Learning (Together) with Games – Civilization and Empire

by Ed Webb

Webb_BioEd Webb is an assistant professor of political science and international studies at Dickinson College and a founder of Dickinson’s Middle East Studies program. Formerly a member of Britain’s Diplomatic Service, his teaching and research interests in the Middle East include secularism, nationalism, education, authoritarianism, and media. He has experimented for several years with digital and social media in and around the classroom and served on NITLE’s inaugural advisory board (2009-11).


Why use computer games in a liberal arts educational context? In general, their educational potential is recognized because there is significant evidence that “learning is most effective when it is active, experiential, situated, problem-based and provides immediate feedback,” all features that can be found in games (Connolly, Boyle, MacArthur, Hainey & Boyle, 2012, 661). At their best, games “are motivating, provide immediate feedback, can adapt themselves to the level of the learner, provide repetition to the point of automaticity, encourage distributed learning, can teach for transfer, and use other excellent teaching techniques” (Gentile, 2011, 75). We can be reasonably confident that games are an effective delivery mechanism ofcontent (Gentile, 2011, 77) even while bearing in mind calls for the production of more robust evidence of this through randomized control trials (Connolly et al, 2012, 671-2).

How well can this potential be realized in support of liberal arts learning? I take the purpose of liberal arts to be engendering a set of aptitudes and habits of mind with a scientist’s informed skepticism at the core, along the lines of those set out by Bill Durden, including: “how to ask the right questions, how to gather information, how to make informed decisions, how to see connections among disparate areas of knowledge” (Durden 2012). There is evidence that in the right circumstances games can evoke scientific habits of mind and social knowledge construction (Steinkuehler & Duncan, 2008) and increase cognitive performance independent of content (Barlett, Vowels, Shanteau, Crow & Miller, 2009, 101), so those of us who work in liberal arts education should be open to the possibility that they can be productively integrated into the curriculum.[1]

But can they be used effectively to help upper-level undergraduates grasp the nuances of complex political, social, and economic processes? I have used one popular commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) game, Sid Meier’s Civilization IV, in senior seminars grappling with such complexities, with increasing success as I have adjusted the way in which I use it. This essay reflects on my experiences with the game and offers suggestions for liberal arts educators who might be considering introducing games in similar teaching contexts.

From 2008 to the present, I have taught four senior seminars on Empire at Dickinson College. The emphases and assigned texts have changed depending on whether I am leading the seminar for Political Science majors or as the capstone for the interdisciplinary International Studies program, and also in response to my observations about what provokes the most fruitful discussion. Assigned works have included books by Albert Memmi, Edward Said, Niall Ferguson, Howard Zinn and others, Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now Redux, and Civilization IV. While some of the others have come and gone, Meier’s turn-based strategy game for PCs has become a staple of the seminar, paired in particular with Tzvetan Todorov’s challenging work of cultural history, The Conquest of America. How does this odd couple work to help undergraduates understand the nature of empire?

The Joy of Modding

Integrating Civilization into the seminar is not simply a matter of unleashing it on the students in its raw form. There have been two important aspects to exploiting it effectively in this context. One is framing: how playing the game is introduced to the students and what is demanded of them. I discuss that below. But first we need to talk about modding.

One of the great strengths of the Civilization series is the relative ease with which its large and enthusiastic user base can modify the game so as to run specific scenarios, be they historical or fantastical. The modifications available do not make this an infinitely flexible historical simulator, but they do support historical thought experiments of a productive kind.[2]

In the context of the Empire seminar, I wanted students to grapple with the historical puzzle of the conquest of Mesoamerica by relatively small numbers of Europeans in the late 15th century and 16th century. Todorov’s book is theoretically complex, textually rich, and provocatively argued. Rather than Europeans being able to overcome superior numbers and well-established civilizations primarily through superior weapons technology or the accidental assistance of diseases against which indigenous populations had no immunity, Todorov argues for the importance of the manipulation of signs. He presents the conquistador Cortes, for example, as a kind of early, weaponized anthropologist, showing how he developed understanding of the cultural vocabulary of the native peoples in order to turn it against them.

I wanted a learning tool that would permit students to explore the European conquest of Mesoamerica, and to develop a sense of causes and effects of imperial processes at many levels of analysis, from the individual to the state to the civilizational.[3]Todd Bryant built me such a tool. With some direction from me, Todd – an instructional technologist at Dickinson – set out to research the historical background and to work on translating it into an approximation that would make sense within the gameplay structure of Civilization IV. To get a sense of how much work is involved, I encourage you to dip into his “read me” file for the mod he created.[4] It is possible that I would have been able to approximate what Todd produced on my own, even without prior modding experience, since the community of modders has made available many resources online and the technical aspects are not overly complicated.[5] But I was very fortunate to have Todd’s enthusiasm and skills on hand for this project.

What should be apparent from Todd’s “read me” is not only how much research is necessary if one is to set up a reasonable parallel to historical circumstances, but also how many choices are involved in translating that research into a playable scenario. Writing a mod for Civilization imposes important constraints, as does creating within any predetermined form, and responding to those constraints to produce a satisfying outcome calls upon all levels of Bloom’s taxonomy.[6] In other words, preparing a Civilization IV mod for use in a class is a non-trivial task, but a satisfying one. Plan ahead and budget the necessary time and resources if you wish to do something like this.

What do I want Civilization to do for me? How well does it do it?

The effects of games on players are complex and unevenly researched and understood. One must make different calculations in including games-related assignments in courses than in using more conventional tools such as assigned books and articles (although we should be thoughtful about those, also, rather than defaulting to them). For instance, “there are at least five dimensions on which video games can affect players: the amount of play, the content of play, the game context, the structure of the game, and the mechanics of game play” (Gentile, 2011, 75). Ideally, an educator should give thought to all these dimensions in selecting a game and framing a game-based assignment. But there is insufficient research on some dimensions – for instance, the “least researched dimension of game effects is how the game context alters or creates effects” (Gentile, 2011, 77) – so even with assiduous preparation an element of trial and error is inevitable.

Consider the structure and mechanics, essentially the rules and the interface. Civilization is quite complex and some aspects of the user interface are not intuitive. A player must make decisions about how to develop her civilization from the starting point – the nomadic hunter-gatherer level in a standard game – to whatever goal she has chosen, manipulating technological, economic, cultural and other variables to survive and thrive in a competitive environment of limited resources. This very complexity makes the game enticing as a learning tool, given its ability to elicit problem-solving strategies alongside whatever content it might deliver. But it also presents a possible barrier to learning in its relatively steep learning curve, unless one can set aside sufficient time to include learning the game before learning with the game.[7]

As for content, the possibility of modification gives an instructor incomplete control. One can insert characters called Cortes or Columbus and define certain aspects of their behavior. One can place civilizations on the map in an approximation of where they were, how developed they were, and what resources they commanded, at the chosen moment in history. But other aspects of the content are chosen already by the game creators. Most important are the rules of the game, the algorithms that determine what feedback a player will get in response to her choices, and these are not all manipulable. The effects of various technologies, including socio-cultural technologies such as state-sponsored religions, are built into the game as logical arguments – if this set of conditions, then that effect. These arguments together make up the “procedural rhetoric” of the game, a world-view conveyed through a sequence of events prompted by the player’s actions (Bogost, 2007). So the content and experience of the game are adjustable, but the fundamental assumptions about how the world works that drove the original game design are not.

