Date of Award

December 2015

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



First Advisor

Thomas Malaby

Committee Members

Kalman Applbaum, Ingrid Jordt, David Blundell, Kurt Squire


Educational Games, Imagined Communities, MMORPG, Taiwan


This ethnography looks closely at the Taiwanese company UrIsland, makers of Talking Island (TI) - an MMORPG to teach children English - in order to illuminate the increasingly important meeting point between technology, education, and games. At the level of national economic policy, companies like UrIsland have been at the focal point of the Taiwanese government’s hopes for their tech industry. With TI, UrIsland intended to create a revolution in ESL education. Despite compulsory ESL classes many Taiwanese struggle with English, and educational experts claim that the classes stress reading and writing too much, leaving many people’s listening and speaking lagging. UrIsland’s founder believed TI, an immersive environment focusing on listening and speaking, could fill this ability gap and make kids eager to learn English. UrIsland hired native English speakers for most of their voice acting and used innovative voice-recognition technology to create this “native” linguistic environment, but also designed TI to make studying compelling.

The CEO was, like many high-tech company founders, charismatic, and his employees were (mostly) willing to follow him in his revolution, but UrIsland faced a major obstacle – entrenched cultural attitudes. Education has deep roots within Chinese culture. Not only were teaching methods thought of as sacred, but Taiwanese see work (including studying) and play as mutually exclusive. This work explores the collision of three major spheres of meaning: technology, games, and education, by analyzing the ways UrIsland sought to upend some ideas while simultaneously working with other cultural expectations in order to keep TI economically viable. While this ethnography focuses on Taiwan to highlight this relatively modern interplay, this increasing point of tension is not unique to Chinese societies seeking to develop their technological infrastructures and industries, but is also found around the developed and developing world.