Mistoria: A Narrative Tool for Language Learning
Maurice Boothe Jr.
Digital Media Design for Learning + Games for Learning
Educational Communication and Technology
Department of Administration, Leadership, and Technology
New York University
Table of Contents
Table of Contents 1
About Me 3
Areas of Focus 5
Second Language Acquisition 5
Games for Learning 6
Learning Analytics 7
Learner Characteristics 9
Content Description 10
Features + Rationale 12
Rich Narrative 12
Adaptive Dialogue 13
Companion + Non-Player Characters 16
First Iteration 19
Second Iteration 21
User Testing 25
Demo Version 27
Future Directions 27
The product of these efforts were my own, but in no way would have been possible without the
support of my friends, family, and colleagues, some of whom I would like to acknowledge
- My fellow thesis classmates for their continued feedback, especially Collin and Ana.
- The faculty at ECT for their flexibility and support during a challenging couple years.
- Paul for the hours of back and forth on coding.
- Kelly for being an amazing, supportive partner.
- Max for being such a soft and nice kitty.
- And my Mom. We did it!
My name is Maurice Boothe Jr. In a past life, I studied Spanish Education and taught at the high
school level for several years. In the classroom, my colleagues and I would employ
Comprehensible Input strategies designed to facilitate second language acquisition as opposed
to teaching language structures explicitly.
While getting my degree, I also earned a minor in Computer Science, enabling me to teach the
subject alongside my Spanish classes. Teaching things like Scratch, Java, Object-Oriented
Programming, and the theory behind the field were some of my responsibilities.
At the conclusion of my time in the Digital Media Design for Learning program, I consider myself
to be an educational researcher and designer with the ability to leverage the fields of Games for
Learning and Learning Analytics in order to create compelling educational experiences.
I have also been a life-long enthusiast of games, whether that be through playing or designing. I
first became a Dungeon Master when I was 12 years old, and spent nearly the next 20 years
weaving together narratives and game mechanics for me and my friends.
With my depth of experience in these different areas, I have always found myself uniquely
positioned to bridge these areas of technology, language, and games in order to design and
implement unique solutions to problems, an example of which I present as my thesis.
The benefits of learning a second language have been well-documented over the last 50 years.
Students taking Spanish courses as a second language demonstrate greater academic
achievement by scoring significantly higher on standardized tests than students that don’t
receive foreign language instruction (Armstrong & Rogers, 1997; Lopato, 1963; Rafferty, 1986).
Students that identified as bilingual were also found to have developed better reading skills
(D’Angiulli et al., 2001; Díaz, 1982; District of Columbia Public Schools, 1971; Garfinkel & Tabor,
1991). Language learners were found to be able to transfer skills learned in one language to
another (Cunningham & Graham, 2000; Masciantonio, 1977), were more linguistically aware
(Demont, 2001), and benefited regardless of background or socioeconomic status (Holobow et
al., 1987). Learning a second language can also contribute to improvements in cognitive
abilities (Bamford & Mizokawa, 1991; Barik & Swain, 1976; Landry, 1973; Samuels & Griffore,
1979; Stewart, 2005; Weatherford, 1986), with even more evidence of these improvements if
you are bilingual (Ben-Zeev, 1977a, 1977b; Duncan & Avila, 1979; Ginsburg & Mccoy, 1981;
Hakuta, 1985; Ricciardelli, 1993). Finally, language learners are found to have a more favorable
attitude toward the second language and its speakers (Bamford & Mizokawa, 1989; Peal &
Lambert, 1962; Riestra & Johnson, 1964). Despite all these benefits, second language learning
is still being inhibited by the ways our educational institutions are structured.
Firstly, traditional classroom contexts are not conducive to the ways in which students best learn
a second language. Conventional formats that have an instructor delivering language content by
means of lecture limit the students’ abilities to engage with, ask, or answer questions. There is
the added challenge of the instructor presenting the information to the entire class in a certain
way, a strategy that may work for some students but can leave others struggling. This limited
delivery in language content may impose additional challenges for students attempting to
engage with the material that ultimately fail to actively construct the knowledge as intended
(Schmidt et al., 2015).
Another significant barrier for effective language learning is the inconsistent exposure of
students to the target language. With an average 6.6 hours of class time a day, upwards of 7
courses, and about 180 days in a school year (Tourkin et al., 2008), students are left with less
than an hour each day with the instructor in order to be exposed to and interact with a second
language. When compared to the average 600-750 class hours to achieve a “professional
working proficiency” in a Category I language like Spanish (United States Department of State,
2019), it quickly becomes clear that increased engagement with the language is necessary to
meet meaningful learning objectives. This would suggest that after four years of language
instructions, a student is still likely to fall short of that number of hours. The problem seems
intuitive when compared to the impact of immersion experiences on language acquisition when
a learner is completely absorbed into the language and culture of a host country.
