How to improve your English by playing videogames and watching "Let's play" videos

↓ Summary     → En español

Raise your controllers my dear gamers!

Ahhhhh videogames. How many hours of my life did I put in the Marios, the Zeldas, the Pokemons, the Megamans, Super Smash Bros... a lot of games, a lot of memories, and many hours of entertainment... and a lot of curses towards the screen and the celestial court for crap like falling from some flying carpet like 27 times, or for dying just when I was about to beat a final boss (MIZAR!!), or for not being able to beat the freaking octopus and dragon in Diddy Kong Racing (I later discovered the green boost, and my life was forever changed :D)

I've been a Nintendo fanboy all my life, and even nowadays I still love their consoles and games. But even though I spent many fun hours playing with my Game Boy Color and my Nintendo 64 (and then with my Game Boy Advance SP and my GameCube), I always felt a bit of regret from not completing PlayStation games like the Resident Evil saga (1,2 and 3), Metal Gear Solid, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Final Fantasy 7. The PlayStation is a console that almost all my friends had... and those who didn't have it, played it using computer emulators. I might beat some of those games in the future... someday...

But enough pixelated nostalgia. During their infancy and adolescence, many boys and girl around the world manage to improve a lot their English understanding thanks to videogames (and not playing them with patches in their native language). So, if you also like to play videogames (or see someone else play them), I want to share with you how you can transform a portion of all those games from a lazy activity into a solid tool to train your English.

Before we start I recommend you read these articles about how to learn English using written material and audio/audiovisual material. Read the TL;DRs at least. These articles will teach you the basics of how to "decipher" the texts and dialogues in English that you will see in your games so you can improve your English through them.

Did you read them? Excellent, then if you are ready to decipher videogames in English... press start! (Figuratively, of course... don't start pressing the screen or something like that :P)


The ideal platform to play videogames, or watch people play them


Your computer. If you are really planning on playing and/or watching videogames to improve your English, then your computer is the best tool to do it, specially if your operating system is Windows. You can get many games for Mac and Linux, but if you use Windows you will have access to the biggest selection of games possible. PC MASTER RACE!!11

If you have a console and you have a burning desire to play certain games on it (like Xenoblade Chronicles), you can obviously do it. It's just that to search for a word in English you don't know you will have to pause the game, go to your computer (if it's a laptop you can just have it by your side as you play) or smartphone, look it up there, and go back to the game. In contrast, if you play on your computer you just have to use Alt+Tab to change windows and look up the word you need.


Optimal game genres to learn English


Well, depending on which videogame genres you like and which genres you don't like, this part can be a bit disappointing. If you want to use videogames to learn Engish you have to choose games that contain a LOT of dialogue in English – ideally, games that have more dialogue than gameplay.

So I'm sorry, but because of their lack of dialogue, many games will not be suitable for you to train your English with them. So, I recommend you avoid games like these:
  • Platformers like Super Mario and MegaMan.
  • Racing games.
  • Goat simulators.
  • Puzzle games like Tetris or Candy Scam Crush.
  • First Person Shooters. And no, listening to rat boys (that's what we call them in Spanish) yelling, "I TOTALLY FUCKED UR MOM LAST NIGHT!! GET REKT!!!!11" in Call of Duty doesn't really count as English practice... and I've never been able to understand why that bunch of little trolls believe that getting laid with old, wrinkly and/or overweight women is a "victory"...but whatever.
  • Among others.
Playing those games with such lack of dialogue will not help you improve your English, so it's better to replace them with games that are filled with dialogue. However, despite that, there's something else you can do to "experience" games from all genres and still improve (or at least maintain) your English: To watch "Let's play" videos. We'll get into that later.

For now... yeah, I know, most games have a bit of dialogue here and there, and any piece of correct English that you can learn is welcome. But if you are spending more time playing (without seeing/listening to anything in English besides menu buttons) than deciphering dialogues in the game... then you will be wasting time. The game can be as entertaining as you want, but if the proportion of gameplay is bigger than the proportion of dialogue in the game, your English learning will be pretty low.

That's why you have to choose titles that have more dialogue than gameplay. Generally, your main choice of games to learn English will be RPGs (Role Playing Games) like Final Fantasy, Mass Effect and The Elder Scrolls, and Adventure Games like Broken Age, Grim Fandango and Phoenix Wright. Another particular game saga characterized for having a lot of dialogue is Metal Gear Solid.

Another option to consider are the so-called visual novels, which are completely filled with dialogue, and saying they have any sort of gameplay would be a stretch. Most of these "interactive" novels (EMPHASIS on the quotes) are produced in Japan and have an anime art style. So far I haven't seen the first visual novel that has characters drawn in a different style, or that has real life photographs. Many visual novels have their dialogues translated into English, but the spoken dialogues are kept in Japanese, which doesn't help you with your English.


Deciding what games to play


If you are an avid gamer and you already have in mind what RPGs and adventure games you would like to play, then cool. But if you are not very sure about what games to check out, I suggest you check the links above. On them you will find a video (with subtitles!) about the best RPG games for PC in the last 10 years, and an article on Antimoon where Tom shares his favorite adventure games.

You can also take a look at the following video recommendations I found. See if any of the games presented in these catch your attention:
If you want to research more games I suggest you google phrases like "best RPG games" and "best point and click adventure games". You'll surely find sites with written reviews and recommendations.


