This review is part of a series of posts that examine different games for their usefulness in teaching ESL/EFL under a game-design enhanced approach to TBLT. Want to know more about that first? See this foundational post for background information and an actual example.
I have from time to time, played facebook games. I know to some gamers, that is.. like the most disgusting thing you can do. But I have found some of them fun and even, maybe.. engaging. Of those games, a certain genre generally gets my attention, the job simulator. These games put you in the position of worker, owner or designer of some sort of socially-acceptable job.
Unsurprisingly, jobs and work are often, very often, topics for second language learning and teaching (L2TL). This review then, is interested in discovering how well, if at all, casual job simulator games are for L2TL. this review will follow a basic format. First, I will explain basically the game and its core mechanics along with the communities that exist around the game. Then we will present an overall, table-form, evaluation of the main areas of game-design enhanced Task-based learning and teaching (TBLT) from Sykes & Reinhardt (2013). A detailed discussion of the evaluation follows with specific examples from the game. Part 2 of this review will discuss useful ways to leverage My Cafe: Recipes & Stories for L2TL.
So, for the purposes of this review, we are interested in two questions:
Q1) Using Sykes & Reinhardt’s criteria for game design enhanced TBLT, how useful is My Cafe for L2TL?
Q2) What is available in the attendant communities around the game that can be leveraged and support L2TL?
My Cafe: Recipes & Stories is a mobile, free-to-play, single-player, worker and resource management game. The name is apt, as you (the player) take the role of the new owner of a small cafe. The ultimate goal of the game is the superficial customization of the cafe to meet your desires. The main task of the game is the solving of simple puzzles through the mechanic of conversation dialogue choices. Recipes are the puzzles, and the conversations you have with customers are the directions and hints that help you know what recipes and what ingredients you need to make those recipes.
My Cafe is fairly new game, released in May of 2016. On the Apple Appstore, the game has a current rating of 4.5/5 stars from 1,124 reviews. This makes it fairly mid-range game in terms of popularity. It doesn’t make the lists for “popular games”, but if a player is interested in a worker/resource management game, My Cafe probably comes up. There is no metacritic score for the game.
Reviews from the Apple Appstore, while high, range in commentary. As can be seen in the image below, some feel the game is too slow, some love the game and, I think most informative, “iPhone 6+” says, “it’s ok. It helps pass time“.
Design and Mechanics
My Cafe employs basically three different assets, or resources, that the player must manage carefully in order to progress more quickly in the game. Importantly, there are no fail states in the game. There is no decision that the player makes that will lead to an end game. Instead, the boredom of being the same level (the star number represented in the top left corner) and the lack of interesting dialogue from the customers are the punishments for not managing your resources well enough.
Players will recognize money, represented by a gold coin in the top middle portion of their screen as the primary asset. Players gain money from selling products to their customers. They can also get coins in other ways by interacting with the customers in conversations. Money is used to buy new equipment and furniture for the cafe. The next asset are blue diamonds. It’s less clear what these are supposed to represent, but they are given to the player less frequently than coins and they don’t automatically accumulate like coins. The player must perform tasks and complete goals. the final and maybe most interesting asset are spices. Spices are used in specialty drinks and the player can only have so many at a time (such as the cappacino drink Koffsky wanted me to make in the picture above, with the spice ginseng). This leads to real problem-solving about which spices to have, how to use them and when to get more. Customers will pay hugely unrealistic amounts of money for a specialty drink with a spice (or two), making them very valuable to the player.
Narratively, the players primary task is discovering and making new drinks for their cafe and customers. Utilizing the assets mentioned, the player can learn which drinks to make by engaging their customers in conversation. Customers will tell the player what they want but also, what they would like to have. This mechanic alone drives the game forward and motivates the use of coins, diamonds and spices.
My Cafe Communities
Perhaps due to the casualness of the game, the online communities for My Cafe are limited mostly to the game’s facebook page. The community is centered around the game developer themselves to start and motivate interaction among people who play the game. Usually, the game developer will post a comment, activity or question to the players who follow the facebook page and then the players will comment, about many various and different things, on that same post, often ignoring the original intent of the post altogether.
Players on the community forum primarily do one of three things. The first, is complain or comment about some aspect of the game that they think should be changed or updated. Often the primary complaint players have with the game is the pace. The early game can be too slow for many players, but for end-game players, often it is the lack of interesting stories to keep them playing.
Besides complaining, players also share screenshots of their cafes and comment about the look of other players cafes. From the game perspective, this is good, since a primary motivator for playing is the individual creativity of designing your own cafe. The last major category of comments, and perhaps most interesting, are the requests for players to join townships. Townships represent the only multiplayer aspect of the game, in which several players can work together to earn rewards. These come from both the players that run townships and from players interested in joining them.
In addition to the facebook page, their are several player-created sites and youtube channels devoted entirely to showing how to install and use hacking tools to get unlimited coins and diamonds.
