Some Interesting Foreign Language Games

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I'm at the CALICO conference on using technology with foreign language instruction, and this year, games and virtual worlds are a big theme. There's lots of experimentation with Second Life, custom virtual worlds and role-playing games for foreign language practice.

Xenos

An example of a custom virtual world is Xenos Island (for English as a Second Language). We got a quick tour of this, and although the graphics are not Halo quality, they are still appealing. The island has multiple zones which feature a variety of word games, some single player, but many requiring multiple players. I haven't had a chance to play yet, but it looks like there's a lot there to keep students interested.

Islet (in Development)

Another presentation focused on a product still in development by the military. They are working on some realistic "action games" featuring combat scenarios in Iraqi Arabic and Senegalese French (Africa). Like commercial games, the 3D graphics were spectacular and the music was jamming - but you have to conduct the entire operation (including surveillance of the locals) in Arabic or French.

This is the concept many educational gamers have been dreaming of, but it did raise some interesting quesitons. The goal is to encourage military personnel to practice foreign language skills on their own time, but will it appeal to non-gamers? The speakers noted that they would be developing non-military scenarios (e.g. medical simulations), so they were aware of the issue.

My other question is if the game is making light of a sensitive situation. It's true that we are on combat missions in some of these areas and language skills are critical for success. But the music was just like every other "mindless" combat game. What's the balance between appealing to gamers and being sensitive?

For the record, there are "politically incorrect" foreign language scenarios. It is true that some people in Sri Lanka may have problems distinguishing Americans from Britons (at least that's what my Sinhala text book, written by a Sinhala native speaker claimed). I can also attest that the term "Red Indian" (the kind that live in North America) is alive and well for some Welsh speakers (ByFf/WTF!). Sometimes we need to acknowledge this reality, but there is a fine line.

BTW - One of my favorite foreign language modules were the Austin Police files to train English-only Texans how to deal with the Spanish-speaking population. I admired it for having simulations like pulling someone over for a traffic ticket. With the passing of the Arizona immigration law, tensions are higher than ever, but it is still a situation that will happen for legitimate reasons. At times like this, I can only hope there's a counterpart training scenario for how to deal with deal with drunken English speakers on vacation in Canún...just saying

And then there's Façade

Speaking of uncomfortable situations, none is more painful than the ones presented in this simulation of a young couple you are visiting for drinks. If you ever wanted to simulate being in Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? this is the game for you.

In this game, you are invited to visit a college buddy Trip who is married to Grace. As you approach their apartment, you overhear them arguing (the script varies). Fortunately, they welcome you in, but after a few minutes, the situation begins to derail (again with some variations). It's up to you to keep the party going, and you can choose to smooth the waters or add heat to the fire. See some examples below.

There are obvious applications for both counseling and language use (not to mention learning to script randomized scenarios), but the truth is that most are playing this for the entertainment value (kind of like Grand Theft Auto). This is also a reality we need to acknowledge.

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