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Digital Play and game-based learning

Can games have educational value?  For Kyle Mawer and Graham Stanley, teachers at British Council Barcelona and authors of the ELTon-winning Digital Play blog, games are a natural and centuries-old way of learning that make the whole process more productive and pleasurable – and make learners more flexible, creative and resilient.


Computer games dominate our students’ free time – whether they are playing games or talking about them.  Part of the reason they’re so popular is that they help learners develop 21st-century skills – collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving – as well as calculated risk-taking, persistence and attention to detail.

James Paul Gee and other academics have claimed that this is because the theories of learning in computer games have more in common with the modern, hi-tech, global world than do the theories and practices often found in school.

Understanding digital games will help us strengthen the sense of community and rapport in our classrooms, by better understanding our learners and demonstrating that we are interested in them.  It will also help bring more imagination, curiosity and fun to the classroom, inspire our learners and equip them for the real world.

Unlike other media, computer games are said to be intrinsically motivating and engaging because they demand persistence, effort and concentration.  Just like real-life problems, digital games are “puzzles” to be solved, says games designer Raph Koster – the only difference is, the stakes are lower, and games can be mastered.  This is what makes them fun.

Games are also different because they are interactive.  This drives people to keep on playing – they feel as though they are inside the story, building their own narrative, and they want to know what happens next.  They lose track of time and experience what Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow – an optimal learning state, where “the mind is stretched to its limits to accomplish something difficult … but, worth the effort”.  Finally, the clear goals and immediate feedback in computer games lead to what Gee calls a regime of competence and commitment to learning.

So how do games support language learning?  Games offer situated and experiential learning, where language is associated not with other words but with rich images, actions and experiences.  They sometimes contain powerful and realistic narrative elements, too, in which students have to understand and use English in order to make progress.

Games also promote communication in English.  Outside the classroom, gamers use English to socialise, coordinate actions, discuss strategies, report on events occurring within games and share their interest in gaming.  In class, built-in “information gaps” – natural gaps in understanding or knowledge within the game – can be exploited for live listening activities, writing practice, speaking and intensive reading.

Though many games are rich in text and audio, some aren’t – and here, the key is task design and lesson planning, to ensure that language practice is embedded in what learners do.

More than other media, games help achieve the lofty goals of Communicative Language Teaching and Task-Based Learning – they create the need for learners to use English for a meaningful purpose, and allow them to have an impact on the game world and the real world.  In attempting to find the missing information they need in order to master the game world, learners must focus on meaning, but the attention to detail this requires, combined with immediate feedback in the game, also guarantees a focus on form.

But of course, game-based learning doesn’t just promote language practice – it also retains the fun and satisfaction learners get from the game itself.

If that sounds good, Digital Play has hundreds of examples of game-based learning tasks.  BC Hong Kong has a few other suggestions, inspired by Kyle and Graham’s ideas:

Have you tried them yet?


About davegatrell

Into digital game-based learning in and out of the classroom. Follow me on Twitter: @legaladvert


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