Classroom Games: Designing for Experience

Hello everyone! Welcome to another games and learning blog post. Safe travels to all those venturing to the TESOL Convention. For those staying home, be sure to check out the CALL-IS session webcasts for live broadcasts from the Electronic Village.

Jonathan DeHaan prompted this month’s blog post with his incisive comment to last month’s Redesigning the Classroom Board Game. As I wrote a response to his comment, it became apparent I should make it a full blog post. Be sure to check out his comment in full and sorry for the late reply, Jon!

Jonathan questions what makes language practice unengaging enough that we need to gloss it over with game mechanics, which we often do to middling results. He asserts the solution rests in examining how we can make language and interaction more meaningful for students. I agree. Perhaps that’s the hidden motivation for this blog series as well—as educators we can, and should, look to games and game design and apply those techniques to our own craft. Yet we should not do so on a superficial level with points, badges, and leaderboards. We need to explore the art of games and study how they intentionally design for experience.

Our board game example last month was improved with the addition of game mechanics, but it is not much more engaging. I would argue that both Jonathan’s unengaging language practices and my mediocre board game suffer the same fate—there is no experience. Jesse Schell in his excellent The Art of Game Design stresses that game designers do not design games, but experiences. I would parallel that with “teachers should not create activities, but experiences.”

What we as educators should take from games is their intentional design. Intentional design considers at each step in the design process the experience of the user. Games, done well, are a constellation of design considerations all focused on eliciting a feeling in the user. Our board game has game mechanics, it has design decisions, but they are not meaningfully implemented. The game at its core is still a language exercise with a “roll and move game slapped onto it” as Jonathan wrote in his comment. The experience at the heart of the board game is to practice wh– questions, which is no experience at all.

Many educationally focused games suffer the same problem. The experience of the user is not at the heart of the design decisions as the focus is teaching content. Compare our board game from last month to the Nintendo classic Super Mario Bros by checking out Extra Credits’ fantastic analysis of the game’s first level. It shows how each design decision has meaning; every aspect is intentionally designed to teach the player the game. The culmination of all the design decisions results in a memorable experience for the player. We should strive to do the same in our classroom activities and games.

Jonathan muses, “I am trying to think about when and why students might use the language from your game example that might get that engagement in a purposeful, not slapped on game-like, way.” This makes me think of a “cops and robbers” activity on American English; it too is practicing wh– questions but within an experience of a bank robbery. On its surface, the activity is far less a game than our board game example, but at its heart, it is truer to what a game should be: an intentionally designed experience.

Jonathan closes his comment with the assertion that classroom games are dressed-up textbook exercises, and he’s right. If we combine the craft of game design with the near infinite creativity of educators, we can design meaningful experiences for our students. We just need more examples of how to do it, which games provide, and educators like Jonathan asking the right questions to keep us innovating.

Until next month, play more games!

Want to learn more? Check out Jonathan DeHaan’s website.

About Jeff Kuhn

Jeff Kuhn is the director of esports at Ohio University. He frequently delivers talks and keynote addresses on games and learning, game design, and the need for games literacy in educators. He is one of the founding moderators of the Electronic Village Online’s Minecraft MOOC, a community of practice for teachers learning to use Minecraft in the classroom. He has served on the TESOL CALL-IS steering committee, as the Gaming Special Interest Group chair for CALICO, and in the U.S. Department of State’s English Language Specialist program. His research interests include game-based learning, second language writing, and computer-assisted language learning.
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One Response to
Classroom Games: Designing for Experience

  1. Thank you, Jeff, for taking the time and effort to reply to my comments. Your great reply and posts connects to and creates even more questions.

    We often use words like “experience” or “meaningful” or “engaging” to talk about “good” games and “good” learning. I use the “ marks because those words seem so subjective at time. “We know it when we see it” but actually struggle to find or create our own examples. For one learner or teacher, tic-tac-toe or the roll and move question game might be described in those terms. For another learner or teacher, World of Warcraft or Model United Nations would be much higher up on the “meaningful engaging experience scale.” Yes, experiences (a game, a conversation, a walk in the woods) create meaningful experiences that language can be infused with or grafted to. All of life is experience. What kind of experiences are games, and what kind of experiences do language students need?

    What is it about “games” that create engaging, meaningful experiences? The theme? The fun of learning? The joy of playing with others? Of course there are a lot of factors, (and Extra Credits and Raph Koster and many other have helped to nail down how to make great games, which has almost always been impossible to do for educational games). You raise the very interesting and useful idea of “intentionality.” Can those terms (meaningful, engaging, fun, good) that we like to throw around be defined enough to help teachers create/select “good language learning/practicing games” with intentionality? It’s a question I’ve been struggling with: to try to figure out how to draw a straight line between “meaningful” and “learning outcomes.” It’s very tricky to figure out how to create a meaningful experience for various students that helps actually teach and extend language language learning and use.

    I’m struggling to see your distinction between the roll and move question game and the cops and robbers question game. What makes the second “activity” less of a “game?” The lack of dice and a board? You point at the second as an “intentionally designed experience,” but I am sure both of those games/activities check the same box: the designer/teacher wanted her students to practice grammar and designed an experience that would elicit repeated uses of the grammar. I see intentionality in both designs. It’s interesting that the goals of the cops and robbers game specifically point at “practicing x grammar.” Where is the experience and emotion in the cops and robbers game, and what in the rules or context creates the experience and emotion? (If that is what we think makes great games great for learning?)

    Yes, Super Mario Bros is an incredible example of a designer using the form to teach the player the game (the character appears on the screen, looking to the right, there is a box with a question mark just out of reach…). And while learning the game is meaningful, I personally find the music, the colors, the enemies more memorable and meaningful. Educational game designers do have to think about user experience (onboarding and scaffolding) but I am not sure that is the same as crafting a meaningful engaging experience for the player. Or could learning grammar well be as much about “hard fun” as learning to play SMB?

    Does the meaningfulness of a game/activity reside in the “fun” that players have in the moment? The possible transfer to other language use opportunities outside the classroom? To a test at the end of the course of study? I hope you see what I am wrestling with in my own work: it’s still very elusive to me what and how and why (educational) games work in the classroom.

    To me, the cops and robbers game could be more meaningful, but it’s still quite artificial. In the cops and robbers roleplay, there are too many layers removed from the context in which learners might use the grammar. I thought it was interesting that in the end materials, the designer called out the use of the grammar in storytelling. “I was walking through the woods when I heard…”

    For many of my students here in Japan, the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear catastrophe event is one of the most meaningful events of their lives. When I have to teach that grammar, I have asked students to interview each other about what they were doing on 3/11 and to create a group snapshot (notes on the board) of what they were doing in different places in Japan when that happened. The students always share so much information and it creates a bond between the students. What I like about the activity is that it uses the grammar/language practice in an authentic way that brings the whole class together.

    I keep thinking about this issue… are those “personal stories” the meaningfulness we should strive for (in games and in language teaching)? Can that personal story activity be (or should it be) made “better” with a game? Would “games” be made “better” with more personal connections (that both the roll and move and the cops and robbers game both miss in different ways).

    It’s very tricky to move past the “potentials” of the games. Teachers and researchers have been struggling with these issues for decades. How do we move the conversation out of the hypothetical and into the implementatable?

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