topical media & game development

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elements of a chinese language game

Anton Eliëns

language(s) / game(s) / resource(s) / lecture(s)


In this paper, we elaborate on work presented at the Dutch crossmedia PICNIC festival, in a special symposium entitled: the China Language Bridge. We will discuss a number of online resources, including games, for learning the chinese language, including chinese characters which are also used in japanese. After a brief digression on potential pitfalls in using online translation services, we will present some ideas, and indicate in what way these ideas might be realized using the XIMPEL interactive video platform, developed on top of the open source flex/as3 SDK. Such an approach would cover both the need to introduce appropriate context to stimulate language learning, as well as the unaviodable repetitions, which often proves to be one of the main obstacles for effective language learning.
Keywords and phrases: chinese language, serious games




At the PICNIC crossmedia festival 2007, Chinese Radio Amsterdam, currently also known as CRTV, a local media organization for the chinese community in the Netherlands, organized the China Language Bridge, a symposium with a great variety of speakers, from a commercial as well as educational background. Topics covered by the symposium included: city and language guides on mobile phones, automatic translation of incoming and outgoing emails, and chinese language games.

There are multiple reasons to focus on chinese for a language game, as summarized below:


  • chinese -- growing impact ...
  • language -- syntax, semantics, and pragmatics
  • game -- effective method to learn
  • elements -- available online components
There are multiple reasons to be involved in developing chinese language games, when looking at the chinese language in terms of global impact and the complexity, or for that matter intriguing nature of the language, especially from a western perspective,  [Ross & Ma (2006)]. Also, it should need no argument that games are an effective way to learn,  [Eliens & Ruttkay (2009)], or at least support the learning of a language, taking into account that many elements are, in principle, available as online components, including grammar definitions and vocabularies. In addition, however, I must confess to my personal motivation to learn the chinese language. And, I must admit, it was much more difficult than I expected, giving me another reason not to give up. Learning to read, write and speak chinese, may the least of it considered to be an interesting challenge. And as such an excellent topic for game play!


The structure of this paper is as follows. We will first look at what constitutes a chinese character, and then briefly look at what online resources are available for (learning) chinese. As a digression we will present an online translation example, humorous in itself, but nevertheless a warning for potential pitfalls in this area. We discuss a simple language game, and introduce what in our opinion are core elements of a language game: play, learn and explore. Then we will propose a platform for the realization of (serious) language games, and present initial ideas for scenarios to be worked out in the future, after which we will draw (preliminary) conclusions.

By way of acknowledgement, all help in translation ( 帮助 in 翻译 ) is by google translation service.



For a western person, chinese characters are deeply intriguing, whether on the billboards of Shinjuku (Tokio) or the shops of Shanghai. Due to their shape and the implied meanings of the characters, chinese writing is significantly distinct from western writing, leaving the uninitiated spectator utterly puzzled. An interesting approach to teaching westerns the contruction rules of chinese characters is taken by the artist Xu Bing, who showed, and demonstrated in workshops, how to create words in western alfabet using elements and construction principles from chinese writing, as illustrated below, showing a possible logo for chinese radio. / 华语电台.nl


When learning chinese characters, above all, it seems important to understand the significance of the individual elements of which the character is constructed, and the rules of composition, that is the way meaningful combinations are made.

genealogical chart(s)

  1. pictograph(s) -- e.g. = tree
  2. ideograph(s) -- abstractions, e.g. = one
  3. logical aggregate(s) -- e.g. = peace (roof, woman)
  4. phonetic complex -- e.g. = loyal (center, heart)
  5. associative transformation(s) -- concept extension
  6. borrowing(s) -- unrelated, similar pronunciation
In addition to an explanation of the meaning of the elements and rules of composition, most textbooks dealing with chinese characters suggest the reader one or more metaphors to help memorizing the characters, which is, for example, easy to find in the character for peace. Cf.  [McNaughton (2005)],  [Wang (1993)].



There are ample online resources for chinese, including dictionaries, tools for reading and writing, the already mentioned google translation services, as well as overviews of learning resources. Interestingly, many of these online resources can be accessed as a web service using a simple REST API, an explanation of which falls outside the scope of this paper.

With the rise of the mobile phones, gadgets such as the iTravl are increasingly being replaced by applications for the mobile device. In particular, one of the technologies that may have a significant impact on mobile city and laguage guides is the augmented reality browser for iPhone and Android from Layar.



Fig. (1) iTravl: handheld translator

As a note, a reference worthwhile for the ardent \LaTeX/\TeX users is provided in the instruction pages for the CJK package.

an exercise in online translation

To illustrate potential pitfalls of automated translation, look at the fragment(s) below.

daft punk -- technologic (cn / jp)

  Buy it, use it, break it, fix it.
  Trash it, change it, melt -- upgrade it.
  Change it, point it, zoom it, press it.
  Snap it, work it, quick -- erase it.
  Write it, out it, paste it, save it.
  Load it, check it, quick -- rewrite it.
  Plug it, play it, burn it, rip it.
  Drag and drop it, zip -- unzip it.
  Look it, fill it, curl it, find it.
  View it, coat it, jam -- unlock it.
  Surf it, scroll it, pose it, click it.
  Cross it, crack it, twitch -- update it.
  Name it, rate it, tune it, print it.
  Scan it, send it, fax -- rename it. 
  Touch it, bring it. Pay it, watch it.
  Turn it, leave it, stop -- format it.

