Games for Change: A Tool to Facilitate Cross-Curricular Planning for World Language Teachers

Creating a cohesive and meaningful learning experience across subject areas is valuable work. As Erikson (2012) discusses, learners enjoy a greater permanence in learning when they are able to organize the many facts that they must internalize into concepts. Concepts, ideas like “beauty”, “community”, and “change”, engender connections across subject areas that facilitate cross-curricular planning.  Teachers simply have to work together to identify concepts that they can teach simultaneously, and cross-curricular units are born.

Seems simple enough, right? If only that were the case! Consider the life of an average world language teacher. She may have 200 students of which 20 percent have Individualized Education Programs that require a good deal of differentiation outside of what she normally does in class. She is committed to giving feedback to her students, so she grades nightly and on the weekends. She also wants to find interesting and authentic sources, so she spends her time driving listening to podcasts in the target language. When she gets home from those drives, she plans and executes the activities that go along with the podcasts.  Needless to say, the time required to think about and plan cross-curricular units of study with educators from other fields is difficult to come by.

What do we do as educators then when we simply need time to think about concepts to use in our planning but have none of it to spare? There is no way, for example, that I can come up with a meaningful unit of study and/or project that involves myself as the world language teacher, the math teacher down the hall, the history teacher next door, and the science teacher on the other side of the building without setting aside time to work with those individuals to make sure that the concepts and topics that we discuss are both cohesive and coherent. Otherwise, the students will see the work for what it is-superficial, or worse, inauthentic.

Fortunately, the website Games for Change ( can really help educators to understand what a good cross-curricular unit or project might look like. The games that are included deal with global themes like humanitarian issues, environmental issues, civics, conflict, and poverty. The treatment of these themes belongs to all subject areas, not just one.

Parable of the Polygons ( is a game featured on the website that perfectly demonstrates cross-curricular alignment via the exploration of historical segregation bred by racism (or, by extension, any other differences that exist among populations of people). In this game (available in English, Spanish, Dutch, French, Portuguese, Chinese, and more), players are given a simple task: to make a slightly “shapist” society’s members happy by moving their residences. Each polygon wants to live in a diverse neighborhood, but each polygon is only happy if at least 1/3 of its neighbors are the same type of polygon. As the player begins to reorganize the neighborhood so that all of its residents are happy, he or she is able to observe how segregated it becomes overtime in a graph.



Figure 1: Screen shot of player’s experience segregating neighborhood


Subsequent tasks allow players to interact with and witness what happens if individual polygons have a higher or lower tolerance for diversity and allow them to consider what exactly changes in neighborhoods that were built with slightly shapist preferences once those preferences go away. Questions to guide players’ thinking regarding these changes are posted throughout (saving planning time for teachers!).

So how might this game be used in multiple classrooms at once? Though the possible answers to this question are infinite, an easy way to conceptualize using this game for teaching is to consider gameplay to be an experience to prime students for learning. Essentially, the game will allow learners to explore the tough issue of segregation in an unthreatening way and will prepare them to understand the content being disseminated in all of their classes. In the world language class, once learners are done working to negotiate meaning in the target language throughout gameplay, they can turn their attention to understanding the historical precedent of caste systems in the countries in which the target language is spoken. History teachers can use the initial gameplay experience to walk students through the Civil Rights movement and the long-term impact of segregation in the United States. Math teachers can help learners to gain numeracy skills by having them predict to what extent changing ratios and/or percentages of diversity tolerance in a given society will impact segregation. Essentially, in using this short game, teachers give their learners not only the experience needed to understand the topics of racism and segregation more profoundly than they may have once understood them, but also to see the interconnectedness of the disciplines that they are studying. In a very real way, what students are learning in math class impacts and adds meaning to what they are learning in Spanish class and vice versa.

-Stephanie Knight


Erikson, H. L. (2012). “Concept-based teaching and learning”. IB Position Papers. Retrieved from


Kisima Inŋitchuŋa: Using World Games for Language Learning

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Back in 2012, the Cook Inlet Tribal Council (CITC) found that the oral tradition of the Alaskan Native society, which is made up of eight tribal communities, was becoming more and more at risk thanks to slowly advancing outside influences. In addition to their language disappearing, the cultural heritage of their people was in jeopardy as well. In the face of such dire consequences for inaction, CITC decided to invest some newly acquired funds in a very creative way: developing a video game.

