Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Serious Games: An Oxymoron?

A serious game is a game whose purpose is not primarily to entertain, but instead to solve a problem or sometimes, provide a simulation. In my exploration of the various "serious" games out there, I was surprised to find that there was even a game created by the UNHCR, the branch of the United Nations that works with refugees and other forcibly displaced peoples across the world. As I spend a lot of my time working with and teaching refugees who have been resettled to Buffalo, this piqued my interest right away.

Against All Odds describes itself as "the game which lets you experience what it is like to be a refugee." You pick a character and embark on a three-part quest, which includes fleeing persecution in your home country, crossing an international border, and finally starting life over in a new country. Depending on the decisions you make and your ability to evade those who are trying to harm you, you may or may not make it. The game is broken up into several segments and I played most of these, several of them multiple times. 

This isn't a game I would use with English Language Learners who are themselves refugees. Rather, I could see using it with American students learning about global issues. One part of the game that I particularly liked was an activity toward the end, during which your character walks around a mall trying to buy a cellphone and you hear people talking about you. Some people express suspicion, resentment and ignorance about you as a refugee and what you're doing in their country, while others have a more informed perspective and welcoming attitude. I think this activity shows particularly well the range of perspectives and attitudes towards the refugees who make their new homes in our country, and could be particularly helpful for building students' sensitivity to these new members of their community. 

One challenge serious games like Against All Odds face is to help players understand issues that are real and serious without trivializing them. For example, any excitement or adrenalin you might feel as you try to dodge the secret police while running across a dark city in Against All Odds is nothing like actually running for your life from people who are trying to kill you and your family. In the game when you make a wrong decision or get caught by the bad guys there are an infinite number of opportunities to start over. In real life there aren't. 
The last thing I would want is for students playing a game like this to walk away from it with the idea that now they know what it's like to be a refugee. (And, as you can guess, for this reason I'm not the biggest fan of the game's tagline). Instead, I hope that what a game like this could help students start to do is to imagine themselves in the shoes of these people who are coming to their country, and to realize that refugees are people just like them, except they are people who have experienced the unimaginable. 

I think this game would be a great jumping off point for a middle school global issues class about to begin a unit studying about world conflict or refugees. The game could be assigned to students for homework, and students required to write a journal entry about their game character's journey to allow the instructor to assess that the activity learning objectives had been met. This homework assignment could be followed up by a class discussion, and students could be asked to identify a specific part of the world or a specific part of a refugee's journey to do more research on and then share with the rest of the class. The unit could even end with a service learning opportunity at a local organization that works with resettled refugees.

Virtual Burgers and Refugee Learners

A couple of years ago, my little brother, a self-professed online game addict, introduced me to a series of point-and-click games with a common theme: food preparation. These games included Papa's Pizzeria, Papa's Burgeria, and Papa's Taco Mia, among many other variations! Your role in each of these games is the same. You are a worker at a fast food franchise (a pizzeria, taco shop, burger place, etc...) and your goal is to earn tip money by taking and accurately fulfilling your customers orders. The funny thing was that although I used to work at a fast food restaurant and did not enjoy it, there was something about these games that kept me playing one round after another.

"One of the defining attributes of any game," says Zac Hill in a post entitled Sculpting Flow and Fiero, "is that it is, in some sense, voluntary work." He goes on to say that there is something about the way games make people feel that intrinsically motivates people to continue doing this "voluntary work," whether that work is killing zombies, figuring out a way to escape a room, or making virtual tacos. I think it must be this realization that is, at least in part, behind the recent trend toward Gamification in education, business, and other arenas.

The nonprofit organization Educause describes gamification as "the application of game elements in non-gaming situations, often to motivate or influence behavior." In  7 Things You Should Know About Gamification it describes how games provide intrinsic motivation to their participants by offering immediate feedback, an appropriate level of challenge, and rewards. A rationale behind the move towards gamification in the field of education specifically is that incorporating game-like elements like these into teaching holds promise for creating more intrinsic motivation for our students to learn as well as helping them see coursework less as a chore and more as a challenge.

