The integration of games into educational settings has taken many forms through the past several decades, ranging from simple adaptation of well-known game and game show structures to fit the class’s content, to profound and unique ludic structures that reimagine how games might be used for pedagogical purposes. Series such as Reacting to the Past offer to immerse students in historical situations in order that they can experience key points in history more meaningfully, while keeping the game mastering burden on the faculty as light as possible. Whether the context is the French Revolution1 or intervening in the Rwandan Genocide,2 students take on the roles of historical figures and/or interest groups and play out the given scenario, after which there is group reflection and the comparison of the game’s outcome with the real outcome of the event in history. Other role-playing games (RPGs) in the classroom feature more open character and scenario design, such as Abby Loebenberg’s teaching ethnographic writing with a GURPS-based fantasy world.3 Both Reacting to the Past’s emphasis on character motivation in historical moments and Loebenberg’s use of both fantasy world and game structure to teach anthropological research methods to non-Anthropology majors successfully blend the structure of RPGs with the goals of the university classroom in these disciplines.
However, while these respective successes in History and Anthropology show promise for the further deep integration of games into college courses, games in the foreign language (FL) classroom tend to focus on creating structured language interactions with predetermined goals,4 or providing only a superficial connection to the games themselves, including the recreations of game show formats5 or Pictionary, as well as Hangman and variations on Taboo and Twenty Questions, which all too often are only used in the context of a test review. While using these game formats in the classroom is far from detrimental to student learning, they are also quite limited in their application and scope, ultimately falling victim to a phenomenon described by Peter Wonica:6
“The normative practice for developing educational analog games is to inject educational aspects into commercial games. Educators often simply add educational attributes to current board games in a way that ‘introduces tasks that are irrelevant to game mechanics.’”
While the gamification of traditional FL teaching is not inherently poor pedagogy, as Wonica writes, there is not always a clear match between the game elements and the learning goals of the lesson.7 Furthermore, relegating the usage of games in the FL classroom to “test review days” reifies the mistaken conceptions that playing games in the classroom should be a fun reward after the “real work” of meeting the unit’s language goals is complete and that the games themselves do not intrinsically bring pedagogical potential to a FL class.8
A game of Jeopardy!, for example, would be played such that the usage of the target language is limited to single word or sentence length translations divorced from any communicative context. The students, for example, may be given the English word as the answer and then be tasked with producing the question phrase “Was ist…” (What is…) and the appropriate German translation. Although quickly producing the correct translation can indicate that the student has successfully learned the vocabulary, the simplification of the Jeopardy! format required by the FL classroom changes the game into little more than an interactive matching quiz, which at the time of writing can be more efficiently replicated through any number of online study tools. While in a game of Jeopardy! each student is only reliant on their own knowledge, Pictionary places groups students in the awkward position of working through two extra levels of potential peril beyond mapping the picture drawn to the correct idea: first, the drawing team member must have correctly understood the given word or concept; and second, the other team members must also have enough of an understanding of the given word or concept to guess it. Any weak point in this chain leads to the breakdown of the game structure and frustration for the students. Even worse, any usage of the target language in the game will be relegated to shouting single words or phrases, which undermines the communicative focus of contemporary FL instruction. The goal, then, for using games in FL classes should not be to inject educational aspects into existing games, but rather to extract the educational potential from them, letting the vocabulary, grammar, and communication required to play the game, as well as the cultural elements contained within, determine a game’s applicability to a given set of learning goals.
My high school and college years as a foreign language student were filled with the games-as-review structures described above. But now I have tried to incorporate games into my third semester German class in a new way. This came about through a desire to rework the way I was revisiting known––but not always mastered––grammar topics from previous classes at the beginning of the German 3 class. Rather than using a game to review a unit’s content for an upcoming test, I needed a way to make revisiting and practicing basic and intermediate grammar topics from the previous two courses interesting, relevant, and practical. I needed to do this while also maintaining the communicative focus of the course. By using the right games in the right context, one could frame new vocabulary through familiar grammatical structures in a way that would be relevant to the students’ growing media literacy in German and that this would also provide practical skills in the target language and culture.
In addition to revisiting and practicing previously learned grammatical structures, the course also introduces the students to reading a graphic novel as a first step into engaging with authentic, full-length literature. Through an array of pre- and post-reading activities, students discuss the images and the text while making targeted and strategic use of the week’s grammar topic, both orally and through short compositions. This approach to teaching literature forms the basis of how I teach games as well. Just as reading the graphic novel drives the acquisition of––and practice with–the language, the act of learning to play the game drives the acquisition of vocabulary and the mastery of grammatical structures, while also opening discussions about various elements of German culture and gaming culture within Germany.
