Growing up, I got some pretty mixed messages about educational gaming. I remember loving computer titles like Word Munchers, Oregon Trail, and Gizmos and Gadgets. I ALSO remember teachers telling me that video games would fry my brain. Finally, I recall classmates scoffing at anything outwardly educational; game creators had to "hide" the education like parents tried to hide vegetables in meals.
It takes a lot to make learning fun for today's youth. My friend David Rheinstrom is the Editorial Director for a local, educational game producer. He writes all of the content for LeftSide-RightSide Games- a company out to grow language skills in everyone. I sat down with David for almost an hour. We discussed Word Frolic, Smarticulation, game creation in Chicago, his recent YouTube fame, and even what the heck Yuna meant when she cried "Duck soup!" in Final Fantasy X-2. Read on, grammar geeks!
Geek Girl Chicago: "Hi, David! First and foremost, I'd love if you could summarize LeftSide-RightSide's games for people who haven't played them before."
David Rheinstrom: "The first one is called Smarticulation Language Edition I, and that's more of a broad-based grammar and language survey. The game is divided into four sections, and each one works a different part of your language skills. There's one that's just about root words... one that's just about Latin and Greek prefixes. There's one part of the game called the Eschew Box, which is basically like playing Junior Copy Editor... and then, there's On the Road, which is all about literary trivia.
The second game is called Word Frolic Village Idiom I. It's all about the idioms of English. It's designed for people who are learning idioms... but it's also suitable for people who are newer to English. [Word Frolic is] really, really dorky and full of lots of terrible puns. There's a primary challenge and a bonus question. Then, there's this conversation starter that is designed to sort of take the heat off... this is just a nice way to get everyone around the table involved and feel like everyone's contributed something, even if you didn't get the answer to the question.
GGC: "I noticed that your website recommends LeftSide-RightSide games for ACT/SAT prep students. Did you take material from actual prep tests?"
DR: "I started working on these things when I was still in college. I decided I was going to take two courses... that would deliberately impact the games: Latin and Greek in Modern English. The whole point was to try and find Greek and Latin combining forms that are very common and allow you to form many words. I like to take... a holistic approach and say, "Why don't we break this word down into its components? Why don't we find the molecular structure of the word, and see what other words you can build out of those morphemes?"
GGC: "So building blocks instead of a sum of parts?"
DR: "Building blocks! I don't like rote memorization as a learning tool... I think there are plenty of things that you must memorize the meaning of. The native English lexicon is, I don't know, like 2000 words... You're going to memorize the words house, mother, and dog. You have to... but when you encounter words that you're only going to see, you know, once or twice a month depending on the stuff you read... you just need to have the toolbox to break that word into two or three pieces and make sense of it.
GGC: "I want to go back to the On The Road cards. On your website, the Lord of the Rings answer, to me, was obvious. What about people who don't have access to a lot of literature, or maybe books simply aren't the thing they're passionate about? How does Smarticulation support them?"
DR: "The games are designed to encourage people who have read those books, but also to encourage people to read those books. They're supposed to be learning games, not knowing games. No matter who is playing, I really don't want people to get discouraged when they're wrong because being wrong is wonderful, you know? You can only not know something once, and then as soon as you've been informed, you take steps to know that thing... that's great! You've accomplished something cool and beautiful!
GGC: "As Shakespeare and even Sarah Palin may tell us, the English language is ever-evolving. What do you plan to do with your games to embrace new slang, dying metaphors, and the growth of language in general?"
DR: "I refudiate that question (laughs). In Word Frolic, we sometimes acknowledge that there are idioms or forms of idioms that are archaic... There are idioms that I deliberately inserted into the game just as a desperate plea to revive them, like "duck soup".
GGC: "You know- not to interrupt, but the video game Final Fantasy X-2 has 'duck soup' in it as one of the battle cries! I had no idea what it meant... [Yuna] says 'Duck soup,' and then Payne goes, 'Duck what?' and then the battle just goes on..."
DR: "Duck soup means it's super easy, like 'this is going to be a piece of cake.'"
GGC: "Fascinating! Congratulations, by the way- Word Frolic won a Parents' Choice Recommended Seal. What exactly does that mean, for those of us not in the business?"
DR: "The Parents' Choice Awards are... like a film festival. You send in your product, you fill out an application... It goes before a panel of judges and parents... judge parents."
GGC: "Aren't all parents judge parents?"
DR: "Yes, they are (laughs). Then, we got an e-mail, and we saw their write up, and we got a bunch of stickers, and we put that big ol' banner on our website! ...Hopefully the first of many awards."
