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.

Of course, the sequel to Bookworm Adventures has just been released as of press time, so in the fight for relevancy (because eh, Portal, Dragon Quest IV, Syphon Filter and Gorons aren't particularly new release material) I caught up with Senior Producer of the series Tysen Henderson to trade ideas.

Clearly PopCap's catalog of games are designed as easily consumable, instantly-fun experiences which Bookworm Adventures lovingly fits the description of. On top of this, BWA is also rather educational or at least a requires a significant degree of brain power. Is Bookworm first an enjoyment game or an educational game? How do you balance these two divisions?

Tysen Henderson: We always design our games with fun as the overriding goal. We never set out to make an educational game, nor have we ever modified a game in development in order to make it more educational.

Turns out if you make a really solid, fun word game it will be educational simply by virtue of the fact that constructing words or dissecting words requires you to consider the structure of words, and ultimately push the boundaries of your word-building abilities in order to play the game as successfully as possible.

What I've noticed when playing the original BWA is how it improved my consciousness of the way words are constructed. The game requires players to string together letters to create morphemes which are then, in turn used to create whole words. What do you think about BWA being used as a tool to teach English either as a first or second language?

We love to hear that our games are helping people in any way, and improved spelling and vocabulary are frequently cited by our customers as benefits of playing Bookworm, Bookworm Adventures, Bonnie’s Bookstore or Word Harmony.

With such strong feedback given to the educational factors of Bookworm Adventures, have you ever considered making a version specifically geared towards language education or an international market?

We’ve localized Bookworm and Bookworm Adventures in French, German, Italian, and Spanish, and Bookworm is also available in Dutch and Swedish. But we’ve never made an educational version of either game, and if/when we do, we will tread very lightly.

The reason is very simple: when you set out to make an educational game, or attempt to add educational elements to an existing game, you immediately veer from the fun path. You change the focus of the game, and the audience to which it will appeal. We’re all about making our games as FUN as they can be for as wide an audience as possible. The fact that 7-year olds and 97-year olds enjoy the Bookworm series equally is a reflection of this.

Bookworm Adventures has a rather kid-friendly attire, yet the meat and bones of the gameplay as well as some of the dialogue is often rather challenging to younger audiences. It seems like a game ideally made for parents and children to play together – is this your intention?

Again, we never set out to make a game with a particular audience in mind. We aim to make each game as fun as it can possibly be for as broad an audience as possible. To do this, we infuse our games with elements of humor that sometimes compare to say, an episode of Spongebob Squarepants: jokes that kids may or may not get on any level, but that adults will get on a certain level.

In our games, these often take the form of ‘inside’ references to other video games or other pop culture icons. In terms of the gameplay in BWA, again it’s intended to appeal to everyone over the age of say, 8. The role-playing game “wrapper” around BWA’s gameplay was actually intended to make the game appeal to more “hardcore” gamers, those who enjoy RPG games, while still satisfying the word game lovers with lots of core word-building mechanics.

Occasionally players of the original game would find common words missing from the game's dictionary and yet on the other hand single morphemes accepted as whole words. I even noticed that words like “Zuma” and other PopCap brand names weren't accepted. How do you choose what words go in to the dictionary and have you altered any of this for the sequel?

This has been an evolving aspect of the game since the original Bookworm first appeared about six years ago. First, proper nouns are not accepted in the game, so “Zuma” should never be allowed in any version of the game. As Bookworm (and soon, Bookworm Adventures) are adapted to different platforms and devices, we continually strive to improve the reference dictionary used in the game(s).

In all of the most recent adaptations of the franchise, we use the Oxford English Dictionary. We do opt to disallow some words that might be objectionable to the younger players of our games, specifically “swear words.”

Bookworm Adventures places itself firmly in set themes for each of the storybooks (level hubs). Most of these are related to popular literature such as Dracula or what appears to be Alice in Wonderland for the sequel. What processes do you go through when deciding on the individual themes seen within the game?

First, we try to use well-known, recognizable stories and characters found in the public domain. We’re not averse to licensing a book or story, except that doing so would generally require us to relinquish some creative control and we’re loathe to do that.

So we consider books and characters that will appeal to a wide audience and then try to put our own unique twist on the presentation of same, in the context of a whimsical adventure involving a heroic worm named Lex. And first and foremost we make games that we like to play – so finding ways to work kung-fu, dinosaurs and robots into our games also has a selfish motive ;)

[Daniel Johnson spends too many late nights conversing Mandarin to friends in Shanghai. He studies language and culture, and shares most of his video game musings on his blog at danielprimed.com]