Curriculum

Assassin’s Creed Taught Me Italian: Video Games and the Quest for Lifelong, Ubiquitous Learning

Simone Bregni

For decades now, video games have been a pervasive part of our culture. Recent data indicate that approximately half of all American adults and seventy percent of college students play video games “at least once in a while” (“Gaming”; Weaver). As a language professor, I have found some video games to be effective in my classroom as supplements to more traditional teaching techniques, because they reinforce vocabulary and grammatical forms, present authentic cultural data, and challenge students to solve problems in their target language. In my Italian Renaissance literature course, for example, students explore Florence as it flourished under the Medici by playing Assassin’s Creed II (Désilets). My twenty-first-century American students partake in the life of Ezio Auditore, a twentysomething man from an affluent family, by wandering around a cultural and historical re-creation of 1476 Florence. I guide students to notice the ancient Roman infrastructures that provided clean water and sanitation and the mild Italian climate that provided bountiful crops. They take part in the vibrant cultural and political Florentine life, observing that Italian cities are built around the piazza, which allows for many opportunities to exchange ideas.

By the third week of the semester, students in an elementary language course have typically learned how to introduce and describe themselves in simple terms. They virtually meet Desmond Miles, Ezio’s twenty-first-century descendant, who introduces himself and tells of the fictional, millennia-long feud between two factions, the Templars and the Assassins. In more traditional classrooms, students watch videos featuring native speakers talking about themselves, but in my class they engage actively with the storyteller, becoming more than passive viewers—they become part of the action.

Anime-like games (i.e., not games that are similar to the Japanese cartoon style but those that feature movie-style animated sequences) offer fully interactive multimedia experiences that combine real-time animation, dialogue, subtitles, and, in some cases, even spoken interaction in the form of audio or video chat with other users. I have been using video games in language labs since 1997, but it was with the advent of more-complex anime-like games in 2009 that my classroom experiences began to produce noticeable results. These animated, interactive adventures serve as fully inhabitable environments that enhance language and culture acquisition. In my experience, including such games in the curriculum helps students improve their skills by offering them opportunities to use their target language to achieve concrete goals. Traditionally, for instance, teaching the command forms of verbs is a challenge, because students and teachers give each other commands in pretend exercises that have no real context. Immersed in the world of Assassin’s Creed, however, students play the role of Ezio, who gives and receives commands to successfully achieve his goals and stay alive.

For gaming-based activities to be effective and meaningful, teachers must also do extensive preliminary work, preparing more traditional materials based on the gaming narrative, including vocabulary worksheets, listening and reading comprehension exercises, and written and oral production follow-up activities. Such activities must precede and follow classroom gaming sessions. Video games provide an important supplement that builds on this foundation. For instance, I use a game called Heavy Rain to reinforce the acquisition of domestic vocabulary (Cage). Players engage in a typical day in the life of Ethan Mars, a young architect and father of two. They guide him to wake up, shower, get dressed, have breakfast, and work at his desk. Ethan greets his wife and kids, joins in daily chores, and plays with his children. In short, students are not simply watching a character’s life unfold; they are digitally living the experience.

Anime-like games are particularly conducive to language acquisition because of the immense detail of their narratives. Because of their complex storylines, students must stretch the boundaries of their language skills to successfully inhabit these digital worlds. Moreover, games in the Assassin’s Creed series cover a variety of geographic areas and time periods (such as the French Revolution, the Spanish Conquista, and the founding of America), providing cultural content that can be used to reinforce language learning. Because most anime-like games involve complex problem solving, they lend themselves to collaborative game play, requiring students to interact in their target language as they play. In Heavy Rain, for example, students assume the role of a young detective trying to solve a kidnapping and murder mystery. To succeed, they must describe the evidence they collect and discuss their conclusions in their target language.

The goal is to strategically link video game play with concrete pedagogical goals. For example, after learning basic action verbs, we play the first chapter of Rise of the Tomb Raider (Hugues et al.). I provide worksheets so students can review relevant vocabulary and structures, then apply them as we participate in the game’s narrative. Students are asked to discuss and reflect on the gaming narrative in writing and to apply what they’ve learned to their own life experience. I call this process identify, acquire, create (IAC): identifying which vocabulary and structures are familiar and which are not, acquiring this new knowledge through a series of task-based exercises, and creating written texts and spoken discourse.

