All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, but turning his work into “all play” will make Jack a fabulous Portuguese speaker.
It’s high time I delved into ludology (fancy talk for “study of games and gaming”) and all the ways it can benefit all you avid language learners out there.
Whether we’re talking play-and-learn educational tools, interactive activities related to languages or downright video games, there’s always a way to serve learning with a side of fun. And I’ve had a taste of them all.
Which is why I’m here to give you the rundown of not one, not two, but eight of the most game-a-rrific resources that will help step up your Portuguese.
But first, let’s take a look at what’s so special about learning with games in the first place.
What Is the Gamified Approach to Learning?
The term “gamification” and its derivatives have now become something of a buzzword, incessantly tossed around all over the internet. In reality, the term has been around for a good 15 years now but its rise to fame came via the language-acquisition giant Duolingo, arguably the most famous incarnation of the concept.
Gamification is, in a nutshell, applying the elements that make games attractive to non-gaming contexts, in this case the process of learning a foreign language. Once constricted to the somber milieu of a classroom, this experience can now be enhanced by features such as instant rewarding of progress, advancing in levels and immediate feedback, all hailing from traditional game mechanisms.
Gamification is often put in the same pot as game-based learning, although there’s a significant difference between the two. Game-based learning is, quite literally, learning via playing actual games which weren’t necessarily created with this function in mind. Both approaches to learning share a distinct set of advantages, such as improving attention and persistence, keeping up motivation and a sense of control and initiative over the whole experience.
Introducing gamified elements ensures that the learners develop not just language skills, but also problem-solving abilities in the process, and the competitive side of it all makes for great intrinsic incentive (widely considered to be the most beneficial).
With game-based learning, there’s the added bonus of integrating different skills, like reading, listening (role-playing games [RPGs] and story-heavy games especially), but also writing and speaking in the case of online multiplayer games where you can interact with other players. These games offer a wide variety of styles and language registers, from polishing up your street slang with “Grand Theft Auto” to learning the formal lingo of the olden days with “Assassin’s Creed.”
But at the end of the day, they’re both a godsend for people who love to learn but hate studying and a great way to make activities once considered “a waste of time” into something productive.
Game On! The Ultimate Guide to Learning Portuguese by Playing Games
Right, now that you’ve got a little insight on the matter, get ready to prove your mom wrong and play your way to fluency with these eight knockout games loaded with some serious language perks. Vamos jogar então! (Let’s play!)
“Let’s conjugate!” is the translation of the name of this resource, the affirmative imperative form of the Portuguese verb conjugar. And if this sounds mind-boggling right now, then you’re the right candidate for this one.
Knowing your verb tenses is an important pit stop on your journey to fluency, from the ever baffling duo of ser and estar (both meaning “to be” but with different usages) down to the enigmatic personal infinitive tense which is really a wonderful peculiarity of Portuguese.
The Conjuguemos approach to tackling all these and everything in between is gamified to the bone, which is honestly the best way to make an intimidating terrain such as verbs somewhat attractive.
On a delightfully simple platform, it manages to offer numerous printable materials (charts, flashcard cut-outs, worksheets), a timed quiz that receives a score in the end and, of course, the icing on this cake — games, with notable examples such as Verb Battleship and Frog Conjugation.
If you’ve ever played the standard board game version of Battleship then Verb Battleship will be a familiar concept to you. Even if you haven’t, you’ll catch on very quick. Basically, your job is to sink Conjubot’s armada by correctly conjugating verbs before it does you in.
The other shining star, Frog Conjugation, is far less elaborate but just as effective (I hope you like frogs, by the way, as it seems to be the website’s mascot). For this one, you just have to feed your shortsighted frog some mosquitoes carrying correct conjugations, the speed of which is determined by the level you choose.
Along with verbs, Conjuguemos also lets you practice another important “V” of mastering a language: its vocabulary. The structure is pretty much the same and the items are listed by theme, in categories such as clothing, house or city life.
The star game in this case is called Splatman, featuring none other than–you’ve guessed it–the glasses-wearing frog. This time, it’s not feeding he needs but getting safely to his destination, which will happen only if you correctly translate a given word while also dodging objects eager to splat you. Think retro Super Mario meets Portuguese 101.
So whether you’re into amphibians, battleships or just plain old flashcards, Conjuguemos is the one-stop shop for your Portuguese language needs, verbs and nouns and all.
If the name is ringing some bells, you are correct: this isn’t the first time I’m writing about Vocabulando and it probably won’t be the last.
Straight from São Paulo by way of Orlando, FL, this neat little Android app is essentially a quiz game focusing on those commonly mixed-up words that can be problematic to even the most savvy of Portuguese speakers, basically “there–they’re–their”-esque conundrums in Portuguese.
Speaking of which, the game studio responsible for Vocabulando also has an educational app focusing on this very trifecta, as well as the use of apostrophes in the English language and spelling with “ie” vs. “ei”. In short, they’re the bee’s knees of learning through simple games.
