American Assistant Language Teacher Andrew Ross discusses a government funded project on using western media in Japan to motivate students to learn English with an after school club, particularly focusing on using video games. This blog post is a modified version of the write up submitted to the local Board of Education's Annual English Teacher's publication with additional images and links for Japanese teachers and explanations for non-Japanese readers unfamiliar with Japanese educational practices
Last year, I wrote about using an education focused social media site called Edmodo to create a culture exchange between American and Japanese students learning each other's language. While it allowed many Japanese students to communicate with American students their own age, we also had to allow students the option to use their first language (Japanese for students in Japan and English or Japanese for the American students, since some of those students are Nikkei or ethnic Japanese born or being raised abroad).
Both the strength and weakness of Edmodo was student motivation. Students who lacked motivation spent very little time using English, and were mostly motivated by the threat of a punishment. The most motivated students, however, gained friends. In fact, one student from the program met one of her American friends two times since using Edmodo: one time as a high school student, and a second time after she moved to Kansai for college. This student has now made foreign friends in college.
There is a big difference between avoiding punishment and making a friend from another country. That’s the power of motivation though. Without it, students simply put in effort to avoid unpleasantness (and sometimes, they don’t even do that!). When they are motivated by their interests though, students can continue to learn and grow on their own, without their teachers. It’s what we want students to do, right? However, is it practical to focus so much on motivation in the classroom? How should motivation be used? What’s the most practical and beneficial way to use it?
Motivation and Media’s Use in Language Learning
Mahoney and Inoi (2015) have noted that, not only is MEXT (the Japanese Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology) not primarily concerned with the development of English language skills, but few homeroom teachers in Japan have the training to assess students’ improvement. MEXT is more concerned with students having a positive attitude towards English. Rather than judging that, Mahoney and Inoi instead surveyed homeroom teachers and assistant language teachers (ALTs) to find out what their priorities were when teaching English, what their goals were, and how those related to foreign language goals. Unsurprisingly, the thing that both groups agreed on as the most important area of focus was student enthusiasm.
However, enthusiasm and motivation are two different things. Enthusiasm is like lust, and motivation is like love. Enthusiasm may begin one’s interest, but motivation is what leads to mastery. I say this as not only a student and teacher, but as the son of an immigrant that speaks English as foreign language.
Doctors Sylvén and Sundqvist have worked on multiple projects in the field of motivation and media. While western teachers and researchers in general talk about the powers of motivation as if it were fact, Sylvén and Sundqvist in particular have many studies that show the effects of how more motivated students perform better in language classes. One of the most promising research topics they study is “extramural activities,” or activities done outside of school. For example, one study by Sundqvist (2009) involved following 74 ninth grade students in one Swedish school for a year, documenting their after-school activities and the length of time they spent on them on a daily basis. Students received a different speaking test five times during the study.
The study focused on the different types of activities students were doing on their own. These were their hobbies, not something introduced only for research. Again, remember these were Swedish students doing activities in English, a language they only study, not generally use in their daily life outside of hobbies. Hobbies included activities such as reading newspapers, magazines, or novels, watching TV or movies, using the internet, listening to music, and yes, playing video games.
Sundqvist found that students who spent the most time playing games not only scored higher than other students but had more positive attitudes toward English. While students who were active in reading did better on speaking, students who played games and surfed the internet had a much higher and significant improvement in terms of their vocabulary, especially in terms of understanding it. This is something very significant in Japan because most tests are not about speaking or writing but understanding English. In addition, students playing games spent almost the same amount of time as students who watched TV in English (both about four hours), while listening to music (six hours on average) was nearly at the bottom of the list, with only watching movies ranking lower. That means the time spent playing games is not only shorter than the time spent listening to music, but more beneficial.
The research suggests that games create an immersive environment suitable for language learning, generating motivating factors to attract learners and making use of simple tasks to keep learners playing the game. While some teachers may only imagine games to be violent shooters or Mario-like platformers, the fact of the matter is that many modern games are story based role playing games (RPG), and that online games played with people on the internet often allow for communication, both through written chat and voice chat.
