Adapting Online Computer Games to the EFL Classroom

by Kyle Mawer & Graham Stanley, January 2007

Note: This article is a draft version of an article which was originally written to be published in the IATEFL Learning Technologies SIG newsletter

Using online computer games is one of the most valuable and incentive providing resources available to English language teachers. Many of the games available on the Web present stimulating challenges for today’s ‘digital native’ (Prensky, 2001) students, and can be easily adapted to the language classroom.

Why use computer games?

As Steven Johnson (2006) points out in his controversial study ’Everything bad is good for you’ the new generation of students are growing up on computer games, and this fact is changing their expectations of and demands on education. We need to be able to engage these learners by appealing to their interests and make our language teaching relevant to their world. Occasionally using computer games as an aid to language teaching is one way of doing this.

Why adapt games not specifically designed for language teaching?

A lot of these games, with their emphasis on fun are more engaging to students, and many have authentic language in context that is often hard to find in the games that have been produced specifically for teaching.

Selecting games

There are many games online which can be adapted to language learning. We will be discussing several types of online games and how we can adapt them to both challenge and engage the student. Some of the games listed below have been adapted in specific ways but we hope to be able to show varying ways in which online computer games can be used in the classroom.

Requirements

For most of these activities, a computer classroom, or a classroom equipped with laptop computers is required in order to carry them out. With all of these games, it is important to remember that the computers are tools for language learning, and this is the reason for playing the games.

Planning

Some of the “game plans” outlined below have been designed to involve pre-play, at play and extension activities to be conducted at a post play stage.

Types of games and how to start adapting them

There are many types of online computer games, but not all are appropriate for language learning. One type of popular online game which is suitable is the logic game whereby you have to solve puzzles, find hidden objects that in turn allows you to escape to the next level. The games of this genre that we recommend include MOTAS (Mystery Of Time And Space), Escape from the bar and Samorost (see the references & links section for more details). There are many more. A variety of activities can be prepared to convert these types of games into language learning tools.
One way to do this is to create an ‘information gap’ exercise of the game. First, find a text to base your activities on by searching the name of the game plus ‘walkthrough’ or ‘cheat’. A walkthrough or cheat provides a teacher with a textualised explanation in English on how to complete the game. This text can then be adapted in several ways. Here are some ideas of how to do this:

Gap-Fill.

Omit target language that the student has to complete while progressing through the game. For lower levels it is better for the teacher to select language items to be omitted that are familiar. For higher levels the student may be able to guess meaning from the context of the game.

Example: (from the MOTAS walkthrough):
Level 1:
Look under the pillow to find the _1._ and take the _2._ from the wall Use the _1._ to open the _3._ . You will find a _4._ in the _5._
Missing words: locker, screwdriver, key, box, poster,

Relay Reading.

This follows the relay dictation method, but adapted to a game. A walkthrough text, either printed or on a screen, is placed at a distance from paired students at a computer. Students take it in turns to relay the information in the walkthrough to their partner at the computer. Each pair is encouraged to exchange the information using their own words rather than the literal walkthrough. This activity is very good for descriptive language.

Jigsaw Reading.

This can be done with any one of the games by adapting the walkthrough text. Each group has different information from a different part of the text and they must ask the other student questions about the part of the text they need. In this way students work collectively to gain understanding and complete the task.

Game Dictogloss.

The dictogloss method of dictation and can easily be adapted to games. Students watch the teacher play the game and write the main words and short phrases that a particular task within the game needs. Each group is given a section of the game and is encouraged to watch and exchange information, this usually works better if the action within the game flows quickly. Working with someone from a different group, they then write the walkthrough or cheat for the game. As they will not have managed to write down the whole game from the watching exercise they will have to use their imagination and fill in the gaps. This gives them an excellent opportunity to work on grammar. This lesson is based on the Nesquik game and is good for intermediate levels and above. The pre-gaming and while-gaming tasks give plenty of practice with park, street, shopping centre and zoo vocabulary. As the teacher is the only person playing the game, this activity is ideal for teaching situations where there is only one computer in a classroom.

