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Matt (Game Gengo): Learning and Teaching Japanese through Video Games and YouTube

What is the best way to learn Japanese? “Focus on what works best for you,” says Matt, creator of the Game Gengo YouTube channel. And when Matt says this, he means it. In the spring of 2020, armed with the fervent belief that language learning can and should be fun, Matt leveraged pandemic-induced downtime to launch his YouTube channel where he teaches Japanese via video games. Years later, his efforts have borne fruit, and now Matt has achieved what many can only dream of: becoming a full-time YouTube content creator.

As both a lifelong gamer and lifelong learner, I was compelled to reach out to Matt to see if he would be willing to share his story with Kokoro Media readers. Fortunately, he obliged, and in this interview, we cover a variety of topics, including:

  • The trials and tribulations of creating YouTube content and what it takes to succeed
  • How and when to start learning Japanese through video games
  • The quest to discover, explain, and capture every element of the Japanese language

If you’ve ever wondered if video games can really help you learn Japanese, keep reading. Matt’s story and language learning philosophy is sure to make you a true believer.

How It All Started: Igniting a Lifelong Passion for Japan

Although you’ve told your story on your YouTube channel, can you give our readers a quick rundown on how you started learning Japanese?

I’ve been interested in Japanese video games since I was five years old. During the time when Pokémon and Dragon Ball were booming, I realized that everything I enjoyed came from Japan.

When I reached high-school age, I started learning more about Japan, and it seemed like a cool country with an interesting culture and history. It wasn’t until the end of high school that Japan started to feel like a real place, and I thought it would be cool to study the language. However, at that time, I was too intimidated to start studying on my own, and I kept putting it off until later.

I moved on to university, studying psychology and physics, but I didn’t feel that was the direction I wanted my life to go. It was a tough time, and there was a lot of pressure to figure out what to do. I was the kind of person who thought about things too much—always stuck in decision paralysis.

 Eventually I snapped and decided to get on a plane and go to Japan. That was the first spontaneous thing I had ever done in my life. Fortunately, two of my friends thought that this was an awesome idea, and so we all went to Japan for a month—just backpacking and that sort of thing. Although I had practiced a little Japanese before I left, this trip was when I actually started learning Japanese.  

Discover Matt’s full origin story on the Game Gengo YouTube channel.

Launching and Growing Game Gengo

How did you come up with the idea for your YouTube channel?

It all stems from me finding the university Japanese learning experience to be boring and dull. I was just entering data into my head. Japanese is one of the richest, most interesting languages to learn, not only in a historical sense but also in the way that it’s used in so many different media. It should be a rewarding language to study, but unfortunately, the way it is typically taught is boring, difficult, overwhelming, and intimidating. Even the JLPT [Japanese Language Proficiency Test] is a mess. There are important things at the higher levels that should be introduced earlier and vice versa. I was always wondering why learning Japanese couldn’t be fun.

When I finally got a PlayStation 4 and started playing Final Fantasy VII Remake, I couldn’t help but think, “This would be so fun to learn Japanese with!” Then, not even halfway through the game, I just got overwhelmed with the idea and decided that I was going to teach Japanese with video games in a fun way.  I remember thinking, “I’m a teacher and I can speak Japanese—I can break the language down. I know how to edit videos, and I like video games. Why don’t I put all my passions together and try to make something?” That’s how I started my YouTube channel.

Game Gengo videos cover a variety of themes including grammar, vocabulary, and game recommendations.

You recently became a full-time YouTube content creator. What did it take to accomplish this?

The most important thing was having an idea that I believed in—an idea I believed other people would like. When I first started, there was some initial indication that people really liked my content. Then the channel just died. All my momentum disappeared.

I was doing a serialized breakdown of a video game [Final Fantasy VII Remake] that most people had already completed, and it was getting stale. Even though I spent so much time on these videos, without seeing channel growth, I didn’t give up. I thought, “I’ve just got to keep improving and constantly think about how I can make better content.”

So, I constantly reassessed everything I was doing. Eventually, the channel slowly started to grow. It took over two years of slow growth to reach where I am now. I feel incredibly lucky that so many people enjoyed my content enough to start supporting the channel. That’s truly what enabled me to start creating content full-time. YouTube still gives pennies in ad revenue. It’s only because people support me on Patreon and the Game Gengo website that I can even consider being a full-time creator. I would still be ten years away from even thinking about going full-time if it was only up to YouTube.

A scene from Final Fantasy VII Remake, the subject of the first video series on the Game Gengo channel (photo credit: Square Enix).

The Prerequisites for Learning Japanese through Video Games

You advocate language immersion as the best way to learn Japanese. However, this can be intimidating for beginners. How much traditional study (classes, textbooks, flash cards, etc.) should beginners have under their belt before focusing on immersion?

It depends on the individual—everyone is different. Some people can jump into immersion much earlier than others. I’ve met people who have never used textbooks. They just immersed themselves and were able to pass the JLPT or become translators in the game industry. However, only a very small group of people can do this.

