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30/06/2009 Family Family Gamer Article
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Playing Away Article

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Have you ever tried to learn a foreign language? It's a daunting task even to someone who is academically able. There are so many different ascpects competing for attention, vocabulary, grammar, tone, culture and ronunciation. This is bad enough when you are in school amoungst similarly able peers, but as an adult it's enough to foil even the most determined.

Trying my hand at the recent DS language games (Mind you Language and My Language Coach), I was reminded how hard it can be to simply get started on the road to my bi-lingual future. As I played them I was struck by the similarity of this alien language and the world a novice gamer experiences when they first pick up a controller. The sense of encountering a whole 'other' culture, grammar and world are surprisingly similar.

Knowing where to start and what to play is as hard as deciding which vocabularly to memorise or picking out a good introductoy book. You have a rough idea of what it would be like to be fluent in that foreign world, but you're not sure how to (or if you can) get there.

Our gateway games need to achieve the same sense of awe and inspiration. Simplified games will only make a mockery of what it is we love about gaming.

Those of us already on the inside hardly notice these things are there. The way games work, thie subtle visual clues, the references to past expereinces are simply part of the gaming air we breath. We know what to do when we see a switch and a door, or when something flashes, or which controller button to press to run. But we know these things because we learned them over time, just as language is slowly picked up when we are young.

For someone new to pick all this up will take time and needs the simpler more direct experiences to build up to those more dense, complex encounters. I remember learning how to order food in french long before I got anywhere near more engaging french culture. Likewise, perhaps we need to find the games that introduce one simple aspect of play without dumping a whole truck load of other complexities on the player at the same time. Even ideas as simple as the high score, collecting tokens, repeating actions or just running around can be substantial hurdles - just as basic grammar and sentance structure are to a language student.

For me, learning a language successfully was totally dependant on the environment I was in. The classroom simply offered no inspiration.It wasn't until I went to France and could hear the language first hand, taste the food and smell the hot air that i really wanted to get a grip of learning it for myself.

Our gateway games need to achieve the same sense of awe and inspiration. Simplified games will only make a mockery of what it is we love about gaming. There is no better advertisement for games than those strong encounters that enthral and engage people in ways unlike any other meda. When someone comes acorss a group of people genuinely inspired about what they are playing and is able to get invovled, play the game themselves and talk to other players they will soon find themselves on their own journey with videogames.

In a recent family holiday to France, I was surprised how my (admitedly pigeon) college French returned to me. I had been expecting to communicate largley in grunts and signs, but happily I was able to make a stab at most things I wanted to say. A big part of this success was that I could just have a go, my wife and kids couldn't speak French at all - so I didn't have to worry about looking silly.

Not surprisingly she never really enjoyed these presured sessions under the gaze of an expert audience.

There is nothing more off-putting than trying to speak french abroad when a sibling or partner is more fluent than you. Not only do you have to wrestle with constructing a meaningfull sentance but you are constantly aware of how silly you look in doing so. The experience ends up being one of the main reasons to stop learning.

In the same way, how many times have I tried to get my other half to play games then sat beside her restrining myself from jumping in. She was evidently aware of my pent up assistance and after five minutes or so would exclaim her frustration, thrust the controller my way and leave with "there, you do it then". Not surprisingly she never really enjoyed these presured sessions under the gaze of an expert audience.

Perhaps more telling than all of this though, this comparison made me notice how odd an idea it is to be on the lookout for people I could get into gaming. French speakers rarely prowl the streets looking to recruit new members. They just get on with enjoying their language, and living their lives.

Perhaps we need to to the same, get on with really enjoying the games we play in a way that is open for those interested enough to ask to join in with. A grown up enjoying of anything, games or otherwise, is surely the best way of getting others to join in.

Written by Andy Robertson

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Andy Robertson writes the Family Gamer column.

"Videogame reviews for the whole family, not just the kids. I dig out videogame experiences to intrigue and interest grownups and children. This is post-hardcore gaming where accessibility, emotion and storytelling are as important as realism, explosions and bravado."

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