Question Quest and the Art of Gamifying Education

by kaminazo


I live in Japan, and one of the only full-time employment opportunities for foreigners is teaching English. So, I became an assistant language teacher, or ALT. It’s really hard. Really, really hard. And it’s taken time away from making the games and mods I’m used to. But in the process, I’ve had to create educational games, worksheets and gamified activities for students to build their skills in the classroom, while keeping them engaged. It’s excellent practice for game design.

Right now the trend in ESL/EFL instruction in Japan is changing. In the past it has been really popular for ALT’s to be a sort of game master: always in charge of preparing games for students to play. More recently, we’ve found ways of combining them with a particular grammar point they’ve covered in the textbook. These games include things like Go Fish and Crazy Eights. I’ve also done variations on Battleship, Jeopardy, Uno, Guess Who, Bingo, and a slough of other games. Teachers like them because the kids aren’t bored, but they’re using the grammar. Students like them because they get to do something fun in class with their friends that doesn’t involve listening to a teacher blab on for an hour. But, the educational community is becoming increasingly anti-game in the classroom.

Why doesn’t academia like games? There are a few reasons.

First, most popular games are (at their core) anti-educational. They are based on the premise that you play them to compete and win. To escape real life. To do things that are taboo, unacceptable, or completely impossible in the real world. The majority of the most popular games of the past couple of years are won by killing and stealing things (Battlefield 4, Assassin’s Creed 4, Grand Theft Auto 5). The rest, aside from two or three, are won by exploring an impossible fantasy world with an unrealistic or fictional character (Final Fantasy XIV, BioShock Infinite, Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds).  If you notice, every one of these games is a sequel: a testament to the popularity of their genre. The acts of killing and stealing are not in line with current morality education even if they are fun because we SHOULDN’T do them in real life. Moreover, the fantastical settings are engaging because we CAN’T go there in real life. Those things are only done for entertainment.

Second, games require an investment of time and money. The teacher has to take the time to teach the rules of a game, and hope that all the students (regardless of level) understand and can perform. For more complex games, this can take away from the time they are actually able to learn the target information. Also, games require materials. Sometimes those materials are expensive and/or can’t be changed to fit a particular lesson unless they’re hand-made. Ten Uno decks per class per school adds up quickly. Administrators may not be keen on the idea of budgeting money for games and teachers don’t have time to design, create, and implement a new game for every lesson.

Third, research shows that the retention rate of information through game-taught methods of learning is the same as lecturing, around 20%. This is quite low when compared to task-based learning, 60%, and self-directed study, 80%, and teaching the material to someone else, 90%. (I took these figures from a lecture by a professor at Fukuoka University which I saw recently.) Of course we want students to retain information. This signifies to me that the games are being used improperly in the classroom: 1) by a lazy teacher to only occupy students, 2) to take the place of introducing new information, 3) to do something other than express practice of what they’ve already studied. The other problem might be that the games used for this research were ineffective examples of “gamified activities for retaining information.” What does UNO really teach? A) How to have group conversation? B) How to use colors and numbers? C) Nothing. It’s just a game of random chance to pass time. The last and potentially most important correlation to the above percentages is that students retain more information the more responsibility they are given to direct their own learning. This can only be achieved through motivation, goals, and tasks. This is where game design becomes very important.

Fourth, students become more invested in winning a game than succeeding at the language. Students will perfect a strategy of using the required words or phrases to gain points, minimize their real understanding of those words or phrases, and sacrifice any genuine input or original thought for efficiency. A friend of mine giving a seminar on gamification said it best,

“Students will always take the path of least resistance. Design your games in a way that encourages them to be creative without cutting corners. They will always spot and exploit your game’s flaws and use them to their advantage. A game that is both fun and challenging will create perpetual motivation. It’s our job to make that happen while still cramming all the essential knowledge we can into it as well. We must essentially trick our students into learning.”

As designers, we have to be diligent in achieving a seamless duality between motivation and knowledge retention/application. Some games tend to take the language out of its context and place it where it can be used solely for entertainment. It’s like giving a kid a hammer and telling them to hit as many nails into a board as they can in one hour. Now they know how to build a house, right?