I previously had the opportunity to speak with both Sylvén and Sundqvist for an article on language studies and online games. I asked them whether they felt that games and surfing the internet, two hobbies rarely taken seriously by at least western teachers, could really be better than the generally more acceptable hobbies of listening to foreign music or watching foreign television. They said:
“Well, that is what the results on our language tests correlated with background information tell us, and that is how we now know that the activities in connection with online games are more beneficial for language learning than are those found in the more "passive" offline games as well as other sources of "passive" language input, such as watching TV or films. Pia [Sundqvist]'s dissertation revealed that, relatively speaking, gaming, using the Internet and reading books (all three activities generally requiring the learner to be "active", relying on his or her own language abilities) were more beneficial for vocabulary and oral proficiency in English than watching TV or films, or listening to music (which are more "passive" activities, generally not requiring the learner to be "active")."
That is, while all hobbies motivated students to increase their language skills in their free time, the ones that required a reaction did better. That means that even though teachers may prefer students to watch, listen, and read foreign media because it’s “fun,” of those options, reading gives students the biggest boost in scores, and part of that is used in video games, which gave the biggest boosts, especially in vocabulary.
One thing to note: The online games in Sylvén and Sundqvist's studies were played mostly by boys. Girls did play games, but they preferred simulation games like The Sims to more multiplayer focused Massively Multiplayer Online games (MMOs). The girls tended to center their social activity into websites like Facebook rather than online games. The researchers admit that traditionally, video games have been aimed at white, heterosexual males; software designed "for girls" has been less successful. Additionally, women face sexism and harassment in certain social environments, which "undoubtedly has implications for [girls'] playing habits and possible second language learning." While women can enjoy online games, publishers' chosen target audience is mostly male, and until gender divides are overcome, the overall view that games are "for boys" will remain.
That being said, motivation originating from MMOs in particular have a lot of ways to help students study a language. Sylvén and Sundqvist also noted that:
"One boy we interviewed -- he was 14 at the time -- told us how he had spent more or less every afternoon after school, for two years, watching others play World of Warcraft; he was about 11 when he started doing this. He was totally drawn to the game because he really wanted to be able to understand what was happening! And he didn't know much English to begin with. Somehow, he realized that there was a story in the background somewhere, and he was desperate to learn more about what was going on, and he wanted to be able to participate. Thus, he listened and watched, listened and watched, listened and watched, put one piece of information to the other, and eventually dared to start playing on his own, when he was only 13 and had cracked the code for English. Not only is it amazing that he put so much time and effort into learning to play the game, but he did all this in a foreign language! In fact, English was his third language. Motivation is everything!"
To note, neither Sylvén nor Sundqvist are self-identified gamers. While they have played some games, they are primarily researchers working for universities and have no specific vested interests in gaming or the game industry.
However, schools in general do not support video games. While there is something called “esports” in America, China, and other countries where people compete in sports-like tournaments for money and even college scholarships, video games and school usually don’t work well together. This makes online games, which require new programs to be installed and filters to be removed from schools computers, nearly impossible, and that’s a real shame. There is enough promising research on the benefits of video games for schools that the US government has funded some projects, including one game, Eco, that is specifically being designed to merge education and entertainment, similar to the television show Sesame Street (Ross 2015a).
As Aydin and Genc (2011) mention, good internet use makes good use of certain aspects of the internet. It allows students to participate in authentic activities with authentic materials, such as real English writing and real native speakers. However, it should also match education goals and, simply put, games require a lot of motivation in order for them to pay off.
Sundqvist’s 2009 research noted that not many students were playing online games in English in their free time, and part of this may be because it’s a rather difficult task. From personal experience, playing multiplayer games with native speakers requires you to understand the foreign language at least well enough to complete assigned tasks, such as gathering berries or killing enemies. Even if the task is made more obvious by in game arrows pointing to player goals, there may be details that are not easy to show in images alone. For example, in the Monster Hunter series, you are sometimes asked to capture monsters, rather than kill them. Killing the monster results in a failure, meaning you’ve wasted between ten to fifty minutes of your time, and that’s assuming you are alone. You also need to be able to communicate with your team members. That means both listening skills and speaking or writing skills are required, depending on how you can communicate.
