Where do I start?

One of the questions we are often asked is where to start.  Playing games themselves is one of the most important steps.  Since selecting which games to play can feel very overwhelming to those just starting to play, here is a list of three free online recommendations. These are by no means the only choices, but are a good place to get your feet wet.  Feel free to add additional games that might be useful in the comments section! The key to this post is that they are free or very low-cost games.

(1) Farmville (free online; can be played via Facebook; commit to two weeks of gameplay)

Farmville is a wildly popular, casual social game. Playing it is a good way to learn how repetition and collaboration are built into games.  It doesn’t really develop expertise, but instead relies on a reciprocity dynamic with other players, your neighbors—in other words, it relies on our feelings of social obligation and desire to “keep-up-with-the-Joneses”, by asking us to constantly visit, help, and give to others, with the understanding that they’ll help us back.  It is very user-friendly and can be played in a wide variety of languages.

If you’re interested in seeing how a farming game might be different, check out Free Farm Game (available in French and English) for a more complex, non-social, management farming game. It’s a little more realistic with regards to what’s really involved in farming. Another farming game with a social responsibility message is Third World Farmer (available in Spanish and English)—it has a critical, educational orientation. Comparing all three games can give you insight into how game genre is separate from game content.

(2) Diner Dash (free online or on a mobile device; commit to one week of gameplay)

This is a great game for understanding how games teach skills incrementally, and how these skills add up to ‘levels’.  Pay special attention to how the game implicitly teaches you to play it–many games these days don’t come with a manual, but instead rely on the leveling mechanism to teach players the game as they play it.

(3) World of Warcraft (10-day free trial; commit to 10 hours of gameplay over the course of two weeks)

Trying a massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) like World of Warcraft is a good experience for anyone interested in working with digital games.  As you play, pay special attention to how the game promotes in-game player collaboration, how it provides feedback and its leveling mechanism. Although the learning curve is steep, and you may not use it with your students, as the number one selling MMOG it combines many of the elements that we believe make up a powerful learning environment.

If WoW is too memory-intense for your computer, another popular MMOG is Runescape. It’s entirely online, and is available in English, German, French, and Portuguese.



How can games help me learn a second language? Read what the gamers say…

Here’s an interesting discussion board thread on a public gamer website, NeoGAF. Someone asked “J’apprends le français. How can games help me learn a second language?“, and received over 100 replies in 5 days. Some respondents give game recommendations, some warn against it, some talk about how they’ve learned other languages using games, and of course, there’s some off-topic commentary. Check it out.

– J. Reinhardt


Game-informed pedagogical insights

In this TED video, Seth Priebatsch discusses what he calls “the game layer on top of the world”. He explains that several principles fundamental to digital game design are found increasingly in other areas of culture and society. It’s interesting to think about Priebatsch’s principles in terms of their application to L2 pedagogy.

His first concept, the appointment dynamic, is a game dynamic that operates such that a “player must return at a predefined time to take a predefined action” in order to succeed. Wildly popular games like Farmville work this way, where all one needs to succeed is to discipline oneself enough to show up somewhere or do something at a specific time. Many everyday activities in life operate on this dynamic, for example, cooking, or gardening. In the classroom, the practice of ‘participation’ or ‘attendance’ points makes use of this dynamic, where we give learners credit simply for being in the classroom, or merely taking part in an activity. It’s an important, but sometimes dismissed motivator. Developing self-discipline and becoming self-regulated are important parts of the learning experience, and rewarding this ‘appointment dynamic’ behavior reinforces this.

Priebatsch also offers influence and status as a game dynamic, which he explains is the structure of a game that affords the “ability of one player to modify the behavior of another’s actions through social pressure”. Social pressure is a reality of every social group, whether a family, a group of friends, a community, a school, or a classr. The question is, whether a teacher or curriculum should recognize or take advantage of this fact for the purpose of pedagogy, and to what degree.

In the classroom, we are faced with a dilemma if we want to recognize achievement with influence and status publicly. Certainly, recognizing high achievement with some sort of truly desirable reward can be motivating to others, but often, teachers are so concerned about discouraging students who do poorly that they don’t recognize or provide rewards to top achievers in front of other students. Some decide to reward everyone, but this may not be effective, since it can result in high achievement losing its status. A better way to avoid damaging self-esteem would be to give those who achieve less on a particular activity, quiz, or test an opportunity to catch up to the high achievers by dedicating more time and effort, that is, by incorporating judicious use of the appointment dynamic, like extra credit. Another solution might be to reward groups instead of (or as often as) individuals, by incorporating frequent collaborative/competitive group activities (where students collaborate in groups to compete against other groups), but mixing up group membership occasionally so that each student ends up on the winning team at least once. A third solution might be to use a point system with rewards at particular milestones or levels, rather than associated with each activity/quiz/test–everyone would then realize a reward was waiting for them, and it was just a matter of when, rather than if, they would achieve it. This is how the old ‘gold star chart’ system worked.