This notion is further supported by Zhao & Lai (2009) where they acknowledge that the paucity
of second language exposure and inaccessibility to use the language in authentic contexts
impose significant challenges for those that are trying to learn the language. Platt & Brooks
(1994) further criticize classrooms and their failed attempts at building “acquisition rich
environments” that ultimately boil down to meaningless communications or simple exchanges of
information. These inauthentic and decontextualized language exchanges emulate a
content-driven, instructionist approach (G. Johnson, 2005) as opposed to the situated actions of
people in material and social contexts that support language learning (Gee, 2013). that myself
and others understand learning and using a second language to be. Fortunately, there has been
a recent shift from direct instruction to socially constructive and collaborative strategies (Ellis,
2003; Thomas, 2012).
Areas of Focus
Reflecting on my past professional experience as well as my more recent experience in the
Digital Media Design for Learning program, I have found myself equipped with three prominent
areas of study that do well to serve me in devising a solution for this problem. These areas
include the fields of Second Language Acquisition, Games for Learning and Learning Analytics.
Second Language Acquisition
As a foreign language educator, second language acquisition is a principle area of expertise
from which I can draw. Notably, there is a marked difference between second language
acquisition and second language learning. The former implies exposure and immersion of
language-rich contexts to enable learners to “acquire” the language through their regular
interactions. The latter implies a more explicit instruction of the language, its rules, and the
awareness of both. Second Language Acquisition Theory explores the dynamic between this
more expressed,direct teaching of a language as opposed to a more organic, immersive, and
interactive process (Platt & Brooks, 1994).
Stephen Krashen (1982) elaborates on this with his Acquisition-Learning Distinction, or simply
that there is a fundamental difference between acquiring a language and being explicitly taught
the language. Krashen (1982) also proposes the Input Hypothesis, or the idea that a learner can
acquire a language when regularly presented with it in a context that is familiar and
comprehensible. This notion of Comprehensible Input proposes that a language learner that
operates at a certain level will acquire language in the space just beyond their current level
when provided with appropriate, facilitating supports like gestures, context, or similar language.
While there is much debate opposing Krashen and his viewpoints (Garcia, 2002; Kavanagh,
2006), the effectiveness of Comprehensible Input is further supported by researchers when
combined with using the language through interaction (Leaver & Willis, 2004) Benefit is also
found in the co-construction of meaning in the target language within the Zone of Proximal
Development (Lantolf & Thorne, 2006), a theory initially proposed by Vygotsky to address the
area between what a learner can do on their own and what they can do with support (Vygotskiĭ
& Kozulin, 1986).
There are two specific types of interaction that have been found within psycholinguist
interactionist literature that may further support second language acquisition: negotiation of
meaning and corrective feedback (Ellis et al., 1994; Ellis & He, 1999; Fuente, 2002). The first
type relates to “negotiation of meaning” or the general back and forth that occurs during the
communication of ideas to ensure that both interlocutors understand one another. This includes
things like checking for clarification, confirmation and comprehension. The second type of
interaction is that of “corrective feedback” that informs the learner of their performance and the
resulting impacts of their failed attempts. This may take the form of explicit correction,
requesting clarification, eliciting more information or repeating. These two types of feedback
have been researched and found to be beneficial in supporting learners in their reconstruction of
the language (Chapelle, 2005; Gass, 2003; Long, 1996; Pica, 1994).
In order to design an effective means of facilitating second language acquisition, my ultimate
design will leverage these aspects of Comprehensible Input, negotiation of meaning, and
Games for Learning
The field of Games for Learning is another promising area of study that can be leveraged as
part of my design solution for facilitating language learning. A game for learning could be simply
described as a game with a specific learning goal (Plass, Homer, et al., 2020). Games for
learning are also often referred to as “serious games” or a game that intends to play like other
entertainment games but with embedded learning content (Stege et al., 2011). While
researchers have advanced the field to demonstrate the potential benefits of these types of
games, especially in the way of second language acquisition, one advocate of Games for
Learning went so far as to say that the current problems and conflicts on our planet can be
solved by games. (McGonigal, 2011)
James Paul Gee is one of such researchers and has laid out numerous examples in which
games can help accomplish educational objectives including: focusing on well-ordered problems
over facts and information, establishing clear goals, providing learners with the tools to solve
problems, low cost of failure, and copious amounts of feedback (Gee, 2013). In the way of
language learning, a review of empirical studies demonstrates that there are positive results in
using video games for second language learning (Kim, 2018; Zhao, 2013) and that they can
support motivation and engagement in language learning (Bytheway, 2015; Ebrahimzadeh &
Alavi, 2017; Hussain et al., 2015). Another team of researchers studying acquisition of German
vocabulary found that language content delivered by means of a video game rather than print
materials facilitate better retention of the language (Neville et al., 2009). More specifically,
games enable language learners by providing frequent repetition of vocabulary, exposure to
contexts to infer meaning, and access to additional resources (Turgut & İrgin, 2009).
