This is a pen

I’ve been meaning to post again here for some time, to gather many of the thoughts about gaming and language learning that have been swirling around my head.

In fact there are two main experiences I’ve been meaning to write about, and so this post and the next one are attempts to synthesize these what I’ve been learning. Both experiences are inspired by my wonderful colleagues on this site, and the Slack research group we’ve created for the games/language learning research community in Japan. In particular, a post by James here, inspired me to experience the student perspective on gaming for myself, and discussions on Slack with Jonathan and others, along with James’ continuing experimentation with games in the classroom inspired me to try out some things in my own classroom contexts for myself.

First, my experience as a student: understanding that my perspective on my own gamelab framework would be limited by my position as the session leader / teacher, I decided to put myself in the shoes of a student as best I could. I have rudimentary Spanish ability resulting from one six-week course (non-intensive, weekly) I took just after college while working in New York almost 20 years ago, and also through my interactions with some Spanish-speaking (Peruvian) friends on a regular basis just after I arrived in Japan about 15 years ago. That’s it, and so my Spanish is rudimentary at best.  Still, I love the language for its rhythm and poetic musicality. And so whenever I have chances to speak, I try to take them. Some of these chances, of late, have come through my interactions with a very nice Spanish teacher at our school, who, whenever we meet in the hallway seems happy to indulge my desire to converse a bit in his language. We usually speak in Spanish for as long as I can last, which is not long at all, and then switch to Japanese, which we are both competent in.

I had told this teacher about the Tokoha Gamelab framework and proposed the idea of trying to experience gameplay myself in the role of a student. He said he’d be happy to try this during his weekly conversation circle in the foreign language self-access center, so I told him I’d drop by sometime to arrange this. And so last week I did. I intended to just introduce a game to him, and tell him some more about gamelab, then try my role as a student in a subsequent week, but this is not what happened. Instead, as I began my explanation and started to show the game and direct him to resources for learning it ahead of our meeting (a Spanish-language explanation video on boardgamegeeek.com), he, the other students, and I basically got pulled into playing the game right there and then. This is the power of games—they want to be played!

And so we began. The game was Bohnanza, a card game that involves bartering and trading bean cards in order to accumulate coins.  Its a game that I have had great success with playing in Gamelab with students. We had developed a list of words, phrases and questions that frequently come up in the game. But these are in Japanese and English, and here I was suddenly being pulled into a Spanish-language version of the game (with English and Japanese explanations on the side as I tried to teach the game). Fortunately, the game is easy to learn, and before long we were planting, harvesting, bartering, trading, asking, receiving, donating etc etc…all the things that my Gamelab participants had fairly easily learned to do in English when I had led past sessions.

But now it was a whole new game for me. Not only was I playing in the student role, I was in the role of lowest-level student. The Spanish teacher would help us with language orally as we went, recasting and translating, helping us to interact with each other as the game mandates—but all in Spanish. We had a good time and were able to complete a round of the game before I had to go (I had not planned on staying, and I had a writing deadline), but it left me both exhilarated and also a bit rattled.

And so what did I learn from being thrown into this situation of being a student in a gamelab setting?

Well, if I were to write a headline for this it would be I WISH I HAD A PEN. That is, during gameplay as the teacher recast and helped us with language I was really trying to take in a lot and learn the vocabulary and phrases I’d need to use (again and again) in the Game, but since I didn’t happen to have a pen and paper I wasn’t able to record these. I think if I were a higher level learner, some of the recasts would have stuck more quickly but as it was, I found the fact that these essential new words and phrases were said but not recorded to be actually rather stressful.

I think many would agree that games (and communication in general) are best when we experience Flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991), and one could say that writing down words and phrases could interrupt this, but here I would argue the opposite. In my case, as a student-participant, the affordances of some short breaks to confirm the necessary language, and write it down would have really enhanced my gaming experience by enhancing my language learning experience. I think I would have enjoyed the bartering that is part of the game even more if I could have taken back some of the autonomy that comes with speaking from one’s own notes rather than relying on the same (potentially embarrassing) recasts from the teacher each turn.

I used the word affordance above, and this is a central concept for my thinking about games and language learning. Games, like any kind of materials provided in a sociocultural context act as affordances for action and for language use. The great thing about good games is that they create mechanisms that make different types of language use essential. Utterances must be repeated (and thus practiced) for a purpose. So often, in the language classroom the opposite is true—utterances are used or repeated for no apparent purpose (except to learn them). Games make opportunities for purposeful language use, and because of their repetitive nature, they afford opportunities for what Ericcson (1993) calls “deliberate practice” (popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2011 book Outliers) The real golden nugget in good games though is that this deliberate practice is potentially combined with flow to create an experience similar to naturalistic language learning in which we are not really focused on the repetitive nature of the practice. It is the practice without the pain—its play after all. But the simple challenge I encountered was that I did not have the tools necessary for good practice. Pen and paper felt essential, and I imagine they could have really improved my experience, lowered my stress level (and thus my “affective filter”), and made for better “deliberate practice” in the game I was playing.