Designing A Gaming Placemat

Ever since playing Bhonanza in Spanish with some of our Global Studies department students and an adjunct lecturer who volunteers his time for Spanish conversation practice, I have been thinking about the idea of a gaming “placemat.” I think this is where the idea came up, and I think it was mentioned by the Spanish teacher. In a later meeting of Tokoha Gamelab I tried with some students to design a common sheet for vocabulary that emerges in games based on their needs, but we didn’t come up with anything very innovative. This morning, while doing some reading online about multiliteracies, I saw that Cope and Kalantzis actually promote a placemat of their own:  This has me thinking again about going back to the drawing board (literally). Our campus has a design department (造形学部)and I am thinking it might be nice to get some of those students and teachers involved in making our own version of “learning by design” around gaming.

What would be the important vectors of a gaming placemat?  For now I have the following in mind:

  1. A space for explaining the game’s objective in simple language (this could be done in both languages perhaps)
  2. Key words and phrases: a section that has space for new vocabulary related to the game, translation of these words and phrases, and space for example sentences that offer context.
  3. Key concepts / reflective questions: This section would offer some of the key concepts (metalanguage) that emerge in debriefing the game and pose some relevant debriefing discussion questions
  4. Additional resources: this section could direct students to any online or offline resources that help support the game or discussions about the game. These could include things like: the main entry on, youtube play-through videos, reviews, and any online resources we create or collaborate on related to the game (e.g. Quizlets).

These categories relate roughly to the framework for Tokoha Gamelab, and would serve to be the physical embodiment of this as a designed reference for students before, during, and after play. We could have a master placemat for each game that evolved as any given group discovered new vocabulary, questions, resources etc, but after some time the game mats might become somewhat solidified in their content for any given game, allowing scaffolded play and reflection for newcomers.


Play first, learn later?

I also want to write about a recent experience bringing games into my classroom and trying something different. As I’ve explained, the framework I developed is geared towards small groups of learners gathering in my university’s self-access center. This is a voluntary group of students who show up randomly each week. Some students are passionate about games or just interacting in English, and these are the repeaters. But even these students don’t come every week because of schedule conflicts and the like, so Tokoha Gamelab has been evolving into something very different than a course, it is a free association that follows a 90 minute framework, but changes each week. Week to week consistency, or long-range projects (or games) are difficult because of the changing weekly membership. But classrooms are of course different—students must show up each week, and they can do homework to prepare and they can reflect after class and come back and discuss that reflection. These are some of the unique the affordances of the university course. One could also see them as constraints, as they are connected to a course syllabus, assessment criteria, etc., but it is also clear that the structure of a university course offers something unique that can be leveraged in certain ways.

I had not planned to do a unit on gaming in my course syllabus, but after a unit on “leisure” and a midterm test that tired the students out, I decided a week of gaming might be a good break from the regular syllabus. After their midterm test, I thus asked students to research a certain game online as homework (Spyfall), and promised to do some gaming with them the following week. Which is what I did. In addition to Spyfall I decided to bring one additional game—Ticket to Ride. I also brought a simple worksheet for students to make notes about vocabulary and phrases in the game and directions pre and post-play. As I prepared this, I was of course thinking about my own experience playing Bohnanza in Spanish.

But what I discovered was interesting I think, and it is what inspired the title of this post, “Play First, Learn Later.”  Simply put, I discovered what I already knew from the experience of getting pulled into that game of Bohnanza in Spanish: games want to be played as soon as possible. Play has a kind of gravitational force that I don’t know if we, as teachers, need to resist. Our research group has had discussions about the role of rulebooks, and the type of pre-game learning we think students need to do before class, and here I had a chance to experience this for myself. I had asked students to do research on Spyfall, and a few had (others admitted they hadn’t). I put the 2 people who knew about Spyfall into one group with two others, and I set the other four students up with Ticket to Ride and the Japanese directions. I told both groups to figure out their games for 15 minutes or so, using whatever resources they could (including me). I asked them to make notes on their handouts about words and phrases they thought they’d need in the game. But nobody did this. They were much more absorbed in just learning the game—a language mission with a purpose—albeit in their L1. That’s okay, because after 15 minutes or so they were playing the game, in English.  Now the handout became handy. I lurked around both games and helped them identify essential language as it came up, and encouraged them to write it down, which they did to some degree.

I’m not sure what will happen next week, but my sense is that the games have done a good job at creating affordances for interaction. The challenge of teaching their games and playing with a new pair of students seems like a good way to explore the language that was essential in understanding the game (which they did initially in Japanese), and enforce the language that became essential in play. We will see what happens. . . .

