Bridging the digital-tabletop divide and why it’s a good idea

1. Introduction

The theories of language learning and the pedagogical practices I work through deal almost exclusively with the content of digital language learning. Internet-based social language learning in CALL or MALL or whatever other area is an exciting place to practice language learning and teaching.

In my own Vygostkian sociocultural theoretic practice, the main theorists and practitioners I lean on with my gaming classes deal almost exclusively with the digital gaming sociocultural spaces. If you have been here before, you know that I write and review on both digital and tabletop games and their implications for classroom-based learning situations.  Others also deal with tabletop gaming (a more traditional and established practice), and as the traditional tabletop practices are augmented with digital tools like Learner-Management Resources and internet-based tools, we are now at a place where the mixing of both the digital and the tabletop is a real possibility, if of course, it is a good idea.

It is my preliminary feeling that it is indeed a good idea to mix digital and tabletop gaming in a classroom-based teaching environment. Here, I will attempt to explain why I am leaning that direction with some reflections from classes I am currently teaching.

What I’ll attempt to expound on is:

1) the advantage of digital games is the ability to off-load the cognitive burden of the game-mechanics and rules to a computer, freeing the player to explore the game and collect linguistic tools.

2) Tabletop games promote the cognitively deep-processing of game rules, mechanics and language into one complete social practice.

3) That digital games that have tabletop variants allow for longer play periods and more variety in engagement than either one does alone.

2. Language learning and social practice learning

James Paul Gee, one of the foundational scholars I look to for theoretical support in language learning often says, “all learning is language learning.” What he means by this is, unsurprisingly, very complex for such a short sentence. And it would be irresponsible to simply unload this sentence on people in an attempt to appear smart. Part of what he means is that our ability to learn language and our increased cognition as we grow older are intertwined.

Decontextualized language learning
In his book Situated Language and Learning: A critique of traditional Schooling, Gee describes a primary problem with phonics-oriented approaches to literacy– it ignores the social-side of “good” readers. Gee goes into extensive detail, in more than one of his books, describing the way some children are socialized in their families to be pre-academic-literate.

The families usually talk in the ways that we expect elementary school students will eventually write it and value the kinds of language that they will eventually be asked to produce in school. In particular, they are able to summarize cause and effect without repetition. Students whose families don’t have social practices that are related to what will eventually be the kind of academic language they are required to do at school not only fall behind, but are often misunderstood by their teachers. The kind of language patterns and skills that are often valued in their homes is often misunderstood by their teachers as irrelevant, or rambling. I recommend the interested reader go to Gee’s books for a fuller report than I am going to spend here.

Situated-embodied cognition
Gee, and others like him, recommend a different approach to literacy that goes beyond the decoding-whole word debate. These two ideas, both important to literacy, miss the point of literacy, which is the doing of things. Instead of treating reading as a subject itself to be learned, Gee recommends reading as a tool-to-do-things.

His go-to example, from his own experience, has to do with video game manuals. Anyone who plays video game manuals knows that no one reads them. All the information about how to play the game, tips, tricks and a lot of other useful information is in the manual, but rarely does anyone open the manual first. When Gee opened up a video game manual to play a game, he realized he could barely understand anything. He recognized the words of course, but their meanings were completely opaque.

This, to Gee, is because he had no experience with the game itself. The words and their meanings were lost on him until he had experience with the game. Games are not meant to be read and then played.  Instead, players start by playing the game. A good video game will teach you how to play it, by playing it. Once you have some experience with the game, the manual suddenly makes more sense. And the more you play and familiarize yourself with the mechanics, controls, and story of the game, the more the manual and its words and meanings, will make sense.

This entwining of literacies, of game literacy and manual-reading literacy, through time, is situated cognition or embodied cognition. For language teachers, the main idea of this theory is that cognitive meaning is derived from specific animal-environmental interaction and experience. As you experience a thing, you become better at reading (i.e. abstracting) about that thing and as you abstract about a thing, the better you become at doing that thing. Entwining.

