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(Many Paths)
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Immersive video game aims to revitalize American Indian languages
by Rob Capriccioso - Indian Country Today - Published: Sep 24, 2008

WASHINGTON – Indian kids will soon have a Super Mario-like character of their own to guide through an array of digital puzzles and game landscapes. But instead of a character who looks like the mustached Italian plumber, made popular from appearances in dozens of Nintendo offerings, a new video game created by a Native-owned company will feature tribal characters speaking a variety of Indian languages.

The game, called RezWorld, is billed as the first fully immersive 3-D interactive video game that can help young Indians learn to speak their own languages via a unique speech recognition component.

“We’re all about teaching Native language in a context that really engages our young people,” said Don Thornton, the Cherokee owner of the California-based Thornton Media, which has led the way in creating the game’s prototype.

“One of the main reasons we’ve made RezWorld is because we see the connection between the survival of tribal languages and the protection of tribal sovereignty.”

Much like the popular mainstream Sims virtual-world computer games, the high-tech product allows players to interact with “intelligent virtual humans” that recognize players’ gestures and social behavior as they navigate their own Indian-looking characters through the game.

But beyond the Sims-like experience, players must also interact with virtual characters by talking into a microphone so that the characters can respond and provide cultural tidbits to help human players proceed through levels of the game – all in a Native tongue. The words the characters speak can also be displayed on the screen in English as an aid to players.

The speech recognition technology used in RezWorld was developed by Alelo Inc., a company that has worked for years with the U.S. military to help American soldiers learn Arabic languages. Alelo’s “Tactical Iraqi Language & Culture Training System” won top recognition at the 2007 Serious Games Showcase & Challenge competition.

“It’s a proven methodology of teaching language learning – it’s not an experimental methodology,” Thornton said. He added that the Alelo technology has been tested on more than 25,000 users, many of whom are in the military.

RezWorld is pre-programmed with introductory lesson plans that teach players basic pronunciation’s grammar and sentence structure. The lessons are meant to help players improve their language proficiency so they can complete increasingly rigorous challenges as the game progresses.

One elementary challenge in the game involves verbally asking virtual characters how to find a family member who has knowledge about how to get to the next level of the game. If a player just comes up to one of the virtual characters and rudely asks a question in a non-culturally appropriate manner, the character might respond with a big shrug, or give a gentle admonishment.

“It’s really a way to teach cultural protocol,” said Thornton, who added that his favorite part of the development process so far has been learning to interact with a trickster-like coyote character.

“Coyote is a little bit of a wise guy, so you always have to watch yourself with him,” Thornton said with a laugh.

Already, third-party academic scientists and researchers have found that RezWorld promotes positive learning results. Plus, many users rated the game as more effective than traditional computer language courses.

Thornton said he believes the main reason behind the effective results centers on his company’s push for the game to actually be fun to play. Several young people who have tested the game said they especially enjoyed its Indian humor elements, such as inclusion of a car driven by the main character, which tends to break down.

In another section of the game, if the player forgets to thank a certain character for his advice, the character responds by saying, “Hey, who do you work for anyway, the feds?”

“We tried really hard to make it funny and interesting,” Thornton said. “No one wants to feel like playing a game is a chore.”

He said that the game is intended to help players of any age become proficient on a novice level at speaking in their own Indian languages. The game is meant to be played on computers equipped with a CD-ROM drive.

To date, only one level of the 12-level game has been produced in a pilot form, using Thornton’s Cherokee language for the testing phase.

The first level is being used as a marketing device to help tribes understand how the speech recognition and game play components of the technology works.

Thornton Media is now at the point of trying to partner with a first tribe to provide funds to develop a complete 12-level game. If a tribe signs on, a finished game would likely be ready within eight months. The price tag for development of the complete game would be approximately $1 million. The company has already invested more than six figures into the development of the game thus far.

Thornton said it’s important for interested tribes to know that the game is completely customizable in terms of language, culture and landscapes. The faces of the virtual members can even be modified to look like individual tribal members. And the locations portrayed in the game can be modified to look like real tribal buildings or landmarks.

After the creation of the first complete version of RezWorld, Thornton Media plans to turn that prototype into a standardized game, which could be easily customizable with different languages and digitized landscapes.

“We see this as a natural next progression in language learning,” Thornton said. “And, yes, it costs a lot to get started, but we think it’s worth every penny.”

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