual games emphasize their interaction with sound effects.
  • Freedom in choosing characters and path: most games offer the players freedom in choosing the level of difficulty. Some games let the players choose their own hero and customize it independently.
  • MMOGS: 50% of the most popular games rated by the subjects are massively multiplayer online games (MMOGS), which can be played together by many players around the world via the Internet. These games allow communication among players and create more fun and fulfill the players’ desire of sociality.
  • Time restriction: most games have no limit on playing time. The players can play them as long as they want to. Especially, if they lose the game, they can always restart and play once again.
  • Most of the popular games were preferred by both genders without significant difference, except PES 2010. This game was chosen by more female subjects than male subjects. This result is in parallel with the study by Fantone (2009), which hints that certain games may not appeal only to their target players. In this study, PES 2010 which was the contemporary sports game at the time of the survey also appealed to the female subjects. One reason for this phenomenon may be that the female students, who are minorities in the fields of science and technology, are influenced by their male peers.

Considering that these common characteristics make computer games attractive to players, it is reasonable to say that the more appealing characteristics the games possess, the more they become popular. The results from the ratings of top ten popular games correspond with this opinion because the more popular games possess more attractive characteristics than the less popular.

The most popular game, Facebook games, and the second most popular game, The Sims, include several occupation games with virtual scenario, which are full of strategic, problem-solving, social, active, and creative play modes for children and adults of both genders. In particular, Facebook games are casual and communicative which encourage on-line sociality. The challenge of the games requires agility, problem-solving skills and planning strategies. The outputs are in a wide range of marks, rewards, upgrading levels, treasure or extra accessories. From the fact that these two games were rated the first and second most popular among all subjects in the study regardless of gender, year of study and faculty, this clearly supports the impact of appealing characteristics in popular games.

The third most popular game, Defense of the Ancient or DotA, is another MMOGS game with a huge number of members on the Internet. While the first two games are virtual role-playing and occupation games, DotA is an imaginative role-playing game. It is the saga of the kingdoms with distinctive characters that the players can choose as their personal hero and customize it with capacity and skills of fighting, ranks or social status which identify magic power or weapons, occupation, etc. The challenge of the game requires agility, fighting skills and planning strategies. The outputs are rewards in upgrading levels or status and extra weapons. On the other hand, the less popular games such as PES 2010 and FIFA Online focus on single content and scenario, i.e. football matches.

From the study, several computer-based and paper-based language games that were rated as very popular and moderately popular include some common characteristics that can be compared with those of computer games as follows:

  • Communicative: all the five language games are the types of game that can be played in pairs or in groups. This encourages players to consult with each other and also fulfill their desire for socialization. However, they are not accessed by a huge number of members as popular MMOGS.
  • Challenge of thinking skills: the players practice their skills as well as acquiring language but they rarely use other skills such as explorative, active, creative or planning strategy. This clearly contradicts the previous result on characteristics of popular games. The distinctive example of thinking skill for problem-solving is found in the most popular of all language games listed, Detective game in which the players looked for objects hidden in the picture using vocabulary clues. Other language games that partly include this feature are Guessing vocabulary from hints and Crossword puzzle which are less popular.
  • Competition in speed of thinking and/or speaking: this requires quick reaction in class and adds a lively activity. All popular games challenge players with as many varieties as possible, but language games seldom do. The game which includes this feature is Hangman which is played within a time limit and Matching pictures with vocabulary that can be played in class and monitored by the teacher.
  • Sound effect and/or music: Some language games provide this additional feature such as sound effects to provide feedback in response to the players’ action, for example Hangman. When the player fills the right letter in the space, there is an appropriate interjection as a feedback to his/ her answer.
  • Reward in marks for successful action: though all of the language games listed provide rewards to motivate players, this feature in educational game is in fewer varieties than in popular games.

From the above findings of the study, it is applicable for self-access centers to provide language games which apply some characteristics of popular computer games so they can be more appealing to learners. In order to serve the goal of designers and developers of computer-based language games for teaching English, here are four summarized suggestions from this study:

  • As it was rated the most recommended characteristic, animation should be the most distinctive feature that attracts learners’ interest at first glance. This implies that graphic design of characters and virtual scenario is also important.
  • In order to maintain the players’ attention, the language games should include varied activity play modes, and many kinds and types of challenge, competition, sound effect and/or music as suggested by Prensky (2001).
  • The primary purpose of language games is for learning, while entertaining and interesting characteristics are supporting factors. As deHaan (2005) suggests, sports, virtual pet and simulation games are beneficial for second language vocabulary acquisition, language game designers should be aware about the genre of the games. Another remark is that the weak learners should be provided with some hints to help them overcome problems, and answer keys should be available to confirm students’ guesses. This kind of help is designed to reinforce students’ learning achievement. The technique from popular computer games such as adding some helping characters with conversation, for example a talking bird, a shop-keeper or a traveler, is applicable and useful. Restarting or extra lives is another important feature that strengthens the learners’ confidence.
  • A variety of rewards in marks and other tokens of achievement will stimulate the learners’ eagerness as can be seen in popular computer games. Furthermore, the popularity of MMGOS shows how players worldwide enjoy socializing as well as playing games. This can be applied to playing language games in groups since working in groups is beneficial for weak students. This is because shy learners get emotional support from the group so they have more confidence and have more fun when they work together with companions (Intratat, 2009a). This practice eventually enhances their skill development and promotes the player’s autonomous learning.


