Tag Archives: game

Learning to QWOP

Evolution of QWOP

Studying a language is a great way for a language teacher to experience a her students’ struggles and challenges. But, as language teachers know, this is not always the easiest thing to do. Is there a simpler way for a teacher to remind herself what it feels like to struggle as a beginner? For me, QWOP brought back all of these feelings and then some.

QWOP is a game that simulates a sprinter running down a 100 meter track. Players use the Q and W keys to control the sprinter’s thighs and O and P to control the sprinter’s calves. Although running sounds like a simple task, the game is infamously, and perhaps intentionally, difficult. In fact, as a simulation of learning to walk for the first time, QWOP is quite effective.

The first time I played QWOP, I fell on my face. Several times. In fact, I often ended up as far behind the starting line as I did beyond it. To be honest, I couldn’t figure out this game without searching Google for some strategy help. Even after reading up on the basics, I still struggled to run more than a dozen meters.

As frustrating as this process was, it was instructive. Knowing where I wanted to go but being unable to get there reminded me of learning my second language — knowing what I wanted to say but not having the vocabulary or grammar to express it. Even though the task may seem simple, whether putting one foot in front of the other or asking for directions to the restroom, it may seem an insurmountable obstacle without the necessary knowledge and preparation.

If you want to walk a meter in these shoes, I would recommend QWOP to you. You can play for free in your browser. There is also an iOS app available, with slightly different, but equally frustrating controls, if a flash-based game is not an option. Your students might also offer interesting comparisons between learning to QWOP and learning a language.

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flOw

screenshot of flOw

I introduced some students to the game flOw today.  As an “art game,” I knew that it would be unlike anything most of these students had ever seen before.

So, without any introduction, I told them to open the game and give it a try.  If you’ve never played this game before, I would encourage you to try the game for yourself to recreate the students’ experience before you read the rest of this post. It’s free and only requires a browser with Flash to play.

There were mixed results initially.  One student assumed the game was loading and patiently stared at the screen.  Even after I pointed out that he could begin, he had trouble figuring out what kind of control he had within the game.  Other students began exploring and deducing the rules of the game.

A couple of students began to observe each other and to ask each other questions.  One even got up to walk around the room.  I asked them to share the rules that they had learned, which helped the others.  I also asked them what flOw was and whether it was a game.  They had several different interpretations of what was being represented within the game — from space to microorganisms — and most decided it was more of a simulation than a game.

Although some students were a bit frustrated by my lack of guidance, they quickly turned to each other to share and collaborate (in English!) on making sense of what they were experiencing, which was my goal.

Overall, this was a brief, but interesting conversation starter for these students.  Although some initially reported that they didn’t like the game very much, the had a hard time leaving it alone.  But, because the game does not contain any English (and my goal was to have them practice their English) I made sure to keep the discussion and interaction going within the class.

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Know Your States

map of US game

I don’t recall how I first came across the Find the States game on jimspages.com, bit it has become one of my go-to sites for demonstrating interactive whiteboards.

The game is simple: states appear in random order and the user is asked to place them on an empty U.S. map.  Scores are tabulated based on how many miles away from the correct location you place each state.  Some states are much easier than others.  For example, it’s relatively easy to line up unique features on the coastline, but very difficult to place Colorado without any of the states that border it already in place.

This game is simple, but it demonstrates the use of IWBs quite naturally while providing a fun geography challenge.  Can you average less than 100 miles of errors in your placement?  Less than 10?  Give it a try.

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Genetics for Kids

test tubes

Over the past ten or twenty years, the news media has become saturated with stories about genetics.  But do you really understand how genes interact?  A new genetics simulation being developed at Ohio State can help.

The simulation begins with a series of cartoon faces from which the user can choose to populate the gene pool for the next generation.  (The term “parents” is used, but more than two can be selected.)  This process can be repeated several times to create successive generations of cartoon faces.

Over 50 “genes” are incorporated into the faces (affecting everything from the dimensions of the head and other features to how asymmetrical the face is and whether the eyes follow your mouse or not) and the genes of the “parents” interact to produce the subsequent generation.  You can also adjust the amount of mutation, which leads to a wider (or narrower) variety of offspring.

