Perhaps every language educator through history has played a board game in the classroom. We have all seen it, and we have all made one:
This workhorse of the language classroom gets students involved, gets them communicating, and provides an opportunity for language review. Yet, with some basic game design principles, we can do something more: We can make it fun!
When designing a game, always consider your audience through a prism of complexity. Young learners can spend hours playing relatively simple games; it’s why kids love tic-tac-toe. As we age, our brains can handle more complexity, which is why adults find tic-tac-toe boring, but chess never ceases to enthrall. This complexity plays out in two ways in games: the luck/strategy scale, and agency.
Luck and Strategy
Our classic classroom board game is often luck driven, as players flip a coin or roll dice to advance. For younger learners this can be fun, but adults enjoy wins derived from meaningful decision-making and strategy. Evaluate your board game by considering what players do when not actively turn-taking. Are they waiting for their turn, or plotting and planning while others take their turns?
Adding strategy gives players the opportunity to plot and plan in the game. An effective way to add strategy is by giving the players more agency. Agency represents the influence a player has through the actions they can take. As a language educator, I think of agency as the number of verbs my players have. With our board game, the players have three verbs: roll the dice, move their piece, and answer questions. For younger learners, three to five verbs is adequate. Adults enjoy far more. As a design challenge, consider what additional verbs could be added to your board game—could players wager, trade, steal, question, or cooperate?
Increasing player agency creates more opportunity for strategy, but used alone it has limits, which is where altering the information of the game can assist. Games can loosely be categorized in two ways: perfect games, and imperfect games. In perfect games, all players share the same information and everything is on the board. Chess, checkers, basketball, and our board game example are all perfect games. In imperfect games, players have information known only to them. Card games such as poker and Uno are great examples, as are the board games Battleship and Settlers of Catan.
Making Games More Engaging
To make a more engaging experience for the players of our board game, I could hide the questions, which are only uncovered when a player lands on a tile. This could be enhanced by adding the verb to wager. Perhaps each player gets tokens they can use to bet. Before a question is revealed, players could wager tokens on whether they think other players will answer their question successfully. Winning the wager gets them more tokens, while losing a wager means giving over their tokens to the player who successfully answered the question.
Balancing luck and strategy, adding agency, and considering the perfectness of your game are all quick and easy ways to increase player engagement. Just remember that every effective game requires playtesting and refining, so be sure to try out your game with family, colleagues, and students—and share your game design journey in our comments section!
Finally, this month, I encourage everyone to check out Betsy Gilliland’s blog post on developing games for L2 writing. In other gaming news, Dr. Ulugbek Nurmukhamedov and Dr. Randall Sadler have called for contributions to TESOL’s New Ways in Teaching with Games, and I encourage everyone to submit! The deadline is 12 April 2019.
Until next month, play more games!
Want to learn more? Check out:
Brathwaite, B., & Schreiber, I. (2017). Challenges for game designers: Non-digital exercises for video game designers. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
Fullerton, T. (2014). Game design workshop: A playcentric approach to creating innovative games. Boca Raton, FL: AK Peters/CRC Press.
Jeff, thanks for taking aim at the classic ESL classroom game.
I wonder what you think of taking a slightly different look at the game… Instead of focusing on how to make the game part more engaging/fun, what about looking at what makes the “language interaction” part of it un-engaging? I think one reason that these language games exist is, like you said, for teachers to make sure that their students are talking and practicing the language, perhaps when they might not want to in other activities.
But, I have been thinking… why is the language practice so un-engaging that it needs a roll and move game slapped onto it? Will adding wagering (additional behavioral rewards) make the underlying language of the task (asking and answering questions about each other) more engaging?
It’s something I’ve been wrestling with with my students, and for me, the answer is not to dress up activities that students find un-engaging with game tasks, but to re-examine the language and interaction itself and think about how to make that meaningful for students.
Sure, a game might be meaningful for some. But 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.
I understand that students need that grammar and functional language. And I think that textbook exercises and drills are necessary to help them learn and practice it (and then maybe a game will help them practice it, too). But, then, how about having students use that language purposefully in something like a:
– role play
– class yearbook project describing each student
– time capsule (maybe emailed to students in 5 years)
– setting up a profile on a social media site
I think we need big reforms in education, not little ones, and how games fit into the broader conversation of what kind of meaningful education we give to students is important.
I think there are some fundamental questions about games in the ESL classroom that need to be wrestled with: does a game situate language practice in a realistic/meaningful setting for students, or are games dressed up tests or textbook exercises? Both have their place, and I think teachers and designers need to think about when/why/how they are using games and for what purpose their students really want/need to use/learn the language.
I’m very interested in your blog and your ideas. You’re doing great work. Keep it up!
I’d love to see you share a game design that effectively uses those additional strategic mechanisms to make the language practice more meaningful as well.