Dr. Simone Bregni, of Saint Louis University, was recently featured in an article for the online magazine Medium for his innovative use of video games in the language classroom. We were fortunate enough to have our own interview with him to take a deeper dive into the use of video games for language learners. Hopefully you will get some inspiration to use games in your own classroom, or if you are a skeptic see the positive sides of gaming.
Please describe your linguistics background.
My passion for foreign language learning began early, when I started learning English in prima media, which is the sixth grade in my native Italy. I anxiously wanted to learn how to read, understand, speak and write another language. By seventh grade, I realized that I was faring better than my peers in the English courses, not only because of the effort I was putting into my studies but also because I spent a substantial amount of time attempting to make sense of my American and British comics, magazines and song lyrics. It was not until I was in graduate school, however, that I learned about the concept of realia, that is how comics, songs, magazines, etc. play a specific, beneficial role in second/foreign language acquisition (F/L2). I have known since sixth grade how they helped and were also fun. English-language shows and movies on Italian TV were all dubbed, not subtitled, so that learning option was not available. While in high-school at Liceo Classico, I continued my studies in English, as well as Latin and classical Greek.
Later, I studied theoretical linguistics in a graduate program in Journalism at the Catholic University of Milan. I was less than thrilled with the theoretical side of linguistics, but my passion for applied linguistics was once again sparked in a graduate program for the International and Diplomatic Careers at the University of Turin, where I also began learning French. It was at the University of Turin where I learned to truly appreciate the benefits of communicative, interactive methodologies. I then came to the U.S. for a Ph.D. in Italian literature at the University of Connecticut. Then in 2000, I was hired to build the Italian Studies program at Saint Louis University. I mostly taught language courses, at all levels, to meet the needs of the program. After 25 years of teaching in the American classroom, I still am, as I was, very passionate about language acquisition. I have always loved technology and pop culture in general, I combined my passion for teaching with my technological know-how and my pop-culture interests.
How did you first become interested in video games?
I began playing video games in the same year I started learning English, 1975. I was a student in prima media and the game was Atari’s Pong. I have never stopped playing video games since then. I grew up in the arcades, so to this day I prefer arcade-style games, although I appreciate all styles of games, including the communicative-centered games that are the focus of my research and teaching practices.
Other interests, such as comic books and music, also bolstered my language learning process. However, it was my passion for languages and for video games that grew side by side, a combination that continues to this day.
When did you realize you could combine video games with the learning of another language?
In 1985, after about a month of playing a computer game called Alter Ego by Activision on my home computer, a Commodore 64, I happened to pick up an English language novel I had begun reading a few months earlier but had abandoned because I found it too challenging, and realized that my English reading skills had improved substantially in a short time span. At this time, the electronic entertainment industry was undergoing a pivotal change. In just a few years, video games had transitioned from moving a few primitive blocks across a screen, to the more complex textual and graphic adventures of the Commodore 64 and other home computers of the mid ‘80s. While I loved arcade and home console video games, after purchasing a Commodore 64, I realized that I could play games on it that would not have been possible in the arcades or on consoles, such as textual adventures. Playing narrative-oriented quests in video games, not only was I reading in a foreign language, I was also applying my reading comprehension to problem solving, and using writing to attain goals, solve puzzles, unravel mysteries. My interest in video games also pushed me to explore other related content realia such as magazines, and, later on, gaming websites for reviews, guides, tips and tricks. The personal interest I had for the topic bolstered language comprehension and new vocabulary acquisition in the broader, related contexts.
The late ‘90s saw the introduction of fully-animated, voiced narrative games. The rise of video games as a mass phenomenon with the Sony PlayStation and with the popularity of Square Enix’s Final Fantasy series led me to explore the full potential of video games as interactive multi-media narratives in the language classroom. At the time, I was teaching Italian at Trinity College, in Hartford, CT, where they had just received a substantial Mellon Grant for language technology development. This afforded me the resources to experiment early on with digital realia. Along with my scholarly duties, I was also working as a freelance writer, at that time, for the leading Italian video game magazine, Super Console. For three years I contributed a regular column on the history of video games, and one as a foreign correspondent from the United States. The experience further stimulated my intellectual curiosity regarding the potential use of video games in learning. The process for my classroom experimentation in those days was a complex one. It involved using an Italian copy of Final Fantasy VIII in the PAL (Italian) video standard running on a modified, region-free PlayStation 1 system in the NTSC (North-American) television standard connected to a multi-standard projector in a high-end, state-of-the-art multi-media lab.