Translating this into chinese, omitting the last 4 lines, gives us:

chinese version

Now, translating it back to english brings distortions to the surface which, humorous in this context, might be devastating in a more serious application.

after translation

  Buy it, use it, break it, fix it.
  Refuse it, change it, the melting -- escalation.
  To change it, it is 1:00 and protecting it.  it is the news.
  Breaking it, it's work, fast -- erase.
  write it, it, and paste it to save it.
  load it, check it, fast -- rewritten.
  plug it, play it, burn it, rip it.
  Dragging, Zip -- it opened.
  , it curled fill it, find it.
  It seems that the name of Jam -- unlock.
  surfing, Scroll, which constitutes, click it.
  it crossed the cracks, convulsion -- Update.
  its name, fine-tuning the speed, print.
  scanning, sending, fax -- renamed.
  Touch it and take it.  pay no attention to it, do it.
  Conversely, leaving it to stop -- formatting.

Admittedly, this is not a representative example, and, to be honest, I am impressed by the overall quality of translations as provided by for example the google translation service. However, such errors may also be used in a language learning game, as a (language) mini game about ambiguity of meaning, in particular in chinese where for example mispronuncations, which are quit common due to the unfamiliar tonal character of the language, may lead to widely divergent meanings.



A simple selection game, for memorizing kanji (chinese characters used in japanese) can be found in the online kanji game, which allows to switch between all combinations of english, kanji and kana (the native japanese characters). A prototypical language learning game is knuckles in china land, also for japanese, which takes the player through various rooms and requires the player to answer (in a very simple way) to particular situations and challenges.

To support a television program for learning chinese, the dutch educational broadcasting society provided a website with additional online games, mainly consisting of images of situations or room, where the player must guess, after some training sessions, the meaning of objects, by selecting the appropriate chinese word.


using web services

web service(s)

  <form action="" method=get id="text_form" >
  <input type=hidden name=hl value="en">
  <input type=hidden name=ie value="UTF8">
  <textarea rows=3 cols=60 name=text dir=ltr id=source>
  <select name=langpair>
  <option value="zh|en" selected>Chinese to English</option>
  <option value="en|zh-CN">English to Chinese (Simplified)</option>
  <option value="en|zh-TW">English to Chinese (Traditional)</option>
  <input type=submit value="translate">


Fig. (2) I go to Shanghai for ...: 我去上海出差

In a similar way, many chinese learning tools provide scenarios, in which the user/player takes a particular role in a prototypical situation, as indicated in figure 2.



To communicate in a foreign language, in particular for young children, nor grammar nor an extensive vocabulary are important. Most important is that a limited set of words can be used in an appropriate context.


Fig. (3) Learn by Play

Figure 3 illustrates a simple game to learn the words for the various colors, simply by stepping on the right spot on the (color) mat. Either in real life or by means of video, such situations may be helpful to acquire intuitive mastery of such canonical vocabulary as colors, or for example, greetings, or even table manners.

Such games provide a suitable context, as well as a task that is entertaining in itself, thus motivating the player to repeat, that is to jump to the right spot whenever a new color is called for.

In general the (game) mechanics underlying such interactions may be summarized as:


  • play -- turn-based, score(s)
  • learn -- simulation model, target(s)
  • explore -- interactive video, mini games
Such (game) mechanics, as illustrated in figure 4, allow for dealing with the various elements of learning a language, that is: providing a natural context with proper challenges, well-defined tasks and repetition, repetition, repetition.



In  [Eliens et al. (2008)] we have described a platform, originally developed in the context of a climate game,  [Eliens et al. (2007)], that allows for a seamless integration of the various elements of a (chinese) language game, as indicated above. See figure 5.


Fig. (4) Game Play, Simulation, Exploration

Technically, the characteristics of XIMPEL may be summarized as:


  • ajax -- dynamic update(s)
  • flex/as3 SDK -- XML game description template(s)
  • (flash) video -- interactive video, mini game(s)
However, more importantly is that XIMPEL has proved itself to be a viable platform for media productions that fall anywhere between interactive storytelling and gameplay, and also allows for tracking choices of the user/player to provide a meaningful interpretation of the score,  [Eliens & Ruttkay (2008)].





  1. 踢 (ti) -- kicking
  2. 打 (da) -- punching
  3. 摔交 (shuai [kuai] jiao) -- (fast) take down
  4. 拿 (na) -- capture/seize
Having taken an active interest in learning chinese, and chinese culture, I would also like to suggest particular topics around which chinese language games could be developed.

