November 7, 2011

Role-Playing Racial History through Digital Games

Categories: Edtech, Equity
illustration drawing character game story of Jane role playing racial history

Teaching historical empathy through gaming is an important area in digital media and learning, but collaborations between university professors and game designers aren’t always easy.  Nonetheless, UC San Diego Theater and Dance Professor Emily Roxworthy, who leads a National Endowment for the Humanities funded project about Japanese American  internment camps in the American South during World War II that also used resources from the San Diego Supercomputing Center to bring the action to life, argues that the challenges are well worth the rewards.

In the prototype level of Drama in the Delta that is currently available, “Jane’s Favor,” the user plays as Akiko, a young Japanese-American girl at the Jerome internment camp who is preparing to move to another camp as the war progresses.  The player has thirty minutes to roam through the camp in search of items like a dance card, a piece of wood for whittling, a martial arts belt, and a potato sack.backpack

One of the obvious design issues Drama in the Delta needed to grapple with immediately was the fact that a game about imprisonment in which movement is highly constrained might not be very appealing to players who have grown to expect being able to explore very large and visually rich game worlds. The Virtual Guantamo installation in Second Life attracts visitors who may understand the pedagogical function of constrictions that obviously limit freedom, but Roxworthy’s target audience of K-12 students might not have the patience to deal with an interface that conveys experiences about boredom, alienation and provides the player a very limited repertoire of actions.  As Roxworthy explained in an interview for this post, Drama in the Delta is about “inhibiting play as it is usually understood.”

Games and Teaching Empathy

Roxworthy described her primary motivation as tackling the preconception that “gaming doesn’t promote empathy” and that emotional engagement is necessarily “momentary and fleeting” in digital environments.  Although Roxworthy characterized herself as “not a gamer” other than “Super Mario Bros. back in the day,” she described working with software designers and game interns who encouraged her to think about opportunities to incorporate not only “live action role playing” — her area of expertise — but also challenging game play, difficult puzzles, and testing and exploration activities such as driving or jumping on a military truck.

In describing collaboration with game designers, who frequently discouraged her from inserting too much text in the game, Roxworthy said “I’ve gotten a lot more than they have out of it.  It’s taught me a lot about how to teach.  I feel humbled.”  She has also thought a lot about the constructive criticism of fellow academics like Mark Sample, who has pointed out potential problems with using museum display of objects as a model for incorporating primary sources in games.

Roxworthy’s game design experience has shaped her next project as well, since she plans to write a trans-medial book about role-play.  She is also interested in how commercial games can be appropriated for progressive political ends, as Stephen Duncombe has done.

Games and Teaching History

The question of why history matters is one that I grapple with in my own teaching, where first-year students are expected to make sense of the legacies of the past.  There are obvious answers about the value of facilitating critical thinking, promoting causal and comparative reasoning, teaching research and data analysis skills, and improving chronological and geographical literacy among student populations.  But I find myself more and more interested in the importance of what Robert Moeller calls “historical empathy” as a way to involve students with exploring other identities and becoming more engaged with the narratives of the past.  Moeller does a variety of role-playing exercises with his students, as does fellow historian of German culture Edith Sheffer, who has written about “Creating Lives in the Classroom” with an identity exercise adapted from Moeller.

Although Roxworthy noted that sometimes “online gaming is more real to them than face-to-face contact” because it offers “more openness,” she understands the many problems of depicting a racially diverse cast of characters without perpetuating stereotypes.  Furthermore, as other interviewees at DML Central have noted, questions of race and identity representation are important to foreground, and Roxworthy disputes “talk about the Internet as being a ‘post-racial space.'”

Despite the fact that Roxworthy has devoted a lot of time to building virtual spaces, she also emphasized the importance of reconstructing and preserving the actual physical sites of the internment camps, because “people made those structures home.”  She also argued that public history projects should be conceptualized as being not just for schoolchildren.

Roxworthy wants both students and members of the general public to use the game as a way to understand how “Jim Crow and internment policies are rigid systems” and how “segregational systems could be programmed” much as software programs control how “movement is constrained by game engines.”  However, because “each of the missions culminates in a performance,” students can also learn about “subverting systems” of segregation as they experience “sites of interracial code-switching, where they are transgressing laws in some ways.”

Image credits: Drama in the Delta