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Making space for games in the translation classroom

By Julie McDonough Dolmaya

COVID-19 has been reshaping translation classrooms, moving students and professors from the classroom to homes (and back again) and from interacting with one another in person to interacting with one another via computer screens. Although the changes brought about by the pandemic have caused stress and anxiety1, they have also provided an opportunity to reflect on how we teach translation and to consider whether there is room for new, revised or expanded pedagogical strategies in the (virtual) classroom. In fact, now may be a good time to incorporate more opportunities for play and games in translation courses. 

In an article2 exploring how the concept of play can impact translation theory and translator education, Michael Cronin has argued that students learn only when they can play—that is, when they can experiment with the “translation possibilities of the text,” project themselves into the universe of the source text and identify with the target audience. Doing so, Cronin suggests, helps increase their self-understanding and makes them more effective translators. 

While play and games are very similar, they are usually distinguished by the fact that games have goals to add purpose, focus and specific outcomes to play3. Games are also shaped by rules, which serve as a structure that determines what players can and cannot do within the game4. A number of elements are common to most games, but three are central: conflict, competition and cooperation5, which can be found to varying degrees in all games. Conflict occurs when players have to actively defeat an opponent in order to win, competition occurs when players try to achieve their personal best, without interfering with the other players, and cooperation occurs when players work together to achieve a shared, mutually beneficial outcome. Other common game elements include time constraints, such as competing against the clock, rewards, such as badges, points and leaderboards, levels that players must complete in order to progress, and story, which can provide context for the game and allow players to engage in roleplay6

The gamification of translation

Canada has a long history of blending games and translation. The first inter-university Translation Games competition took place in 20067 and the event has been held virtually every year since8. Clearly, playing with the possibilities of a text is something that translation students enjoy. 

But games are not just an extra-curricular activity: they can also have a place in the classroom. For instance, what about an escape game, where students must engage in a role-playing activity and complete a series of tasks to earn a code that will allow them to complete a mission? This was the format of a game developed for a medical translation class in Spain, where students were tasked with completing a series of terminology and translation challenges to successfully win the game9. Or what about history-themed role-playing games that allow students to take on the roles of translators and other agents during important historical periods to better understand political and sociocultural events that shape translation policies, translator choices, and decisions about whether to publish a translation10

Games can also be used to help students develop language transfer skills, become more familiar with documentation resources, expand their general knowledge about relevant subject areas, and learn more about the profession. For example, an introductory translation-into-English course incorporated about a dozen games designed to develop such skills. Two of the games the students enjoyed the most were Pitching Slogans, where students imagined they were working in a translation agency, devising translations for wordplay and justifying their translation choices, and Twitter Race, where students translated tweets and collected points for things like submitting the shortest translation. Other classes adopted similar approaches: for instance, in a U.S. court-interpreting classroom, games were used to help students memorize key words and expressions. One such game, called Fly-swatting, required students to compete to be the first to swat the correct target-language idiomatic expression when prompted with an equivalent source-language idiom. Those games relied heavily on movement as a way to incorporate more kinesthetic activity into the classroom11.

If designing a game is too daunting, another option is to add gamification techniques into a course. Gamification occurs when game elements, such as leaderboards, badges, points, and in-game currency, are incorporated into non-game contexts, such as a learning environment.12 Other, more complex, game elements, such as storytelling, problem-solving, and role playing, can also be adopted.13 For instance, a leaderboard and a competition for a reward (prizes for the top three students) were incorporated into a scientific/technical translation course in Ottawa to help train students to translate more quickly.14

Some points to consider

Games and gamification can increase student motivation and encourage learning;15 however, instructors should consider several factors before deciding whether (and which) game elements might be suitable. Here’s a quick overview of lessons learned over the years.  

1. More is not necessarily better

It was observed that, when incorporating about 10 more games into a 13-week Introduction to Translation into English course, while students enjoyed playing games, they generally did not want to play more. Some instructors reported positive feedback when they played 1-5 games over the course of a semester,16 so it does seem that there is a balance to be struck between including just enough games to pique student interest and motivation, and adding so many games that students start to find them less engaging. Lynne Bowker may have said it best when she cautioned instructors against straying “too far down the path of ‘edu-tainment’” when incorporating gamification techniques into a course.17 

2. Strike a balance between cooperation and competition

When students from an Introduction to Translation into English course were surveyed, they seemed to have mixed feelings about whether they preferred to cooperate or compete with their classmates. Even though the games were designed to avoid any conflict mechanism (i.e., any kind of game where students would have to actively try to prevent another student or team from winning, where students often had to compete to see who could complete a task quicker, more efficiently, more accurately, etc.,)  while many enjoyed the competition, others would have preferred to mainly cooperate with their peers. Interest in competition will likely vary from one group or region to another, so instructors will have to find a balance that works in their classroom.  