Another interesting feature is the ability to view genotypes.  This allows you to view a graph under each offspring representing which genes come from which parent.  You can also choose two faces and drag them to the Gene Exam Room to view to what degree each gene is represented in each face.  This also allows you to see the effect of each individual gene.  You can even increase or decrease the representation of each gene to see how it changes each face.

What can you (or your students) do with this simulation?  Imagine the faces are puppies and you want to develop a new breed that is cute (or whatever other trait you’re interested in.)  This simulation clearly demonstrates how breeders (of animals, plants, etc.) select for certain traits and refine them over generations.

Or imagine the choices you  make in the simulation are not choices, but represent the effects of the environment.  For example, say the Sun grows dim giving people with big eyes that can see in low light an advantage over people with small eyes.  This advantage results in a higher percentage of offspring surviving and a wider representation in the gene pool.  What effect would this have after several generations?

Think of how much richer students’ discussions of designer pets and natural disasters will be after they have “experienced” the process instead of just reading about it.  In addition to genetics, this simulation can also stimulate interest in probability (how likely are offspring to have certain characteristics), design (ideas behind evolutionary design were the impetus for the interface), as well as all of the social issues behind decisions we are now able to make regarding genetics.

In terms of ESL teaching, I think giving students something interesting to do and then having them talk or write about it is a great way to get them to practice English.  This genetics simulation is simple but interesting enough that it could generate lots of interesting ideas for students to talk about.

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Web Browsing in 3D

3D glasses

Everything else is available in 3D (movies, televisions, the real world), so why not 3D browsing?  I recently came across this demo video of a 3D browsing experience created using WebGL, HTML5, Javascript and the Mozilla Audio API.  Is this the future of Web browsing?

I’m not extremely fluent in all of these technologies (for more info, see Flight of the Navigator), but as a demo, this is pretty impressive.  To me, it looks a little like Second Life with tons of screens out to the internet.  In other words, slick and different, but I’m not sure how useful, or even how truly integrated this experience would be.  Would you rather navigate to different places on the Web by moving through a 3D space or by Ctrl-Tabbing to the next open tab in your browser?  Maybe I’m old-school, but the latter seems far easier to me.

Of course, there are lots of other demos posted online and it will be interesting to see where this goes.  Checking your favorite Twitter feeds in-game would certainly blur the line between the gaming experience and the real world, but is this necessary?  Probably not, but maybe that’s not the question to be asking with whiz-bang technology like this.  It certainly opens up interesting avenues for the greater integration of a wide range of technologies.  Where that takes us will be interesting to see.

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Google Labs

beaker

If you haven’t visited Google Labs, you should check it out.  This is the experimental, work-in-progress part of Google where users can see what’s next, or at least what the engineers at Google are tinkering with

Some projects that started in Google Labs have graduated to become fully-fledged parts of the Google experience.  These include Google Scholar, Google Docs, Google Maps, and many others.

Other projects have stayed in the Lab, sometimes continuing to develop, other times seeming to arrive at a conclusion that may or may not be further integrated Google-wide.  Some of these are may be interesting for language learners and teachers, though how to use them is not always immediately obvious.  A few of my favorites are below.

set of fruit imagesGoogle Sets

This was the first experiment I ever encountered in Google Labs and I always come back to it.  Enter a list of items in a set, and Google with guess other items in the set.

It’s easy to imagine how this was envisioned as a way to improve the search experience — sometimes searching for synonyms can be more productive than the original search terms — but it almost has the feel of a Scattergories-like party game.  (Can you find a set that Google can’t guess?)

In a way, Google Sets is kind of like thesaurus, but its kind of not.  At the same time, if students can get hooked by it’s game-like nature, it could be a good way to discover new vocabulary.

books arranged by color on shelvesGoogle Ngrams

In its endless pursuit to make it possible to search everything, everywhere, across all time, Google has scanned millions of books and made them searchable.  This is not without some controversy as authors and publishers are concerned that their books are being given away for free online.  Currently, Google only makes passages of copyrighted books available in its search, as opposed to the entire work.

