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Olle Linge

Adventure text games for Chinese learners

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Olle Linge

Summary: We’ve created a few adventure text games for Chinese learners. We believe the concept is sound and learners seem to enjoy the games. However, we struggle to make the games more accessible, especially in terms of language difficulty. We're hoping the community here might have some ideas for how to make the games accessible to more students.

 

Background

 

When I started learning Chinese, I had a hard time finding content that was both interesting and presented in an engaging way, especially at a beginner and intermediate level. I’ve been thinking about a solution to this problem ever since and I believe that engaging text games is one possibility.

 

I’ve always loved table-top role-playing, and it struck me that text games like the choose-your-own-adventure games that were popular when I was a kid would work really well for language learning. If you’re not familiar with such games, it’s basically an interactive novel, where you make choices, roll dice and so on, then proceed to different parts of the book depending on the result. Thus, it’s not a linear narrative and there are many ways of winning (and losing, of course).

 

Text games for language learning

 

This kind of game is perfect for learning Chinese. With a good story and clever choices, the student has to read and understand the text. If the difficulty of the text is also kept within reasonable limits, it’s like a graded reader where the student can influence the story and how it ends. If done well, every choice is basically a reading comprehension question that feels more like playing. You also get a lot of repetition built-in because you need to play several times to figure out how to win or to explore different possible story developments.

 

So, together with a friend of mine, Kevin Bullaughey, I have created a few of these games to try them out with Chinese learners. Instead of using pen and paper, these games are browser-based, which allows us to include recorded audio, so you can listen while reading, or even play in audio-only mode. There are also other tools such as a built-in dictionary.

 

Five text games for Chinese learners

 

So far, we’ve created five games. The total playing time for these games is many, many hours, and on average the games contain roughly as much text as a normal graded reader (around 10,000 characters). If you want to get a better understanding for how the games work, there are a few options:

 

 

I’ve also written about the games if you prefer text:

 

 

You can also try the games yourself (full access costs $3/month, but you can try all of the games if you have an account, which is free):

 

 

Improving the games and making them more accessible

 

So far so good! We’ve had a fair number of students playing the games, including some teachers using the games in their classrooms, and in general, the feedback has been very positive.

 

However, we want the games to be accessible to more students. The hardest nut to crack is language difficulty. Writing a game like this takes a lot of time, not just because the narrative is non-linear, but also because it needs to be coded and tested.

 

We’ve tried a few things to make the games more accessible:

 

  • There’s a built-in dictionary you can use if you don’t understand a character or word

  • There are real audio recordings if you think hearing something is easier than reading

  • We’ve deliberately kept new and unusual vocabulary to a minimum (kind of obvious)

  • We’ve limited the density of difficult items so they don’t stack up in one sentence

 

We need your input!

 

What else can we do? What tools or aids have you found useful to tackle texts that are a little bit too hard? I guess all learners of Chinese have had this problem, and we’ve each found different ways of coping with it. Perhaps there are other ways we could make the games more accessible? Or what would help make it less of a struggle to get through a game? Are there sources of frustration that could be mitigated?

 

Naturally, accessibility is not the only thing we want to improve. Ideally, we would like to keep creating games like these that are even more engaging and make learning to read (and listening to) Chinese more fun. If you have any other suggestions for how we could achieve that, we’d like to know that too!

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Shelley

My first thought was "Do people still play these things?" I remember ploughing through one of these in the late 80s early 90s on one of my early computers, can't remember if it was ZX81 or spectrum or Commodore 64 or even my Atari ST.

 

I was immediately put off by the amount of typing, the boring succession of text to read through and very little reward at the end except having done it, which wasn't that wonderful. I can't say its seems any more appealing in a language I am learning.

 

I am racking my brains to work out what would make this whole style of thing more engaging and appealing. The cover picture for Into the Haze promises much and then it is just black and white text.

I think if it is the style of thing that appeals then you will try it, but I don't know what would encourage those that are not text based games players to try it. I don't think any of the things you think are problems, unknown words, characters and difficulty levels. They in fact are the only challenging things in the whole idea.

 

I am no expert in these things, although I did have a hand in writing some games for the spectrum and ZX81 in the 80s. We had a game theorist on our team and I learnt a bit from him (he has some very impressive qualifications but that's not for here) Winning a few points for progressing through check points is not much incentive. Something like an instalment of the story in graphics, animated with audio that covers what you just worked out might be encouraging. All this is much more complicated than what I think you are expecting to do.

 

I think you are just going to have keep spreading the word so as many people who like this sort of thing can see it and take the opportunity to try it, you may get a few converts too.

I think what I am trying to say is it is what it is. I don't know if there is any room for improvement, I think text based games have peaked.

 

I am not actually against the idea, just a little surprised to see text based games still around. I hope it goes well and I am sure it will appeal to some.

 

 

 

 

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imron
10 hours ago, Shelley said:

I think text based games have peaked.

I think the point to this is not so much the *game*, but rather the language learning aspect of it.  Sure you could have a game with nicer graphics and sound and all sorts of things, but then you'd be completely missing the 'learning and practising characters' that is the focus of this.  Think of it as a graded reader with a decision tree, rather than a game.

