Interactive Participatory Dramas for Language Learning

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    DOI: 10.1177/1046878102332009

    2002 33: 210Simulation GamingPhilip Hubbard

    Interactive Participatory Dramas for Language Learning

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    Interactive participatorydramas for language learning

    Philip HubbardStanford University

    Interactive participatory dramas are software applications that engage the users by involving them as acharacter in a story. Although these dramas have been part of computer-assisted language learning (CALL)for more than a decade, they have not become a widespread genre. However, recent advances in video,graphics, and speech recognition, as well as the spread of interactive participatory dramas in other areas ofeducation and training, make the proliferation of such applications in CALL considerably more likely. Asthere is presently little in theway of research or agreed-on standards of practice to inform the process of cre-ating participatory dramas, this article offers some preliminary guidelines for software developers andevaluators engaged in their design. Among other points, it argues for the use of engaging characters andplots, the use of speech recognition for verbal interaction, the presentation of choice points with conse-quences for the learners, and the abandonment of the common use of full text prompts that are simply readout loud. It concludes by observing that most of these language learning considerations are equally relevantfor simulations and role plays.

    KEYWORDS: CALL; conversation simulation; interactive drama; participatory drama; psycho-linguistic considerations; psycholinguistic issues; response type; role play; speech recog-nition; story line.

    The use of drama as a device for language learning has a long history as both anincidental and a central element of language teaching methods (Bacon, Baolin, &Goldfield, 1993). One common use of drama is as a language practice technique withthe student playing a role in a skit or play. In defending this use of drama in languageteaching from a psychological perspective, Stern (1993) claimed that it reduces inhibi-tion, increases spontaneity, and enhances motivation, self-esteem, and empathy. Asecond use of drama is as a device to present language in a social context to focus andmaintain learner interest. This use is found in a number of popular audio and video lan-guage series, such as French in Action (Capretz, 1987). Like dramas in movies or thetheater, these are built on observation and vicarious identification with characters andtheir circumstances within a compelling story.

    The interactive potential of the computer has brought a new kind of drama blendingthese two uses, which can be called a participatory drama. In a participatory drama, thelearner is a part of the action as in the first type of drama, experiencing a story with

    AUTHORS NOTE: I would like to thank Vance Stevens and John Driscoll for the many enjoyable hours ofcollaboration and discussion of interactive participatory dramas that provided the raw material for the guide-lines presented here. Much as I would like to hold them responsible, if there are any points that are unclear orunconvincing, they are not to blame.

    SIMULATION & GAMING, Vol. 33 No. 2, June 2002 210-216 2002 Sage Publications


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  • programmed characters on the computer screen. However, as in the second type ofdrama, the plot, characters, and general direction of the action are not known to thelearner in advance, enhancing the feeling of the authenticity of the experience. Whenthe learner can manipulate the responses of a character and make choices that affect thedirection and sometimes the eventual outcome of the story, the participatory dramabecomes an interactive one. For language learning, of course, the important part of thismanipulation involves making choices of what to say in a given circumstance, with theassumption that the experience of doing so will lead to acquisition of new forms andenhanced communicative competence.

    Interactive participatory dramas have been a part of CALL for quite some time,although they have never become a dominant application. An early example of a par-ticipatory drama was A LA RECONTRE DE PHILIPPE (1994), an interactive adven-ture which came out of MITs Athena Project. The concept had its first commercialsuccess with the CD-ROM-based WHO IS OSCAR LAKE? (1996) in various lan-guages. The interaction went from point-and-click to including speech recognitionwith the publication of TRACI TALK: THE MYSTERY for English as a second lan-guage in 1997.

    Despite their current marginalization in mainstream CALL, there are a number ofreasons to believe that these types of programs are going to increase and become a sig-nificant option for language learners, both as integrated elements of a course (as inNUEVOS DESTINOS [1999], a CD-ROM based on Destinos, a popular video seriesfor learning Spanish) and as stand-alone or supplemental programs. First, we alreadysee simulations of real-life situations like this being produced for other training pur-poses, such as Ninth Houses eSeries ALL WORK ALL PLAY (2000). Second, asmore and more learners appear in our language classes who have grown up with theinteractivity of computers and immersive adventure games, both the preparation andthe expectation for such applications will be there. Third, digital audio and video pro-duction can now be done at a reasonable level on any decent desktop machine. Ani-mated characters with reasonably accurate lip synchronization have also become eas-ier to produce, bringing the production cost down to levels that will support increaseddevelopment. Finally, speech recognition authoring systems for English and com-monly taught languages are becoming more accurate and easier to integrate intoprograms.