Creating the game company Upper One Games, CITC ensured that the game developers worked alongside Alaskan Native storytellers, elders, and artists every step of the way. The result is the game Never Alone: Kisima Inŋitchuŋa, the first addition to the new genre of “World Games,” which strive to bring the diversity of real world cultures into dynamic, interesting game worlds for people from around the world to play. Essentially, the Alaskan Native society wished to go beyond the mere preservation of their culture for historical purposes. They chose to revitalize their culture by sharing who they are in a medium that would reach a whole new audience, where they had a part in the creative process and it was not being done for them.

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Never Alone takes a piece of Iñupiaq folklore and makes it into an interactive fable which the player hears more of the further they play. The two main characters are Nuna, a young native girl, and an arctic fox that assists her on her journey to try and stop whatever force is causing the countless blizzards that plague her tribe. The game can be played either solo, where the player switches between Nuna and the fox, or cooperatively, with each player taking control of a character. The game itself is similar to “platformers” such as Super Mario Bros.,  and has the player running and jumping across the snowy landscape and taking advantage of each other’s special abilities.

The difficulty of the game gradually increases the further the player gets in the narrative, with some areas requiring a great deal of teamwork and finesse in order to progress. Interdependence is a key facet of Iñupiat culture, which is explained in the numerous documentary videos the player unlocks as they play through the game. The challenges of living in an environment as harsh as the Alaskan tundra forced native tribes to work together to survive. In Never Alone, this theme is portrayed in both the Iñupiaq voiceover narration as well as the rules and mechanics of the game. Nuna can move objects and wield tools while the fox can jump higher and call upon the spirits of the land to open up new areas. Both characters rely on the other’s special abilities in order to progress further in the game, which implicitly shows the importance of working together in order to succeed.

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In this aspect, Never Alone shows how it can lend itself to be used for language learning purposes. Because cooperation is embedded in the mechanics of the game, a language teacher would not have to adapt the game very much in order to take advantage of this in the classroom.  The teacher could have the learners play the game in pairs, with each learner playing a specific character, and the one rule is that they have to communicate with each other in the target language. As they play through the game, they will make mistakes by mistiming a jump or being attacked by a polar bear, but they will automatically respawn at the previous checkpoint so that they can try again. Trial and error is as important for language learning as it is for playing games, so this feature lends itself very well to the language classroom.


When playing a cooperative game such as Never Alone, the learners will naturally have to use imperatives and locative words in order to play the game successfully. The teacher can take advantage of this and design a lesson that focuses on having learners negotiate meaning together and progress through the game in the target language. Normally, the game translates the Iñupiaq narration into English subtitles, but there are several other languages available including Spanish (European and Latin American), French, German, Chinese (Simplified), Italian, Japanese, Portugese, Russian, Korean, Polish, Dutch, Norwegian, Finnish, Danish, and Swedish. The diversity of languages makes this game adaptable for numerous language contexts, so the teacher can take advantage of this feature if they choose.

These are just a few ways that Never Alone could be implemented in the classroom, but there are other options as well. The game can also be analyzed from a cultural perspective, with the learners breaking down the values of the Alaskan Native society and their inherent world view. Even though Never Alone strives to give players an in-depth look at their culture, the teacher should not use the game to say that all Iñupiaq communities are the same as the one portrayed in the game for fear of caricature. Instead, the teacher should use the game as a vehicle for the learners to compare the cultural values found in the game with their own. Never Alone could have easily been a surface-level game; just another standard “platformer,” only this time it is set in the Arctic. Instead, it is the product of game designers, education experts, and Alaskan Natives all working together to create a brave new genre of game. It is up to us to be aware of the significance of “World Games,”  knowing that when we share the experience of playing this game together, we are truly “never alone.”

