For this long-time language teacher, the game that teaches language skills is something of a holy grail. In the past few years, the classes I’ve taught haven’t been focused so much on language acquisition and grammar as on cultural understanding; with students already at least moderately conversational in the target language, I was able to design games that focused on other concepts (international conflict, the immigrant experience). But the game that teaches language is always in the back of my mind.
Of course, many language games already exist, but they tend to be… well, boring. I recently bought a game called Influent, which was funded through Kickstarter and is available on Steam. Influent is something of an interactive visual dictionary, where your character learns some basic vocabulary by looking at virtual items and hearing the names of the items in the target language. Like Rosetta Stone, Influent avoids translation by associating words with objects rather than with other words. Influent pushes this a bit further with its explorable world, whereas Rosetta Stone uses a much more artificial interface, albeit well-organized and well-guided.
But after a few minutes playing Influent in Russian mode (since I don’t read or speak any Russian), I lost interest, because there isn’t really a game happening. The goal of Influent, just like the goal of studying a vocabulary list, is to memorize words. Memorize more words, get more stars. If I were a student of Russian and I had to study vocabulary lists anyway, I am confident that Influent’s interactive visual dictionary would be a more entertaining, more engaging way to study those lists. But as a gamer, I would rather play just about anything else in my library.
If games are to motivate players, they must be more than exercises that are less boring than what we’re used to. When the concept being taught through the game involves conflict or exploration or life choices, designing a game with naturally-meaningful goals and decisions is more straightforward. But when the concept is, “here are some words,” or “this set of verbs takes a different auxiliary than the rest,” a meaningful goal isn’t immediately apparent. That, I suspect, is why we’ve struggled so much making good games for language acquisition.
Châteaufort, my newest project, is a game for teaching beginning French students the set of verbs that exceptionally require être as their auxiliary in compound tenses. But learning those verbs is not the goal of the game. The goal is to defend a castle from invaders (or to take the castle from its defenders), using a combination of strategy and luck. This cannot be achieved without knowing the verbs, but memorization is not itself the goal. In this respect, the game models natural language acquisition: we learn words because they are necessary to communicate our needs and accomplish our goals, not because words have inherent value.
Since I intend for the game to be used in a classroom, I have two primary design concerns that would be less important for a different audience.
The first concern is simplicity of rules. Students frequently are not focused listeners, and teachers frequently are not experts in board games; therefore, the rules should be designed so that a teacher can explain the game in under five minutes, and the board should make the rules intuitive to students to the absolute maximum extent possible.
The second design concern is preventing cheating. In a language-learning classroom where the students all share a first language, they have an overwhelming tendency to avoid using the target language with each other, even though target language use is the explicit reason for every activity in the classroom. The game, therefore, needs to make the target language unavoidable, even if students do their best to use their first language whenever possible. Since the purpose of Châteaufort is to teach a certain set of verbs, those verbs will appear, in French only, on cards that players must spend in order to move their pieces. Even if students refuse to say the verb out loud or speak any French to each other, they must look at the verb every time they use it, and they must associate the verb with the action it indicates every time they see it. Even with minimal student participation, the learning mechanism will still function.
I’m excited about Châteaufort, and hope to have a prototype available this fall for classroom playtesting. I’ll keep you posted about its progress.