What are some of the games you use in your classes?
I use commercially-available video games, games that can be purchased in stores and online anywhere. While there have been digital “serious” games (games created by educators for the specific purpose of learning something) since mid-90’s, such as JCS’s Who is Oscar Lake, I never found them particularly enticing nor, above all, effective. The video games I use are “AAA,” commercially successful, well-known games. They are animated, interactive adventures, similar in nature to movies, but with additional
interactive features: the player controls the actions and the development of the storyline. The games I specifically select are narrative “quests,” fully-interactive multimedia experiences combining engaging narratives with real-time animation, speech/dialogue, subtitles, writing/textual interaction and, in some cases, even spoken interaction in the form of audio/video chat with other users. They are available in multiple languages, depending on the country/area where they are purchased. Contemporary console games work in any part of the world, unlike in the past (that is, they are “region-free”). The voice-acting and language localization in these “AAA” titles is excellent, they are very polished products.
Cinematic games can serve as excellent realia and enhance language both in and outside the classroom. Games such as Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain, Beyond: Two Souls and the new Detroit: Becoming Human along with the more recent entries in the Tomb Raider series, older games recently ported to the current generation of game consoles, such as Mïcroid’s Syberia, and even some of the Lego adventure games present animated, spoken cut-scenes and in-game text and subtitles in multiple languages, including Italian. Some games even afford culture acquisition, such is the case of the Assassin’s Creed series, which recreates in outstanding detail the daily life, language and culture of the era the game takes place in.
Cinematic games, with their high emphasis on communication, contain plenty of opportunities to reinforce a variety of grammatical forms and explore new vocabulary through listening and reading comprehension, lexical expansion and problem solving. I choose “AAA” titles because they are extremely polished products that have fun, engaging, complex content, and are often developed (such is the case of the Assassin’s Creed series) by teams of experts in different fields (historians, archaeologists, linguists, sociologists, etc.). They can be used at all levels, in one form or another, and as a lab or classroom activity.
How do you use them? What would they look like integrated into a typical lesson?
What I apply in my teaching is game-based learning (GBL). Gamification (teachers turning lessons into a game they designed) is merely a revamped reward system, not an actual teaching method. It is a motivational tool. Motivation is important to encourage learning, but it does not actually do the teaching. GBL, on the other hand, is pedagogy, closely connected to play theory. In GBL the learners
apply critical thinking (see Farber M., Gamify your classroom: A field guide to game-based Learning, 2nd ed., 2017). Since I mainly use video games, and only occasionally “analog” board or card games, I refer to what I do as video game-based learning (VGBL). While I do not believe that video games and other digital realia should replace “regular” teaching, they can be used to reinforce and expand vocabulary and structures. Reinforcing materials (grammar, vocabulary, syntax, style and cultural elements) that have been recently learned through traditional methods is the most effective use of realia, as scholarly research has shown.
I use VGBL activities in two ways. In my “regular” language, literature and culture courses, I typically expose my students to 2 two-hour VGBL activities (conducted over four lab periods) per semester. These VGBL activities are designed to expand and reinforce relevant grammatical and cultural elements that students have already been studying. VGBL activities are designed to expand upon what has been learned (for example, vocabulary and grammar related to parts of the house, rooms, furniture and chores in my lower-level language course; or Florence under the Medici in my literature course). A typical 50-minute language lab activity takes place in a computer lab equipped with a large projection screen and a PS4 system. Each activity includes preliminary exercises for approximately 20 minutes, 20 minutes of collective playing, and 10 minutes of follow-up activities. There must be solid preliminary work done involving the creation of vocabulary worksheets, listening and reading comprehension exercises, and follow-up activities that must take place before each video game-based class activity.
