Communication Games with a Microcomputer

Vivian Cook 
Writing Home

World Language English, 3, 2, 1984

Many communication games depend upon the principle that one player knows something that the other player doesn't; the game consists of transferring the relevant information from one person to another. In a typical map game, for instance, the first player has a map that gives the location of various places, the second player has a map that shows the streets but not the places and has to find out where they are. This type of game has been popular for some time and derives from the primary school techniques employed to develop the language of native children in such books as Talk Reform and Concept 7-9. The present article describes how many of these games can be played on a microcomputer. The explosive growth in microcomputers means that they are fast becoming a commonplace in schools and colleges. An increasing number of teaching techniques have been discussed with reference to English; Tim Johns has described the use of 'exploratory' exercises in which the student has. to find out the rules of the language stored in the computer; John Higgins has devised simulation exercises such as Murder; an article of my own shows how EFL drills may be adapted to the classroom. Here, however, we are concerned with one of the central techniques in the communicative repertoire. The programmes to be discussed have all been written for the Sinclair ZX81 with IK memory; this is the smallest, cheapest and simplest of the micros that are available and has apparently sold over half a million. Since it only has a tiny IK memory the programmes cannot be very complicated; if, however, reasonable exercises can be devised even for this size of computer it is clear how wide the horizons may be for larger microcomputers. Since one of the problems for those interested in this area is seeing actual programmes rather than reading discussions of computing in general, one complete programme and notes on three more may be seen at the end.

Here then are four simple communication games for the microcomputer.

1. What's left on the menu?

The student is a customer in a restaurant; the waiter asks him :          

"What would you like for your first course?"

and shows him a menu of four items
"Soup, melon, prawns, and avocado".

The student asks for


but the waiter tells him

          "I'm sorry we don't have any soup left. Anything else?"  

In fact only one of the items on the menu is left. Everything the customer wants is off until he asks for


The waiter now asks

          "What would you like for your second course?"

and shows a menu of "omelette, sausages, spaghetti, steak, and fish". Again everything the customer asks for is off, until he mentions "steak" and goes on to the sweet course where he has to choose between "ice-cream, cheese, cake and fruit" and finally discovers only one left.

This game combines a simulation of a restaurant with a guessing game. It practices a small range of vocabulary items for food within a simulated conversational exchange. The actual items can be adapted to the student's level and interests; since the customer only sees the menu for a few moments he has to memorise and call up the items out of his memory.

The programme is restricted in that there is only one preset right choice for each course; with a slightly larger memory the computer may choose randomly from the items for each course every time the exercise is gone through. However, even the simple programme here can be adapted to cover scenarios in shops, or travel agents, or theatre ticket agents, where the customers can request a range of items. Even in this simple form the computer can handle the principle of missing information that has to be found out by the student.

2. Changing your money

Here the student has to work out the currency equivalents for various sums of money. If a computer first asks

"First, currency?"

to which the student answers, say


then asks

          "Second currency?”

To which the student answers by


It now asks

          "How many dollars to the pound?"

and the student feeds in the current exchange rate

The exercise itself starts by asking:

"How many pounds are 35 dollars?"

and the student guesses


The computer answers:

          "No, 35 dollars are £23.35"

          "How many dollars are £700?"

and the student has to work out this sum. And so on. The computer is  randomly choosing amounts between 1 and 1000 in either currency. This example using dollars and pounds may be quite hard for mental arithmetic and an easier, if untrue, exchange rate can be substituted. The student is being put in the situation of working out exchange rates instantly, something that can be of functional use to him in the second language situation. In this game the computer is using its mathematical functions applied to a particular task; there may be few other mathematics tasks that will be useful in second language teaching, with the possible exception of arithmetic type exercises using English when the student is first learning English numbers.

3 Guess John’s Birthday

The computer asks the student

          "What's John's birthday?”

"Which month?"

The student types the name of a month


And is told whether this is right or wrong. When he guesses right the computer asks:

          "Which date?"

and the student tries out the dates of the month till he gets it right. Then the computer goes back to the beginning, selects another birthday and the process starts again. This really only practices the names of the months; using ordinal numbers rather than cardinal for the dates is impossible within the small memory, but can of course be included in longer programmes. The same type of programme will deal with any sets of lexical items - "Guess Mary's favourite colour", "Guess Peter's nationality", "Guess Sarah's favourite food". Within the IK memory it will only deal with a single set at a time and that must not be too large; using more memory several lexical sets could be combined together. This game therefore uses the computer’s ability to randomly choose one out of a set of pieces of information, essentially like 'real-life guessing games in which one person has to think of a number or choose a card and the other has to guess what it is.

4 Find out the number I'm thinking of

The computer asks the student

          "What number am I thinking of?"

The student has to find it out by asking questions with "more" or "less" such as:

          "Is it more than 500?"