In the meantime, Google has made the entire corpus available and easy to search.  Though not as robust as the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), Google’s simpler interface may be easier for non-linguists to use and understand.

Students of English can not only compare the frequency of several words and / or phrases, but can also see how the relationships between the search terms have changed over time.  For example, see how ain’t has precipitously fallen out of favor since peaking in the 1940s.  Or, see the how the use of subject pronouns has changed, in part as a result of he no longer being considered the generic.

motorcycle gogglesGoogle Goggles

This one isn’t as language-oriented as the previous two examples, but it is a remarkable glimpse into the future.  Google Goggles are a way of performing a Google search, but instead of typing in search terms, upload a picture from your smartphone.  This can include anything from a book cover to a landmark.

Given the rise in popularity of smartphones, just think of how much language is available to ESL students through these devices.  Walking down the street, a student can snap a picture of something unfamiliar and find links to all kinds of related information.

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Building Blocks 2.0

pile of cell phones

If I told you we were going to play a game by stacking a bunch of smart phones and moving them around, you might get a picture in your head like the one above.  But there is actually a simpler, more fun way to go about this.

Last weekend, I discovered Scrabble Flash in the toy aisle of my local grocery store :

Each of the five game pieces is a small, location-aware blockwith a screen that displays a letter.  By rearranging the blocks, words are formed.  The blocks are all aware of each other, so they can tell you when you have them arranged to spell a word.   Several different games can be played with this remarkable little interface.  Apparently, Scrabble Flash was released in time for Christmas last year, but I didn’t notice it until now.  For about $30, I may have to pick this up for myself.

When I first saw Scrabble Flash, I thought it might be a commercial manifestation of Siftables, a similar interface designed by an MIT student that I wrote about a couple of years ago after seeing this TED talk.  It turns out that Siftables are now Sifteo:

Both Scrabble Flash and Sifteo are block-like computers that are aware of the others in their set.  Scrabble Flash is not as robust with only three games available on the monochrome display.  But it is available now and the price is reasonable.  Sifteo blocks are full-color screens that are motion sensitive and connect to a computer wirelessly, which means more games can be downloaded as they are developed.  But they won’t be available until later this year and I suspect the price will be higher than Scrabble Flash.

Is this the future of language games?  That would be a pretty bold prediction.  But clearly as we all become more accustomed to using apps on our smartphones, these kinds of “toys” will begin to feel like a very familiar technology.  Scrabble Flash is an affordable entry point, but I’m excited that Sifteo is actively seeking developers to create more games.  They already have several learning games but there is potential for many more.

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Civics Games

judge's gavel

I was tipped off to iCivics games a few days ago and have finally had a chance to check them out.  iCivics is “a web-based education project designed to teach students civics and inspire them to be active participants in our democracy.”  There are several games on this site dealing with topics from Supreme Court decisions to immigration to being president for a term.

Each game has lots of information packed into it.  For example, in Argument Wars, in which famous Supreme Court decision are re-argued, players must read the case and then choose the appropriate supporting evidence for their side.  When the player chooses the evidence, the judge rules whether the argument is legally sound.  When the computer opponent submits evidence, the player can object to unsound arguments.  This requires not only more reading than your typical videogame, but a lot of critical thinking.  In fact, the level of reading required in these games would make it difficult for intermediate ESL students to play them alone.  The game does a good job of making the process a fun game by which students can learn more about the Supreme Court.

Will students put down their favorite commercial video games to pick these games up?  Probably not.  But highly motivated students (and citizens) might use them to learn more about the civics lessons they are learning (or learned long ago) in school.  Teachers could use these games with a whole class or have students use them individually or in pairs and report back in presentations, essays, or small group discussions.  More advanced students could look at these games critically and try to determine where they are accurate, where they are inaccurate, and where bias may be present.  Regardless of how they are used, these interactive texts are much richer than most civics texts and can serve as a useful supplement to them.

