When it comes to learning a second language video games can be a valuable learning tool, according to a Griffith PhD researcher.

Griffith PhD researcher and lecturer Tina Richards teaches contemporary Japanese culture and is investigating the pop culture differences between Japanese and Australian video game releases.

She says the value of video games as a teaching tool is an exciting and emerging area, yet when it comes to learning a second language or cultural values, video games haven’t been used as effectively as in other areas of education.

“Video games from Japan can give students valuable insights into Japanese life and culture without them even realising it,” Tina said.

“Japanese video games can tell us a lot about contemporary Japan, even without prior knowledge of the culture itself.”

The Western release of popular game, Persona 4: Golden for the PlayStation Vita, retained a lot of the Japanese content, from traditional Shinto shrines to Japanese food.

Players also participated in a high school setting that acknowledged the hierarchal relationship between senior and junior students, known as ‘kohai’ and ‘senpai’.

The school’s physical layout also adopted the tradition of having first year students on the firstfloor, second year students on the second and seniors on the top floor.

Practicing language skills

Tina says some video games, like Final Fantasy XIII: LightningReturns, even allow players the option to use the original Japanese voice track for dialogue and cut scenes.

“This allows budding students to immerse themselves not only in their favourite past time, but in spoken Japanese as well,” she said.

Fan communities for Japanese video games tend to overlap with Japanese anime and often prominent voice actors lend their talents to the cut scenes and spoken dialogue that make up video games.

“Watching anime and video game cut scenes can help with pronunciation, listening skills as well as increasing your cultural sensitivity and awareness,” Tina said.

“However, there are limits and sometimes these colloquial settings can misrepresent correct language forms. You have to be wary of picking up bad language habits.”

Insights into contemporary cultural values

Contemporary social insights can also be found in the types of video games that do not make it to Western markets.Despite being a popular style of video game in Japan, dating simulators, which let players court love interests for “dates, marriage or other adult activities”, are often stigmatised and marginalised in Western markets.

Tina said it comes down to cultural differences over technology’s place in our society and in our lives.

“In the West, we generally view technological advancements with skepticism and as a threat, much like The Terminator or SkyNet,” she said.

“Whereas in Japan, one will often describe a robot as having ‘kokoro’ or heart, such as Osamu Tezuka’s famed Astroy Boy – a heroic robot child that understands human emotions.”

Recognise the limits of the material

For Japanese students, video games offer unexpected opportunities to continue practising language skills that are developed in the classroom.However, using popular culture as the sole lens with which to view and understand Japanese culture has its limits, says Tina.

“The intersection of culture that plays out in video games and anime tend to be quite narrow, so don’t limit your contact with Japanese culture to just these pop culture forms, as this can skew your perceptions of Japan and its people,” she says.

Tina Richards is a lecturer at Griffith University and is currently undertaking her PhD studies in the field of game studies within the School of Humanities. She also teaches Contemporary Japan: Culture and Society.