I just did a lesson on gerunds and we played Battleship. The grid was made up of six rows and six columns. Each row had a question starter, such as “Do you like~.” Each column had an object in present simple tense, such as “play tennis.” Player one would ask “Do you like playing tennis?” (changing the grammar to use a gerund) Player two would respond “Yes, I do like playing tennis.” if their ship occupied that square, or “No, I don’t like playing tennis.” if their ship wasn’t there. The game was good for pattern practice, and the students were engaged in the activity, but what did they actually learn? Can they understand what it means to “enjoy making lunch”? Do they know in what context in real life they would ever say “I started studying English.”? If I ask them in a week to make a gerund sentence using “finish” and “brush my teeth” will they be able to do it? But can they sink their opponent’s imaginary ship on a grid by connecting two phrases: yes.

Where games do succeed is at their ability to portray amazing narratives filled with artistic creativity and task-based problem-solving. They are already engaging, so kids won’t need convincing. It’s adults who need the convincing. I believe that with the proper design, these aspects of games can be utilized for effective education. But, in order to succeed, there will  be a lot of convincing to show theorists that a game can be student-centered, focus on cooperation and healthy competition, use conversation in a meaningful, genuine way that promotes original ideas, and provide situational context so that the students will remember how to use the grammar and apply it in real life.

That’s where Question Quest enters the picture.

Question Quest is a card game specifically designed for teaching EFL and promoting conversational English. I was recently introduced to the creator of Question Quest, Sean Anderson. He is also the founder of Quest Maker Media, a small group of developers devoted to modernizing the way we teach English and making language learning thrilling. QMM is made up of a linguist, a designer, and an illustrator. What they have created is a game that pushes the boundaries of what a game can do educationally. It really does effectively bridge the gap between entertainment and learning and provides the best proof I’ve ever seen that a game can facilitate language learning.

I’ve always been interested in creating a game for myself to learn Japanese. I am a great visual learner, but a terrible book studier. In school, I honestly believe that playing games like Number Muncher and Word Muncher improved my mental computation and spelling skills more than reading and writing in class. The only thing I’ve found to do this for Japanese is a one-man programmed RPG computer game called Slime Forest. He had the right idea, but the RPG format and simple pixel graphics made it boring. I still had to read all the dialogue, and not being able to progress in the game (“Who do I have to talk to to finish this quest??”) hindered my ability to progress at the language.

Language requires two people. That’s why Question Quest succeeds where Slime Forest failed. Format. A multi-player card game is a much better format than a single-player computer RPG for language practice. Group games fundamentally require conversation, whether it’s haggling over a property in Monopoly or strategizing over how to beat the traitor in Betrayal at the House on the Hill. But QQ cannot substitute for introductory learning of new words or grammar, and it requires a judge (teacher) to monitor the game and make sure it’s being played correctly and fairly. Although, once the students become familiar with how the game is played, they can judge one another. So, to succeed, QQ still requires classroom grammar lessons and introductory materials.

To see how the game is played, watch their YouTube videos.

It’s really easy to come in and view a work and critique it, then find the flaws once it has been made. It’s another thing to try and make it perfectly the first time around. But Question Quest isn’t perfect. So I’d like to point out a few of my observations on the game. I have yet to actually play it, so most of this comes from a very limited knowledge of its gameplay and from the conversation I had with Sean.

First, how is this useful to teachers?

The easy answer is that is does the job for them, mostly. It puts the language practice in the hands of the students, literally. One deck can easily supply a group (2-6 players) with language content and keep them busy for a full class period. It reinforces basic English grammar and dialogue, and introduces some new words and concepts that might require them to self-study a bit. It’s a bit task-based, even though students aren’t necessarily working together to win or achieve a goal. But language strategy and temporary alliances can be formed to achieve small personal goals. It is well designed, full-color, illustrated, easy to use, and has fun characters: all which make it more interesting for students. It can be altered by taking out higher or lower level cards to meet the needs of different learners. Adaptability is very important for multiple skill levels and difficulty progression. It’s not a substitute for normal lessons, but it’s a good way to have a regular practice/ or a solid review activity.

Second, does it really help with English education?

It gets students speaking to each other in English. Japanese students, especially, are painfully shy and constantly worried about making mistakes. Language is all about making mistakes. It’s the outgoing ones who really excel at this. (They tend to be the lower academic level students.) Question Quest requires conversation solely in English with question and response dialogue. Even the shy students must participate to succeed at the game. But, the outgoing students must perfect their grammar in order to excel. Talking to one another in small groups makes the students less nervous to perform. The cards in Question Quest also include the basic foundational grammar forms required for inquisitive communication. Interrogatives, modals, and helping verbs are a fundamental part to each round of the game–the responses to which require original and genuine answers within the format and guidelines of the initial question. This requires critical thinking, which is key to education.