If your school wants students to be able to communicate in English, again, using the internet shows a lot of promise. If, however, your school only wants students to pass English tests, using the internet for games may not always a good use of technology, especially if there’s little motivation or thought as to how games should be used. I will discuss this more in detail later, but as Aydin and Genc note, students often see the use of technology in the classroom as engaging and dynamic. It is not their normal class situation, so they are at least excited by the different experience. Students are often able to show different skills in this type of environment as well, which can encourage some students to participate more.
However, it is important to note that, according to Aydin and Genc’s research, there is no statistical significance between a student’s familiarity with computers or their motivation. Students who are not proficient in computer use are still often motivated to participate in a computer-based class, but gamers in particular have a bit of a negative image, even though this is starting to change, at least among western people (Kowert et al. 2014). This means that using a computer and/or the internet can be useful to motivate students, even those who may not traditionally enjoy video games in their free time, but we still need to ask why we’re trying to motivate students and what that motivation should be used to achieve.
The Media Motivation Project(s)
As a fourth year ALT, I’ve seen my base school’s English Club change quite a bit (ALTs often work at multiple schools, with our "base" school being the school we visit the most and often go to by default). My first year had a small but motivated English Club. There were truthfully only three active members, all girls, and all third year students (meaning high school seniors). After they graduated and a new teacher took over, the club slowly began to die. The new students were not motivated, and the club head teacher was too busy to try to build support for the club. I went from having English Club everyday with one to three students to maybe having English Club three times a month, maybe with one or two students, mostly only if I was showing a movie.
In America, the schools I knew made club activities the students’ responsibility. The teachers only allowed us to use their classroom. Often, teachers weren’t even in the room during club activities. Clubs only existed because students wanted them, and we did not have to participate in any contests. In addition, most clubs had to raise their own money, though clubs that competed in contests received some money from the school.
While English Club at my schools does receive some money, it’s rarely used. At the end of the year, the left over money isn’t saved, we just lose it. The students don’t seem to care. I’ve tried bringing in card games, board games, some magazines, music, some video games, and movies with my own money though, just so the money is available to the students. The only activities that made students excited about coming to English Club were TV, movies, and video games. Students may listen to English song lyrics, but discussing their meanings is very difficult for them, as students are more used to being lectured than expressing their own thoughts; they are able to read simple translations, but few seem to care about the meaning, let alone discuss lyrics in a way similar to how we might discuss literature or poetry (which was a task asked of me in high school in both English and German classes). Any reading activity is rejected as soon as it’s suggested, and the one time we did try it, it required students to read at home before coming in for a lecture, which ended up causing more damage to the club. What students wanted was visual, digital media.
When the US Embassy sent a letter to my hiring organization (JET) about a grant project, I submitted a plan to use western media, such as TV, movies, and yes, video games, in order to motivate students to come to English Club and learn English. At the time, we had two semi-active students in English Club, but meetings were frequently canceled. Students only came if they knew I’d bring a movie or my personal Wii U. While using computers would have been much cheaper for showing movies and games, the school’s computers are often used by other clubs. Even if we could use the computers, the filters are a big problem, blocking even research websites about games, so most free game sites are impossible to use on school computers.
I also proposed that the project could help motivate the girl students. I had noticed during our self introductions that many girl students would write that they liked video games, but would not say it in class. The girls also often let boys control the simplest technical issues, such as setting up the DVD player. They girls ran the club, but they were also the ones not using the club funds for anything. The only thing they seemed strongly interested in (that they deemed permissible for English Club) was for me to bring movies.
In September, I was told I would receive $500 for the project from the US government. With that money, I bought a Wii U console with game (Nintendo Land), 4 controllers, and the game Mario Party 10. My mother in America paid to have the game things shipped to Japan, as well as including a download code for an RPG I had shown students before (Mother 2 which is called Earthbound in America). I specifically chose non-shooting, non-fighting games, as these were the types of games girls were more likely to enjoy and often required more language skills when played offline.
There is currently $184.55 left over from the grant, which will be given to the students in January to be used for media related goods the school will not allow them to normally buy (such as other games). This is to help motivate students to continue to develop their club and, like American students, force them to consider how to raise money for club activities.
The plan was to have students write down new words they learned anytime during English Club. In addition, during each club meeting (except for special meetings, such as for club duties), for 10 minutes, club members would have to keep writing in their journal.
