Learning Mandarin Chinese via Gaming


This thesis proposes the development of an interactive Language learning video game for Mandarin Chinese, which enables the participants to engage and learn specific elements of Mandarin Chinese. Currently there is a knowledge gap in the use of video games for language learning. Video games are in a unique position to make significant improvement in the area of language learning, and are in fact uniquely placed to provide learners with a more engaging, motivating and facilitating educational platform for learning. Interactive Language learning video games are addressing the needs of today’s learners, who are immersed in the current technology based environments for a major part of their lives. By providing interactive Language learning video game for Mandarin Chinese, it is envisioned that, it will develop and bridge the knowledge gap within Language and culture of the language learner, thereby leading to better cultural and language understanding between the learner and the target culture.


The development of computer games within learning environments is something which has changed the use of technology. Currently, with video games, learners can interact with classmates on the other side of the world, in online games and in virtual communities. A number of scholars have proposed computers as a tool for learning. (Betz, 1995; Kafai, 1995; Rieber, 1996; Malone, 1981; Gee, 2003; Squire, 2003; Barab, et al., 2005). I proposed “Chinese Learn it” as a video game enabling children to learn Mandarin Chinese using interaction and play. The game, attempts to use play as a means of educating the player to recognise Mandarin Chinese characters “hanzi” / “logograms” via recognition and interaction with them during game play, and tones at a basic level. The game will encourage the player to learn and receive knowledge of Mandarin Chinese language and culture through interaction based game play.

Game overview

The player has specific tasks to complete requiring the user to use touch, vision and audio to participate independently or collectively. The game will track the users’ scores and adjust the game difficulty accordingly. The game will involve certain elements of structured curriculum based learning goals, such as the learning outcomes at various levels but also have cultural references of significance in China such as items and images associated with Chinese stories, history science and other elements thereby using the game as a tool to enable learning within an “affinity space” (Gee, 2004), creating an interactive informal learning area. The game requires that the user uses touch, vision and audio to participate independently or collectively, with in-game virtual rewards for players who successfully complete tasks, whilst learning a new language’ (Jenkins, 2009).

Game scenario

The feature on the 1st game level will be a character who loves to eat “tones” and collects points for doing this guided by the player who chooses what “tones” the character eats. In Mandarin there are four tones. The player will select icons that appear to be scattered around the screen to make up a “tone” that they hear or see as a Chinese character on the device. There will be a number of side missions as they progress to more difficult levels. It is envisaged that, the game will be played by 3 or 4 players. Users will be able to choose their own avatar and be able to identify themselves within the game; some of the avatars will be gender neutral and cartoon like (David, 2008). Approximately one fifth of the world’s population speaks Chinese, and yet the UK has no overall policy on making school language learning compulsory. ’Languages are not compulsory in English and Welsh secondary schools beyond the age of 14yrs.

“Chinese Learn it” uses the positive impact of gaming in education and the results of a new direction towards gamification (Papastergiou, 2009) in using different learning methodologies. Many languages are based on one single methodology either Asynchronous or Synchronous (Hiltz and Wellman, 1997; Chen, Kinshuk and Lin, 2005). “Chinese Learn it” offers a user friendly way for students to learn a language via interactive game play, incorporating visual, audio and touch which the game play will exploit. Most “games are capable of modelling situations of greater richness and complexity… Subtle interaction can be modelled within” (Koster, 2005). As included within the 36 Learning Principles “Three things… are involved in active learning: experiencing the world in new ways, forming new affiliations, and preparation for future learning” (Gee, 2004a). Formal learning is very structured. The informal learning within video games and most games outside of a formal structure tends to be experimental. While the formal is static, the informal is innovative (Jenkins, 2009).

“Chinese Learn It” taps into a high level of interaction by encouraging the player to participate in the activity presented to them and focusing their attention on a specific task. I have observed in several Chinese Language classes over the last 12 months that, some children are not overly excited at learning Chinese. This may be due to the perceived additional preparation and repetition needed with Learning Chinese (FT, 2010). The game provides cost effective and rapid learning to students to learn a language via interactive game play. It can be stand alone, mobile or online enabling students to use this product wherever they are and on different platforms. As new contextual models for interfaces are developed so are new ways to make sure game play does not suffer and that a design iteration process is carried out, making game play seamless to the user (Wong, 2009).