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roddy

A door-bell apparently rang and there was no door-bell sound. Put ambient sounds like that in. It's both more engaging and provides clues for readers. 

I'm not sure if you have any graphics in there, but I'd strongly recommend them. Same reason as above.

Maybe... mini-games. If you want to say something to someone, you get a few options, only one of which is grammatically correct.

 

I'm intrigued by this idea, but I'm not sure the current format is going to get much traction. The equivalents today -  Telltale's output, point and clicks - rely on a lot more than text alone. Maybe the Lifeline series is closest.

 

I think the number one thing is to do more to make people forget they're clicking at a wall of text. In the cat one, maybe at the start there's a radio playing in the background, maybe the bag meows at some point. Maybe there's a picture of the lounge. Then when you move location those elements change, which is kind of a reward for progressing. But then you're getting further away from the simple text idea. 

 

As far as the narratives go - I only tried two, but in both cases I think you could put people right into the action. Say the cat one starts when the cat is already missing, and the backstory gets filled in later. Similarly with the post-apocalyptic one - start off with the narrator hiding from raiders or something and build out. Don't tell us the air is toxic, let us go out there, almost die, then barely make it back inside to try and find a gas mask.

 

 

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Publius

This reminds me of the Wuxia MUD I played in the late 90s.

 

武馆大厅 -
  这里是武馆大厅,正中靠北摆着一张八仙桌,桌上供着关公的神位,
旁边放着两个青瓷花瓶,插着几支孔雀翎,墙上写着大大的一个“武”字
武馆主人早些年在江湖上闯荡,现今洗手隐退,在襄阳开起了这间武馆,
往北走是个长廊,一直通向馆主的卧室。
  这里明显的出口是 eastdown、enter、southdown 和 westdown。
 襄阳武馆馆主 朱宇(Zhu yu)
> ask zhu about 学习
你向朱宇打听有关『学习』的消息。
朱宇说道:书房里有些我常看的书,你去翻翻看,有没有自己需要的。

 

书房 -
  这是武馆馆主的书房,房内很静,几缕阳光从窗外的绿荫中直射进来,
屋内靠窗放着一个大书架,显然都是些主人常看的书。墙上高悬着几个大
字“少壮不努力,老大徒伤悲”。
  这里唯一的出口是 west。
> fan 书架
你翻了半天没发现自己想要的。
> fan 书架
你翻了半天没发现自己想要的。
> fan 书架
你高兴的跳了起来,发现了一本自己想要的书。
> l shu
昆仑派秘籍(Shu)
这是昆仑派内功心法的秘籍。
> fan 书架
你突然觉得自己怎么这么贪,拿了一本还要拿。

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Shelley

Having time to think about this it occurred to me that you could be using the puzzle that is the chinese language. Make it so that your proficiency at recognising radicals, measure words and similar things can be used to make a game of it.

 

For a simple example in the following paragraph of text there is a colour hidden (in the component parts of words) once you have found 工 and mì as components of characters in that paragraph you can count the number of times they occur and therefore arrive at a number of reds ie: 9Red this could be used as code to unlock the next level.

 

This makes the fact it is text based useful. Keeping the level of reading skill needed as in a graded reader is good but also throw in a few things above the level, stretch the learner make them think, its all too easy to potter around in your comfort zone.

 

So use the fact it is text based, work in and around using the characters as the clues and solutions to puzzles and mini-games.

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imron
3 hours ago, roddy said:

Don't tell us the air is toxic, let us go out there, almost die, then barely make it back inside to try and find a gas mask.

Show don't tell, right?

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roddy

Roddy nodded. 

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Lu

Not being a gamer I don't have much to offer, except an anecdote: I talked to a girl recently who told me that in her first year of secondary school, she was very bad at English. Then during the summer holidays, she discovered dating sims (she had to explain this to me: you're a girl, at the beginning of the game you meet three dudes and over the course of the game you try to end up with one). They were in English, and out of sheer desire to be able to play these games she learned really good English over the summer.

 

This to say: gaming can be very motivational to learn a language. I think it's most important that the game itself is interesting. You might even want to try it out on Chinese gamers: ideally, it should be interesting regardless of the language-learning aspect.

 

Good luck, I like the concept.

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dwq

I wonder if the OP considered Visual Novel style games?  You can still put lots and lots of text in, but with pictures and characters on screen you can show something with graphics in addition to describing it with text, and make it a bit more approachable than a wall of text to learners.

 

If you don't know what I'm talking about, here's a video of people playing a visual novel (just a random search result on youtube):

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tjyD0kvraqk

 

In case you wonder, the downside of visual novels are: if you are proficient in the language, you can read a wall of text faster than having to wait for on screen animation to finish (so most of those games have a way to skip the animation / fast forward to the next screen of text), and of course needing to do graphics and animations are an additional cost to making the game. For learners, though, the slower pace of reading and additional cues on screen are advantages, I think.

 

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roddy

Trouble is, pretty soon you end up with all of the development costs and none of the market.

 

Take a look at something like this. It feels a lot smoother to use - the way the text rolls up, the occasional music and graphical elements, even just the way the background changes as night falls. 

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