Not all literature makes for great course reading, and not all games are suited to use in the classroom. The selection of appropriate games from which a lesson’s pedagogical goals may be extracted is often difficult. Game selection includes many more variables than the selection of literature or film for a course, as there are various levels of interaction and engagement between students themselves and between students and the game. Whereas a book or a film presents the students with authentic language that they will then use after reading or watching, games as a medium teach students language via their interpersonal communication while playing. Furthermore, there are the meta-level interactions of learning the directions and set up of the game that need to be considered. For my German 3 class I settled on The Pied Piper (2016) from Iello’s Tales and Games series, as it provides the right balance of complexity and familiarity and is based on a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, which is perfect for a German cultural context.
Selecting the Right Game
The world of board games can be overwhelming, even for those active in the field. The mention of board gaming outside of the hobby games industry conjures images of classic games such as Monopoly, Sorry!, or Scrabble. But board gaming has expanded and evolved far beyond these old staples of family game night, with 3,429 titles published in 2015 alone, and ever more published each passing year.9 This exponential growth has been ongoing since 1995, not coincidentally the same year Klaus Teuber first published Settlers of Catan. German-style board games began to gain a world-wide following in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and the rest is history. Sorting through this vast number of games can be a daunting task. However, a much smaller pool of potential games can be created using both hard and soft criteria based on game length, target audience, theme, weight, downtime, age recommendation, and what the game offers in terms of vocabulary, grammar, and cultural pedagogy. George Jacobs correctly points out that for students “the challenge can be of two kinds: understanding how to play the game and understanding the language content.”10 However, by understanding how to choose a game and how a given group of learners is likely to relate to it, these two challenges can be segmented and the lesson scaffolded so that the students’ acquisition of the vocabulary and grammatical structures necessary to play it are integrated rather than competing challenges and are never overwhelming.11
Board games such as Pandemic (2008), Scythe (2016), Gloomhaven (2019), and other long, complex games are very well rated on BoardGameGeek and more interesting to seasoned board gamers. But these titles are far too complex for an intermediate language class. A game with an estimated length of 20-30 minutes, however, offers enough time to set the game up, review the rules, develop a strategy, and play the game to completion at least once inside of a standard 50-minute class meeting, whereas games ranging up to an hour may be suitable for longer classes or more experienced groups.
The Pied Piper estimates play time to be 20 minutes, which I found to be appropriate for a group of four students. The Pied Piper is a player elimination game with a quick turn structure ending when two players are left. This means that the amount of time players sit inactive between turns or after being eliminated from of the game is minimal, and the quickly moving action of the game requires each player to stay mentally engaged even when it is not their turn.
Generally speaking, family games geared toward ages 8 and up with a weight rating of “Light” to “Medium Light” on BoardGameGeek offer a good starting point for choosing a game to use in the intermediate-level classroom. However, for higher-level classes or more experienced players, choosing a game with either an increased weight or age recommendation12 could offer these students a challenge better suited to their abilities. The game’s theme may or may not be of high importance depending on the learning goals of the unit and the desired ratio between vocabulary, grammar, and culture that the game offers. Wingspan (2019), for example, offers students advanced in both their language and gaming abilities the opportunity to develop a vast ornithological vocabulary in the target language. However, while it is not a particularly heavy game, its turn structure may be too complex and its size too great to serve as an efficient tool of language practice in a course not focusing on learning language through gaming.
The Tales and Games series, on the other hand, offers a total of 9 light family games for ages 8 and up, which are based on fairy tales and fables from various cultures. In addition to The Pied Piper, Tales and Games includes a second offering from the Grimm Brothers, Little Red Riding Hood. Each game comes with a short text of the story and abstracts an element of the conflict within the story to form the structure of the game. In The Pied Piper, the goal is to decrease the rats in one’s own house while increasing them in the houses of the other players.13 As a relatively simple game based on a story from the Brothers Grimm, The Pied Piper offers the opportunity to focus on vocabulary, grammar, and culture before the pedagogical usefulness of the game has been exhausted. Red Riding Hood is similarly broad in its application and consists of a race between Red and the wolf to Grandma’s house. While The Pied Piper pits each player against one another, Red Riding Hood can be played cooperatively against the game’s own mechanics or semi-cooperatively with a group of players on the side of Red and one controlling the wolf.