My goal was to, at the very least, motivate students to come to English Club. Once there, I would hope that they would make use of native-level English reading materials and possibly try to communicate in English with me (several students speak to me in Japanese unless I can’t understand them) or other students, as past members had done. In addition, it was my hope that the female students would not only continue to lead the club, but would attempt to learn how to use some of the simple technology they usually asked the boys to do.
If possible, I also wanted them to improve their English. As a former University English teacher, I have some experience at least looking into possible student growth. To do this, in March, I intend to compare English Club students’ vocabulary test scores and grades with randomly selected non-English Club members in their classes. If students who attended English Club consistently showed more growth than non-English Club students, it would mean that there is a possible connection (further testing would be needed to confirm that). This will be the final test of the program but, sadly, the comparison is not complete. I will be checking this in either late February or March.
Since the announcement of the program (only to the then current English Club members), we have had 4 new students join English Club, totaling 10 students. The English Club at this school has never had that many club members as long as I have been here. My first year, we only had 7 members total; the second year had about 5 (one student sometimes didn’t even come to important meetings); the third year we also had about 5 (same problem as the year before). Doubling our size seems to at least indicate that something this year increased interest in English Club. Although I have no hard evidence, I think it may be the inclusion of western video games in the program, especially considering the fact that we gained 4 students after the program’s announcement.
In addition, we have two boy students in English Club, something that is also a first among all of my schools’ English Clubs. Having a boys-only English Club meeting is something that never previously happened unless our single male student wanted to practice for an oral test. I suppose it should have been obvious, but one unintentional effect of bringing video games to English is that it helps get boys interested in English Club.
While club activities were frequently canceled before the introduction of video games to club activities, these days, activities are mostly only canceled due to school and test related events. Any other day, students choose to come to English Club, even if they aren’t sure what we’re doing.
In fact, some students still request meetings on some off days if English Club is effected by another event. For example, although the school marathon canceled English Club one week, the students rescheduled that day to one of their usual non-club days. We had a late Halloween party where students brought snacks. It was two days to ensure that everyone had a chance to have fun. Students paid for their own snacks, and I brought in a movie one day and games the second day. Parties are something we had not done since my first year at the school, and even then, we only had one student come to that Halloween Party. We never had two day parties either, but students this year seem more considerate of each other’s feelings.
It’s important to note, however, that I had brought 2 movies for the party. I had assumed students would want to watch both movies since they had requested both. However, when the students who chose the second movie didn’t come for the second party, the English Club members who came to the second day requested games instead. These were mostly girl students. Although students certainly prefer western movies over conversation practice, the opportunity to play video games at school probably motivates students more because it’s more unique than movies. As Aydin and Grec noted, the internet motivated students because of its uniqueness when compared to normal class activities. I would propose that, like any “fun” and unique activity, video games, which are never played in most classes, motivates increased student participation at the very least.
English Club now usually meets twice a week, and usually has between 2 and 5 members attending each meeting, with 3 or 4 members being the average. Although some students who dislike games have not shown new interest in the club, those who are interested both attend more frequently and have invited their friends to join the club. Again, the inclusion of digital media seems to have motivated students to come to club activities.
However, the frequency and quality of English use in the club is mixed. While the students do keep their English dairies, they don’t often write down new English words unless it’s immediately before or after they use their journals. This is a lot better than before, as students would spend most of their time translating or trying to make very simple sentences, which is similar to class. In their diaries, they can talk about things they have done in the club or want to do, and one student in particular writes almost twice as much as the others before struggling to think of new things to write. Most students continue to speak in Japanese, but there have been some interesting developments.
While boy students who enjoy video games in their free time skip reading in games, the girls will read out loud, without me asking them to do so. A girl student who had never tried an RPG quickly learned several new words (“items,” “mercy,” and “act”), while students familiar with games at another school mostly had not noticed these words (more on that later). In that sense, students who don’t play video games seem to be able to notice and read more English than students more familiar with games because they are learning how to play the game. Since the game is in English, non-gamer students are at least slightly motivated to learn English in order to understand how to play.
