Total War! Situated Learning with Strategy Computer Games

I came across the idea of using computer games in class on my Language Learning and Technology module at university and to begin with I was somewhat incredulous. I was not convinced that games provide enough opportunities for interaction, linguistic production or linguistic challenge. But after some experimentation I have become a convert and in this article I want to show you how playing a strategy game with your students can provide real and engaging opportunities for meaningful interaction and linguistic production, build the learners’ understanding of grammar and enable them to practice use readily transferable skills and lexis.

The Game

I have the students work as a team to play the single player mode of a game call Total War Medieval II which is a turn-based strategy game, essentially about conquest. Turn-based games like Total War are perhaps more suitable than real time strategy games, such as the Sims, as there is no time pressure and the turns provide convenient stopping points and simple markers of progress for the students. However, I think any strategy game can be used as long as the game requires complex decision-making and reasoning - i.e. strategizing - and is open ended, or divergent. That is to say, there are (infinitely) many different ways of achieving the objectives and ultimately winning game and so each game will play out differently.

For example, in the game I use, you win the game by conquering a certain number of provinces; which provinces, when and how - and therefore how the computer-controlled opponents respond - is up to the player. In this way the players must think carefully about the consequences of each move and herein lies the affordance of meaningful interaction between students.

That said, the most productive interaction does not happen straight away and it requires a few hours just to get to grips with the gameplay. As such, this is not something to do for a stand alone lesson and  a good deal of patience both from the teacher and students is needed. In the first run, it took about 4 hours of gameplay before the students really started to interact the way I wanted.

Aims and Objectives

The overarching aim is obviously to complete the game or achieve some objective, either one within the game or one chosen by the teacher. In order to do this, the students must work together first to understand how the game works and then to decide what and how they will achieve the objective. This means they will need to use language for negotiation, speculation, agreeing and disagreeing, confirming, explaining, instructing and planning.

I like to add another layer by having the students write a joint situation report after each turn, ostensibly, to record their movements and plans so they will remember where they are and what they are doing for the next class. We did this using another laptop or a tablet with one student typing and the others instructing and checking. This provides a great opportunity for collaborative writing, provides an opportunity to focus on grammar as well as functional language and also provides a tangible record of their progress, both in terms of the game and in their learning. For me, this is the real objective of the class: to enable students to write a detailed, accurate report using a range of grammatical forms.

In summary, the students must work together to achieve a game objective and they must collaboratively write a situation report to help them remember what they are doing. The teacher is aiming to equip them with the functional language, so they can work together effectively and provide them with the language to write an accurate and detailed report of their activity.

Providing Input

I did try playing the game with little or no input beyond the game itself and reacting to the students needs as they arose. This worked but it was not the most efficient way to get them to interact and produce language as I wanted. It is better to provide them with rich and elaborate input  to help them understand how to play the game, what they need to discuss and also to provide them with a model for their own report. The easiest way is simply start playing the game yourself beforehand and write a report in the same way you intend the students to do. This way, you can reduce the initial load on the students by giving them a basic idea of what they are expected to do in the game and setting a few objectives which they must complete when they take over. The model report also provides them with a model which they can borrow from and look to while writing their own.

The collaborative element is much harder to provide input for. Ideally, you want a model showing students collaborating to play a similar game but this is perhaps hard to come by and the simplest solution may be to record a video of yourself and another person playing. alternatively you could forego the input for the first run and record the students later-stage interaction as the model for future classes.

Although I think the class works well without a model of interaction, I think it can definitely benefit students who are unsure how they are expected to work. Producing a short video demonstrating the desired interaction is not so difficult and of course, once recorded is there for every other time you run this class. A model report and a video model of interaction can provide rich and elaborate input from which the students can learn how to play, what they should be doing and writing and how they should be working together.

Outcomes

In my classes, during game play the need for collaborative language emerged very quickly and there were plenty of opportunities to provide emergent, functional lexis for cooperation and negotiation. The students were slow to collaborate simply because they had yet to fully understand the game and develop any strategies but after a few turns, the students began to request information from each other (and the teacher) and start clarifying and eliciting from each other. Then they started introducing suggestions and discussing options. Then they were able to discuss consequences and longer-term plans. The complexity of the discussion increased as the game progressed and as their knowledge about the game increased. This progression needed to be carefully scaffolded – I had to stop their discussion when it broke down, go to the board and provide them with the necessary (or corrected) language to facilitate their talk. By drip-feeding the students key functional language in this way, it was quite easy to introduce or direct the students to language increasing of complexity. For example when doing this with a low intermediate class, I was able to engender a good deal of complex language by encouraging the use of relatively simple lexis like 'in order to’, 'otherwise’ and 'if we don’t do that, then..’.