My main goals in assigning the game alongside written materials were twofold. First, I wanted students to encounter similar subject matter presented through different media in order to prompt critical approaches to all the course material. We train our students to engage written texts actively and critically, but the risk of passive reception remains. The interactivity of video games may help induce critical engagement:

Despite dismissals as “torpid” and inviting “inert reception” in some mainstream press, videogame technologies may be one viable alternative―not to the role of teachers and classrooms in learning science, but rather to textbooks and science labs as educational experiences about the inquiry process (Steinkuehler & Duncan, 2008, 531).

In the Empire seminar, I induce critical engagement through in-class discussion and debate, through weekly response assignments, and through a scaffolded research paper assignment. My experience has been that the game assignment has indeed worked alongside these to inspire critical engagement with the questions provoked by Todorov’s book and the broader themes of the seminar. I hope to encourage or refine in the students an evaluative disposition, “one that treats knowledge as an open-ended process of evaluation and argument of hypotheses” (Steinkuehler & Duncan, 2008, 539).[8] I want to leverage the experience of simulation to facilitate creative thought experiments that would be rendered meaningful by the context of a seminar, i.e., a context of shared investigation: “As simulations, games allow ‘just plain folk’ to build situated understandings of important phenomena (physical laws, for example) that are instantiated in those worlds amid a culture of intellectual practice that render those phenomena culturally meaningful” (Steinkuehler & Duncan, 2008, 531).

Secondly, I hope the game provokes affective responses through its engaging nature. Putting students in a decision-making position gives them a different stake in the processes we are studying than does reading someone’s account and analysis of those processes. “Whereas the visual arts compel viewers to engage in the act of looking, games compel players to perform acts” (Galloway, 2004). Memmi and Todorov in their very different ways write powerfully about the experiences of colonizers and colonized. Civilization demands that students make choices. Expand or consolidate? Convert or massacre? The decisions have in-game consequences, of course. But the process of making the decisions is at least as important educationally as noting the game-world’s feedback to those decisions. While a turn-based strategy game with its god’s-eye view of the world may not be as immediately engaging as an adrenalin-inducing first-person shooter, the engagement is still there through the responses the game makes to the players’ choices.[9]

Iterative Learning (for the instructor)

When I first assigned the game, I intended it to play the same role in the seminar as the written texts – to provide material for the weekly discussion and individual written reflections. So the assignment explained how to access and start playing the game, encouraged those who were unfamiliar with the genre to seek assistance from fellow students, Todd Bryant, or me, required that students each play the game (alone) as Spain for at least 90 minutes while making a few notes, and provided the prompt:

As you play, consider in what respects gameplay reflects the story of the conquest Todorov has told us. Can the conquest of Mesoamerica by a relatively small force be explained through technology, strategy, and tactics (that a game can simulate), or rather by the manipulation of signs (that is harder to simulate in a strategy game)? What else can/do we learn about imperial conquest from a strategy game of this kind? Also take note of the experience: how you feel as well as what you think as you attempt to seize territory in the ‘New World’? Take a few notes for yourself, and we’ll discuss the experience in class and/or online.

I also posted one additional question in the second iteration, when the group had read Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism, eliciting analysis of the game as an artifact or text: “Is this game an example of the type of cultural artifact discussed by Said – like the novels of Kipling et al. – that supports or promotes a culture of imperialism? What discourses, logics, rhetorics, images, and signs are present here?” Class discussion was an important part of the total grade, but the assignment itself did not have a separate grade attached to it.

My observation from these early experiments was that the game was too different from the more familiar medium of printed texts to be handled in the same way, as a prompt like the others. There was some useful discussion in seminar, but it was clear that the widely varying levels of experience with strategy games – from none in most cases to extensive in a few – had a considerable impact on how students experienced the assignment.[10] The game itself, the structure and mechanics, were too difficult or alienating for some students to make this an effective delivery mechanism for content, let alone a sandbox for thought experiments. Others, on the other hand, came to seminar eager to discuss the experience and the ideas it had generated. I considered the assignment as qualified success, but wanted to improve it.

In the most recent iteration of the seminar, for International Studies and Security Studies students in fall 2011, I found what seems to be a more successful means of integrating the modified game into the class. I made it a graded assignment worth 10% of the total, requiring a written response to a prompt rather than simply note-taking in preparation for class discussion. I hoped this raising of the stakes would elicit greater investment from those who did not find a videogame assignment intrinsically appealing. The other significant change was to make the gameplay a group effort, while the written reflections remained individual. Students worked in groups of 4-5, with at least one experienced player of Civilization or similar games assigned to each. The task was similar – play as Spain, decide how to approach the newly discovered territories and their inhabitants, try your strategies, and see what happens.

What I hoped was that by changing the context of play, from individuals to teams, we would overcome some of the friction generated by structure and mechanics. Those familiar with the interface and rules could guide the others or act for them, allowing the group to concentrate instead on discussion of the content of the experiments they were jointly performing. My concern with this approach was that I might be sacrificing some of the intensity of the immersive and affective dimensions that come with being in sole charge and taking direct action (choosing for oneself, clicking the mouse). Perhaps the group context would prevent players moving from engagement with the game to a more intense engrossment? Would players feel less responsible for massacres or failed expeditions and thus gain less of an appreciation for ethical dilemmas or the emotional stakes? The dilemma is that either in-game factors such as a challenging interface or contextual factors such as team play in shared physical space could reduce the intensity of immersion in the experience (Jennett, Cox, Cairns, Dhoparee, Epps, Tijs & Walton, 2008, 642).[11] On the other hand, I hoped team play would generate not only educationally useful discussions, but also more purposive strategic experimentation: an individual player could make choices more or less randomly, whereas a team must reach some kind of consensus before clicking the mouse.

In a reflection I shared with students after the assignment in this most recent iteration, I noted that working in groups did seem to have shifted cognitive resources from worrying about the interface to discussion and decision-making, and that students reported applying more explicit strategies. They reported some affective impact, but perhaps less than one might expect for a game eliciting what could be considered genocidal actions from the players.[12]

Wider applicability

Modding Civilization IV will not, obviously, be effective for every kind of class or all kinds of subject matter. The main educational value it delivers strikes me as twofold.