3. Feedback is important

Virtually every game can be improved, and even with playtesting, a game may not play out as well as expected. For instance, the escape game designed for the medical translation class in Spain was enjoyed by nearly every student who played it, but nearly all students also agreed that part of it could be improved.18 On another occasion, one of the games did not play out in the way the instructor expected: it consisted of a series of levels, each with different tasks to complete, such as identifying at least five transfer or language errors in a translation. Although students were expected to move through the levels quickly by identifying just the minimum number of errors, most students were unable to successfully finish the game because they wanted to find every error. Lesson learned: a time limit has now been added to the game and two winning conditions added: students can either complete all levels within 45 minutes or accumulate the most points in the same amount of time.  A ‘side quest’ was also added: beating the high score from a previous year. This helps students focus on time management so they can strike a better balance between completing just the minimum requirements to get them to Level 5 and carefully identifying every possible error without progressing beyond Level 1. 

4. Freedom to play

An important game element is the freedom to fail—the ability of a player to fail to meet the criteria for success, but then to restart the game or level and try again. In translation courses where games and gamification were introduced, students seemed to enjoy the games best when they were not associated with grades. Some students, for instance, did not like the fact that winning several games was one way for them to earn participation marks in the course, even though it was possible to earn full marks for participation without winning a single game. Removing the link between games and grades gives students the opportunity to challenge themselves and to experiment with translations without worrying about whether their grades will be affected. 

Developing and including games into a translation course can be a lot of work for the instructor, but judicious use of game elements can help motivate students and introduce a low-stakes way for them to play with the “translation possibilities of the text”, as Michael Cronin has suggested. So, if you haven’t already, consider adding a game (or a game element) to a class, a workshop or other translator training program. 

Julie McDonough Dolmaya is an Associate Professor at the School of translation – Glendon College, York University.


2. Cronin, Michael. 1995. “Keeping One’s Distance: Translation and the Play of Possibility.” TTR: Traduction, Terminologie, Rédaction 8 (2): 227–43.

3. Kapp, Karl M. 2012. The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-based Methods and Strategies for Training and Education. San Francisco: Pfeiffer, page 28.

4. Salen, Katie and Eric Zimmerman. 2004. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press., page 80.

5. Kapp (2012, 31-32)

6. Kapp (2012, 32-42)


8. The only exception being 2021, due to COVID-19.

9. Peñalver, Elena Alcalde, and Alexandra Santamaría Urbieta. 2020. “Enhancing Medical Translation Skills through a Gamified Experience. Failure or Success?” Panace@. Revista de Medicina, Lenguaje y Traducción 21 (51): 4–12.

10. Discussed in more detail in McDonough Dolmaya, Julie. 2015. “Reacting to Translations Past: A Game-Based Approach to Teaching Translation Studies.” Translation and Interpreting Studies 10 (1): 133–52.

11. To find out more about these games, please see: Cornwall, Fátima Maria. 2013. “Vocabulary Games for the Beginner Interpreter Classroom.” International Journal of Interpreter Education 5 (1): 64–72.

12. This definition and the overview of gamification in education contexts come from two sources: Deterding, Sebastian, Dan Dixon, Rilla Khaled, and Lennart Nacke. 2011. “From Game Design Elements to Gamefulness: Defining ‘Gamification.’” In Proceedings of the 15th International Academic MindTrek Conference: Envisioning Future Media Environments, 9–15. Tampere, Finland: Association for Computing Machinery, p. 9 , and Dicheva, Darina, Christo Dichev, Gennady Agre, and Galia Angelova. 2015. “Gamification in Education: A Systemic Mapping Study.” Educational Technology and Society 18(3): 75-88.

13. Kapp (2012, 12)

14. Discussed in more detail in Bowker, Lynne. 2016. “The Need for Speed! Experimenting with ‘Speed Training’ in the Scientific/Technical Translation Classroom.” Meta 61 (special issue): pp.22–36.

15. Gutiérrez-Artacho, Juncal, and María-Dolores Olvera-Lobo. 2016. “Gamification in the Translation and Interpreting Degree: A New Methodological Perspective in the Classroom.” pp.50–58. Barcelona, Spain.

16. Cornwall (2013), Peñalver and Urbieta (2020).

17. Bowker, Lynne. 2016. Op.cit.3

18. Peñalver, Elena Alcalde, and Alexandra Santamaría Urbieta. 2020. “Enhancing Medical Translation Skills through a Gamified Experience. Failure or Success?” Panace@. Revista de Medicina, Lenguaje y Traducción 21 (51): 4–12.

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