-Ben Pearson


SimCity BuildIt in the Language Classroom

SimCity BuildIt is mobile-based city building game available on Android and iOS that has become very popular both in the US and internationally. In its first three weeks, it was downloaded more that 15 million times (Maiberg, 2015). In an interview with GamesBeat, EA Mobile vice president and group general manager Jason Willig claimed that most players “say they love it,” and referenced the 4.5 star rating of the game in the US, France, Korea, Germany, and the UK (Newman, 2015). He also said that his team has “designed SimCity BuildIt to keep players engaged for years to come,” and pointed to forthcoming improvements that may include allowing players to communicate with each other regarding their cities (Newman, 2015). Because of this potential for sustained player engagement, the game lends itself well to being used in the world language classroom. In order to aid educators in their implementation of the game in their classrooms, this post will provide an analysis of the usefulness of SimCity BuildIt and will give examples and ideas of different types of activities that a teacher could use in the language classroom.

SimCity BuildIt is especially effective for its potential to engage learners; there is a wide variety of topics that it provides for students to interact with while using the target language. For example, this game includes themes like leadership, resource allocation, population satisfaction, trade, taxation and alternative sources of funding, city planning, services, and perception of politicians. In addition, the game itself has a very user-friendly, simple design. Players who are not accustomed to playing digital games will find it easy to use, and learners, even at novice levels, should find support in the simple layout, straightforward tasks, and clear direction. In short, they will be able to focus their efforts on the language-learning aspect of the game rather than potentially feeling disoriented by gameplay.’

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Another benefit of incorporating SimCity BuildIt into the world language classroom is the autonomy, and resulting engagement, that it affords learners. For the most part, learners are free to develop their cities as they see fit (within some limiting guidelines), and at the end of their creation, they have a product to reflect upon. This autonomy makes the learner an integral and interested actor in the game, and by extension, part of the language classroom. It is not insignificant that the learners are given the role of mayor and have the associated responsibility and accountability for the wellbeing of their cities. That they get to do it all through their target language may raise their expectations of what they are able to accomplish in that language.

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Because the language used in the game is relatively simple and its associated topics are complex, the game can easily serve as a springboard for activities targeted toward all levels of language learners. Some potential themes and sample expansion activities for each level are listed below.

Ideas for activity topics with SimCity BuildIt in the classroom:

  • For novice: city vocabulary, locations, directions, describing happiness/reasons for it.
  • For intermediate: resource allocation, leadership roles, trade, buying and selling norms, travel to other cities, what to do in a city.  
  • For advanced: different parties’ obligations in a city, sources of funding, describing hypothetical scenarios, disaster response, comparing cities.

Possible learner expansions based on SimCity BuildIt:

  • Learners write an article on mayor dissatisfaction from the perspective of a Sim in their city.
  • Learners interview each other about being a mayor and the responsibilities it entails.
  • Learners write directions to a family member for how they can get from one location in their city to another.
  • Learners write an email conversation between someone comparing taxation in their Sim city and a real-world city, where their target language is spoken.
  • Learners compare their own city’s leadership to that of their Sim city, and then research and write a letter to their city’s mayor, either offering praise or suggestions for improvement.
  • Learners research and present on a service or resource and how it is used in their Simcity and their hometown.
  • Learners propose infrastructure changes in their own cities to increase happiness.

A set of classroom activities for SimCity BuildIt, in addition to other game-enhanced activities, can be found in the Publications section of Games2Teach, found here.

Because of the ease of use, wide variety of possible activities, and the fact that the game puts learners in a leadership position, SimCity BuildIt is a wonderful addition to the language classroom. It comes in many languages (English, Chinese, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Turkish) and is available on iOS and Android devices. Find it here.

By: Kathryn Carpenter


Reference List

Maiberg, E. (2105, January 8). SimCity BuildIt downloaded 15 million times in three weeks. Retrieved from:

Newman, H. (2015, June 6). Simcity BuildIt has become the most played Simcity ever, EA Mobile claims. Retrived from:

All photos and game screenshots from gameplay of Simcity BuildIt by EA.


New Online Course on Designing Games

Hello everyone,

A new four class course is being offered at  called ‘Game Design: Art and Concepts Specialization,’ where learners receive a foundation for designing a video game at the conceptual level. Beginning on November 23, this 4-class course will focus on exploring important aspects of video game design, such as narrative, character development, and gameplay aspects before programming even begins. For more information about the course itself, frequently asked questions, and how to sign up, click on the link here.

Take a look if this is something that interests you!