  1. It adds variety to class materials in a way that might appeal to learners who get less out of lectures, books, or articles, or might generate even more enthusiasm in strong students who are also gamers: “I thought it was awesome … Having that interactive experience with history definitely allows you to understand it better” (Getty, 2012). Even those who do well with written texts may find themselves more or differently engaged in the subject matter. It may encourage a different affective response, provoking richer discussions of ethical questions, for example. There is a difference between reading about horrors inflicted by the conquistadors and making a decision yourself to attempt to massacre native peoples, even simulated ones.
  2. Since playing the game entails making decisions and quickly seeing the outcomes of those decisions, it can act as a kind of prosthetic for thought experiments, a quasi-simulation. Students can take knowledge of historical processes and events and explore competing explanations by playing “what if?” This type of engagement with the subject lies in the upper reaches of Bloom’s taxonomy, more or less forcing students to manipulate the material analytically and creatively. The best students will do that in essays, but here the game provides scaffolding that can support all students in those kinds of activity. As one participant put it, “In a science class you can put a chemical in a test tube and see what happens. This brings that dimension to history. Here you can try to convert Incas to Christianity and see what happens” (Getty, 2012). The complexity of the game, with many interacting components that respond to the player’s inputs as well as their own programmed logics, encourages systems-based reasoning, “an understanding of feedback among the components of the system” (Steinkuehler & Duncan, 2008, 536), as important in social scientific analysis as it is in the natural sciences.

Some of the limitations or drawbacks include:

  1. Some students do not like playing computer games. In each iteration of the course there have been students who reacted negatively to the assignment and expressed a preference for sticking to “traditional” materials such as books. It is interesting to me that few express similar reservations concerning Apocalypse Now Redux, although some do find the film upsetting – the concept of watching a film as part of a class has become normalized; playing a game has yet to do so. Education should push students out of their comfort zone, but taking them too far outside is counterproductive due to the resistance it provokes.
  2. Beyond simple dislike of the medium, inexperienced players may have difficulty with the structure and mechanics. Not learning the game quickly enough can be a barrier to learning with, through, and from the game. Making this a group or team assignment where each group has an experienced player reduces this element. It is important not to overstate this difficulty. Games are designed to be played, which means they are designed to be learned how to be played. Good games very quickly provoke and demand problem-solving.[13]
  3. On the other hand, while one can begin to learn from playing the game reasonably quickly, to fully benefit from playing a game as complex as Civilization IV, one needs to spend time with it. In a course where other assignments are necessary to support a rhythm of extensive and intense weekly discussion, it can be hard to allot sufficient time to the game assignment – including introducing the game in class, assigning a reasonable amount of time for group play outside class time, reflection, writing, and then in-class discussion – to produce the desired benefits.

My positive experience in moving this from an individual to a group exercise suggests that others using games may wish to consider this. The benefits – decreased anxiety about mechanics and interface, more apparent self-consciousness about decision-making due to the need for group discussion – seem to me to outweigh any loss of or difference in affective engagement or immersion in the game world. Students might choose to play onward or run alternative strategies on their own outside the context of the exercise, and that seems more likely to be an individual activity. But in terms of integrating the game into the seminar, a group assignment offers superior returns on time invested.

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Works Cited

Barlett, Christopher P., Christopher L. Vowels, James Shanteau, Janis Crow, Tiffany Miller. 2009. The effect of violent and non-violent computer games on cognitive performance. Computers in Human Behavior, 25, 96-102.

Bogost, Ian. 2007. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Boston, The MIT Press.

Connolly, Thomas, Elizabeth A. Boyle, Ewan MacArthur, Thomas Hainey, James M. Boyle. 2012. A systematic literature review of empirical evidence on computer games and serious games. Computers & Education 59, 661-686.

Durden, William. 2012. A Useful Liberal Arts. Inside Higher Ed, November 26, 2012:http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2012/11/26/essay-idea-useful-liberal-arts. Consulted August 20, 2013

Galloway, Alexander R. 2004. Social Realism in Gaming. Game Studies, 4, 1. http://gamestudies.org/0401/galloway/. Consulted July 16, 2012.

Gentile, Douglas A. 2011. The Multiple Dimensions of Video Game Effects. Child Development Perspectives 5, 2, 75-81.

Getty, Matt. 2012. Beyond the Blackboard. Dickinson Magazine, April 3: http://www.dickinson.edu/news-and-events/publications/dickinson-magazine/2012-spring/Beyond-the-Blackboard/.

Greitemeyer, Tobias, Eva Traut-Mattausch, Silvia Osswald. 2012. How to ameliorate negative effects of violent video games on cooperation: Play it cooperatively in a team. Computers in Human Behavior 28, 1465-1470.

Jennett, Charlene, Anna L. Cox, Paul Cairns, Samira Dhoparee, Andrew Epps, Tim Tijs & Alison Walton. 2008. Measuring and defining the experience of immersion in games. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 66, 641-661.

Steinkuehler, Constance & Sean Duncan. 2008. Scientific Habits of Mind in Virtual Worlds. Journal of Science Education & Technology 17, 530-543.


[1]In a 2013 interview, James Gee rightly cautions that one must match a game carefully to the kind of learning one wishes to encourage: What’s Next? Learning researcher James Gee on games in school.


[2] Jeremiah Parry-Hill of Rochester Institute of Technology drew my attention to an ambitious modification of Civilization to teach Canadian history, History Game Canada (Axworthy and Gunn, 2007). It was at http://www.historycanadagame.com/although as of this writing it appears to be unavailable. A brief description is at http://www.hastac.org/projects/history-game-canada.

[3] Before reading Todorov, students read Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized, so they have some exposure to arguments about the psychology of individuals in colonial situations in that context as well as Todorov’s portraits of Columbus, Cortes et al.

[4]  http://www.scribd.com/doc/172182457/Civilization-IV-Mod-Age-of-Conquest-Read-Me-file

[5] In common with many popular games, the Civilization series has spawned a host of online resources, discussion spaces etc., produced by fans of the game rather than the commercial developer. For a sense of the level of sophistication of some of the discussions that can occur among players of commercial games, see Steinkuehler & Duncan (2008).

[6] For this reason, I have discussed with Todd creating a modding assignment, rather than presenting students with the finished product. So far we have not found the right context, given how demanding such an assignment would be, particularly in terms of time. But such an assignment could be every bit as effective as a substantial research paper in developing and assessing student learning. I hope to try it.

[7] As well as written instructions, students had in-person tutorials led by Todd in a computer lab before undertaking the assignment.

[8] One means of encouraging such a disposition in the seminar is not offering a fixed definition of ‘empire’ but rather encouraging students to work towards a definition that satisfies them as their knowledge and understanding develop.

[9] On the imperfectly understood phenomenon of engagement, see Jennett et al, 2008.