Getting back to the matter at hand, we like Vocabulando not only because it covers a very specific (and tricky) element of Portuguese, but because it does it in a highly entertaining way by having all sorts of quirky characters supervise you and interject passionately in true Brazilian-speak based on how well you fare. The more you progress, the more amusing and emphatic your “tutors” become.
Props to them for also managing to keep all their apps free with equally free updates. With the risk of sounding like a shill, there’s really no downside to installing Vocabulando and giving it a quick go.
Two more games in Portuguese are coming this spring from the same developers, one dealing with accents and one to do with spelling, so make sure to keep an eye on them!
There are many ways to go about learning a second language, but if you’re looking for a personalized immersion experience, then FluentU is for you!
This interactive platform, which has a Portuguese program that’s still in development and not yet released, will allow for language immersion by way of visual culture, specifically video clips, made readily available thanks to our friend the internet.
The beauty of FluentU is that it provides you with valuable language exposure and listening practice by deploying real-world videos, anything from beauty tutorials to newscasts.
This way, you can bet a pretty dollar there’s something for you in there too, whether you’re more into formal vernacular or just want to hear Elmo sing to you in your target language.
All the videos also display subtitles so that you can follow what’s being said in real time, which is where all the fun begins. The action of clicking on any unfamiliar word or phrase within the subtitles automatically stops the video and presents you with an info box containing the translation and other grammar aspects.
You can also save these words as flashcards, making the whole experience into one big linguistic egg hunt. FluentU’s game-like vibe extends beyond the subtitles thanks to its progress-tracking algorithms.
FluentU breaks down how much you’ve learned in percentages and rewards the achievements of your daily goal–which can be as little as one minute of practice a day—with points.
So whether you’re an absolute n00b or a few steps away from conjugating like a boss, you’re in for some good fun with FluentU. The website cum iOS/Android app currently features six languages, which will soon be joined by the lovely Portuguese.
The FluentU Plus plan, featuring unlimited videos, audio clips and quizzes, comes to $30 a month or $240 a year.
Influent is a stand-out on this list seeing as how it’s a video game designed specifically with second language learners in mind.
With a 3D interactive environment and escape room scenario, “Influent” turns acquiring vocabulary into an adventure. You have to guide the character through a small apartment and click on the objects you see to get their name, description and related actions, as well as a sample of native pronunciation.
Each 50 words discovered unlocks a test in the form of a timed object hunt that you can perform either on foot (Time Attack) or in a flying contraption that somewhat resembles a model spaceship (Fly By mode). As a result, you earn gold stars, because any job well done deserves some nice bling.
I like that you can choose if you want to play “Influent” in European Portuguese or in the Brazilian dialect, a rare privilege these days when it comes to media in general.
It’s also a decent price for a game so original and well-executed for this niche. It goes for about $10.73 on the Humble Store and Steam, where you also stand a very good chance of finding it on sale in promotional seasons.
As a side note, Steam is quite the goldmine for exploring game-based language learning, since it makes it easy for you to find games with full audio or at least the interface available in your target language. Instructions with pictures on how to do so can be found here, as well as a guide to changing the language of your client and downloaded games.
For all its virtues that deserve full praise, “Influent” does have a few shortcomings, the main one being that throughout the entire game you’re confined to the space of the tiny apartment, which becomes cluttered with all the objects (420 in total) and takes on quite the claustrophobic vibe.
A great improvement would be if you could somehow teleport the character outdoors and have him go to everyday places like cafés or supermarkets.
“The Sims 4”
Enter “The Sims”, a game that needs no introduction and that incorporates what Influent is lacking, sans the grammar notes.
The reason why it’s a valuable supplement to language learners is because it’s a real life simulation game where you experience everything from choosing the color of your toaster to major life events like having a baby.
Since all the characters speak the Sims unique brand of gibberish, the entire action is text-based, which means you get to see written words and get extensive exposure to them through repeated encounters.
Unlike previous versions of the game, this game exclusively supports Portuguese from Brazil, which caused quite a bit of discontent among those looking to play in continental PT.
This little inconvenience aside, “The Sims 4” is great for acquiring vocabulary of day-to-day objects and actions, especially for visual learners who can make some educated guesswork based on image-text associations.
It’s also rich in emotions, so you can add some depth to your characters’ story lines and subsequently grasp some abstract concepts. Check out the game-play video of a Brazilian player in an episode that has everything: romance, betrayal, fistfights and the inevitable triumph of true love. Basically, you have the chance to direct your own Brazilian telenovela in the Sims universe.
“The Sims 4” is available for purchase on Origin in standard or digital deluxe edition, going for around $65 and $75 respectively. The full game is also available as a free trial for 48 hours, just enough to build your dream house and find love.
So get yourself immersed in this virtual world of Portuguese and before you know it, you’ll be ready for the real deal!