In light of the move towards both gamification and the integration of technology in current educational practice, some instructors might decide to incorporate not just game-like elements but computer games themselves into their classroom instruction. This brings us back to the example of Papa's Burgeria.

I imagine an adult ESL instructor seeking to incorporate more technology and more game-like elements into her classroom might choose to use a game like Papa's Burgeria during a unit on employment and food services. The language objectives of using this game in the classroom could be for students to practice giving and receiving commands using the correct command form of verbs and food preparation vocabulary. For many refugees and immigrants, their first job in the US could likely be in the area of food preparation, which would make a knowledge of this vocabulary relevant. In an ESL classroom with a computer lab, pairs of partners could play this game together, taking turns giving commands to each other.

In order to prepare her students to play this game, the instructor could introduce vocabulary such as hamburger, lettuce, ketchup, pick up, and flip to her students and have them practice it using TPR or other similar activities. When introducing food vocabulary, she might use both photographs of the actual items as well as the visual representation used for these items in the game, to help students  make the connection between the real item and its "cartoon" version. She could then have them pair up with a partner and go to a computer. One partner would play the game while the other partner gave him or her instructions on what to do, based on each customer's order (ie. pick up the bun, flip the burger, add ketchup, etc...) After each round, students could switch roles so that both partners would have the opportunity to practice both giving and receiving commands. During the activity, the instructor could circulate around the room, using a checklist to mark off whether each of the students giving instructions was using the correct verbs and nouns matching the images on the screen.

The reason I write about this example in third person is that although I consider it a way of incorporating game-like elements and technology into the language classroom, I would have reservations about actually using an activity like this with the students I teach. Most of the refugee adult students I teach have had and continue to have limited exposure to technology. Using a computer for them, period, is something scary and challenging and not very comfortable. I have a hard time seeing them pick up a new computer game as easily and effortlessly as their thirteen-year-old son would, for example. I'm afraid that rather than creating a positive atmosphere, a computer game like Papa's Burgeria might result in anxiety and frustration, raising the affective filter and taking away from their language learning experience. I also worry that providing students with all the background information needed to play a game like this successfully may just take up too much classroom time to be worth the potential language gains that may result from it.

All that to say, while computer games may not be the best fit for the adult refugee ESL class room, I do think there are many game-like elements such as maintaining an appropriate level of challenge, giving immediate feedback, and even providing opportunities for some healthy classroom competition that can be a great way of increasing motivation and success experienced by refugee adult learners.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Confessions of a Microblogging Skeptic...

I admit, I was skeptical. Although I’ve heard a lot of people talking about using twitter, I’ve never had any desire to get one of my own. Twitter has always struck me as something that had the potential of taking up a lot of time while offering little substance in return. So it was a bit begrudgingly that I created my twitter account for this class. After all, I wondered, how much useful content can really be conveyed in tweets of 140 characters or less? 
Apparently a lot. Perhaps I just got lucky, but over the last week I’ve spent following a dozen educational microbloggers, I’ve come across a LOT of useful information – blog posts about classroom strategies, links to articles and videos about teaching , a webchat on working with ELLs, to just name a few. Yes, not everything that’s tweeted is relevant to the context in which I teach (a lot is not) but it only takes a few moments to glance through the unhelpful tweets to find ones that point to exactly the kind of resources I’m looking for. 

Not only can twitter be used for the purposes of personal professional development, educators are coming up with new ways to creatively use it with their students and in the classroom. In 28 Creative Ways Teachers are Using Twitter the authors suggest using twitter to make announcements, have students follow conferences, and keep a class discussion going even outside the walls of the classroom to just name three possible uses. 

One interesting video called Leveraging Twitter in Large Lecture Classes to Increase Participation describes how a tech tool like twitter can be especially useful with large class sizes in which there is often not enough time during class for every student to contribute something to the discussion in the traditional sense, and in which many students do not feel comfortable speaking out in front of the whole class. While I'm not sure my concerns about using twitter with younger students outweigh the benefits, I could see twitter being used effectively as a discussion boosting tool in the large classes in which so many college freshman find themselves.