ESL Game Breakdown: Almost But Not Quite Mario Kart

Almost but Not Quite Mario Kart is one of the more beloved ESL review games I have run into. Like Bowling, it features a typical “not game, but gamified Quiz/Test/Worksheet” format. Which follows a pattern much like
1) Ask Question
2) Answer Question
3) Receive rewards, some of which will enable you to hinder opponents.

You can look at all the materials, suggestions, rules, worksheets etc for Mario Kart on Englipediea.

I actually am not a fan of this structure, but, it results in games students like, which is the most important thing in designing classes. Mario Kart falls more specifically into a “race style” ESL game where students get a worksheet/question of some kind, do it, get it checked by the teacher, move their character to the next space and then do the next question.

Winner is whoever finishes the race, or is the furthest when it finishes, is the winner. Mario Kart adds items to the standard race game, some items move you forwards others move opponents back. Curiously, and probably a slight oversight by the person who made the game, Mushrooms are significantly more powerful than shells.

Because of the presence of items, Mario Kart’s worksheets have more questions than spaces, 26 questions to 20 spaces. Meaning a team might not need to answer every question in order to finish up the race. Which, I think is a good thing, because it means teams don’t need to focus on questions they don’t understand, or can take time to think on them.

Another thing I really liked a lot about Mario Kart, is that while obviously it rewarded knowing your English, a bit of cleverness offered you a huge advantage, groups of 4, 4 pages of questions, these are not accidents. Students could be doing up to 4 questions at once. Many of the teams were not doing this, but often some of the students that were not great in the classes were winning because they thought about using their time best.

While ESL games should test English, I do feel there should be space within them to use strategy of some kind. In this case effective time management. Having 4 players being able to work on different problems at the same time can mean some teams are playing a wildly different game though, which can be an issue. But sometimes not, especially when it comes to more difficult questions, so there is some balance here.

Although that raises a question, why allow, or even encourage a secondary skill to influence the game when the point is English? Which is a fair question. I think it is important to note the context these games are run in, classes where not all students want to take English classes. So some concessions have to be made for them. Allowing some clever thinking or use of a secondary skill to be of aide as opposed to JUST English is also good. The Bowling game (ALTINSIDER) has a great example of this with the actual bowling part. Being good at English is great, but if you can’t bowl, you are only good for points. Meaning that those students who aren’t so good at English but GREAT at bowling, has so much incentive to try and answer even if normally they wouldn’t. How much you decide to take that to heart is a different matter though.

While I don’t think Mario Kart has as much to offer lessons wise as bowling, it does have a little bit.

Visually tracking score is more interesting to many students than simply using point values
We can break down worksheets into smaller, checkable chunks to create a strong sense of progress in activities like this.
Theme matters way more than it should.
A little bit of randomness, and the chance to sabotage someone else is something that people love.
Allowing secondary skills to be useful will help those not solely interested in English.

So, go forth, and play Mario Kart… In March when review games are life.


ESL Game Breakdown: Bowling from ALTinsider

Not my own creation, read about it here,

This is a fairly simple game overall, despite some fancy appearances when you break it down it is:

Ask a question
Get an answer
Recieve reward. Sometimes the reward can be hindering another team

Common “great ESL game” variants of this are Almost But Not Quite Mario Kart and Typhoon. While those are fine games, bowling has some unique properties that I think make it particularly special, and other games can learn from.

The is a limit of 6 points.
After 3 points, a team can opt for a ball instead of a point, and bowl for a chance to reduce the opponents points.
Points 1-3 are hard to knock over, 4-6 are easy to remove.

Once a team hits 3 points, they rarely go below 2 points, no matter how aggressively targeted by other teams attempts on them. This is mostly just down to the fact paper cups actually stand up pretty well. But as a design thing, it ensures everyone is in the game.

The cap, being 6 points, also works with this. If you rarely get below 3 points, and 6 is the max, most of the time, you are only 3 questions away from the BEST SCORE POSSIBLE. This means it is quite possible for every team to have either gotten a 6, or destroyed one. Both of which feel pretty awesome. Keeping everyone in the game is great. Other games, like Typhoon can do this, but they do it through fake randomness. (Ask any person who runs Typhoon how much they stick to a score board they made, if they even did). Bowling is mechanically, if accidentally, made to keep everyone with a chance of winning every turn.

