Shashingo: Learning Japanese with Photography

For most, learning a new language isn’t easy, but there are a growing number of games that make the process surprisingly fun – when it comes to Japanese, for example, there’s Hiragana Pixel Party, a bouncy infinite runner that helps you to memorise hiragana and katakana characters as you hop over obstacles.

In a similar vein, the upcoming Shashingo is a photography game that helps build your Japanese vocabulary (hence its subtitle, Learn Japanese with Photography). With your trusty camera in hand, you wander the streets of a Japanese city, taking photos of the local sights; with each click of the button, you’ll get a picture of what you’ve captured, complete with a caption beneath in Japanese and English. If you’re really after a challenge, there’s also a mode where a Japanese word will flash up on the screen and you have to take a photograph of the object it describes.

Shashingo is the work of British developer and 3D
artist Ryan Pocock, who came up with an initial version of the project for a
game jam – although, at that point, the educational aspect didn’t yet exist.
“It was a short photography game called FOMO [Fear Of Missing Out],” Pocock
says of that initial prototype, “where the player must take photographs of
everything in their in-game apartment to sell on an auction site, in order to
afford tickets to go to a game development conference.”

Pocock had the idea of turning the project into an
educational game when he was in his last year at university, and coming up with
a topic for a thesis and creative project to go with it. “The paper I wrote
focused on how video games can be used for second language acquisition, and for
my creative project, I decided to create a language learning game that used the
[photography] mechanic. From that, Shashingo was born.”

shashingo photobook

Built in Unreal Engine 4, Shashingo presents an
idealised rendition of a typical Japanese metropolis. Anyone who’s visited the
country will recognise the cosy ramen bars with their paper lanterns hanging
outside, the trees dusted with pink cherry blossom, and the strikingly ornate
drain covers. “You would not believe the amount of time that is spent on Google
Street View every day while working on the game,” Pocock tells us. “Besides the
countless references that are used to create a realistic but stylised version
of Japan, I also want the game to feel authentic past face value. A great
friend of mine, and the incredibly talented composer for Shashingo,
Kenya Abe, is a native Japanese speaker and checks almost everything in the
game, including the smaller details like names of shops and restaurants, to
make sure that it feels truly believable.”

Pocock’s largely making Shashingo on his own, so he’s
had to think carefully about what to put in the game. Its environments are all
urban, for example, though that setting means Shashingo features plenty
of things that people visiting Japan are likely to see on the streets of, say,
Tokyo. Says Pocock: “At the beginning of development, I asked just under 200
people who were interested in learning Japanese what kind of virtual
environment they’d like to learn in, and the majority said city streets. If I
wasn’t creating the game primarily by myself, I’d love for the game to be
larger and feature more environments, but for now, I don’t see it as being

shashingo street

Nevertheless, the number of words that can be learned by
playing Shashingo is pretty impressive: just about everything you see in
the environment has an entry in the game’s system – so in other words, if you
take a photo of anything from a bollard to a cardboard box, Shashingo
will show you the correct word for that object in English and Japanese. “I aim
to make a large percentage of the environment as photographable words,” Pocock
says. “There will, of course, be minute details that won’t be recognised, but
generally, large structures like shops, restaurants, and the individual related
objects will be taught. Currently in the plans are additional words that can be
used to describe these objects, like adjectives and relevant verbs, so you can
study more than just nouns.”

You won’t come away from Shashingo being able to
converse in fluent Japanese, but the game should, Pocock says, enable people
“to learn usable Japanese that could help them on their holiday or when talking
with friends”. Best of all, you’ll soak up all that useful knowledge not by
poring through textbooks or sitting in a classroom, but by playing an airy,
distinctly soothing-looking video game. Sugoi!

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