So, is My Cafe good for making game design enhanced TBLT lessons for L2TL? It’s a very mixed bag, from my view. I spent about one month playing the game consistently, at least 30 minutes a day. I never really could get into the game community and never participated in the facebook group. Though I did examine it for what people were talking about and the socialization processes that occurred there. I also participated in a few different townships (I was kicked out of many).
Anyway. The rest of this article will first provide a full, basic review followed by a more detailed analysis of specific aspects of the game. Finally, how My Cafe can be utlized for L2TL TBLT lessons will be addressed.
The Bottom (?) Line
Goals and Tasks
|Good – MyCafe has a good variety of tasks and goals that are interrelated and flow into larger goals.
Bad – Player has little choice about which tasks to do and when to do them.
|Good – The game has several different mechanisms that inform the player of the overall status and specific in-the-moment status.
Good – The game uses a combination of language, images and sounds to communicate their status to the player.
|Good – The ideational interactivity of the game is multimodal and immediate to the player.
Bad – Emergent narrative is possible, but the forced linear development of the game hinders player creativity.
Bad – Attendant communities are difficult to manage and very limited.
Context and Narrative
|Good – The game mechanics tie directly to the narrative of “owning” a cafe.
Good – Narrative stories directly tie to specific goals and their completion.
|Good – Learners who don’t like any failure will feel comfortable playing MyCafe.
Bad – Game is artificially limited by resources that are too difficult to gain to keep the player playing unless they pay money.
Bad – Lack of problem-solving in what is mostly a linear game.
As the table above shows, My Cafe has a few troubling aspects that, if teachers are going to use it, need to be addressed head on through wrap-around activities or other methods. What the game does a really good job of is contextualizing play and using the game mechanics well to simulate and give some player agency in being a cafe owner.
The goals, tasks and interactivity of the game have some problematic aspects, both related to the problem-solving and linearity of the game. Which is not to say that linear games are bad, definitely not, but hopefully the explanation below will explain why I think it makes it difficult for L2TL.
Finally, the main issue My Cafe will present for teachers and L2TL is player motivation. While it is certainly a casual game, and I don’t expect Dark Souls level of fail states, I think other job simulator games do a much better job of motivating players through more challenging puzzles or allowing more diverse paths through the game.
Cafe owner, not worker: Game Narrative and Context
Perhaps the best aspect of My Cafe is the narrative context. by that, I don’t necessarily mean the stories in the game, instead, I mean the context of having your own cafe. There are a few different ways games can simulate working. A great example is Cinema Panic, a browser game which puts players in the position of movie theater food server. The player’s goal is to serve all the customers, in a timely fashion, remembering who order what and when. All the while not making any customers angry. When playing a round (or should we say, working a shift?) the player needs to devote their time and attention to the individual tasks at hand in the game. Much like a real worker.
My Cafe is different and for good reason. In My Cafe, you are not a worker but the owner. The game mechanics, then, need to represent this difference of position. It does so by letting you hire workers, design the layout and then, you can basically let the game go by itself. Your workers will attend to customers who randomly come in without your help. You will gain money just by having the game open (and for about an hour after you close the game, it will continue to run). See the video below for an example of how the game does this.
But not all owners are detached from the day to day activities of their businesses. Some cafe owners want to also be the barista, taking customer orders and pulling espresso shots. In terms of player-directed decisions, it is this aspect that My Cafe gets right. While you will have a barista, the player is free to fulfill all the orders they can, or, to not fill any orders. Either way, the game will progress, though there are specific things the game wants the player to do to make the game go faster.
The Problem of Superficial “Creativity”: Goals, Tasks and Interactivity
To be sure, the tasks in My Cafe are designed with thought and they do interrelate which is an important feature for creating both moment-by-moment engagement with the task-at-hand and also more global goals. Also important, the tasks are fairly simple and repetitive. The basic task cycle in My Cafe has four basic steps: 1) use money to buy equipment, furniture and employees, 2) sell coffee and other items to customers 3) listen to customers wants and 4) buy the items that will fulfill customer needs with the assets gained.
The inter-dependant need to complete all four tasks is an excellent use of tasks and goals that will motivate players and for L2TL, provide opportunities for exploration of language and noticing of new language features. For example, below is a montage of shots that follow task cycle to achieve the goal of buying a new table and exploring a specific kind of style, “vintage”. In this little task cycle, Petrovich, a regular customer, wants to reconnect with his ex-wife and thinks your cafe would be a good place for such a meeting. His only request is that you set up a more… romantic table for him.
The player then needs to figure out which kind of table will meet Petrovich’s standard. His, very noticeable, hint is the word “vintage“. The task design emphasizes this word in an interesting way, he forgets it, searches for it, then finally remembers. This holds the players attention to the word “vintage”. Now they need to go find a table that fits it.
