The Internet TESL Journal

Making ESL/EFL Classroom Activities More Game-like

Stephan J. Franciosi
steve.franciosi (at)
Doshisha Women’s College of Liberal Arts (Kyoto, Japan)


Teachers practicing task-based learning styles of instruction, especially those interested in making classroom activities more interesting for students, would benefit by taking a look at such activities through the lens of computer game design. Activities commonly used by ESL/EFL instructors are actually very similar to computer games in that both are goal-oriented and rule-driven processes designed to engage participants with challenges. While the respective purposes may seem different (for the teacher it is to educate, for the game designer it is to entertain), the ultimate effect is the same; students/players learn (improve their skill level) by doing (Squire and Jenkins 2004). Since the goal of a game designer is to create as appealing an experience as possible, and since most teachers would agree that an interesting classroom activity is desirable, I suggest that ESL/EFL instructors could benefit by being aware of some theoretical concepts in the field of game design.

I devised the following as a simple checklist for evaluating or modifying classroom activities. The items are based on game design literature, in particular Koster's (2005) list of features shared by historically popular games (120), and Salen and Zimmerman's (2004) discussion on what motivates us to participate in game-like activities (337). They are also partially intended as a summary of the theory (readers interested in learning more about educational computer game applications online are referred to the blog links in the reference section). In order to illustrate the major concepts incorporated in the questions, I will show how a commonly used classroom activity, the cloze task, could and should be more like computer games by showing the computer
game application of each item, elaborating on the theory behind it, and discussing the application for classroom activities.

Are the Goals Clear and Achievable?

Game Design

An important characteristic of computer games, and arcade games in particular, is that they are all very easy to begin with. The controls are basic, with a single joystick and maybe one or two buttons. The goals are clear, and the actions taken to achieve the goals (jump, shoot, and run) are relatively few and evident. The zombies, demons, or mushroom-people that your avatar must initially face are few and easily defeated. Arcade games especially are intentionally designed this way to entice players, and get them to deposit that first coin. Players put their first coin in because they perceive the goals of the game to be achievable, and this first impression also helps to keep them at the console dropping in more coins. A classroom activity with the same ability to motivate students at the outset would be desirable.


Both games and classroom activities involve goals and actions undertaken to achieve the goals, but there is an important difference between teachers and game designers with regard to how goals and actions are treated. Whereas teachers may lump goals and actions together under the label of "task" (where "task" implies the challenging aspect of an activity), game designers would regard goals and actions as the "core mechanic," making a clear distinction from the "challenges." One reason for treating the core mechanic and challenges separately is that doing so allows for a more elegant design of challenges (see the next section). Another reason is that it allows for a relatively clear and accessible core mechanic, so novices can more easily access an activity.


The core mechanic of a cloze activity is relatively clear, but some attention may need to be given to its achievability, especially at the outset. The core mechanic is clear because the goal (completing a sample text) and actions undertaken to achieve it (filling in blanks with missing words or phrases) are concrete, quantifiable and intuitive. Removing the challenges from the core mechanic may entail using grammar and vocabulary slightly below the level of targeted students, limiting the number of cloze items, providing a list of answers, and so on. The point is to start with a cloze activity that students could complete without much difficulty. However, this is not to suggest that the entire activity should be easy, only that an activity that begins at as simple a level as possible has more potential to entice students in. Challenges are worked in later to keep participants engaged.

Are There Multiple Challenges that Are Integrated and Incremental?

Game Design

The standard design for computer games resembles a flight of stairs. There is a series of short-term goals (e.g., a number of slow-moving zombies to vanquish in order to get through the courtyard to the keep) interweaving "higher order" goals (a powerful demon guarding the gate of the keep). And of course, once you are in the keep, there will be more fleet-footed zombies in the lower levels that you must overcome in order to get to the next gate, where there will be an even more powerful demon waiting for you. The purpose of this hierarchy of goals is to keep players dropping coins in the machine by providing them with a sense of progress and/or accomplishment. However, this structure also serves to facilitate learning by keeping players working at overcoming challenges long enough to increase their skill level. A classroom activity with the same ability to entice learners through their skill acquisition experience would be desirable.


An activity should have a range of challenges (obstacles that must be overcome in order to achieve goals) that are integrated (share a salient feature) and that become incrementally more difficult. Challenges are integrated so that aptitude at overcoming them will increase through practice in the course of an activity. Challenges are incrementally more difficult, and ideally, the level of difficulty of the challenges increases in tandem with the skill level of participants. The reason is that if the challenges become too easy too quickly, then the activity becomes boring, but conversely a sudden increase in the level of difficulty will frustrate participants. Either boredom or frustration harms interest in an activity.


There are several ways to incorporate a range of integrated and incremental challenges in a cloze activity. One way would be to use a single sample text with multiple cloze items, each constituting a separate challenge. The challenges could easily be integrated by focusing on either structural categories such as nouns, verbs, prepositional phrases, etc., or topic-related vocabulary, rather than selecting cloze items at random. The items could be made incrementally more difficult by delving into the discourse of the text to ensure, by purely linguistic criteria, that earlier items are easier than later items. However, I have found it simpler to work with higher orders of challenges in that, rather than using one long cloze passage, I have students complete shorter, increasingly challenging passages in a series of "rounds." Each passage in a round constitutes a challenge on a higher order than an individual cloze item. The passages are easily made incrementally more difficult in a variety of ways that are clear to participants and manageable for teachers, such as imposing an increasingly shorter time limit for completion, or creating a greater number of cloze items. Numerous parameters could be manipulated, but there is also an important principle to keep in mind when tweaking difficulty levels.