While the type of game, the age rating, and the weight offer concrete criteria to narrow down the pool of potential games, the most important, soft criteria for using games in the language classroom is whether the game has an easily explainable turn structure and an appropriate amount of player interaction. The potential for even normally outgoing students to complete their turn in silence looms large and stressing the importance of each student narrating their turn is key, especially if the class is not used to playing board games in a foreign language. The turn structure of The Pied Piper is relatively simple and includes 1) playing action cards under character cards, 2) resolving the movement of the rats and pied piper, 3) discarding and replacing the resolved character cards, and then 4) drawing action cards into the player’s hand. When equipped with the necessary vocabulary, students can easily narrate their actions in the present tense. As students master the game and the ability to correctly narrate their own turns, the difficulty can be increased by adding the requirement that before they begin their turn, they must first recount the previous turn in a past tense.
Games with direct player interaction further increase both the difficulty and benefits brought by the game by introducing more open-ended communication between players on top of the turn narration. Games such as Machi Koro (2012) or Catan Junior (2012) introduce the option to trade resources, which requires the students to formulate questions and answers that are specific to their current state in the game by offering, accepting, declining, and counteroffering trades.
Creating the Lessons
I begin a unit on a game by offering a brief introduction including a general overview of the pieces and mechanics, how to win, and what my expectations and goals are regarding language usage. As this was the first time any of my students had played a game in a foreign language, the end goal I set for playing The Pied Piper was for each student to narrate their turn in the game. While this assessment would not ask each student to prove their exhaustive knowledge of the pieces and all potential moves in the game, they would not know ahead of time exactly what the board state would be when it was their turn to speak, so they had to prepare thoroughly. Depending on the game and the unit’s learning goals, the final assessment for a given game unit might place more attention on the acquisition of vocabulary, accuracy in grammatical structures, or another language-based goal that fits the game and the needs of the class, thus presenting a wide variety of potential assessment options and the ability to extract several units’ worth of material with increasing complexity from a single game.
I divide up each game unit into a series of sections with smaller goals, each lasting around a week and each with its own assessment of progress. The first section focuses on the vocabulary necessary to play the game including the names for all the pieces contained in the box as well as the actions that each player will take and, if necessary, useful hints for game-specific player interaction. After the introduction to the game, I put students in play groups and distribute German-only vocabulary lists with an image of the game already set up and ready for play, as well as a copy of the game itself. The first series of tasks includes working together to map the German words to the game pieces through both question and answer exchanges and statements like “Was ist ein Würfel? Das ist ein Würfel!” (What is a die? This is a die.) or “Zeig mir die Actionkarten. Hier sind die Actionkarten!” (Show me the action cards. Here are the action cards). This itself can be turned into a mini game where one student calls out a game piece and the others try to be the first to point to it or hold it up. As students master the words for the game’s components and the vocabulary sub-unit progresses, it becomes possible to introduce more complex exchanges such as “Was kann man mit den Actionkarten tun? Man kann die Actionkarten von dem Ziehstapel ziehen, in der Hand halten, auf das Spielbrett legen und auf den Ablagestapel ablegen.” (What can you do with the action cards? You can draw them from the draw pile, hold them in your hand, play them on the game board, and discard them onto the discard pile.) The assessment I used for The Pied Piper’s vocabulary sub-unit was a written quiz during which students wrote down the names of the game pieces I held up and then wrote answers to a few spoken questions about what it is possible to do with some of the pieces.
The second sub-unit focuses on setting up the game. In addition to the grammatical structures targeted through gameplay, setting up the game offers the chance to practice using two-way prepositions and verbs of location and placement, structures which are notoriously problematic in German, along with the vocabulary from the first sub-unit.14 Game setup is typically described at the beginning of the game’s directions booklet; however, it may be necessary with some games to re-write the text into simpler German with bullet pointed steps. I took this approach with The Pied Piper because I wanted to speed up the acquisition of both the game’s setup and also the language abilities necessary to describe it. The gameplay of The Pied Piper itself targets two-way prepositions and verbs of location and placement, which means that students practiced using them through both the setup process and through playing the game.
I began this sub-unit with a basic review of the prepositions, verbs, and their case requirements, after which I set the play groups to work first describing the image of the fully set up game and second with the goal of determining which verbs and prepositions would likely be used during set up, as well as those possibly used, and those unlikely to be used with this game. Each group created a list that sorted the verbs and prepositions into these three categories. With their lists made, each group practiced setting the game up while describing what they were doing. It took my students one class meeting to be able to be able to completely describe the setup of the game; however, more complex games may require more time and more scaffolding. The assessment for this sub-unit was similar to that of the first. I administered a written quiz with the image of the set-up game from their vocabulary sheet, but I digitally cut some pieces out of the image and placed them to the side. It was the students’ jobs to describe both the state of the board and how to move the cut-out pieces back into the correct places using the verbs of location and two-way prepositions.
