It all started on a remote tropical island…

It was a very hot day in class just before the summer holidays began. Everything was winding down – half the students were absent, those who were there had long since taken all their materials and books home and there was no intention of any work being done.

I had picked out a DVD for the students to watch but I had seen the film many times before in other classes and previous years. And so, I sat at the teacher’s desk, got my laptop out and thought about drafting a post for my blog ( As everything was booting up, a student attracted by the sight of a computer came over to see what I was doing.

“I like your laptop, teacher,” he said. “Do you have any games on it?”

This was a student who rarely showed much interest in lessons and I had struggled to engage and motivate him all year so it was a pleasant surprise that he voluntarily started up a conversation in English this way.

He seemed surprised not only when I replied ‘yes’ to his question but also when he saw just how many games were installed.

“Football Manager? My brother plays that game. Oh! Warcraft! That’s a great game,” he exclaimed and so it went on until one unfamiliar title caught his eye.

“What is Tropico?” he asked. I explained that it was a strategy game in which you are El Presidente, the president/dictator of a Caribbean island and you have to develop your country while also dealing with external pressure from foreign superpowers.

“That sounds great!” he said. “Can we look?”By this stage, a small group of boys had gathered round the laptop to see what was going on so I loaded up the game and we began. I talked them through the basic aims of the game and showed them the missions and objectives that needed to be completed as well as how to place buildings and interact with advisors.

I was immediately struck by how the students read each mission briefing carefully, even though the text was quite dense and advanced for their level. They then engaged in a discussion to reach a collective understanding of what it meant.

Then, I started to place some housing developments in the game in order to generate more workers for the building projects that needed to be undertaken.

“No, teacher, wait!” said the boy who had initially come over to me. “Don’t place the houses there.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“That is the city centre area,” he informed me. “If you put houses there, where will you put the other buildings?”

“Yes,” said another student. “You should put the houses far from the centre.”

“Hmm,” I thought. “We covered giving advice and first conditionals in class a few weeks ago but they never produced anything like this.”

They then proceeded to direct me as I completed the initial missions, debating and advising me on where to place buildings:

“If you put the factory next to the houses, it will be easy for the people to go to work”

“You should put the children’s museum near the school”
“Let’s put the school in the city centre”
“No! If it is next to the sea, it will be great for the students!” and so on…

All in English and all sound advice. They actually got better results in the game than I had when playing on my own! And these were students who were often reluctant to engage in regular lessons and had struggled with the same structures when we had done them in class before. Now, they had a real reason and a strong context in which to use the language and, without realising it, they activated a lot of structures and vocabulary that they had picked up.

And that is what this blog will be about – engaging and encouraging students to activate and utilise the language they know through the medium of games and gaming, helping them to ‘level up’ their language skills along the way.

EDIT (28/09/13):

A couple of weeks after this was posted, it was very cool to get some mentions via Twitter not only from one of the creators of Tropico 4 but also from El Presidente himself!

This post originally appeared at

Image via Kalypso Media under fair use




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