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Guest Column: Teaching My Nonna to Read Through Games

Guest columnist Gino Grieco teaches his grandmother how to game, and in the process, learns about language barriers beyond English comprehension.

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Ever since my Papa (grandfather) passed away a few months ago, my Nonna (grandmother) has been living with my family and me. Unsurprisingly, she’s had a hard time adjusting to his absence. She never learned to drive, and like so many immigrants, her family members make up the majority of her friends. Her world was dominated by caregiving and hardship for so long, but now it is mundane, lonely, and even boring. Though she is surrounded with love, she’s found herself lacking for entertainment. With that in mind, I figured that I might have an answer to her boredom. Perhaps she could grow to enjoy the same hobby that got me through my moments of loneliness: video games. My Nonna has always enjoyed gambling with her siblings at the casino. She loves nothing more than a heated game of Gin Rummy with my family or a game of Solitaire. On that basis, it didn’t seem like a huge leap to get her into video games. I had a plan: I would start her out with my first system, the Sony PlayStation, and bring her up to speed on some of the games I grew up with. Little did I know that there were more barriers keeping her out of gaming than I could even perceive.

Nonna currently splits her TV time between Italian talk shows and the Gameshow Network, so I thought a decent place to start her foray into video games would be Wheel of Fortune for the PS1. Wheel of Fortune is a leftover of mine from this year’s Community Endurance Run and, while it isn’t the greatest game ever made, I thought that a familiar game structure might help ease her into using a controller. I gave her a quick rundown of the buttons on a PlayStation controller, explained the game, and then stepped aside. At first she struggled with hitting the correct button to buzz in or spin the wheel; but, after a couple of minutes, she started to get the hang of it. Down goes one barrier. However, the larger problem she had with the game was that, for all the Wheel she’s watched, the basic mechanics of Wheel of Fortune stumped her. Given a blank board full of four letter words she would pick odd letters like Q and J to start things off. After the computer players had set her up for easy points, she just couldn’t seem to finish off words. And so I naively asked if she needed help. She told me “I don’t spell so good.” The game was too hard for her. Of course it was. How could I have been so dense?

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My Nonna grew up the oldest of six kids in rural Italy and, as the oldest girl in the house, her formal schooling stopped in the third grade so that she could help raise her siblings and take care of the house. She grew up in a region of the country that was heavily bombed during World War II, further limiting her already restricted academic possibilities. Like so many young Italian women from her generation, she married young, moved to America to pursue a better life, and largely stayed within Italian social circles. With all of that, she was never really required or encouraged to strengthen her reading and writing skills. Her daily tasks didn’t necessitate a verbose vocabulary; and soon after her immigration, my father was old enough to translate whenever issues did arise. And so, here we were, sitting in front of a PlayStation, struggling against decades of unspoken game design rules and academic disenfranchisement.

Since Wheel of Fortune was a resounding failure, I decided to try branching out to other games and genres to see if she might enjoy them a little more. Our first stop was Chocobo Racing, a not-so-great kart racer. At first I started her out on the test track to let her get used to the controls. It wasn’t long until she had driven her racer directly into a wall. “You’ll get a headache like that!” she exclaimed. I tried to explain things like feathering the brake or drifting, but she’s never driven a car and she’s not exactly up to date on the Fast and the Furious films. Thus, it was difficult to tell her what she was doing wrong since we lacked a shared experience to draw on. Ultimately, she had to just watch my hands to see how to play, and even then she didn’t necessarily enjoy the experience. “Could you imagine me on the road?” she pondered, and with that we put Chocobo Racing to bed.

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After Chocobo Racing, I thought that Final Fantasy IX would be a decent place to go next. I’ve read my piece on FFIX to my Nonna before, but she’s always had trouble understanding it fully without the context of having played the game. So I thought this might be an opportunity to attempt a slightly slower paced game and share a game I love with my grandmother. Her first question after we hit the new game button was to ask how she controlled the game. She was hitting buttons during the game’s opening cut-scene, expecting things to happen. How was she to know that the pretty CGI was a non-interactive movie? She’d never played any sort of story-based game before, so how was she to know this particular convention?