A dynamic similar to this ‘gold star’ solution is Priebatsch’s progression dynamic, where “success is granularly displayed and measured through the process of completing itemized tasks”. Digital game players will recognize this dynamic as being part of practically every game out there, in the form of point systems. An important part of this dynamic is that the contribution of every single task towards achievement of a desirable goal is made explicit, no matter how small. Points are never taken away, so that the player never sees regression–only fewer points are awarded for less well done tasks. Priebatsch notes this ‘regression’ happens all the time in education, where a student receives say a C on an quiz after getting an A on an earlier one–a very deflating experience.

Many instructors find point systems effective, especially if students can figure out how many points they have at any time during the semester or year. Another reason point systems are motivating is that they show students that even a few points, perhaps fewer points than hoped for, are still points, and count towards achievement. If there are other means of earning more points, students will be less discouraged, even though these other means might require more effort.

So should we award points for every classroom activity, from attendance to group activities to tests? Should we reward students when they reach certain levels, rather than assign them As or Bs? Should we provide alternate routes to achievement, that is, ways to earn extra points? For internally driven, highly motivated learners, maybe such systems are unnecessary. For others, however, providing an external structure like a point system might be useful if we expect motivation to be internalized. Game designers know this, and the best designed games are so motivating that players spend hours playing, learning, and developing new skills, without anyone asking them to. L2 instructors and curriculum designers might benefit from these game-informed insights. Some might even realize that they have been incorporating aspects of them all along, because they seem to work, without realizing their similarity to game dynamics.

– J. Reinhardt


What can we learn from Super Mario Brothers?

Mario and Luigi, aka the Super Mario Brothers, from Nintendo, have stood as beloved game characters for decades and still are the central characters to many new Mario games.  In almost every Mario game, the goal is to jump through obstacles, defeat enemies, and solve puzzles to save the Princess (and sometimes the whole galaxy).  There are single player and multiplayer games, as well as various iterations of the same game.  Take, for example, Super Mario 1, 2 and 3.  Yet, there is very little language involved in the actual playing of most Mario games and we wouldn’t suggest them as good choices for target language practice.

So, why even mention the game series?  What can we as language educators learn from Super Mario Brothers?  While not directly related to the actual use of digital games, I would like to use this post to suggest three lessons we can take to heart from this time honored game tradition.

(1) ‘Death’ is not the end of the world and everyone should have the opportunity for unlimited lives, even if it means having to go back and re-do some levels for additional practice.

In Super Mario Brothers, there are numerous attempts to earn additional lives and keep playing until one is successful.  Even if one loses all of his or her lives, the player only starts at the beginning of the world, and is not deemed a failed player.  The same should be true of second language learning.  Encouraging failure (similar to what “kills” you in Mario) as an essential component of learning (e.g., negotiation of meaning and communication strategies) and providing the opportunity to continue trying until the skills are mastered has the potential to be very powerful.  As we design learning experiences (in mediated or non-mediated contexts), providing opportunities for failure with a learning purpose allows learners to move at their own pace and learn from their own mistakes.

(2) The Power Jump Paradox or…you must learn to master things at your own level or you will be unsuccessful in future levels.

One component of digital games that we find to be especially compelling for L2 learning is the way that feedback is delivered.  Super Mario Brothers is especially successful at providing scaffolded, meaningful feedback.  For example, an  important skill to be mastered is the power jump (i.e., the ability to jump extra high or over long distances).  When learning to power jump, the player first encounters the skill in a practice space where failure is annoying, but does not inhibit gameplay.  However, as the game progresses, the power jump becomes more and more critical until it is impossible to move forward without it.  In this way, the player receives continuous feedback on the success (or failure) of the power jump until it is impossible to survive without it.  Language learning feedback would also benefit from this type of gradual, scaffolded feedback in both foreign and second language contexts.  Learners should be given multiple opportunities to use the material being learned and then be assessed on their ability to apply it in a high stakes situation.   This stands in stark contrast to learning something one day and then being tested on it at the end of a chapter or unit.

(3) Tricks, tools, and resources are invaluable in saving the princess.

It would be impossible to save the princess without the help of Toad, Yoshi, and multiple other in-game characters and resources.  They guide the player and assist in difficult tasks.  As language educators, we should encourage the proper use of resources as opposed to banning them from the classroom.  For example, an online translator, while often used improperly, might serve as an excellent catalyst for a discussion of lexical diversity or literal versus functional translations.  Instruction on how to best use translators and dictionaries could prove to be invaluable.

-J. Sykes