Category Archives: Publications

Publications relating to Games to Teach.


This War of Mine: The Little Ones Review


This War of Mine keeps players in a constant state of worry, forcing them to make decisions that not only affected the progression of the narrative, but also impacted the outlooks of the other characters. Set in an unnamed Eastern European country in the midst of a civil war, you play as a group of civilians who are trying to survive by any means necessary. This requires the player to craft resources and build up defenses by day and scavenge materials, steal medicine, or even kill other survivors at night. The game is difficult; you are constantly short on resources, underfed, and mending injuries, with one wrong move costing you the life of one of your survivors. The difficulty is purposeful, since the message of the game would be lost otherwise. This War of Mine shows the player the struggles that people must endure when the world around them is irrevocably changed by forces outside of their control as well as the issue of survival at the cost of humanity. As the game progresses, various encounters present themselves that force the player to make those difficult decisions, which will affect the outcome of the game in addition to the disposition of your survivors.


In the new expansion for PC, Playstation 4, and Xbox One called The Little Ones, players experience another layer of complication – surviving when a teenager and a child show up at the entrance of the settlement. The older one asks you to watch over his brother while he goes with a group to scavenge for medical supplies. Should you accept, the brother runs off and never comes back, leaving you with a young boy that cannot defend himself and needs just as much care (if not more) than an able-bodied adult. As if the original game was not morally ambivalent enough, you now have the life of an innocent child to consider when making your decisions. Do you take the time to play with the child when he wants to, or do you ignore him so that you can board up the holes in your settlement? Do you leave the child alone and undefended at night so you can get more supplies, or do you keep someone with him at all times? These kind of decisions make this expansion so much harder, but at the same time so much more engaging.


With this new gameplay dynamic comes a number of new features for the player to dissect. While the child you watch over does not contribute to the functionality of the group at first, you can have the adults teach the child how to perform various tasks around the settlement. This is important to establish early, since the further you progress in the game, the more you will need every able body to help keep the settlement in working order. Just as important as giving the child tasks to do is the ability to help pass the time either by making the adults play with the child or craft toys. Very much like language learning, the child starts off with very little to contribute, but the more he interacts with the people around him, the more experienced he will become.


Another dose of realism hits home when you notice the individual personality traits of every character under your control. As much as you may not like it, Bruno is addicted to cigarettes and if you do not make an effort to get them for him, he will suffer because of it. In addition, if you kill another person while you are scavenging for supplies, your character will be drastically affected by his actions. This comes into play with the new expansion in The Little Ones, where you control a father named Christo and his daughter Iskra, which starts out rather light with Iskra running around with seemingly limitless energy as Christo scrounges up some firewood to cook a meal. Depending on how much attention you give the daughter and how you interact with others, you will affect the way their relationship plays out in the game. Unlike other video games, Christo is not a hardened action hero or a space marine or a seasoned war veteran, he is a regular person, ripped from his regular life and forced to survive in a city torn apart by war. In turn, the player can imagine that they are in his situation, and in effect relate to the context and become more invested in the story.


So why use this serious, dark, violent game in the classroom? Simply put, it allows the learner to get exposure to a context that they may not have any knowledge of and engage their mind in high levels of cognition. According to Sykes & Reinhardt, game designers “use narratives, which include characters, stories, and images, to contextualize game rules and structures,” which allow for “goal orienting, afford interaction, and animate feedback mechanisms” (82). Essentially, players will be more likely to play the game if they can invest their time and energy in a compelling narrative. A great feature of This War of Mine is the player journal, which keeps track of important events in the game as well as personal developments within each character’s inner dialogue. This in-game mechanism could easily be modified for a number of different extension activities to explore character motivations and create fictional narratives to explain how the character ended up in his current situation. Next month’s post on Games2Teach will dive into that in more detail.


This War of Mine: The Little Ones is an incredibly impactful game that immerses players in heart wrenching experiences and assessing how they would fare as an innocent bystander in the midst of a city at war. The controls can take you out of the experience from time to time, since it is definitely frustrating when you try to sneak by a raider only to have your character sprint right in front of him and alert the entire camp.  If you are willing to set the clunky control scheme aside, this game has a compelling message to share and will make you appreciate the little things in your life that you take for granted.