[10] The first group, Political Science seniors, was predominantly male. The second, larger group, International Studies seniors, was predominantly female. In these cases and since, it has been more usually, although not exclusively, male students who have experience with Civilization or games like it. But some female students have enjoyed and benefited from the assignment and some males have not: the gender division is neither absolute nor decisive.

[11] Although, as noted above, context is an under-researched area, Greitemeyer, Traut-Mattausch, and Osswald (2012) found that team and single-player experiences of violent videogames have different affective outcomes, which is suggestive with regards to the affective impact of context more broadly.

[12] The reflection is available at http://www.scribd.com/doc/100323544/observationsonciviv-is401-01fa11

[13] Steinkuehler and Duncan found no evidence that only “hardcore” World of Warcraft players were engaging the kinds of informal science literacy they were interested in; newer players were also involved (2008, 535).

This article is part of a special issue of Transformations on games in education, published on September 30, 2013. An earlier version was circulated for open peer review via Media Commons Press. The “Games in Education” issue was developed by Mike Roy (Middlebury College), guest editor and editorial board member of the Academic Commons, and Todd Bryant (Dickinson College), who was instrumental in organizing and developing the special issue.

Challenges to Games in Education Reaching the Mainstream

by Todd Bryant

Bryant_BioTodd Bryant is the liaison to the foreign language departments for the Academic Technology group at Dickinson College and an adjunct instructor of German. Much of his work centers on maintaining and updating The Mixxer, a site he created to help connect language students with native speakers via Skype. His interest in games began with his own use of World of Warcraft in an introductory German course, and he has helped others integrate Civilization IV, Inform7 and Peacemaker into various courses in the social sciences. You can follow Todd on Twitter: @bryantt and @MixxerSite.

Games have received a great deal of public attention over the past 10 years and with good reason. With his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy,James Paul Gee laid out sound pedagogical principles used by video game designers that enabled them to create a product that was very engaging and at the same time extremely challenging and complex.[1] The book was extremely influential and organizations focused on games and learning were established shortly thereafter, including “GamesforChange” in 2004[2] and “Games + Learning + Society” in 2005.[3] Since then games have remained prominent in education. The number of articles matching the term “game-based learning” in Google Scholar has increased steadily each year from 604 in 2004[4] to 2310 in 2012.[5] Educational uses of games have received major grant funding from the NEH,[6] Catherine T. MacArthur, and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundations.[7] They have also received serious attention from mainstream media including news organizations NPR[8] and CNN,[9] the New York Times best-selling book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World,[10] and as an exhibit in the Smithsonian.[11]

Despite the widespread dissemination of the positive aspects of games and learning, courses that utilize games are still an anomaly. Games have been mentioned in one form or another as an “emerging trend” four times in the NMC Horizon Report since 2004, including the 2011 version.[12] Yet games have never made it past the “two to three years horizon,” let alone reached what the NMC would consider “mainstream” status. This may be in part due to persisting negative stereotypes surrounding games, but I would argue that incorporating games into a classroom also present concrete and unique challenges. Unlike other technologies often implemented into courses such as social software and digital storytelling, games come with content. Finding a game that matches a given course can be quite difficult, especially when considering the disparate locations where one must look, most of which are unknown to non-gamers. The learning curve can also be quite steep. Strategy games can easily take 12 hours to complete a single game, and this time needs to be factored into any course syllabus. This means as well that games may require a large upfront investment in time for instructors to evaluate a game for inclusion in a course. Games also require a fundamental rethinking of a course’s pedagogical approach. With traditional resources, every student is exposed to the same content, whether it be lectures, readings, or multimedia. With games, the content changes depending on the player’s choices. This means the professors must create flexible and open-ended assignments and be willing to engage in discussions with students in areas in which they may be unfamiliar or unprepared. This also increases the responsibility of the student by requiring them to reflect on their own individual experience, compare it to the class as a whole, and seek guidance when necessary.

Fortunately, with the growth in the number and types of games, the options for educators to find a solution to these obstacles while also taking advantage of a game’s unique characteristics has also increased. Complex strategy games, once the exclusive domain of private companies, are now being created by organizations and educational institutions as well. Commercial games have improved by encouraging modifications (or “mods”) of their games in an attempt to extend their shelf-life. Browser-based games have multiplied, especially in the STEM fields as more educators look for new ways to interest students in math and the sciences. Alternate reality games have entered the mainstream and have been used to introduce students to life in a different time period or a possible future profession. Finally, board games and card games with their extremely short development time offer the possibility of engaging students as players in a simulation of current events on topics ranging from global warming, terrorism, or the economic crisis.

PC Games

One of the benefits of using games is their ability to present a scenario with a large number of interdependent variables in a manner that is accessible to novices. PC strategy games not only come with such a detailed scenario already created, in many cases they also come with a community that has analyzed and debated the system. As a result, students can first seek to understand the principles of the system before entering into a discussion about its merits, weaknesses, and relationship to reality. Since most of these games can be played as both single and multiplayer, students can also benefit from working at their own pace and with their classmates.

There are difficulties in implementing strategy games. Each student will need access to a computer, and most of these games are not free, though used copies of games older than six months can often be found very cheaply for around $10-$20. The learning curve for many of these games can also be significant. The instructor will most likely need to spend several days playing and evaluating the game before deciding if it is appropriate. If so, students would then need at least a couple of weeks of playing the game before understanding the relationships between the variables and the basic strategies. Because classes are likely to have students who have already played similar games, dividing the class into groups with at least one experienced gamer can shorten the learning curve and improve the students’ experience.[13]

Probably the most significant challenge with strategy games is finding a game that matches the content of the course. When doing so, keep in mind that the game does not have to be a perfect match to reality, since the students will be deconstructing the game based on their class readings, discussions, and research. It does, however, need to make a reasoned representation of the content or present an argument that is worthy of such an analysis. For example, at Dickinson College, Professor Michael J. Fratantuono’s first-year seminar course focused on two books, Guns, Germs, and Steel [14] by Jared Diamond and Hot Flat and Crowded[15] by Thomas Friedman along with the game Civilization IV. One of the goals of the course was to understand the world as a complex system. The game gave students the ability to see the importance of various factors on a civilization’s environment, economy, and military survival. They were then required to compare how these same factors were described in their readings.

Educators in the area of history and political science have the greatest number of options when looking for PC strategy games. The Civilization series is among the most popular. It is a very sophisticated game that can be used in almost any course that discusses the importance of diplomacy, geography, limited resources, and conflict. It’s also very flexible and has official and unofficial mods that attempt to recreate historical scenarios. Official mods are bundled with the game or sold as expansion packs while unofficial mods created by the community can be found on the CivFanaticswebsite. If you’re interested in using a historical scenario or looking for an example to build your own, the Rhye’s and Fall mod deserves a special mention for their world history scenario with custom maps, game elements, and logic. Players can download and help contribute to the mod on their wiki.

