Remember those books in which you have to choose which door to open, or which orc to fight, or whether to take the bag of silver or the magical mirror?
Jackson and Livingstone’s Fighting Fantasy series was excellent, as were the Choose Your Own Adventure books. I decided to try constructing one of these games for an ESL classroom, and found both that I thoroughly enjoyed working on it, and that my students spent many happy hours developing many different skills as a result. I recommend them wholeheartedly!
Depending on the game, students may focus on negotiation, persuasion, argument, comparison, or a host of other language skills. Being in a group requiring continuous listening and speaking, there are normally several groups playing the game, so we’re always comparing progress and results. At the end of each round, varying spokespeople summarize recent events and report them to the class. The variety of skills which can be developed is enormous, and can be customized to suit your class’ learning needs.
9 Steps to Creating A Fantastic ESL Decision Game
Consider Your Students
Assess their age, demographic, national and cultural backgrounds and faith systems. Are there some topics or game contexts which will work particularly well? Are there any best avoided?
Choose Your Topic Area
The choices will be made in a sequence which reflects the passage of time, so any scenario which takes a while to complete might work.
Here are some possibilities:
- Guiding a student through high school and college
- Helping a start-up entrepreneur make choices as he expands his business
- Making decisions for a government, or ministry, as it proceeds through a four-year term
- Guiding a presidential candidate through an election campaign
- Helping a diplomat solve a complex international crisis
- Deciding how travelers should respond to the challenges of a journey to a new continent, or a nearby star, for example
- Helping a family through a series of crises brought by war, poverty etc
- Assisting a mayor with a flood in his town, some other natural disaster, or a zombie apocalypse
- Choosing the best courses of action for a captain whose ship has been hijacked
- Helping shipwrecked sailors decide how best to survive on their way to safety
Consider which decisions might have to be made in this scenario. The high school student, for example, would choose his subjects, his friends, which girl to ask on a date, etc. The presidential candidate must decide whether to focus on one talking point or another, which advisor to hire or fire, and in which states to most heavily invest time and money.
Decide the Reward and Measurement Systems
Fighting Fantasy characters collected gold and gems, found food and weapons, and gained skill points; decide similar measurements of success for your own game. Examples could include happiness, money or earning power, life experience, popularity, distance traveled, remaining resources etc.
Decide The Parameters
Some quick math will help you decide how big this game will be. At the end of an initial card which everyone reads, decisions are required. Let’s base our calculations on asking the students to decide between TWO courses of action. For instance, if two decisions are to be needed, you’ll end up with only seven different cards (and four final outcomes). If three decisions might be enough, you’ll still only need to write fifteen cards; with four, there will be 31 cards; with five there will be as many as 62 cards and, if you’re feeling really ambitious, have your students make six decisions and write 127 cards!
To be more ambitious still, assign three choices to each card. This quickly multiplies into a major task for the teacher, so beware!
Consider how long each decision might take, and build this into your overall schedule for the class.
Sketch It Out
A large sheet of paper is needed here, with START at the top, and arrows pointing down to numbered boxes which contain basic notes on the situation, and the decisions to be made. Landscape orientation might work best, as the breadth of the sketch will increase quickly as you proceed through. Include rough ideas for how many points each decision will win or lose, and in which categories (health, happiness, remaining water, etc).
An MS Word document with a table divided into two rows, each of four, five or six columns per page, gives you enough space to describe the events and pose your questions. At the beginning of each card, integrate the points system, telling the students how many points the previous decision has gained or lost for their team.
Once you’ve typed up the game, print and pages and back them with good-quality card, or ask a copy shop to slice the pages up and laminate the cards individually; this avoids having to re-print them. Tell your students NOT to write on the cards, unless you plan not to re-use them.
I’ve found that my games of this style evolve in interesting ways. The prototype game, Sam’s Choices, which I wrote for an intermediate class in China, grew by two more decisions and is now a huge stack of well over a hundred cards. As the game proceeds, take notes on elements which were too difficult, or decisions which ‘made themselves’, requiring too little discussion. Consider removing narrative events which the students find upsetting or offensive.
Running the Game
Each game will be different, but you’ll need some setup before the students can play. For Sam’s Choices, I began a discussion on the relative importance of happiness, earning power and maturity, and the ways in which we are served by these attributes. We also debated which school subjects best prepare a student for university, and which university majors lead to the greatest success in life. Ultimately, we debated the very meaning of success.
Organize the groups in whichever way suits your class, and drill them on the rules; in particular, they shouldn’t forget to write down their points on a cumulative tally – you could help with this, either in secret or on the board. Monitor each discussion, making sure the students have thoroughly considered the relative merits of the two positions. Ask for predictions as to what might happen in each case. Encourage the whole group to participate equally, and for students to make a point of bringing in their classmates so that everyone contributes. Try to settle down tendencies towards factionalism or isolating certain students; this is an opportunity to overcome social barriers and regard everyone equally.
Once the final decision has been made, ask your students for their points tallies and compare these on the board. Then posit some reflective questions:
- Are you happy with the decisions you made?
- If you could choose one decision to change, what would it be?
- Are you pleased with the relative levels of points you gained?
- What has the game shown you about ways of making decisions?