Example question card: (from the Samarost 2 game walkthrough):
Student 1: Put _ Pick up the sausage and hang _. When the green monster hand moves away, _ .
Student 2: Put all the fruit from the basket on the right into the basket on the left. Pick and hang at the skull. When the green monster hand moves away, press the red button.
Instructions: Ask your partner questions to find out what to do next.

Comprehension.

You can make greater use of the walkthroughs of some games with a strong narrative (such as Grow Cube), giving students the text without additional tasks. Here, students’ need to comprehend the text in order to complete the game. In this sense the game becomes the comprehension check of the text.

Observe & Write.

In this activity, the aim is for students to produce their own walkthrough, or narrative text. While playing the game, students take notes on how to complete the game. Before this, it is a good idea to have a pre-playing or during-play task that helps students with vocabulary in the game they may not know. After they have finished the game, the post-playing task asks them to write the walkthrough or to write what they did as a narrative, giving students plenty of practice on past tenses. Good for intermediate levels and above.

Observe / Vocabulary

This is a good task for lower levels because students only have to focus on a minimum of vocabulary. Students look at the beginning of the game which has lots of things that they can see and therefore write in their vocabulary books. You can teach and/or test vocabulary by asking a series of true/ false questions and asking them to put a series of events in order. Here is an example of this task using the game The Bar:

The Bar
#You see a cocktail glass on the bar when you wake up? True/False
#The bar is on the first floor of a building. True/False
#The drinks cupboard is locked. True/False
#There is a bottle with a green label on the table. True/False


Watch & Say.

This is a good lesson for intermediate and higher. The teacher has control of the mouse and students watch the game on the screen and tell the teacher how they think he/she should proceed in the game. Very good with imperatives and vocabulary, you can use this game as a post-playing activity with a game that students have already done themselves. It is best done in a classroom with a data projector.

Listening / Questioning.

In this instance the teacher holds the walkthrough text and proceeds to go round the class answering students questions on how to proceed. It is best to do this in combination with a Gap-Fill or Observe/Vocabulary task. The language input is controlled by the teacher so students confidence in spoken English can be encouraged and the language is sufficiently rich and of an appropriate level. This type of activity is perfect for working on description and question forms.

Conclusion

We hope to have shown you in this article a selection of different ways that online computer games can be adapted for the language classroom. Our experience has shown that today's young learners respond well to the use of computer games for language learning, and if appropriate tasks are provided, the result can be not only a very motivating, but also educational experience for the learner.


References:

Johnson, S (2006) Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, Riverhead Books
Prensky, M (2001) ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants’ available at: http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/

Games & Walkthroughs:

THE BAR: http://www.gotmail.jp/apps/bar_e.html
THE BAR walkthrough: http://www.kahsoon.com/2006/02/16/the-bar-walkthrough/
GROW CUBE: http://www.eyezmaze.com/grow/cube/
MOTAS (Mystery of Time and Space): http://www.albartus.com/motas/
MOTAS walkthrough: http://finalgrunt.free.fr/MOTAS/index.html
NESQUIK: http://www.nesquik.com/games/nesquikQuest.aspx
SAMAROST 1: http://www.samorost.net/samorost1/
SAMAROST 2: http://www.samorost.net/samorost2/
SAMAROST 2 walkthrough: http://www.kahsoon.com/2005/12/09/samorost-2-walkthrough/
QUEST FOR THE REST: http://www.questfortherest.com/


Kyle Mawer is a EFL teacher qualified with the DELTA and works at the British Council Young Learners Centre in Barcelona. His interests include using the Internet (especially games and Secondlife) to engage language learners and improve materials in this area.

Graham Stanley is ICT Co-ordinator and teacher at the British Council Young Learners Centre in Barcelona.His soecial interests are using the Internet (especially blogs, podcasts, wikis and games) to engage language learners. He will be moderating a free online course through TESOL, starting in January 2006. More details can be found here: http://evogaming.wikispaces.com