Designing Games that Use Evidence to Play with History

It’s a very exciting time when game designers, artists and historians team up to create an interactive gaming experience.  The game is called Drama in the Delta. The purpose of the game is to expose players to an oppressive period in US history when the US government forcibly interned Japanese Americans into concentration camps. The game takes place in the Delta region of Arkansas at the Jerome concentration camp. The visual setting of the game integrates actual archival photos of the Jerome camp during WWII.  Avatars in the game represent a range of various figures who were involved in the concentration camp experience, from a young Japanese American woman who is a prisoner in the camp, to a European American male who is a prison guard, or an African American man who works as a laborer in the camp.

Prototype Image Retrieved from http://dramainthedelta.org/

As a former high school history teacher and now researcher of historical literacies, I have been thinking a lot lately about the role of historical empathy in understanding the past. Basically, historical empathy is being able to make an interpretation of the past from another person’s point of view who lived during that time. A person’s point of view is created based on a thorough analysis of evidence made available in relevant and trustworthy primary, secondary sources. This evidence is then contextualized into a particular historical period. Given all this complexity, practicing historical empathy when making interpretations of the past is perhaps the most sophisticated literacy for a historian because it involves a variety of practices, skills and thought processes.

I wondered how would playing a role-playing game such as Drama in the Delta influence the development of historical empathy?

The use of actual archival photos to help create the setting of the game is an innovative approach to building background that is based on historical evidence. As Mark Sample explains in his review of the game, this use of the photos creates a sense of what he calls, “in context” artifact display. The use of historical evidence in this way, causes the viewer to embed the image into the game world. This is a powerful technique where the game designer is becoming the historian, making interpretations about the past.

Prototype image retrieved from http://www.playthepast.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/guardtower.png

It seems that the challenge when designing games that play with history is how to negotiate the role of aesthetics, historical accuracy and game rules to avoid “presentist” interpretations of the past.   Drama in the Delta uses role play and missions to dictate the actions on the space that in turn create the narrative. There are several roles or avatars for the game. Yet, what is not clear to me from interacting on the website is how these roles and missions are designed. For example, one of the avatars on the site is a teenaged girl named Jane and her mission is to figure out how to escape the camp. Why was this mission tied to Jane?  Was there a diary or interview of a historical figure who lived in the camps and wanted to escape? While a teenager today might be able to relate to Jane if she wanted to escape, it may be more of a challenge to understand why someone did not attempt to escape. If Jane is a real historical figure, what was behind her psychology to escape and how would escaping impact her family and other prisoners? How did concentration camp prisoners make sense of their own racial/ ethnic identity and persecution at that time? How did people persevere through the experience and what impact did this experience have on individuals and families?

These are just some of the questions that have perplexed me when studying oppressive events from the past. As an American Jew, I was always drawn to the question of resistance during the Holocaust and could not understand how my ancestors and their neighbors could be caught in such an oppressive system that would eventually lead to their murders. Yet, it wasn’t until I studied the culture, the history of Jewish identity and life in 1930’s Poland and Germany that I could begin to understand the decisions and actions of my ancestors and the subsequent events that led to their murder.

There is so much potential for video games to scaffold and develop historical empathy through the experience of taking on a role and navigating through that person’s world virtually.  This experience makes it essential that the design decisions are historically and culturally accurate and serve to provide nuanced details about the past and what it means to understand someone different from oneself. There is room for aesthetics and imagination, but if we are re-creating the past, we must be accountable to the representations that are put forth in these narratives and avoid designing revisionist realities that merely conform to our present situations.

Check out the storyboards and other pages on the website to watch the process for designing and making the game. There are updates often and watching the process unfold is truly fascinating.  http://dramainthedelta.org/storyboards/

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One Response to Designing Games that Use Evidence to Play with History

  1. Have you heard of Jeremiah McCall? He wrote a book, Gaming the Past, on using history games in the classroom. He also has a website: http://gamingthepast.net/

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