20 Reasons to Use Games in College-Level ESL Courses

by , under For teachers

At the front of a class, a teacher delivers the lesson she has spent hours preparing.  She has tried to make it engaging and is animated as she attempts to convey the importance of what she wants her students to learn.  Some of the students are listening and attentively taking notes.  Others are struggling to stay awake, with heads bobbing up and down.  Still others are concealing cell phones under their tables, texting their friends to find out where they are meeting after class.  Two students are having a hushed conversation in the back, inviting glares from the teacher. 

This is too often the scene in a classroom today.  Rarely are all students motivated, engaged, and leave the class feeling like they have learned a great deal.  Why are so many students bored and disengaged?  In an age where people are bombarded with technology and where information is instantaneously acquired, a traditional classroom setting where the teacher delivers a lecture, assigns a reading, and then has the students produce some kind of task is, well, boring.

Why play games in an educational context?

The teacher-centered teaching style does little to encourage student involvement in a lesson.  When students who are prone to boredom become disengaged from the lesson, they learn very little, very slowly.  What is needed is a student-centered style with engaging activities that encourages participation and learning. What is needed is a classroom that is centered on games.  Games as learning tools have long been used in business and military contexts yet remain grossly undervalued in the serious context of academic institutions. 

Corporate training exercises have often taken the form of games as a means to develop the skills of employees.  These games often consist of a structured activity and are designed to simulate a real workplace situation where employees need to strategize in order to problem-solve.  They are interactive and participatory, allowing for experiential learning in a risk-free environment.  In this context, employees have the opportunity to develop many skills. 

Often, the games or simulations involve working with a team and therefore develop the skill of collaboration, which can boost team performance in the workplace.  These training games can be designed for employees to work on communication, feedback, leadership, problem-solving, decision making or management skills.  This all contrasts greatly with traditional passive activities such as listening to a lecture or viewing a film aimed to instruct.  When people are asked to participate, there is a much higher level of engagement which results in an increase in the retention of information.  As the philosopher Confucius once stated, “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.”

If a games-based learning environment in the corporate realm improves motivation and increases results, it should follow that games in an educational environment will also improve student engagement, reduce boredom, and increase learning.  However, young adults can sometimes have reservations about games in their college classrooms when it is not made clear how the game will help students achieve the objectives of the course. If they are distrustful of the teacher or anxious about their grades, they might worry that the game is a waste of time.

Rather than abandon games in education, teachers ought to take a moment to explain what the goals of the lesson are and how the game supports those goals. For example, in a language learning classroom where multiple, meaningful oral repetitions of a specific grammatical structure are needed to ensure students remember the form correctly, a simple card game may be the best pedagogical choice available. Simply asking students to correct each other when they get the form wrong will help students recognize the pedagogical value of the game.

Why are games in education effective?

One of the reasons that games in the classroom are effective is that they are challenging. Most games require an element of strategy and require communication and collaboration with other players. Because of the competitive nature of games, students motivate themselves and each other to strategize, communicate and collaborate more effectively. The more difficult the game, the harder students try and the better they learn.

Apart from being challenging, another reason why we need games in academic settings is that they support the development of dispositional traits such as openness and respect for others, patience and self-control under pressure, friendly competition and gracious acceptance of minor setbacks. These are traits that employers value in their employees but are difficult to teach on the job or in a classroom.

With games, everyone starts with an equal number of turns. Players plan their next move while they are waiting for their turn. Striving to win but graciously accepting a loss are both much more easily learned in the context of game-playing than in a traditional classroom setting.

What are the pedagogical benefits of games in the classroom?

The traditional classroom, it seems, does not allow students to naturally learn some of the most important life skills such as peer communication, risk-taking, collaboration and problem-solving.  The introduction of games into these classrooms, however, just may be the answer to having students learn these life skills, while engaging in meaningful learning. It also may be the cure for student boredom.  No one will be nodding off to sleep in a game-centered classroom!

Picture of students playing a card game
Copyright 2018 Bokomaru Publications

There are many good reasons why serious games remain appropriate teaching tools in college-level second language learning courses for young adults. Before we get into those reasons, there is one thing that we should clear up.

What are serious games?

A serious game is not the same as other games. Unlike a game played for amusement, fun is not its primary goal. Fun is merely a useful byproduct of a well-designed learning activity. A serious game’s primary purpose is pedagogical. Above all else, it is intended to support one or more of the goals of the course. Anyone interested in instructional design would do well to consider the pedagogical benefits of serious games.

Here is a list of 20 pedagogical benefits that games can bring to the language learning classroom: task regulation, motivation and strategic thinking, preparation, memory and retention, meaningful communicative exchanges, cognitive fluency, attention to form, peer-correction and instruction, openness and respect, patience and planning, mastery experiences and ego-gratification, self-confidence and self-efficacy, contingency planning and resilience, energy and excitement, reduction in egotism, problem-solving and effort, creativity, coherence, self-directed learning, and time-on-task.

How do language learning games benefit students?

  1. Games have rules. Rules can keep learners focused on key structures, allowing careful task regulation.
  2. Games have goals. Goals create motivation and strategic thinking.
  3. Games are a form of simulation. Simulations give us preparation for high-stakes communicative tasks.
  4. Games involve repetition. Repetitions enhance memory and retention.
  5. Games are interactive. Oral interaction gives us meaningful communicative exchanges.
  6. Games require speed. Speed stimulates the development of cognitive fluency.
  7. Games involve decisions. Decisions can direct attention to form.
  8. Games involve feedback. Feedback means peer-correction and instruction.
  9. Games involve turn-taking. Turn-taking ensures openness to the participation of others, equality, and respect.
  10. Games involve waiting for a turn. Waiting teaches patience and planning.
  11. Games have win-states. Win-states provide mastery experiences and ego-gratification.
  12. Games require skill. Skill development generates self-confidence and self-efficacy.
  13. Games involve chance. Chance creates contingency planning and resilience.
  14. Games have sudden reversals of fortune. Reversals of fortune provide energy and excitement.
  15. Games have lose-states. Lose-states cause reductions in egotism that do not damage the ego since game-play is a non-literal state.
  16. Games have challenges. Challenges demand problem-solving and effort.
  17. Games involve problem-solving. Problem-solving sparks creativity.
  18. Games have a beginning, middle and end. Sequence offers coherence.
  19. Games are a form of play. Play is Evolution’s toolbox for self-directed learning.
  20. Games are pleasurable. Pleasure maximizes time-on-task.

**This list is an adapted and expanded list from Prensky, 2001, Digital Game-Based Learning, McGraw-Hill, p. 6.