Learning and Bonding through Games

Learning and Bonding through Games

By: Heather Kretschmer

As a freshly minted MA TESL graduate, my first teaching job in Germany involved working with a group of unemployed adults trying to reenter the job market. As part of the reentry strategy, they had been strongly “encouraged” by the local employment agency to take intensive professional development courses, for example English courses. So, this particular group of adults landed in my English course, which ran for two months, five days a week, eight hours a day. Yup—we spent 40 hours a week together. Quite the marathon.

Luckily for me, they were an absolutely lovely group of people, interested in lots of different topics and motivated to learn English. I found that a wide variety of activities was the best way to keep them engaged and learning. And they were open to playing games, despite being adults, some of whom were in their 50s and even early 60s. Since this course predated widespread Wi-Fi use, they played card games or board games in pairs and small groups, and team games as a full class. These games fulfilled important purposes: the students bonded with each other playing games, and they practiced their budding English skills in a low-stakes way. The group became close-knit not only because they spent so much time together, but also because they got to know each other through various English activities, including games, that delighted them.

Fast forward to today. It would be rare for one of my university students to show up to class without at least one Internet-connected device. Playing digital games during class is nearly as easy as breathing for students. But for the teacher, choosing and deciding when to integrate a game into a course still needs to be done in a thoughtful manner. In fact, the very act of having students play a game during class might feel like you’re spinning the roulette wheel. How does the game fit into the syllabus? Will the game fulfill its purpose? Will preparing the game be too time-consuming? Will all your learners even want to play to play the game? All these questions and more may make spending part of a lesson playing a game a risky proposition.

So, when deciding whether to have students play games, we can see what kinds of games are out there and draw inspiration from them. Besides educational games, there’s a plethora of commercial video games and online games that people of all ages enjoy playing. Many of these games offer players enticing game environments they can immerse themselves in. And, as an alternative to playing actual games during class, teachers can weave elements of games that have the potential to enhance learning into lesson activities. In our Main video, Rachel Bolstad asks: “What’s going on in these game environments, and what is it that keeps people in them and motivated and engaged and exploring?” She encourages educators to find out how these intriguing game environments draw in players and keep them playing, and then think about how to connect those game elements to learning. You’ll discover in this issue what it is about video games that makes people of all ages keen on playing them, even when they find those games frustrating.

Bolstad also notes that games created for educational purposes have moved beyond drilling simple skills to immersing learners in games that foster a deeper understanding of the subject matter. Her advice for teachers interested in incorporating games into their classes is to search for games online as well as connecting with fellow educators, for example, via social media.

In our More video, Graham Stanley asks a question that gets to the heart of the matter for foreign language teachers: “Can games or game elements help motivate learners and provide a stimulating environment for language practice?” He focuses on gamification, which he defines as “something that uses elements of games to motivate you to do something.” Gamification in the classroom can be used to encourage good behavior with immediate feedback, and it can make boring activities more interesting. When introducing games and gamification into the classroom, Stanley advises teachers to bear in mind Richard Bartle’s player types: killers, achievers, socializers, and explorers. Game players adapt different roles in a game and are interested in different elements of play.

    • Killers like to compete with other players.
    • Achievers strive towards measurable success (e.g., points, levels, rewards) and want to master the game.
    • Socializers are interested in the social aspects of a game and with interacting with other players.
    • Explorers are keen on investigating the game environment and immersing themselves in it.

Generally, people are a combination of these different player types. Stanley suggests having students take a Bartle test so that teachers can select games and game elements that will appeal to all their learners.

However, Stanley warns us of only co-opting superficial aspects of games, like points, badges, or leaderboards. Simply transferring these kinds of bells and whistles to classroom activities promotes a behaviorist learning approach, which won’t make the classwork fun or engaging for students. Worse, some students may see receiving the reward as the primary aim of the activity and not the learning. In addition, games and gamification are not suitable for all learners. Therefore, Stanley highly recommends getting to know students before deciding whether to incorporate games or gamification into lessons. He suggests teachers survey their learners at the beginning of a course about their interests, including whether they play games. At the very least, students can talk about games in conversation practice.

I would add here that not every teaching context lends itself to playing games. I remember very well teaching in a school where incorporating games into lessons was frowned upon. The one colleague brave enough to play games with her students (and talk about it in the staff room) garnered raised eyebrows and suspicious looks. So, when deciding whether to try out games or game elements, it’s a good idea to keep in mind the expectations of administrators, colleagues, parents, and students. We also need to consider our own disposition: not every teacher wants to play games or use game elements in his or her classes, and for some teachers the risk of a game falling flat may be too high. That’s perfectly fine—there are many other ways of making learning enjoyable and memorable for students.

Whether you’re an “old hat” or a “noob” at integrating games in the foreign language classroom, you’re in for a treat in this issue. And if you are afraid of the risks, we will help reduce them. Keep reading to learn about the psychological underpinnings of game design, different opinions teachers and students have of games, some lovely games language teachers use, and an entire language course built around board games. GLHF[1].

[1]As a friendly way of starting an online game, players often type in the chat GLHF (Good Luck, Have Fun) or just GL (Good Luck).

Heather Kretschmer has been teaching English for over 20 years, primarily in Germany. She earned degrees in German (BA & MA) and TESL (MA) from Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Currently she has the privilege of working with Business English students at the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany.

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