Games play mechanics

In this game, the main game play feature will be the player participation and learning of the game to progress to the next level, by completing specific tasks, within a specific timeframe.  The player is able to achieve this by completing tasks set out within the game, such as completing the four tones task. There will be various hidden games using cultural specific objects to China, this will enable the player to test/revise what they have learnt and enable them to have a break before levelling up. This facilitates the use of semiotic domains (James, 2006) using all the skills that the player has at hand: reading, writing, listening, socializing and communicating with others, that will challenge the user to participate using multi-sensory approaches as every player will have different skills and will develop new ones.

The principles are equally relevant to learning in video games and learning in content areas in classrooms (Gee, 2003b). There is an overlap in many of the principles mentioned by Gee but this reflects the different playing styles and interactions within the game. This is discussed in terms of using games as a way to accelerate learning and in providing a positive outcome for the learners. ‘To be effective, the learning situation also should be purposeful, based on experience, multifaceted, and must involve an active process’ (Naidoo, 2004).This enables participants to collaborate together within the game and achieve specific outcomes. The game has to provide tasks that fulfil a learning outcome within the context of the class environment.


The game will primarily be controlled by using a touch screen, such as on the Apple iPad; there are other developing and emerging technologies that could also be incorporated into the game such as the Xbox connect using a no-touch GUI incorporating other emerging technology such as the ZeroN (ZeroN, 2012). There is also the commercialization of headsets that read brainwaves ( Anon, n.d.).  This provides the ability for the game to be inclusive and participatory for those with disabilities or different learning abilities; it also invokes development of different scenarios and more creative concepts of interaction.

The controls within this game will enable the player to select icons and join the selected icons that represent the 4 “tones” of Mandarin Chinese through connecting patterns enabling coded sequences to be copied and remembered by the player. The touch based screen, facilitates this easily and enables the player to progress. The game will monitor the icons and progressively increase the speed/difficulty of the game based on the score and how fast the icons are removed once they are identified

Haptic touch screen feedback which is vibrational feedback can be used to confirm an action within the game from the device is also feasible in the inclusion of sensory feedback into this game. 3D televisions are also able to display and be incorporated adding a different dimensional game play. The use of the current technology and developing technology is feasible and can be implemented onto and into the desired platforms as they become available.


Game save points can be initiated throughout the game preventing the player from having to restart the game from the beginning of the level this enables the player to have a break and restart at where they left off, certain levels will be easier than others to reach a save point.


The interface design will be targeted at Key Stage 3 learners aged 11-14 yrs. to encourage participation by this target group. The interface will attempt to appeal to this age range and not appear too childish or basic. In regards to the GUI it will be a simple intuitive 2D interface set in cultural specific scenarios such as the Great Wall of China, Panda City, Bamboo forest, The Forbidden Palace and more local environs such as a restaurants and markets and more abstract locations.

A business model is proposed that will enable the rapid dissemination of the game and aid in its development for teachers and end users via a partnership model, with educational suppliers; as video gaming looks set to become one of the most entrepreneurial areas over the next few years globally (Dayyani, 2011),  according to research conducted by Price water house cooper. It is envisaged that, one of the main aspects is to demonstrate that affordable Chinese learning is possible and can be taught as a game. This will be demonstrated and explained as is in the use of games to enhance and aid students learning.

Interactive Learning “Chinese Learn it”

Learning is well designed so that learners are immersed in well-structured, well designed, well mentored, and well-ordered problem solving inside experiences where goals are clear and action of some sort must be taken’ (Gee, 2004a). Gee makes reference that interactive learning is broken down into its constituent parts to achieve clear goals. The specific tasks on the 1st level of this game are interactive and very specific.