-Ben Pearson



Sykes, J. M. & Reinhardt, J. (2013). Language at play: Digital games in second and foreign language teaching and learning. New Jersey: Pearson Education Inc.


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


Board games at the core of a game-based language learning methodology: Kotoba Rollers

By James York, assistant professor at Tokyo Denki University

In this post, I will be unrolling (pun intended) a framework that I have been working on for the past year. The framework took many twists and turns, which can be read about further on my own blog here, but this post is a description of the framework in its current form. I do not think this is the final form, but it is still very usable in its current state in a number of contexts, particularly low-level EFL contexts such as my own.


As the title suggests, I am deeply interested in Digital Game-Based Language Learning (DGBLL) and how it may be applied to classroom learning. Why the dropped D though? Board games (or analog games, as they are often referred to) have very unique affordances for language learning in my opinion, and the structure of a board game play session matches the concepts of TBLT much closer than with video games. However, this post is not designed to be a deeply academic romp into the similarities between gameplay and TBLT methodology. For an overview, see the excellent paper by Julie Sykes (2014).

I should mention why the acronym DGBLL exists and not GBLL (as far as I know at least).

Ben Pearson also wrote about this on the blog here. CALL is a firmly established and extremely innovate field, and of course, as a part of that field there are those interested in exploring the affordances of digital games and virtual worlds for second language development. Video games have become such a large subject of research in CALL that the acronym DGBLL arose in accordance. Indeed, Pearson writes about this succinctly:

In the relatively new field of game studies, digital games have attracted the most attention of researchers and scholars. While technology continued to improve, so did the acceptance of digital games as a viable medium for interactive storytelling and artistic expression. In today’s world, most people walk around with mobile devices that play games that look about as good as they did on game consoles a few years ago. As such, digital games have become much more pervasive in society and it is much easier to see them as legitimate fields of study. The problem is that while digital games garner so much attention in game studies as a field of scholarship, very little work has been done on analog games in comparison.

I think it is the dearth in research regarding board games that inspires scholars like Pearson and myself. Additionally, the renaissance of board games is very very real. Board game funding figures have also overtaken those of video games on the popular crowdsourcing website Kickstarter. Yet, despite their increasing popularity, there is little research on the use of board games as a teaching tool in educational, let alone language-learning contexts.

So, without further ado, let me introduce the framework I have been using to promote English communicative competence in a low level EFL context here in Japan.

  • Why communicative competence? — This is a skill that is sorely lacking in my context. 
  • Why not specific skills per game? — I prescribe to learner-centered learning. This comes mainly from my own experiences as a language learner. Yes, I can create an activity to push learners to notice certain grammar points or lexical items, but what if they don’t notice, or what if they noticed something different which has more relevance to them at their current stage of development?

The framework

The framework is derived of six parts. The following subsections of this post will explain each of them in detail. Each part is considered to last a full 90 minute class period.

  1. Learn the rules
  2. Play
  3. Analyse a transcription of gameplay discourse
  4. Play again
  5. Analyse gameplay discourse and compare with previous play session
  6. Complete a final project reflecting on the experience

Part 1: Learn the rules

Rulebooks introduce key concepts, vocabulary, and grammatical structures that will be encountered during gameplay. Thus, students are provided with a huge volume of input before the active gameplay stage (i.e. reading and listening skills targeted before speaking). From a TBLT perspective, then, the rulebook acts as a priming tool for students to become familiar with relevant vocabulary and grammar before play. As well as reading the rulebook, students are prompted to watch “How to play” and “Gameplay YouTube videos to further the amount of input they receive. During this phase then, students are not only learning how to play the game, they are equipping themselves with vocabulary, grammar and keywords to play.

After learning how to play the game, students then get all the pieces out and play for 5 – 10 minutes. In my context, as the game is new and unfamiliar, this is usually done mostly in the L1. However, this stage is also an important learning activity. There is a disparity between the words and grammar found in the rulebook and what is said during gameplay (see Masuda & deHaan, 2015), and so the gameplay session offers students the opportunity to notice what words are needed.

