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Playing a New Video Game, Italian Style

by Kirsten Holguin

Screenshot of the Virtual Italian Experience game in development.

Photo/USC College Language Center

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 what to do. With 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 soon will be regularly taking 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.

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.

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.

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 USC School of Cinema-Television, an avid gamer and computer science student from the USC 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. USC 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 College graduate Patrick Reynolds is the backbone of the Flash design and programming.

With funding from a two-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 it 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.

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.

Playing a New Video Game, Italian Style

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