The “Total War” series by CreativeAssembly is very popular with an active modding community as well. Mods can be found at twcenter.net, and PCGamer also did a top 10 list of Total War mods in 2010. Another game studio with a good reputation for creating sophisticated history strategy games along with modding tools is ParadoxInteractive. Expansion packs are sold separately and unofficial mods are published in the Paradox forums.

While large commercial studios develop most of the PC games in which educators are interested, there are some outstanding exceptions. Peacemaker is an award-winning game that allows you to become leader of either the Palestinians or Israelis with the goal of establishing peace. It does an excellent job of highlighting the numerous domestic and international interests that need to be balanced on each side in order to reach a peace agreement. Its only drawback is its use of what were once current events, which now seem dated in a game eight years old. PeoplePower, the sequel to AForceMorePowerful, is another game that focuses on conflict in current events, though it is intended to be a training simulator for non-violent protests. One of the principal improvements over its predecessor is the ability for educators or their students to create scenarios that can then be shared with the community. Finally, for those interested in socio-political simulations, FateoftheWorld is a very sophisticated and difficult game that focuses on the challenges facing those attempting to address global environmental issues. Statecraft is equally complex with a more general focus on international relations.

Browser-based games

Relatively quick development cycles have made browser-based games the platform of choice among governments and non-profits hoping to educate and influence a wide audience. Many of these games can be used to introduce a problem or begin a discussion in courses that cover social issues, current events, and activism. Though usually not as sophisticated as PC-based games, they are almost always free and very easy to learn. Technology specifications are likewise minimal, requiring only a fairly modern browser, though usually with Flash installed. Finally, browser-based games are usually relatively easy to find since they’re already posted on the web and are publicized in a few well-known locations.

For those in the social sciences, a good place to begin looking is GamesforChange, which functions as a forum and distributor of games for non-profit organizations. As one might expect from games created by NGOs and governments, the focus is primarily on poverty, conflicts not covered by mainstream media, health, disasters, and the environment. It is important to remember that most of these games are intentionally subjective, having been created with the express goal of calling attention to a given issue. DarfurisDying, for example, is not meant to teach players how to actually survive in Darfur, rather it calls attention to the tragic situation of many of the refugees.

Many browser-based games attempt to demonstrate the complexity of an issue that may be viewed simplistically by the public or media. For example, Tell Me How This Ends attempts to demonstrate the complexities and possible consequences of a war with Iran, while End Game Syria presents the player with the difficult choices facing the Syrian rebels. Guerras Electorales, designed to inform players in Mexico of the specific types of electoral fraud, is similar in many ways to The Redistricting Game in that they both attempt to educate citizens on the corruption within their electoral systems. While the logic behind most of these games remains hidden, many credit the experts they used in creating the game on their websites, while others such as ClimateChallenge even publish the scientific reasoning and data underpinning game’s logic.

In terms of academic disciplines, the sciences have the largest number of browser-based games from which to choose, although most are targeted at k-12. Those in higher education should check out ERIAinteractive from the University of Wisconsin. ERIA interactive has at least two games of interest. Trails Forward is a simulation game about wildlife conservation and the competing interests of timber companies, developers, and conservationists. They also plan to create a modding community that will reveal the underlying data of the simulation. The Anatomy Browser is potentially very useful as well, though even more interesting may be the goal of its creators to use the game to prepare players to look at medical images. Once they’ve mastered the game, there will be a Facebook group of professionals and amateurs who analyze medical images with the goal of improving accuracy in the professional community. The MIT Game Lab is another resource for high-quality browser-based games with an educational and creative focus. Popular games have included Waker, which introduces the concepts of displacement and velocity, though in a very abstract manner, and A Slower Speed of Light, which tries to demonstrate what would happen visually if light were to slow.

An emerging type of game for the sciences combines crowdsourcing with puzzle games. Scientific discovery games provide a link between learners and experts by introducing players to a scientific concept and then providing them with a problem. The game collects data from the players’ solutions, which the game’s creators then use for their research. These puzzles usually have to do with pattern recognition or structures, areas where humans outperform even the fastest supercomputers. FoldIt, a game about protein structures, is the oldest and also the only downloadable game. Other true browser-based games include Phylo and EteRNA, which center on genetic patterns, and Quantum for quantum physics. As puzzle games, these have a much shorter learning curve than most historical strategy games, though they usually only focus on a single concept. For educators, this means they’ll have to put the games into a larger context in order for students to understand how the concepts of the game relate to the research that they are supporting.

For the humanities, games provide both a dilemma and an opportunity. Games that are either inspired by or attempt to reproduce literature are forced to balance staying true to the original story while still allowing for meaningful choices by the player. Despite the difficulties, there have been successes. Kafkamesto functions very well as an introduction into Franz Kafka’s most common themes, and a team from USC is attempting an ambitious project to recreate the perspective of Thoreau with Walden, AGame. There is an even an “artist simulation game,” Avant-Garde, which places you in Paris as a contemporary to Cézanne and Manet among others. Of course, the games themselves can be the target of study as well. Kongregate has an enormous selection of free browser-based games, though if you’re looking to narrow your selection to more artistic games, the IndependentGamesFestival, Gambitgamelab, and the Brainy Gamer are all great places to start.

Professors in the humanities, especially those with a focus on writing, may be better served having students create games. Inform7 is a platform for developing interactive fiction, text-based games that have users type commands following written descriptions. If you are unfamiliar with the term interactive fiction, you may be familiar with Zork. Otherwise, if you have ever read a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, it’s a similar premise. Until recently, creators had to download Inform7 as a program and then compile and publish their finished games. Fortunately, Playficnow allows this all to be done from within the browser. One example for interactive fiction being used to teach writing comes from Professors James Brown and Eric Alexander at the University of Wisconsin who used Inform7 in a general education course as a way of teaching writing, computer programming, and the connections between them. Inform7 also requires that the writer think in terms of space: how each area stands in relation to the others forms the initial groundwork of the game. This makes it a good solution for having students research and recreate historical locations, as Professor Christopher Fee has done for his MedievalStudiescourses at Gettysburg College. While having the advantage of giving students the opportunity to be creators and researchers, it is important not to underestimate the time necessary to create even a simple game. Inform7 claims their code “reads like English,” which is true to a certain extent. It certainly is easier to understand than a computer programming language, but it still comes with its own syntax. Students will need to learn this syntax as well as the underlying logic of connecting the defined areas and logic sequences. Several weeks are needed for the creation of even basic games, and students should be given an example game with the same logic and scope that is expected of them. Doing so will minimize the frustration of trying to locate and fix what are usually fairly simple syntax errors in their game.