    Although participatory dramas have been around for a while, there appears to be lit-tle in the way of general guidelines for creating useful ones. Much of the limitedamount of research that has been done appeared in the pioneering days of the interac-tive videodisc (for examples, see Smith, 1989). The majority of that research focusedon demonstrating the validity of the general approach rather than specific elements ofits implementation (Gale, 1989), and that is still the case with more recent studies(Bernstein, Najmi, & Ehsani, 1999; Harless, Zier, & Duncan, 1999). Because we donot yet have significant research and established practice to guide interactive partici-patory drama developers, it seems reasonable to begin laying a foundation for themethodology of this field by offering considerations to be addressed in the design pro-cess. As is typically the case, the same considerations are useful for teachers or


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  • institutions considering the adoption of an existing program; that is, they are the rawmaterial for both specific design and specific evaluation criteria. It is important to notethat the goal here is not to criticize any particular program or language teachingapproach. Rather, I would like to offer some suggestions that I believe will lead to amore coherent and effective package by combining the current and readily foreseeablecapabilities of the computer, the understanding we have of the motivational elementsof drama as an immersive environment, and some reflections on how people processlanguage for increasing their production and comprehension skill. This approach is inline with the ongoing task of developing a methodology specific to CALL in its tutorialfunction (Hubbard, 1996; Levy, 1997).

    Toward effective participatory dramas

    This section offers a list of some considerations in authoring interactive participa-tory dramas for CALL spanning three areas: dramatic qualities, response type, andpsycholinguistic issues.

    Dramatic qualities

    1. Consider the nature of the characters. Is there an attraction to interact with them,or is it merely forced on the learner by the program? We do not like bad acting or badlyscripted characters in a movie or play, so why should we have to put up with them in aparticipatory drama?

    2. Consider the story line. Is it mundane and predictable, or does it develop in aninteresting way that maintains attention for its own sake? Because a participatorydrama is a drama and not just a role play, we want users to feel motivated, even com-pelled, to stay and see what happens to the characters, especially their own.

    3. Consider the timing and pace. Is it too slow to keep track of the character and plotdevelopment? Is it too fast to allow for any reflection on the language? Because there isconsiderable evidence that we do not simultaneously focus on form and meaning well,does the program allow for some separation of these (for reviews of relevant studies,see Doughty & Williams, 1998; Skehan, 1998)? If the focus moves to form, is it stilllinked to meaning? Note that the answers to these questions are not predetermined asyes or no: They depend largely on the objectives of the program. There is a differencebetween a program designed to give experience in using the language and one thatexplicitly demands the learning of new forms to allow student progress. Harless et al.(1999), for instance, designed their interactive drama specifically for language mainte-nance and recovery rather than the teaching of new language forms.

    4. Beware of style over substance. Depending on the nature of the production, theremay be a temptation to let cinematography, story line, character development, or even

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  • game features submerge the language so that the learners lose focus. For example, areview by Morrell (2000) of a Web-based murder mystery noted that when her studentsused it they complained of the cumbersome amount of information that they wereexpected to process and remember (p. 538). The lesson here is that the cleverness andcomplexity that make an application appealing to serious PC gamers are likely not tobe appreciated by learners whose primary motivation is to improve their foreign lan-guage proficiency.

    Response type

    Response type refers to the action expected of the learner when prompted by theprogram (often through a character on the screen) to do or say something. Theresponse type is a function of the prompt that precedes it: The prompt can either justsignal the learners turn or provide some or all of the linguistic content for it.

    1.Consider the type of interaction. Does it allow choice? If, for example, the learneris prompted with an offer (Would you like some coffee?), does the learner only havea single allowed response (e.g., Yes, please) or multiple responses? If the former,then the interactivity is rather limited. A number of CD-ROMs currently on the marketclaim to be interactive but in fact are based on linear dialogues that the learner mustslavishly follow. Despite having sometimes interesting characters and plots, they donot meet the criteria for truly interactive participatory dramas.

    2. If the learner is allowed choices, do the choices mean anything to the action? Forexample, if the prompted responses to the offer above were Yes, please/Id love some/Sure, thanks, then the choice of one or the other would have no real consequences tothe program flow and the response would not require much thought. Compare the pre-vious set of responses with these: Yes, please/No thanks/Do you have decaf? Theselective branching that would follow the utterance of one of these responses clearlyhas at least a local consequence for what the programmed character would say or do inreturn. The somewhat cynical assumption alluded to here is that if the program isdesigned in such a way that the choices a learner makes have no consequences, the typ-ical learner will not pay that much attention to the choices. If, on the other hand, he orshe has to consider the consequences of the response and understand the language todo so, he or she is likely to process the interaction more deeply and retain somethinguseful from the experience.

    3. Does the learner interact through speech, text, or clicking? There is some credi-ble evidence (see Reeves & Nass, 1996) that maintaining modalities is beneficial.Merely clicking on a line of text to interact involves the least amount of language pro-duction and is not a particularly good modality match. If a learner is reading a dia-logue, then it is reasonable to respond to it through text input. However, if the learner islistening to a character speak to him or her, speaking back is clearly more natural and abetter match of modalities. Furthermore, if the interaction is conversational in nature,


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  • then oral interaction is a better fit than text for the learner and all other characters in thedrama.

    Psycholinguistic considerations

    The last set of considerations has been labeled psycholinguistic because they centeron elements of language processing, especially on the production side. They involvethe cognitive (and linguistic) relationships (a) between the material preceding theprompt and the prompt and (b) between the prompt and the learners consequent lin-guistic act.

