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Column: Lingua Franca

Column: 'Lingua Franca' – The Fun Of Language Development with Bookworm Adventures

August 14, 2009 8:00 AM |

lex-bookworm.jpg['Lingua Franca' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Daniel Johnson which discusses the relationship between language, culture and video games. This time, he interviews Tysen Henderson from PopCap Games about juggling fun with education in the word 'em up Bookworm Adventures series.]

Last week I received results back from an interview I'd taken several weeks prior. The interview was for a TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) course I plan on taking near the year's end.

On the feedback sheet they included the results of a pre-interview exercise in which they expressed concern over my – self-admittingly -- weak spelling and – also self-admittingly -- gaps in knowledge of grammar. Fortunately computers are good at fixing one of those, just not the other.

I hated spelling and grammar exercises as a kid - didn't we all? English after all is a catastrophe of a language. Broken logic forced together in the most contradictory fashion, constructed with a counterintuitive alphabet which is impossible to discern orthographic and semantic sense from.

Even recently, as a semi-competent writer, I sat an English writing course only to be reminded of those unrelenting spelling and grammar tests. Maybe if I had a game like Bookworm Adventures when I was growing up, English and I wouldn't fight so much.

I started playing Bookworm Adventures roughly a year ago now and was memorized by the challenging word 'em up gameplay and lovingly crafted personalities of the cast. The title's base mechanic is that of word construction where the player builds words to defeat a string on fiendish monsters.

This foundation is wrapped in lite RPG elements and a narrative which push you forward and diversify the progression where needed. The concoction of these simple, distilled elements make for a rather enthralling title which is not only immensely enjoyable but significantly aids in language development.

Column: 'Lingua Franca' – Memberships, Hierarchy and Lore of the Gorons

July 20, 2009 4:00 PM |

goron.png['Lingua Franca' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Daniel Johnson which discusses the relationship between language, culture and video games. This time he explores the cultural pedagogy of the Goron tribe in the Legend Of Zelda series.]

Video games, as simulations, have the ability to transfer skills to the player through interaction within the game world. Serious games, games designed to educate real-life skills, are a burgeoning industry. These games often serve to raise awareness on key issues or teach tangible skills such as operation of machinery or safety guidelines. Culture-related skills, such as proficiency in intercultural communication, language acquisition and understanding of cultural beliefs and practices demand interaction and experimentation if they are to be fully acquired. It's the reason why so many second language learners go overseas to study.

This makes a simulated experience such as video games all the more appropriate form of pedagogy for such a field of education. However, attainment of culture skills for practical purposes (communicating in a foreign context, for instance) requires extensive amounts of interaction, over a prolonged period of time in a variety of different circumstances, often to such extent of production that would exceed most serious games.

That's not to say that serious games cannot, and have not achieved such success here before -- particularly when they concentrate on discrete areas of education -- but rather, we can also learn a lot about cultural-based education through non-educational flavoured video games.

This is where the installment-based nature of many entertainment-minded video game franchises step in. Both real-life and manufactured societies inhabit rather extensive franchises including Oddworld, Metal Gear Solid, Grand Theft Auto, Warcraft and The Legend of Zelda, where the player must engage with or is already an active member of a cultural membership in the game. These games subconsciously familiarize the player with cross-cultural communication, set cultural practices, and various linguistic and cultural norms as a method of play. In fact, acquiring such skills often acts as the necessary means to not just complete but to fully understand the game, its world and narrative.

Team this with extensive gameplay over a series of iterations (think hundreds of hours, in some instances) and the lasting pedagogical effect on the player is enormous. Furthermore, as either series evolves, taking on new situations, from fresh and/or different perspectives, the understanding of the cultures increase and expound, building upon the base knowledge and skill systems.

Column: 'Lingua Franca' – Mapping The Gamer Dialect

June 29, 2009 4:00 PM |

pocket-oxford.jpg['Lingua Franca' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Daniel Johnson which discusses the relationship between language, culture and video games. This time he sets a charter in search of the mystical gamer dialect.]

