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Computer games are intelligent reductions of reality to focus on a given challenge. Their key strength is that they allow users to learn from failure in a safe setting. The relatively young serious games movement is using this principle to help learners overcome fears so it plays a big role in military training. Definitely not my line of business. But they are also teaching people communication skills and that is what my teaching is all about. So my heart skips a beat everytime the community gets together, like last week, when it enjoyed one of its annual events, the Serious Games Summit, in Los Angeles. While I’m waiting for a new game lead, let me tell you about my current favorite.

zapdramatic

I’m hooked on a suite of flash animated simulations called ZapDramatic. Developed by Canadian Michael Gibson and his Negotiation and Alternative Dispute Resolution team, these simply drawn, yet incredibly well thought out minidramas and roleplays take you into one-to-one scenarios with a scripted counterpart. Your reactions determine how the story develops. You make the wrong decisions, and the story ends badly. But you can and need to start over and try again. Every change in your reactions produces a surprising twist that keeps you going. In the end, you invariably succeed but the solutions are never obvious. Your counterpart doesn’t think anything like you do. In fact, he or she may be quite irrational much like some of the real people we deal with, right? So you need to explore their way of thinking, which provides enormous scope for communication training. I don’t find it at all surprising that Zapdramatic is as popular with women as it is with men.

Why am I so keen on using these games in my teaching? They are didactic gems. They pick up on the essential challenge of adult education, namely relearning how to learn. Because let’s face it: most adults have forgotten how to learn. ZapDramatic actually helps learners overcome two key hurdles this involves: being ready to make mistakes and sticking with the process. First of all, they need the right kind of challenge to risk being wrong. This is especially true for my often risk-averse German learners. Taking creative risks is systematically drilled out of us, first at school and later at work. The fear of making mistakes is something I see in my students every day. People stop learning because they are afraid to be seen as deficient. Gibson says, “We learn best from our mistakes. But if the mistake could ruin a reputation or career it would be best to make it in a simulation.”

The second key skill adults need to relearn is perseverance. Adults naturally need longer to learn and have found ingenious shortcuts to “buy their way out of” learning. Usually adults have learned to surf along on their strengths and to hide their weaknesses. So having to stick with the learning process is very hard. Nevertheless, it’s key to being successful because practice makes perfect. Games like ZapDramatic make this concept crystal clear: Give up and you fail, but stick with it and you win. ZapDramatic games are challenging and fun to the point of being addictive, which is precisely the quality adults need to overcome their fear of learning.

There is one problem I see: I’m convinced that foreign language learning follows content. However, if the language level is causing the learners too much trouble, they will surely give up in frustration. That’s why I’ll be providing online language training on the Beautiful Islands course site specifically geared to those interested in playing ZapDramatic. So: I’m game. How about you?

  • At TED, Sir Ken Robinson said, “Kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go. They’re not frightened of being wrong. … If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original. … By the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. … We stigmatize mistakes. … The result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.” Don’t miss this extraordinary TED talk.
  • ZapDramatic includes the “Professionalism and Ethics” simulation, which won the Excellence in Learning prize at the Canadian New Media Awards, “Ambition”, an interactive murder mystery, university certificate courses on “Negotiation” and “Difficult Conversations”, and “Move or Die”, an interactive adventure game which won the Vortex prize at the McLuhan International Festival of the Future. Free games are available, but become a member to play the whole series — the subscription for three months is 12 Canadian dollars, or less than 10 euros. Let me know what you think.
  • Second Life as a campus? Give me a break. There are plenty of educators who think it’s great, but I don’t see the point. It’s “playing”, but it’s not a game. Nicholas Carr estimated way back in 2006 that each avatar in SL leaves a carbon footprint as big as that of an average Brazilian. We can chat online using less costly solutions. Don’t dumb down. Get a life.

Learning the Ropes – Leichtes Spiel mit den Vokabeln

to be game – mutig sein, bereit sein, mitmachen wollen
a given challenge – eine gegebene Herausforderung
key strength – Schlüsselstärke/-kompetenz
failure – Versagen
a safe setting – ein sicherer Rahmen
principle – Prinzip
overcome fears – Ängste überwinden
my line of business – meine Branche
to skip a beat – flattern
a new lead – ein heißer Tipp
current – derzeitig
to be hooked on sth – begeistert sein von; süchtig sein nach
negotiation – Verhandeln, Verhandlung
dispute resolution – Schlichtung
scripted – als Drehbuch geschrieben
counterpart – Gegenspieler
to determine – bestimmen
a twist – eine Wende (in der Geschichte)
in the end – schlussendlich
invariably – ohne Ausnahme
obvious – offensichtlich
enormous scope – sehr große Bandbreite
popular with (!) women – bei Frauen beliebt
keen on sth – scharf auf etw.
didactic gems – didaktische Schätze (=Juwelen)
to pick up on – begreifen; wahrnehmen, verstehen und reagieren
adult education – Erwachsenenbildung
to relearn – von neuem lernen
let’s face it – schauen wir der Tatsache ins Auge
to overcome – überwinden
hurdle – Hürde
to make mistakes – Fehler machen
to stick with sth. – dabeibleiben, eine Sache durchstehen
to risk + -ing – riskieren, etwas zu tun
risk-averse – risikoscheu
to drill sth. out of so. – jemandem etwas austreiben
deficient – mangelhaft
ruin a reputation – Ruf ruinieren
career – Beruf
perseverance – Durchhaltevermögen
ingenious – erfinderisch
shortcuts – Abkürzungen
to buy one’s way out of sth. – sich freikaufen
to surf along – sich tragen lassen
strengths and weaknesses – Stärken und Schwächen
to hide – verstecken
practice makes perfect – Übung macht den Meister
crystal clear – glasklar
to give up – aufgeben
to fail – scheitern
be addictive – süchtig machen
precisely – genau
convinced – überzeugt
language learning follows content – Spracherwerb ist vom Inhalt geleitet
to cause trouble – Probleme machen
give up in frustration – frustriert aufgeben
provide training – Unterricht anbieten
specifically geared to – speziell ausgerichtet auf
interested in (+ -ing) – interessiert an
have a go – ausprobieren
give me a break (coll.) – verschon mich
not see the point – den Sinn und Zweck nicht erkennen können
dumb down (coll.) – das geistige Niveau so weit herunterschrauben, dass eine breite Masse erreicht wird
get a life (coll.) – sich um wichtigere Sachen kümmern; This heartfelt groan (Stoßseufzer) can also mean:”komm mal runter”, “wach endlich auf” or “nimm’s locker”