Tag Archives: games

Paper-based Games for ESL Students


At the inaugural Playful Learning Summit at Ohio University, I shared a couple of games that I developed for use with ESL students at Ohio State. These are both paper-based games, which stood out in a room full of computer games and an Oculus Rift connected to a Kinect. This last project — an immersive, gesture-controlled, virtual reality interface — was really cool, but isn’t something I know how to develop (yet).  But, fortunately, everyone gets paper.  I hope these two games serve as an inspiration for anyone who doesn’t think she can design a game for her students.

Football Simulation – I’ve posted about this one before, but it still stands as an easy-to-prepare, easy-to-play simulation that can help international students to understand the game of American football.  The focus, when I use the game in the classroom, is to understand what down and distance are as well as the importance of basic offensive and defensive strategies.  All that is required is one six-sided die and a printout of the document with the offense and defense  cards cut out.

Orientation to Campus Game – This is a board game I developed based on the Madeline board game.  Players travel around the campus map / board uncovering tokens when they land next to them.  If the player uncovers one of the 5 buckeye symbols, she keeps it.  If the player uncovers the name of a building, she must move to that space immediately.  The best things about this game are that it is very easy to play and that students really focus and pay attention to the most important buildings on the map.  There are no dice and you can use almost anything for player tokens.  I also really like the mechanic of moving to the place listed on the token because this changes every time the game is played.  On the down side, it is a kids game, so it doesn’t hold adults’ attention for very long.  And if the students have been on campus for even a couple of weeks, they are already familiar with most of the buildings in the game.  Still, this game could be useful for students to play while waiting for our orientation program to start because it might help them to discover buildings that they do not yet know.

So, don’t be afraid of developing games on paper if, like me, you don’t have a wide array of programming skills.  Any game that is prototyped and play-tested on paper could later be converted to a computer version.  But, by working out the kinks on paper, you can develop your game to its final version without even picking up your keyboard.

Leave a comment

Filed under Projects

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Resources

Video Games as Interactive Texts

These are my slides from my Ohio TESOL 2011 presentation titled “How to use videogames as interactive texts for language learning.”  Comments are welcome.

1 Comment

Filed under Resources

Flickr is Saving the Whales

humpback whale flukes

Flickr is a popular online photo sharing website that allows users to attach information to the pictures such as keyword tags, date, time, and location the picture was taken, and even the kind of camera that took the picture.  Although pictures can be made private, many are uploaded publicly.  This online public database is now being used to help save the whales.

I first came across this project on the CNN website.  People are using pictures of whales, particularly pictures of their tails which have unique markings that can be used to identify individual whales, combined with the date and location information of the pictures to track whales’ migration.  One whale that was tracked via Flickr was found to have a longer migration route than any other previously recorded migration route.  These citizen scientists are helping further scientific research.

Crowdsourcing solutions to problems is no longer uncommon, particularly via games.  Newspapers have made a game out of combing through online documents on government spending, thereby turning readers into investigators.  Fold It is a game in which players twist and untwist actual molecular structures to further science in ways that computer modelling cannot.  Jane McGonigal has created a game called Evoke that challenges a community of players to share and evaluate solutions to the world’s problems.  The U.S. Navy has adopted a similar approach to fighting piracy.

Can language teachers and learners make use of crowdsourcing?  Of course.  Forvo.com, a pronunciation dictionary created by users, is one example.  Creating an online dictionary that includes pronunciations for every word in a language would be a nearly impossible task for one person, which is why it took a crowd of hundreds to create Forvo (which includes pronunciations for scores of languages.)

Can language teachers create similar games for language learning?  Perhaps.  Julie Sykes has created a location-aware game called Mentira which sends students into an actual Spanish-speaking neighborhood near the University of New Mexico campus to solve a fictional mystery set decades in the past.  Students who have finished the game are now involved in writing and rewriting it to add more detail and different possible outcomes.

Given the game-like nature of language learning (learners learn skills to level up) there are lots of options for teachers– from encouraging students to become involved in the above activities to creating new games for students.  If you know of other examples, leave them in the comments.

Leave a comment

Filed under Inspiration

Geo Games

globe puzzle

I have friends and family who really enjoy the boardgame Risk.  We had the game as a kid and I would play with it, but not by the “rules.”  I made my own game by moving pieces around and rolling the dice from time to time.  The map both fascinated and confused me (Alberta goes all the way to the Pacific Ocean?) and the colorful little pieces inspired several different games.  A map is a natural game board.

Fast-forward to the present: computer games have become ubiquitous (Ever kill time playing a game on your computer or phone?) and we rely on Google maps and GPS devices to get us to where we want to go.

Fast-forward to the future: Computer applications that we interact with are beginning to mash up GIS and other data.  (Ever check in to a real place using Foursquare or Facebook?)  Games are no exception.

Imagine playing Risk with the borders and armies from 100 or 1000 years ago.  Or Monopoly based on real utilities and real estate values.  Or Farmville with real agricultural data.  Or Oregon Trail with weather and census data from specific dates throughout history.

Ola Ahlqvist, a professor of Geography at Ohio State, is involved in a project to build the infrastructure to make these kinds of games possible.  I’ve talked with Ola several times about his games, but his presentation below is a pretty good summary of the process.

This is a great example of learning through games and simulations.  Players can see how different factors affect the outcome of the game — develop hyphotheses, then change their strategy for playing the game to test them.  Of course, this is how learning occurs outside of games, but by making a game out of a real map, the learning becomes more compelling.

Leave a comment

Filed under Inspiration

A Unique Game

usb drive

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Inspiration

Games and Simulations

screenshot from McDonald's parody online game

I had an interesting conversation with a teacher about alternatives to reading textbooks.  I suggested considering using games and simulations as interactive texts, an idea I’ve blogged about before.  To give her an idea about the possibilities out there, I shared the following resources.

https://games2teach.wordpress.com/2011/02/28/where-do-i-start/ – A good introduction to using online games including some very popular examples for comparison.

http://socialstudiescentral.com/?q=content/online-interactive-simulations – Links to lots of historical simulations.

http://gamingthepast.net/ – Blog with lots of examples and other info. (Look down the right-hand menu bar for links to simulations as well as information on creating and using simulations.)

http://seriousgames.msu.edu/games.php – Games with a serious message such as the health, environment, etc.

http://www.gamesforchange.org/play/ – Games that advocate for societal change.

http://www.icivics.org/games – Civics games exploring the Constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court, etc.  Some are very detailed.

http://www.mcvideogame.com/ – A game parody that is critical of McDonald’s.  (See screenshot at top.)  A very nice example of social commentary through gaming.

Leave a comment

Filed under Resources