A few weeks ago, just after my last column, the Global Language Monitor, a company specialized in tracking new English words, declared “Web 2.0” as the millionth word in the English language. “Web 2.0” was running in competition alongside other contemporary words such as “slumdog”, “Jai Ho!” and “n00b”.

Scrutinizing these words as to whether or not they're legitimate enough to be christened as ummm....words, is about as silly as it sounds. If I say a word and you understand my meaning that should be enough to qualify it as a word. At least they're the rules I play by.

What this company does is track the use of new words in the media, and once the usage reaches a certain frequency, the word is popular enough to be officially welcomed into the English language. If there's anything we can take away from this headline grabber, it should be the mass acceptance of the gaming term “noob”.

Column: 'Lingua Franca' – Australian Larrikinism in Syphon Filter: Logan's Shadow

June 10, 2009 8:00 AM |

dane-bishop.jpg['Lingua Franca' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Daniel Johnson which discusses the relationship between language, culture and video games. This time he discusses Australian larrikin Dane Bishop in Syphon Filter: Logan's Shadow.]

The greatest challenge in writing a column on the relationship between video games and culture is being familiar with the cultural norms and practices of communities from around the world, and then being able to draw on this information at free will. Within my own sphere of cultural knowledge, I'm personally well acquainted with Australian and Chinese culture, less so the rest of the world. Given my familiarity on the topic, it's only fitting that I take a squiz at a game which features an Aussie bloke.

The game I want to look at this time is PSP spy-thriller Syphon Filter: Logan's Shadow. A title from a franchise rich in ethnic stereotypes (Somalians are pirates, Russians are evil, Americans are the saviours of the world) but oddly enough many cross-ethnic partnerships too (an American-Chinese lead duo, making friends with the Russians). It's bizarre the way the series gravitates back and forth between shallow cultural tropes ripped straight from action cinema to identities and back stories which contain some actual weight – in the cultural sense, of course.

Aussie shoe-in Dane Bishop is of particular interest in this iteration of the franchise. Bishop is the ambassador for the new swimming mechanics in Logan's Shadow which makes him pretty important. He provides a tutorial at the start of the game and then later accompanies Gabe during key diving missions.

The Australian accent put on by esteemed (British) voice actor Robin Atkin Downes comes off suitably brilliantly. Better still, Bishop's character exemplifies Aussie larrikinism in an incredibly resounding manner - I found it difficult to ignore - which is why I want to talk about it.

Larrikinism, quoting Wikipedia, is “the name given to the Australian folk tradition of irreverence, mockery of authority and disregard for rigid norms of propriety. Larrikinism can also be associated with self-deprecating humour”.

I want to focus on this element exclusively because it's an important aspect of what I consider Australian culture. More so than the often shallow image packaged and exported overseas. You know; kangaroos inhabiting our backyards and park lands, wrestling crocs on the weekend and blowing gum leaves around a camp fire while singing songs. While these things are certainly true of Australian culture...to a certain extent, it's a very narrow interpretation of the broader cultural identity this country that has to offer.

This article is concerned with the way Bishop's larrikin-like nature is introduced to the player through the initial swimming tutorial in Logan's Shadow.

Column: 'Lingua Franca' – Portal and the Deconstruction of the Institution

June 1, 2009 8:00 AM |

Erving_Goffman.jpg['Lingua Franca' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Daniel Johnson which discusses the relationship between language, culture and video games. This time he steps away from culture to talk about games, language and sociology with regard to Valve's Portal - please note that the article contains story spoilers for the game.]

In 1959 Erving Goffman released The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life; a book that went on to heavily influence future understanding of social interactions within the sociology discipline. In it, he discusses social intercourse under the metaphor of actors performing on a stage. Specifically, in the second chapter he shares the idea of a front and backstage to social interaction.