3. Praxis

This idea, if right, brings us to an interesting problem for tabletop game-enhanced language teaching. For the most part, tabletop games have extensive rule books and manuals that should be understood by players before they play. In contrast, video games automate most of that information, letting the player experience the game without worrying about the specifics too much. Tabletop games require the player to be the computer, running the game rules and logic, in addition to the player.

In most tabletop games I have played, it is not the case that players sit down and read the manual start to finish and then play the game. Instead, it’s usually a mix of setting-up, reading, starting, hitting a problem, reading, continuing on. This is actually how Gee would predict reading would work in tabletop games. However, it can be quite laborious to play a game this way, especially if no one at the table has played the game before.

In a previous post, I suggested that the slow-unfolding of rules in tabletop games like Charterstone may be a way for tabletop games to introduce a digital-like tutorial to their games, where players don’t need to read a huge amount of rules before they get a lot of experience with the game. I have since realized (through playing charterstone) that I was overly optimistic about this.

There are tabletop games, however, with digital versions that can be played against computer opponents. These types of games provide an excellent example of digital/tabletop cross-overs that can be utilized for L2TL. An example of this is the game Coup. (which I have written about before). For the teacher considering the leveraging of digital games to improve the understanding of tabletop games, there are still a variety of classroom activities that can be taken to improve language learning. In particular, following a BA model, the students’ classroom activities should orient the students towards recognizing important information (actions, rules or strategies) in the game that will help them be successful. The teacher should allow the student to examine and contrast that information across a variety of instances and contexts and finally, students should get opportunities to language about the game and their experience.

What follows is a basic reflection that attempts to capture a pedagogical attempt to guide students towards understanding Coup without explicitly telling the students the rules of Coup.

Class time: 50 minutes / once a week
Students: 20 in total, mostly male

Introducing Coup

Objectives: To be able to navigate and use 1) google classroom 2) google forms and 3) the digital version of Coup through guided exploration and peer-to-peer observation.

The introductory class hour for my gaming class involves a lot technological preparation. The students are introduced to their Learner Management System and they complete a simple assignment to make sure they understand how to navigate it. Then the rest of class is devoted to making sure everyone has access to a digital version of Coup. This means downloading the application or navigating to the web browser version.

The students’ primary task at this point is to do two things: 1) play through the tutorials for Coup and 2) add their classmates as friends. After they do those two things, I let them simply explore the game with each other. I find I don’t have to ask them to work together, and some rare students choose to play alone, but my observations showed that students were able to explore much more of the game if they were watching and playing with another person.

For homework, the students were asked to play at least one game of Coup (between 5 minutes to 15 minutes depending) and to play as much as they wanted. They then completed a short reflection assignment through Google Forms.

What we can expect from this homework assignment is a wide variety of 1) engagement 2) understanding of the game and 3) language familiarity. From an assessment perspective, I was looking for students to express an emotion about the game itself. A bad response to me is apathy at this point, which some students did express.

For engagement about half of the students played 1 or 2 games the first week. The other half played between 3 and 10 games. Many of the students were frustrated with the game because of: a) an inability to understand the language b) their interest in the game itself. There seemed to be a clear correlation between how many games students played, their enjoyment of the game and their understanding of the game.

coup #1
Examples of basic, important words in the game. By asking about the different cards, students need to know if they have or haven’t seen them.

Coup – Identifying important words and mechanics

Objectives: Students will be able to identify important cards and associate them with specific actions in the game through a joint recreation of the “player card” and then using that player card to play and understand the actions in a digital game.

The second class was interested in making sure the students at least understood the words and mechanics that are important for taking actions in a game. We didn’t worry about deeper understanding or strategy at this point, just making sure the students knew what the actions meant (definitions). This was done by giving the students a blank version of the player reference card.

Students did a think-pair-share type approach where they wrote down as much information as they knew (which was often very little, because many of them played the game very little). They then compared and added to their lists with their table. Finally as a class, we made sure everyone had the information on the player card.