This is a comprehensive framework for understanding the different factors that contribute to a
game-based learning experience. (Plass, Homer, et al., 2020) The authors make an important
distinction between gamification (adding game elements to motivate students extrinsically),
playful learning (providing an environment with opportunities for self-motivated play), and
game-based learning (an intentionally designed combination learning and game experience).
This framework, seen in the figure below, is oriented around four theoretical foundations:
motivational foundations, cognitive foundations, affective foundations, and sociocultural
foundations. Motivational foundations consist of the features that motivate students to engage
with the experience such as incentive systems, mechanics, and enjoyable activities. Cognitive
foundations consist of the features that facilitate the learner’s cognitive engagement by making
the tasks meaningful, relevant, and adapting to the learner. Affective foundations consist of the
features that connect with the learners’ emotions such as the narrative, aesthetic, or music.
Sociocultural foundations are the ways in which the design facilitates deep, meaningful
interaction while also leveraging cultural aspects. Each of these foundations provide a guide for
the ways in which design decisions contribute to the game-based learning experience.
Integrated design framework of game-based and playful learning (Plass et al., 2015)
Games serve as an ideal vehicle for providing language acquisition opportunities in their
effectiveness of providing meaningful context, continued feedback, and repeated practice. We
can also use the foundations of game-based learning as a measure of how the different design
elements contribute to a gameful learning experience.
Learning Analytics is a critical emerging technology that is highly expected to make a significant
positive impact on learning and teaching (L. Johnson et al., 2016). Alyssa Wise (2019) presents
a clear definition of Learning Analytics:
Learning Analytics is the development and application of data science methods to the
distinct characteristics, needs, and concerns of educational contexts and the data
streams they generate for the purpose of better understanding and supporting learning
processes and outcomes. (p. 119)
Implementations of Learning Analytics can be oriented around three core principles:
coordination, comparison, and customization (Wise & Vytasek, 2017). Coordination suggests
that the analytics should be aligned with and integrated thoughtfully into the learning activity.
Comparison suggests that the interpretations of the analytics may differ for varied reasons
depending on its design and implementation. Customization proposes that there are multiple
valid implementations of analytics that have different benefits or drawbacks. Each of these
aspects provide a valuable perspective to be considered when implementing Learning Analytics
A major benefit of Learning Analytics is that it can increase the quality and quantity of feedback
to students and instructors (Joksimovic et al., 2019). This information can facilitate reflective
practice for students to adjust or experiment with the learning activity (Clow, 2012). Of special
interest are implementations that employ a level of adaptability either in the way of adaptive
learning analytics (Brusilovsky & Peylo, 2003) or adaptable learning analytics (Brooks et al.,
One popular adaptive approach is Bayesian Knowledge Tracing or BKT (Corbett & Anderson,
1995). BKT is a means of student modeling that infers learner knowledge based on their
performance and illustrates that performance over time. BKT takes each learning element and
considers it as either “learned” or “unlearned”. Each time the student has the opportunity to
demonstrate whether or not they have learned the element, the system will update its estimate
based on whether the student used the skill correctly. The algorithm that determines this
probability includes variables for if the student learned the skill before, if the student learned the
skill this time, if the student made an error when applying a known skill, and if the student
applied a skill correctly without actually knowing it. The equations representing these variables
in context are provided below.
A representation of the Bayesian Knowledge Tracing equations (Yeh & Howley, 2021)
The algorithm functions based upon three papers (Bloom, 1968; Carroll, 1963; Keller, 1968) and
their orientation to master learning by way of two principles: the knowledge elements are
thoughtfully broken down and organized into hierarchical components and that the activity is
structured to tackle easier skills before more difficult skills. In their work, mastery of a skill would
be demonstrated when the probability reached 0.95 (Corbett & Anderson, 1995).
Learning Analytics, and more specifically Bayesian Knowledge Tracing, can be leveraged to find
a solution for this problem, while being mindful of some of their considerations including the
coordination, comparison, and customization proposed by Learning Analytics.
Mistoria is a language learning game that provides the player language acquisition
opportunities, evaluation, and feedback in the form of a traditional role-playing game that will
adapt to the performance level of the player, providing spaced repetition and coaching to help
language learners to build language proficiency by accessible, approachable, and engaging
The intended audience for this design solution is anyone interested in learning a second
language, either voluntarily for their own self-growth or those for whom it’s required as part of
their school curriculum. This dichotomy lends itself to a framing of two distinct personas that
have helped to guide this design. For the purposes of these personas, this design, and my
professional background, we will be using Spanish as the target language.
The first persona is more typical. This is a student in a middle or high school classroom setting
that is taking a required foreign language course. They have an average disposition towards
coursework and are indifferent towards learning a language. They are fairly tech-oriented with
social media and general use of technology but do not spend much free time playing video
games. They earn slightly above average grades and have no discipline issues. Considerations
with this type of learner include:
● They may not be initially interested in a game for learning, so the design has to be
accessible for new learners. A familiarity with technology and video games should help.
