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Playing Computer Games for Fun and Research

$2.7 million grant will support research on language change

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Ever wonder how new words like “netiquette” or “chocoholic” come about? Or why expressions like “LOL” or “DIY” become popular while others do not? 

Funded by a U.S.$2.7 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, a new research project seeks to answer these questions by having people play computer games. As you play the games, the Wordovators research team studies how people create, learn and use new words. 

The Wordovators Project will combine mathematical modeling with large-scale experiments in the form of online computer word games. The project -- a collaboration of Northwestern University in the U.S. and the University of Canterbury in New Zealand -- seeks to discover fundamental principles of language evolution and change. 

“We are taking a fresh look at the whole idea of a word,” says Janet Pierrehumbert, the Northwestern professor of linguistics who leads the project. “We think about words as things that are alive and that reproduce when people learn them and use them.”

According to co-investigator Jennifer Hay, Wordovators is the first project ever to study the word-formation strategies of children and adolescents on a large-scale basis. A linguistics professor at Canterbury, she earned her Ph.D. in 2000 from Northwestern and is the founder and director of Canterbury’s New Zealand Institute of Language, Brain and Behaviour

The Wordovators Project draws on analogies between biodiversity and language diversity. People know an enormous number of words. New words continually arise as people modify and recombine parts of existing words -- much as new biological species arise through evolution. 

Wordovators researchers want to know exactly how children, teens and adults create new words. They want to understand why some new words are taken up by other people while others fade. 

As the popularity of games like Words with Friends shows, online word games have immense appeal. Enjoyed by millions, they have the power to build language skills and connect far-flung friends in fun, competitive activities.  

Recruiting computer game players from around the world, the Wordovators games will be similarly compelling. But they will serve a different purpose. “The games will be carefully designed,” says Pierrehumbert. “Not only will they be fun for players of all ages, they will provide information that increases our understanding of how new words are formed and become part of people’s vocabularies.”

The first Wordovators game is already up on the Web. At, a blue robot, a red cheese and a green cat will teach you an invented robot language called ROILA. Like other word games, Wordovators games will ask players to perform tasks and meet challenges. 

Many will be set in a futuristic space exploration game-world. Different storylines will allow the researchers to explore how different social factors help to shape languages. Gamers may be asked to learn words in an invented language, to select the “best sounding” word in a language they already know, or to reach agreement with each other on the names for novel objects.  

“Words are a vehicle for collective inquiry,” says Pierrehumbert. “The shared vocabulary of a language community may be the ultimate public good. It supports cooperation and collective intelligence at a scale that is unparalleled in other species. We want to understand how shared vocabularies are created, negotiated and transmitted within communities.”

To learn more about the Wordovators Project or to try your hand at learning ROILA, the language of robots, visit To learn more about the John Templeton Foundation, visit