Have you ever played Chain World? I didn’t think so. I haven’t either. Only one copy exists and you can only play once. It’s based on Minecraft, which is an open-source sandbox-style game in which players build things out of textured blocks.
The important distinction is that Chain World exists completely on a USB drive. The rules of the game are essentially build what you want (though explicit signs are forbidden), save the game when you die, and pass it on to someone else. After you’ve played, you are forbidden to discuss your experience or to ever play again.
These rules, if observed, would make for a very compelling gaming experience. In most games, the stakes are relatively low because you can always restart and, in many cases, continue where you left off. In most games, death is not final. In Chain World, it is. This heightens the overall experience tremendously.
The complete story of this game, as well as the discussions that the game fostered around religion, charity, following the rules, and how seriously gamers take themselves, can be found in Wired Magazine. It’s a compelling read.
How does the story of this game relate to the ESL classroom? Clearly, the religious debate is likely beyond the scope of most classrooms (and this blog), but the question of whether to follow the rules is an interesting one. The Chain World experience was designed with a specific set of rules that create a very specific and unique experience. But if a player breaks a rule, or plays the game in a way that the designer did not intend, can it still be a valuable experience? Imagine the first person that put checkers on a chess board. Did someone say, “That’s not what that board is for!”?
In your classroom, do your students ever break rules or react in ways that you did not plan for? Of course they do. While this is frustrating, it can occasionally lead to very valuable learning experiences. I’ve had lessons go off track right from the beginning when a student asked a question that was not related to the lesson, but turned out to be something that the whole class wanted or even needed to know more about. These unexpected and unplanned classes are some of the most interesting I have every taught and some of the most appreciated by students.
When I use games in an ESL classroom, I occasionally encourage students to find out what happens when you break the rules or even break the game. (Not in the sense of throwing the computer across the room, but in the sense of going somewhere that is officially “out of bounds” in the game.) This exploration is part of what makes learning through games so exciting, which can increase motivation for language learning. This same exploration of the boundaries of a language can also be an exciting part of language learning. (Can I use this word this way? How about this way?)
Languages, like games, have specific rules that speakers, and players, choose to follow. Chain World, although a relatively simple game in execution, provokes some very interesting discussion on lots of engaging topics, including how to figure out what the rules are as well as whether and when to follow them.