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Making adventure games English-learner-friendly

Since I started Antimoon in 2001, I’ve been promoting the idea of learning English with adventure games. I believe adventure games are a great way to learn English, especially for younger learners.

Why do I believe in adventure games so strongly? Because I know that people learn languages most effectively when:

  • they are surrounded by foreign-language sentences (input); and
  • understanding those sentences is personally important to them (it enables them to understand something, or someone, they care about)

Adventure games meet both conditions, as they provide both input (in the form of dialogue) and motivation to understand it. When you’re playing an adventure game, you really want to make progress in it, sometimes to the exclusion of other needs like eating or sleeping. Since solving a puzzle typically requires understanding subtle hints dropped by characters in the game, the player finds himself in a situation where their very well-being depends on how well they understand English vocabulary and grammar. If this is not an ideal learning situation, then I don’t know what is.

Adventure game designers, therefore, have enormous power: they can produce levels of engagement that most English teachers can never hope to achieve in a classroom situation. Of course, game designers don’t think of their games as learning aids and I’m not saying they should. But I think it would be nice if they spent a bit more time thinking about the needs of foreign players who use their games as an English-learning opportunity.

Simple ways to make your game English-learner-friendly

If you are an adventure game developer, there are some simple things that you can do to lend a helping hand to English learners without a great deal of effort:

  • English voices and English subtitles should be available in all localized versions. Even if the user purchased a French or German version, they should be allowed to change their mind and decide to play the game in English later.
  • It should be possible to pause the game at any time. While the game is paused, the current line of dialogue should be visible on the screen. This is important because learners may need to re-read a line several times, consult a dictionary etc. (This sounds obvious, but some games display a special “pause screen” that obscures all the in-game graphics and subtitles.)
  • Ideally, in pause mode, the player should be able to not only read the current line of dialogue, but also hear it again (for example, by clicking a speaker button). This would have the added advantage of assisting the player in learning English pronunciation.
  • If you’re going to release localized versions of your game, the user should be able to choose between playing the game (1) in English, (2) in their local language, or (3) in English with on-demand translation (AKA “English learning mode”). In the “on-demand translation” mode, the game is played in English. The player can pause the game with the English dialogue text visible on the screen. (So far, this is just like playing in English.) The player can then press a Translate key/button to display the translation in their local language right below the English text.
    • The translation should not appear automatically upon pausing the game because the player should be encouraged to figure out the meaning of a troubling phrase just by re-reading it in English (if successful, this can be quite motivating). Consulting the translation should be treated as a last resort and the UI should reflect this.
    • If the user presses the Translate key/button to display the translation, it should not replace the English text. Rather, it should appear below the English text to allow the user to compare the English phrase with the local-language phrase and learn the meaning of previously unknown English phrases.
    • The Translate key/button can also be pressed at any time in the game that English text is displayed – for example, for dialogue choices, object labels, etc. This should have the effect of displaying the translation alongside the original English text.
    • Translations could be replaced with English explanations of difficult phrases, a la (for example: “I just took him out for you” could be explained like this: “In a violent context, to take out someone is to kill, injure or disable them.”). This would work for native speakers of all languages, not just those in which the game has been localized. Of course, it would require hiring someone to prepare these explanations.

    What I think is a great benefit of this mode is that it would enable the user to play the game in its original English version while letting them fall back to their native language from time to time. The main idea here is to eliminate the all-or-nothing choice between “only English” (which is intimidating to many foreign players) and “only native language” (which produces zero educational effect).

  • The user should be able to task-switch out of the game to use a dictionary. (Some games crash when you try to switch tasks. In others, task switching takes a very long time.)
  • It would be nice if the user could browse previously seen/heard lines of dialogue (Grim Fandango had this feature). Some learners like to add sentences they’ve come across to spaced-repetition software like Anki or SuperMemo. This lets them review the phrases they’ve learned. This feature is not terribly important (you can always write interesting sentences down in a notebook as you play), but would make life easier for those learners, since you cannot easily go back to a particular place in the game the way you can in a movie (savegames cannot usually get you to the precise place you want).


5 Comments so far ↓

  • Robin

    I also thought about this idea for ages. Language learning is far more motivating and easier if you remember vocabulary and sentences related to specific (mayby funny) remarkable situations in a game.

    Good adventure games could get an even wider audience when they are also used for language learners. Even if developers would just add some basic features (Pause, Repeat, Clickable Subtitles for copy/paste to your dictionary and/or vocabulary trainer), this would be a good start.

    Otherwise you spend too much time in reloading a game save to get a specific dialog again. Also switching back to desktop for dictionary lookup is cumbersome. And quite often when sentences & game situations get more complicated you have to do many dic look ups in order… then I get frustrated and just play on without learning anymore so at least the game goes on.

    That’s the reason I (sometimes) like to train my English using interactive fiction text adventures with a specific interpreter where e.g. your dictionaries can work with. There you have plenty of time (if it’s not a real time adventure, but then you still can pause the game) to read and copy/paste your texts. Most of the IF interpreters have a text-to-speech engine included so you can use your favorite speech fonts, too.

    Back to graphical adventure games: Most of the classics can run on the open source ScummVM-Engine. So basically someone could extend the code that at least the mentioned basic features are working. Mabye multiple language versions of a game could be supported that way, too. Ok, then you need to buy both language versions of the game…

    Of course, English-English translations for difficult parts or even specific dicitonaries and maybe exercises in the game itself would mean more work to do on the developers side. But they seem to be only focused for pure gamers (playing without learning in mind).
    On the other side language learning software companies seem not to be interested in learning & gaming that way. Their marked grows better on the business area where gaming is a no go yet.

    • Tom

      Double Fine (Tim Schafer’s and Ron Gilbert’s development studio) are making a point-and-click adventure game — their first point-and-click adventure since Grim Fandango. I’ve written to them about this. I hope they’ll at least implement the basic UI suggestions I’ve written about.

  • martinus

    Tom, of course you do realise this will never happen… Producers in Poland are more than happy to remove all traces of a foreign language from the game they’re marketing, and they take pride in a full Polish version… In fact, so do most of the gamers. Get this–one of the first things that a great majority of Poles who want to use Anki to learn foreign languages ask about is whether Anki offers a full Polish UI. I guess, this shows the general attitude prevalent among many, if not most, people studying a foreign language.

    • Tom

      Sure, “full Polish version” sells games in Poland (I even wrote a blog post about that once). But there is a minority of gamers (mostly young, educated, urban) who watch American TV shows and movies in English and wouldn’t touch a localized version of a game with a ten-foot pole. This minority is clearly growing. Ten years ago if you said you watched movies in English, people looked at you as if you were a weirdo (or a genius). Today, it’s no more unusual than, say, owning a motorcycle — at least among college students and college-educated people.

      I think game distributors are beginning to notice this trend. In my experience, most “big” titles (say, Mass Effect or Fallout) are released in dual language versions. At least the ones I’m interested in.

      And, of course, there’s always Steam, where you can get any version you want. Usually, that’s more expensive than buying a game in a store, but if you catch one of Steam’s fabulous sales, it can be a lot cheaper.

      So I’m optimistic. Getting great English-language games is easier than ever before!


    Back in 2002, 2003 I played the “Post mortem” adventure game and finished it without knowing almost no English at all. Also I played the “Return to castle Wolfenstein” and “Max Payne” shooters with no translation either. Playing the games and not understanding them properly certainly contributed to my motivation to learn English.

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