Now, at this point there is one more step that needs to be done, put a “romantic” candle on the table. But, if a player forgets this step and goes to Petrovich to trigger his romantic date, he will remind the player of the missing item.
Now the player goes back through the steps of buying a candle for the table. But make sure it’s “romantic”!
With the “buying” task complete, Petrovich is ready to reward the player’s help with two blue diamonds. A useful resource for other things in the game.
This little Petrovich task cycle demonstrates how My Cafe uses its tasks and goals through ideational interactivity (interaction with the game mechanics) well. It requires the player to learn the important steps in the cycle and attend to the important parts of the dialogue in order to know what exactly needs to be purchased in order to get the reward. This task is very useful for noticing and learning new vocabulary items.
While the tasks relate to goals and require the player to interact will with the game mechanics, there is very little player-driven choices in the game. Instead, the game leads the player along a very linear path with the hopeful end point that the player can design and create their own cafe superficially. This is important. The creativity in the game is not in the making of your own cafe, instead, it is in the ability to design, organize and decorate your own cafe. Everything else is very linear.
Consider the opening of the game. Every player starts the game by hiring a barista, setting up a counter and stool and then a tea machine. For tutorial purposes this ok, however, My cafe would not start as a tea shop. I want to start as an espresso shop, or drip coffee (not even a option) shop.
You see the problem here. Now, the game mechanics and inter-relation of stories and recipes may make this more difficult to design. Customers come into the shop with specific items the want to drink based on the level of the player. But this is more of a procedural problem. For example, if I start my game as an espresso bar, the customers might be given restrictions to espresso drinks in their design.
This then also directly relates to the problem of interactivity. In particular, the problem of emergent interactivity and in player-to-player (p2p) interactions outside the game. My Cafe is advertised as the player’s personal expression in cafe form. The interaction between the players mind and the game design then, should lead to very divergent and interesting emergent narratives and designs. However, this type of interaction is limited by the overly linear progression of the game.
This can actually be seen in the types of p2p interactions that do occur in the attendant discourse, which as mentioned above, occur in basically three types. One of which is the sharing of your cafe “style”.
The My in My Cafe, then, is a superficial my. And while there is a fair amount of variation and styles that the game provides, actually simulating the experience of owning and operating a cafe does not go below the surface level of color arrangements and seating charts. In a way, My Cafe is more “interior decorator” simulation than cafe simulator. And the types of conversations that emerge on the facebook group tend to support that idea.
But is linearity and superficial creativity really a problem?: Motivation
However, because My Cafe is, it seems, built as a “non-linear” game, where the player chooses how to make their cafe, the problem-solving of the game is very weak. What I mean by this is not that the problems are too easy, but instead something else. The conversations with the customers require, often, almost no problem solving. They tell the player exactly what they need to do. In some specific cases, like the Petrovich example above, there is a bit of problem-solving. Those are the best examples in the game.
Now, the real problem this introduces is not in the area of tasks and goals. Instead, a linear game with weak problem-solving is a problem for motivation. By largely ignoring fail states and not including any creative puzzles, My Cafe limits its own ability to keep players engaged and in a state of flow.
In Marc Prensky’s 2001 book Digital game-based learning, he notes 12 ways games motivate players and why they are good for learning.
Of the 12 ways, My Cafe only really accomplishes 8 of these items. The other 4 are questionable or clearly not there in the game. What My Cafe does have are: a form of fun, play, rules, goals, interaction, feedback and creativity. What it does not have are: adaptive gameplay, win states, conflict and interaction. According to this list the, what is missing primarily from My Cafe are: Flow (extended periods of time where the player is purely in the “moment”, loss of self-consciousness), ego gratification, adrenaline and social groups. Those four aspects fit my overall critique of the game well.
And it is not simply the case that so-called “casual” games have this problem. Other job simulator games like Stardew Valley (farming, life simulator) or the facebook game Ballpark Empire both find ways to incorporate these “superficial creativity” aspects, but also the player has much more freedom in expression through a variety of other tasks and puzzles.
By ignoring win-states and adaptive and dynamic game mechanics, My Cafe will bore many gamers after only a short time. And without real out-of-game social groups that are player-organized, there is very little to discuss when not playing the game. This takes us back, I think to the review from the Appstore at the beginning of this review. My Cafe is alright, it helps pass the time.
My time playing My Cafe led me to think very seriously about what it might be like to own a cafe. And for that reason alone, it was worth the time I spent playing it. I enjoyed thoroughly the mechanics that emphasized this narrative and it was fun to explore the different ways to perhaps manage a cafe. I think it has usefulness for learners in the L2TL classroom.
However, if educators are going to use My Cafe: Recipes and Stories, they will need to confront the problematic areas, namely: interactivity, goals and tasks and motivation. I think this can be done however and in ways that will meet and probably even exceed traditional L2TL pedagogical standards and goals. Part 2 of this review will be my thoughts on how to use My Cafe (and other job simulators) to teach language learners.