After 3 points, a team can opt to go aggressive. This is great, particularly that it’s a choice, creating drama that helps get students interested. Randomization creates drama, but not interest. And depending on the class, it can even feel hollow and remove excitement. I mean what good is answering the hard question, when it might lose my team their points if I am unlucky? The actual bowling itself has variance, but it has clear intention behind it, making for a much more satisfying experience. Also, this after 3 points aggression helps the “keep anyone in the game” mentality, you need to get to a point where you are in the game to win, before you can start attacking. Attacking at the expense of a point also helps keep scores in that 3-5 range meaning most of the game stays very very close. Which keeps up excitement without anyone or thing really faking these scores to be close.

Compare this to, Almost But Not Quite Mario Kart, with a total of 20 points, it means that once a team is 10 points behind, that best all that they can do is a little kingmaker with items, but have no real chance of winning. Typhoon, the students honestly have little power to win, and could win randomly off a lucky 50 point question, and then stay silent to win. Or in fact be winning, because they just are the best, and lose all their points because the last square was a Typhoon. Which… just kind of sucks. Most other games allow huge score games that can be impossible to recover from


So what lessons can we learn from bowling when making ESL games?

Variance in the hands of someone is better than true randomness in the hands of no one.

Using a low score ceiling, and some safe guards against low scoring teams losing more points, helps keep everyone in the game, making every question valuable.

Presenting students with a genuine choice, inviting tactics to the game makes for great drama. Making that choice between helping themselves or hurting another helps keep things relatively balanced.

This boils down to something that isn’t just good ESL activity design, but good design generally. Everything has to matter. In bowling, a point can be the difference between places, a ball can change the tides drastically if used well, but that choice is not a simple always pick ball after X points kind of choice (except at 6 points where there is no choice). If your choices are either all effectively the same, or the results too widely out of your control, any balance that makes is hollow, and only exciting for a short time.

Not in the Job Description, a music lesson.

So, on social media, I joked about how I was Music Teacher today. While not the case, today was not something I had expected really, but also an extremely likely situation. So lets talk about MUSIC.

Actually, when you break down the class, it really wasn’t as much of a music class, other than going through the names of a bunch of instruments, and playing them. Including simple kids class instruments like castanets and a triangle, to a Flute, Trumpet, Euphonium and Violin.

It was actually a SUPER CLEVER class plan by the school in a sense. It is a nice special thing to have an english class in the music room, and a great way to use the expression “Can you ______.” After playing all the instruments, you introduce the phrase can you play the X. And then responses, “Yes/No I can/’t.” It is hard to come up with a convincing way to not play a tambourine by the way.  Then have the students in pairs go to the instrument stations you’ve set up with what they are allowed to play, do the question answer routine, play the instruments to show they can, and then move on. Then ending the class with me showing off how adaptable I am and playing the Flute, Trumpet, Euphonium and Violin.

While I had a lesson plan kind of given to me… This is a school I am at once a month, so I haven’t established a great relationship with the students or teachers, so I didn’t have the kind of safety net that I would usually have with knowing how a teacher might help me if I was in a bind. So I admit to being a little nervous, but music while not the hugest passion is certainly something I have dabbled in more than perhaps many people. (because really, I don’t know many people who play wood wind instruments generally). This class is all about going with the flow. You got instruments so make noise! Get a little musical, good or bad. There is a moment to show your special talent? USE IT, apparently even the music teacher didn’t play the flute. Kids are not a dumb audience, but as an adult, we can seem pretty talented when we might not consider ourselves as such. That is worth keeping in mind. Honestly, today nearly got me wanting to buy a flute and/or a clarinet to practice again.

One of the most enjoyable parts of the lesson is probably the one that falls the least into my role as ALT. We had a violin, a really gorgeous violin. I can’t really play the violin, but I CAN fake it when only given 5 seconds. Obviously not every student could play it, but I managed to get 3 students and the teacher to make good sounds from the instrument, and playing it in a proper position (well, within limits, some kids weren’t big enough for the violin). But it was a real joy helping them get a sound out of the thing.

I’ve actually been using my more musical self increasingly in classes. Getting that sing song in whenever I can because I love it, and am not entirely shoddy. And I think people respond more to passion than skill a lot of the time (unless they are coming FOR that specific thing).

So yeah, when a job calls for something out of the ordinary, embrace it! Go that extra mile when you have an extra mile you can easily give.

And Image credit from the wonderful comic strip that will also prepare you more than a comic should for JET,

General Life update 2 – End of first JET Calendar thoughts

Ok, maybe it is a little early. But given the frequency of updating on the blog it is probably going to be the last major post anyway. Like a lot of blogs, I haven’t updated this as much as I would have liked, but these things happen. I think a lot of people get caught in a trap of not wanting to write bad or dull content, and so put off creating, and then rush to make something eventually, getting the worst of both worlds.

