Cooperative video games in the English as a foreign language classroom

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.

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Excellent and innovative use of games Matt. My feeling is that there's something to be found in the ways both language learning and game design overlaps in their usage of patterns. When playing most games, it comes down to mastering the pattern that's being presented. I wonder if this is similar to developing a foundation by first learning the underlying structure to become comfortable with how the language is organized. Once these patterns are learned and intuitive, can we then begin to 'hack' the linguistic pattern? 

When learning Spanish years ago, I felt as though the vocabulary quizzes fell pray to the issues you describe in your conclusion. Once you figured out the pattern of the quiz, it was difficult to ignore this recognition. I would think that developers of these tools will have to figure out new, more invigorating ways to thwart the intuitive pattern recognition of cradle-gamers.

It would be interesting to research how learners of varying generations take to language learning through cooperative gameplay! 

Matt, great considerations here, and I appreciate the fact that you raise some of the potential challenges/problems with this use of video games. I can't recall the scholar offhand, but I read research that explored the use of multimodal assignments in the EFL classroom, pointing out that less tech-savvy students were distracted by the technology, which interfered with course goals. Those who don't play games often may focus more on learning to play the game than they might on learning the language; however, that may not necessarily be a bad thing. You seem to suggest that the more the players struggle, the more they rely on collaboration (and communication).

Interesting thoughts!

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.


I really like your comment about tensions between good game design and reflective learning. I'm wondering if part of it is that good reflection is tough intellectual work; who wants to do that when they are having fun? I'm optimistic about the affordances of digitial technologies promote reflection in a scaffolded and less intrusive way; are you? 

I've seen different online media used for reflection (Anne Wysocki spoke on this idea at last year's C&W:; however, I don't know that I've seen much (if any) reflection prompted within a game space. Fan sites that surround a game provide a space for reflection, but games themselves don't seem to.  It seems that these reflective online spaces could influence games as they continue to venture into educational contexts. In short, there seems to be some space for optimism.

Megan <she who assigned me the homework of playing SuperBetter>,

Wouldn't you say SuperBetter has incorporated some of that reflection? I'm thinking so especially since it explicitly asks participants to set goals. Is SuperBetter a game or gamification? Does "gamification" provide space for reflection that "gaming" doesn't?

Shelley, I was actually thinking of SuperBetter as a potential exception when I was writing that last post. When I say games don't provide spaces for reflection, I think I'm mostly picturing 3-D or side-scroller games where the player is driving an avatar through an environment. They might have to read documents or examine artifacts/puzzles/etc within the space, but I don't recall many that invite the player to compose or reflect. Most "journals" in a game are filled in by the computer.

I would probably categorize SuperBetter as gamification because it uses gaming conventions to incentivize acts/behaviors a person would do on one's own (like the badge I got for drinking 8 glasses of water the other day). I might have stopped at 6 glasses, but hey, if there's a badge to be had, might as well go for a couple more refills. SuperBetter then invites users to reflect on the act, providing more points for doing that reflection.

At any rate, games are clearly blurring the boundaries between game spaces and real spaces. It's getting confusing.


I think your insight about blurring spaces (and that being part of the distinction between gaming and gamification) is good insight. Maybe we can seek out some resources (or folks reading this might now some). 

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