Abstract Details

Effective ELLE-ments: Learner Preferences In Learning Game Features And Mechanics


Prior research suggests that presenting knowledge embedded within videogames can increase learner motivation, engagement, critical thinking, and retention (Eichenbaum, Bavelier, & Green 2014; Fullerton, 2014; Chiappe, Conger, Liao, Caldwell, & Vu, 2013; Strobach, Frensch, & Schubert, 2012; Przybylski, Rigby, & Ryan, 2010; Gee, 2003). This research has expanded along with technology in recent years, and scholars have investigated learning in more widely available console and PC videogames (Fang & Yang, 2017; Charsky & Mims, 2008) as well as embodied mixed-reality (Lindgren & Johnson-Glenberg, 2013) and virtual reality (VR) platforms (Martin-Gutiérrez, Mora, Anorbe-Diaz, & González-Marrero, 2017; Santos et al., 2009). Language learning has also benefited from improving technology and videogames are now utilized in different ways to teach and enhance second language acquisition (SLA) (Peterson, 2010; Chapelle, 2008).

This study examines player preferences in an endless-runner style educational videogame called ELLE the EndLess LEarner created for second language acquisition (SLA). Designed by the interdisciplinary team of authors, this innovative game is playable on VR and PC platforms, and it was created to be an engaging way for second language learners to practice foreign vocabulary terms. Because motivation is such an influential facet of learning, it seemed logical to the team that a game that allowed learners to practice vocabulary terms-a traditionally mundane task that learners often avoid-should encourage language students to more readily and more frequently engage in vocabulary practice.

The specific mechanics with which players would engage and find beneficial for learning, however, were less obvious to the team. The objective of this study is to assess specific game mechanics and features that are most beneficial for learning foreign vocabulary in an endless-runner game.

ELLE the EndLess LEarner is a robust database-driven game that can be easily customized to teach vocabulary words, phrases, and even pictograms from any semiotic domain, regardless of language or subject. Vocabulary retention is often a challenge for language learners and a frequent frustration for their instructors. The “endless” nature of this videogame encourages repeated practice of terms in several formats (text, image, and audio) in a game environment, which the authors believe lessens the learners’ fear of failure. The language coed into the game for the study described here was Portuguese, in preparation for a future research study planned in a Portuguese language course at the authors’ university.

The VR version of ELLE has the player constantly moving forward through a rather sparsely decorated museum. The player is presented with a term (spoken in Portuguese, English text, Portuguese text, or an image) that must be matched with the corresponding image or text translation. The term to be matched is presented beside the door they are running toward, while the 3-5 match selections (3 for the “easy” setting, 4 for medium, and 5 for hard) appear above a door. They must use the handheld game controller to point and click a laser at the corresponding correct match over the door. If their choice is correct, the door will open. If the choice is incorrect, the door will remain closed and the player will simply ‘break’ through the door, to indicate to the player the inaccuracy of their choice.

Additional game elements are included in this version-brick walls that players need to dodge by stepping left or right-intended to increase player engagement. Players earn 10 points for each correct match and 1 point for dodging each obstacle. They lose 10 points for each incorrect match and 1 point for not dodging an obstacle. After the player has made a selection, the correct match is highlighted by a checkmark and the incorrect selections receive X marks over them to help the player understand the answer.

The PC over-the-shoulder (OTS) version of ELLE is quite similar, though played on a desktop computer. The game retains a similar point of view as the VR version, but the player’s view is just behind the avatar. To control the avatar in this build, players utilize the arrow keys to move left and right to dodge the same brick walls as the VR version, and then navigate their avatar into the doorway directly beneath the correct match. Terms for matching are pulled randomly from the same database as the VR version.

The PC side-scroller build (SS) takes a side view of the avatar, which is continually running from left to right. This version has the player use the spacebar to make the avatar jump over logs rather than dodging brick walls and to jump to “hit” the matching term when it appears directly over the avatar’s head. Again, the terms are pulled randomly from the same database as the other versions.

Research Questions

  • Which features of the game do players report being the most effective for helping them learn?
  • What game mechanics do players mention as beneficial for learning the experience?


The three different modalities of ELLE were created using different builds from the same Unreal project base and therefore consist of the same graphics and audio. They differ in the way the player controls the game as well as perspective the player sees. A fourth game was included as a control: a digital flashcard game containing the same terms in the form of images, English text, and Portuguese text (there is no audio available for this game).

All participants completed a pretest survey that included items assessing their knowledge of the vocabulary terms in the game in addition to their expertise with non-English languages. Participants then played their randomly assigned game for 20 minutes, then completed a post-survey assessing knowledge of the same vocabulary terms as well as their gameplay experience and basic demographic information. Both the pre- and post-surveys were administered using a web-based questionnaire.

A total of 37 players volunteered for an interview after completing the study, though the audio recordings for two of them were inaudible, and one participant’s data was completely removed from the study because they accidentally took the pretest two times and omitted the posttest. This resulted in a total of 34 participants for this portion of analysis: 15 female 18 male, and one who did not wish to indicate their gender. Of these, 10 had experienced the VR condition, 7 from the OTS version, 10 who played the SS build, and 7 who played the control game, TOT.

This paper looks specifically at the answer these participants gave to the interview question, “What features of the game did you find most useful in learning about the language?” Audio recordings of the participants’ verbatim responses have been transcribed and will be coded following the thematic analysis process described by Braun and Clarke (2019). The codes will be compared between conditions to reveal specific game features participants indicated as beneficial for learning.


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