The Case for Commercial Games: Confessions of a Reformed Language Educator

I have always loved games and loved language. Perhaps there is no greater example of that truth than my lesson plans from my first year of teaching. Learning via competition (i.e., verb conjugation races, vocabulary guessing games, and grammar/vocabulary review modeled after Jeopardy) was ubiquitous in my classroom. As a result, I was confident that my students had memorized grammar and vocabulary well by the end of the school year.

In many ways, my classroom was like a run-off-the-mill language learning game or mobile app; it was more about language itself than it was about the application of linguistic knowledge for communication. I made learning fun, but I did not show students why language learning is important beyond its identification by the State Board of Education as a requirement. I confess that my classroom was limited by that equivocation.

If I could go back and tell my former self how to use games in the classroom, I would explain that the search for games should be expanded beyond games that are explicitly designed for learning words. I would urge myself to carefully select commercial games in the target language that provide contexts within which language learning is purposeful beyond the walls of the classroom. I would tell myself that though it may feel beyond the realm of academia to use commercial games, the intentional incorporation of such games in the classroom promotes higher-order thinking and the application of knowledge in various contexts. Simply put, commercial games have the potential to foment meaningful communication.

A game like Plague Inc. serves as a great example of this potential. The purpose of the game is to mutate the genetic code of a pathogen so that it wipes out the population of the world. As players engage, they not only witness the slow destruction of humanity, but also humanity’s response to its impending destruction. As the disease spreads, a news reel reveals calls for international collaboration and research. The more time that people have to respond to the pathogen, the more difficult it becomes to spread it. While learners playing the game do learn target vocabulary through gameplay, they are drawn to consider language beyond word-level meaning. In this example, they consider high-level concepts such as systems, communities, and collaboration.

This conceptual observation and engagement serves to scaffold discussions related to real-world concerns that may seem beyond the proficiency level of students. For example, one of the intermediate activities we have developed for Plague Inc. requires learners to live tweet the spread of the pathogen, using hashtags and tagging to connect with other members of the class/learning community. While intermediate students may be of too low a proficiency level to truly dissect the importance of community in an in-depth class discussion, they can use their gameplay and related language production to experience the concept in action. As they engage in this experience, they acquire lexical knowledge and refine knowledge of other content related to summarizing and disseminating information (present-tense verbs, for example). Additionally, given their active participation in concept-based learning, they are likely to retain what they learn and empowered to apply it to other situations.

Opportunities for learning language are everywhere. It is the task of educators to harness those opportunities and shape them for our students’ learning.

– Stephanie Knight

4 thoughts on “The Case for Commercial Games: Confessions of a Reformed Language Educator

Comments are closed.