Think learning Japanese has to be boring? What if you could learn Japanese by playing Japanese video games?
It's totally possible to level up your Japanese from video games! Learning Japanese from games will engage your mind in a whole new way.
In a moment I’ll show you some of the best Japanese video games for language learners (these are some of my favorites!). But first, how should you go about using video games to learn a language?
How to Use Video Games for Learning Japanese
Keep Your Brain Switched to “On”
When you're playing video games in Japanese, it's all too easy to switch your brain off. You'll ignore the Japanese because you know what to do, or rely on subtitles. Don't fall into this trap of passive learning!
While it can be frustrating to play and not understand, you won't learn unless you stick with it in Japanese. And as you get going and start to spot common words and patterns, it becomes more and more rewarding.
Look Up Words and Patterns You Don't Know
As you play, keep a notebook handy. Write down any words or grammar patterns you don't know or understand as they come up. Once you're done playing, look up their meaning and add them to your Anki deck or study notes. That way, you can have fun going through the game without constant pauses. And you'll still learn and remember the things you need to work on.
Of course, if you get hung up on what to do in the game, look it up as you go. But for one or two words, write it down and keep it fun.
Practice Speaking the Words You’ve Picked Up
Once you've picked up new words from playing video games, use them! Try building sentences with what you learned. And don't forget to practice speaking them out loud with a language partner – a good tip here is to find a language exchange partner who loves video games as much as you do, and enjoys talking about them.
If you can't slip your new vocabulary into natural speech, practice describing the game and how you learned it. You'll be sharing something you love with your language partner, and they may have advice or more knowledge about the words or grammar.
Practice Kanji for Reading
US video games often have three options: Japanese audio, text in kana, or kanji without furigana (the kana reading written in small characters next to the kanji). If you aren't focused on reading and writing right now, then focus on games with audio only. But if you want reading practice, you need to know some kanji or be ready to pick apart kana sentences.
Kanji can be a crutch – you may not know enough kanji to read everything, but you rely on it to get the gist even if you can't pronounce it. This is because kanji translates as a word, not a sound, so you know the word and get the idea. But if you don't know enough kanji, games only in kanji without furigana will be a huge challenge to read through. Practice kanji to prepare. Anki has excellent Japanese kanji decks to help you learn fast.
If the game has a kana-only option, that presents another challenge. Using kanji helps break up words and particles in a sentence when reading. So unless you know a lot of vocabulary, it can be difficult to tell where a word begins and ends. But this is how Japanese children first learn to read, so it's still doable.
Use What You’ve Learned Even When You’re Not Playing
Just because you're playing a video game doesn't mean you get off easy with your speaking practice. To make full use and actually learn while you play, you need to keep up your practice outside the game. Video games are great as supplementary learning, but won't teach you everything. Make sure to use what you learn by communicating with others.
Try Out Shadowing
If your game has Japanese audio, turn this on while playing. Then listen to the dialogue and shadow it.
Shadowing is a technique to learn how to speak and sound like a native. All you do is follow along with the speaker and copy what they say, either at the same time or right after. It helps you catch each word and remember it. It also helps you pick up the cadence of the language, if you have trouble sounding like a native.
10 Awesome Japanese Video Games to Learn Japanese
Here are some amazing Japanese video games you can use to learn Japanese.
1. The Tales Series
The Tales series is a fantasy and action RPG game. You journey with a cast of characters in a mystical world inspired by real-world conflict. The latest game in the series, Tales of Berseria, has you exploring the world as a young woman trying to overcome trauma. She joins a crew of pirates in the kingdom of Midgand. The games feature emotional and epic storytelling as you fight your way through.
Tales features Japanese language audio with English subtitles. So you don't fall back on the subs, try looking at the characters and listen to the dialogue first before reading along. Get ready for action-packed vocab, including pirate speak. Arrrrr, matey!
Disgaea is one of the mainstay video games in Japan. It's a tactical RPG that takes place in the Netherworld. Morals are the opposite of the human world and you defeat enemies with chess-style strategy. The game features a wide range of characters, personalities, and extremes. Disgaea is a cult favorite because of its insanely high levels (it's over 9000!), exploding penguins, and witty banter. In the latest game, Disgaea 5: Alliance of Vengeance, you lead the main character on a rebellion of revenge.
Disgaea features Japanese audio with English subtitles – so practice that shadowing technique and speak along. Keep an ear out for Japanese-style humour, and how speech patterns change between gender, age, and status.
