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Ausflug am Wochenende nach München

by Brett Shelton, David Neville, and Brian McInnis

Educational
2007

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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Language education IF -- Still some way to go, January 13, 2011
by Fredrik (Tierp, Sweden)
Related reviews: educational
I personally owe a great debt to interactive fiction. Games like Adventureland, Zork I and The Hobbit helped me build the foundation of the English I know today, and indirectly paved the way for my current occupation as an English teacher.

Ausflug am Wochenende nach München is a rare example of a game that is written explicitly for language training. This is a great idea. IF for foreign language learners can be tailored to suit the difficulty level of the target group, it can have beginner-level puzzles, and it can be directed to contain useful and relevant vocabulary and content.

In some respects, Ausflug is a good effort. It begins with a tutorial to get the player started in the world of interactive fiction. It comes with a German-English glossary and a primer as pdf files. The language is fairly advanced (written for university students), and is naturally linguistically excellent. The theme of the game (getting started on a journey) is also a good choice for the genre.

Unfortunately, Ausflug suffers from the same problem that practically every other previous attempt to write IF for language education does. Plainly speaking, it is boring. There are practically no puzzles at all that are necessary for completing the game. The only puzzles (two that I found, and very simple ones) allow you to find some more money. Which is not necessary, since the money you have from the start is quite enough to last you through the game. Mostly, the game is spent walking around and examining and purchasing things.

On top of that, the game is poorly coded. Even though it was made in Inform, it feels like playing an old AGT game. Too much information is built into room descriptions, and some things do not change state, even though the game progresses as if they should.

As much as I wish this was a good game, I cannot recommend it to anyone. I hope in the future that some people will make a joint venture between a game programmer and a language teacher. Then, perhaps, we can at last have a good game for language learners.

Comments on this review

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Emily Short, January 14, 2011 - Reply
Interesting. I had assumed (I don't know whether correctly) that the designers of this game intentionally avoided having serious puzzles because they felt that the language itself was barrier enough, and/or because they wanted also to present a little "realistic" scene of life. In that respect it reminded me a lot of the practice skits I've had in German or French classes, which were often exactly about things like "pretend you have to buy a train ticket" or "pretend you're ordering a meal." So I guessed that it was an intentional aspect of the pedagogy to teach a standard social interaction in this language, rather than a more contrived puzzle scenario.
Fredrik, March 31, 2011 - Reply
I read the first article referred to by Brett Shelton in his comment, and I recommend it. One of the design considerations was "the importance of maintaining a balance between gameplay that is included purely to entertain, and therefore, potentially distracts from the learning objectives of the game, and gameplay that is purely instructional in nature, and therefore could potentially be perceived by the students to be boring." (pg. 415)

I only partially agree with this. It is difficult for me to imagine a game that is so much fun that it distracts from learning. On the contrary, my experience is that the more fun you have, the more open your mind will be to new impressions. I realize that it is not really that simple, but I still think that fun and educational could make for a happy marriage without any problems.
Fredrik, January 14, 2011 - Reply
I am sure it is intentional. I just do not happen to like it. The reason why I was so attracted to IF when I was young, and the reason why I learned so much from it, was precisely that it was NOT a slice of reality, that it was NOT just another boring language exercise. I wanted to know what those words meant, because I wanted to solve that puzzle. (I will never forget what "chiggers" means, for instance.)

Certainly it may be a good idea to have very simple puzzles in an educational game, because the target group is presumably not experienced adventurers. For that reason, the tutorial built into Ausflug was a great idea (although not very well executed). But without the puzzles, the "game" is just TOO simple. The challenge and the element of gaming is completely taken away. The game is just a traditional text with some interactivity built in. Arguably an improvement, or at least a change, but nothing really revolutionary.

By the way, you should not understimate the learner. He or she may not be experienced, but is just as bright or dull as the next guy. In fact, it is the next guy. So make a game. Make it fun. Make it involving. Use humour, by all means. Just adapt the setting, the vocabulary and the puzzles to the target group.