First year students (10th graders) who play video games together develop also have their own kind of “stories” while playing the games. For example, “Spike,” the small green dinosaur character in Mario Party 10 in the picture above, was renamed “Gozaemon” by the students for some reason. The students used English to try to explain that it was kind of an old name. Then, they would describe the things that happened to “Gozaemon” while playing. They would say something about what happened to Spike/Gozaemon in Japanese, and if I understood, I would comment in English. For example, when they realized he had a shell, I said, “Yes, he has a small shell.” When a student came late to English Club, the other students, in English, told her this before switching to Japanese to tell her.
There has also been some communication increase. For example, when I play with the students (games often allow up to five players), I try to make comments so there is team work. For example, there is a kind of hide and seek or tag-like game in Nintendo Land. One player is Mario, and the other characters are Kinopio (“Toad” in English). Mario can run and hide behind walls while the other players wait to find him. The Mario player has a map so they can see everyone on a small screen on the Wii U controller, but the other players must look for Mario on the TV screen.
The game level is circular, with four colored sections: red, blue, green, and yellow. If I see Mario, I tell the students something like, “Mario is in green. He’s running towards yellow.” It’s not regular English, but what someone might say for quick, simple communication with even kind of game.
Some students don’t pay attention to my comments. Students playing as Mario who don’t listen lose quickly. However, one student was doing very well. When we watched the playback of the games (one of the built in features of the game), I noticed the student who was the best at hiding often changed directions soon after I chased him, not only if I chased him. Then, while playing the game, I realized he was listening to me. If I said Mario was moving towards the red area, he would turn around. If I said Mario was running towards the middle, he’d turn around. The student wasn’t speaking English, but he was listening to it.
This is important because just being surrounded by a foreign language isn’t enough. There are many foreigners who live in Japan who don’t learn Japanese! In order to learn a language, you have to notice it, and then interact with it.
This realization gets better though. Another student realized what was happening. At first, she would say the colors in Japanese. Eventually though, she started shouting them in English. This may seem simple, but later, she did something even better.
We were playing a different hide and seek game, though instead of colors being shared, the controller shakes more and more as the hiding player becomes closer to you in another game, she was saying full sentences, although not so loud. This student may have been embarrassed, or she may have been trying to keep communication as a secret so the more skilled player couldn’t understand the hints she was telling us. Either way, without being explicitly taught, she had learned how to give directions in English and was doing so. Simple motivation lead to simple production. In fact, she had begun using the same sentence style as I had been using! I would say, “I think he’s this way” or “He’s near me” depending on how strong the controller shook. She said things “He’s this way” or “Near me.” She both noticed and tried to interact with what she’d heard.
One small, final bonus though, is that the girls were the first to learn how to setup the club’s Wii U. The girls are more active in the club, so I showed them how to set it up the Wii U first. Then, when a boy student came to the club, I asked the girls to show him how to do it, so he learned from them. Even so, since then, the girls will still choose to set up the Wii U on their own, even if the boys can do it too. It’s a small thing, but it shows the girls can act independently when the boys are around.
The Second Project
Interestingly enough, after the project started, one of the English Clubs at a different school I visit also started to have problems with its English Club members. That club uses Edmodo as part of their after school activity. When the most active user “retired” from the club, most of the other members lost interest in using social media to connect with foreign students. In fact, the other activities the students used to do, such as volunteer work and helping with local events, also became unpopular. The students were members of English Club, but they only came at the start of the meeting and would leave as soon as they were bored. They were told they could use Edmodo as much as they wanted in English or Japanese, but many would only write a few sentences in Japanese and go home, without even asking me to check if what they wrote was ok (a habit set by the former third year students).
The head English Club teacher and I talked about my research and project at my base school. I told her that I could do something similar, perhaps even better, and for almost no money. “Steam,” a game service similar to the iTunes store but for video games, has many good free games which can also be played online. The school’s computers can be freely used by that school’s English Club, so it seemed like a good idea.
In addition, the creator of a popular American RPG, Undertale, offered to provide us several copies of the game, essentially saving us about ￥11,000 or, if purchased in dollars, about $110. The plan was to allow students to try various games depending on their interest and have them write a journal in English, but only for 5 minutes since we though these students’ attention span was shorter.
The problem, however, was that the Board of Education would not allow Steam to be accessed through the filter or for us to install Undertale to the computers, despite being given it for free. Not being able to use Steam meant that all the benefits of online games- such as communicating with other English speakers, having a variety of English reading and listening resources, and having access to other various free games of different genres to motivate students with- would go untested.
