Pursuing a passionate hobby often requires learning skills you didn’t intend to pick up. Modding an art car for Burning Man? Better learn to weld. Growing your own vegetables? Water and sun aren’t enough; learn about soil condition and pest control. And, if you want to play many multiplayer games (outside of Asia), you’ll probably learn some English.
io9’s Toybox has a piece on a study that looked at 10-11 year old Swedish children learning English and particularly the time they spent playing digital games in English. The study is quite easy to read (full paper here). The researchers considered gender as a variable and found that girls in the study used the Internet more than boys, predominately for socializing, while the boys played more competitive games online and also watched more films (in English with Swedish subtitles). They also found that students whose first language wasn’t Swedish were more likely to play English games, perhaps as a place where they had equal linguistic footing with their native Swede peers. And, though gamers have consistently had higher English language ability scores in other studies, the gamers in this study were less likely to self-rate their skills highly. The researchers speculate that this is because they have more opportunities to test their skills and observe their limits. The conclusion of the study points out that students of that age spend more time engaged with English outside of the classroom than inside, and that teachers should work to bridge the gap between those two experiences.
Many MMOs have servers with content localized for languages other than English, or at least with a predominance of native speakers. There are usually guilds/factions/teams for speakers of other languages even on North American servers. Inside a US-based virtual world like Second Life, it isn’t hard to find communities of non-English speakers, but English is the dominant language by far. If you’re trying to learn or improve English, gaming offers a wealth of opportunities, and if you don’t hide that you’re a learner, most people will be understanding about mistakes.
What about English speakers, though? Is gaming a possible way to build foreign language skills? I’ve met a few students of Korean, Japanese, and Chinese who use MMORPGs both to boost their skills and to play games that aren’t yet available in English; the latter reason being a stronger incentive than the first. Even on an English-language server, a learner could spend times in groups where that language is spoken. I’m not a language teacher, but it seems to me that when we are motivated by a primary goal that isn’t “I must learn language X” — be it gaming, or understanding the lyrics to a song, or socializing, or reading a comic book, or preparing a recipe — we acquire language more naturally and painlessly.
There are also more intentional ways to use gaming as a language-learning tool. I’m learning German, so I change the base language on silly app games on my phone. Not all of the phrases I learn are useful (“Bring all buckets to the ground”), but some are (“Are you sure?”). The Goethe-Institut has a couple of free app games that are quite good. I’ve played through Lernabenteuer Deutsch – Das Geheimnis der Himmelsscheibe, a mystery puzzle game that includes activities like ordering in a restaurant, following spoken directions to navigate, and paying with Euros. It’s not a game style that everyone would enjoy, but the plot does provide an incentive to keep going. It’s a lot more fun than memorizing lists.