Teaching Language and Culture with Computer Games (live-blogging from IALLT 2007)

Teaching Language and Culture with Computer Games (Felix Kronenberg, Pomona College)

Why game? to motivate, to provide immersion, they result in choices/decisions and active participation, repetition without being boring (Civilization I – Felix learned the term ‘irrigation ditch’ that he never would have otherwise), have great narrations, good examples of language use
to introduce new cultural aspects, to simulate situations with creativity and control, to improve secondary skills (self-direction, adaptability, risk-taking, etc).

Caveats: not all students like games! And even gamers can be picky about what they like to play. It can become just a task that’s just as awful as using the textbook, can be artificial and awkward, hardware intensive (graphics are very advanced, for example), purchasing foreign games from abroad is hard because they’re not shipped internationally (rights issues with software). Some games can be played online or downloaded, or you can change the language on games. Gaming industry perceived as evil / bad reputation (GTA, for example) for creating mindless, violent games. The few really good smart games can’t get out from under that reputation. You have to sift through to find the good examples. The educational market isn’t very big, so major publishers aren’t gearing their product towards us.

[note to self: check out the Serious Game Initiative.]

1. Creating Teaching and Learning Materials
Machinima: using animation from a game and voiceovers to create a film. Or, take screenshots and create handouts. Screen capturing: Snapz Pro X (for Macs). [Three snaps in a z?]

2. Computer Games in the Traditional Classroom Setting
Tabula Magic – computerized hangman! Use it to talk about prefixes and suffixes, for example.
The Sims 2 – you can customize your avatar like in SL except it’s much easier, just clicking on things. Use it to learn basic vocabulary (instead of using boring / outdated book examples). Body Shop (Mac or PC). Talk about social occasions – when / where would you wear this outfit?
-Wer wird Millionär? (Who wants to be a Millionaire?) – available in several languages. Use it for those rough classes right before breaks, divide students into groups and play! Also a great activity for conversation courses. IT can be difficult, though, because it might ask questions that are easy for a native speaker but not for a learner (idioms like “raincheck” for example). But it provides a good way to talk about those situations. [This game looks REALLY COOL. I am now on the gaming bandwagon…] This game is challenging for the instructor as well … you never know what’s coming up and so might have to figure out how to explain a concept on the fly. [Awesome!]
-You can demo a lot of games online, in order to see if you want to buy it. Sometimes, though, you don’t need more than the first couple of levels … that demo will work just fine for your classroom purposes.

3. Computer Games outside the Traditional Classroom Setting
-Use them as a project option. They get to play a game and then write about what they did, what they learned (thereby using the past tense).
-University add-on, holiday add-on, business add-on (where you buy and sell a vast array of products), pets, basic needs, zodiac signs – it’s a great way to learn a lot of the basics, especially vocabulary. There’s not a lot of spoken language, so there is a limit to what you can get out of The Sims 2 (audio prompts / voice activation would help a lot with this, though … let’s hope for that in The Sims 3).

Verliebt in Berlin: based on a telenovela [IT’S UGLY BETTY!]. They watched the TV series, then played the game. A great way of learning about culture. You can take the subway, interact with kiosks, talk to characters, choose what you want to ask, perform little tasks. Again, it’s not for everyone, but it’s a great thing to offer as supplementary material.

Patrizier Online: an old German game free online that you work your way up as a merchant by trading

King’s Quest – fantasy games that you can get in many different languages. [This was one of my favorite games! Can I find the text input version for Felix? I know it’s out there somewhere!] Some of his students wrote a whole walkthrough … IN GERMAN. Need to know fairy tales – cultural aspect involved.

Other game recommendations: Sim City IV (problem settings you have to solve – secondary content is fantastic), Civilization IV (hugely complex and tons of vocab and text – military, culture, economic – and you can play against each other with TeamSpeak – live audio!) [Simply fabulous.] Manager games where you can manage sports teams, Sherlock Holmes (scripted scenes that you then have to respond to – you can repeat things, though, ’cause there’s no time limit).

Ryan has been proudly maintaining and contributing to Language Lab Unleashed since 2005, and is the current President of SWALLT. Since the summer of 2013 he's been causing trouble with his all-star colleagues in the UMW DTLT; when not wrangling websites Ryan can be found doing strange things with heavy objects.

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  1. larry ferlazzo · June 22, 2007 Reply

    I’ve recently become very intrigued by using online video games to help my English Language Learner students.

    You might be interested in three posts I’ve recently written related to this topic, including ones on how my students are actually creating online video games; using a new free web application that allows players to describe (and record their description) so that others can view their “screencast,” and some other interesting online games my students play:




  2. Ryan · June 22, 2007 Reply


    Thanks so much for the links! I’ll definitely check them out. Felix’s session put me firmly on the gaming-for-learning bandwagon. Now, for some – ahem – research and testing … 😉

  3. Ravi · October 30, 2007 Reply

    There’s files to make Sims 2 specifically useful for German learning at http://www.langwidge.com/simsfiles.html

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