Unlike this list so far, this one’s not a learning games but an actual game-game. Nevertheless, there is learning to be had here.
The action of “Festa Estranha” (Weird Party) takes place, as the name so accurately predicts, at a party—a Brazilian student party, to be precise. It’s set up to be a point of view (POV) escape-type game, which means that you, the player, are a participant at a party who’s feeling just about ready to call it a night. The only problem is that your friend has your keys and he’s nowhere to be found.
The rest of the game consists of your efforts to find him amidst all the party people on campus while trying to get some useful information from them along the way.
The characters are very diverse and the exchanges you have with them will be influenced by their personalities, but you also have some major input since you get to choose what to say to them from a short list of phrases.
Aside from being an introvert’s worst nightmare, this game script is also a terrific opportunity for immersion, giving you a first-person experience in the midst of a Brazilian student party.
Being text-based (no audible dialogue involved) and heavy on human interactions means you’ll get a chance to polish up your conversation flow with some real, non-forced exchanges, which will at the same time give you a better grasp on context and conveying moods verbally.
And because you have a clear mission and setting determined from the get-go, you’ll find it easy to narrow down the style register and derive meaning.
Keep in mind, however, that to make the most of this game, your reading comprehension needs to be at least at a B1 level. Although since Festa Estranha isn’t really a race against time, you can always rely on a dictionary to translate unknown words while playing.
You can download and install this game for free on a PC, Mac or Linux operating system. There’s also the option of making a contribution towards the developers starting from as little as $1 and while in no way mandatory for accessing the game, I’d say their great work on this is well worth a modest donation.
Hello MindSnacks, my old friend. I’ve come to talk of you again.
Yes, this app is another one too good not to revisit, this time specifically for its gamified side, aka its nine mini-games that won’t let you get bored while learning.
At the core of MindSnacks lies vocabulary building and phrase knowledge, so it’s a good idea to pair it with Duolingo for keeping up with that grammar as well, especially since the two platforms bear some similarities approach-wise.
There are over 1000 words and phrases to learn through these games and plenty of visually-compelling illustrations to boost the learning process. My absolute favorite game in that respect has to be Dam Builder, where you drag and drop word logs next to their correct translation to make a beaver happy.
The bonus is that the beaver also gets fancier with every log you place correctly, so it’s entirely possible that by the end of the game you’ll have a majestic royal critter calling out, “Log dam!” in awe.
Aside from games, you’re also presented with various quests that keep you motivated and at the same time help you advance in the game—there are 50 levels to complete, after all—which means you have the ability to unlock more games and word lists.
Although the first lesson and corresponding level are free, the upgrade needed to get all 50 of them costs $4.99. This will also ensure access to the complete game collection, as the free version restricts you to the top three most popular.
But you can be sure that one bite of these MindSnacks will leave you hungry for more!
One Minute of Massage
I’ll wrap up this list with an opportunity for you to step away from the screen and into the real world.
One Minute of Massage is a game that takes the concept of face-to-face language exchange and gives it a fun, enjoyable twist. That twist being, of course, the massage that the name announces, which plays a pivotal role in the efficiency of this game.
To make it happen, you just need someone who speaks your target language proficiently and also wants to practice speaking yours. You then choose an aspect of the language to focus on, such as the use of articles or a particular verbal tense.
Go back and forth conversing with your partner, focusing on the agreed-upon element and for each mistake, you owe them one minute of massage and vice versa. Instant gratification has never been more gratifying in the language-learning department!
This simple—some might even say childish—game works because it forces you to acknowledge your mistakes, courtesy of your exchange buddy eager to get their massage.
In spite of this hyper-awareness, failure ceases to be something intimidating as it becomes an opportunity to do good and give back to the person imparting their knowledge.
If you have a suitable partner but don’t feel comfortable giving them massages, worry not: this game can achieve its goal just fine with any other form of immediate reward (Pringles, anyone?). In fact, the game that served as inspiration for this one entails giving $1 to the person nearest you every time you make a faux pas.
Why not then make your language learning efforts into a sort of social campaign and turn your every boo boo into a hot beverage or some change donated to a person in need? You become adept at Portuguese and the world becomes just a bit better in the process.
However creative you choose to get with this game, it’s bound to be a win-win for everyone involved.
Well, boys and girls, that concludes our little run-through of gaming your way to Portuguese prowess (with no cheat codes!).
In hopes you found this material informative if not mildly entertaining, I encourage you to get your learn on and take your Portuguese to the next level by following this guide and adding to it any form of play you can think of.
Because trust me, there’s no better secret ingredient to improvement than the fun factor. So bye-bye, rookie and hello, god mode!
Clara Abdullah, 26 from Romania. Going where the weather suits her clothes. Owns a perfume with Cristiano Ronaldo’s face on it and is only slightly ashamed to admit it.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn a language with real-world videos.