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The semiotic ecology and linguistic complexity of an online game world

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 September 2012

Steven L. Thorne
Portland State University (USA) and University of Groningen (Netherlands) (email:
Ingrid Fischer
University of Groningen, The Netherlands
Xiaofei Lu
The Pennsylvania State University, USA


Multiplayer online games form complex semiotic ecologies that include game-generated texts, player-to-player communication and collaboration, and associated websites that support in-game play. This article describes an exploratory study of the massively multiplayer online game (MMO) World of Warcraft (WoW), with specific attention to its qualities as a setting for second language (L2) use and development. This empirical study seeks to answer the following question: What is the nature of the linguistic ecology that WoW players are exposed to? Many studies have described the developmental opportunities presented by commercially available gaming environments (e.g., Gee, 2003, 2007), their value as sites of literacy development (e.g., Squire, 2008a; Steinkuehler, 2008), and their potential as venues for second language (L2) use and learning (e.g., Peterson, 2010; Thorne, Black, & Sykes, 2009; Thorne & Fischer, 2012; Zheng, Young, Wagner & Brewer, 2009). There are, however, numerous outstanding questions regarding the quality and complexity of the linguistic environments associated with online commercially available games. This primarily descriptive research addresses this issue and aims to finely characterize the linguistic complexity of game-presented texts (or ‘quest texts’) as well as player generated game-external informational and strategy websites that form the expansive semiotic ecology of WoW game play. Questionnaires and interviews with Dutch and American gamers helped to identify a variety of widely used game-external websites. This information then informed the selection of texts that were analyzed for their linguistic complexity. By analysing the linguistic complexity of the texts that players regularly engage with, this study aims to empirically assess the resources and limitations of a representative and widely played MMO as an environment for L2 development.

Research Article
Copyright © European Association for Computer Assisted Language Learning 2012

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