● The nature of this design has the potential to be different from that with which they are
familiar, so the design shouldn’t be particularly taxing and require exceeding amounts of
The second persona represents a more unexpected group of learners. This design intends to
promote a positive second language acquisition experience for this type of student. They are
still a student, but the context in which they are interacting with this design is in their home
environment. This suggests that this learner will likely be introduced to this game alongside their
other entertainment games. For these types of learners, the goal is to have an enjoyable game
experience while learning is an added, motivating benefit. Because of their significant exposure
to video games, these learners will carry quite a few preconceptions towards games and what is
expected of them. Considerations with this type of learner include:
● They are expecting a well-designed and engaging video game. If the design gets in the
way or if it starts to feel like schoolwork, then this learner is likely to disengage.
● This learner isn’t looking to learn, so if there’s to be educational value for them in this
design, it must come in the form of either embedding the objective into the playful
experience or keeping the educational elements out of the way so they can be accessed
if they choose.
These two students represent the audience for which Mistoria is designed and built. The goal is
to be engaging and effective in bringing language skills to both students who intend to do so as
well as those who have happened across it.
Because Mistoria is designed and intended to be an educational tool, it would be prudent to
explicitly state the learning objectives that its design intends to facilitate. Taking the notion of
“learning a second language” and framing it more concretely, Mistoria sets out to accomplish
two core objectives: to improve fluency and increase proficiency. As terms, “fluency” and
“proficiency” sound quite familiar, but there is an important distinction that will be made within
From my personal experience, it is unfortunately common for students that have taken foreign
language classes to share their past experiences by saying things like “I took a number of
language courses, but I don’t remember anything”. The ability to communicate effectively in a
language is the fundamental purpose for the existence of language. While it should not be
expected that learners acquire a level of fluency like that of native speakers, there should be an
expectation of a modest amount of fluency in the language and their communications. The term
“fluency” may however be a bit ambiguous and worthy of clarification.
As a perspective, the definition of fluency as shared by Seely and Romijn in TPRS is More Than
Commands (1998) will serve as a starting point for this conversation. In their book, they say:
The term fluency is used in many ways. In this book the word fluency alone refers to
the ability to express intelligibly in speech (without reading) what one wants or
needs to without undue hesitancy or difficulty. The concept includes the ability to
produce one sentence after another in ‘connected discourse.’ It does not refer to
grammatical correctness or native-like pronunciation. This is not to say that correctness
and good pronunciation are not important or that they should never be worked on, just
that they are not part of the concept of fluency as we use the word in this book. (p. 35)
This design will employ the notion of fluency much like they do in their book. The bolded portion
of the quote above is mine and suggests that language learners who are fluent in a language
should be able to express their ideas, ideally in speech, without significant delay. That’s not to
say that errors don’t happen or that a word isn’t forgotten, but that conversations happen fluidly
In order to focus our efforts on achieving fluency, we must first decide where to put those
energies. A natural starting point would be to focus on the words that are most likely to be
encountered and used. One researcher shared that 60% of speech in English is made up of
only 50 function words (Davies, 2006). Another researcher found that 85% of English speech is
made up of the 1,000 most frequently used words while 95% of written English text consists of
the 4,000-5,000 most recurring words (Nation, 1999). This strategy has been employed by
classroom foreign language instructors oriented towards comprehensible input where one such
instructor devised the “Sweet Sixteen” or the 16 most commonly used function verbs (Peto,
A sample of the most common words in Spanish (Davies, 2006)
By focusing on the most common and functional elements of a language, we can be more
efficient in what and how we are learning them.
Different from fluency, proficiency can be seen as a learner’s “mastery” of the language. Seely
and Romijn frame full proficiency as “indicating that a person...is able to function at about the
same level as most native speakers of the language.” (Seely & Romijn, 1998:35) The measure
of proficiency is more objective with certain traits that indicate one level over another, such as
being able to use the present subjunctive or past perfect tenses. This metric would be enabled
by a rubric, of which has been designed and provided by the American Council on the Teaching
of Foreign Languages or ACTFL.
Representation of the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines (ACTFL, 2012)
ACTFL presents a set of Proficiency Guidelines that describe “what individuals can do with
language in terms of speaking, writing, listening, and reading in real-world situations in a
spontaneous and non-rehearsed context.” (ACTFL, 2012:3) They break down proficiency into
five levels: Distinguished, Superior, Advanced, Intermediate, and Novice. Three of those levels
(Advanced, Intermediate, and Novice) are then subdivided into three sublevels: High, Mid, and
Low. These levels combine to represent a continuum from little or no functional language ability
through that of a highly articulate and well-educated language user. These guidelines also
enable proficiency to be measured along the different communicative modalities: speaking,
writing, listening, and reading. These proficiency guidelines serve as an effective evaluation tool
for language mastery and will be helpful in orienting this design to emulate these factors.
