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Italiano Virtuale

Italiano Virtuale

Interactive game provides powerful context for learning

By Kirsten Holguin
February 2006

Sitting in a small caffeteria in Milan, Italy, the first-year Italian language student finishes her cappuccino. Only when she gets the conto does she realize she doesn’t have enough euros to pay.

Luckily, the USC College student knows just what to do. With just a few clicks of a mouse, she takes a quiz, aces it, and watches as virtual money fills the account on the screen in front of her. That, of course, is the beauty of a video game.

Thanks to the Virtual Italian Experience (VIE) video game now in development at the USC College Language Center, students will soon be able to regularly take such computer-generated trips to Italy without leaving campus. As players progress from a classroom on the University Park campus to a tour of Italy, the game is designed to engage students and enrich their learning of language and culture.

“The game speaks to every type of learning style and that’s what I like most about it,” said Edie Glaser, VIE project manager and Language Center administrative manager who first envisioned the game.

The VIE game, now 25 percent complete, also marks what may be a first in the use of creative technologies to improve college language instruction. To her knowledge, Glaser said, USC is the first to develop a virtual learning environment for use in a foreign language curriculum.

“I knew first-year language classes at USC teach language through role-playing, and role-playing is central to video games. I thought if there was some way to merge the language pedagogy with video game technology, then we would have something no one else was doing, and it would be an effective learning tool,” said Glaser.

Students playing the game assume a character in the virtual world. With the virtual money earned from quizzes, students must buy specific items in order to progress in the game. A “Visitor’s Guide” explains cultural differences between Italy and the United States, which the students are quizzed on in later scenes. Through Web-based reporting, instructors can monitor student performance, allowing them to adjust their class lessons to spend more time on students’ problem areas.

Through a number of features, the game emphasizes intricate linguistic skills along with cultural awareness. The creators hope that after playing the game students will be able to discuss Italian politics and Italy’s role in Europe, talk about contemporary Italian society and discuss the Italian diaspora around the world.

Good Timing
At about the same time that Glaser first envisioned the plan for VIE, Francesca Italiano, director of the College’s Italian language program, completed writing the beginning Italian textbook, Allegro! Her first textbook, Crescendo! (Heinle, 1994), has been the most widely used intermediate Italian text in the English-speaking world.

“Some people might not understand that there are limited resources such as high quality Italian textbooks and workbooks available commercially,” said Italiano. What made Italiano’s first book especially successful was its incorporation of Italian culture and experience into its language instruction, something she also did in Allegro!, which is due out in fall 2006.

In 2002, Italiano began working with Glaser and Dan Bayer, executive director of the Language Center, agreeing to use the content in Allegro! for VIE. In short order, Glaser hired a graduate screenwriting student from the School of Cinema-Television, an avid gamer and computer science student from the Viterbi School of Engineering and a native Italian teacher, Paola Matteucci, from the College to work on the project.

Since then, a number of students have taken part in designing the game. College graduate student Brooke Carlson is one. After learning Italian and studying in Verona as part of his coursework, he now helps the VIE team with programming, entering XML code into a Flash interface, and adding content to the grammar section. Recent USC College graduate Patrick Reynolds is the backbone of the Flash design and programming.

The VIE team has not simply transferred Allegro! into an electronic form.

“We have personalized activities for students including authentic cultural situations, realistic visual worlds and real-life tasks to motivate students to acquire linguistic skills needed to be able to connect and communicate,” said Italiano, who reviews and approves all game scripts to ensure high quality.

In Development
With funding from a 2-year National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grant, the VIE team plans to complete the game by June 2007.

Getting the NEH grant was a long shot, but vindicated the team’s efforts, Bayer said.

“Language programs do not usually receive grants from the NEH, but our proposal showed how the game combined with classroom experience will advance learning about contemporary Italian culture and society,” he said.

Bayer estimated that it would have cost about $1 million for a software company to create a game like VIE.  The Language Center developed the interactive concept outline for VIE for one-tenth of that amount, he said.

Linking new technologies with foreign language teaching and learning has been a key aim of the USC College Language Center since it opened in 1997. In 1999, thanks to a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Bayer oversaw an effort to integrate technology into language curricula with online video labs, audio streaming and activities that require students to visit Web sites in the target language. Now, students have online access to audio, video and workbook lessons in eight languages.

“Anything that did not need to be done in the classroom was taken out and put into an electronic online version,” said Bayer. “The change means time can be spent more efficiently in the classroom interacting in the language and learning the culture with classmates and the teacher.”

This spring, students, staff and faculty with backgrounds in Italian, 3-D modeling, animation and video game design are pitching in to help develop and beta test VIE.

When the game is finished in 2007, Prentice-Hall has first right of refusal to publish and market VIE to universities across the country. USC students will always have free access to the Virtual Italian Experience. Italian students will be able to connect to the game via a downloadable application.

“At USC College, we want to make the learning experiences of our students as meaningful as possible. Sometimes this means looking in unexpected places for solutions,” Bayer said.