In summary

The first class is designed for students to learn

  1. How to play the game
  2. What words and phrases are common in the rulebook
  3. What words and phrases are actually used to play the game

I provide a worksheet to students so they can keep a note of any new words or phrases that they noticed. The worksheet can then be referenced during gameplay the following week.


From the rulebook:

 New words, phrases, or grammar
 Japanese translation
 Example usage sentence
 a  a  a
 a  a  a


From playing the game:

 Example sentence
 Japanese translation
 a  a
 a  a

Part 2: Gameplay

The following class is very straight forward. Students come in, get into groups, set up the game and play. Before playing however, they are reminded to record the audio of their play session. All students must do this.

After playing through the game, they reflect on what happened (usually in the L1), and decide how they will transcribe the gameplay audio. Generally, students divide the audio up into equal amounts so that they all have specific sections of equal length to transcribe. Transcription is then completed as homework to be done for the next class. The transcription should be verbatim, including all of the L2 and L1 utterances.

Part 3: Transcription Analysis (1)

First of all I should answer the question: “Why get them to transcribe their gameplay audio?” 

Well, without going too deep into the literature on self-transcription (for those interested, see Mennim, 2012), it is safe to say that during gameplay students are very limited cognitively. They are concentrating on the game and what is occurring in real-time. Thus, they often do not have the cognitive capacity to focus on what they are saying as much as they like. Essentially, noticing errors and L1 usage are given low priority and fluency (meaning negotiation) high priority, taking up the majority of their cognitive capacity. (On a side note, this is often true of tasks in TBLT in general. Accuracy is thus prescribed to a post-task phase).

In the third class then, students look at what was said during game play and do the following:

  1. Correct any L2 mistakes
  2. Translate L1 utterances into the L2

From doing this activity, students should notice what mistakes are common, what grammar they need to play the game using more of the L2, how much they use the L1 and in what instances they use the L1.

After that, they are instructed to complete appropriate grammar exercises from English Grammar in Use (Cambridge) in order to better their understanding regarding the grammar that they picked out as useful for gameplay. 

A worksheet is again provided for students to keep a record of what they discovered.


First, they write what English grammar they think is useful for playing the game.

 Grammar point
 <person> should <verb>
 You should collect the red cards
 a  a
 a  a

Then, translate common L1 utterances.

 What shall I do?
 a  a
 a  a

And finally, they make some sentences based on the work they did in the grammar book. These sentences should use the grammar point and represent what they will say in the next play session:

 a  a

The worksheet is kept and can be referenced during the second play session.

Part 4: Replay the game

This stage is very similar to the first play session, but now we are in a position to expect more L2 use, so, let’s up the ante. money bag 

After 15 minutes (or one full round, or whatever other marker students decide is appropriate) they have to make a new rule. They have an option to make two rules actually, which are:

If I speak Japanese then ….

If we all only speak English then ….

I wrote extensively about this in a previous blog post for those interested. The first rule is obviously a penalty for L1 use, and surprisingly the idea of adding this rule came from the students themselves after I conducted a survey of how to improve the framework last year (York & deHaan, under review). The second is a reward that applies to ALL players, and is seen as the carrot to promote them to cooperate and speak more English. Of course, it is hard to make interesting, and fair rules for all games (“If I speak Japanese I have to reveal my card” in games like One Night Ultimate Werewolf is clearly not going to do the werewolves any favours….) but for the most part this step of the framework has been accepted positively by the students.

Homework for this session is to transcribe their audio once more.

Part 5: Transcription Analysis (2)

The second analysis session is very different to the first.

Now they have transcriptions for two gameplay sessions, it’s time to compare their performance. Did they speak more L2 during the second play through? Was the grammar that they thought would be useful actually used? These questions are answered in this session, and students are asked to make a tally count of how many times they used the grammar points that came up during the first transcription analysis, as well as the sentences that they translated:

 Grammar point
 How many times did you use the form?
 <person> should <verb>
 a  a
 a  a


 English expression translated from Japanese
 How many times did you use these expressions?
 What shall I do?
 a  a


And a final table to record phrases that they still said in the L1:

Part 6: Final report

In the final two classes students create something of value for future players of the game. I was inspired by the work of Squire (2011) who wrote about how students start out as learners, then become master, and finally creators of content. In a similar vein then, here students learn the game, master the game (and language (to a certain extent anyway)) and finally create something for future students to refer to. They choose from one of the following projects and complete them either as a group or individually:

  1. Make a gameplay video [Group]
  2. Make a “How to play” video [Group]
  3. Write a game review [Individual]
  4. Transcribe gameplay and provide a grammar explanation [Individual]
  5. Teach other classmates how to play the game [Group / Individual] 

The popularity of the projects is in descending order. The fear of having to present something live to the rest of the class seems to push the “teach” project down to the bottom. These projects all have their own worksheets to guide students, and at the back is an evaluation sheet so that students know exactly how they will be graded.


