Paper doll books and language games

Yesterday I had some meetings at MIT and I also attended two events. The first talk was titled “Harlequin leaps the Digital Divide!, or early media in transition”. The speaker was Jacqueline Reid-Walsh and a fair part of the talk was devoted to looking at “paper engineering”: flap books, paper doll books, toy theaters etc from about 1770 to 1860. Reid-Walsh is interested in creating an interactive archive of this kind of artifacts and stories (for research, educational use etc.), and she also made reference to virtual dolls and games such as Sims 2. She stressed that these paper texts were made to be engaged with in a multi-modal way requiring multiple literacies and active engagement.


It was a very interesting seminar and these artifacts really are interesting in their own right. They also show many traits that we associate with new media. For instance, Reid-Walsh made the point that you can see convergence culture in the late 18th century and early 19th century in different material circumstances with recurring elements in different genres. What was described is partly a planned project based on her research. There was a discussion of what a digital version could look like, but obviously this is something that we could have spent hours discussing. One important question is what you actually choose to bring over into a digital version and what not. Jacqueline stressed the importance of overcoming the fragility of the paper artifacts and their inaccessibility (in archives where you are not even allowed to take photographs). In the discussion, someone pointed out the that fragility is an integral part of the stories and the “feeling” of this medium. This was not brought up, but I imagine that you could simulate fragility in a digital environment. I think the materiality and the ‘interface’ (as well as the underlying design concept) would be extremely important in this kind of project, but regardless, it would obviously not be the same thing. And as she pointed out, you can use things like magnification (making things bigger on the screen) to carry over some pantomime effects in a non-obvious way.

The other event was a pedagogy and technology forum titled “Game-Based Language Learning: Key Issues for Effective Design and Deployment Around the Globe”. Here people from the foreign language departments attended as well as education arcade people and some others, and the format was open discussion rather than a talk-talk. I quite enjoyed it – not least because the language teachers present were both engaged and critical – some of them (maybe even most of them) with experience from earlier projects. Also, I have been thinking about games and language learning for some time in relation to my book. In most other areas (virtual worlds, blogging, web 2.0 etc.) I have no problem coming up with applications in relation to language education, but somehow games are more difficult for me. In a Swedish context (with modern languages including linguistics, literature and cultural studies), one obvious ‘use’ of games is as study objects. As Ravi Purushotma pointed out yesterday, game worlds with native speakers become representations of the target (and other) cultures. From a literary perspective it might be interesting to look at narratives while a linguistic angle may be looking at language production and conventions. Also, games can be arenas – places where you can communicate, collaborate and create – in similar ways as we have used virtual worlds in HUMlab-supported work. Simulations, roleplays and situated learning can be carried out here (game-specific or constructed). Some of the earlier MIT experiences seemed to indicate that using popular mainstream full-scale games had not worked optimally, and there is now more interest (as elsewhere) in light-weight, web-based solutions. This makes sense I think. Also, this probably makes it easier to relate to and integrate content from a wide variety of sources (such as newsfeeds, Flickr pictures, google map data, online radio/tv etc.).

As far as game-like games are concerned, they often tend to be focused on areas such as pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar (from my experience), and it will be interesting to see if it is possible to come up with more integrative games such as Labyrinth for language learning (that are not over-didactic). Several times during the forum, drill exercises were mentioned in contexts such as “not just drills”, and it is obvious that this is not what is most interesting. My experience from talking to language teachers is that drills are seen as important and that even fairly decontextualized drill exercises can have their use in a language learning context (together with many other things). Of course, making such drills/games adaptive and dynamic (maybe drawing on corpus data or imagery from Flickr) may help. I also think that there now probably are i-call applications that could fruitfully be integrated in web-based applications – talking heads, pronunciation analysis, visualization etc.

Other issues discussed were augmented reality-like games and situations, immersion, realism, exploration and time spent on other things than language learning (whatever that is). I believe that it is important to stress that realism and simulation happen in our heads, and that we do not always need photo realism to achieve convincing and immersive situations. Sometimes non-photo realistic representations may leave more room for interpretation. As far as time spent on non-language learning is concerned, I believe that we need to take digital literacy and broadened sense of ‘text’ into consideration. Games, virtual arenas, mediated language and non-textual representation are also part of language. I also made the point that it is very important to allow students to create and express themselves in game (and other) worlds. Someone else made a related point -that students (e.g. teacher trainees) can create games rather than us creating games for them. There is much more to be said about all this, and I am looking forward to following the work going on in this area at MIT.