The “Why?” of Tokoha GameLab (part 1)

In my first post here, I talked about how Tokoha GameLab is being run—a bit about the mechanics of what we do each week. This time, I’d like to talk a little bit about the why—the pedagogical approach and teacher beliefs that lay behind the type of activity I’ve designed for the lab.

Most essentially, the pedagogical approach of TGL is based around what Swain & Deters (2007) call a “participation metaphor.” This phrase is meant to encapsulate a sociocultural view of language learning that focuses on learners’ engagement in certain types of practices in certain types of contexts (or communities of practice) rather than the acquisition of language through a disembodied view of cognition and cognitive processes. In this view, language is not seen as a possession of individuals, it is a thought of as a social currency, always shared, always connected to specific real-world contexts. It is something that is practiced socially over time, not something that is acquired once by an individual and then possessed for life.

But when language learning is seen as a process rather than a product, and the goal of participation is no longer “acquisition” per se, I think the question for foreign language educators becomes: what do we want the interactions with and in the foreign language we teach to yield for our students (when these take place in our educational contexts)?

In our rapidly changing and globalizing world, we cannot necessarily predict the types of contexts of language use that our students will find themselves in once they graduate. Like most humans, they will surely spend their lifetimes learning new language, whether it is local slang, jargon related to their professions, another foreign language, whatever. But even if we do know, for example, that a few of our students will likely work for shipping companies after they graduate, is the university the place where they should learn terms like “bill of lading” and “interline shipment”?

I think it is self-evident that teaching and testing such specialist language to all students so that it is “acquired” by the students who will need it would be somewhat meaningless to most students. But this is not to say that students should not be exposed to specialist language they will not necessarily “need” in the real world. This is where games come in. Games allow familiarization with various genres of language in a designed context that gives relevance to this language. A game about shipping could be fun for any number of reasons, and the language needed for the game could work as a currency for communication in the context of the game. In such a case, students could literally play with the new language much the way children do when they first appropriate new L1 speech genres.

In the end, I want students to develop greater awareness about language itself and the ways language is used for different purposes. I want students to think about what values different genres and modes of language use connect to, and how these values shape the world we live in.

From a social semiotics perspective (e.g. Kress, 2012), any interaction between two or more individuals involves the construction of a shared communicative culture. What board games offer are affordances for this culture to be co-constructed in a way that is playful and yet purpose-driven. Different games offer affordances for different types of interaction, and games naturalistically involve the usage of different genres and sub-genres of language. With some reflection on these genres and other forms, board games offer opportunities for dialogue leading to deeper understanding of the complexity of language, the functions of language, and the values and meanings behind different ways of using language.

That’s all for now. Soon, I’ll be writing more about some other real (observed) and potential benefits of Tokoha Gamelab.


Kress, G. (2012). Thinking about the notion of “cross-cultural” from a social semiotic perspective. Language and Intercultural Communication, 12(4), 369–385.

Swain, M., & Deters, P. (2007). “New” Mainstream SLA Theory: Expanded and Enriched. The Modern Language Journal, 91, 820–836.

Introducing Tokoha GameLab

Its the middle of 2016, about two months since the start of Tokoha Gamelab (TGL). Here, I would like to briefly introduce what TGL is now and how it is developing.

TGL is a weekly meeting for any Tokoha University students and teachers who are interested in joining activities related to games in English. We meet from 2:40 to 4:10 at the Foreign Language Study Support Center on our university’s Shizuoka Campus in Sena.

What do we do?  Good question. What we do is developing and changing over time, but very broadly our activities can be categorized as “thinking together” and “doing together.” Of course, you might say that “thinking” is a kind of “doing,” and furthermore that as we are “doing” we can also be “thinking.” Okay, okay, I agree.  But I also think that dividing these two activities conceptually might be useful for explaining our activities. Bear with me.

These two processes of thinking and doing can be broken down into the following four activities:

1. preparing to play games

2  playing games

3. reflecting on games and game play

4. making/modifying game materials, including study materials useful for preparing to play games (e.g. flash cards etc)

Each of these four activities is meant to be able to “produce” something. Preparing should produce understanding, readiness, motivation, and curiosity. Playing should produce enjoyment (fun), engagement, and community. Reflecting can produce insight/growth, critical understanding, and discourse analysis. Finally, making/modifying can produce real things like flash cards, how-to videos, game reviews, new games, translations, and much more.

All of these four activities are in the service of language development. I don’t want to say “language acquisition” because I think of language learning as a process not a product. The idea is that by engaging in these activities, we can share language and culture together and also grow as people while building community.

Here is a visual representation of our model:

Screen Shot 2016-06-02 at 9.08.05 AM

Here’s a .pdf version: gamesframework.

Okay, that’s all for now. I will try to post more as our TGL evolves over time.