One (obvious) topic is kung fu, written as 工夫 , the literal translation of which is hardworking men, not excluding women by the way. The literature abounds with stories and myths of practitioners of martial arts with superhuman powers, in search for missions to prove their mastery and solve human problems. CF.  [Liang & Wu (1964)].

12 model(s) /

(1) move like a tidal wave, (2) still as a great mountain, (3) jump like an ape, (4) land like a magpie, (5) balance like a rooster, (6) stand like a pine tree, (7) spin like a wheel, (8) bend like a bow, (9) light as a leaf, (10) heavy as iron, (11) suspend like an eagle, (12) fast like the wind


Fig. (6) Gaming Workshop, Shanghai 2005

Another line of stories may be derived from Wei Cheng ( 围城 ), the famous novel of the writer and scholar Qian Zhongshu ( 钱钟书 ), which relates about the home coming to Shanghai of the main character Fang Hongjian ( 方鸿渐 ), who will later leave Shanghai for an eventually failing career at a university in mid-China ( 三闾大学 ). The opening sentence of this novel (in the learners edition) reads:


红海早过了,船在印度洋面上开驶着,但是太阳依然不饶人地迟落早起,侵 占去大部分的夜。 夜仿佛纸浸了油变成半透明体;它给太阳拥抱住了,分不出身 来,也许是给太阳陶醉了,所以夕照晚霞褪后的夜色也带着酡红。到红消醉醒, 船舱里的睡人也一身腻汗地醒来,洗了澡赶到甲板上吹海风,又是一天开始。这 是七月下旬,合中国旧历的三伏,一年最热的时候。在中国热得更比常年利害, 事后大家都说是兵戈之象,因为这就是民国二十六年【一九三七年】。

... 就是发财做官的人, 也欠大方,这县有个姓周的在上海开铁铺子财,又跟同业的同乡组织一家小银行 ,名叫“点金银行”,自己荣任经理,他记起衣锦还乡那句成语,有一年乘清明 节回县去祭祠扫墓,结识本地人士。

Apart from being an excellently written novel, the life of the main character bears some resemblance to my own life. Moreover, the background of the story, Shanghai in a period of global turmor provides an excellent stage for in some sense the anti-hero Fang Hongjian, thus allowing for a range of quasi-dramatic interactions and plots. Even in modern times, this may lead to compelling cinematic games, with questions such as what are you going to do in Shanghai (figure 2).



In this paper we have investigated some of the possible elements of a chinese language game, both from a personal interest and technical interest, and, most importantly, from a more general interest in game development as well. Written from an entirely western perspective of chinese language learning, it may nevertheless give the inspiration and some insights of how to develop a chinese language game, making use of online resources and web services as they become available.


  • chinese -- characters, grammar, usage
  • language -- tools, translation, context
  • game -- play, learn, explore
  • elements -- dialog(s), video, mini games


Thanks to Hong Tong Wu for involving me in the Chinese Radio Amsterdam activities, and inviting me for the PICNIC 2007 event. And to my wife Yiwen Wang, not for teaching me chinese, but above all for making not only the chinese culture but everything else as well so vibrantly alive!


[Climate] Eliens A., van de Watering M., Huurdeman H.,
Bhikharie S.V., Lemmers H., Vellinga P. (2007), Clima Futura @ VU -- communicating (unconvenient) science, In Proc. GAME-ON 07, Bologna, Italy
[XIMPEL] Eliens A., Huurdeman H., van de Watering M.,
Bhikharie S.V. (2008), XIMPEL Interactive Video -- between narrative(s) and game play, In Proc. GAME-ON 2008, Valencia, Spain
[Replay] Eliens A. and Ruttkay Z. (2008),
Record, Replay & Reflect -- a framework for understanding (serious) game play, In Proc. Euromedia 2009, Brugge, Belgium
[Math] Eliens A. and Ruttkay Z. (2009),
Math game(s) -- an alternative (approach) to teaching math?, In Proc. GAME-ON 2009, Dusseldorf, Germany
[Elements] Linag Shou-Yu and Wu Wen-Ching (1964),
Kung Fu Elements -- Wushu Training and Martial Arts Application manual, The Way of the Dragon Publishing
[Writing] McNaughton W. (2005),
Reading & Writing Chinese Characters -- Simplified Character Edition, Tuttle Language Library
[Weicheng] Qian Zhongshu (1947),
Wei Cheng (The Besieged City), Sinolingua 1994 (student edition)
[Grammar] Ross C. and Ma Jing-heng Sheng (2006),
Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar -- A Practical Guide, Routledge
[Origins] Wang Hongyuan (1993),
The origins of chinese characters, Sinolingua

Anton Eliens

is professor creative technology / new media at the University of Twente and coordinator of multimedia @ VU University Amsterdam. He has experience in web-based media, interactive video, and the development of serious games.

(C) Æliens 04/09/2009

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