Public Release: 

Playing computer games for fun and research

$2.7 million grant will support research on language change

Northwestern University

EVANSTON, Ill. --- A new $2.7 million, three-year grant from the John Templeton Foundation will support a one-of-a-kind project called Wordovators. Wordovators will combine mathematical modeling with large-scale experiments in the form of computer games to better understand the mechanisms that sustain linguistic complexity.

A collaboration of Northwestern University in the U.S. and the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, the project seeks to discover how people create, learn and use new words.

"We are taking a fresh look at the whole idea of a word," says Janet Pierrehumbert, professor of linguistics at Northwestern and the grant's primary investigator. "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, Hay earned her Ph.D. in 2000 from Northwestern and is founder and director of Canterbury's New Zealand Institute of Language, Brain and Behaviour.

Wordovators will draw 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.

As the popularity of games like Words with Friends attests, 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.

"Our online word 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."

Players will be recruited from around the world and asked to perform tasks and challenges.

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.

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


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