GGC: "We haven't talked much about mascot Artie yet! Tell me, who is Artie? Is he you?"
DR: "Artie is not me. Artie Q. Pebbleton is the voice of the games. He is a compound, a gestalt; I'd say he's similar to me, since I write most of the words that comes out of his mouth, but... he's a lot more persnickety than me. He's also blonde, he's cuter than me-"
GGC: "That I don't know about!"
DR: "Aw, thanks, baby!
GGC: "I like my guys... less... cartoony?"
GGC: "...All right."
DR: "Artie, he's a fictional character- a proud, fictional American from Frostbite Falls, Minnesota, which is where Rocky and Bullwinkle are from... He left home for school... and he currently lives in a fictional neighborhood of Chicago: 'Lakeside Park.'
GGC: "I'd believe that that was real!"
DR: "It's in the 51st Ward... every fictional character in Chicago lives there, like Artie, and V. I. Warshawski, Harry Dresden... they all live in a 3-flat. It's really awkward."
GGC: "Maybe the neighborhood is just one building..."
DR: "That's a weird ward! Who collects their garbage?!"
GGC: "Let's talk about Chalking Points. In the past, you had 'Ask Artie,' which was more of a written-response blog to teach language lessons. Lately, you've been going the YouTube route. What inspired you to make that jump?"
DR: "I was basically just getting questions from my friends for 'Ask Artie.' Artie would answer their questions, then only they would see it! I wanted something that was more shareable than a blog post... something that, even if I wasn't answering your personal question, it was still something you might have thought about. ...I've been trying to switch up the topics between... grammar gaffs you might be making... to things about the history of the language."
GGC: "I know that Chalking Points already got shared on some pretty big geek websites. Have there been any major changes at LeftSide-RightSide since?"
DR: "We got picked up by Andrew Sullivan, a political blogger who has a readership of several million. Every hour or two, he'll post something called the Mental Health Break. I submitted the Chalking Points video... I didn't hear back, then all of a sudden, we started getting thousands of hits. That YouTube traffic translated into website traffic, and that translated into sales, which was really fun. Since then, our numbers have not been as amazing- that was a real spike- but I think the fact that we got on Andrew Sullivan is something that we can tout to other blogs."
GGC: "Speaking of your personal efforts, I know there are a lot of people in Chicago interested in designing and selling their own games. You're successful, and I know you also are familiar with some people behind Cards Against Humanity. What advice do you have for men and women trying to create games?"
DR: "You don't need money to make a great prototype. All you need is a word processor and some index cards. A game is its rules. It is not its card design. It is not its box art, its pieces... those are very important components of the game, but they're consumer-stage components. Really make sure that your mechanics are solid before you start asking for money from anyone... just make sure that you have a successful, workable game.
GGC: "Lovely advice. What other projects are you working on right now?"
DR: "Right now, for LeftSide-RightSide, we are putting the finishing touches on a game called Hit or Myth, which is all about [Greek] mythology. There's a game called Portmanteau Jam that will be coming out eventually which is all about portmanteau words. After that, we'll have another edition of Village Idiom... Then, there's a geography game that I did that's all about the Americas."
GGC: "I can't wait. Before we say goodbye, got any fantastic language-inspired jokes?"
DR: "I have a bunch of Tom-Swifty jokes from the original draft of Smarticulation. [A Tom Swifty is] where the modifier puns on another part of the sentence. I had some Tom Swifties that were about the moods of English- imperative, subjunctive, and indicative. 'Bring me fruit!' cried Tom, in the imperative."
GGC: "Because PEARS!"
DR: "Because PEARS!!" My favorite is, 'I wish I were not under this pile of garbage,' said Tom, in the subjunctive."
GGC: "Oooh, I hate it... so much..."
DR: "I know! It hurts! It burns! but it burns like a worked out muscle, right? It will make you stronger."
GGC: "Finally, anything you'd like to plug?"
DR: "I have a couple [Chalking Points] coming up- the history of the ampersand, one about colons and semicolons that I want to call Colon Health... there may be one about affect and effect, ellipses...
GGC: "...And if someone wanted to submit an idea for one of these, what could they do?"
DR: "They could e-mail Artie: artie(at)leftside-rightside(dot)com.
My sincere thanks to David and LeftSide-RightSide Games. Check out their official website as well as Chalking Points on YouTube. I, personally, own Word Frolic and find it a lot of fun. David is a gifted joker and linguist! In fact, the language is a bit flowery for a beginner's game, but perhaps I am underestimating the skills of English-learners. Buy one of the games if you have $20 to spare.
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