Anime-like games are particularly conducive to language acquisition because of the immense detail of their narratives. Because of their complex storylines, students must stretch the boundaries of their language skills to successfully inhabit these digital worlds. Moreover, games in the Assassin’s Creed series cover a variety of geographic areas and time periods (such as the French Revolution, the Spanish Conquista, and the founding of America), providing cultural content that can be used to reinforce language learning. Because most anime-like games involve complex problem solving, they lend themselves to collaborative game play, requiring students to interact in their target language as they play. In Heavy Rain, for example, students assume the role of a young detective trying to solve a kidnapping and murder mystery. To succeed, they must describe the evidence they collect and discuss their conclusions in their target language.
The goal is to strategically link video game play with concrete pedagogical goals. For example, after learning basic action verbs, we play the first chapter of Rise of the Tomb Raider (Hugues et al.). I provide worksheets so students can review relevant vocabulary and structures, then apply them as we participate in the game’s narrative. Students are asked to discuss and reflect on the gaming narrative in writing and to apply what they’ve learned to their own life experience. I call this process identify, acquire, create (IAC): identifying which vocabulary and structures are familiar and which are not, acquiring this new knowledge through a series of task-based exercises, and creating written texts and spoken discourse.
My experiences with video games in the classroom have been overwhelmingly positive. Even students who are not avid gamers can appreciate the narrative, the clear enunciations, and the authentic speech the games provide. Unpacking the meaning of the various Italian gestures used by characters in the Assassin’s Creed games has become a favorite activity and has sparked many discussions about nonverbal communication.
My experiments with video games as a learning device in the language classroom have led me to explore the option of teaching a language course based entirely on gaming. During the spring 2017 semester, I used a state-of-the-art learning studio to teach Intensive Italian for Gamers, based on the premise that language acquisition is a process that benefits from daily interactions in the language both in and outside the classroom. Although students came from very different backgrounds and skill levels, they all successfully attained competency in the language. By the third week, through continuous involvement in play mechanics, all students in the course could effectively give commands (“Open the door!” “Take the path to the right!” “Talk to the person in the room!”) and express success or disappointment. These types of communication are fundamental to language learning and are normally acquired only toward the end of the first or early in the second semester.
Interestingly, all students autonomously continued to explore gaming in the language outside the classroom by playing their own games in the language or meeting as a group to play in our language lab. As a result, by the end of the semester students were showing a knowledge of the language and culture that included idioms, interjections, and fillers, as well as expressions of joy, excitement, and frustration. These are all markers of the development of fluency.
There are, of course, some limitations. The primary limitation is lip-syncing. Observing lip movements assists in listening comprehension (Kellerman), but anime-like games were created with lip-syncing designed for the English language. Overall, though, these glitches are minor and are far outweighed by the benefits that games offer early language students. In this setting, students who are passionate about gaming can become important classroom leaders. Many are far more fluent in contemporary gaming and technology, and instructors can learn from them, which can enrich the classroom experience for everyone.
I recall when, in the early 1980s, journalists in mainstream media lamented the rise of the video games, labeling it as a troubling fad (see, e.g., Kleinfield). They were wrong, and now video games are a pervasive part of our culture. We have learned that games can offer many advantages to language learners and can turn what is typically viewed as a mindless extracurricular activity into a vibrant learning experience that extends beyond the confines of the classroom. The rise of virtual reality technology promises to advance the frontiers of language education even further. We are not far away from a world where virtually anyone could meet—and interact with—other players from around the planet.
Cage, David. Heavy Rain. PlayStation 4 version, Quantic Dream, 2016. Description available at www.playstation.com/en-gb/games/heavy-rain-ps4/.
Désilets, Patrice. Assassin’s Creed II. PlayStation 4 version, Ubisoft, 2016. Description available at www.ubisoft.com/en-gb/game/assassins-creed-2/.
“Gaming and Gamers.” Pew Research Center, Dec. 2015, www.pewinternet.org/2015/12/15/gaming-and-gamers/.
Hugues, Noah, et al. Rise of the Tomb Raider. PlayStation 4 version, Square Enix, 2016. Description available at www.tombraider.com/en-us.
Kellerman, Susan. “Lip Service: The Contribution of the Visual Modality to Speech Perception and Its Relevance to the Teaching and Testing of Foreign Language Listening Comprehension.” Applied Linguistics, vol. 11, no. 3, 1990, pp. 272–80.
Kleinfield, N. R. “Video Games Industry Comes Down to Earth.” New York Times, 17 Oct. 1983, www.nytimes.com/1983/10/17/business/video-games-industry-comes-down-to-earth.html?pagewanted=all.
Weaver, Jane. “College Students Are Avid Gamers.” NBCNews.com, 6 July 2013, www.nbcnews.com/id/3078424/ns/technology_and_science-games/t/college-students-are-avid-gamers/.
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Posted March 2018