ELT Sandbox Interviews… Saul Muscat


A few weeks ago, an article entitled ‘Reinventing the Classroom Through Game-Based Learning’ popped up in my news feed, naturally piquing my interest. When I discovered that the game under discussion was Minecraft and the classroom featured was an ESL one, I knew I had clocked up a worthwhlie click. Finding out that the author, Saul Muscat, was a former ESL teacher turned game designer/writer (a rare but much needed combo in the world of DGBL), I immediately got in touch about an interview.

Saul kindly obliged and had plenty of interesting ideas to share about the educational benefits and appeal of digital games, (changing) attitudes towards DGBL, and language learning in general. Read on:

Part 1 – Quick-fire Round

DD: The first game you remember playing
SM: Alex Kidd in Miracle World for the Sega Master System

Image by Evan Amos, Public Domian

DD: The first computer/console you owned
SM: Sega Mega Drive 

DD: Childhood memories of games at school
SM: I remember one timed being allowed to play Oregon Trail when I was maybe 7 years old, because I’d finished all my work. I remember thinking it was terrible and not understanding what the hell was going on.

DD: Haha! That game is mentioned so often as a DGBL ‘classic’ but I guess it was quite specific to the US market….
The most recent game you played
SM: Resident Evil VII

Simcopter – Image under fair use

DD: Favourite game of all time
SM: Simcopter

DD: Favourite games machine of all time
SM: Has to be the first PC we owned in my house. It was a Pentium 133Mhz with a 1.5 GB hard drive, 256 MB RAM and 2MB graphics card

DD: We would need to swap those MBs for GBs and GBs for TBs today! Standout gaming achievement
SM: Solving the infamous ‘goat puzzle’ in Broken Sword: Shadow of the Templars without the use of a guide.

Spelunky – Image under fair use

DD: I have to admit, I resorted to PlayStation Monthly for that one… The most addictive game you’ve played
SM: Spelunky

DD: Worst game you’ve ever played
SM: Superman 64

DD: First game you used in class as a teacher
SM: Sweatshop – flash game

Part 2 – Games & Language Learning

DD: In your recent article for GameSpew, you cited the work of Joel Levin (aka Minecraft Teacher) as an inspiration for using Minecraft with your learners. What was it about his work and the game specifically that attracted you to the idea?
SM: I first learnt about the work of Mr Levin through an online course I was studying called “Video Games and Learning”. I was looking for a way to increase my student’s engagement in their IT lessons but most of all, encourage them to be more creative. Minecraft seemed to be a great way to achieve both these goals.

DD: What opportunities does a game like Minecraft offer in the classroom that more ‘traditional’ learning resources don’t?
SM: The first advantage is a level of interactivity that can’t be achieved with traditional resources. This is especially effective when it comes to group tasks and exercises, where collaboration and teamwork between students is essential. It also allows for students to explore and investigate spaces in a non-threatening 3D environment where they are already familiar with the mechanics of the world. And, it allows the teacher a greater degree of control over student’s interactions and the parameters that govern the world itself.

DD: What about language learners? How does Minecraft help them develop their understanding and active use of language?
SM: As an ESL teacher, the English language levels of students in my class varied hugely. The first task was to make sure that all my students understood all the necessary vocabulary to be able to play Minecraft. The game itself helps by introducing and using a canon of vocabulary that is generally simple, yet is applicable across many subjects. For example, by hovering the mouse of a block in the players’ inventory, the name of the block appears as an overlay. Some of these words would be well above the expected reading level of my students. And yet, due to increased engagement, they were able to absorb the needed vocabulary at a much faster rate than with traditional classroom methods.  

A new dawn for game-based learning?

DD: Despite numerous examples of student uptake of language as you’ve just described, one major concern for teachers interested in using games in class is that the idea will be misunderstood as ‘superficial fun’ by school admin and/or parents. Have you encountered anything like this? If so, how did you persuade the stakeholders of the educational value of the game?
SM: Yeah, this was definitely a problem to start with. The school director was very interested in the possibilities offered by game-based learning after I sat down and talked through what my plans were. It took time, but after a while I began to receive positive comments from parents and teachers about students’ excitement when it came to my lessons. Once I’d shown them some of the creations my students had made, then more and more people began to get on board with the idea.

