A Dice Does Not a (Good) Game Make

A Dice

In the field of ESL/EFL it is common to see “board games” where the students roll a dice and then answer the questions in English on the squares that they land on. These games are incredibly popular and it is rare to find a book without them. The students seem to enjoy them with teachers reporting high levels of engagement.

But are they good games?

In the area of player choice they are lacking. The game relies completely on randomness to decide who progresses and at what speed. This increases it’s re-playability but only up to a point. Once the student recognizes that there is no strategy or tactics, there will be a drop of in engagement. Most people have moved beyond these simple random games by the time the reach 12 or so.

In the area of uncertainty it leverages randomness (What number will I roll? Will I finish first?) and production uncertainty (Will I be able to answer the question?). This encourages some engagement as the player has to confront the uncertainty. But in many regards the game is almost identical to being handed a list of questions to ask and answer at random. It is only the introduction of the race element that in fact distinguishes it from this activity.

It does leverage the game board and aesthetics to try to persuade a student that they are not engaged in “work”.

The conclusion from looking at the three areas above is that the standard ESL board game is not a very good game. In many regards the simple board game is a fine example of gamewashing. This is where the teacher adds game elements specifically to disguise an otherwise boring activity.

So why do students find them so enjoyable?

There is a saying “hunger makes the best salt.” In most classrooms students are so starved for activities that they can take ownership of, and that engage them, that they will take any opportunity for engagement whether good, bad or indifferent.

The success of these styles of activities are not a testament to how well they engage students, but to how badly the rest of teaching does.

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One Response

  1. I teach ESL grades 1-6 in Thailand (I’m a Peace Corps volunteer) and considering board games for my students. I like that you state that “Most people have moved beyond these simple random games by the time the reach 12 or so.” because those are exactly the students I teach.

    “But in many regards the game is almost identical to being handed a list of questions to ask and answer at random.” Ah, but that’s the key – although the essence and outcome are the same, to a student, answering a list of questions (like a test) is very, very different than playing a board game – even though as teachers we know its the same. I look at my board games as more a warm-up or a pre-test before the “boring” paper questions.

    Another key difference is that with written questions, reading and writing are the skills tested. With a board game, there is a lot more speaking and listening. So when combining a board game as a warm-up to written questions, I can hit all 4 skills needed for language learning.

    But it also makes me think that to help my students as they get older, I should start transitioning them from ESL board games to those with more engagement, especially my 6th grade students.

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