Here is an example from the “How to play” video project:

 This worksheet
 10 points

☐ Did you complete all sections of this worksheet?

☐ Did you hand this worksheet in?


 Game Introduction
 5 points

☐ Was the game introduced?


 Player introductions
 10 points

☐ Did all players introduce themselves?

☐ Did all players speak clearly?


 Rules introduction
 50 points

☐ Were game-specific words explained clearly?

☐ Did players speak only English during the explanation?

☐ Did the players use the board to explain rules?

☐ Did players say what they were doing? (i.e. did they speak when they  moved pieces?)

☐ Did all players speak clearly? (Pronunciation)


 Filming and editing
 25 points

☐ Was the game filmed clearly? (could we see what players were doing?)

☐ Was there a lot of silence? (i.e. were silent episodes cut out?)

☐ Was the camera stable?

Once a group has completed their project, they are instructed to hand it in over on my blog (which basically links to a Dropbox file request folder). I’d love to show some of their work, but unfortunately I did not ask for permission to publicly reveal what they have made (I only asked that their work be made available to other students within the university). 


The framework introduced here is designed to put students in charge of their own learning. Learning that is enjoyable. Agency is promoted as they are in control of their learning at the macro (choosing a game to play, making groups) and micro (learning rules, creating transcriptions, progressing gameplay turn by turn) level.

So what do I do in class? My role is to provide rule explanations when things are not clear, strategies for games in play, target language examples, and generally facilitate their play sessions as best I can. Due to the nature of the final projects being different for all groups, I have a very passive role. Groups often go to different rooms of the university so that they can record their sessions in a quiet environment, so at this stage I go around all the rooms and make sure everything is proceeding smoothly.

I have collected data regarding students perceptions of this framework and am continuously improving it for future implementations. The next step is to collect data regarding their transcriptions to see if there are any improvements in their oral performance between the two play sessions.

I’d like to thank Ben Pearson for inviting me to write this post, and hope readers find it useful for their own teaching context. If you have any further questions or would like to get involved with the Japan Game Lab research team, you can contact me at yorksensei @ gmail . com.


  • Masuda, R., & DeHaan, J. W. (2015). Language in Game Rules and Game Play : A Study of Emergence in Pandemic International Journal of English Linguistics, 5(6), 1. 
  • Mennim, P. (2012). Learner negotiation of L2 form in transcription exercises. ELT Journal, 66(1), 52–61.
  • Squire, K. (2011). Video Games and Learning: Teaching and Participatory Culture in the Digital Age. Technology, Education–Connections (the TEC Series). Teachers College Press. 1234 Amsterdam Avenue, New York, NY 10027.
  • Sykes, J. (2014) TBLT and synthetic immersive environments: What can in-game task restarts tell us about design and implementation? in González-Lloret, M., & Ortega, L. (Eds.). (2014). Technology-mediated TBLT: Researching technology and tasks (Vol. 6). John Benjamins Publishing Company.

New Publications for Fall 2013

This Fall we’re offering 4 new publications. If you’d like a free copy of any of them, you can make a request through our publications page.

  1. a set of materials for game-enhanced L2 Spanish learning with Gardenscapes: Mansion Makeover, by K. Lanser & project co-director J. Sykes
  2. a set of materials for game-enhanced L2 Spanish learning with Mass Effect 3, by K. Lanser & project co-director J. Sykes
  3. a white paper by project co-director J. Reinhardt entitled: A Meta-analysis of Research Frameworks in Digital Games and L2 Teaching and Learning
  4. an appendix from Sykes and Reinhardt (2013). Language at Play (published by Pearson), a Guide to Game Types and Genres