So last night I had a bonenkai (end of year party) with my base school, and have one more day of teaching for the year, which is what is making me think about how far I’ve come. So I arrived on July the 28th and it’s December 23 as I write this. So 148 days, or 4 months and 25 days. That is a long time when you say it as days, months doesn’t make it sound as impressive. So, like the general life update previously, I’ll divide this up a little

Local stuff!

I talked about Saijo Matsuri earlier so go back and read up on it. But it was still a pretty outstanding event I am already looking forward to again next year. Aside from that I haven’t really been too involved in local events which is a little unfortunate really. But I did get to help out with a Halloween party for kids. It was a lot of fun, I went as the pope, and won a lightsaber duel vs a Sith Lord, saw a legion of adorable young Elsa’s and a variety of adorable Yokai.

A Yokai from the impossible to avoid Yokai Watch



To some extent, I was a little worried that perhaps I am not involved enough, which is true… However, this being still the first few months and me not being the most out there person, I am willing to let this slide for now. But hopefully come the spring I will find myself a little more involved. Even if it is just with the arcade scene in Niihama.

However, local stuff isn’t just going to big things! It is the little things as well. I feel a lot better about the little than I do the bigger events. The local fruit shop in the shopping arcade now know I love their bananas, and that I usually buy 4 at a time. So when they see me they ask me if I want 4 bananas, not the Japanese equivalent of ‘can I help you.’ I have discovered the local pharmacist(s) are actually usually cheaper for confectionery of various kinds than the supermarkets, which is ironically very poor for my health. But at the main one I shop at, me and shop keeper occasionally talk about confectionery.

I have ran into the mothers for many of the students at the primary schools and kindergarten I work with, which pleasingly tell me their kids were very excited by me. (Also they are great for double checking I am buying what I think I am buying) My Japanese doesn’t let me get too far in these conversations, but it’s nice to hear. I haven’t done much travelling, but I have done a lot of non exciting walks around the town, so I feel I have a pretty good idea of where a lot of things in Saijo are and could get between most points without a map. Which, given my dependency on google maps when I first got here is pretty pleasing. I have have a lot to explore, and go to, but I am getting a pretty solid idea of where things are.

Overall on the getting used to and involved with Saijo, I am doing much better on the getting used to, less so with involved.


There are some tough things about language learning in the country. For starters your basis of comparison changes suddenly when you are dealing with native speakers every day, and genuinely operating in the country. What was great in University is barely enough to get through a day at work. The biggest thing though is just trying. While I really struggled when I first got here (thanks to a lack of consistent study through and after honours in the language) I really have improved quite a bit. I can’t quite say everything I want to say, but I can say everything I pretty much need to say, and usually with a few explanations, teachers and staff can explain things to me. I can’t imagine how a JET would cope with anything less than my language skill. (well, I can, it would be a lot like my Toyama exchange)

It is hard incorporating new grammar often though. Recently I learned ~aれば~aほど~b   which makes a phrase meaning the more you do A, B. For example, the more you practice, the better you get. I have learned a lot of basic grammar points that get me through a lot of conversations I need to have… It is important to learn these expressions still, but it isn’t easy.


Social Life

Yeah, I knew this wasn’t going to be a strong point for me on JET before coming here. I spent most of my first year at University with very few friends, many of whom were people who also moved to the same city to study from my old school(s). As much, most of my socialization is really coming from other JETs. Which is fantastic! But I need to make more effort to really develop my friendships with local people and converse more. I have the language to get through work, but not really the language for friendship.It doesn’t help that foreign language conversing is tiring, and so can meeting new people, so often I end up gravitating to other JETs despite ultimately wanting to develop those Japanese friendships more. This is really a key point I want to improve next year for sure.

However, we have had some great potlucks, a wonderful thanksgiving plenty of wonderful Karaoke nights, and sadly some farewell events. All of whom are sorely missed.


Ultimately… I am actually enjoying work. I have had a fairly long run of consistently good classes, teachers feel confident enough in me to manage more and more aspects of the class, and have been really helpful in weaning me in from the earliest classes. Which I appreciate. Two weeks ago I was given the honour of explaining a grammar point… Which I suspect was aided by the fact the teacher in question was losing her voice and trying to delegate as much of the vocal load onto me as possible without making me speak Japanese. To start with each class was kind of filled with dread, because after the self intro classes, I was quite unsure of what I was going to do really. But, by this point I have gotten into a bit of a groove with each class, and have a vague idea of which things each class needs over others. Sadly, I already had to deal with the fact some classes are not as well behaved and certainly you can try and make the lesson better for those students, but that only goes far. Of course I’ll keep trying to improve with those classes, but I feel I fall into a niche that for many students just isn’t appealing. However, for other classes, I feel that what might make me unappealing to some students, makes them want to talk with me. I don’t like to share specific stories, but I can tell you I have one student who is in love with all sorts of obscure horror games and wants to talk to me about them.



