On Gender Views, Language Barriers, And Teaching With Video Games In Japan
by Andrew Ross, Language Teacher in Japan
In part 1, we argued that video games can indeed teach your students. In part 2, we looked at specific examples of how I’ve used them, and the opportunities and challenges I’ve noticed as a result. In the last installment, we’ll take a look at gender in the world of video games, and the role of media as a “motivation project.”
How is gender treated in video games? There really isn’t a consistent theme, but there are some patterns.
It’s important to note that in our last post, both examples were of female students playing and enjoying games, including the students who simply wanted to fight. While video games are usually seen as for boys, given a safe environment, genre, and support, girls will not only enjoy games, they’ll ask to play them.
This can be a bit problematic though. Current events such as “Gamer Gate” and controversies surrounding Anita Sarkeesian’s work with pop-culture representation of women (such as in movies and comics) show that, although the number of female comic book fans, games, and traditionally male-dominated pop culture may be increasing, women are often treated not only unfairly, but are often subjugated to various forms of abuse no human should endure.
Though this may seem like a western problem, it’s certainly the same in Japan. Earthbound is originally a Japanese game, but I chose it in part because the localizer changed the female character from her stereotypical weak female character to be a more capable party member who (admittedly, in both version of the game), ultimately holds the key to defeating the boss of the game (and it’s not violent). A recent popular game in Japan, Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, has a female action figure in production for Japanese consumers that has breasts softer than the rest of its plastic body, which of course, Sarkeesian commented on. The problem is very real, but it’s not only gender-based. Genre and topic are important to consider as well.
You may also notice that I keep using games with a modern setting. Part of this is because I have tried, several times, to play other genres of games, both by myself and with others to study a new language. The problem is that the vocabulary used in, say, science fiction, fantasy, and even historical games, often can’t be used in daily conversation. This means the new vocabulary may only be useful in their free time, which potentially lowers the student’s ability to retain new acquired words. If a student goes home to play games on their own, this is fine, but not everyone is a gamer, nor should they be. If we want to use games with a general audience, we need to use games that will benefit a general audience.
This isn’t just about the setting. It means a game should have an activity that’s easy to enjoy and easy for others to enjoy too. Both times I used Earthbound, the audience participated in the game despite not playing it. They’d comment on the art or try to help translate or even suggest solutions to problems. Not only have several studies mentioned that people who only watch games still can learn the content and how to play the game better, but there’s entire businesses, such as Twitch, profiting from it. Even teachers have commented that they have kids who do this at home.
However, 10 people watching TV at once usually leads to a lot of side conversations and the TV getting ignored. A better solution would be to focus on multiplayer games. If more students are playing, that means they’re actively engaged in the activity. It also means there’s more for the audience to keep track of, and more people for the audience to ask questions to, especially as they get a turn at playing the game. I tested this idea with a game called Mario Kart, a racing game, and a student who seemed to dislike games.
While other students played, I’d give them some advice to students playing, and between matches, I’d chat with this student. Eventually, she was offered the chance to play. She hadn’t been watching much, but we encouraged her to try. To be frank, she was terrible at first. However, I began coaching her. When the club was supposed to end, she asked for one more race. She was finally understanding both my simple commands (“Turn left!”) and how to control the game. She went from being in last place (of twelve racers) to first, partially because the Mario Kart series uses random items to aid players doing poorly to bridge the gap with more skilled players.
Like a good lesson plan, the game tries to balance the difficulty of the activity for all participants. The student was very excited to win, and although not a convert, she began to tell other potential club members that sometimes they could play video games in the club.
The Media As A Motivation Project
As it may be clear by now, I’ve used games a bit in my teaching, both in the classroom and in after school club activities. Recently though, I’ve been given a small grant from the US Embassy to do a project on motivating students through media. This includes TV, movies, music, and yes, video games. I’ve already gotten permission from my school and ordered a Nintendo Wii U. Although research indicates that online games which allow players to communicate with each other (both through text and voice chat) seems to lead to the biggest improvements in language skills, I simply don’t have access to the right tools or people to do this.
A Wii U, unlike other consoles, doesn’t always need to be online, and it gives students a chance to use a highly moderated social media network to communicate to others in English, Nintendo’s “Mii Verse.” This allows students to communicate with other people in English, including other non-native speakers, such as French and Spanish speakers, under the teacher’s supervision and Nintendo’s strict filters (unlike most game companies, Nintendo gives users many opportunities to restrict communication, even without parental settings). Students cannot upload photos to the site, but can draw pictures using the game tablet. Students who participate in my school’s culture exchange program could potentially use Mii Verse or the Wii U to play with students they’re already writing to in America, which could help lead to deeper friendships or desire to travel abroad, which means they’d be more motivated to learn.
Students will be keeping an English diary to record new vocabulary and their thoughts about the day’s activity, whether it’s playing games or watching a movie. I won’t be explicitly giving students lessons, but they will receive some feedback, mostly on communication. My guess is that, at the very least, their vocabulary will grow. I plan to check this by comparing the English Club students’ vocabulary test scores with students who are not in English Club. I’m guessing the length of student writing will also increase simply because they’ll have more practice with it, which can be checked by giving students a time limit on their journals and checking the length of their entries throughout the program.
The current games I plan to use are Earthbound for the reasons I’ve already mentioned, but also Mario Party 10 and the upcoming Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival since they are both board game simulations based on characters the students are familiar with, which should help ensure that the vocabulary they use can be transferred and applied elsewhere.
(Nintendo ended up not making Animal Crossing: Amiibo Festival a free, digital game. The added cost of the base game, which also needs to be shipped overseas, really hits the budget (the game and 2 figures costs $60). I’d already taken the hit for myself, and the students may experience the game if I bring it and the “toys” it requires in. However, the club’s average attendance is up to 5 people, so this may be difficult. We’ve gotten a cheaper version of Nintendo Land since it came with the console, and the 5 player modes have come in handy.)
Since the program’s announcement, the club has attracted a few more students, including a second male student. It seems we have at least nine students ready to participate. The club leaders are both girls, but neither have discussed what to do with the club funds. Since I’ve been able to keep my grant spending low, the plan is to eventually give left over funds to the club to help motivate students to use the tools they have to take control of their club activities, rather than rely on teachers to do it for them.
That, I think, will really show if motivation successfully leads to learning something.
On Gender Views, Language Barriers, And Teaching With Video Games In Japan; image attribution deviantart user ikamusumefan06