Free to Play, Free to Learn

Language learning has always been a big part of my life, and increasingly so has language teaching. It is always difficult to find motivation to start a new activity or language, just as it is difficult to instill enthusiasm in new students. So what better way than building off of an activity you already enjoy?

My fiancé and I are huge gamers. Between the two of us, we have played every genre on every device capable of running games (including the tabletop). So when I suggested we launch up the free to play (F2P) version of Russian World of Warcraft (WoW), he seemed intrigued. As a heritage speaker of Russian, I rarely get the opportunity to acquire gaming lingo, and as a beginning second language learner of Russian, my fiancé rarely gets exposure to the language at all, let alone “in the wild”. This was going to be fun.

After downloading the massive 22GB client, and getting past the inevitable start up hiccups, we began making our characters. Already, my fiancé was enjoying reading the Russian translations of menu options and race names. These were not our first WoW characters, and the extra grounding in a familiar setting seemed to help him navigate. He modified his character’s appearance, chose a name, and hit завершить (accept) followed by вход в игровой мир (enter the game world).

A declension table for my character's name.

A declension table for my character’s name.

Bam! Name declension table, in your face! When you first create your WoW toon, the game needs to know how to address you, and how to talk about you. So before you complete your toon, they give you a table to read through with the grammatical cases and some short sentences using your toon’s name in that case.

It’s been a while since my fiancé’s last Russian class, so we took this opportunity to do a mini refresher course in case. The sentences were great reading practice, and they were simple enough for us to be able to focus on the key concepts. We made sure the provided declensions sounded right, and logged into the game.

At the end of the intro sequence, we predictably found ourselves in the starting area for our race, with one combat ability on our action bar. After running around for a few moments and talking to the starting quest giver (whose on-click speech was voiced by an absolutly epic voice actor), we decided our interface needed some tweaks. Incredibly, many of the addons my fiancé had dumped over from his other WoW client were already localized into Russian, and Just Worked on this client. He stumbled a bit through the menus, mostly going on memory with a little bit of translation help from me, until we got it all set up. I have to give huge props here to the addon creators for how seamlessly their addons were integrated and localized. For many of them, you would have never guessed that they didn’t originally belong in the Russian version of this game.

Ok, our UI was set up, what next? Well, since we were playing together, we wanted to group. But that requires deciphering the target right-click menu. Reading the menu items, we recognized some words he had heard before in very different contexts. Шепот (Whisper) was the name of one of my old cats. Запомнить цель (focus target), осмотреть (inspect), обмен (trade)… приглошение (invite)!

Now here comes one of my big dissapointments with the free to play version of this game…. So, they cut out a lot of functionality for this version: you can’t play certain classes, you can’t get above level 20, you can’t trade with another character. All of this is probably to get you to buy the full version. That makes sense…

What doesn’t make sense is that they cut the ability to group. Why? I have no idea. WoW is a social game. Peer pressure is a great way to leverage people to buy things (not that I condone that, but it is a fact). If one of your friends continues on to the full game, you may be more likely to buy it as well so you can keep playing with them. If all your friends are having fun grouping together, you may all want to pick it up so that you can keep playing together. In the meantime, it’s more fun, as well as more evocative of the full game’s social focus, for you to group with other players. I have no idea why they would cut this central feature out of the starter version. That really sucks.

Well, there was nothing left to do about it. We could still sort of play through the starting zones together, even if we weren’t grouped. And so with my sword drawn, and my frostfire bolt prepped, I headed down to where the first mobs were for the starting quests… only to realize my fiancé hasn’t even loaded his crossbow. “Hold on, I have to read my ability names!”

This was probably the coolest part of the night for me– he initiated the continuation of our Russian lesson on his own. We logged on originally to play some WoW, but by the end we spent nearly two hours total just practicing and learning Russian.

We went over the powerful sounding ability names, reading their descriptions right up to the points of damage they do, including a brief refresher on counting and numbers. We got to talk about roots and suffixes too. Since he had made a hunter, many of his abilities mentioned shooting. Стрелба (the act of shooting), выстрел (a shot), and стрелять (to shoot), all share the same root “стрел”, and it took him a second to realize that they were the same. Overall, we really went through a lot of Russian and very little WoW… what a great way to learn for free!

Pardon my UI, it's a bit slapped together right now.

Pardon my UI, it’s a bit slapped together right now.

For my part, I have to say, I was very impressed with the Russian localization of WoW. I have played a few other games in Russian, including some of EverQuest2, and have always felt that the translations were somehow forced. It was always clear that the game you were playing was not intended to be played in Russian. Some of these concepts in fantasy and magic are very difficult to translate into Russian culture in the first place anyway, but WoW does this nearly seamlessly. The quest text is rich, the voice acting is amazing, the community is active (so that even addons are masterfully localized), the visuals are lovely as ever… and best of all, it’s a great free language learning and language teaching tool for beginners and experts alike. It’s a shame they took out the grouping functionality for the F2P version, as I feel grouping really is a cornerstone of the social gaming genre. I don’t know if we will buy the full version, the cost is pretty steep when combined with all the expansions, but if nothing else, we have 20 levels of Russian left to learn… well, 18 now. =)

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