You Never Know What Time Will Bring You Back From Your Past

Written by Ruth Torres, Visiting PhD Student at the HCI Games Group.

Image Source: https://qubo.com/show/where-on-earth-is-carmen-sandiego

Recently, I spent three months in a foreign country doing research about game design. I would have never imaged that what I had learned 18 years ago would be very helpful now. As a PhD student in the United States, I had the opportunity to do an internship at the HCI Games Group, which is part of the Games Institute at the University of Waterloo in Canada. It has been an exciting experience that gave me the opportunity to work and know people from different countries, cultures, and study areas.

Eighteen years ago when I was a high-school student in my home country, Mexico, I took an English as a second-language course for about two years; game design was not my main study goal back then. However, I remember that my lab hours were the most exciting time of the weekly classes. Time would pass fast when I was playing ’Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego’. I could spend hours in front of the lab computer playing and even when the language level used in the game was higher than what I knew then, it never impeded me from trying one more time to find the answer to the given puzzle. It was bliss.

Today, eighteen years later, I am facing the learning of a second language experience one more time, but now as a game designer. I started working on the design of a French language-learning game. This means, I need to go back to my experiences from earlier years and try to remember what about that video game got my attention and engagement that made me spend so many hours in front of a computer playing it. If I — as a second language learner — had very pleasant memories about this game, that likely means it is a good game to analyse when designing new language-learning games.

The main focus of this blog post is to describe some guidelines about language-learning games, and how can we learn or practice a language with them. I will also try to argue how — in my particular case — this game was more effective for my learning than a classroom practice.

First, I want to mention some effective strategies to learn a new language that I found helpful when I was learning English.

  • Practice with real world scenarios: If you simulate everyday real-world situations and conversations, it will be easier for you to get used to practice the language in everyday tasks.
  • Listen to music from that language: Listening to music will get your ear and listening skills used to the daily-spoken and common/frequent words from a specific language.
  • Read about culture, food, and social life: Getting to know the country you are learning a language from can help you get immersed in the language-learning experience. This will help you to find interesting topics to you and dig into them for new knowledge about the same language.
  • Try following and cooking a popular recipe: An easy way to prove your basic understanding of a new language is to cook a dish following a recipe from that foreign country. Recipes are simple steps that, if followed correctly, will produce a tasty and satisfying outcome.
  • Go shopping: Shopping conversations, in the new language, will really help you practice basic language phrases that are the basis for higher-level conversations.

So, now that we know some basic strategies that can enhance new language learning, next, we will look at how these strategies guide us for the design of a language-learning video game.

The next points are some guidelines to implement the above strategies into game design mechanics. I will state a my own experiences from the game (and what I learned) and find a relationship with a possible game design guideline for other people to learn a language.

  1. Get the player immersed in the learning world.
  • In “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego”, the given clues were designed so you can learn about the culture, traditions, language, food, and costumes of the different cities you were visiting. Language-learning games should expose a player to real-world scenarios where they need to make decisions, choose options, and perform activities that closely relate to the new language.
  • “I was always hearing different accents from the different characters that appeared in the game.” Even in a country, where people speak the same language, there are accents and idiomatic expressions that differ from one city to another. Language-learning games might take into consideration these different speaking accents and try to show as many as possible to the new language learners. Listening to different accents can get the player’s ear familiar with different meanings of one same word.
  • Regular expressions as “enjoy you trip,” “have a good one,” or “we buy, you fly” will make my fictitious flight experience as realistic as if I were really traveling abroad. Making the player feel like they are physically living the experience can change the learning effects in a big way. Language-learning games should take into consideration good game mechanics, regular feedback, and game objectives that consider immersion of the player into the new language world as their main goal.

2. Visual appeal of the characters and the overall game really matters.

  • “My travel agent was really enthusiastic about her job.” Looking at her facial expressions and hand movement, I could discover how well the travel agent character was performing her tasks. Games that look ahead in language learning need to consider characters or player movements to be suitable and to express the learning material in the best appropriate way for the learner.
  • “Pictures of the cities I visited were engaging visualizations.” Visual feedback is always helpful when learning new words of a new language. Words that are attached to images will be easier to remember for the new learner (the Rosetta Stone software and DuoLingo have used this principle effectively). Video games can make good used of a wide variety of visualizations that will definitely enhance the language-learning experience.
  • “The evidence board and sticky notes were my basic tools as a detective.” The language-learning experience can be more engaging if a game provides the player different resources that can enhance or facilitate the gameplay. These resources might vary from scoreboards, companions, dashboards, or collecting materials depending on the storyline of the game.

3. Game music and sound play an important role in language-learning games.

  • “Dialing a phone or an airplane-flying-sound added to my playing experience.” Previous versions of this same game did not have these sound features and I remember them as a funny part of my playing experience. To make language-learning fun, video games need to find different ways to get players’ attention and to engage them into the playing experience. Matching action and sound will offer the player a more realistic and engaging experience.
  • “I could listen to typical music from each city I was visiting.” Just as listening to music of the new language your learning can improve when you hear specific sounds of a certain region or a city, which will help to remind you about past experiences. Language learning is related to recapitulating from previous learning and experiences. Playing familiar sounds or music within a video game can add lots of richness to the final learning experience.
  • When the warrant police robot finally caught the thief after my persecution, they were taken to the jury for a final verdict. “Found guilty”, was the most pleasant phrase for me back then. Getting rewards plays an important part when playing any game. In this case, my reward was to be promoted to an upper level. Yay! Hearing the voice telling me: “You have been promoted” was a great reward. Games that seek to promote the learning of a new language need to provide rewards as one main mechanic when the player reaches certain learning level or completes a certain task.

I hope this blog post was useful to you. I have discussed how learning to speak another language gave me the opportunity to interact with different people and different cultures. As for me, in the past, the use of a video game was a very useful approach that enriched my language-learning experience. Of course, nowadays there is so much to say about how a good language-learning game should be designed for it to be an effective learning tool. As a future researcher, I am excited to be in this field of study and how to discover and test turning video games into learning tools that soon will be used in classrooms, in the same way that textbooks are today, to improve and help the learning experience.


Ruth Torres visited the HCI Games Group in the summer of 2017 and is a PhD student at the Play & Interactive Experiences for Learning Lab (PIXL) at New Mexico State University.