Serious Goals: Design an online game that helps students studying English as a Foreign Language (EFL) drill and correct common errors in word order. The game should be suitable for multi-level students playing for short durations in a classroom or home setting and be neither age nor gender specific.
Background Research: 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. For students studying English as a Foreign Language, which by definition means studying English in a non-English speaking country, regular comprehensible input from both listening and reading that could help revert some of these mistakes is often scarce. For the millions of EFL students who receive some EFL instruction in school, but cannot afford extra EFL materials, let alone private tutors, an online digital game could provide comprehensible input and exercises to practice and correct errors in English word order.
High Level Concept: “Break Through” is a fast-paced single-player game that pushes EFL students to focus on notoriously tricky elements of English word order that have been isolated and need to be fit correctly into sentences with no time to rely on native language syntax.
Detailed Description and Visualization: In the beginning of “Break Through”, the player faces a brick wall stretching across the lower third of the game screen. Each horizontal row of bricks contains a sentence with one word missing. There is a word within each brick and there are three sentences/rows to start. Above the brick wall, suspended in the air, is a sledgehammer containing the missing word. There is a timer in the game, and every five seconds, the brick wall rises as another sentence/row is added to the bottom.
As the wall rises slowly, players must break down the wall row by row by driving home the missing word from each sentence in its correct place. The player does this by clicking on the division between the two bricks where the word should go. After clicking on a division, the sledgehammer quickly swings and hits. When the sledgehammer with the missing word hits the correct space, there is a satisfying crash audio effect to signify a successful hit. The top row of bricks fly up from the impact, then drop and disappear behind the wall out of sight quickly getting the screen ready for the next hammer. If a player is unable to answer fast enough and the brick wall reaches the top of the screen, the player’s game is over.
The course of the game is linear as players must eliminate the top row of bricks first before they can get to the second and third rows. Although players could guess random answers, truly performing well depends on one’s skill, knowledge, and internalization of English sentence structure. The pace of the game further forces students to think and act quickly leaving less time to rely on native language syntax. It is intended to help reinforce better intuition of sentence structure.
“Break Through” offers plenty of opportunity for frequent feedback. Besides the timed rising of the wall to signify a player is answering too slowly, feedback consists of points, leaderboards, audio and visual effects, and messages displayed and spoken by a non-player character. A player gets points for every complete sentence. The faster a sentence is completed correctly, the more points are awarded to a player. These points accumulate and give the player a ranking on the leaderboard. Players also know they are doing well by the audio and visual effects that take place after hitting a division. If correct, there is a satisfying crash as bricks fly into the air. If incorrect, there is a resounding thud as the hammer shudders.
A non-player character in the form of a construction worker delivers praise or some corrective feedback. The NPC’s feedback is displayed in a text bubble, but also spoken aloud as players have little time to read. For a correct answer, the NPC offers praise and a comment that rephrases the sentence that was completed. For example, the player completes, “I like to eat oranges.” and the NPC exclaims, “Well done! I like to eat oranges also.” The praise encourages and also reinforces the sentence pattern with extra comprehensible input. The feedback for an incorrect answer is dynamic and also relates to the sentence. For example, the player tries, “He likes jump to.” and the NPC exclaims, “Jump to? Jump to where?” Using simple comprehensible input, the NPC can signal an error, while reminding the player that using “to” after a verb requires a prepositional phrase, which is not possible in this sentence.
Reflection: The most helpful part of my process for thinking through the core mechanics of “Break Through” was sketching out the game play. I began by thinking through sequences and writing notes, but it was not until I began drawing out the actions and effects that the actions became clearer and led to new ideas. Storyboarding in this way helped me expand on my ideas rather than simply finalize preexisting ones.