I conducted research with pupils and teachers in Key Stage 3 that shows there is a demand and an interest in language games, although the range is fairly limited. On speaking with teachers of Mandarin Chinese the range of games is vastly reduced. I have looked at a wide range of software, which attempts to teach in some form of standardised Chinese and is clearly written by Chinese language experts whom, I assume believe that UK pupils have a similar level of understanding as native Chinese pupils. It has been seen that young people respond well to games. Some theatre games are used as a means to provide reflective thinking and resolve incidents from the past, while others are used to build confidence and trust in schools and projects across the UK Drama Therapy to develop skills.  ‘The most important rules are those that define the nature of the challenge that makes it a truly interesting challenge’ (Crawford, 2003:38). When clear rules are set and there is no fear of failing or not getting the appropriate response is to attempt to try again to participate (Bates, Loyall and Reilly, 1994). In the game the player is encouraged to play and experiment failure is part of the learning experience.

In respect to this presentation I have looked at Lambeth Academy and spoken with teachers of Mandarin Chinese. One of the most noticeable aspects is that children enjoy playing Chinese games even more than the normal class games. This could be due to the new level of challenge and persistence as the games are unfamiliar to them, prompting a new learning curve, or could they be looking for feedback from their peers regarding their input?  A similar experience was witnessed in dungeon & dragon users whom had persevered and built a wealth of experience points and gained recognition from their peer group prompting more dedicated playing. A similar experience is now being seen in young people who use Black Berries and Facebook games online. There is a lot of rivalry and friendships around online.

Educational games: A history

The idea of computer games in education can sound a little bit outrageous (Alexander, 2008). However, history shows that, video games for educational purposes have been in existence for quite some time now. War game simulation for education purposes were first used in China about 3000.B.C. The games slowly began being used by the military in the western worlds in developing battle strategies (Kiili, 2005). Gee (2006c) argues that people and institutions have a lot to learn from good computer and video games. The games incorporate a whole lot of fundamentally appropriate learning principles in the minds of the learners (Gee, 2003b). There use has been supported throughout history because of the ability of the games to instil in the learners analytical skills, critical thinking skills, problem solving skills among others (Alire, 2009). A number of games can be seen through history and these were majorly used by the military as strategies of understanding how to manoeuvre in the battlefield. Although business games had been developed earlier, they were not specifically directed at education but in making business decisions. Such games were used to find answers to strategic and competitive unknowns (Watson, 2008). Digital games for use in education settings were introduced in the 1970’s. Many more have developed since that time, building on the advances in technology and computer capabilities (Kiili, 2005).

The oldest and the most popular educational game is the Lemonade stand, created in 1979 for the Apple II platform. The game was specifically designed to teach people strategies that could be used in business and economics. This game was an inspiration to the development of many other games that followed. Some of the most popular educational games through the early 1980 to 1995 include: Oregon Trail, Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego? Odell lake, Reader Rabbit, Number Munchers, Math Blaster, GeoSafari, SimCity, the Scholastic’s Microzine series, treasure mountain, Loom, Lemmings, the amazon trail, Museum Madness, ready Robot Club and Storybook weaver (Heick, 2012). Essentially, these games were centred on a number of aspects and contributed to learning and literacy through teaching of skills in various aspects of life. The skills taught in these games include: basic skills such as reading and society skills such as self-efficacy. They have also been used in social learning and in training people to use special skills such as decision making (Kiili, 2005).

Commercial games

Many games have developed over time since the introduction of computers. The advancements in hardware as well as software platforms have made it possible to have interactive video games of higher quality than the previous video games witnessed in the early 20th century. Despite the advancements in hardware and software platforms, the education sector still lacks in games specifically built for teaching and learning purposes. Most of the games still lack and do not follow any established curriculum. Most of them have been designed in a manner that requires high user involvement as well as concentration in order to finish parts of the game.

Kenny and Gunter (2011) argue that game designers have failed to include important parts of the curriculum into the games. The commercial games lack pedagogic components and this makes their adoption difficult. The games have low relevance and usefulness in education settings making their use limited to entertainment purposes. The core designs inherent in the commercial games has resulted in a learner who is more engaged and entertained at the expense of learning the desired curriculum content (Kenny and Gunter, 2011).

The lack of curriculum based commercial games is rooted in a number of barriers. First is the high cost of developing educational games, especially those that match some of the best titles in the gaming industry. Large companies fear that investing in such unproven technology could be detrimental in the long run (Hoy, 2011). On the other hand, small companies which are in a better position to develop these games lack funding. The limited sources of finances available cannot be committed to such a project whose success cannot be predicted. Secondly, commercial games are developed in an inflexible environment that leaves no room for educational specialist and this makes it difficult to come up with curriculum based games (Hoy, 2011).

