I had never thought of using computer games in a young learner class until at the end of a powerpoint activity in the computer room one summer some fast finishers asked if they could play a game. I doubted very much there would be any Educational aim either for them or the design of the game but not to be outdone I said ok if they would tell me what the game was about. These two teen boys spent the last 5 minutes of the class producing what was probably the most extended stretch of English I'd ever heard from them and not actually playing the game. This was when I first got an inkling that there was some mileage or rather language in computer games.
From that instance I took an interest in the digital games my students played and engaged them in what could only be termed 'real English'. I began to learn about the kind of digital games my students played while my students gained from the fluency practice. To support and encourage my students further and also to fuel my own research in the field, I picked up gaming catalogues from gaming shops. In class I would ask which games were good and bad and why. I would also ask them which gaming platforms they had (Xbox, PS3, Nintendo DS, PC or mobile) and which one they thought was the best and why. Controversy raged as it never had done in my young learner classes and their passion for the subject was channelled into writing about their opinions.
Somewhere along the way I began to look online for games that had strong narrative elements with the idea that maybe it would be possible to present a game in class and get learners to produce descriptive written work. Two of the earliest such games were called MOTAS and Samorost 2. The former game is of a genre called an 'escape the room' game and involves lots of household objects, prepositions of place and action verbs. Emergent language during play was “You look under a pillow and find a key which you use to open the locker on the left. The fact that when you hovered your mouse over objects in the game labels saying what they were called appeared was a bonus. The latter game is from a genre called an 'adventure' game and involved having to travel to a strange planet to rescue your dog that has been kidnapped by some aliens. Emergent language in this game is more narrative and encompasses past tenses, linkers, sequencers and the use of dramatic devices. All very conducive to writing a fictional story.
The next step was to move from presenting a game to actually getting students to play a game yet still have a language activity wrapped around it. When I came across 'walkthroughs' an epiphany occurred. At the time a walkthrough was a written description (in the lingua franca of English), usually by a gamer for kudos or to help other gamers complete the game. In this moment I realised I had essentially found language in games. By the way a walkthrough can be as little as a few words and up to 80,000. Considering a gamer needs to read and comprehend most of the text in order to play a game this makes for a highly intensive reading comprehension check. Especially when you take into account how fiendishly difficult these games have been designed to be.
However, written walkthroughs have become harder and harder to find. Gamers have turned to video capturing themselves playing the game from start to finish and posting the end result on video share sites such as Youtube. This would initially seem like bad news but it has in fact meant the opposite. What the teacher can do is look up a video walkthrough and watch it in a few minutes rather than struggle to play it over hours and possibly days. A further advantage is that you can check content for inappropriacy while also visualising the language demands within the game (the narration) and write a graded walkthrough or create material such as gap fills, jigsaw texts, true/false statements etc. You can even use a video walkthrough with a class. If the narrative elements are strong enough it can prove to be an engaging story to watch as a class. In a computer room activity it can place the onus on a student to generate the language if they have to watch and then relay information to a colleague playing the game. A relay gaming dictation if you will.
But what of the will of the young learners? Don't they just want to have fun? The answer to that is yes they do and unfortunately pasting pedagogy on game design does tend to detract from the fun side of the games. The thing is I'm not there for fun and games but rather serious fun learning which requires discipline and a degree of being a kill joy. The thing is students seem to enjoy the activities and if offered the choice between grammar or gamer then students generally choose gamer even though they know the fun comes hand in hand with pedagogical rules and regulations.
Kyle Mawer is an award winning digital play expert, blogger, author of the teacher development book ‘Digital Play’ and international presenter on the use of video games in ELT. He works at the British Council Young Learner centre in Barcelona, where he has been using video games in class with his language learners for several years.