Features + Rationale
Drawing upon my central fields of study in Second Language Acquisition (SLA), Games for
Learning (G4L), and Learning Analytics (LA), salient aspects of these areas can be leveraged in
order to guide the design features of Mistoria. These aspects combined with additional theory
and design considerations results in the following feature selection and rationale.
Emulating the narrative experience found in typical role-playing video games, Mistoria will be
designed with a rich, cohesive story and world in which the players immerse themselves. By
engaging the players in this environment, this design attempts to instill elements of intrinsic
motivation in the player as they continue to explore and further the narrative. Beyond the
compelling narrative elements that role-playing games can provide, this design also intends to
strike a balance between the game-like dialogue and that of real-world conversations. This
consideration attempts to leverage the ease and familiarity of dialogue trees while also feeling
as near to an authentic communicative exchange as possible.
Motivational Design (G4L) - Leaning into the aspects of Self-Determination Theory (Plass,
Mayer, et al., 2020), a rich narrative design promotes autonomy by placing the player as the
central driver of the narrative. Because the story starts and stops with the player and their
actions, it provides them with a feeling of agency in their actions and the way they impact the
story. It also promotes relatedness by exposing the player to the personalities and compelling
stories of the characters and the world. The player will also be provided regular opportunities to
interact with these non-player characters to understand their lives and concerns.
Affective Design (G4L) - To build a compelling narrative through which to engage the player
personally and emotionally, this design considers some commonly found tropes to help draw the
player in. One consideration is by leveraging mystery throughout Mistoria, leaving questions
unanswered for the player to explore and understand. This could be narrative choices like
prompting the player to consider why the characters are speaking a language that’s different
than expected or when the language itself becomes a challenge overcome in understanding the
story. Another consideration could be leveraging the idea of restoration by presenting the player
with a world that is fractured; buildings are destroyed, characters have lost their speech, items
have gone missing. Like a puzzle, this encourages the player to put the pieces back together to
try and restore it to its original form.
In order to provide the player with an authentic communicative experience, the design of
Mistoria must all attend to the way the dialogue is implemented. It does so by leveraging the
already successful dialogue systems found in role-playing games and adds an additional layer
of adaptiveness. Different from standard branching dialogue trees, Mistoria selects the
appropriate level of dialogue based on the player’s previous demonstrated performance. This is
to say that if the player has responded in ways that make it clear they have understood the
prompts, then this dialogue system can select a more complex version of the dialogue that is
more appropriate to their level of proficiency.
This system is enabled by an artificial intelligence algorithm called Bayesian Knowledge Tracing
(Corbett & Anderson, 1995) that uses each dialogue interaction to infer whether or not the
player is being successful in their communication exchanges. This system is done at two levels:
the player’s demonstrated proficiency level as well as the player’s mastery of individual words
that appear within the dialogues. By understanding what the player does and does not
understand, we can make the most of each dialogue that the player encounters.
Screenshot of Bayesian Knowledge Tracing implementation in Mistoria
Cognitive Design (G4L) - An adaptive dialogue system provides the player with the opportunities
for repeated practice each time the language appears to them. These contexts are also
meaningful as they are situated in the game world among us characters with whom they’re
interacting. By engaging both of these elements, we can enable these language learners to
further acquire the target language (Turgut & İrgin, 2009). There is the added benefit that
because Mistoria makes these changes subtly, we can avoid distracting from the game
experience and facilitate what’s known as “stealth learning” (Sharp, 2012). The dialogue keeps
only the current part of an exchange visible rather than displaying the entire conversation,
limiting extraneous information and segmenting the content into accessible chunks to keep the
learner from being overwhelmed (Mayer, 2005).
Motivational Design (G4L) - Because of the way the system adapts to the player’s performance,
the design also reinforces the aspect of competence in Self-Determination Theory by
encouraging the player in the self-efficacy of their skills (Plass, Mayer, et al., 2020). The player
demonstrates their mastery and the game responds by acknowledging this accomplishment and
providing more challenging content.
Comprehensible Input (SLA) - An essential component of acquiring language is to ensure that
the language encountered is comprehensible. (Krashen, 1982) An adaptive system designed in
this way will switch to make sure that the dialogue is operating within this comprehensible range
for the player. When the algorithm determines that the player has demonstrated their
understanding of the current proficiency level, the next dialogue will then be at a slightly higher
level to exercise this i + 1 notion that underlies Comprehensible Input.
Bayesian Knowledge Tracing (LA) - In order to simulate natural communication, the game must
adapt to the player's performance by cycling through easier or more challenging dialogue as
needed. This game is designed to register the player's actions and how they demonstrate the
player's mastery, and then adapt as needed.
Games are effective vehicles for providing feedback, and Mistoria is no exception. There are
myriad ways in which this design provides feedback to the player and their progress. The subtle
changes in language that come from the adaptive dialogue system can hint to the player how
they’re doing. The authentic responses from the game characters when the player responds a
certain way can provide insight into the communication. There’s an additional component where
the character may choose a dismissive response if the player takes too long. When needed, the
player can also seek feedback by accessing an in-game language reference to check their
understanding of the terms.