Game Design Cycle

Designing a game is not a simple task as it may seem. There are many ways to design a game and all depend on the functionalities of the game and the company developing the game. However, basically, the process of designing a game is a three stage process: the concept stage, the elaboration stage and the tuning stage (Adams and Dormans, 2012). Most of the games designed in the 21st century are player centric- the games concentrate on various roles of the players as well as the gameplay that the players will experience. The three stages mentioned above are thus built from the player centric approach to game design (Thompson, Berbank-Green and Cusworth, 2007).

The concept stage is where the design team decides on the general idea of the game, its target audience as well as the roles of the various players. The resulting document is called a vision document or a game treatment (Meig, 2003). This stage may also involve the design of an experimental version of the basic mechanics of the game. This is done in order to establish whether the game produces fun game play. This mostly happens if the designer is not sure of the game to design (Adams and Dormans, 2012).

The elaboration stage happens immediately the game receives funding. This is the developmental stage of the game. The game mechanics, levels, roles, the story as well as assets are then prepared (Adams and Dormans, 2012). This stage is crucial in the development of the game and requires that the design team meets regularly, designing the game in short, interactive cycles. Each of the cycles must produce a product, which is then tested and evaluated before proceeding to the next level. Testing and pretesting is also very critical at this stage and requires that the design team picks a representative audience to help pre-test the prototype (Thompson, Berbank-Green and Cusworth, 2007).

The tuning stage is the last stage of the game design process. This stage begins with a feature freeze (Adams and Dormans, 2012). The design team accepts the features designed and makes a decision not to add more features. The most difficulty thing to enforce is a feature freeze because of the fact that the game is still being developed and new ideas, better than the already established ones pop up anytime, tempting the designers to want to incorporate them into the game. It is very important that no add-ons are made at this stage as it will significantly affect the debugging and tuning process. The tuning process works as a subtractive process where non-value adding features of the game are removed (Meigs, 2003). Once this is done, the game is ready and released to the market. However, tuning continues, as the developer provides updates and other versions of the game.

Second Language Acquisition

Scholars have attempted to find out how people learn a foreign language. In the process, three notable theories have been established that attempt to explain the process, these include: Universal Grammar, Input Hypothesis and Interaction Hypothesis. The universal grammar theory was advanced by Chomsky, who argues that ‘the human brain is hard-wired for certain grammar rules in order to organize language’ (Hoy, 2011; 12). Hence, in order to learn a second language, it requires the creation of a separate set of rules which show variations in language as compared to the native language (Hoy, 2011). The theory has received multiple criticisms because of its assumptions that it posits a strict rule-based grammar approach that is contrary to the flexible nature of language. Language is seen to constantly change at a much faster rate than the human brain, making the theory less credible.

Krashen is noted to have been the first to differentiate between conscious learning and subconscious acquisition. He asserts that, it is only through subconscious acquisition where full fluency in language is achieved. Following this assertions, he developed the input hypothesis theory which posits that, it is only through direct contact with the target language that learners are able to acquire new linguistic information (Hoy, 2011). The contact, he argues, must be comprehensible input happening at a level which is slightly higher than that of the learner. To him, the amount and the quality of input is important in order to achieve fluency. Krashen believed that the resulting output of the learner is not a measure of the level of linguistic understanding of the learner. Other scholars have criticized this, saying that output is important as it leads to error recognition and language modification which are important aspects of second language acquisition (Hoy, 2011).

The interaction hypothesis theory asserts that negotiation of meaning together with interaction in the specific language contribute to its acquisition. Using words in new environments, through negotiation, easily helps to encourage a deeper understanding of their meanings. The negotiation of meaning is not limited to native speakers alone, but can also be done with other students. This interaction is important as it contributes not only to subconscious acquisition, but also helps in the production of meaningful output which is facilitated by a low stress environment (Hoy, 2011).

