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A game designed by Lee Roberts

German professor develops games to help students speak the language

By Blake Sebring

November 28, 2023

While Lee Roberts was a seventh grader living in Maine, a two-week stretch of nearly constant rain meant his classmates were bored from staying inside during the school day. To solve the dilemma, Roberts spent two nights at home designing about 12 games everyone could quickly learn. Many classmates took part as the games only required 10-to-15 minutes to play.

Now a Purdue University Fort Wayne professor of German studies, Roberts has rediscovered his early hobby by creating more sophisticated contests that allow his students to develop their skills. Using German words—real and fictitious—Roberts recently displayed Spukhaus and Worthschatzwettrennen during a demonstration for a standing-room-only crowd of students, staff, and faculty in the Department of International Language and Culture Studies lab.

The object of the games is for students to practice their abilities and have fun.

“I think both help you practice skills that are fundamental for language learning and acquisition,” said freshman Mariana Paez Reyes. “It definitely makes the players interact and have fun with each other. For Spukhaus it is demanding that you actually form sentences to play the game, but at the end that is what makes you practice your language skills actively. Normally, remembering words in another language is hard, but it is even more challenging to make phrases, especially in a language like German.”

Spukhaus means spook house, and Worthschatzwettrennen is a made-up word Roberts thought no one else would be able to pronounce. His students are taking that challenge.

Roberts, who has taught on campus since 2005, has also created the games Monsterweit, about a stone-age tribe trying to survive, and Die grune Halskette, about detectives trying to discern who stole a green necklace. He has used both in class, but Spukhaus and Worthschatzwettrennen are his first self-published games through a company called The Game Crafter.

“What I aim to do is take students’ minds off of learning as something that is difficult and replace it with fun,” Roberts said. “All of the students who were involved are interested in learning anyway, but they don’t always do it with a smile on their face, or ask, `Can I stay longer and continue?’”

The packaging on the games also allows Roberts to show off his artistic skills.

“I think these games are great inventions because they allow students to put language to practical use,” sophomore Kendra Murray said. “Studying flashcards and deconstructing practice sentences are important for learning a new language, but those methods are confined to a controlled environment. They don’t simulate real-world scenarios where we have to think on our feet and use language skills as a means to an end.”

Roberts said he could convert the games into other languages as well. He can speak Russian, Japanese, and French, and has also studied seven other languages, including Dutch, which he’s been working on for about five months.

North Side High School German teacher Aaron Stanley, a former PFW student, said he’s looking forward to playing the game with his students. PFW sophomore Sabene Rizvi said Spukhaus is a great way for students of different proficiency levels to practice new words and might attract some interest from German children.

“A big part of what we are doing is bringing something of ourselves into the classroom,” said Steve Buttes, associate professor of Spanish who attended the demonstration. “These games are a part of him, and he’s using them to create an opportunity for real interaction between him and his students—and that’s where real language learning happens, where you are actually having a real conversation and doing this together.”

Maybe the best review came from junior Matt Stowe, who after playing Spukhaus said, “I thought the game was not only beneficial in its ability to help German [language] students formulate sentences and speak the language, but also was truly an enjoyable experience. Es ist wunderbar!”

That’s the spirit!