Game based learning and Latin Literacy

Recent items I’ve seen concerning game-based learning of language, and the use of ‘fake dead people’ to populate archaeological VR, reminded me of a project I conceived back in 2005 and had hoped to find money to do. So with the unhelpful help of the XP file search thing, I eventually dredged up the original brainstorm, but not the proposal itself. I did float the idea at a Classical Association of Canada conference session that year – but attendance was rather thin in the session on digital media and learning  (… and there’s probably a lesson in that …)

Thinking it might be useful for someone else, here it is below:

CSI – Cicero’s Sullen Ides, or, Get the Tusculum Villa Ready!
A game-based learning experiment for Latin literacy

Game playing – cognitive benefits
-examples of language games
-examples of literacy games
-so why not mash the two together?

-interactive fiction
-how can learning be assessed in interactive fiction
-through scoring based on completion of in game tasks
-different levels of scoring: basic, for very limited tasks
advanced, for uncovering ‘hidden’ tasks
-benefit also: cost, computing resources, also creates a learning environment similar where performing the skill is similar (literacy is text based).


Written completely in Latin, ‘Cicero’s Sullen Ides, or, Get the Tusculum Villa Ready!’ is a text adventure taking place in Cicero’s villa outside of Rome. Settings include every room in the house, as well as locations on the grounds.

The player plays as Terentia, the wife of Cicero. As the game opens, Terentia is in her room in the Villa. The game opens with a description of the room. Out in the hallway, on a table, is a letter from Cicero advising Terentia to get the villa ready as he will be arriving soon from Rome – time is slipping away! Terentia does not know that Cicero is coming. In fact, she is woken by a slave who informs her that a quantity of money has gone missing from the villa strong box, and the same slave neglects to inform her of the letter. She does remember some turns later, and informs her mistress…

The Aims of the Game:

The game then involves two challenges – solving the mystery of the missing money, and getting the house ready for Cicero. The player will have to have an understanding of the daily routines of a Roman villa in order to successfully complete the second task, as well as a grasp of the Latin language. Since most people today do not need to know how to write Latin – and the structures of latin are mostly too complicated for a simple text adventure to parse – the game will be structured to accept simple imperative constructions – read the letter, go north, tell the servant to clean the room. The level of Latin of the descriptions will be aimed at the student entering a second year Latin course, or finishing off a first year course. Indeed, the game could be used as part of the summative evaluation of the course, where the scoring indicates the level of literacy the player has achieved (sub-plots can be explored by the player, requiring higher literacy skills to solve, and accordingly, higher scores when puzzles are solved or ‘rooms’ are unlocked).

Implementing the Game:

The ADRIFT game generator (v4.0, Wild 2005) can display graphics files associated with different rooms and events. Careful selection of imagery then to support the text will help the player to decipher the text or give hints as to what the player should do next. Similarly, sound files may be added to the game, either as background in particular ‘rooms’ (running water by a fountain in the garden) or as auditory clues for particular events (a chiming bell indicating that a meal has been laid out in the Tablinum, heard from elsewhere in the Villa. A player understanding the significance of the bell would process immediately to the tablinum…) Non-player characters will be roaming the house, doing tasks, and the player will be able to interact with them to a degree, directing slaves to do particular tasks, or interrogating them to discover what happened to the money. Terentia will have to interact with the non-player characters correctly in order to proceed.

Concerning the language capabilities of the game generator software, a simple text file can be created that swaps the english in-game commands for their Latin synonyms. Students should be advised before playing the game of the correct mood, tense, and voice to use when playing; alternatively, they could be left to figure that out on their own and the score adjusted accordingly once they’ve issued their first successful commands in the game. Scores may be adjusted too to reflect how many ‘hints’ the player needed before successfully completing a task. Finally, the game generator can scale the total score within the game against a maximum. That allows the game creator to decide that ‘all easy tasks will be worth 5, all medium tasks will be worth 20, and all hard tasks will be worth 50 points’ and then the game will rescale the total points during game play to, say, 100 points, allowing the final score to actually represent a score out of 100. This allows the game creator to create appropriate game tasks without having to worry about the ultimate weightings and point calculations.

Finishing the Game

The game could end with Cicero’s return to the Villa, which could be triggered by Terentia completing a particular task, or it could be triggered by a certain number of turns expiring. At that point, Cicero might interrogate Terentia about the missing money, asking very simple questions to which the student would have to compose (equally) simple responses. These might be in the order of – where are my slippers? –who took the money? –has the bath been heated? That is, he could ask a series of questions that relate to all of the various tasks that Terentia may or may not have completed, or objects she may or may not have collected. Because these would be simple responses (and because the creator knows what kinds of possible answers there might be and can accordingly let the program know what to expect), scoring would be simple in this part of the game. A certain number of ‘correct’ answers, and Cicero could pronounce himself well pleased, and the player would win the game. A certain number of incorrect answers, and Cicero could become very petulant and sullen, making Terentia go back and complete the missing tasks and then return to him (at which point, the correct answers would be worth half as much).

Game play and learning

In this fashion – through play and immersion in an imaginary world that relies on the student’s knowledge of Roman civilization and the Latin language – the game would reinforce the student’s grasp of the language, and through game play the student would be able to display an understanding of the language divorced from the usual ‘sight translation exam’.

[… you can see that I ran out of oompf in that last session, though now I have a much greater grasp of the relevant literacy, case studies, etc. If I was to do this over again, I’d move that section first and flesh it out greatly, as classicists sometimes need greater prodding than others – though, in fairness, this isn’t always the case.]


One Comment

  1. Fascinating stuff! I think that “has the bath been heated” is asking for a far greater AI than “where are my slippers” but I like the idea. Thanks for sharing your brainstorm… it’s a shame nothing came of it.

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