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Game-Based Mashups

love spelled in playing cards

I love a good boardgame and I love a good mashup.  So, when I read about the Boardgame Remix Kit on GeekDad, I had to write about it.  I don’t own the kit (which comes in ebook, book, card, and app form) yet, but I did take a check out the free Valentine’s Edition download, which looks like a lot of fun.

The first game, WLTM Humpty Dumpty is a kind of madlibs game in which players create personal adds based on Trivial Pursuit cards (WLTM = Would Like To Meet).  The second turns Monopoly into a game of Divorce! in which players use their money to pay lawyers to fight over property.  (I have to admit, my first reaction to this game was that it might be about as much fun as going through a real divorce, but after reading the rules, there is some strategy involved that could be fun to play.)  The other two games are based on Scrabble and Clue.

How can these games be used in a classroom?  Like other forms of media (books, movies, music, etc.), there are several ways in which these games can be used.  Students can play them and report back on their experience.  This could be as simple as Was it fun? and How do you play? to evaluating whether the game accurately simulated real life.  For example, was Divorce! similar to a real divorce?  Why or why not?  Students could also compare the original version of the game to the mashup version.  Finally, students could use these mashups as inspiration to seek out other versions of existing board games or even to create their own.  All of these could be fun ways to practice English on Valentine’s Day.

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mLearning in ESL

ipod

Smartphones and iPods are ubiquitous among college students, but can students use them to help practice English? In this post, I will share how I adapted an existing application (“app”) for vocabulary practice as well as other apps that students may find interesting and helpful.  This post also serves as the handout for my poster session at Ohio TESOL 2010.

Music Quiz

Music Quiz is a fee app that I’ve written about before.  The app asks the user to guess a song’s title after listening to a 12-second clip of the song.  By recording audio files of definitions of vocabulary items as “songs,” Music Quiz can be used as a vocabulary quiz.

How to make a vocabulary quiz using music quiz:

1. Record the definitions of the vocabulary items.  Try to repeat the definition 2-3 times and keep files to 12 seconds – the limit of Music Quiz.  Save each recording as an .mp3 file with the vocabulary word or term as the song title, the category (Heart Idioms, Vocabulary book chapter 3, etc.) as the album title, and yourself or your school as the artist so that the files are easy to add.  A free audio recording application such as Audacity makes this easy.  Feel free to take a look at and use my 20 heart idioms as examples.

2. Upload the .mp3 files to an iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad with Music Quiz installed.

3. Open the Music Quiz app and use the Menu to configure the quiz with the following settings.

  • Choose From: Song Titles (title = vocabulary item)
  • Play At Beginning: ON (play from the beginning of the definition)
  • Custom Quiz: ON (allows user to select the “songs” to be quizzed on)

4. You can now use Music Quiz to quiz yourself on these vocabulary items.

Other Vocabulary Apps

There are many vocabulary apps available.  Just do a quick search using the word vocabulary.  Some are better than others, but most have a lite version that is a free demonstration with limited features or word lists.  The full version, which you can usually purchase for $0.99 to $9.99, will often include thousands of words.

Vocab Lab Lite – SAT-level flashcards and quiz

Wordlist Lite – 10 vocabulary lists with definitions; words categorizable by difficulty

My Prep Pal: SAT Reading – video lessons, flash cards and quiz

Make Your Own Apps

Web-based - The easiest way to get content on mobile devices.  Post content on a website, then view it using your mobile device.

Platform SpecificApple and Google (makers of Droid smartphones) and other companies make it easy to make your own apps.  Of course, easy is a relative term.

Tool based - Platforms exist to assist with the creation of apps and games.  ARIS is one platform for creating mobile games that I’ve written about before.  ARIS was used to create the game Mentira, which is described below.

The Cutting Edge

Apps are being developed that require the use of a mobile device to play.  Mentira is an example of a location-aware mystery that students solve on location in the target language.  In this case, students in a Spanish class take on new identities and to solve a crime that occured in a New Mexico neighborhood in the 1920s.  Students must move through the neighborhood to unlock clues while playing the entire game in the target language.

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