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October 2012
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In Pursuit of the Excellent Game
by Eui Jung (Ana) Kim and Sarah Petersen

The safe, pleasurable environment of a good game motivates players to test their physical, social, mental, or―in the case of a language learner―communicative skills, thus preparing them for the application of these skills to reality. Unfortunately, ESL/EFL teachers responsible for a daunting curriculum tend to bypass games for fear of wasting classroom time with distractors. Yet, a game has just as much potential for furthering skill acquisition as any other activity when carefully constructed. Conversely, a group essay-writing project can evoke just as much pleasure as a round of Jeopardy. Whether the experience was designed specifically for fun, as in a game, or not, as in a serious activity, the effective engagement of skills yields enjoyment. In the following discussion, then, the terms game and activity, along with the global term gameful activity, may be understood as interchangeable references to any dynamic experience, designed to achieve a meaningful outcome, in which players engage in an artificial conflict or challenge defined by rules. What is required for evaluating the usefulness of any such exercise is a set of criteria by which to measure its potential for student engagement.

Multiple Intelligence Theory
Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligence theory posits that human intelligence is pluralistic rather than unitary. There is a broad intellectual spectrum in every learner, from verbal/linguistic to logical/mathematical, visual/spatial, bodily/kinesthetic, musical/rhythmic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist intelligences (Gardner, 1983). In the classroom, a gameful activity that mobilizes the minds of participants in multiple ways affords greater opportunity for them to exercise their diverse intelligences in the reinforcement of concepts and skills. In short, the more intelligences that are addressed, the more effective the activity.

Clarity and Object of Rules
The optimal mobilization of the intelligences requires an efficient mental state, referred to as flow by the positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1988). Flow requires, among other things, the ability to concentrate. To that end, a gameful classroom activity needs clearly to identify the goal and delineate the orderly sequence of actions that potentially lead to that goal—that is, clear rules are needed. With them, students are able confidently to sort incoming information as either useful or irrelevant for their purposes. The absence of clear rules will result in anxiety, as a student struggles with multiple stimuli in an attempt to discover the right focus by trial and error, or in apathy, when a student perceives any effort as futile and therefore just gives up.

With a solid framework of game rules in place, players have the freedom to focus their attention on strategies, some of which prove more effective than others, and it is part of the game’s challenge to discover the most successful ones. In the case of an ESL/EFL activity, that challenge is compounded by the need to manipulate language structures in the process. Making the most effective choices of both game and language strategies depends on the quality of the feedback delivered to the player along the way. Clear and immediate feedback allows players to effectively adjust their action or language in time to avoid pitfalls or seize opportunities. The feedback may be inherent in the activity, as when a certain choice engenders consequences within a game, or it may come in the form of meta-feedback, when students and teacher take time-outs to analyze language that would facilitate the task. Whatever the form, in helping to identify effective approaches, feedback contributes to a sense of control, which, in addition to the ability to concentrate, Csikszentmihalyi (1975) cites as an essential requisite of flow.

Challenge-Skill Balance
The sense of control can be easily compromised, however. Csikszentmihalyi’s research (1975) reveals that flow depends on a delicate balance between being in control and being overwhelmed. That thrilling tension of risk allows players to experience the peak of enjoyment; its absence would result in boredom. Nevertheless, if the challenge is disproportionately higher than students’ skills, it may generate over-anxiety, leading to diffused attention and a reduction in short-term memory (Csikszentmihalyi, 1988). Therefore, an effective activity is tailored to stretch participants just beyond their current capacities without violating the subtle challenge-skill ratio. Dr. Jane McGonigal, director of Game Research and Development at the Institute for the Future and author of Reality is Broken (2011), suggested that these “micro increases” (p. 57) in the challenge engender a sense of discovery, exploration, problem-solution, and a feeling of novelty, thereby sustaining participants’ interest and motivation.

According to both McGonigal and Csikszentmihalyi, the most highly effective motivations are intrinsic ones. The deep mental absorption that characterizes flow is in itself a very positive feeling; when individuals find themselves in this state, nothing else matters. In addition, the satisfactory application of skills to challenges leads to a feeling of power, being in control, and self-improvement, which reaffirms a participant’s identity and self-esteem (Csikzentmihalyi, 1990). Other intrinsic rewards include the sense of contributing to something greater than oneself, as in a service-oriented project, and the sense of community, as in a group or team enterprise (McGonigal, 2011). These fulfilling outcomes, all elements of flow, motivate students to seek out similar experiences in order to reproduce the positive feelings. In the process, skills and self-confidence are reinforced, and a cycle of positive reinforcement is established.

That upward cycle would be impossible without a seemingly minor yet crucial variable: the basic mechanics of the game. To allow for the undivided attention needed to generate an optimal experience, all the elements embedded in the game, all the potential moves, must allow the player to advance (McGonigal, 2011). When they do not, the game itself becomes a frustrating obstacle to the player. Even when the instructions are clear and carefully obeyed, in a poorly constructed activity, the result of one move might make the next required move impossible, leaving players confused as to how to proceed. To avoid this, an activity should be scrutinized for internal consistency.

Adoptability and Adaptability
Instructors appreciate having a toolbox of proven activities that can be drawn from in a variety of contexts. Therefore a classroom exercise may be rated as useful on the grounds not only of its learning effectiveness but also of its versatility. Adoptability, the potential for using the same game format across skill areas, and adaptability, the ease with which a format can be modified to suit diverse language proficiency levels, offer the flexibility to tailor an activity to a class’s changing needs.

The seven criteria proposed above for evaluating the efficacy of a gameful activity constitute an assessment tool, still in the early stages of development, whose purpose is not to pass final judgment on a game but to provide insights on its potential for excellence. Each criterion is conceived on a separate scale from the least to the most effective condition leading to optimal experience or flow. By considering each criterion independently, teachers may be able to identify shortcomings in discrete areas and make the necessary adjustments to salvage the game and transform it into a truly worthwhile learning experience.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond boredom and anxiety: The experience of play in work and games. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, Inc.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, I. (1988). Optimal experience: psychological studies of flow in consciousness. Cambridge, England: Cambridge UniversityPress.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York, NY: Basic Books.

McGonigal, J. (2011). Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world. New York, NY: The Penguin Press.


This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue of the IEPIS Newsletter, the Intensive English Programs Interest Section newsletter of TESOL International Association.

Sarah S. Petersen, whose 22 years in the ESL/EFL profession have included teaching in the Central African Republic and French Guiana, is currently an instructor at the English Language Institute of the University of Delaware.

Ana Kim, instructor at the English Language Institute of the University of Delaware, has been appointed to serve on the Fulbright National Screening Committee for the 2011-2013 English Teaching Assistantship sponsored by the US Department of Education.  

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Grammatically Speaking
In Pursuit of the Excellent Game
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