David Dodgson teaches and learns at an international school in Gabon. He has previously worked in
Turkey, gaining experience of working with children, teens, and adults in general English, ESP and
EAP. He believes personalising the learning process is the key to success in the language classroom
and has a strong interest in using and adapting authentic input for learners of all levels. He blogs at
davedodgson.com and also runs eltsandbox.weebly.com, a site dedicated to game-based learning.
Regular readers may recognise David as he has written many interesting and thought provoking articles, including one for this magazine.
You are famous in ELT circles for your support of game-based learning. Is there more to it than simply playing games and calling it learning?
There is a lot more to it! I see digital games as authentic materials which can be used to engage learners and provide a springboard for activities in much the same way as an interesting video clip or a popular song. Most teachers would never show a video or a play a song and just expect their learners to pick it up. Just as we use other authentic materials as part of a structured lesson with activities designed to focus learners’ attention on aspects of language, the same approach is necessary for games.
Another important feature of present day gaming to consider is that these days, even when just played for pleasure, computer games involve more than simply playing. Vast online communities exist for a lot of games. Players go online to forums and discuss the game, they share tips and ask for help, and they watch YouTube gameplay videos. This is something I tap into as well. Take an app like Can You Escape? or a PC game like Minecraft – neither of these contain much language in-game but interested learners can be directed to online guides to navigate the challenges and collaborative problem-solving can be encouraged as they help each other to progress. All of this is done in the target language and provides a strong context for practice.
TEFL is famous or infamous for games and ‘fun’ which do not always sit well with adult and BE classes. Should teachers gamify those courses?
Before I introduce game-based learning activities, I always gauge my students’ interest. Depending on the level and age range of the students, I might open up a discussion about games and their potential for learning or conduct a survey. If reactions are positive, I will then suggest that we try out some GBL activities. If not, we might move on to a discussion about why the class has seemingly negative attitudes to gaming and the stereotypes that may be involved. I would not force any GBL lessons on an unwilling class, however.
I would say though that we should never assume a class will or will not respond well to any particular type of activity. I have taught a class of teens who were not interested in GBL and I have taught classes of adults who claimed to have never really played games who were keen to try it out. Bring up the subject, discuss it, and decide whether or not to go ahead from there.
Board games seem to have made a come-back in the past years as opposed to apps. How do you explain it?
Nostalgia is always a powerful force. Just as games with retro pixelated graphics are popular amongst PC gamers these days, classic board games are also back in fashion. Many of them also have modern twists too – I recently witnessed grown men in a toy shop nearly coming to blows over the last remaining Star Wars: Force Awakens Monopoly set!
There is also the social factor. There are app versions of Monopoly, Risk and Scrabble with multiplayer features. While it is great to play from anywhere with anyone, I think many people still prefer the interaction of sitting down in a group and setting aside a couple of hours for a game in real time. That’s one reason why I usually encourage my learners to tackle in-game tasks in pairs or small groups. It encourages collaboration, discussion and co-operation.
Games are often taught to teachers for use in warmers and for revision but how would you employ them for teaching content, using it, for tests or for skill-based work like writing?
Computer games often have highly-detailed worlds to explore and manipulate. There are many characters to interact with (computer or human controlled depending on the game), locations to visit and objects to find and use. This creates a strong context for written work. I have had students set their own stories within the worlds of games like Minecraft, produce daily routines for their character in the game, provide background stories for the vents of the game, or write their own ‘walkthrough’ guides and ‘how to’ descriptions to share with the class or publish online.
Testing is more of a tricky one as it is difficult to adapt the context of a game to the specific skills needed for the IELTS academic paper! However, it would be wrong to see GBL as applicable to any learning situation. It has its limits and it is always better to respect those rather than shoehorn it in when there are other more practical options available.
Some teachers gamify their test prep classes to make the more engaging, introducing points, achievements, leaderboards and so on. This can work if done well but there is also a danger of adding little more than superficial competition to the learning process which motivates some students but demotivates others. Sometimes, dedicated students, a helpful teacher, and some well-designed paper-based activities offer the best solution!
How can a teacher create a game for his/her ELT class beyond the simple photocopied board and dice?
It always pays to take inspiration from popular games. There is a reason the charades is an enduring classic or that Taboo! always seems to be a hit. Whether the games I use in class are word games, board games or digital games, I always have the following criteria: it should be easy to set up and get started (having to spend 20 minutes explain increasingly complex rules is never a good idea); it should allow for some form of collaboration whether that be co-operative play, in-game interaction or post-game discussion; it must fit in with current learning goals, target language-based or skills-based. And of course, it should be interesting for the learners and maybe even fun!
Also, if a teacher is set on creating a game, I would say the time put into creating it should be reflected in the time spent playing – nothing worse than spending hours making something only for the students to be done with it in five minutes! It is also a good idea to involve students in the creation process. In the past, my students have helped me create a class set of handmade taboo cards and they have suggested many interesting games we could play. This has the dual advantages of making it ‘more than a game’ as they are involved in the thought process behind coming up with the right level of challenge and also ensuring that the language included in the game is graded at the right level and relevant to any recent topics from class – perfect if you are into dogme!
How do you ensure gamified activities are not just language practice tests in disguise? I know that some games I’ve tried have been blatant grammar production activities and students didn’t buy into them as authentic games. But on the other side, will they see the pedagogical value of a game in a grammar class?
By not simply using a ‘points and prizes’ approach and by not using ‘games for learning’. Both of these ideas usually end up being glorified gap-fills or masked mutli-choice tasks. When we use a game designed for regular play and designed with entertainment more than education in mind, the possibilities are much less limited. Again, I draw a parallel here with material such as video clips and music. The ones designed for classroom use often fall flat. The focus on specific target language means the video or song loses that certain something that makes it appealing. It’s the same for games. The ones that try to crowbar present continuous into every in game action or utterance fail to engage learners but the authentic games, when used with a well-designed set of activities, are more often than not more engaging.
With GBL, much like TBL and PBL, students often see the value and the scope of what they have learned after the event. Reflection and self-assessment are important for this so the students can themselves identify what language they used and developed as a result of playing the game and completing the tasks that came with it. This also works well for convincing any doubting stakeholders about the value of what you are doing as well!
If you could have made any game, which would it have been, why and how would you use it for teaching?
That’s a tough one! If it were a game to be used in the classroom that would rule out anything on a huge scale like World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy as well as anything too scary or violent like Silent Hill or GTA. It would have to be something story-driven where the players’ actions affect the game, thus creating plenty of opportunities for discussion. It would also need to be something fairly short to play though to leave enough time for a variety of activities. Based on those criteria, I would go for an indie game like Papers, Please. In this game, you control a passport control officer on the border of a fictional cold-war era country. You have to keep up to speed with ever-changing and increasingly complex rules of who to admit and who to turn away and are often faced with difficult decisions forcing you to choose between country and family all under the watchful glare of the secret police.
With a little bit of grading of language, this would be perfect for B1 and above and could be played by teens or adults. In class, I would have the students play in groups of three or four with one student controlling the actions of the border guard and the others giving advice. After playing, we would have a discussion about the difficult choices they had made and why they made them. Each group member would then have a different writing task – one would write the daily routine or a diary entry for the guard, another would write an official report of any incidents that took place during the day, another would prepare an assessment of the guard for the ever suspicious secret police, and the final person could write a propaganda newspaper piece. On another day, they could compile a guide to surviving the game and finally they could prepare a review of the game to be shared online – all For the Glory of Arstotzka!