The first step is selection of approximately 15 minutes of gameplay from a game that demonstrates particular vocabulary, grammar structures and/or cultural elements in context. For example, the initial part of Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain affords the opportunity to talk about housing, furniture, chores, family relations; while the beginning of Assassin’s Creed II presents Renaissance Florence under the Medici at the time of the Pazzi’s conspiracy. The second step is the creation of preliminary activities that presents the grammar/vocabulary/cultural elements in the context of the game’s narrative. These activities are aimed at reinforcing previously-learned vocab and introducing new words and structures through traditional exercises such as listening comprehension, fill-in-the-gaps, word families, etc. The third and last step involves the creation of follow-up exercises.
Each gaming session is therefore combined with preliminary and follow-up work-sheets centered on scaffolding and task-based learning. For example, after learning basic action verbs (to run, to jump, to climb, etc.), my class plays the first “chapter” of Rise of the Tomb Raider, which presents many of those verbs in context (the young protagonist, Lara Croft, exploring the Himalayas in frigid weather, escaping from a group of criminals). The worksheet I created guides students to review related vocabulary and structures, then observe them at play in the on-screen narrative (through fill-in-the-gaps exercises). Other exercises assist students in expanding their vocabulary (using images to introduce unfamiliar
words) and forms (i.e., talking about weather). Finally, students are called upon to discuss, and write about, the gaming narrative first, and then about their own life experiences, by applying the vocabulary, verbs and structures they have just learned.
This is a process I call Identify, Acquire, Create (IAC): identifying, first, already known vocabulary and structures, then new ones; acquiring them through a series of task-based exercises; finally, creating autonomous written texts and spoken discourse.
The actual gameplay is a collective experience. I elicit volunteers. Each volunteer physically holds the joypad controller, and plays, for about five minutes, then passes the controller on to another player. The rest of the class is instructed to participate by providing encouragement, commands and comments (of support, success, defeat, disappointment) in the target language, which are modeled before the gaming session.
The second way in which I use video games in my teaching is in “Intensive Italian for Gamers The course, which is to the best of my knowledge the first of its kind, was developed with the assistance of the Saint Louis University (SLU) Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Leaning in fall 2016, as a recipient of a competitive fellowship. It is taught in the Learning Studio, a state-of-the-art, high-tech learning space. The course combines “traditional” intensive language instruction with gaming-based interaction. Within the pedagogical premise that language acquisition is a process that involves, and benefits from, daily interactions in the language in and outside the classroom, the course targets the specific segment of the student population that self-identifies as gamers (10%, according to the 2016 PEW Research). I believed that a strong, shared interest/passion for gaming would stimulate and enhance the students’ learning process, thus justifying the intensive nature of the course. So I created an “Affinity Group.“ These are groups of learners that share strong common passions/interests and thus, as the research indicates, learn more effectively. The Learning Studio is equipped with multiple wall monitor screens. Students also have access to tablets and laptops, besides their own mobile devices. We use PS4 because some of the games I selected as the best learning experiences are available only on that system (i.e., the games produced by Quantic Dreams). Also, gaming PCs tend to be very expensive. Thanks to the support of the Reinert Center and my department, students have access to a PS4 system and games entirely in Italian, both in their classroom and in the Language Resource Center (LRC) of the Department of Languages, Literatures & Cultures. A special section of the LRC has been reserved to function as a gaming lab. The cinematic games I recommended for purchase also include content in Spanish, French and German, while some also offer Chinese, Portuguese and Russian. Students from both my course and the department can access gaming in the LCR from 8am through 8pm weekdays.
What advice would you give to other professors/teachers looking to integrate popular games into their classrooms?
First of all, I believe that fellow educators should at least be aware that video games are a relevant part of our students’ life. In 2016, the Pew Research Center found that approximately 70% of college-age students play video games “at least once in a while”, and, in 2018, that over 80% of teens, male and female, play games. Regardless of one’s own interest in, or knowledge of, gaming as a medium, educators should at least be open to incorporating in their teaching what clearly is a substantial component of students’ life experience. For example, when assigning a F/L2 project such as an oral presentation or a written review/exposé, teachers and instructors could consider allowing the students who are so inclined to talk about their favorite games, maybe suggesting that they do so by using primary and secondary sources in the target language.
