At Game Developers Conference last month, Edd Schneider and Kai Zeng presented their poster, English Speaking Players as In-Game Content: New Ideas for Marketing to Youth in Asia.
Their theory — that online gaming can be used to teach English to Asian teens — is based on a project they ran two years ago with American and Chinese students at Suny Potsdam, where Schneider is a professor and Zeng a student of Information Communication Technology.
The results, they say, were outstanding, and now it's time for games like World of Warcraft to break down the server boundaries and let people play together across the globe. Gamasutra spoke with Professor Edd Schneider:
What inspired you to start connecting American and Chinese players?
At first it was about marketing. The question was, how do you sell games to kids in Asia? They can already go and buy your brand new game for 60 cents the day it comes out. The other thing was, parents in Asia really discourage game play. They want their kids to be studying, doing sports. But, of course, the one thing that all parents want their kids to do is speak English. And our theory was, you can't pirate English speaking players.
Beyond the marketing thing, it just bothered me that games are supposed to let us play together, then [for most MMOs] they split everyone up on servers. I think that's totally asinine. If you play WoW, wouldn't you like to play against the best players from China? Everyone would say "yes." What we're hoping people are going to do is say, "Let's make an ESL-friendly server. Tell the Americans that not everyone is going to have perfect English, but they're going to want to learn."
That would be an attractor, because the other thing that bothered me was that these online games get bad PR. People say, "You can't be in my clan unless your English is perfect." That's a small number of gamers, I think, and if you had this ESL server with a million people it would show that the majority of gamers are open-minded.
How did you put the project together?
Basically, I took one of my classes and I said, "We've got Chibou High School in Shanghai. You can teach them English using any games you want." They used WoW, Scrabble, casual games. All my students were getting up at three o'clock in the morning, putting on their headsets and chatting with these 12 year-olds in China. The Chinese kids were berserk about it. The teachers were saying it was their favorite class. It was really a win/win thing.
Did you see a difference in the Chinese students' English?
Definitely. Sometimes they didn't even realize they were speaking English. They would say "M.T."; it's a Warcraft term. Or then there's the fact that by the end you would hear the occasional "Oh shit!" Some of them were really starting to sound like Americans. A lot of time it was more a confidence thing than a language thing. Also, they're getting conversational English they wouldn't get in a normal class, more authentic English, with phrases they wouldn't get in textbooks.
It's not going to be like, "The ball is good." It'll be like, "You've got to get over there!" It's a conversational thing. Besides, I think the biggest obstacle for a lot of Asian students who eventually come to America is the cultural difference. This sort of social interaction gives them a safe space to learn.
So what's the next step?
Right now we're looking at putting together a summer camp. We're trying to convince the parents in Asia that we'll get your kids out of bed at 7:00 in the morning to learn English. I think that would be a big selling point. We're also looking to connect high school students in American and China. That way they could develop long-term relationships. They could start in ninth grade and play in the same guild until they graduate. As for what games we'll use, we're still trying to decide. There are a lot of Korean games that are totally free so I think that's what we'll go with. That way it's not a money thing.
In general, I'd just love to talk to game developers and say, "Make an ESL server. Don't draw a line down the middle of the Pacific unless you absolutely have to." I know there are hardcore people who are so worried about lag they don't want to do that, but everyone likes to think their guild is the best, and if you had the chance to compete against guilds from China or Japan, that would be the big leagues.
The internet ties everyone together and then we put up these false barriers... It's time to take server control away from the engineers and put it into the hands of the artists, to set up a world-wide structure that's a kind of art.