911, what’s your emergency? Review

911, what’s your emergency? Review

An emergency phone line operator isn’t the first job I’d think of that needs excellent language skills, but you’d be hard-pressed to find lots of better examples of work where your listening and speaking skills really make the difference between life and death.

I’ve been fortunate enough never to have made a call to 911 (or any other emergency number) that I can remember. So I’ve never really thought about the person on the other end of that line. Spending 7 or 8 hours with 911 Operator was therefore a completely novel experience for me.

911 Operator is a video game from independent Polish developer studio Jutsu about the difficult work of people that manage emergency lines and services. Your main task in the game is to answer incoming calls and to react properly – give first aid instructions, advise, dispatch correct number of firemen / police / ambulances, or sometimes just ignore the call. The way this works is that you hear the call and read the transcript as you listen. You then have a menu of choices to make your responses, and the conversation continues until you send help or decide that it’s not really an emergency.


On top of that, there is a strategic layer which presents you with the map of a city. You need to click on fire engines, ambulances or police cars to send them to deal with the various emergencies. In addition to receiving and fielding calls, there are other emergencies that crop up in the form of text messages on the screen. Basically, your job is to get through the night (around fifteen minutes of real time) without too many casualties or too much damage done.

So, this involves a lot of reading and listening in real time. The more than 50 voiceover dialogues in the game meant that in the time I was playing I very rarely heard the same situation repeated. And the voiceover acting is pretty good too. Of course where I think this game really could be useful is for any teachers of medical English. There are a lot of first aid instructions you have to give, medical procedures that you have to choose from and this all brings up tons of health and body vocabulary. This could also be a useful simulation game to anyone teaching the police English, and I’ve trained several teachers who have gone on to do just that. There’s plenty of crime vocabulary to read and react to as well.


Sending your units around the map gets a little more tricky. Because you have to make decisions quickly, that means a lot of snap judgement calls. Do I send one or two police cars? Do I send my last ambulance for what sounds like a minor medical emergency? This clicking around and assigning of resources kind of reminded me of other RTS (real-time strategy) games, which do involve quick assessment of a map and situation to be able to respond well, and can be frustrating for people not accustomed to the genre.

A final brilliant touch of the game is that it allows you to download a map of any city to play the simulation on. So I played a game on the map of my nearest city (Alicante) in Spain. That was quite fun, although you do have to suspend belief a bit… why would emergency officers in Spain be speaking in English? That being said, it was a nice little tweak.

I’d strongly recommend this game for any English language student or teacher wishing to work on vocabulary relating to health, first aid and crime. I can see this much more as a small group activity, perhaps with one student playing while the game is being projected – and other students helping to make decisions. I would certainly use this in a very small private class with a doctor or paramedic or police officer wishing to learn English. I can see it also giving rise to conversations as to how realistic this actually is to them.

911 Operator is available via Steam and costs around €15. Check out the trailer below to get a taste of what the game is like.



Someone here is lying… Spyfall review

Someone here is lying… Spyfall review

Around 8 months ago I was introduced to a new game that I immediately wanted to write about for this site. It’s taken awhile, but here it is. You see, it’s not all digital and mobile phone games here at ExLT, this time we are looking at a board game – well, actually a card game. Teachers in search of a new extremely fun idea for speaking classes, meet Spyfall.

“Loose lips sink ships” is a saying that dates back to the days of WWII. It also represents a vital wartime principle. There were lots of things that could give spies away — rust-free staples in their documents, square-headed nails in the soles of their boots, and so on… This game offers everyone an opportunity to walk a mile in the shoes of both a spy who’s close to having their cover blown and the special agent who’s hot on the spy’s heels.

The above comes from the instructions for the game Spyfall, originally a 2014 Russian-created card game now distributed by Cryptozoic. It’s one of those games that is super easy to grasp, and very quick to set up, but still has enough depth for it to be worth replaying many times. Most importantly, it’s a game that really depends on everyone asking questions and talking, which is why English teachers could find it interesting.