If you’re a complete beginner, it’s very challenging—but not impossible—to immerse and learn at the same time. Ideally, with every sentence you read, you would only want a couple of pieces of new information. The rest should be information you can confidently understand, in order to generate a positive feedback loop and avoid exhaustion.

If you are someone who hates traditional methods and are studying to simply enjoy your favorite games in Japanese, then you could start immersing yourself earlier than others. However, I would still recommend having a basic understanding of sentence structure. You don’t need to learn all the vocabulary words in order to be ready. I would recommend learning the top 2,000 most useful or common words, and that will give you a strong foundation. If that sounds dull, you can find and read a game script, which will prepare you to play through a title bit by bit.

For clarity, can we break this down by JLPT level? For example, what level is a good starting point for playing video games in Japanese?

When it comes to grammar, which is most important, I would say that N5 and N4 contain most of the content that you need to get started. After you pass N4, you should be able to play a game in Japanese. In the end, my underlying philosophy is that you should be enjoying the learning process. Japanese can be an incredibly fun language to learn. So, whatever you enjoy, that’s what you should do. That approach will keep you motivated.

Do you still play any games in English? How do you balance your time between video games as a hobby, as a learning tool, and now, as a source of income?

I haven’t played a game in English for over 10 years. I made a conscious decision to only play video games in Japanese. When I started studying, the popular train of thought was that everything should be done in Japanese—total immersion. I also wanted to be a translator. I had heard a lot of stories about people coming to Japan and getting trapped in the English teaching profession, so I wanted to learn a useful skill. So, I really studied Japanese hard when I was preparing to move here. Since I love video games, I thought I might be able to break into the industry through translation. Any time I spent using English was not furthering my goal.

These days, I study through the teaching I do on my channel. Playing games as I’m collecting footage for Game Gengo is also a way of studying because I see kanji, vocabulary, and grammar over and over again. To teach, I have to do a lot of translation, and a lot of transcribing, which ensures that I’m continuously learning. I don’t have time for traditional study because Game Gengo requires a ridiculous amount of work.

If You Could Only Choose One

Final Fantasy VII Remake, 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, Yo-kai Watch, or Voice of Cards: if you could only recommend one of these games for learning Japanese, which would it be and why?

Final Fantasy VII Remake is inaccessible for beginners. It’s like a movie, and the story just flies by. Even though it’s interesting, you can’t take it at your own pace. This is unlike the original Final Fantasy VII, which I highly recommend. Voice of Cards is too deep in fantasy, and you can’t replay the audio. So, the real competition is between 13 Sentinels and Yo-kai Watch.

If you are a complete beginner, Yo-kai Watch would win because of its accessibility with furigana. Also, as I mentioned in my review video, it’s set in the real world, so most of the language is very useful. So much of the language in this game is essential for any learner: whether you just want to watch anime or actually talk with people.

However, personally, I prefer 13 Sentinels because of how interesting it is. You can replay all of the game’s audio, which will help you better connect with natively spoken Japanese. In fact, every scene in the game is replayable, so you can constantly keep testing yourself. Text accompanied by full audio is actually a great furigana replacement. Furigana may be more direct and immediate, but it can also be a crutch that prevents you from focusing on memorizing kanji characters. So, 13 Sentinels is one of my favorite games ever, and I can’t wait to see what the developer comes up with next.

A scene from 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim, one of Matt’s top recommendations for learning Japanese (photo credit: Atlus/Sega)

The Future of Game Gengo and Parting Advice on Learning Japanese

What does the future hold for Game Gengo?

When I set out to study Japanese, my goal was to master the language and catalog everything in an Anki flashcard deck. Now, my goal is to put it all on my YouTube channel.

I’ve got a spreadsheet of every grammar point, and I’m going to be making a video for each one. Eventually, I also want to do the same for kanji, but that’s going to be several years down the road. I want to cover kanji in a more immersive way than conventional methods, continuing my existing kanji series where we look at each character and how it’s actually used. Of course, I also want to continue the vocabulary series as well.

Lastly, I’m planning to make lots of game reviews, because, surprisingly, not many people are making content about video games as a learning medium. The future is going to be very busy.

Do you have any final words of advice for our readers on learning Japanese or finding success in Japan?

Focus on what works best for you. As social beings, we tend to focus on what everyone else is doing, and we forget to just think about what is right for us. People are always asking what’s the best way to learn Japanese. There is no best way. The best way is whatever works for you. The same thing is true of life.

Find what works for you—what brings you joy—because that’s what’s going to be the most fulfilling. That’s what’s going to give you the most motivation to keep going. Whether it’s your job, your hobby, or a self-improvement project, just focus on what makes you excited to wake up in the morning. Don’t worry about what other people think about your passion. Regardless of whether you succeed or fail, you’re going to feel satisfied with yourself, and that’s what is most important.

Originally from California, I've been living and working in Japan, now my second home, since 2009. My work as a communications consultant lends a unique perspective to my writing, and I often explore the business behind Japan’s beauty. When I’m not working, you can find me hunched over a screen reviewing kanji flashcards in my never-ending quest to master the Japanese language.

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