Students then used that information to describe what happened during a game of Coup. The students had three tasks. 1) play a game of coup with a partner. 2) write down every action they took in the game. 3) describe the effect of that action in the game. Students played in pairs so that one student could focus on the game and the other student would note-take. The partner-regulation helped both player and note-taker complete the tasks.

The purpose of the task is to have students apply and get a situated understanding of the words we had been talking about in the first part of class. Any teacher will notice that this is a very traditional approach to teaching. 1) teach words 2) apply words to a context. The different in this case is that the words and the context are all authentically being used in a real-life situation. They are really using the words to do something real– play the game.

For homework, the students would play the game again and continue doing the same note-taking activity for at least three games. This would give the students practice and importantly, an opportunity to see how the same action can have a variety of different outcomes in the game, thus developing a better sense of the rules and strategy.

It was expected that the students would be able to play the digital game of Coup without any help, though they may not totally understand why they won or lost. They would be able to recognize and help set-up a game of Coup. Second, they would be able to describe actions that have taken place in a game of Coup.

15380050954915892213164931575321 - 초환
An example of the note-taking activity from this lesson. The student’s play the game and then record what happened.

Coup – Introducing the tabletop version

Objectives: Students will be able to play a tabletop game of Coup using the game knowledge they have built  from previous classes and collaboratively building a list of phrases they can say when it is their turn in the game.

In the third class, the goal is for the students to set-up and play a game of Coup without the teacher explaining any of the rules or set-up. As a learning task, before they played students were asked to brainstorm examples of things they could say to perform actions on their turn following a simple example from the teacher.

Students worked together to come up with at least one thing they could say to perform every action. Then, students were organized into players and note-takers. Five students would play and another five would note-take on one player in particular. In addition, the note-taker could help their player if they needed it. The note-taker’s task was to listen to their partner and write down exactly what they said during their turns, keeping track of any errors.

For homework, the students were also asked to record their games and then listen back to them. Students would do the same activity again and then also listen for anything they said in Korean during the game. They would write those things down, then translate them into their best guess in English.

It was expected that students would be able to self-organize the game of Coup without help from the teacher. This was largely confirmed. While not all students understood the rules or set-up of the game, there were enough that a traditional experienced-novice tabletop experience could be had. If a novice player had trouble, the students that understood could explain without difficulty.

coup #3
An example of a google doc that students complete to note-take on their own performance. Students can see if the words they planned to use are actually used in their game, along with other types of words (non-English in particular).

4. Conclusion

Overall, the students were able to learn the rules of Coup without me, the expert, telling the students anything about how the game works. Through a system of 1) the digital game 2) more motivated students and 3) classroom activities related to the language of the game, the students were able to create their own small expert-novice groups and able to play the game, in English, without explicit instruction by the teacher.

A Word About Failure
One thing I would point out is the frustration a lot of students felt through this process. Many of the students felt an undue amount of stress because they didn’t understand the game from the beginning or felt the language input was too high. This led some of the students with more fixed mindsets to turn off or disengage with both the class activities and the game itself.

The environmental situation might inform us about why. I am a new teacher for these students and they would have probably benefited from more “get to know you” time with more comfortable activities. I, the teacher, was under a lot of time pressure since I started this project late. I missed 2 weeks with the students.

As I noticed the students frustration rise, I tried to intervene with basic understandings about the class, that failing to do something was ok and that their effort to try both the game and the classroom activities are all that are expected. For me, their development over the semester is the indication of success, measured by their ability to interact with the game, the game communities and to be able to talk about the game.

The students activity toward the class has been changing as we go, but they are still quite oriented towards the standardized tests that they also have to take, even though my class makes up a very small portion of their test grade.

While I believe the pedagogy shows that the students can learn the game and set up expert-novice learning situations very quickly through the use of both digital and tabletop games, the frustration that is engendered is best avoided through the establishment of clear expectations.

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