The player also has more explicit avenues for feedback such as viewing a register of the
different vocabulary that they’ve encountered and the number of times. The player can also dig
deeper and see a snapshot of how the artificial intelligence algorithm has evaluated their
Screenshot of the data tab
Motivational Design (G4L) - The aspect of competence from Self Determination Theory is
supported by providing feedback regularly and in multiple ways (Plass, Mayer, et al., 2020). This
is exemplified by the player being presented with this feedback through the game interactions,
but also being able to access the feedback themselves when they choose.
Companion + Non-Player Characters
Mistoria makes use of an in-game companion named “Mimi”. This companion is always with the
player and serves as another vehicle for dialogue and support in the game. Appearing as a
small orange orb, Mimi is intended to be cute and expressive using floating movements across
the game screen. While the player navigates the game world, Mimi may gesture or comment on
different events by moving near them and highlighting through an orange glow. Outside of this
companion, Mistoria is also populated by unique and interesting non-player characters. These
characters exist to flesh out the world and facilitate the dialogue interactions. Both Mimi and the
other characters will be engaging with the player by means of the adaptive dialogue system
Concept art for “Mimi” (2016)
Concept art for non-player characters (Calciumtrice, 2017)
Cognitive Design (G4L) - The Signaling Principle states that using cues to direct a player's
attention to critical information better facilitates their learning (Mayer, 2005). Mimi utilizes this
principle heavily in their gestures as they signal and highlight objects while describing. As a
companion, Mimi serves as a knowledgeable character that scaffolds the player by presenting
them with comprehensible input (Mayer, 2005). This scaffolding will decrease over time as the
player demonstrates higher levels of language proficiency.
Affective Design (G4L) - The characters are diverse and evolve in complexity as the story
progresses. While advancing the storyline, they enrich the game with each of their personal
narratives. As a companion, Mimi is designed to be cute, enjoyable, and expressive. This is
intended to embrace emotional design and help build a relationship between Mimi and the
player. The unique and curious nature of Mimi should spark interest in the player to further draw
them into Mistoria.
Comprehensible Input (SLA) - The non-player characters in the game are the primary vehicle for
providing comprehensible input through the interactive and communicative back and forth that
happens throughout the game. Different from these characters, Mimi is able to provide the
player with more directed comprehensible input to address more specific language and topics.
Because Mimi is intended to serve as the player’s companion, these interactions will have less
impact on the greater narrative of Mistoria as to provide the player with a space for low-pressure
Below is an example of a walkthrough of the designed experience. It intends to draw together
elements of theory and design to demonstrate the ways in which Mistoria can facilitate language
The player wakes up, bleary-eyed, to a crash resounding through their room. They
quickly identify the culprit as an excitable sentient orb that identifies itself as Mimi. It's
rambling and frantic, and speaking in a language that's hard to understand: Spanish.
After it becomes clear the player doesn't understand, the orb changes tactics, speaking
more slowly and attempting floating around as if to gesture. It's difficult to understand,
but it seems like something is wrong as Mimi moves towards the door.
The player exits into a small village, accompanied by their new companion. Everything
seems a bit off: the colors are different, everything is darker, and some of the familiar
buildings seem to be in disrepair. When the player speaks with one of the villagers,
things become even more concerning. The villager can barely speak, trailing off, cutting
off words, and forgetting others.
Something is seriously wrong, and Mimi won't stop talking about an "estatua". Mimi
leads the player off the screen to the edge of the village. The player follows Mimi to find
a statue, one that wasn't there before.
As the player approaches, Mimi cries out as they hit some kind of invisible barrier,
preventing them from getting closer. Mimi reassures the player saying "Estoy bien, estoy
bien. No problema. Estoy okay. Continúa." The player continues towards the statue to
see a phrase engraved into its base. It read "Está cerca. Está lejos. Siempre está en tu
corazón." There's a small space below the phrase, that seems like someone could write
something in. The player walks away from the statue, meeting Mimi outside the barrier.
Mimi is floating around speaking more Spanish. They're repetitive in the things they say,
saying the same thing multiple times in different ways. When talking about certain things,
Mimi will fly over them, making them glow. The player continues through the town to
converse with the villagers, with continued speaking and highlighting by Mimi.
As the player continues conversations with the different people in the town, common
topics relating to the town and houses are discussed by the villagers. This continues until
finally a villager asks the player for a favor. He says "Mi... mi casa. ¿Dónde está?" It
seems like the man needs help making his way home.
The old villager starts following the player around, presumably trying to be led home.
Throughout this part, Mimi continues floating around speaking Spanish, but this time it's
different. Mimi keeps repeating things to the effect of "Cerca... más cerca... Oh, no.
ahora es más lejos." These are the same words that were written on the statue before!