Do not make it boring.
Brett Shelton, March 14, 2011 - Reply
I appreciate you taking the time to write a review. Let me provide a little bit of background information regarding Ausflug, its design and what its purpose was. After our experiences in making and researching Voices of Spoon River in an actual English classroom, one of my colleagues suggested we also build a small research activity in IF for second language learning for research purposes. I was receiving emails from all over the world from educators using VOSR for everything from remedial reading to ESL, so we thought doing some research on using IF for teaching German sounded like an interesting proposition.

The idea would be to replace an activity taught in a “traditional” way in a German classroom with one that included IF. However, in order to follow our methodology, we needed to make an interactive version of a traditionally taught module. We chose one that had a given “script” of having a person in a train station use lexicon for a traditional traveler, using those same aspects taught through text books (basic food items, currency, clothing, bathrooms, etc.). So, the “control” class completed their activity by reading a passage and answering questions: workbook style. The experimental class used the IF activity we created: Ausflug. Rather than completely explaining the differences we found between classes (you can read the article if you’re interested: http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~content=a917022078~db=all~jumptype=rss ), the IF group did not particularly like having their traditional unit replaced with one presented like they were not used to. We received a lot of feedback from students like, “I am used to learning German through flashcards; this was much more challenging to complete.” The unfamiliarity created discomfort. The grades for the unit showed no significant difference between classes either. However, we noted that in their assessment essay question, the IF group wrote 3 times as much as those in the control group. Apparently forcing students to be active participants in their learning created a much richer cognitive experience, even if traditional assessments did not capture it. Neither of these results were especially surprising, but I think it does show the potential for using IF in traditional classrooms. We had hoped that Ausflug would be a “proof of concept” so that other IF authors could really develop something bigger, better, cooler, and much more game-like.

So, Ausglug was never meant to be a “game” to be judged by experienced IFers, rather, it was a carefully controlled activity meant to mirror a traditional German unit of instruction. Emily was right in her assumptions. I agree with your comments that using IF to teach does not have to mean there are no puzzles and necessarily has to be less fun to play (VOSR would be my example of that, see http://www.springerlink.com/content/006104u857414805/ for a research article on that IF game). However, Ausflug was designed with strict limitations in order to control for bias in our research. I think your rating is fair if you’re comparing it to other IF games, certainly, and I would probably give it a similar rating. I agree that it's boring, especially in comparison to other IF designed to be game-like. However, I might offer that Ausflug does show some promise for those who just want to use IF for a unit in their class, or for novices to practice their conversational speech before traveling, or something along those lines. Given our design to accomplish research goals, I would hope that it rates a bit higher for the purposes for which it was intended.

I guess I would also agree with you that it could have been coded more strongly. These modules have come about by teaching non-programmers educational game theory while at the same time having them learn Inform and then designing and producing something, all in a single semester. So, there’s going to be some coding issues. Then there’s the challenge of making an IF activity for non-experienced IFers. There’s very little time to teach German language students how to interact with an IF interpreter as part of their homework, let alone provide an overview of the differences between how verb-object and alphabets has to be expressed differently between German and English. (I relied on my German teaching coauthors to assist with that.) Given these limitations, I still think offering a small amount of scaffolding on how to play at the beginning was a nice addition to Ausflug, perhaps despite the misgivings on the eloquence of the coding. Truly well-designed games give the novice opportunities to learn how to play as they play, and this was our attempt at that, by transitioning from English to German in the introductory portions.

Anyway, I thought weighing-in might shed some light on the issues you brought up. Thanks again for taking the time for the review!
Fredrik, March 16, 2011 - Reply
Thank you so much for the lengthy and very interesting comment. You are quite right, the background certainly puts things in a different light. Had I known that, I still would probably have given the same grade, but the review would have been written very much differently.

I would also like to thank you for the links. I am always interested in research about educational use of IF, and especially ESL/EFL related research. If you know about other good links or articles, please post them as well.
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