Published: June 24, 2008

Virtual China: Online game teaches Chinese culture and language

Contact(s): Andy Henion Media Communications office: (517) 355-3294 cell: (517) 281-6949, Nicole Geary Education office: (517) 355-1826

EAST LANSING, Mich. — As China’s global influence continues to grow, a Michigan State University scholar has created the first online video game for teaching Chinese culture and language.

Yong Zhao, University Distinguished Professor of educational psychology and educational technology, said the interactive game will help meet a growing hunger for knowledge about China, particularly with the 2008 Summer Olympics being held in Beijing. The game, called “Zon/New Chengo,” is free and accessible at

“There is a general increase in demand for more opportunities to learn about Chinese culture and language,” said Zhao, a Chinese native and internationally renowned scholar. “This game offers a vicarious, virtual experience of China.”

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Zhao expects the game to garner interest from the global audience of the Olympics – which will take place Aug. 8-24 in China’s capital city – and from youngsters around the world.

“A new generation of learners has emerged,” he said, “and this generation of learners – we call them digital natives – they live on computers, they live in video games. We are reaching a generation of people who are more used to new technologies.”

Technically, “Zon/New Chengo” is a “massively multiplayer online role-playing game” in which a large number of players interact with one another in a virtual world. It creates an immersive Chinese environment where one can visit markets, read newspapers, watch television, chat and trade with other players and even find employment as if they lived in China – but with the tools to help them decode the language and decipher the culture.

The goal is to fare well and advance socially and economically, with players advancing from “tourists” to “residents” and finally to “citizens” of modern China. At the different stages, players encounter quests, have access to learning materials – including live Chinese tutors – and can organize and participate in social activities.

Among the many tasks players can complete in the tourist stage include ordering a taxi, exchanging currency and checking into a hotel in China.

“Games are supposed to be fun and educational,” Zhao said. “With this one, we have struck a good balance.”

As executive director of MSU’s Confucius Institute, which is based in the university’s College of Education, Zhao and his staff work to meet the ever-increasing demand for Chinese education in the United States.

“MSU, through our Confucius Institute, has been a leader in the increasing interest for instruction in Chinese language and culture by providing innovative programs that are accessible to people,” said Carole Ames, dean of the College of Education. “This game boldly goes to another frontier in learning that, technologically, has the potential to reach our largest audience yet.”

Zhao started working on the game concept in 2001 as a dual project for the U.S. and Chinese governments. Although that effort didn’t pan out, he continued refining the concept and several years later Chinese officials again offered their support.

The Chinese Language Council International, also known as Hanban, has provided more than $1 million for the project. The game was developed by Zhao and his staff at MSU with the assistance of artists and writers at various universities in China. According to Zhao, “Zon/New Chengo” is the first comprehensive, interactive online game that focuses specifically on teaching Chinese culture and language.

“‘ZON/New Chengo’ creatively uses new technologies to provide opportunities for more people to learn Chinese and Chinese culture in a more engaging and motivating fashion,” said Xu Lin, director general of Hanban. “Hanban is very proud to be able to support such innovative approaches to make learning Chinese more fun and relevant.”

Because the game is Web-based, players can log on and play from any computer with an Internet connection. And, unlike some online games, players pick up where they left off.

The game is geared for players of all ages, though Zhao envisions creating specialized versions – such as one for young students and another for businesspeople interested in conducting commerce in China.

Initially the game is being offered free. Eventually, a small monthly subscription fee may be charged.

Ultimately, Zhao sees “Zon/New Chengo” as another way for MSU to help shrink the globe. The game comes amid China’s rising social and economic influence. In the United States, the Asian population is projected to grow 213 percent between 2000 and 2050 – faster than any other major racial group, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“We are here to serve the public and, in this case, to bridge the gap between China and the United States,” Zhao said. “That’s the ambassador role we want to play.”

Listen to a podcast with Zhao at:


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