Finally, Mimi shouts "¡Aquí! ¡Aquí!". It seems that the man has found his way home
finally. He says "Ahh.. mi casa. Es mi casa. Gracias." and heads inside.
Between the conversations of the old man, the villagers, and Mimi, the answer to the
riddle becomes clear. The answer is "casa" or home! The player heads quickly back to
the statue, Mimi again getting stuck behind the invisible barrier. The player enters
"c-a-s-a" into the space below the engraving. Everything fades to white, then to black,
then fades in. The player is still in front of the statue, but now the statue appears
differently, and there seems to be a different sentence engraved on the panel below. It
would seem there's another riddle to solve, and just maybe the player can get things
back to normal.
The state of this design has come a long way. The initial inspiration came from strategies of
Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling (TPRS) (Ray & Seely, 2015). TPRS is an
approach for second language acquisition that our department adopted for our high school
foreign language classrooms. After attending a workshop that taught me and my colleagues a
fair amount of German over just a couple hours by way of TPRS, I was both inspired to employ
the approach in my classroom as well as explore other ways in which it could be utilized. The
approach is oriented around the co-construction of stories with language learners in order to
keep the learning content accessible and engaging. In my own attempts to employ it in my
classroom, it became clear that TPRS heavily relied on the instructor in all aspects: a mastery of
TPRS strategies, a deep understanding of their students and their interests, an ability to almost
perform like an actor, and an expert in classroom management. These were all qualities that
teachers could have in varied amounts, but it seemed like an effective TPRS classroom required
a teacher that was skillful in all these areas. I found this to be limiting and it left me considering
what alternatives could capture the essence of TPRS while making it more accessible to
learners and instructors. I carried this notion into the start of my masters program for Digital
Media Design for Learning.
In my first semester of the program, I took the Designing Simulations & Games for Learning
course. As a concluding project for the course, I collaborated with my classmate and friend,
Collin Yu, to realize the first design of Mistoria.
Title slide for our presentation in December 2019
This version of our design was abstract, drawing in all the features and considerations in order
to create a game experience that could drive the ideas of Second Language Acquisition Theory.
This version included the idea of an initial storyline that gives the player amnesia and drops
them into a world of an unfamiliar language. The motivation here was for the player to try and
solve the mystery and restore the area back to the way it was before. This is also where we
initially devised Mimi, a companion that can support the player by scaffolding content and
providing more comprehensible input.
Early examples of emotional design considerations for “Mimi”
While this design was promising, it felt like a core element was missing to me. Our logical
design model did well to encompass all the features and chart a path through which it could all
be accomplished, but it glossed over the basic mechanism of the dialogue interactions and how
they would provide effective and consistent comprehensible input to the player. As far as design
documentation goes, especially for a first semester course, what we built was satisfactory, but
the lack of a realistic, tangible system to drive the experience left a gap in what I believed to be
an otherwise promising design.
Early logical design model for Mistoria
In my conversations with colleagues about this disconnect, I was reassured that the backend
portion could be provided to developers who could then implement the ideas presented here.
This was not a satisfying conclusion as it left it up to others to realize the ideas that we brought
together. It only felt right to further explore this further to figure out what would be required to
build this myself to see if the core of what we were suggesting could actually be accomplished.
Across my other courses, I was further exposed to content, research and theory related to the
fields of Learning Analytics and Games for Learning. Combined with the Second Language
Acquisition Theory that I studied as part of my profession, I was finding myself situated to
leverage these areas of study further in my design. The still missing component was the
capacity to build a version of the core part of Mistoria to ensure the value of the design. This
missing component was an adaptive dialogue system that could provide the appropriate
comprehensible input based on the player’s performance.
The first avenue to build my skills to better tackle this problem was through an independent
study course taken with a department faculty member. Through that course, I was able to dig
deeper into elements of Learning Analytics, exposing me to the notions of artificial intelligence
systems applied in educational contexts. This is the point where I learned about Bayesian
Knowledge Tracing (BKT), an algorithm that attempts to gauge the mastery of a student on a
given skill. There is a fair amount of criticism of BKT and how accurately it can represent its
results, but this felt like an opportunity to really see if an adaptive dialogue system within
Mistoria could work.
In addition to the awareness of BKT, the independent study course enabled me to complete a
portion of a curriculum that taught programming concepts and introduced the Unity game
engine. The familiarity with this content enabled me to take a course in a different department
that specialized in game development. This course focused on programming within Unity and
helped to further develop my skills in programming as well as using the game engine. With
these added skills, I was much better positioned to further iterate, realize and validate the initial
design of Mistoria.
For the second iteration of Mistoria, it was my goal to delve deeper into the core system that of
Mistoria: the adaptive dialogue system. While remembering the contexts from which I was
drawing, it was determined that this part of the design must balance a few considerations:
● Does it feel game-like?
● Does it feel like a real conversation?
● Is it easily usable?