Emotional Involvement

The content of entertainment media has the capacity to elicit powerful emotions as in real life. This is true, despite the conspicuous differences that occur between real world and its representation in the media (Griffith, 1999). A lot of research has proven that entertainment media can generate emotions such as joy, awe, anger and compassion among others. The effect on the individual varies with the level of engagement with the game (Funk and Buchman, 1995). However, the more the individual is immersed in the activities of the media the, more he/she is affected emotionally by it (Jennett, et al., 2006). The emotions develop as a result of the mere appreciation of the art in the media. Such emotions are known as aesthetic emotions because of the fact that they are incited by an artefact (Jansz, 2005).

In reality, aesthetic emotions are not genuine emotions. There has been a lot of debate on this issue, with many scholars from different fields, stressing the commonalities that exist between aesthetic emotions and ordinary emotions. Many agree that emotions triggered by video games can be intense and as “real” as emotions triggered by a snake bite or the loss of a loved one (Jansz, 2005).

Due to the interactive nature of video games, emotions generated as a result of playing games are different from those that occur in traditional media. The advantage with video games is that, the players get to choose the emotional situations to confront and which ones to avoid (Jansz, 2005). These emotions occur on a first person basis as opposed to the third person or witness emotions that are a characteristic of films and other media. Emotions in games unfold in a similar fashion as real life experiences making them have a great impact on the players (Tavinor, 2009).

There are two different ways of emotional involvement. The first is instantaneous, such that in the game, the player plays in order to win the game. If the game is good, then the play commits himself to the end of the game. The second level of emotional involvement is similar to that found in literature. The player is concerned with the fate of the avatar for three reasons: first is because it is a representative of him in the fictional world; second because it is an instrument to win the game and third is because he feels for him and identifies with his concerns and wants to know how eventually the story turns out for the avatar and for him (Pohl, 2011).

Cognitive Experience of Learning

Cognition as and aesthetic experiences are tied to our body and mind. Our learning, reason and thinking, is all tied to our interpretations of the sense systems of touch, smell, taste, hearing and vision (Heid, 2005). A lot of research has studied the relationship between the brain and the body, mind and feelings and conclude that they cannot be disengaged without a loss of cognition. There are a number of neural sections of the brain that focus on reasoning as well as decision making and this are linked to the areas of the brain that process emotions and feelings (Heid, 2005).

Many of the 20th century cognitive scientists separated the aspect of feeling and thinking, however, educators insisted on the relationship between the two. It is possible for an art viewer to undergo the experience of an artist without having to learn the skills of the artist (Heather and Randy, 2004). What happens is that the art viewer can undergo the experience by only studying the qualities in the final artwork. It is only through increasing one’s skills in perception that they can go through the experience with the artwork (Tokar, Plaufcan and William, 2007).

This process of undergoing becomes a learning objective for the individual. It is very important that an individual understands how events create new experiences. This will make them understand how relationships are crafted and how experiences come up. They will also be in a better place to discern connections between ideas leading to learning (Ridding, 2002). Therefore, with the players playing the games, they slowly develop their intellect following the experiences they get from playing the game.  Learning is slow as the mind learns new things from the experiences it gets with the game, leading to the formation of new concepts and ideas in the mind of the individual (Heid, 2005).  Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi names the feeling of complete and energized focus, with a high level of enjoyment and fulfillment (Csikszentmihalyi, 2004 ),  engaging flow theory rapidly changes and learners experience to a new more intense level of learning and focuses the experience of the activity within the student.


Language learning is on the increase especially languages that are perceived as difficult such as Mandarin Chinese and Arabic. The effective learning outcomes of these languages becomes more important, so does the role video games play in impacting on these as we gain more insight in the use of technology and the use of it to foster learning outcomes. Curriculum based video game playing takes time and organisation within schools. “Chinese Learn it” can be used in or out of curriculum based activities by students, thereby enhancing the language lesson and reinforcing specific learning outcomes. Language lessons can be between 50 to 150 minutes once per week within a school. The benefits of students being able to repeat specific video game tasks at their own pace is a factor to be considered in improving and developing the students specific language learning outcomes.

“Chinese Learn it” as a language learning video game aims to involve, interact and encourage students to participate in the language learning experience. Fun is just one element which enhances the learning experience. The video game is designed to be played on mobile and static devices, and hence opens the possibility for students to be able to play this game and review, practice and learn Mandarin Chinese whilst on transit as well as at home and school.