A role for exogenous games?

Last year, I was offered to teach a class on grammar and structural linguistics, which I accepted with some hesitation because I considered it a bit outside of my comfort zone. I've taught sociolinguistics and communications courses before, but this is hardcore linguistics, requiring knowledge not just of grammar but also of how to analyze the underlying syntactic structure of sentences using grammar trees. What made it even more intimidating was that these were four hour courses, and I had to make it interesting to the students. Games, then.

I had always like Kurt Squire's (2006) differentiation between "endogenous" and "exogenous" games, where endogenous games are games that marry form with content, such that by playing the game and learning its rules, you are also understanding the content of the game. Exogenous games, on the other hand, are games that have content that are external to its rules--Jeopardy, Trivial Pursuit--most games that teachers are likely to use in the classroom because they are easy to integrate into a lesson and reused for other content. The idea is that endogenous games are better if you want to teach systems thinking because it requires players to understand how the rules work in relation to their actions in the game.

I would've loved to design an endogenous game for the linguistics class, but there weren't enough students. On top of that, I wouldn't be sure how to begin exactly, although I have some ideas--for example, having students think of themselves as a part of the structure of the sentence and have them bond with each other. In any case, I would've needed a lot more students than what I had, so I had to use games in other ways.

In my first class, I had them play some board games. I have some "serious" board games that they were not likely to have played before (i.e., it wasn't Monopoly, Life, or Clue). I had them look at the rules and then observed what they did with it. Afterwards, I drew the analogy that understanding the grammatical rules to the language is kind of like understanding the rules of a game; that is, you don't have to be an expert and memorize all the rules, but you need to know enough of them to play it. (This analogy would be for students who don't feel that it makes sense to teach grammar explicitly.)

I had to teach the same course again this year, and I did the same thing. The students were surprisingly engaged with the game--called Lifeboats--which is a diplomacy game somewhat similar to Survivor, where you have to vote someone off rapidly sinkiing lifeboats. The students got the concept really fast. They were initially frustrated by the rules, and couldn't understand it without playing the game. Some students wanted to get all the rules right first time, others just wanted to jump in. And they got the analogy right away--that their students are likely to feel the same frustration when it comes to learning a new language.

I also had some games--endogenous, alas--where they competed to draw accurate grammar trees of sentences they would pick out. I had them play in teams, so that their teammates could call out to another who is drawing the actual trees. I also had them make trees from famous movie lines (e.g., "I could have been a contender," "You will go to the Dagobah system"), and they seemed to get a kick out of that as well. The result was quite surprising as well. I heard things like "that prepositional phrase is an adverbial, not part of the verb phrase," and "there's no future tense; that's a modal." Although it wasn't an exogenous game, the motivation to compete got them to think critically in terms of how to get the right answers. The collaboration served as a way for them to think aloud to one another, and for me to assess whether they were getting the concepts right or whether they were just randomly drawing things on the board. Over a very short period of time, I saw substantial growth, especially among students who had been intimidated by the idea of grammar trees in the beginning.

I also introduced a role called the saboteur, in part because I have an odd number of students and it makes it hard to have balanced teams. The saboteur would be someone who deliberately gives misinformation by providing wrong answers, so the team members would have to be able to identify what are wrong suggestions and figure out who the saboteur is. This would stop them from passively agreeing with whatever is being suggested, and also helps them identify errors in a more active way. To make things even more interesting, I'm going to have them switch up so that the role changes every five rounds. In some rounds, there might be no saboteur. The team members who correctly identifies the saboteur will earn an extra amount of points.

So, I don't think exogenous games is all bad news. More often than not, it's lazy because they're easy to use, and you don't need to spend a lot of time elaborating the rules. (My games often end up having too many rules, in part because the students encourage complicated moves and countermoves.) If the games give students time to reflect on thelr learning in ways that would otherwise be awkward, I think it has its advantages.


Squire, K. (2006). From content to context: Videogames as designed experience. Educational Researcher, 35(8), 19-29.