Skip to main content

Asteroids and space dogs? Spaceteam ESL's interstellar twist on learning

This new Concordia-created video game takes learning to a different level
September 23, 2015


Learning English as a second language is always a challenge, but luckily Spaceteam ESL — which launches today in the App Store and on Google Play — aims to make the process more enjoyable.

Created by David Waddington and Walcir Cardoso from Concordia’s Department of Education, it puts a linguistic spin on the hit multiplayer game Spaceteam by Sleeping Beast, which currently boasts more than 3 million downloads.

Working in groups of two-to-four, Spaceteam ESL players receive English instructions on their phones about how to fly their spaceship. They must then translate, collaborate and act together to avoid danger.

We sasked Waddington, a professor who studies video games and learning, for the details.

A Q&A about Spaceteam ESL: 'It’s wonderful to see people having fun together'

How did you come up with the idea for Spaceteam ESL?

David Waddington: Spaceteam ESL began when I met Henry Smith [of Sleeping Beast Games] at an Ultimate Frisbee game that my wife Lise and I organized in Parc La Fontaine.

One evening, we had all finished playing, and we were sitting around talking about what we did in life. Since I study video games, I was really excited to find out that Henry had made Spaceteam.

My wife is a former ESL teacher, and she immediately saw the potential value of Spaceteam for ESL contexts. I thought that the idea of using Spaceteam was intriguing, but I lacked know-how to evaluate it properly, so I approached my colleague Walcir Cardoso, who is an expert on the use of innovative technologies in ESL classrooms.

We played Spaceteam together in my office, and Walcir was immediately hooked on the idea of adapting it. He saw that it could address some of key problems in ESL teaching like speaking, listening and pronunciation, and he saw the game’s fun, absurd atmosphere as a helpful tool to address learners’ anxiety about speaking English.

After securing grant support from Concordia’s Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance and Laura Collins’ ALERT (Acquiring language efficiently: Research and teaching) team, we approached Henry, and he was really enthusiastic about the idea.

What was the integration process like?

DW: Building the game was a lengthy project. One of the more difficult tasks was to select lists of words that would cover a fair amount of ground from a vocabulary standpoint but also work well in the game.

Walcir and his graduate students did critical work in developing the initial lists, and I worked with another graduate student, Ross Sundberg, to further refine the game’s five levels. We worked hard to strike a good balance between comprehensiveness and fun.

Throughout the process of adapting the game, Henry was a consummate pro. He built a wonderful practice module in which students can listen to the words in the game being pronounced and practice pronouncing the words themselves, and he delivered all of the promised features.

How have players reacted to the game?

DW: Our playtesters have really enjoyed it. We have some great footage online of ESL teachers who tested the game for us.

It was really fun to see them get excited, shout a bit at each other, and shake their iPads around whenever the game generated an asteroid.

What is the overall goal of Spaceteam ESL?

DW: Lots of folks who want to learn English get bored and discouraged, and sometimes students are turned off by traditional classroom teaching approaches.

Spaceteam ESL is meant to help address these problems. Our goal was to create a tool for ESL teachers and students that would be really fun while simultaneously promoting learning, and we think we’ve done that.

Walcir will definitely be using the tool in his classroom in his work in training future ESL teachers and researchers. There’s a lot of excitement amongst teachers about what apps like Spaceteam ESL can do, and there’s a lot of fruitful research to be done in this area as well.  

What is your favourite feature of the game?

DW: My favorite aspect of the game is definitely the shouting and laughter that it generates when people play it. It’s wonderful to see people relaxing and having fun together, and I suppose it’s even better if they're learning something at the same time.

A close second-favorite is the absurd randomized language combinations the game generates. For example, a recent one that has stuck in my mind is “imagine long space dogs.” 

Find out more about Spaceteam ESL and Concordia’s Department of Education.

Back to top

© Concordia University