The game is played in rounds. At the start of each round, players receive a secret card letting them know where they are. There are 30 different possible locations – a casino, space station, pirate ship, circus and more. All players receive the same location card, except one player receives the SPY card instead of the location. The Spy doesn’t know where the location is, but wins the round if she can figure it out before the others guess who the spy is! Players then start talking during the intense 8-minute rounds.

How do you learn who is who? Everyone asks questions, the favourite grammar of the conversation class teacher. On your turn, you can ask one question of any other player. Try to ask a question that would be difficult for the spy to answer without revealing her ignorance. For example, if the game is set in a primary school you could ask: “Who is picking you up today?” If the other person says, “My husband” that might be a red flag.

At the same time, the spy should ask questions that will provide her hints about the game’s setting without being too obvious about it. For example, “Are you worried about anything around here?”

Non-Spy players want to ask questions and give answers that prove to the other players that they know where they are. But here’s the thing! If your questions and answers are too specific, the Spy will easily guess the location and win, so you need to practice a bit of subtlety. If you are the Spy, you need to listen carefully to the other players, and hope you’ll be able to come up with a plausible question or answer.

Sample location cards for the game Spyfall.

This game is part of a popular new genre of games, called ‘hidden role’ games. If anybody here has heard of Mafia, or Werewolves, then you’ll know what I’m talking about. The hidden role mechanic of these games means that players have to talk and listen carefully to find out who is lying. It makes for a good information gap too, and provides a reason to communicate.

I’ve played Spyfall a couple of times and really enjoyed it. I’m planning on trying it out with a class, once I have a group that is B1 level or higher (my current A2 students might struggle with this). The other thing that I really like about SpyFall is that once you know the rules of the game, it’s probably easy enough to make your own version if you don’t want to spring for the whole thing. You can find a handy pdf of the rules at the official site here.There is even an informal digital version that’s free to play! I haven’t tried it yet, but you can see it here https://github.com/evanbrumley/spyfall. You’ll need to nose around a bit to get an idea of how to set up a digital version, the instructions aren’t very clear.

Spyfall is a game for 3-8 players, but I can see myself stretching it to 10 players if need be. So it’s best for your small conversation classes. Or for a games night with fellow language teachers (why not?). So, get your trench coats and best evening wear out. The game’s afoot!

Find out more at the Spyfall website. Costs under $20 at Amazon.


Lifelines – Review

Lifelines – Review


Is this thing working?

Can anyone read me?

So begins the hit mobile game Lifeline, an innovative kind of interactive fiction published by Big Fish Games. Since its first release in 2015 the Lifeline game and its sequels have become wildly popular, reaching the top 10 paid apps in the Apple app store and earning rave reviews from critics. We at ExLT came across Lifeline thanks to a tip from teacher, writer and conference speaker Paul Driver and thought this was a perfect game to use with students.

The original Lifeline is the story of Taylor, the only survivor of a spaceship crash, who gets in contact with you. You read messages from him within the app, and are presented with choices of what you can say back to him at certain intervals. Basically you are Taylor’s only means of support, his lifeline to the world. And your job is to help him (or her, it’s never really clear which is quite clever) survive. As you communicate with Taylor, sometimes he/she will go and do things and you’ll have to wait a certain amount of time for Taylor to come back and talk again. So, you interact with this in short bursts throughout the day.

I’ve played the game through twice now, and lost each time. You lose when Taylor dies as a result of your advice. I once let poor Taylor freeze to death, and another time I sent him/her on a wild goose chase across some mountains. Taylor kept questioning my decisions, but I insisted that he/she keep going. I felt pretty bad about it, to tell the truth.

The great thing is that you can talk to someone else who is playing the game and compare choices you’ve made. This is where the game could be useful in the language classroom. Students could each get the app and begin the story the same day (perhaps in class). They then interact with Taylor throughout the week, and when class reconvenes they share experiences. Who can keep Taylor alive the longest? (In fact, this is what Paul Driver told us he was doing with his students).