One of the strengths of alternate reality games is their flexibility. Loosely defined, ARGs are games with a running a narrative that take place in the real world. Players are given challenges or puzzles throughout the story until the narrative reaches its conclusion. Since the technology used is often very basic—usually email and web pages that provide information about the narrative to the player—the game designer is also free to change the story as the game develops. For educators, this means that any subject that can be seen as helping to resolve a problem can be turned into an ARG. On the flip side, public ARGs are only played for a limited period of time, meaning in all likelihood the instructor is going to need to modify a previous ARG or create their own.

While creating a game may seem daunting, there are plenty of examples from which to draw ideas, many of which follow a pattern that are fairly easy to imitate. One example, Nephrotex is a game from the University of Wisconsin where students play the role of interns in a fictitious engineering company. As employees, they are part of a team tasked with determining specifications, conducting experiments, and then defending their design. By using an ARG, the professor has the advantage of covering all of the topics required for the course, while at the same time demonstrating their practical applications in the real world. Another game, Dog Eat Dog, places students in the role of occupier or native and demonstrates the power relationship that leads to subjugation and conflict.

For classes with a historical component, there is a series of games designed for higher education. “ReactingtothePast” is a set of games where students are given roles to play at a certain point in history, usually preceding a conflict of ideas. The students’ roles determine their interests and philosophies, and they must research their own character as well as the background of others in order to convince other players to join their cause, which may take the form of debates in parliament, Vatican councils, newspaper columns, etc. While the game begins with historical accuracy, the narrative will change based on the actions of the players and the decisions of the instructor running the game. They currently have games published under the Pearson Series, any of which could function as a template for a similar game set at a different point in history, provided that the content of the course focused on competing ideologies.

Board Games

Usually when we see games mentioned in regards to education, we are referring to some sort of digital game. While digital games do offer some advantages, board games continue to thrive. Without any technical requirements and usually quite inexpensive, board games are extremely accessible. The learning curve varies greatly depending on the game, though players are saved from having to learn the numerous action commands of a digital game. BoardGameGeeksalso provides a central location for finding games and reviews for an enormous collection of board games.

Another key advantage of board games is their comparatively short development time. For example, GMT Games, one of the largest strategy game publishers, has a unique model called Project 500 whereby customers effectively vote on a game they would like to see distributed through discounted pre-orders. Once the threshold of pre-orders is reached, the game is published. This makes it possible for board game makers to create complex strategy games that reflect current events. It also makes it easier to modify games for education (Catan: OilSprings) or to create them (AfghanProvincialReconstruction and PeacekeepingtheGame).


Academia has until recently largely ignored console games. First person shooters and sports games offer little content for discussion, and their cost discouraged widespread use in the classroom. However, as the game industry in general and the role-playing games in particular have grown in popularity, we’ve seen them being discussed as a cultural medium within courses, such as Scandinavian Fantasy Worlds: Old Norse Sagas and Skyrim from Rice University or Dystopia, Revolution & Leadership from University of Richmond. We’ve also seen indie games such as Flower[16] and Journey[17] make more creative use of the immersive aspect of console games to challenge the form and raise questions about the definition of art. Papo & Yo has continued this trend while at the same time confronting the issues of alcoholism and child abuse. Another indie game, Portal, has been used as part of the course Enduring Questions for freshman at Wabash College, and its sequel, Portal 2, has a companion website for educators as well.


While each type of game comes with its own set of advantages and challenges, there are a few guidelines that can help make the introduction of any game into your course successful. It is important from the beginning of the course to be open with students about your reason for choosing the game, expectations for the students, and that, because the course is a pilot effort, you will be learning along with them. In any course that varies from the norm, students often express concern about assessment. This is particularly true in a course with a game where students may feel they must “win” in order to receive a good grade. By making your learning goals clear, you can help students see the failures, which are a part of any well-designed game, as part of the process. Reflection is also a key component in any course with games. Since the content of a game changes based on the players’ decisions, students need to hear from their instructor or other players at regular points in order to maintain focus on the larger picture. Finally, when constructing the course assignments, try to do so in a manner that encourages students to cooperate either as a class or within their groups. In addition to reducing the initial learning curves for the games by utilizing experienced players within the class, you will also create a natural forum for the exchanging of ideas and reflection outside of class hours.

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[1] Gee, James Paul. What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

[2] “About.” Games for Change. Games for Change, n.d. Web. 14 May 2013. <http://www.gamesforchange.org/about/>.

[3] “Games, Learning & Society Conference.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 29 Mar. 2013. Web. 14 May 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Games,_Learning_&_Society_Conference>.

[4] Google Scholar. Google, n.d. Web. 14 May 2013. <http://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=%E2%80%9Cgame+based+learning%E2%80%9D&hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C39&as_ylo=2004&as_yhi=2004>.

[5] Google Scholar. Google, n.d. Web. 14 May 2013. < http://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=%E2%80%9Cgame+based+learning%E2%80%9D&hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C39&as_ylo=2012&as_yhi=2012>.

[6] NEH. National Endowment for the Humanities, n.d. Web. 14 May 2013. <https://securegrants.neh.gov/publicquery/main.aspx?q=1&a=0&n=0&o=0&k=1&kv=Game+Learning&kj=and&w=0&f=0&s=0&p=0&d=0&y=0&prd=0&cov=0&prz=0&wp=0&pg=0&ob=year&or=DESC>.

[7] Chang, Timothy. “EAs New Games May Help Put You in College.” The Escapist. Escapist Magazine, 29 June 2012. Web. 14 May 2013. <http://www.escapistmagazine.com/news/view/118186-EAs-New-Games-May-Help-Put-You-in-College>.

[8] “What Can We Learn From Video Games?” NPR. National Public Radio, 18 Apr. 2012. Web. 14 May 2013. <http://www.npr.org/2012/04/18/150879193/what-can-we-learn-from-video-games>.

[9] Steinberg, Scott. “How Video Games Can Make You Smarter.” CNN. Cable News Network, 31 Jan. 2011. Web. 14 May 2013. <http://www.cnn.com/2011/TECH/gaming.gadgets/01/31/video.games.smarter.steinberg/index.html?_s=PM:TECH>.

[10] McGonigal, Jane. Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. New York: The Penguin Press, 2011.

[11] “Exhibitions.” Smithsonian American Art Museum. The Smithsonian, n.d. Web. 14 May 2013. <http://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/archive/2012/games/>.

[12] Ruben R. Puentedura, Ruben R. “The Horizon Report: Tales of a Future Past.” Horizon Project Future of Education Tenth-Year Retreat. Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort & Spa, Austin. 25 Jan. 2012. Lecture.

[13] For an example of a class that used groups within a class to help with the learning curve of Civ IV see: Webb, Ed. “Learning (together) with games – Civilization and Empire,” Academic Commons. September 2013.

[14] Diamond, Jared M. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. New York: W.W. Norton &, 1998.

[15] Friedman, Thomas L. Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution– and How It Can Renew America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.