One of the most famous Japanese video games of all time, chances are you know this one well. A light-hearted catch-em-all RPG, Pokémon is one of the easiest Japanese video games to learn from. When you start a new game, it gives you the option to choose your language. Once you do that, the game has two settings for reading: kana only, or kanji (without furigana).
While the name changes of the most Pokémon may throw you a bit, the game includes a lot of English loan words. You'll learn onomatopoeia, and words repeat often enough to memorize them. And because you probably know the game as well as Pikachu knows Ash, it will be easy to pick up from context.
Plus, you can play Pokémon Go in Japanese, too. Take your Japanese studies on the go, and switch your phone's language to Japanese. Once you do that, your apps – including Pokémon Go – will switch to Japanese. Go on, Catch ‘Em All!
4. Persona 5
Insanely popular, Persona is a turn-based RPG set in a Tokyo high school. Persona has fun music, a unique storyline, and detailed connections between characters. The game is so in-depth, that exploring Tokyo in-game is a near mirror image of the streets in real life. You'll play as young high school characters, so you'll hear tons of slang speech. With the new maid feature in Persona 5, you'll also get exposed to keigo (respectful speech).
Persona 5 has the option for Japanese audio with English subtitles. Pay attention to grammar, new vocabulary, and rich conversation exchanges between characters.
Steins;Gate is a visual novel video game, so it has less gameplay and focuses on the story and text. It'll certainly put your Japanese to the test. Play as a self-proclaimed mad scientist who accidentally invents a time machine – with his microwave. The story follows the consequences of time travel, and allows you to make decisions altering the course of events.
The audio is only in Japanese, with English text. Because it focuses on time travel, you'll learn science-related words and verb tenses.
6. Fire Emblem Warriors
The legendary Fire Emblem series now has a Japanese-language download pack. Take command of a legion of new and old favorite characters, battling against armies and monsters to save your kingdom. Each map has missions you must beat, and you order the characters according to your strategy.
Fire Emblem features a lot of complex grammar and vocabulary. It ranges from some older, warrior style language to military and magical terms. You'll also get the chance to hear keigo, commands, and humble speech.
7. Ni no Kuni
Featuring artwork by Studio Ghibli, who wouldn't want to play this game? Ni no Kuni is a beautiful RPG featuring a young boy's adventures in an alternate universe. Follow his journey as he tries to bring back his mom from the dead. Magical visuals and storytelling draw you in and keep you engaged with the dialogue.
Ni no Kuni has the options for both Japanese audio and subtitles. All the main characters are young, so you'll hear how kids speak and different usages of words.
8. Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Of course you'll want to play Legend of Zelda in Japanese! In the latest game, Link awakens from a century-long slumber to prevent the destruction of Hyrule from Ganon. The game is open-world, meaning you get to go at your own pace and make your own choices. Zelda is rich with detail and imagery, with many options for side journeys and stories.
You can download the Japanese audio pack, and practice your listening skills.
9. Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland
A fun shoujo game featuring a princess who becomes fascinated by the art of alchemy. After convincing her father, she becomes an alchemist to better her world. Develop your kingdom by completing missions and defeating monsters. Try synthesizing and scoring more XP to move the story forward.
The game allows you to have Japanese audio. It has lots of cutesy speech patterns like Japanese-style nicknames and feminine speech.
10. Xenoblade Chronicles
Xenoblade Chronicles is an action-role-playing odyssey with an open-world design. You play as Rex, a young scavenger who wields the living blade Pyra. You visit different Titans, large beings that make up the landmasses in an endless sea of clouds. Each Titan has a distinct culture, so you'll learn various dialects and vocabulary.
Download the Japanese audio and listen to the action-packed dialogue. Don't forget to write down words you don't know, especially from regional dialects.
Check Your Favorite Games for a Japanese Language Setting
This Japanese video game list includes some of the most popular games. But many Japanese video game companies are including the original Japanese as an option now. So check your new games! Many of the latest games and consoles are region-free. You can order Japanese games online from Japan for both Japanese audio and text, and be able to play them on your US console. Most new games have a Japanese language pack you can download as well.
Keep in mind older systems or handhelds, like the Nintendo 3DS, are still region-locked. So you can only play US games or download the language pack.
What are Your Favorite Japanese Video Games?
What games have I missed that you love? Do you import your games, or download the language packs? Do you have a tip for learning while playing your games? Let's hear your thoughts and leave us a comment.
And finally... One of the best ways to learn a new language is with podcasts. Read more about how to use podcasts to learn a language.