However, we did have a lot of help from the school’s technology teacher and his wife, my co-worker at a different school. He found a way to install the game (which can easily be run on nearly any computer) onto a USB and allow students to save their progress to it.
What’s interesting about this particular game is that it’s a game that knows it’s being played, and it reacts. For example, at the start of the game, a girl “monster” rescues you. She takes care of you and tells you that hurting people is bad, so you shouldn’t do it. Yes, this is a game that discourages you from being violent! However, if you tell her that you don’t want to live with her, she will fight you. She will tell you that, outside her home, life is cruel, and you must be cruel too. If you kill her, another character, a flower, will call you a murderer. You can reset the game and choose not to kill the girl monster, but then the flower will tell you that it knows you “cheated.”
The game knows when you restart it and choose a different option. The fact that the game judges your actions is not only unique, but enjoyable and has been proven to lead to increased moral awareness (Ross 2015b). However, if you play the game as a normal, violent game, and never read the text, you might not realize this.
The students at my second school have only been able to play the game a little. Most of them are enjoying fighting. They only read a little, but they see “fight” and decide to kill. One student, however, has started to notice there are other ways to win that don’t involve fighting. As I previously mentioned, I had a student at my main school play this game, but because she had never played an RPG before, she found this difference quickly. At my second school, I discovered that the student who noticed the non-violent options is actually the opposite- she really likes video games! She noticed that the usual options in RPGs- like “Magic” or “Escape” weren’t there, and “Act” and “Mercy” are not options in any other RPG that I know of. This shows that, once again, motivation can lead to learning. In this case, the student learned not only how to play the game, but the words needed to understand its nonviolence.
Interestingly enough, introducing the game allowed us to do two things. One, it gives students a reason to continue to use Edmodo. We do not allow students to play the game unless they first write to their American “friends.” Even students who only wrote in Japanese before have tried writing in English now. Second, it has gotten the students to write more. While the time limit is only 5 minutes for this school, all students chose to keep writing, even though they were told I would not grade or even collect the papers immediately. Most wrote for closer to 10 minutes.
Nearly all students wrote that the game is difficult (when I informally asked about this, they mentioned that the English is difficult), but they wrote that they wanted to play more. The characters were interesting for them: a flower is perhaps the scariest enemy they have found, and most people die to an evil carrot. Again, this is popular American video game, not simply an educational game. The benefits of the game as an English or moral teaching tool are simply a nice coincidence that can be taken advantage of if a teacher knows how to do so.
Using video games in school is probably not the best use of class time. There are many challenges when using games in class. There needs to be access to game consoles and/or computers in addition to games. Teachers also need to have a lesson plan that involves more than playing the game; the game is a tool, and we need students to reflect on that to learn something better, similar to teaching literature. This can be very expensive and even difficult for teachers who don’t know much about games. Students who are not interested in games or English won’t suddenly learn English. If one is to use games to help students learn English, it should be restricted to after school activities, and mostly used to motivate students who are not responding to other activities.
While my own experience has not shown any hard evidence that using video games increases English language skills, at the very least, it has shown that it can be used to motivate students to participate in club activities. That motivation helps make sure there is club for students to interact with and a reason for them to meet. Even if we did have the perfect way for students to learn English during English Club, they will not learn it if they don’t attend club activities.
However, I have given multiple examples of students using English during club activities. Video games in particular motivated students to attend club activities more frequently, to learn some technology skills (from simple game console set up to exploring multiple files in a USB), to write when they normally hated writing, and to even communicate during games in English, either by reacting to it or speaking it. Movies help, but only with attendance; there was very little additional production caused by watching movies. Only one student seems more motivated to learn English from movies, and she mostly does this by herself. That’s still good, but non-violent, multiplayer games and text-based games have seemed more effective.
In the future, having access to online games, especially through Steam, could not only save schools money (unless they too receive a project grant), but make use of a mountain of research that strongly points to online games as a positively tested method of language learning by motivated language learners. Upcoming game Eco in particular could even be used as part of classes, as researchers have developed class materials and plans as part of their requirements to earn government funding (Ross 2015a). There is a lot of potential for schools that already have the tools, we simply require more open minds.
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