Once she actually got control of Zidane, the game’s main character, she took to the basic controls fairly quickly. She was able to navigate some of the early levels, and she even found some hidden items. Yet, I had a lot of trouble giving directions when she got lost. I would tell her things like “go up” or “go right” assuming that she would understand that I meant that she needs to move the analog stick up or right; however, those instructions are ambiguous to someone who’s never controlled a character in a 3D space before. Sometimes she would interpret my instructions based on what she thought the relative direction of up or down was. Did “up” mean go up the stairs on the right, or did it mean hold the thumbstick up? Did “left” mean that she had to move to the left relative to where her character was facing or to the left side of the TV? Ultimately, after a lot of trial and error, I found that the best way to communicate where she needed to go was to reference specific landmarks in the game, like doors and hills, since there was much less ambiguity.

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Once she felt comfortable controlling the game, I stopped talking so much as she played and I noticed that she would read dialogue out loud. Every time she would read, she would also read the name of the character who was talking. FFIX always includes the name of the speaker alongside a little speech bubble, and she seemed to think that the name was part of the dialogue. “Have you ever read a comic book, Nonna?” I asked. “Yeah, but not since I was a little girl,” she replied. It was at this point that I noticed how many different literary techniques games assume you know from other forms of media. For example, FFIX starts with multiple characters acting in a Shakespearean style play reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. The hope is that the play helps set the game’s European fantasy tone. However, if you aren’t familiar with theatrical or literary history, that bit of cultural signaling is completely lost.

The game also utilizes multiple accents to denote different social classes among the cast. One of the main tensions in the early moments of FFIX’s story is whether Steiner and Garnet, a knight and a princess, can pass as ordinary citizens. They frequently use complex vocabulary and their sentence structure is largely free of contractions. This subtle stylistic choice is meant to betray their high class upbringings. Funnily, at one point Garnet said, “I must speak with this [shopkeeper] and learn how common folks speak,” to which Nonna replied, “Like me!” However, since she wasn’t familiar with the convention of having royals speak in “proper” English, all of Garnet’s high-class vocabulary seemed needlessly complex.

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She also had a recurring issue with the game’s save system. FFIX requires that you speak to Moogles in order to save, and Moogles always include the onomatopoeia “kupo” in their dialogue. Nonna had never seen onomatopoeia written out before. Every time she saw a “kupo” or a “kweh”, she would struggle with the word for a few seconds before giving up. She thought her vocabulary was at fault. When I told her that she was reading an animal sound like “moo” or “quack”, she was surprised and embarrassed. And yet, even if all of these literary devices weren’t in play, the game just straight up has a pretty diverse vocabulary. Nonna would often have to ask me what certain words mean and how they’re pronounced. With all of these struggles, I found that I was spending as much time teaching Nonna how to play games as I was teaching her how to read English.

The experience of teaching Nonna how to play games has reframed the way I think about accessibility in games. For so long I’ve thought of accessibility in terms of things like difficulty selection, map-able controls, FOV siders, colorblind options, and tutorials. I’d never thought of voice acting as an accessibility tool, rather than a directorial choice. But I know that if Nonna had heard those characters speaking rather than reading their words, she would have had a much easier time following the story and playing on her own. I’d also never thought of word choice as anything other than a stylistic choice, but some words just broke her flow in a way I haven’t personally experienced in a long time. Additionally, every time she saw a proper noun she was doubly flummoxed by its meaning because she had no background knowledge to draw on. I shudder to think of what she would make of the Kingdom Hearts or FFXIII storylines with all of their ludicrous names for things. Thanks to Nonna, I now have a good explanation for why I find games with excessive jargon so detestable (I’m looking at you, Metal Gear).

This time I’ve had playing games with Nonna also made clear exactly why accessibility matters so much to me. My Nonna is an incredible woman. She’s one of the funniest people I know despite the things she’s experienced. She is effortlessly selfless in a way I aspire to be. And she is someone who deserves to be included in this hobby we all love. After a session of FFIX, I asked my Nonna if she would have been able to play without me teaching her, “No, it’s too complicated… My memory is not so good anymore.” she replied. Then I asked her whether she enjoyed playing the games I’d shown her, to which she answered, “It’s hard, but I like it. The games I play on the computer (video slots) they’re getting a little boring. But this, this is exciting. It’s different. It’s a big difference. Over there I learn nothing. Over here, I get something out of it.”