The Lifeline series now has four games: Lifeline (where you communicate with the astronaut Taylor), Lifeline 2: Bloodline (a fantasy theme in which you communicate with the sorceress Arika to help her find her brother), Lifeline: Silent Night (Taylor returns!) and Lifeline: Whiteout (the character here is called V Adams, and the game is set in the arctic).

If killing Taylor in Lifeline and Lifeline Silent Night wasn’t enough for you… try again in Halfway to Infinity – the absolute latest in the series!

Lifeline games are available on IOS and Google and cost around €1.99 each, although they sometimes go on sale or on free offer. For more details, see the Lifeline Game Website.

Lifeline Whiteout from Big Fish
Lifeline Whiteout (PRNewsFoto/Big Fish)

Do you speak Sethianese?

Do you speak Sethianese?
One of the movie highlights of 2016 was Arrival, which told the story of what happens when mysterious spacecraft suddenly appear across the globe. In the film, Amy Adams plays the part of Dr. Louise Banks, an expert linguist who has to quickly find a way to communicate with the newly-arrived aliens, called heptapods. Assuming you’re a teacher, you already know how much you can achieve in the classroom with nothing more than a whiteboard and marker. Arrival takes these basic teaching tools to a whole new level (literally).


Apparently, the spoken alien language used in the film was created using sounds that included whale songs and cat purring. The written language is based around a series of circular symbols that look amazing. Another amazing thing is the speed with which communication is established. Plot holes aside, Arrival is one of the best science fiction films I’ve seen in a long, long time. If you haven’t seen it, watch out for it on your favourite streaming service arriving sometime over the next couple of months.
In the meantime, if you fancy taking on the challenge of trying to make sense of an alien language, check out Sethian, a new sci-fi language puzzle game created by Grant Kuning who describes himself as ‘a programmer who likes linguistics and learning new things’. After graduating from college, Grant went to China where he taught English as a foreign language. He used his experience as a teacher (and learner of Chinese) to develop Sethian which he helped to fund through Kickstarter.
In the game, you play the part of an archaeologist from the future, exploring a distant colony which has been abandoned for centuries. In the ruins, you discover a functional computer, which operates in the native language. Your task is to study and decipher the language, using it to find out what happened to the colony.
When you start the game, you find yourself looking at a series of symbols on the computer screen. The alien language uses a series of 100 unique symbols. These function as words on their own, but also combine to form new words. Luckily, you have some help to decipher the language. Right click and you open a journal with tips and instructions. Follow the tips and you can start using the language. As the game’s creator writes: ‘Those who comprehend the game’s language will find peace, but only those who master its world will truly see the end of Sethian.’ Intriguing.
It’s a really nice concept and there’s something mesmeric about the game’s interface that makes you want to learn the language to find out what really happened to the colony. If you’re a fan of languages, science fiction and puzzle games, then it could be the game for you. Sethian is available on Steam for €4.99.
If you and your students are interested in communicating with aliens from another world, take a look at our e-Book English for the Alien Invasion.

The end of the year, the end of the world! New adventure at ExLT.

The end of the year, the end of the world! New adventure at ExLT.

It’s coming up to the end of the year. Time to reflect on all that has happened in 2016, and what the future holds. Wait, maybe that’s not such a good idea! Or maybe it’s an opportunity to get creative and have some fun. This is where our latest adventure, It’s the End of the World, comes in.

This is an Extreme Language writing adventure. Students take on the roles of journalists. They work their way around the board and complete headlines for the news stories of the future. Do they imagine a good or bad future? How will they complete headlines such as “President Trump announces…” or “New evidence proves that…”

This adventure costs €0.99, but from now until the end of 2016 you can get it completely free!

For more details, please click here.