Because Mistoria is designed to emulate role-playing games and other games with which
players are familiar, it was important that the exchange feel and be reminiscent of games that
are commonly played by others. The design also is meant to capture the authentic back and
forth communication that happens in conversations. I would have to find the optimal solution
that balanced both of these features, while also being usable.
Keeping these considerations in mind, I explored dialogue systems as well as reflected on my
personal experience playing narrative games. This exploration led me to come up with several
potential solutions for the dialogue system on which I could receive feedback. Each of these
considerations are illustrated below:
Dialogue with a multiple choice selection
Dialogue with a text field
Dialogue with text fields for individual words
Dialogue with a drop-down select box
Dialogue with multiple choice selection and a timer
Dialogue with multiple choice and multiple characters
Dialogue with multiple choice, multiple characters, and a timer
Dialogue with multiple choice that is selected by speaking the response
Once I had representation of each of these solutions, I leveraged my thesis cohort to get their
feedback on each solution. Each solution was presented with the same three questions: How
easy is it to use? How well does it support a natural conversation? How much does it feel like a
“game?” . There was also an additional text field where users could provide additional
commentary if desired. The user testing session was a bit more informal and involved groups of
users completing the questionnaire while I navigated through the presentation demonstrating
the different solutions.
The results indicated overwhelmingly that multiple choice was the most intuitive and that adding
a timer made it feel more game-like. All other considerations were notably worse and were not
considered. There were also a few additional interesting points within the comments worth
mentioning. Users found the solution involving speaking to select the option interesting, but that
it should be an optional feature and not required as the means of selection. A couple users also
mentioned the feelings that arose for them if the character were to respond differently based on
their dialogue selection, suggesting that this would be a useful feature to leverage in the
Multiple Choice w/ Timer
Screenshot of Mistoria from inside the Unity game engine
The last several weeks of this project was dedicated to implementing the design and theory
stated previously. This work resulted in the design, development, and production of a working
demo illustrating a brief dialogue conversation in Spanish. The demo includes the multiple
choice dialogue response selection, a timer progress bar, access to a data tab that provides
information including the number of instances of each word and the calculated probability that
the word has been mastered.
The demo is limited in its functionality, but provides a tangible working version of the system that
would underlie and integrate into the design of Mistoria. The repository for the latest version of
this demo can be found at https://github.com/boothemjr.
The scope of this project extends beyond what was accomplished in time for this publication. As
it is, there are a number of considerations to be considered in the future to continue iterating
and validating the design choices within Mistoria. These items go beyond the ideas that have
already been discussed here and were not yet implemented.
While the initial consideration of voice recognition was limited in scope to only select which
response the player would like, it would be interesting to explore the affordances of natural
language processing systems (McNamara et al., 2017) to allow for an even more natural means
of communication. However, this would have to be balanced with the hesitation suggested by
participants during the user testing session about keeping a feature like this optional.
Similarly to natural language processing systems, it would be interesting to further explore
research in discourse analytics (Kao & Poteet, 2007; Rose, 2017) to enable users to type their
responses in dialogue interactions. There is also a possibility that discourse analysis could
provide additional insights in the implementation of BKT to have a more accurate representation
of the student’s learning.
For this project, Bayesian Knowledge Tracing was the adaptive system of choice. However, it
would be worthwhile to explore other machine learning and artificial intelligence systems. This
would require further investigation as well as coordinating with specialists in these fields to
better understand these differences and their affordances.
In my attempts to emulate typical role-playing games, design decisions were made that leaned
more heavily into certain communication modalities. Reading comprehension is
well-represented while writing is nearly non-existent. Listening and speaking are included but at
a level far lower than what I believe to be ideal. In further iterations of this design, it would be
valuable to consider the ways in which these other modalities can be emphasized further.
Lastly, my considerations for the design of Mistoria are limited to my experiences. Unavoidable
unconscious biases are necessarily embedded in my work. It would be appropriate to
acknowledge my undergraduate educational training at a public university in the midwestern
United States and that my years of teaching took place at a public school in Houston, Texas and
the way that those experiences and other experiences have guided my design. While I believe
these solutions have the potential to extend into different contexts, it would be important to
further validate this design to ensure that it is equitable to those that come from different
experiences in their relationships with educational institutions.
Learning a new language is an incredibly valuable asset for which the benefits have been
clearly presented. However, our educational institutions struggle to provide the opportunities
that enable our students to achieve a meaningful level of fluency and proficiency. While there
have been other approaches to bridge this discrepancy, Mistoria leverages the affordances of
Second Language Acquisition Theory, Games for Learning, and Learning Analytics to realize a
compelling and effective means of learning another language. With a rich narrative, adaptive
dialogue system, constructive feedback, and meaningful interactions with characters, Mistoria
can serve as a unique solution to the issues in language learning. This document serves to
provide a compilation of tools, strategies, and design iterations that have culminated in a
comprehensive solution to support second language acquisition. Mistoria is a launching point to
rekindle the interest and overcome the barriers of foreign language learning for students.
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