Defining GLEE

Oxford University Press has just posted a short article I recently wrote for their blog about the benefits of using gamified language educational e-tivities in the ESL classroom.  I thought I’d reactivate my blog briefly for a quick posting (I’ll be back properly once my MA’s over in September and I can't wait!) to provide you with an example of edu game play and also to explore the definition of GLEEs in a little more in depth.

Playing to learn

The three groups I had divided my adult ESL students up into stared up at the Interactive Whiteboard which showed a Spin the Wheel grammar activity which I'd found on the internet.  One of the team leaders pressed on the big red button while 3 digital avatars on screen sat patiently waiting in a row, watching the wheel go round and round until it stopped. The pointer rested on the yellow pie-piece and a pop up message then read:

A: I have decided to learn a foreign language.
Q: Have you? Which language ______.

Team Green’s group of real students huddled together. Their captain furtively whispered so the other teams wouldn’t hear them “ Is it ‘will you learn,’ ‘are you learning’ or ‘are you going to learn?”  The students argued softly about the different options on screen.  Then the digital clock started counting down from 5 seconds, letting them know that they would have to decide on an answer as soon as possible or they’d lose both the points from this question and their overall advantage.

“It’s a plan” one member said a little uncertainly. “Yes” the other agreed more confidently, “It must be B, are you learning means he already started, no, no, he decided…”

Their team leader yelled out “B” as he pressed the board in the nick of time.  A bell rang out indicating the correct answer had indeed been chosen, the screen rewarded their points and their digital avatar clapped her hands on screen and smiled.  Blazing across the board the words “Congratulations Team Green” flashed up letting them know they'd won the entire match.

The winners responded in kind, mimicking their avatar, gesturing their success to their opponents with their fists in the air. A quick burst of disappointment flitted across Abra’s face, one of the youngest Saudi girls on one of the losing teams, until she piped up excited at the possibility of a rematch “Teacher, can we play again?”

What was going on in my classroom?

We were playing a GLEE.

Gamified Language Educational e-tivities (GLEE) is a term I coined during my studies at the University of Manchester for an MA in Educational Technology & TESOL. I use this and the corresponding acronym (coincidentally a synonym for joy) because I consider the commonly recognised phrases, originating in the 1970s and earlier, of “serious games” (Abt, 1970) and “educational games” (Bock, 1969), to be confusing misnomers which do not take into account the potentiality for seriousness in normal game-play (Huizinga,1944) nor do they adequately reflect the intrinsic educational properties found within many leisure games, whether what is played is Chess, Monopoly or World of Warcraft.

In my opinion the use of the word game in both these phrases is inappropriate.  This is because games, in their essence, are entirely voluntary activities, i.e. chosen by their players out of their desire to play them (Huizinga, 1944), rather than because they are made to do something (Schiller, 1775 cited in Botturi & Loh, 2008). Conversely, even if they are enjoyed, as was described in the vignette above, classroom activities and e-tivities are generally chosen by the teacher - there is an expectation for the learners to do the exercise on the part of the teachers.

While learning may indeed occur during game-play of normal games, this learning is not a core objective of the activity - games are played for the very fun of playing them.  As St. Thomas Aquinas reflected way back in the 1300s, this fun does not carry any additional purpose, other than to meet the game’s objective through the following of the rules. So when and if an educational objective is set as the activity’s primary goal, with the secondary goal being to appear as if what the students are doing is playing a game, it is actually an alternative activity with dual objectives.

The rationale behind the definition of GLEE and GLEA

Starting at the end of the acronym, the E and A which refer to activities and e-tivities, i.e. to the environment which the experience is based upon allows us to discuss their differences much more easily.

Activities refer to paper-based, photo-copiable tasks but they also discuss role-play, simulations and physical learning experiences, such as sending students out on scavenger hunts.  The sort of thing that we, as ESL teachers, have been doing for years  - remember the Hadfields’ communicative activity books and the resource packs that come with just about every textbook these days?

E-tivities, on the other hand, are ‘short, active and interactive online learning’ Salmon (2003:1) experiences, i.e. activities that take place on digital devices, on computers, Interactive Whiteboards (IWB) and mobile equipment.

By using the adjective educational to describe this type of activity and e-tivity, we can separate out from the activities and e-tivities used in business, marketing or military settings. That also allows for the dual objectives i.e. both educational and game, to be discussed as two unique items for review.


Whenever we want to talk about the changing state of a thing we add the suffix of change, (to -ify something – think of clarify, justify, and modify). This incredibly apt neologism, which unfortunately is frequently misunderstood, refers to changing something that isn’t normally a game (e.g. learning English grammar) into something that appears as if it is one. However, they are not really games, in the way that most of us understand games.

By referring to the activities that are made to seem like they are, gamified lets us talk separately about digital and video games which may also be used in educational settings, digital play and game based learning, as well as the other blended learning activities that tend to have a more traditional (textbook pages, gap-fill, matching, multiple-choice)  approach in delivery, dynamic and appearance - without confusing their different functions.

Finally, this acronym allows us to explore the different types of educational experiences, so we can further label them appropriately, i.e. GMEE math educational, GHEE history educational and so on, and if we just want to be generic, we can also call them all GEEs: gamified educational e-tivities.

Abt, C. (1970) Serious Games. NY, USA: Viking Press.
Bock, B. (1969) For Educational Games. The Clearing House. Vol 44(1). p49
Botturi, L. & Loh, S. (2008) Once upon a game: rediscovering the roots of games in Education. In: Miller, C. (ed.) Games: Purpose and Potential in Education.  NY, USA: Springer Science+Business Media, LLC. pp 1-22
Huizinga, J. (1944) Homo Ludens: a study of the play-element in culture. Trans. R.F.C. Hull (1949) London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Limited.
Salmon, G. (2003). E-tivities: the key to online learning. London, UK: Kogan Page Ltd.

Image Credit: By See-ming Lee from New York, NY, USA (Happiness / 20100117.7D.02031.P1.L1.BW / SML) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

If you would like to ask anything about this definition please don’t hesitate to comment below - if you would like to read up on the benefits of using GLEEs in the language classroom and to find out where to find digital e-tivities on the internet, please travel on to the OUP blog post here.

1 Response to “Defining GLEE”

  • Englisch Übersetzung says:
    August 29, 2013

    Great idea to learn (especially boring grammars) this playing way. I wished I had that at 'my time'...


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