A zombie lesson from our workshop

A zombie lesson from our workshop

The Zombie Lesson

A big thank you to everyone who came to the Zombie Apocalypse workshop in Barcelona on 19 November for the Exams Catalunya conference. Even if you didn’t attend, we hope you’ll enjoy using this PowerPoint version of a sample lesson from English for the Zombie Apocalypse. There are teaching notes with the slides and the audio is embedded in the presentation. If you have any problems with the audio, you can download it as part of the sample lesson on the eBook page.


In space, nobody can hear you type… Event (0) review

In space, nobody can hear you type… Event (0) review

I’ve spent the past few hours chatting, pleading and shouting at an AI on an abandoned spaceship. Would my students enjoy the same experience?

I personally feel that, like television, video games are now enjoying a period of quality and plentiful-ness. There has been an explosion in genres, it’s no longer the choice between some kind of puzzle arcade game and a shoot-em-up. And there are so many good games out there now.

Event (0) fits into the story-driven narrative and exploration genre. You are transported to a desolated spacecraft, the Nautilus. Once you manage to get into the ship, your only companion is the ship’s computer, an “insecure AI entity named Kaizen”. To communicate with Kaizen, you type messages on terminals dotted throughout the ship. Through typing messages and reading the replies, you explore the ship and discover the mystery within.


I was drawn to this game after watching the trailer (see below). The idea of being able to ask Kaizen anything (as opposed to choosing dialogue options) struck me as something that could be interesting to explore in a language class. Of course, the computer only understands English, and is probably unforgiving of spelling mistakes. So, a good chance to emphasize accuracy in written communication perhaps?

I still have yet to play this game with students, but I did experiment with Kaizen myself. Sure enough, if I made terrible spelling mistakes it would not understand. With syntax however, it was a little more forgiving. I could ask it to “Please open door 10”, “Can you please open door 10” and “I’d like you to open door 10” as well as just “Open door 10 now” or even “door 10 open” so I think students could get away with sometimes a little more unusual sentence constructions as long as the key verb and object were there.


What was more interesting was that you don’t simply have to give Kaizen orders. You can ask it questions, and even make small talk. The AI seemed to be developed enough to recognize quite a wide range of things, although just like anyone who has tried to trick a chatbot you can confuse it or get a very random answer at times. I personally found myself typing things like “Thanks Kaizen” or “Guess what, it’s me again” (a bit like I did with Apple’s voice assistant Siri the first time I got an iPhone – embarrassed smiley)

How do I envisage using this in a class? Well, first of all the game is only available via the game platform Steam, so I’d have to bring my laptop (which has it installed). Projecting the game onto a big screen could work then. I could see it working really well with a small group, one person on the controls and the others helping give directions and suggestions as to what to write. I would not use this game with a low level class, as it quite quickly involves reading logs and other messages of some complexity. I’d say that B2 is a good level for it, although with some hand-holding you could use it with B1 level students. Having played through the whole game myself once, I could help guide the students and would therefore recommend you do too. The game took me a total of 4 hours to complete in various sittings (it’s not very long) but each “step” or “puzzle” takes maybe only 20 minutes, so is doable as part of a language class.


Communication aside, the game is very pretty. It’s got that 2001 A Space Odyssey vibe of course, and reminds me of other films like Solaris or Moon. There are also some great scenes where you are space-walking around the outside of the ship, with the only sound being that of your own breathing and you see your space helmet misting up (I LOVE THAT STUFF).


I actually found myself getting a bit freaked out at times, but maybe that’s because I played Alien: Isolation earlier this year and kept worrying about a huge horrible alien dropping out of an air vent on me (Alien Isolation is a horror game that’s amazing, but that I would certainly not play with students!).

Event (0) was developed by a group of young indie developers called Ocelot Society (based in Paris). You can find out more about Event (0) from their website. At the time of writing, it costs €19.99 on Steam.


If you like this kind of space stuff, ExLT has you covered! Try out our free adventure Red Planet Hiring, where students apply for a job on Mars, or take it to the next level with our e-book English for the Alien Invasion!