    1. How deeply does the learner have to process form and meaning in preparing theresponse? Arguably, the pedagogical purpose of a participatory drama is to simulateconversational interaction with the objective of improving a learners proficiency at it.After watching students and experiencing some of these programs myself (includingone I helped designTRACI TALK: THE MYSTERY [1997]), I have come to theconclusion that speaking lines written for the learner is primarily a reading exercise,and a fairly superficial one at that. To make these programs effective, they have to bestructured in such a way that they at least encourage the engagement of the learnersproduction capacity. Here are a few suggestions to help achieve that goal that are rele-vant for both text or speech interactions (but not point and click):

    a. For speaking, use no prompt when feasible, which eliminates the possibility of just read-ing out loud and the superficial processing that accompanies it. This can be in answer to ayes/no question, an alternative question (Would you like soup or salad with that?), or aquestion with an answer already provided by the story (What time does the trainleave?). It could also include culturally fixed responses (the phone rings: Hello?) orusing a speech algorithm capable of trapping a keyword and ignoring the rest (So, whereare you headed San Francisco/to San Francisco/Im on my way to San Francisco/etc.;keyword = San Francisco). The developer might also let the program trap garbage onoccasion and move on in the action as if something coherent had been said (e.g., if the pro-gram asks, So, how do you like it here? we may want it to accept any kind of responseand then give a generic follow-up like, Oh, I see). Some combination of the precedingcould give the impression that the conversation was open while still maintaining a lot ofcontrol. What is of questionable value is asking the learner to memorize one role in a dia-logue and parrot it back without prompts, unless the learning goal is really consistent withthat outcome. It is worth noting that projects such as SUBARASHII (Bernstein et al.,1999) have demonstrated that it is possible to design a promptless interaction (at least ini-tially) but at an enormous cost in production time.

    b. Use partial or indirect prompts. These include using some form of keyword (more water Excuse me, could I have some more water, please?), gapped items (Excuse _____,could _____ have _____ more water, _____? Excuse me, could I have some morewater, please?), or indirect prompts (Ask the waiter for more water Excuse me,could I have some more water, please?).

    c. Give the full prompt, but make the learner process it first before saying it. Two ways to dothis are by flashing the prompt for a set time (e.g., 2 seconds) before allowing a spoken ortext response or by letting the learner read the options, click that he or she is ready, andthen take them away before accepting a spoken or written response. Ultimately, open-

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  • ended spoken dialogue systems being developed for other uses (like e-commerce) will beported to language learning, but in the meantime this or one of the previous options ismore pedagogically defensible than just read and say and much more pedagogicallydefensible than read and click.

    2. Does it matter what the learner says? This question returns us to the first cate-gory: What the learner is allowed to say is a crucial part of the drama because itincreases the motivation to engage. In addition, psycholinguistic research arguesstrongly for the importance of processing for meaning in second-language acquisition,and computers have given us a vehicle for going beyond listen (or read) and repeatactivities that make it all too easy to avoid processing for meaning. Appropriatelydesigned software can demand or at least encourage processing for meaning while stilllimiting response options so that they can be anticipated. As noted in the section onresponse type, if the learner is presented with a set of options to say and the response isthe same regardless of which is chosen, there is no external motivation for payingattention to the meaning. What this means is that both dramatic considerations and lan-guage acquisition research converge on the notion that choice with consequences is animportant, perhaps crucial feature of effective interactive participatory dramas for lan-guage learning.


    This article has focused on interactive participatory dramas without explicitly con-sidering the related genres of interactive simulations and role plays. Of the two, simu-lations most closely overlap dramas because independent role plays typically lack thecharacteristics mentioned by Stern (1993)in particular motivationthat make dra-mas so compelling. I would argue, however, that many of the considerations presentedabove, as well as their justifications, apply equally to both of these other applications,in particular those connected with response types and psycholinguistic issues.

    Although interactive participatory dramas have existed for well over a decade, theyremain somewhat marginalized in language learning. However, as noted, there aregood reasons for language software developers, both commercial and institutional, toextend the number and scope of these applications, the most obvious one being thegrowth of adequate speech recognition systems. There is little in the way of empiricalresearch to guide decision making here, so we need to rely at this time on a broad set ofconsiderations to keep one element of a participatory drama from dominating at theexpense of others. In this article, I have sought to draw attention to some of those con-siderations. In particular, I have argued that unless there are valid pedagogical reasonsfor doing otherwise for a particular application, we should have engaging charactersand plots, use speech recognition for verbal interaction, present choice points forlearners that have consequences, and abandon the common use of full text prompts thatare simply read out loud. As the genre grows, we can expect these considerations to beexpanded and refined through both research and field experience.


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    Philip Hubbard is a senior lecturer in linguistics and associate director of the English for Foreign StudentsProgram at Stanford University. He has worked in the field of computer-assisted language learning since1983, designing and authoring CALL programs and publishing articles on CALL methodology.

    ADDRESS: PH: Linguistics Dept., Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305-2150, USA; telephone: +1650-725-1557, fax: +1 650-723-1442; e-mails:,

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