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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

ODU Student Creates Game to Help Students Master Japanese Written Language

Atsuyuki Harada, an Old Dominion University computer science major from Japan, knows from experience how difficult it is to grasp the 10 different writing strokes for creating the Chinese characters (or kanji) that are used to write Japanese.

The distinctive strokes are placed in combinations to create thousands of characters that comprise some Asian languages. It is difficult for Americans to memorize the 10 basic strokes of Chinese characters because English alphabets and Chinese characters are completely different.

Harada, who has lived in the United States for eight years, wanted to help people learn the strokes and use that knowledge to decode the language.

For that, he turned to his newly developed interest in serious gaming.

"I've developed research interest in intelligent tutoring systems and serious games," Harada said. "But for a final project, no professors in my major, computer science, felt like they could advise me."

Harada ended up working with faculty in the Darden College of Education's Department of Teaching and Learning before ultimately doing his project under the supervision of Tamer Nadeem, assistant professor of computer science with the College of Sciences.

In pursuing his desire to create a serious game, Harada encountered Minori Marken, a lecturer of Japanese language at ODU who had started to incorporate the 10 basic strokes concept in her course. Another faculty member, senior lecturer Meiko Ishibashi, who retired last year, had suggested he make a game where students could grasp the intricacies of the 10 strokes - how to recognize them, reproduce them neatly and create kanji.

"She suggested creating a game where Japanese beginners can learn the 10 basic strokes," Harada said.

Looking around at traditional designs of simple games, Harada found an ideal fit from a popular desktop game - Tetris.

Tetris users frantically move and rotate blocks to engineer complete lines. Harada's game, Chinese Balls, borrows on that tradition. Users move and rotate pairs of balls that each contains one of the 10 strokes comprising a kanji.

The design of his game prototype is available here: http://www.cs.odu.edu/~aharada/kanjiPuyo.html. Harada is still seeking feedback from game testers as he tinkers with his design.

Harada said the process of game design was fascinating. The senior project that led to the creation of the game was his last requirement to earn a master's in computer science from ODU. He now plans to seek a Ph.D. in instructional technology.

"Most users have told me the game is fun and informative," Harada said.

Marken has incorporated the game into her course this fall as a teaching aid. Also, Harada said the director of the ODU Language Learning Lab is interested in installing Chinese Balls on the lab's computers.

Harada has truly enjoyed his time at ODU, and said the fact he worked with faculty members in three different colleges on his final project demonstrates how invested the university is in student success. "This is a very good school. The professors are very talented, and they want to help."

Chinese characters constitute the oldest continuously used system of writing in the world. By nature of their widespread use in China and Japan, they are also among the most widely adopted writing systems in the world.

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