I’m most interested in thinking about how cooperative video games can be used in the English as a foreign language (EFL) classroom. Cooperative games, as I’m defining them, are games in which two or more players are working together against an artificial intelligence-controlled computer opponent. This definition is meant to differentiate from competitive-cooperative games, or games in which players work together against teams of other human players. I’m drawn more to the use of human vs. AI cooperative games for a number of reasons, but two which are particularly relevant here. One, these game foster a sense of camaraderie between the players in relation to a computer opponent rather than towards other players (who might also be students in the same class). Secondly, cooperative games (the best ones, at least) delineate specific tasks and/or skills that are unique to each player while also setting up challenges, puzzles, and obstacles that require the coordination of these individualized skills in order to overcome. Gameplay of this form necessitates that the player/learners work together to coordinate their efforts in order to progress through the game, rather than relying on perhaps the more experienced player’s knowledge of the game to move through the levels.
These cooperative video games, with their numerous options for communication (player voice, chat text, avatar dialogue, etc.), offer a wide variety of communication options through which language learners may engage with the target language. Unlike simply practicing the new language using a dialogue from a textbook or trying to imagine a role-playing scenario along with a classroom partner while at a desk, cooperative video games give the players a specific purpose for which the use of clear communication becomes necessary in order to strategize their efforts with each other. This communication could be focused on discussing strategy on how to defend against an incoming horde of orcs or how to open a locked door to escape a particular room. Games have been shown to lower the affective filter, or “language block,” that some students suffer from when trying to practice a new language (Reinders, 2012). The hope is that, in seeing verifiable results of clear communication (e.g. the orcs are stopped, the door is unlocked), the students will come to see the language as a useful tool rather than simply a class subject.
Of course, this implementation of cooperative games in the EFL classroom is frivolous without a sound pedagogy on which it is founded. While I will not delve into the specifics of that here due to space constraints, I will offer a note of caution as I and other scholars consider how digital games can be implemented in the classrooms of any number of subjects. I would argue that, on some level, there is a tension between “good” game design and reflective learning. Video games that are well-designed usually foreground content and expectations for the player, eliminating the need to reflect on why certain elements of a game are designed the way in which they are. While this makes for compelling gameplay, it may work against the thoughtful learning that teachers hope to encourage in their students. Additionally, as students play the game more and more and their understanding of the game’s mechanics develops, they might find that the need for communication diminishes. With this in mind, I would argue that the majority of contemporary video games probably would not serve effectively alongside of sound pedagogy, but those that do have the potential to be powerful tools of education.
Reinders, H. & Wattana, S. (2012). Talk to me! Games and students’ willingness to communicate. In H. Reinders (Ed.), Digital Games in Language Learning and Teaching (156 – 188). United Kingdom: Palgrave MacMillan.