Third, is the game well designed?

The art is beautiful. I think that is the key to getting a wider audience interested in the game. Most people can appreciate craftsmanship. The illustrator for Question Quest has created six original characters engaged in very well crafted images to describe the question/answer pairs written on each card. They are reminiscent of taro cards, Japanese manga, Magic the Gathering cards, and build your own adventure books. It immerses the players in an East-meets-West fusion of medieval fantasy and culture. The design of the cards is also very high quality. Quest Maker Media’s graphic designer did a stellar job of arranging the cards so the major items are clear and hierarchical by importance. Great care was taken when drafting each question, as well. The cards provide specific examples in very small font at the bottom as a cheat-sheet to help the questioner draft their own original questions or identify any problems in the other player’s response. Now let’s get into game mechanics.

There are many potential road blocks. First of all, the object of the game is to get points. The higher points the card is, the more difficult the question and the better your chances of stumping your partner. How will this affect a conversation between a half-Filipino student with an English-speaking father and a full Japanese student with no exposure to English outside the classroom? Won’t the first student have a better chance of winning every time?

How do you get points and eventually win? Your conversation partner must fail or make mistakes. That’s how you win. Or you can interrupt someone else’s conversation and win. Wait…is this the way English conversation works? Kind of. But do we really want to punish students who try and make minor mistakes and reward students who just interrupt a conversation? Seems anti-motivational for the slower learners and motivational for the extroverted students to use rude behavior. But, that’s the exact nature of debate.

If you think about it from a debate standpoint, which is the sport of interactive argument and persuasion, you do want to strategically stump your partner into a standstill with the clever use of language. But is it a genuine interaction between interested parties who are trying to gain a deeper understanding of one another through conversation? Not really. Although, to be able to use language in debate does illustrate a more sophisticated grasp of it. That happens a bit by accident as the game is played, once the right questions are asked and answered, and if the students are invested enough to remember or understand each other’s answers. But perhaps after repeated use of this game mechanic, students will learn that it can be done in real life, as well.

If you haven’t watched the gameplay videos on YouTube by now, you’re probably a bit lost. Well, go back and watch them now! What are you waiting for?

Final Thoughts:

Question Quest isn’t perfect, but it’s the best attempt I’ve ever seen to gamify language learning. Let’s remember this phrase from now on because it is becoming vernacular in education: gamification. Language learning is also driven by an interest in culture. If I didn’t have an interest in Japanese culture, I wouldn’t have an interest in learning Japanese. My love of anime, games, ukyo-e prints, Edo period design and aesthetics, sushi, cute characters, and travel enhances my motivation for learning one of the most difficult, confusing, time-consuming and opposite languages to English in the world. Likewise, a game must also be culturally immersive. Language and culture are entwined by the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the things we find beautiful, the gestures we use when we emote, and the situations we react to positively and negatively. Think of the differences in these categories as they relate to 16th century Italian Renaissance language vs. 18th century Japanese language.

Gamification is not respected in formal education because it is seen as childish, anti-educational, immoral, and for entertainment purposes. Desire for educators to remove games increases as learners’ age and skill increases. But the validity of gamifying activities still remains.

I think it is essential for language learning at all skill levels. Gamifying the use and repitition of conversation (in the right way) can provide students with motivation, situational context, cultural awareness, retention, and positive cognitive responses to an otherwise boring, difficult, and anxiety-enducing language lesson. Roleplaying is necessary to provide context for language when it is impossible in the primary country. I can’t take my whole class to the supermarket and expect them to shop in English with a Japanese store worker. But, my Harry Potter Hogwarts School Shopping roleplaying game allows us to do it right there in the classroom.

“Games” also give clear tiered levels for students to achieve. Learners need to visualize their progress and be rewarded for using language properly. It is difficult to quantify someone’s grasp of a language over time otherwise. And games can be more interactive, team-building, goal-oriented, and culturally immersive than tests. They display a learner’s critical, real-time thought and creative problem solving skills where tests only represent a learner’s ability to memorize facts. Gamified language activities also allow for variation and improvisation where tests are inflexible and require one, precise solution.

I’ve been working on a large-scale gamified motivation and reward system for a month now. I plan on unveiling it here as I implement it at school. It puts into practice many of the points I discuss here as it relates to Question Quest and the art of gamifying education. Look forward to it in my next post.