When Rob Howland moved to Japan, one of his main goals was to learn Japanese.
Not an easy task, but as a researcher at the University of Tsukuba and someone living in Osaka there was something to be said about learning the language.
On the Monbukagakusho Scholarship, Howland conducted research on educational video game design at the university’s Entertainment Computing Laboratory. Using lessons from his time learning Japanese, he was able to create a prototype that is now available in seven different languages.
“When I started development on the prototype for this game, I had all of these flash cards, but I wanted something a little more interesting,” Howland explained during an interview with Nikkei Voice.
“I remember that one of the things I used to do was put flash cards onto all of the objects in my apartment like on the refrigerator and on the stove, and I would have all of the words written in Japanese on the flash card,” says Howland. “Then it just hit me that this would be a really good idea for a game.”
After a successful KickStarter Campaign, Howland and his co-developer Emily Olmstead now had the funds to develop something awesome, and that they did.
Learning while Playing
Influent is a language learning game that features fully rendered 3D environments, fighter jets, and lasers. It also features an impressive array of languages that players can learn through simply playing.
The game works through a simple interface where the players move around a little apartment looking at objects and receiving an almost-instant translation of that in a language of their choice.
Like Rosetta Stone, a popular language learning tool, Influent uses a kind of flashcard teaching method to help players associate images with objects in a process Rob has termed “Locative Learning”.
“It has a big impact on learning and that’s how you learn when you grow up as a kid,” Rob says.
“You see objects and you associate a word with them, but if you never knew a language before that you don’t have anything else to associate it with. I think those images are really essential and having it as a 3D object is the next step.”
In the game world there is a kitchen. Opening the door allows players to interact with a number of objects inside.
While a player might know an apple is an apple in English, few will know that apple is also: Ringo in Japanese, Manzana in Spanish, Pomme in French, and Píngguǒ in Mandarin.
This kind of basic image association helps players build up a vocabulary in the language they wish to learn. From here, Howland says that learning things like grammar, syntax, and sentence structure become much easier, yet there are other benefits as well.
“If you learn a new language, you not only learn how to communicate with a whole new race, but you also pick up on that culture,” says Howland.
“Not only that, but there’s this whole scholarly aspect of it. I’ve met people who can speak five, six, seven languages and they amaze me. I can’t imagine what that would be like. I feel like I was almost gipped in the United States where I didn’t have a chance to learn all of these different languages.”
As a game development team, Howland and Olmstead have put together an impressive database of languages that include everything from Japanese to Bulgarian to Swedish, and they have plans to expand the game’s library.
A New Kind of Educational Game
Although Influent was a largely crowd funded project, it is also a largely crowd-developed game as well.
Through link-sharing website Reddit, Howland was able to get into contact with UK 3D modeler Dan Tsukasa who provided a lot of the assets for the game.
As well, Influent features a fully voiced cast who speak every word the game has in its library. This meant spending hours with each person trying to get the pronunciation just right while fiddling with finicky recording software.
“Adding the initial languages was tricky because we needed to get a native speaker to come in and sit with me,” says Howland.
“I have to record all of them individually and trim them down so there’s no space in between and get rid of the background noise, and name them all properly so that the engine can read them correctly,” he says.
What surprised Howland was just how diverse the foreign population is in parts of Japan. In and around Osaka, he was able to find all seven speakers of the languages currently offered and is working with a native German speaker and Italian speaker to help release additional language packs into the game.
There is also strong demand for specific languages from players around the world including Arabic and Korean, which Howland says they are working on.
Talking the Talk
While Influent is targeted mostly towards people of a younger age, it also serves as an interesting educational tool for those who are older and looking for a push to learn a new language.
As many people might know, as you get older it gets harder to learn new languages. There are studies about neural plasticity, lack of focus, and lack of will that contribute to the, “Yeah, I’ll get around to it” kind of feeling surrounding learning something new.
There have been studies that have shown learning a new language also helps to stave off the development of Alzheimers later in life, and Howland says there are almost too many reasons for older players to give the game a try.
“I always tell people it has lasers,” Howland joked during our interview.
“There are a lot of adults who are gamers and who would be interested in something like this just based on the fact that it is a game,” he says. “If they haven’t had any ambition during their time to learn a new language that this might motivate them even more to just try and break into it.”
Influent is available now on their website. The game works on both PC and Mac, and it has over seven languages with many more on the way.
Also be sure to check out Influent on Steam Greenlight.