As with the theater, we have a place where we manage the performance and a place where we give that performance. As social interlocutors engaged in interaction, we are presenting an impression of ourselves to an audience; we're acting out a role that requires constant management at the whim of the interaction. The front stage is the grounds of the performance. The backstage is a place we rarely ever want to reveal to others, it contains the truth to our construction and to reveal it would be to defraud our identity in front of the audience - it simply spoils the illusion of where we're placing ourself in the interaction.

The narrative of 2007's Portal by Valve Software is grounded heavily in Goffman's work both in social performance and institutions. The running of an institution requires a front and backstage. A restaurant is an institution which has an obvious front and back stage, both in architectural layout and in the management of performance.

A waiter passing through one area to another will shift their presentation accordingly. In the dining area he will be polite to guests, hold himself strongly and compose himself with great dignity. Moving into the kitchen though, he is away from the front stage and can loosen his shoulders, yell requests at the chefs and do other despicable acts which wouldn't be acceptable out in the dining area.

All institutions have a backstage that mask their inner workings. The events within Portal represent the management of performance used to conceal backstage in a constant tug-of-war battle to have institutional control over the player. This phenomena is due predominately (but not restricted to) the use of language in static dialogue, the following is a critique of how Portal achieves such a task:

Column: 'Lingua Franca' – Implications Of Dialect In Dragon Quest IV

May 17, 2009 4:00 PM |

['Lingua Franca' is a biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Daniel Johnson which discusses the relationship between language, culture and video games. This time – a look at the way that dialects affect play.]

After a short prologue, the first thing said to you in the new DS translation of Enix's classic JRPG Dragon Quest IV is the following request, made by a servant to the king;

"His Majesty is aboot tae make an announcement tae youse all. Simmer doon an' listen noo."

The almost uninterpretable utterance is then followed up by more slovenly spoken English, until you soon realize that everyone in this world responds to you in such a manner, even the king himself! Later on, in the following chapter, you'll progress to another one of Dragon Quest IV's quaint, little villages and the small township will again have their own oddities of spoken language.

Initially it took me some time to wrap my head around what exactly developer ArtePiazza were intending by littering obscure English nuances throughout each villager's dialogue. Each new location has their own flavour of spoken language, they effectively have their own individual dialects. I'm not too sure whether indeed dialects are actually at play here. There appears to be a lack of specialized vocab and grammar to justify the classification of dialect (therefore making it instead an accent).

On further investigation, the press release for this title proudly notes a selection of 13 unique dialects based on global communities. Within the thirteen dialects there are Russian, French, Bristol and Scottish variations among others. I'm personally hesitant, but let's run with this.

Column: 'Lingua Franca' – The Place Of Games In Culture

April 29, 2009 4:00 PM |

['Lingua Franca' is a new biweekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column by Daniel Johnson which discusses the relationship between language, culture and video games.]

Piggy backing off the recent discussion surrounding Resident Evil 5 and the cultural liability of game developers or how the games industry breeds a “boys club” culture? No, I wouldn't be so brash. Culture has always been an integral influencer of game development and consumption.

As this introductory guide will attempt to explain, culture is a difficult to define, powerful force which has become ever more important as video games begin to touch deeper themes, wider markets and an audience which is more culturally adept.

What is Culture?

Culture is one of those tricky concepts generalized by many, yet clearly defined by none. There's simple reason behind the ambiguity, being that even when given a clear definition the concept is still terribly icky since it manifests as a agent that influences the greater part of our thinking. Culture affects the way we interpret the world and everything within that interpretation, hence it's difficult to separate culture from the mess of surrounding issues, so admitting generalization is almost compulsory when dealing with the matter.

Delving into the complexities of cultural definition are completely un-worthwhile (and hardly entertaining) for you the reader. It's an endless rabbit hole of confusion. Instead let's adopt the mantra that culture should be understood as a very open term, with the generally accepted definition being: “the way of life of a people”. These people could be connected by geography (country), interest (fan) or anything else that binds them together.