Tuesday, March 03, 2009
The image above is of the best dedicated, Latin-language game we can find, a bit of freeware from Hungry Frog Software. It is a step above "Hangman" where students arbitrarily guess at letters until they find a combination that works, revealing a Latin word or phrase. It goes beyond traditional find-a-word puzzles where students circle combinations of letters that form a Latin word matching one in a list of terms to discover. The game pictured above uses animation, graphics, color, and allows the student to zap "birds" out of the sky with a . . . um . . . factory, scoring points for hitting birds that are labeled "is", the English translation for the tiny Latin word in the lower-right corner, "est". Sadly, this game fails as both fun and instructional because the word is divorced from any kind of context; the student is not informed or quizzed on its conjugation; the game only quizzes a handful of words; it's not really fun to play and has little replay value.
As the Director of eLearning for Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, it's my job either to find or create interesting digital aides for Latin and Greek students and teachers. As an avid gamer (and a bad Latin student -- I did get better in graduate school), I have always been interested in how we can use games to teach Classical languages. Learning via gaming is not a new concept, and universities like Carnegie Mellon and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have long-term projects committed to creating games and gaming platforms for education. The problem, best articulated by Professor Henry Jenkins of M.I.T.'s Games to Teach project, is:
"Move beyond the current state of edutainment products which combine the entertainment value of a bad lecture with the educational value of a bad game."
This is indeed the Holy Grail: make a game that is fun to play that teaches you something without it seeming to be, well, teaching you something. So how do we do this for Latin?
1) We use existing games that were never intended as Latin instructional tools. There are plenty of games that use Latin to add a bit of mystery or intelligence to make gameplay more interesting or believable: the Final Fantasy series, the Harry Potter series, games from Blizzard Entertainment like Warcraft, Starcraft, and World of Warcraft.
There are also games set in Rome that do provide some real Latin during gameplay. The best of these is Rome: Total War which can be modified (or "modded") with the application of the freely available Rome: Total Realism patch with Latin audio. Now you can hear the generals order their troops around in Latin. The 2006 game, Glory of the Roman Empire, was produced with a Latin-language option out of the box, although many might laugh at the heavily Italianate pronunciation used in the game.
We can take these games one step further, especially in the case of MMOs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) like World of Warcraft. I run a Latin-language guild, Carpe Praedam, on the U.S. server for Feathermoon where the intent is to run student-teacher diads where the student helps the teacher play and the teacher helps the student with Latin. When used in raids, instances (dungeons), and PvP (player vs. player), this is a great way to practice the use of the active, the imperative, not to mention prepositions and vocabulary specific to armed conflict.
With World of Warcraft and other games, it is also possible to create machinima where students can record Latin dialogues as they happen in-game, handing in the movie files for extra credit or as end-of-term projects. There are dozens of examples of these student-created films on my eClassics site.
2) We can create games from the ground up that focus on teaching/reviewing Latin without foresaking a quality gameplay experience. As I said at the beginning of this post, I was a poor Latin student. I was not wired for learning Latin via grammar charts and repetition (I thrived under a reading approach, however). I have also always been a person who learns best by doing. And I have an addictive personality, which is probably more than the readership wanted to know.
Now, if I can make a game that combines addictive gameplay (i.e. must... get... to... next... level... before... sunrise....) with Latin reading, then great! So, as a work in progress for 2009, I am working with a small team of Latin teachers and programmers to create what is tentatively being called "LatinQuest!". It merges the addictive qualities of completing quests for gold and gear (made popular by World of Warcraft and, to a more funny extent, Kingdom of Loathing), with a graded approach to Latin learning. Easy quests at the beginning of the game feature "easy" Latin (first declension nouns, very basic vocabulary, etc.), while harder quests later in the game feature more "difficult" Latin (periphrastics, anyone?). The player learns as s/he plays. the games supplements what they are learning in class, but gives them a fun way to test what they know. We'll see how development progresses on our first 100 quests. My goal is to allow Latin teachers to submit quests to put into the game once the students demonstrate mastery of the Latin learned in 1st- and 2nd-year. This keeps the Latin content new and fresh, and keeps students (and hopefully some teachers) playing.
My goal with Latin and computer games is not to replace traditional textbooks, but to supplement them with contemporary material for "born-digital" students. Modern languages are already successfully exploiting iPods, iPhones, Nintendo DS, Macs, and PCs for teaching and review in a fun way. I want to do the same for Latin:
Apologies for such a long post! Let me finish by thanking Moa Ekbom for her kind invitation to me to post here regarding the topic of my presentation at the recent Greek and Roman Games in the Computer Age conference. I would be happy to continue a dialogue on the topic of Latin via gaming either here or over on eClassics or via email at areinhard at bolchazy dot com.
Director of eLearning
(writing from his home office in Phoenix, Arizona, USA)