Text Adventure Games and Interactive History: Educational Questing

This is a guest blog post by Tara Fickle.

When I first started designing an online game based on the Japanese American internment, I must admit that I was a little apprehensive about how it would be received. Everybody that I talked to agreed that increasing awareness about this oft-overlooked historical injustice, especially among the younger generation, was an important and valuable venture. But my friends and colleagues seemed less enthusiastic about the whole game component; at best, they considered it a necessary evil, a caramel coating to conceal the good-for-you apple within from the suspicious minds of pleasure-seeking, learning-averse students. For some, too, the words “internment” and “game” were more than just uneasy bedfellows; the notion that I would even use them in the same sentence was offensive, trivializing, un-PC. I suppose I should have expected the latter reaction; if you look up “Drama in the Delta,” a 3D role-playing video game about the Jerome, Arkansas internment camp, you’ll find no shortage of outraged comments. One response, on an article in the Chronicle, pretty much sums it up: “[The internment] wasn’t summer camp, this was an illegal action taken by the US government that violated its own citizens Constitutional Rights, not a friggin game. My god, what an insulting travesty.”

So why did I end up creating Inside the Japanese Internment anyway? Well, because the real point I wanted to make is that it’s not about being forced to bring together game and history; when it comes to the internment, and, indeed, to Asian Americans as a whole, the fact is that you can’t separate the two. In the national imagination, Asians have always been stereotypically cast as game players; they scheme, they dissemble, they present their inscrutable poker faces to the world, faces whose intentions cannot be read, whose emotions cannot be detected. And after Pearl Harbor, that was precisely how supporters of the internment justified the relocation program: as a national strategy, a way of separating the loyals from the disloyals, the truth from the bluff. (This is an argument that I flesh out in detail in the first chapter of my dissertation, which you can read here). The internment was already a game – of the most serious sort. Inside is meant to make you realize that.

That’s why I don’t think of Inside as just an educational game – what Tom Cole aptly dubbed “a game with an educational skin” – but more like an interactive museum. It’s based almost exclusively in historical fact; I’ve changed most of the names, but the vast majority of the situations that players encounter – from cosmetic surgery to the Rescue of the Lost Battalion to the Tule Lake Uprising – are documented in historical accounts and court cases. Much of the game’s content is also adapted from novels written by internees like John Okada and Hiroshi Nakamura; in those cases, it’s not about whether the events really happened or not, but about understanding what and why those authors would choose to fictionalize – and about exposing their novel literary styles to the larger audience that they so greatly deserve.

And that’s really what I hope that Inside will accomplish in the broader sense: that it will expose individuals to different, radically new ways of thinking about the internment and about Asian American literature; about how history gets written, who writes it, and how technology has the potential to change it. In the immediate future, I’d love to expand the game and get it installed as part of the permanent exhibit on internment at the Japanese American National Museum, a Los Angeles-based institution which has George Takei on its board of trustees. I also hope that educators, at both the high school and undergraduate level, will consider adopting it as part of their units on World War 2.

But ultimately, I have a more wide-ranging goal: that Quest (the software which I used to design Inside, generously made available by the folks at textadventures.co.uk) will be integrated into all sorts of classrooms, especially in Literature and History courses. Because interactive text games have an incredible amount of potential as educational resources, a potential which has gone largely untapped. As an instructor of English at UCLA, one of the biggest difficulties I and my fellow teachers face is getting undergraduates to think about literature as something to be engaged with, not just passively read. When you are trying to get a group of 18 year olds to read Shakespeare or Chaucer, and especially when you’re asking them to write an essay about these canonical authors, you often immediately sense the trepidation and anxiety: “What do I, a lowly undergrad, have to say about a famous text that’s been written about five million times before? Everything’s already been said!”

But Quest gives students a voice, a sense of agency that they often feel they lack when faced with a mass of words on a page. What if, instead of asking students to write a paper on the theme of fate in Romeo & Juliet, we first asked them to choose a scene and recreate it as a short gamebook using Quest? Suddenly, they’re able to use their imaginations, their writing and critical thinking skills, their artistic sensibilities, to create something. Now they’ll have to ponder the same “what ifs” that Shakespeare himself contemplated when writing the play; what if Romeo hadn’t taken the poison? What if Juliet hadn’t confided in her nurse? In creating an interactive text adventure, students are now thinking about why these actions occurred in the first place – and deciding how to bring that thought process to life for the game player. Not only can this activity get students to read more closely, but more actively; and that’s the key to developing an essay which has a strong argument, not just plot summary. Plus, once they’ve created their games, they can be easily shared and made accessible as teaching modules for future classes.

In the coming months, I’m planning on offering some tutorial courses for my fellow teachers at UCLA (and hopefully finding some funding which will allow me to create an online teaching module to address a wider audience), to decrease the sense of intimidation that the older generation especially commonly feels when confronting unfamiliar technology. Quest is incredibly easy to use, and yet it’s versatile and sophisticated enough to let you do almost anything you can think of: author complex and customizable characters with diverse qualities, skills, and abilities; map out massive worlds that players can explore at will; add images, links, and even user-driven content. I’ve had absolutely no formal training in computer programming or game design (in the computer science course I ultimately dropped as an undergraduate, I got as far as creating a “Hello World” program before losing interest). Which is part of why Quest is so exciting: it has the potential to bridge the interdisciplinary chasm that currently exists between the humanities and other fields. It can bring the study of literature, history, and many other fields to the cutting-edge and give us humanists yet another strategy for articulating the relevance of our fields, allowing us to defend the university as a whole from the growing budget cuts that threaten to impoverish higher education for teachers and students alike. This is part of what burgeoning digital humanities initiatives like 4Humanities are all about; and I’m immensely grateful that Quest has allowed me to be a part of that movement.

Tara Fickle is a Ph.D. candidate in the English Department the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), specializing in 20th century American and ethnic fiction. She has recently completed her dissertation, Serious Play: Race, Game, Asian American Literature, and has published articles on Asian American cultural politics, contemporary literature, and game studies in various scholarly and popular journals. More information can be found at her academic website: http://www.ficklet.wordpress.com.