Of course, be sure to use the ESRB, YouTube “let’s play” videos (videos of gamers playing the game), and your own judgment when deciding what games would be most appropriate to your classroom or what activities you would like to see.
You recently had an article published in Medium about your love of the game Shenmue as a cultural artifact. Do you know Japanese or did you use Shenmue to learn Japanese?
(For our readers: Shenmue is an immersive video game that takes place in Japan in 1986. It has been praised for its accurate culture and cinematic qualities, making it of high value to those interested in Japanese culture. For more information on the game, please follow this link to the Medium article.)
I love Japanese culture, and I wish I spoke more of the language. I can only understand and say a few words and basic sentences in Japanese. Japanese pop culture is mainstream in Italy, and it has been since anime took Italy by storm in 1978. Since Goldrake/Grendizer, Gundam and a plethora of other
Japanese anime characters became household names, anime has been broadcast on several Italian TV channels for several hours every day, including on young adult channels such as MTV Italy. The popularity of anime in Italy played a relevant role in also making related Japanese media such as manga and video games mainstream. Generations of young Italians have been studying Japanese on their own, at Japanese cultural centers or at the University (Japanese is not taught at the high-school level Italy, as far as I know).
Would you like to see software developers making more classroom-ready video games, or in the future would you prefer to continue using popular and mass-market games?
Remember when you were a child and they would receive educational toys as a gift for the holidays or your birthday? Remember how a few of those were entertaining, but many, or most, were ultimately boring? While “serious” games have progressed, small developers of educational software simply do not have the resources to compete with “AAA” commercial video game productions. Video game series such as Assassin’s Creed, Tomb Raider, Shenmue, the Lego game series and many more are not only more entertaining and exciting, but also more challenging and more polished, than any “serious” game currently on the market. Let’s consider for example a recent entry in the Assassin’s Creed series, Origins. It allows us to visit an accurate reconstruction of Hellenistic-era Alexandria of Egypt, with a re-construction of the library of Alexandria created by collecting and comparing information about other still extant, contemporary libraries. It is can be played in several different modern languages, while in-game characters speak accurate renditions of contemporary Egyptian or koine Greek, the lingua franca of the times.
While “serious” games can, and will, evolve, I also see “AAA” game companies becoming more and more aware of the educational potential of their products at many different levels. A pioneer at the forefront of such a development is Ubisoft. They introduced a “Discovery Mode” in their recent releases in the Assassin’s Creed series that was specifically created for educational purposes. We can visit Classical Greece or Hellenistic Alexandria without engaging in any combat, puzzle-solving or quests. Ubisoft is also working with educators like me to further explore and expand the educational potential of their games.
How do you plan to continue your integration in the future?
I will continue researching more cinematic video games for use in my courses. I am currently exploring VR games, which offer exciting new perspectives using virtual interaction. I am currently working on other scholarly articles on the subject, and I have been invited to write more. I will also continue presenting at scholarly conferences (such as SXSW EDU in Austin, TX, and the American Association for Italian Studies, both of which will take place in March). I plan to continue offering more VGBL workshops in Europe next summer and I plan to continue including VGBL in some form or another in all my language, literature and culture courses. I am also currently developing an Introduction to the Classical Humanities course that will also be VGBL-based, an exciting opportunity to put my background in Classics to good use, as a service to our fellow Classics program.
But the project I am most excited about is turning all the materials I have developed for Intensive Italian for Gamers into a textbook, which could be use as a classroom supplement or for self-instruction. The
process was very time-consuming, and I would very much like to share my work with other colleagues and independent learners. I am currently collaborating on this project with Dr. Brandon Essary at Elon University, who also teaches language and culture with cinematic video games. Our project is in a format that is easily adaptable to all the major languages in which the games are available
Also, a collection of articles on video games and learning is in the works. My course could serve as a model for a mixed/blended learning format that could be applied to other languages and even other fields. After all, video games lend themselves to some interesting potential multidisciplinary developments in, among other subjects, such as History, Anthropology, Art and Architecture.