[16] Kuchera, Ben. “ArsTechnica.” Ars Technica. Ars Technica, 9 Feb. 2009. Web. 14 May 2013. <http://arstechnica.com/gaming/2009/02/ps3s-flower-is-art-extends-conversation-on-what-games-are/>.

[17] Stuart, Keith. “Is Journey a Game or a Piece of Interactive Art?” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 13 Nov. 0047. Web. 14 May 2013. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/gamesblog/2012/mar/15/journey-game-or-interactive-art>.

This article is part of a special issue of Transformations on games in education, published on September 30, 2013. An earlier version was circulated for open peer review via Media Commons Press. The “Games in Education” issue was developed by Mike Roy (Middlebury College), guest editor and editorial board member of the Academic Commons, and Todd Bryant (Dickinson College), who was instrumental in organizing and developing the special issue.

The Mixxer Language Exchange Community


mixxer1.jpgThe Mixxer is a social networking site designed for language learners. Dickinson College places a heavy emphasis on international education, its study abroad programs, and foreign languages. The Mixxer allows us to create real world language use in our classrooms with native speakers using Skype. The site has many of the same functionalities as Facebook with blogs, friend requests, and a messaging system; however, what makes it different is that users search for potential language partners based on their native language and the language they are studying. When they find a potential partner, they send a message proposing times to meet and eventually communicate via Skype. Though not required, the usual arrangement is to meet for an hour with each partner, spending thirty minutes speaking in their native language and thirty minutes in their target language.

The Mixxer also includes functions for foreign language teachers. Teachers can search for other teachers interested in class-to-class exchanges. They can organize and oversee their students’ blog posts. In addition, they can organize “events” where native speakers are invited to contact students in their class via Skype at a specific time. With more than 40,000 Mixxer users, it is now possible for any language teacher to organize a language exchange for their students at almost any time. This is especially helpful for less commonly taught languages in Asia and the Middle East where time differences make most traditional class-to-class exchanges very difficult.


The idea for the project grew from the collaboration of myself, the language technologist at Dickinson College, and a Japanese instructor, Akiko Meguro in 2005. Professor Meguro had heard about text chat exchanges done here at the college via NetMeeting between an intermediate French class and an English class in France. She wanted to do the same for her classes, but there were several obstacles in replicating the project in Japanese. The first was the Japanese writing system. Written Japanese consists of three character sets: hiragana, katakana and kanji. Switching between character sets, in addition to learning kanji (Chinese characters), is significantly more complicated than the Roman alphabetical system. Because of these character sets, typing is not usually taught until the second semester. Language exchanges for first-year courses would have to be audio exchanges done during class to avoid the necessity of typing and to provide help to students who may have trouble understanding or communicating. Unfortunately, the popular audio messengers at the time such as “Yahoo Talk,” “MSN Messenger,” and “IChat” often had difficulty connecting or maintaining an audio connection due to firewalls and network configurations. The second major hurdle was the thirteen-hour time difference between the east coast of the U.S. and Japan, which made finding potential partners with matching class hours very difficult.

The arrival of Web 2.0 offered some solutions. One of these technologies, Skype, enabled us to have reliable voice communications to Japan. Skype is a voice over IP application, often called an audio messenger, that allows for free calls between computers. We chose Skype over the other audio messengers for several reasons:

  1. Skype used what is called p2p technology, or peer-to-peer, meaning there is no central server. This enables it to reliably connect computers on different networks with little regard to the configuration or firewall settings on either network.
  2. Skype had a very large and international user base, which meant we had a large pool of native Japanese speakers from which to draw who were already familiar with the technology.
  3. Skype could be set to connect over a specific internet port. On a campus network, this meant we were able to reserve bandwidth for the language exchanges by setting the Skype clients in the language labs to use the port that was assigned the highest priority.

With the arrival of Skype, we had a reliable tool for audio communication, but we still needed a way to find partners for our students. I decided to create the Mixxer, a social networking site that would be solely for those interested in language exchanges via Skype. The initial version was extremely simple. It was little more than a searchable database with the front end created using the .NET framework and an Access database on the back end. Users could search profiles that were separated into two categories: individual learners and teachers. Individual learners could search the database by native language and language sought; teachers could search for other classes based on language criteria and student ages.

The initial challenge was garnering publicity for the site in order to populate the database with enough language learners and teachers so as to be useful. Looking back, I could have developed a far more effective marketing strategy by taking advantage of the blogosphere, our own Web site, listservs, and other social media. Instead I haphazardly searched forums for posts of people looking for language partners and offered my site as a suggestion. I was, in effect, recruiting users one at a time. Fortunately I did eventually reach a critical mass and the site was able to grow on its own. Even more importantly, Skype, which was barely out of beta at this point, began receiving a tremendous amount of publicity. Educational blogs began writing about the possibility of using the service as a language learning tool. Because the Mixxer had been created very early on in the development of Skype, it ranked very highly for searches such as “language exchange Skype,” “learn language Skype,” etc. This created a cycle of links for the Mixxer, a high ranking in Google searches, and more users.

Once we had a sizable database of language learners and teachers, we were able to find partner classes for many of our language classes and offer students the possibility of conducting language exchanges outside of class. For one year, Japanese conducted class-to-class exchanges with an English class in Japan. However, maintaining these exchanges was difficult. The time difference meant that our students, myself, and the professor had to meet at 9 p.m. to speak with the class in Japan. In addition, the number of students who would show up on their side and at what time was very unpredictable. At times, we would have students show up in the evening and be unable to speak with anyone for the entire hour. Over time, this proved to be a fairly common experience. Class-to-class exchanges were often difficult to maintain over various semesters due to schedules and time zones, but also because of varying expectations. While it was a required and integral part of our courses, other schools sometimes viewed the exchanges as optional for their students and were unsupervised by their instructors.

Because of these difficulties, Professor Meguro began utilizing a Japanese social networking site, Mixi, to recruit individual native speakers who were interested in practicing their English. Mixi makes this possible through community and event functions that allow users to create groups and organize themselves around a common topic. Professor Meguro started a group focused on English language practice, that she then used to propose an “online meeting” for the community. Our class time would be posted as the time for the online meeting, those interested would send me a message via Skype, and their names would be distributed to our students.

This method worked well, but once the community became very large, we wanted to set up a registration system allowing us to match the number of native speakers with our class size. We set up a registration and event function within the language exchange site, the Mixxer, in order to do this. By adding this functionality to the Mixxer, we were also able to offer the same function to any language class on campus with relatively short notice.

Drupal as a Development Platform

For two years, the site grew at a very good pace. With over 20,000 users in the database, I was able to offer language exchanges to any foreign language professor at the college interested in connecting their students with native speakers. Last year I began looking at expanding functionality. I wanted users, including our students, to be able to maintain blogs on the site that could be reviewed by their professor or native speakers. I also wanted to allow users to create groups, whether they were peer study groups or classes created by professors for their students. Finally, I wanted teachers and professors outside of Dickinson to be able to arrange language exchange events for their classes. Up until then, I had organized all of the exchanges by running a query on the back end database that sent an email to potential language participants. If I were to open up this process to other institutions, I would need to develop a front end that automated this process.