This study investigated the popular computer games and language games as rated by undergraduate 1st and 2nd year students at KMUTT. It applied the same method of first person perspective to study computer games in order to support language learning as analyzed by Ang and Zaphiris (2008). The results of the study revealed that top ten computer games such as Facebook games, The Sims, and DotA have some common characteristics which are appealing to players. These characteristics are, for example, animation, variety in each play, beautiful scenarios, challenge or action, planning strategies, and collecting points or rewards. These findings about recommended characteristics of computer language games correspond with the study of both Ang and Zaphiris (2008) and Prensky (2001) in the essential feature of interfaces or interactive feedback. The findings are also in parallel with Prensky’s key criteria that appeal to players such as outcome, and conflict/competition/challenge. Four recommended characteristics of computer language games are finally suggested for designers and developers of computer games for teaching language, especially English. The researcher hopes that language learning games will become useful alternatives to support and encourage the learners’ self-access learning.

About the contributor

Charatdao Intratat is an associate professor at the Department of Language, School of Liberal Arts, King Mongkut’s University of Technology Thonburi (KMUTT), Thailand. Her fields of interest include syntax, semantics and self-access materials for teaching English. Her CALL materials for KMUTT undergraduate students are on the web site <;


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List of Game Websites:

Audition. Retrieved from:

Barking games. Retrieved from:

DotA. Retrieved from:

Facebook games. Retrieved from:

FIFA Online. Retrieved from:

PangYa. Retrieved from:

PES 2010. Retrieved from:

Plants VS Zombies. Retrieved from:

Super Mario. Retrieved from:

The Sims. Retrieved from:

Appendix 1

Characteristics of video game

Action game: It emphasizes physical challenges, including hand–eye coordination and reaction-time. It includes diverse subgenres such as fighting games, shooting games, and racing games.

Arcade game: It is originated from the coin-operated machines such as pin balls, racing or shooting games. Arcade games often have very short levels, simple and intuitive control schemes, and rapidly increasing difficulty such as Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. 

Casual game: It has simple rules in playing, and requires less commitment, skills and time than other complex games. It can be played with one-button mouse or cell phone keypad and the player can finish the game within a short time, for example Tetris, Solitaire, and Bejeweled.

MMOG: It is a multiplayer video game which is capable of supporting hundreds or thousands of players simultaneously. Therefore, they are played on the Internet which can enable players to cooperate and compete with each other on a large scale, and sometimes to interact meaningfully with people around the world.

Occupational game: video game that imitates the real life that the characters are at work such as running a pet shop, a farm, a coffee shop, a hospital, and etc. Players solve problems, manage the economy and accomplish the occupational tasks in order to win the goal of success

Role-Playing video game (RPG): video game that relies on a highly developed story and setting that can be virtual or imaginative such as in fantasy or science fiction universe. In role-playing game, players control one or several characters with customized capacity to accomplish a number of quests. Players will walk through, talking to non-player characters, picking up objects, and avoiding traps. The plot of the game is often developed after the decision of the players or the location of the setting scenery. The game is finished when the characters reach their goal of success.

Virtual role-playing games imitate real life such as The Sims, Audition, FIFA online.  

Imaginative role-playing games develop their plots in fantasy world such as DotA, Age of Empire and Ragnarok.

Strategy video game is a video game genre that emphasizes skillful thinking and planning to achieve victory. Most strategy games involve warfare or competition to win the opponents with tactical and strategic considerations. They also often challenge the player’s ability to explore, or manage an economy.



Appendix 2

Brief description of top ten popular games

 Audition: a downloadable multiplayer online casual rhythm game. Players can collect points to buy goods/ reward. It is also known as X-BEAT in Japan. The Asian and North American versions remain the most popular, with millions of members registered.

Barking: multiplatform for casual video games such as card games, puzzle, shooting and arcade games.

Defense of the Ancients (DotA): real-time strategy video game with custom scenario from Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos and its expansion. The players try to destroy the opponents’ Ancients, heavily guarded structures at opposing corners of the map based on the “Aeon of Strife” map for StarCraft. As in role-playing games, players level up their heroes and use gold to buy equipment during the mission.

Facebook games: platform of miscellaneous casual games such as occupation, action, arcade, puzzle, racing, shooting, sports and strategy games by social network service. In most games, players collect points to upgrade level.

FIFA online: Play Station 3 / online football game. It is currently one of the most successful football games on the internet. After starting the game players make a manager, choose their league team and improve it by earning in game currency in different modes and using it in the Game Store. Also, after each 10 matches players will be rewarded randomly with a player contract item which allows a player to be signed for a certain amount of money, or a stats boost that can be equipped on players. Players also have manager levels which increase with the XP gained after every match.

PangYa: an online multiplayer casual golf simulation game designed by a Korean development company. The full game is free to download, although certain special items for the game (such as clothes for characters, new equipment, and decorations) can only be purchased with real money. The game awards players with Pang, a currency that can be used to upgrade a character, or items to gain the upper hand during a course. 

Plants VS Zombies: strategy game that players plant several kind of trees and collect points to fortify their defense against the zombies.

Pro Evolution Soccer 2010 (Pes2010): Play Station 3 / online football game. It contains visuals, animations and moves, including live player expressions and movements that will change according to conditions on the field. The players can choose characters and role-play them.

Super Mario: adventure of a hero. Players control the hero Mario (and in a two-player game, a second player acts as Mario’s brother Luigi) as he travels through the Mushroom Kingdom in order to rescue Princess Toadstool from the antagonist Bowser. While exploring the scenario, the players collect points or gold to gain more lives, weapons or upgrade levels.

The Sims: imitating life and role-playing game. Players choose characters and are given the tasks to interact with other characters while maintaining the happiness of the characters and their social relationship.