Maintaining a proper challenge/skill balance is relatively easy with competitive games that pit the skill of one competitor (group or individual) against another (e.g., having participants race against each other to complete cloze passages). Assuming that competitors are evenly matched at the outset, their respective skill levels will increase at about the same rate, thus the challenge (to beat the other competitor) will always be roughly appropriate for the skill level. Cooperative tasks, on the other hand, are trickier because the rate of skill-increase has to be anticipated and built into the task. I have found it useful to build in a mechanism whereby the difficulty level can be adjusted mid-task. For example, in a series of cloze rounds, teachers might want to prepare 10 cloze passages with small increases in difficulty. If students start to look bored by, say, the third round, a teacher could then skip ahead to round five or higher, depending on the perceived level of boredom (or frustration).

Do the Participants Have to Make Strategic Decisions?

Game Design

Computer games typically offer an environment rich in meaningful choices. Behind each closed door, an enemy could be waiting in ambush, or a power-up potion could offer extended life. A mushroom-person could be jumped over and passed, or it could be knocked off the parapet with the skillful toss of a red ball. Open the door, or not? Which skill to apply and when? These choices give players a stake in the game by making them responsible for either success or failure. These choices may also facilitate computer addiction, which some may decry, but who would argue against an addicting classroom activity when it might help solve the indelible issue of student motivation?


Participants in an activity should not be able to rely on a single "trump" skill to overcome every challenge presented to them. Rather, participation should entail strategic decision-making that ultimately determines an outcome. A choice-rich environment is more interesting than a straight-up test of a single skill because decision-making enhances the perception of control over the outcome. Another reason, which applies to group work in particular, is that a choice-rich environment increases opportunity for participation. For example, if English aptitude were all that was required to successfully complete a cloze challenge, then students working in pairs or groups would have a very strong incentive to over-rely on the member with the highest level of English aptitude. However, if a pair or group were required to call on a range of skills, and further required to make strategic decisions as to which skill to employ at various points in the activity, then there would be more chances for all members to contribute. 


There are a variety of ways to create decision-making opportunities in a classroom activity. In our series of cloze rounds example, the cloze answers could be provided on cards in a deck. Students could opt to draw cards from the deck during the activity with a point or time penalty. Another technique would be to provide each group or individual working on the activity a hand of cards, and allowing them to draw cards or negotiate swaps with other participants. This could happen during the activity, or card negotiation/swap/draw sessions could be conducted before each round. Another way of creating choices in the context of a time limit is to allow students to "buy" time off the clock before the rounds begin. They could be allowed to trade seconds for points, so that the more seconds they get the fewer points a completed task is worth. In short, just about any parameter for determining the difficulty of a particular challenge can be worked into a mechanism for creating meaningful choices for participants.

Is the Outcome Uncertain?

Game Design

There are computer games, and there are computer simulators. Outwardly, they may appear very similar in terms of graphics and controls, but there is an important difference which can be illustrated with the following scenarios. If an experienced airline pilot walked into a flight simulator to practice a routine landing, it is a simulator because a safe landing is almost a certainty. On the other hand, if I walked into the same flight simulator to practice a routine landing, then it is a game because there is no guarantee of a safe landing, and a very good chance that the simulated flight ends in disaster. In other words, a difference between games and simulations is the level of certainty in a successful outcome. Incidentally, since I would probably find the flight simulator experience much more "exhilarating" than the experienced airline pilot, we can also assume that games are more "interesting" than simulations.


It may seem counter intuitive to suggest that participants should have control over the outcome of an activity through meaningful choices, but at the same time suggest that the outcome be uncertain. However, according to Salen and Zimmerman (ibid), this "paradox" is an important element of an interesting activity. The strategic decisions that participants make must be meaningful, because if they are equivocal then there is no perceived control. On the other hand, if the choices are obvious, then participation becomes menial. Therefore, the outcome must be uncertain to the extent that participants can only increase their odds of success by making good choices.


Two simple ways to make the outcome of an activity uncertain are by making it competitive, and by using chance. A competitive activity has an uncertain outcome if competitors are evenly matched. Teams chosen at random or in turns by captains reduce the odds that an overwhelmingly strong team will be created, and handicaps can be assigned when individuals compete. In non-competitive or cooperative activities, chance can be used to create uncertainty. In our cloze example where answers are provided on cards, chance could easily be incorporated by including "wild" cards. Such random elements are often used in games, but leaving outcomes completely to chance is not desirable because it negates participant-control. The point is to introduce enough uncertainty to make an activity interesting, but not so much that participant skill counts for nothing.


The purpose of this article was to provide a different perspective on an activity commonly used in task-based learning with the intention of helping teachers devise more engaging tasks for their students. Four common characteristics of computer games were introduced, and ways of incorporating the same concepts into a familiar classroom activity were discussed. Those are:
The concepts introduced here can be used on any activity that is goal-oriented and rule-driven. Being aware of them could, I hope, result in an easy modification somewhere which could, in turn, result in a more interesting activity.


Books and Articles:


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XVI, No. 2, February 2010