Because I was the only person working on the site and my time for the project was restricted to summers, creating the additional features in VB.NET was not feasible. Starting over in a different platform seemed daunting as well, but I knew the change would only become more difficult as time passed. I began looking at platforms that would allow for the easy creation of a social networking site and would be fundamentally customizable, since the entire site was oriented around each user’s target and native language–not the type of criteria that comes “out of the box” with pre-made sites. I also wanted to use something that was open source and had an active user base. This would ensure that I could obtain the software for free, be able to make any necessary changes, and hopefully be able to rely on future upgrades and avoid having to switch platforms in the immediate future.

I looked at ELGG and Joomla, but I finally settled on Drupal. Both Drupal and Joomla have an active user base and are module based, which allows the creator of the site to customize the site by adding functions created by the community. When I made a list of the additional functions I needed to recreate my current site along with the groups, blogs, and event creation, I felt Drupal provided the best collection of modules. And since we already had a previous version of Drupal running on campus, there was the possibility of help from colleagues if I ran into trouble.

The transition of the .NET site to Drupal, including content and the additional functions, took me about two months, which was better than I had expected. Until this point, not only was I unfamiliar with Drupal, but I had also never written any code in PHP, used MySQL, or worked with Linux. Most of my time was spent sifting through possible modules and testing their functionality along with configuration settings. In the end, I added less than ten lines of custom coding to the site. The rest of the changes were made by uploading modules and selecting configuration settings on a form. It would have taken at least twice as long for me to have created the additional functionality from scratch in .NET on the old site, and now with my understanding of Drupal and its parts, additional changes will come much faster. Once I had created the new site, I was also able to find modules that allowed me to import the content from the old site. When the new site went live, I had some performance issues since I was unfamiliar with PHP caching or diagnosing slow queries in MySQL, but these proved to relatively minor issues. Both have since been resolved as our server group has learned more about LINUX, and I have gained additional experience working with a MySQL database.

The new Mixxer site in Drupal has been a great success. Traffic is up 66% from this same time a year ago and we doubled our user base. Because professors can now organize events on their own, we greatly increased the number of classes that integrate exchanges into their classes from a handful each semester to fifteen or twenty classes. At the same time, I’ve been able to reduce the time I spend organizing and starting each exchange. I would recommend Drupal to anyone looking for a system that allows users to organize themselves and collaborate on a given subject.


Foreign Language Instructors Interested in Using the Mixxer

The Mixxer is open to any language learner or teachers. Teachers are asked to create an account at www.language-exchanges.org and then send me an email requesting a teacher account. Once registered, they can search for other classes interested in having an exchange or to set up an event for their own class by inviting individual students to contact their students during the class hour. The process for doing so is simple. The instructor creates a page describing the time and topic of the exchanges, and then invites Mixxer users who match the language profile. It is recommended that these invitations are sent at least one week in advance. In the message, a link is included where the native speakers can register using their username, Skype name and e-mail address. When enough native speakers have registered, the teacher closes the registration. An email is automatically sent to those who have signed up one day before the event to confirm the exchange and instruct participants to send a Skype text message five minutes before the event to the instructor’s Skype address. On the day of the exchange, these Skype names are collected and distributed to the students as they enter the computer lab. In case that the number of students and native speakers do not match perfectly, students can participate in a Skype conference call, that may include two students and one native speaker. More detailed instructions about setting up an exchange are posted on the site.

I also recommend that the students produce something from these exchanges such as a summary of their exchange. One option is to have students send their reports directly to the instructor; however, it is also possible to have them report on their exchanges via the blogs within the Mixxer. Students and their partners are then able to read each of the reports and provide comments that frequently encourage further interaction outside of class. In order to encourage this interaction, students may write a “thank you” message to their partner as well, so that the partner can find the student’s profile within the site. Once they’ve made this initial contact on the site and become Mixxer “friends,” they will each be notified when the other posts additional content. After several exchanges, the students become members of this virtual community and their relationships will extend beyond the classroom. We have had students maintain contact with their language partners over several semesters, or even a couple of years until a semester abroad, when they were finally able to meet in person.

Some professors also have their more advanced students conduct content-based interviews with native speakers. In this case, students sign up as individual learners on the Mixxer. They then contact native speakers about doing an exchange and set up a time to meet. It is important that students contact more than one native speaker and do so well in advance of the actual due date of their project, and that they also fulfill their promise to give their partner equal time practicing their target language.


Our principal goal in having the language exchanges was to increase the amount of verbal practice in the target language. This was clearly a success with students fully immersed in the target language for roughly twenty-five minutes each class. But we were also interested in additional benefits provided by the exchange, particularly on student motivation in the classroom and their interest in study abroad opportunities. In fall 2008, we surveyed eight classes and 103 students who had used the Mixxer for language exchanges. Results were quite positive. Roughly 90% of students stated that they enjoyed the exchanges and found them useful. Equally encouraging was the 89% positive response rate to the question whether their confidence in speaking had increased. Finally, and somewhat of a surprise, 30% of students said the exchanges made them more likely to decide to study abroad; 70% said the exchanges had no effect and 0% indicated a negative response. Professors also reported anecdotal evidence that students using Mixxer were more motivated, knowing they would be applying what they learned in the classroom to a “real-life” situation. Several students in each class maintained contact with their partner outside of class. In some cases, these additional exchanges amounted to several additional hours of practice within the target language each week. Also of note, we had two students this year who reconnected with their former Skype language partners while studying abroad.

The effect these exchanges have on the format of the instruction of the classes depends mostly on their frequency. For the Japanese department, these exchanges form the communicative goal for each chapter. They have a language exchange every two weeks with questions and conversational topics drawn from the material they’ve learned in a given chapter. Other languages such as Spanish and German will only have two or three language exchanges per semester and the exchanges are often used as supplemental cultural components for the course.

This coming year I hope to extend the language exchanges from roughly fifteen to twenty intermediate courses to include more beginning level courses. We organized exchanges for second-semester Spanish students this year and the professors were surprised not only by how well the students did, but also by their reactions to the exchanges. The faculty had feared some of the students would feel overwhelmed and frustrated by the experience; instead the students asked immediately afterward about future exchanges.

I am also hoping to increase the number of professors from other institutions involved in exchanges. Outside of Dickinson, several colleges and universities have used the system to find partner classes, but only Oberlin College, Franklin and Marshall and Illinois Wesleyan use the site regularly. This is partly due to lack of awareness, but an improved interface and better description for setting up the language exchange events–improvements planned this summer–would also help. Anyone interested in connecting their language students with native speakers should feel free to contact me at bryantt@dickinson.edu.