How to get the games you want to play


Once again, if you are an avid gamer, then you already know what to do to get the games you want. If you don't, this is what I suggest you do:

Free games

First, if you want to download RPGs created on RPG Maker, you can check out this list on the official page.

If you want to play RPGs from retro consoles like the Super Nintendo you can use what is known as an emulator, a program that allows you to play games (which are legally obsolete anyways) from those old consoles in your computer. If this interests you then you can check out this tutorial.

If you want to check something even more retro I invite you to take a look at many RPG and Aventure games for DOS and MAC at MyAbandonWare.com.

Also, many websites like Armor Games, Kongregate and Newgrounds offer a wide library of Flash-based RPG and Adventure games for free. Give them a try! I personally like Arcuz and Johnny Rocketfingers 2.

And finally, you can find other free RPG and adventure games (either downloadable or Flash-based) if you google "free rpg games" or "free adventure games". Good luck!


Paid games

If you have a credit card you can register in the following sites to buy RPGs and adventure games for your PC:
Once registered you can browse the respective game libraries and decide which games to buy. If you want check some reviews on YouTube for the games that you are thinking about getting to see if buying them is worth it. Remember to check if your computer has the necessary features (enough RAM, processor power, operating system, etc.) to run the game you want to get.


Watching people playing videogames to improve your English – The advantage of "Walkthrough" and "Let's play" videos


Although playing videogames by yourself to improve your English is cool and entertaining, doing so comes with some issues. For instance, if you are playing a 2D RPG and a dialogue box appears, you have to make sure that you don't press any button before reading it completely and having searched for all words you didn't understand there. And if you press a button by accident, the dialogue goes to the next line and you can't go back to the previous line... unless you download a text dump of the game or something like that.

Another thing: modern RPGs and adventure games (like Mass Effect, Beyond Two Souls, The Walking dead, and many others) have spoken dialogues in English, for which you can usually activate subtitles in the game's options menu. That way, when you listen to a piece of dialogue that it's not very clear to you,, you can pause (if the game allows you to pause in the middle of cutscenes), read the subtitles, and then search in your dictionary what wasn't clear.

The problem with this is that once a piece of dialogue occurs, you can't play it back. I don't know any game that allows you to return to the beginning of the dialogue to listen to it again. If you missed the dialogue, or you need to listen to it a couple more times because it wasn't clear to you... too bad. Lose on purpose so you can listen to it again :/

How to solve this problem of not being able to repeat dialogue lines in a game? Well, you can either hack the game so that by using some crazy button combination it makes the game repeat any dialogues you want... but even if you knew how to do something like this I don't think you would waste time doing that. OR, you can watch a video of somebody else playing the game! That way you can pause and repeat as many times as you want the dialogues that happen in the games you want to watch.

Here's where walkthrough videos come in. A walkthrough is a series of videos where someone plays a game with the intention of completing it. Generally, in these kinds of videos the player makes no commentary, so all English dialogue will come only from the game being played on the video. If you like (or have no problem with) watching other people play videogames, then walkthroughs are, in my opinion, a superior tool to learn English than playing the games yourself.

But there is a certain kind of videos that I think are even better than walkthroughs. Remember before when I said that it's possible to experience games from any genre and still train your English? Well, that's where "Let's play" videos come in.

If you are not familiar with the term, a "Let's play" is just a video where someone plays a videogame (just like in the walkthroughs), but also adds commentary while playing. Some players make random and crazy comments. Others tell stories about their lives. And other react (or over-react xD) to what happens in the game.

The advantage of Let's Play videos in English in contrast to walkthroughs is the commentary in English the player makes while playing. If you have the luck of finding a Let's play video that is manually subtitled, you can use the author's comments to improve your English (as I describe here) in addition to the game's dialogues.

In that case it doesn't matter what game(s) is playing the Let's Player you are watching: Puzzle, shooter, action, platformer, arcade, hentai, whatever. As long as the girl or guy (or marshmallow) is speaking in English for most of the video, and the video has a transcript, then you can decipher it to improve your English, and enjoy watching people play videogames at the same time.

You can watch Let's Plays that have no subtitles, of course. It's just that without subtitles you lose the opportunity to look up words the player says that you don't know. In that case you will only be able to decipher dialogues with subtitles that happen in the game... but hey, any comments the player makes are still good exposure to maintain your English. Here's a video series by ZackScott that "suffers" form this.


All right my dear gamers and casuals, game over. I hope these tips and resources guide you in using videogames and Let's Plays effectively to learn English.

So keep completing levels, and keep your hopes up!


Summary


A computer (preferably with Windows) is the best tool to play videogames and use them to improve your English.

The ideal game genres to improve you English are RPGs and adventure games – that is, games that incorporate a lot of dialogue in English. Get games from those genres and decipher them during your learning sessions.

Recommended games: Super Mario RPG, Golden Sun, Broken Age, Grim Fandango, Curse of Monkey Island and the Final Fantasy, Mass Effect, Phoenix Wright and Metal Gear sagas.

If you like (or have no problem with) watching other people play videogames, it's more effective to use Let's Play videos to learn English. If the video has manual subtitles you can use it to improve your English regardless of the genre of the game the Let's Player is playing.

If the video doesn't have subtitles, you can still pause and replay parts of the video where dialogue boxes appear, or where characters talk. Generally, Let's Players activate subtitles within the game in these cases.


Last updated: June 7 of 2015

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