DD: Another concern teachers have is that when it comes to games, the students are the ‘experts’ and they are struggling to catch up. You have described yourself as being ‘somewhat familiar’ with the game before using it in class. How did your level of skill in the game match up to your students and how did this effect the learning tasks?
SM: As a teacher, you should be paying an active interest in the interests of your students. It’s no understatement to say that Minecraft is a social phenomenon especially within the age group I was teaching and the region of the world I was living in. So in my opinion, every teacher should at least be aware of Minecraft and the learning opportunities it affords. I’ve been playing video games pretty much every day since I was seven years old. They are my main source of entertainment, much more than film or books. Although I had played Minecraft a fair amount, there were definitely some students who were way above my skill level in the game. Not necessarily in a creative aspect but their knowledge of the game’s mechanics and crafting system was astounding. These kids would go home and play Minecraft for multiple hours most nights. Their knowledge was incredible, even to the extent where some of them were able to use complex console commands. Not forgetting that these kids were around 10 years old and that English was a second language to almost all of them. Minecraft isn’t a particularly skill-based game. It doesn’t require fast reflexes or quick thinking. Just a little prior knowledge and creativity is all. So for this reason I never found that differing skill levels caused a problem. As long as students were able to control a mouse and keyboard, then they could play the game.

DD: One final worry I often encounter when introducing the idea of GBL is “What if the kids go off task? What if they only play and show no interest in learning tasks?” How have you prevented and/or addressed this?
SM: The same way I address behaviour issues in a traditional classroom environment – through rewards and sanctions. It’s no different. In fact GBL often gives the teacher a greater degree of control over their students, making behaviour even easier to manage. To start with I think a few students did just see it as an opportunity to mess around. However, they quickly learned that if they didn’t stay on task, or show respect to other players in the game, then they would face the same sanctions like in any other lesson for bad behaviour. By turning off a student’s machine for maybe 10 minutes and making them do a written exercise as a result of bad behaviour, whilst all of their friends around them are playing a video game, their behaviour soon changed. Other sanctions like minusing team points etc worked just as well as in any other classroom environment. I also created a reward system where the top three students in my class would be given a laminated paper iPad, iPhone and iPod image that they could then turn into their homeroom teacher for team points, further encouraging good behaviour and engagement in my classes.

DD: How did your teaching colleagues react to you using the game?
SM: Ha! Some were more receptive than others. A few, however, were much less eager to pursue a game-based learning approach to some of their teaching. Generally, like you said, they saw games as a distraction or entertainment, with very little educational value. In the end, I think mainly they got sick of students asking them if they were going to play Minecraft in their classes too!

DD: What’s your take on ‘educational games’?
SM: I think it comes down to purpose. First and foremost, whether a game is marketed as an educational game or not, a game should be fun to play. This is largely dependant on the game’s underlying mechanics. If a game isn’t fun then it hasn’t got a chance of keeping students engaged, whether it is intended to be educational or not. Minecraft for example is never classified as an ‘educational’ game and yet it gives more opportunities for education than many other ‘educational’ games out there. SimCity is another great example of this. By labelling a game as educational, I think you are doing a disservice to the game and cutting into your potential market. Let the consumer discover the educational value of your game.

DD: I think educational games often fall flat because they are either designed by programmers with little idea about education or educators with little skill for game design and a very low budget. You are a rare breed of someone with experience in education and game design so what do you think would make a good language learning game?
SM: In my opinion, the best games are ones that don’t hold the player’s hand. They encourage discovery and exploration at a pace suitable to each user, without force-feeding the game’s mechanics though button prompts or obvious tutorials. Kids are generally, able to absorb information at a much faster rate than adults, much faster than we give them credit for. Just explain the absolute basics if you have to, then drop the kid into the world and let them discover it for themselves. It’s almost like copying from a blackboard vs a creative arts task. Allow the students to make the discovery themselves , instead of saying “Here’s how you do it. Now you do it.” In terms of language learning, it’s very important for a student to be as immersed as possible in the target language. Learning a language is an organic process, starting small and working your way up to bigger constructs using the same small building blocks i.e. graphemes and phonemes. In this respect it is very similar to Minecraft.

DD: What do you see as the future of DGBL in ELT (or in general)?
SM: I think that VR is going to be an absolute game changer. I’m a huge believer in the technology. Once it gets to a point where it cheap and widespread enough it’s only going to be a matter of time until it is adopted by the mainstream. The benefits that VR could have in education are huge. Imagine being able to guide your class around some of the world’s most famous landmarks without ever having to leave the classroom. Or showing them what the inside of a cell looks like in a navigable 3D environment. The possibilities are limitless. I think that GBL will slowly continue increasing it’s influence in the education sphere. But there will always be those who disagree due to ignorance about its usefulness in education. Thankfully though I feel this number is dwindling – probably because the kids that grew up playing games in the 80’s and 90’s (myself included) are now adults and some of them have become teachers themselves. They already know the educational value of games having seen it first hand.

DD: Thank you for answering our questions – it’s been a pleasure!
SM: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been great!

6541716Saul Muscat taught English and IT in an English Programme School in Thailand for three years before becoming Head of the English Programme. He wants to show the non-believers why games matter beyond the realm of entertainment. He currently resides in Manchester, UK.

Website: www.saulmuscat.com
Twitter: MyNameIsSaul


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