My experiences with video games in the classroom have been overwhelmingly positive. Even students who are not avid gamers can appreciate the narrative, the clear enunciations, and the authentic speech the games provide. Unpacking the meaning of the various Italian gestures used by characters in the Assassin’s Creed games has become a favorite activity and has sparked many discussions about nonverbal communication.

My experiments with video games as a learning device in the language classroom have led me to explore the option of teaching a language course based entirely on gaming. During the spring 2017 semester, I used a state-of-the-art learning studio to teach Intensive Italian for Gamers, based on the premise that language acquisition is a process that benefits from daily interactions in the language both in and outside the classroom. Although students came from very different backgrounds and skill levels, they all successfully attained competency in the language. By the third week, through continuous involvement in play mechanics, all students in the course could effectively give commands (“Open the door!” “Take the path to the right!” “Talk to the person in the room!”) and express success or disappointment. These types of communication are fundamental to language learning and are normally acquired only toward the end of the first or early in the second semester.

Interestingly, all students autonomously continued to explore gaming in the language outside the classroom by playing their own games in the language or meeting as a group to play in our language lab. As a result, by the end of the semester students were showing a knowledge of the language and culture that included idioms, interjections, and fillers, as well as expressions of joy, excitement, and frustration. These are all markers of the development of fluency.

There are, of course, some limitations. The primary limitation is lip-syncing. Observing lip movements assists in listening comprehension (Kellerman), but anime-like games were created with lip-syncing designed for the English language. Overall, though, these glitches are minor and are far outweighed by the benefits that games offer early language students. In this setting, students who are passionate about gaming can become important classroom leaders. Many are far more fluent in contemporary gaming and technology, and instructors can learn from them, which can enrich the classroom experience for everyone.

I recall when, in the early 1980s, journalists in mainstream media lamented the rise of the video games, labeling it as a troubling fad (see, e.g., Kleinfield). They were wrong, and now video games are a pervasive part of our culture. We have learned that games can offer many advantages to language learners and can turn what is typically viewed as a mindless extracurricular activity into a vibrant learning experience that extends beyond the confines of the classroom. The rise of virtual reality technology promises to advance the frontiers of language education even further. We are not far away from a world where virtually anyone could meet—and interact with—other players from around the planet.

Works Cited

Cage, David. Heavy Rain. PlayStation 4 version, Quantic Dream, 2016. Description available at www.playstation.com/en-gb/games/heavy-rain-ps4/.

Désilets, Patrice. Assassin’s Creed II. PlayStation 4 version, Ubisoft, 2016. Description available at www.ubisoft.com/en-gb/game/assassins-creed-2/.

“Gaming and Gamers.” Pew Research Center, Dec. 2015, www.pewinternet.org/2015/12/15/gaming-and-gamers/.

Hugues, Noah, et al. Rise of the Tomb Raider. PlayStation 4 version, Square Enix, 2016. Description available at www.tombraider.com/en-us.

Kellerman, Susan. “Lip Service: The Contribution of the Visual Modality to Speech Perception and Its Relevance to the Teaching and Testing of Foreign Language Listening Comprehension.” Applied Linguistics, vol. 11, no. 3, 1990, pp. 272–80.

Kleinfield, N. R. “Video Games Industry Comes Down to Earth.” New York Times, 17 Oct. 1983, www.nytimes.com/1983/10/17/business/video-games-industry-comes-down-to-earth.html?pagewanted=all.

Weaver, Jane. “College Students Are Avid Gamers.” NBCNews.com, 6 July 2013, www.nbcnews.com/id/3078424/ns/technology_and_science-games/t/college-students-are-avid-gamers/.

Dr. Simone Bregni, PhD, is an associate professor of Italian and the coordinator of the Italian Studies Program in the Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Saint Louis University. His research interests and publications include Dante and medieval literature; Renaissance Italian theater, with a focus on representation of sexual alterity; the classical tradition; and the application of media and technology to second or foreign language acquisition and to the teaching of literature and culture. His eclectic background in classics, theology, international studies, and communications and media has deeply influenced his interdisciplinary approach to scholarship. He is the recipient of a Saint Louis University Reinert Center Innovative Teaching Fellowship and the 2017 University James H. Korn Award for Innovative Teaching.

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Published 22 March 2018

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