Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Using Role-Playing Games to Teach a Language?

Recently on the Pen & Paper Games forum, someone mentioned he or she was teaching English to some Japanese students using a simple custom board game and asked about the possibility of using an RPG to do the same, without it seeming "too linear". I find these kinds of topics really interesting, so I replied - I hope it was helpful, and would welcome any thoughts on the topic by readers here.

 I can understand you mean you don't want it to be railroady, but teaching people a language through the medium of gaming has different rules (in my opinion) because like math is a universal language, so too is is physics and the law of cause-and-effect, inertia and sequence.

You WANT situations and solutions to be linear to a great extent, I would think, so they can associate what they know as the phrases and concepts and words in their language for some actions, to be easily understood and readily identifiable by their analogues in the language being taught, so they'll know that the "cut the rope" action in English has the same effect on the suspended weight to open the door, that they would intuitively know as the phrase and action for their language.

You want to firmly establish similarity and counterparts to give them a definite grounding in the basics that will make them feel confident and excited to try to come up with and discover and learn new things and concepts and ideas, language-wise - advanced phrasing to escalate their progress, so they can be proud to know they've moved from "stand on log" to reach a shelf to "fill bottle with rocks" to get water, deepening the complexity of actions and relations of objects and situations, and easing into things naturally.

I'd recommend looking into the concepts of "token parsing" used now in many games but most notably in early text adventure games like Zork, that delved into the idea of verb-object examination and conjugation, with one example coming to mind, "The phrase 'put on fur coat' means something entirely different than 'put fur on coat', which we'd rather not guess at". There were some really good magazine articles of the times, and a "How to write computer adventure games" book (metal spiral bound) that insightfully considered varying complexity from the simple "verb object" (take sword) to "tell Joe to get the gun and follow me" and how to program the game to interpret that natural language structure that Westerners would intuitively type.

There are "skill challenges" as I understand it, for D&D and Pathfinder that relate to specific skills or abilities that are needed to be used to overcome obstacles, that could help slowly expand understanding of new terms or references, within a limited scope that you as the instructor choose, mostly puzzle-solving but with set criteria, like the group must generate 5 successes in 10 turns before the stone guardian arrives - somewhere in the RPG books, the rules and such for these are buried but I don't play d20 so I'm afraid I can't be more specific.

Simple one or two-scene scenarios, like very short role-playing game sessions, could also work, probably a single main challenge that all the players/students could contribute to, and then a few other smaller ones that individuals or smaller groups could break up into, to solve. Relating to a very simple exercise in imagination which might also be useful in your purposes, I wrote an article for Strolen's Citadel about a creative visualization exercise that probably a lot of gamers have never done:

My 7th grade science teacher did an exercise for the whole class to just close their eyes and imagine they were an animal and a storm was rolling in, and imagine what they would do, where they would go, and then she asked a few people to name the animal and describe its size and movements, which seems like would be a really good exercise in working on the familiar basics your students are learning, in an imaginative way.

Lastly there is a free game called Wushu Open (also a commercial version) by Dan Bayn that you might be able to modify for your uses, that relies on success rolls in the game being informed by how many details/embellishments a player adds to their actions, so "I hit the guy" or "I jump the pit" gives you one die to roll, but "I run forward and leap at the guy, spinning in mid-air with a kick to his chest" or "I take a few steps back and sprint forward, yelling as I spring over the chasm" gives you maybe 4 dice to roll.

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