The computer tells him whether he is right or wrong and in the end tells him how many questions he has taken to solve the puzzle. Like the last game, the student has to find out a piece of information; the difference is that he has to use actual questions and that he can gradually narrow the possible answers down till there is only the right answer left. So the game provides structural practice on a particular point of comparison and puts this in a communicative setting where a piece of information is waiting to be discovered. It also adds a competitive game motive in that a score is given at the end. the students can try to beat either their own best score or that of their friends. Variations on this game within the IK limits are "Find out my weight"("heavier/lighter"), using either English weights or kilos, "Find out how much money I have in my pocket" ("more/lees"), using English money or the students' own currency, and "Find out my height"("taller/shorter"). The principle that it uses is the computer's ability to compare numerical answers with a target that it has randomly selected.

These four games show then that communicative type exercises can be adapted to a microcomputer even of the smallest kind. Though rudimentary in many ways, these simple communication games can be interesting and 'communicative' practice. It may of course be argued that the students are not strictly speaking 'communicating’ with the computer which is not a human being. But what this criticism reveals is not so much a defect in the computer games as in this type of communication game which sees the function of language at the exchange of pieces of information rather than the creation of personal relationships, the interpersonal function emphasised by the British tradition of linguistics, Malinowski, Halliday, and Firth. A communication game abstracts out of language everything but the information exchange. Hence, whether using real people or computers, such communicative activities as the communication game are relevant to a small fraction of the students' needs. Techniques such as these have a role to play only as part of a broadly-based integrated viewpoint on language, not as the be-all and and-all. Nevertheless provided we see the limitations of defining language function just as communication of information they have a valuable if minor part to play in language teaching.

Programming notes

All four programmes were written and tested on a Sinclair ZX81 with IK memory. The first is given in full; the short notes on the other three should enable the reader to write the programmes without difficulty.

Game 1. What's left on the menu?

The full programme appears below. Line 20 prints "What is left on the menu?", line 3O pauses for about 2 seconds, and the screen is cleared by line 40. Line 50 sets up a loop of 3, the three courses of the meal. Line 70 prints "What would you like for your ", line 90 adds "first” if N equals 1 (i.e. the loop is going round for the first time), line 100 "main" if R equals 2 (the second time round the loop, i.e. second course), line 110 "sweet" if N equals 3; then line 120 adds " course?" Depending on N either line 13O, 140, or 150 prints out the menu for that course. Line 160 is the student response, called A$. Lines 180, 190 and 200 compare it with the target for that course (that value of n). If the student is right the programme jumps to line 260 which prints "Yes, we have some ", plus the student response, the A$ (whatever the student requested); after a pause of two seconds (line 270), the screen is cleared (line 280) and on line 290 the programme either goes back to the beginning of the N loop in line 50 or if N equals 3 and the meal is over, goes to line 210 and prints "End". If, however, the student's response in line 160 was found to be wrong in lines 180-200, the programme goes to line 210 and prints "Sorry, we don't have any" plus the A$ (the student's response) plus "left"; it pauses (line 220), clears the screen (which also wipes out tie menu) (line 230), prints "Anything else?" (line 240) and goes back to line l60(line 250) to await another student response. An alternative way of handling this is to use a dimensional array for the three target items.

"Menu" Programme for ZX81. IK



30 PAUSE 100

40 CLS

50 FOR N=l TO 3










160 INPUT A$

180 IF N=l AND A$= "MELON" THEN GOTO 260

190 IF N=2 AND A$= "STEAK" THEN GOTO 260



220 PAUSE 100

230 CLS


250 GOTO 160


270 PAUSE 100

280 CLS

290 NEXT N


Game 2. Changing your money

This requires two input strings for the types of currency and an input number for the exchange rate; it prints "How many "; A$; " are "; X; " "; B$; "?" The variable X is generated by a random number up to, say, 1000. The computer has a formula for working out the correct exchange and comparing it with the student's answer. To make the game more interesting, the questions go both ways, i.e. not only "How many dollars are 50 pounds?" but also "How many pounds are 50 dollars?"; this is done by randomly assigning the two input strings to A$ or B$ each time the programme runs according to whether INTEG(RND*2)+1 works out as odd or even.

Game 3. Guess John's Birthday

The months are handled by a 12 dimensional array; the programme randomly generates a number between 1 and 12 to be a subscript for the string to be selected. The dates are also selected by the random generation of a number between 1 and JO, meaning that not all months will be the right length! As the words for different months range in length from three letters up to nine, trailing empty spaces have to be eliminated by a loop including IP A$(N)=" " THEN LET A$(N)="" before they can be compared with the student response.

Game 4. Find out the number I'm thinking of

The programme randomly generates a number up to, say, 100 and compares it to the student response by recognising "more" or "lees" and using IF with <or> to compare the response with the target. The scoring system starts from LET S=0 and increases the value of S (LET S=S+l) every time the student makes a response, printing out the final value of S at the end.


Cook, V.J.., 'Structure drills on a ZX81, Modern English Teacher (to appear)

Gahagan, J., & Gahagan, D., Talk Reform, Routledge Kegan Paul

Higgins, J., 'The use of the computer in English language teaching,' CILT Information Guide, 22 (to appear)

Johns, T., 'Exploratory GAL: an alternative use of the computer in teaching foreign languages,' Birmingham English for Overseas Students Unit, University of Birmingham

Wight, J., Norris, R.A., & Worsley, F.J., Concept Seven-Nine, E.J. Arnold, 19?2