In the third sub-unit, the focus is on the turn structure. This section tends to be a more complex task than the setup sub-unit as the student can feel put on the spot during their turn. If desired, there is also space in this sub-unit to review the command forms of verbs for telling other players what to do, modal verbs for describing what may, can, or must be done, and both ordinal numbers and ordering adverbs for describing the sequence of events. For The Pied Piper, I again re-wrote the directions in a simpler style, distributed them, and set my students to work in their play groups over a few class meetings to make their way through understanding and describing the turn structure of the game. Once the directions were becoming clear to the groups, I introduced a covert review of modals targeting müssen, können, and dürfen (must, can, and may) by asking each group about the possible actions within a turn. As the students became more comfortable with describing the turn structure of the game, they began playing practice rounds of the game together even without my instruction to do so. I was careful not to force them into playing the game yet; however, each group had the game in front of them and it emerged naturally that they began playing and practicing the narration of their movements and helping to correct one another. This was incredibly rewarding to see both because my students were clearly having fun and doing a surprisingly good job of staying in German, but also because they created a collaborative space for helping each other learn the rules of the game and the language necessary to play it in the target language.
The Pied Piper does a good job of incorporating limited randomness. Rather than determining movement with a die or spinner, the player has a hand of action cards from which they may play two in each turn. By laying an action card underneath a color-coded rat card in the middle of the table, the player is triggering that rat to move at the end of their turn. The images on the action cards show either one or two arrows pointing either left or right. Once the player has finished their turn, the rats move and if a rat card has a second action card placed under it, that card stack is discarded and replaced with a new rat card from the draw pile at the end of the turn. This mix of randomness and strategy “[rewards] players who make good decisions, while giving people with lower skills a fighting chance for victory at the same time.”15 While students will be focused on using their newly acquired language correctly for the first sub-units, and even first play throughs of the game, this simple mix of light strategy with light randomness offers a more advanced, and authentic, way to engage with the game and the other players.
On the final day of the third sub-unit and the game unit itself, the task was to play the game for real, while staying completely in German. I went around to each group and the next student to begin their turn was required to narrate their actions for a quiz grade. By this point, each group had played several rounds of the game in the previous days and were comfortable with it, but I expected that because it was quiz day, the gameplay would be somewhat subdued due to nervousness getting in the way of the fun. I was wrong. One group of students in my class, consisting of three women and one man, adopted a targeted player-elimination strategy very quickly. The three women ganged up on the man in their group to eliminate him first before working against one another to eliminate a second player and end the game. While this group was comfortable enough with one another for this to be funny for everyone at the table,16 this points to the possibility that a version of “the three player problem”17 may emerge within a given playgroup. In essence, the three player problem describes a situation where one player, knowing they are going to lose, uses their turns not for their own benefit, but as a means to help determine the outcome between the other two.18 While this problem can lead to emergent and fun uses of new cursing vocabulary, it can also feel alienating to some players and choosing games that limit this particular kind of interaction may be beneficial to some playgroups. Pulsipher describes in his article several possibilities to mitigate the three player problem, including creating uncertainty about who is winning and losing.19 This is easily accomplished in The Pied Piper by simply instructing the students to stand a book or folder in front of their house card. In fact, this opens the opportunity to ask another player how many rats they have in their house, once per turn for example. Rather than giving a specific number, the student can respond using more than/less than constructions. (“ich habe mehr als/weniger als… Ratten in meinem Haus” — I have more than/less than …. rats in my house).
Just as written works, videos, films, and music can be used as texts to facilitate and drive the acquisition of foreign language skills, so too can games. Because the idea of games as texts is relatively new to academia in comparison with other media, adapting games to the classroom correctly means rethinking the ways games have been implemented previously. While injecting existing game structures with new content to help students learn can be a useful pedagogical tool, teaching games as texts requires extracting the pedagogical potential already contained within the game. Using games in the classroom this way puts the game, gameplay, and the social communication that it encourages at the center of the unit as students develop their vocabularies, their command of grammatical structures, their comfort in speaking, their cultural knowledge, and their critical thinking and strategizing skills. Teaching this way with games also offers students the ability to put their language skills to work in a meaningful and collaborative way, while also decentralizing the role of the instructor, and offering a context that is familiar to students, relevant to their lives, and transferrable beyond the individual game and the classroom.
Featured image “Würfel in B/W” by Günter Hentschel CC-B-NY @Flickr
Alex Hogue is Assistant Professor of German at Coastal Carolina University where his classes focus on film, games, and issues of interculturality and social justice in Germany. His research centers on conceptions of consciousness and robots in posthumanism and German philosophy.