GameLab #2: Serious Game Concepts

Many people learning a foreign language run into trouble by relying on their native language (L1) syntax. This often results in errors in word order as vocabulary is translated into the new language, while the L1 sentence structure remains intact. Left uncorrected, these mistakes can become internalized and difficult to correct. Below are some proposals for games to meet the serious goal of helping to drill and correct errors in English word order. These games are intended for multi-level English as a Foreign Language (EFL) students playing for short durations in a classroom or home setting. The games are neither age nor gender specific.

Game Ideas Brainstorm

  • Bridge Builder – This puzzle game requires players to organize sets of words, shaped as stones or other building materials, in order to build bridges over ever-widening ravines, crevasses, etc.
  • Word Order Uno – Each player is dealt cards from a deck containing cards with parts of speech and players can only play on appropriate cards, for example verbs on subjects. First player with no cards wins.
  • Break Through – A wall of sentences stretches across the game screen and slowly rises as players must break down each sentence by fitting a missing word from each sentence in its correct place.
  • Time Trial – Players in race cars follow a track picking up words to make as many SVOMPT (Subject-Verb-Object-Adverb of Manner-Adverb of Place-Adverb of Time) sentences as possible in a given time. Level 1 starts with SVO and becomes harder.
  • Luck of the Draw – Players continuously draw from six decks, one card for each part of speech (SVOMPT), and match and rearrange cards to form plausible sentences until all cards are gone.
  • Launch Pad – Two players compete to fill the fuel tanks of a rocket, each designated for a part of speech, with fuel cells, which are the coinciding words that continue appearing and must be classified correctly. The winner who sorts words the fastest will blast to a higher altitude.
  • Maze – Players travel through a maze and are given single parts of speech at each level, (Level 1 subjects, Level 2 verbs, Level 6 adverbs of time, etc.), which they must use in their own complete sentence to proceed. Good for small groups.
  • Word Order Mingle – Players each get a secret identity of one part of speech and must find other parts of speech to make a sentence. Players can only hint at their identity with phrases like, “I come after a verb.”
  • Keeping Together – Players shoot the incorrect sentences where verbs and objects have been separated by an adverb of frequency.
  • Exchange Student – Simulation game where players guide exchange students through daily school routines and coach them in word order.

Game Concept #1: Break Throughbreak

The premise of this game is to keep the brick wall from reaching the top of the screen. Each horizontal line of bricks contains a sentence with one word missing. Players must drive the trowel with the missing word into the correct space of the sentence in order to make it disappear. By isolating a single word, the game can drill word order while also focusing on notoriously difficult grammar like articles (a, an, the) or prepositions (in, at, on). The pace of the game further forces students to think and act quickly leaving less time to rely on native language syntax. In Break Through, the primary Ouroboros elements that carry the serious goal are the formal constraint of mechanics as the action necessary to win the game, i.e. placing the trowel in the correct place, reinforces the player’s understanding of word order and the environmental constraint of the timer, which serves to keep the player from drifting into L1.

Game Concept #2: Bridge Builderbridge

This puzzle game requires players to choose and organize words, shaped as stones or other building materials, in order to build bridges over ever-widening ravines, crevasses, gorges, etc. A key element of this game is players are provided with more stones than necessary to build the bridge, but only one combination will successfully make a complete sentence. A number indicator shown in the gap informs the player of how many stones are needed to form the bridge. Beyond practicing word order, this provides the opportunity to reinforce other difficult grammar like subject-verb agreement and prepositions. In the example above, the choices of “play vs. plays” and “at vs. in” accomplish this added goal. In Bridge Builder, the primary Ouroboros elements that carry the serious goal are the formal constraint of mechanics and the environmental constraint of the extra available words as resources. Having multiple options of vocabulary forces the player to think critically before choosing and forming a sentence with correct word order.


While these games may seem quite similar in that they involve the same imagery of words as stones building sentences, the action required by the player and the practice offered by each varies. It was easy to choose Break Through as a top idea from my brainstorming list as it is fast paced and the concept is easy to grasp. Bridge Builder was a harder choice. I wrestled between it and Word Order Uno or Time Trial. However, I chose Bridge Builder because it allowed more control over the subject-verb agreement variables than the other two games. This is a crucial problem related to word order for many EFL students. I also felt the premise of the game, building bridges in order to proceed, had more purpose than Time Trial for example. Adding a back story and mission would improve the game further.

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