I also encouraged the students to use this language in the situation report. Added to this, the report regularly engendered questions about tense and aspect as many actions in the game remained unfinished within a turn and spanned several turns. The students began writing only in the present simple and past simple but as we continued, I was able to intervene while they were writing and make them aware of concrete instances when more accurate aspects could be used. Only a few iterations later, the complexity increased dramatically present perfect, present continuous and future forms abounded alongside the simple forms. Once encouraged to think about the form they were using, the students began to self-correct. My focus happened to be on aspect but this approach works equally well with other grammatical elements and can also be used to improve accuracy.

Getting the Students On Board

The students were discouragingly, but predictably, sceptical of the game and remained so even after I explained the benefits and learning outcomes. Their scepticism was not assuaged in the first two or three turns as the game seemed impossibly complex; it was full of baffling language and they had trouble knowing what to do and how to speak about it. However, once they became familiar with the basic concepts and had had a chance to build the report, they began to talk more and importantly, notice that they were talking more. The grammar and lexis issues that emerged from the report writing stage showed that we were still dealing with language and the concrete examples seemed to help them get to grips with the forms.

I also ran this lesson with a one-to-one business student and as we went through, it was very easy to demonstrate how the negotiation and discussion language as well as the report writing language was directly transferable to his work and although he too started off sceptical, he was in the end pleased with the results.

Issues and Cautions

The Total War class has worked surprisingly well for me and was relatively easy to prepare for and set up. That said, it is not without its limitations and of course won’t be possible in all classrooms. It worked very well in classes of 3 to 5 and in a one-to-one class but I feel beyond classes of six, it would require more computers and more copies of the game which dramatically increases the difficulty of running the class. There may be a work around for this but I can't see it myself.

The class also needs time to develop. Strategy games are complex and require the player to put in time and due diligence. English learners have an added layer of difficulty in the form of the game-specific language. Although the language they use while collaborating and writing the report might be high frequency and easily transferable, the language within the game might not be. The students have to be convinced that learning how to play a seemingly impenetrable game will help them learn and then it is important the students and teacher stick with it both to start achieving aims in the game and achieving the learning aims of the class.

I was not able to run the game classes for more than 10 hours but I can see how after a while the game - and therefore the communication and report writing - could become repetitive and boring. It is possible to increase the complexity and difficulty of the game to refresh gameplay but there will always be a point at which it will be difficult to provide new situations and new language. Having said that, I cannot think of any other class tasks or activities which have such a long and productive life span for such little initial prep work.

There is, of course, also the simple issue of having and playing the game in class. You do need a copy of the game (and in the case of Total War, an online Steam account) and a computer that has the specs to run it. Some games require an internet connection which adds another potential obstacle. Older versions of the game tend to be slightly simpler and require lower specs as well as being cheaper, all of which are important factors when thinking about how practical it is to try this class.

Why use it?

Only a very small percentage of students are ever likely to play strategy games so sometimes it’s a hard sell. However, it’s important to remember that learners can and do engage in activities that are not inherently interesting to them. I think using such a game provides an engaging and different way to develop a wide range of useful language within a context and with a defined purpose. To begin with, using a strategy game in class provides is clear set of objectives and a context for language use which goes beyond the simple 'practice’ of language. Students have choice and control of how they meet those objectives and the language needs emerge in response to the game and student action rather than being arbitrarily prompted by the teacher or a textbook.

Secondly, the functional language they are using is not for a dry, contrived dialogue but to carry out specific actions and achieve defined objectives that are situated in a broader context. The objectives themselves and the actions required to achieve them are constantly evolving within the game so even though the same functional lexis can repeated over and over again, each time it is a slightly new situation for the students. Each time, the language can be adapted or elaborated according to the situation which gives students an opportunity to consolidate their understanding of, and build, their lexis while maintaining task focus.

The same can be said of the language the students need for the situation report. For the report to be genuinely useful to them, it must be accurate and this provides many opportunities for students to think hard about the differences and subtleties of various aspects, forms and lexis. These elements are not looked at individually but can be looked at comparatively and can be seen within a meaningful context rather than in contrived examples. Many of the actions are similar and require the same forms again and again. Thus the students can consolidate their understanding of a variety of linguistic forms without repetitive exercises or even repeating a task.

At the end of each lesson, the teacher can point to the board and show the students the new functional language they were using and show them what forms we focused on. The teacher can point to the report and show how they were able to implement those forms and also show how their language has developed turn by turn. It is also easy to show how this language and these skills are transferable to many other real-life situations.

 

Total War is a well-designed and thoroughly engaging game, for me at least. There are, of course other variations of strategy games which might be more appealing to your students than a conquest game; for example, the SIMs, and plenty of other games which are easier to set up and play. Whatever you choose, what you get with using a strategy game in class is a clear, long-lasting objective (a task) and a context in which students have control, which provides regular opportunities for focusing on demonstrably transferable language, regular opportunities for consolidation of that language in both written and spoken form, and engender collaboration and negotiation of meaning between students. Into the bargain, playing a computer game like this is an easy way to vary the day to day class routine in an engaging way and in a way which doesn't require a huge amount of preparation. If you’re not sure how to use the game, you can always make that part of your class as your students might know a good deal more than you. So go play.