Bakuman gets it’s own section?


My god this is not only a good anime, but this appears to have cemented about 4 positive friendships between me and 2 staff members and two students. All of which took the same action when I said I like Bakuman, they shook my hand. I am slightly concerned this is secretly a cult, but currently I am reaping the benefits. Mind you, as far as manga about manga go, its anime adaption at least is pretty excellent. If you want to befriend Japanese Manga/Anime fans, this seems to be THE media to consume. I can recommend the anime, haven’t read the manga. But yeah, it’s my number 1 recommendation if you want to keep to your cool niche, and have something people actually know.


Yeah… about that….

I am not much of a traveler despite going to Japan 4 times in total. I am really all about just being peaceful, relaxed and quiet socialization. Which travel doesn’t lend itself well too. I think I do need to make more of an effort to do some travel though, having only been outside of Ehime once since arriving, to Osaka, which was pretty cool. (although going to Hiroshima soon). Still need to plot out my Yakitate Japan tour though…





Given the amount of money spent on games since arriving I have done remarkably little to be honest. And when I do I am playing various braindead games as opposed to all the classics I still have yet to play! And despite writing up about study and gaming, I have been slack in even using games to study with. However, I have recently started delving more into the depths of the braindead Hyrule Warriors. The Warriors games straddling this amazing line of being really complex and completely braindead.

I did however manage to finish off this year’s major gaming project, Umineko. Although, as a Kinetic novel, it is not so much an game as a novel. I have managed to get through a few other bits and pieces, but yeah, this has not been a good few months for games of any type. Although import games are getting the worst of it as it is tiring playing an import game, well, only if you are bothering to get the most out of the text.

I will say though that this year’s Bayonetta 2 and Persona Q are two of the biggest stand out games of the year, and if you have a vague interest in either both easily justify the purchase of their respective consoles. I have dabbled in a huge amount of fantastic stuff since coming to Japan; Danganronpa, Persona 4 Ultimax, Diablo 3, Suikoden, Rogue Legacy, Project Diva f2nd, and even some Super Robot Wars. Alongside a lot more, because I have gaming ADD which I really need to resolve a little at some point.


As the year draws to a close, I am certainly overall pretty happy with my life here in Japan, know what I want to change, and have a little bit of an idea how to do it. JET has been the plan for such a long time, 8 years, that I am glad to actually be enjoying it. A big concern when it drew closer was that I was woefully the wrong kind of person for the job. But as time goes by, I am increasingly confident I am in the right place.

Guess Who! That’s right, it is ‘Accidental sexism’

So, in a small class recently, I was using a game of Guess Who! the classic boardgame by Hasbro, which the school had in English. We were using it to practice expressions like “Do you have Blonde hair?” We have played it multiple times with this group and it usually serves as kind of a warm up activity. Despite playing it about 3 or 4 times with the group previously, it was only this time that I had never really thought about the gender balance in the game, but it is rather startling! We usually expect less women in these games than men. So in a game with 24 or so faces, we could maybe hope for maybe 8-10 women right? Then, just as I was thinking of how in the next round I might explain how to optimize question asking a student asked what should logically be the best question for this, the student said what should be one of the best questions in the game…

“Are you a boy?”

“No I am not,” was the response.

So, she flipped down all the women on the Guess Who board.  All 5 of them.

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Sega takai!

Sega takai – Tall, 

A daily refrain right now for me when I walk into any class room is all the kids going `sega takai!` or `bery bery big.` Which, I suspected I had gotten used to at my base school. I thought I`d gotten used to it in Fukuoka, when we had a primary school visit a few years ago. I thought I had gotten used to it over 10 months in Toyama nearly 8 years ago… I felt I understood what it was to be looked at constantly with those `wow isn’t he just so darn tall` eyes.

I also felt that several years ago, I had gotten to some level of acceptance about my size. Which is a fairly generous 47 inches around the waist, 189cm vertically, and 140 kilos (well, probably 137 but I haven’t had the chance to confirm) I even thought while I was here I was still very resilient and confident about these things. Working to lose weight for health, but I felt content about my weight… Only a class last week I confidently answered without hesitation the answer to my weight. So I thought I was doing really well in regards to this issue.

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