Researchers at the University of California at San Diego hope to bring a dark chapter in U.S. history to life in a video game that lets players experience life in a World War II Japanese-American internment camp.
Drama in the Delta, a collaborative effort between the college’s theater and dance department and the San Diego Supercomputer Center, is a 3D role-playing game that explores two Arkansas-based internment camps, and their surrounding areas, from a variety of perspectives.
From 1942 to 1945 more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent living in the United States, were imprisoned in internment camps across the country. The two camps in the game, Rohwer and Jerome, were the only camps located in the South, and the game also explores racial tensions in the region during that time period.
In a prototype level available now (fair warning: some computer tinkering may be required to get the game up and running, and it works only on a PC), players assume the role of Jane, a 14-year old Japanese-American girl, who has been tasked by her best friend with retrieving items scattered throughout the camp before the friend and her family are sent away.
Other planned characters include a Japanese-American soldier from Hawaii, a Japanese-American girl who acts in a Kabuki performance, and an African-American musician from the surrounding Arkansas community.
Emily Roxworthy, an associate professor of theater and dance at San Diego, first conceived of the game in the summer of 2008, after receiving an e-mail from the dean of arts and humanities soliciting professors to collaborate with the San Diego Supercomputer Center.
Ms. Roxworthy had been doing research on internment camps for several years and had recently completed her first book on the subject, The Spectacle of Japanese American Trauma: Racial Performativity and World War II (University of Hawaii Press, 2008).
She began to think about a video game because of the potential it offered for players to identify with the avatar they inhabit during game play. “There might be a way to use this platform to make people care more about the internment,” she says.
The game offers players the option of completing each level, called a mission, from a first- or third-person perspective and she says she’s intrigued to study which perspective draws a more empathetic response from users.
She’s already begun to use students in a film class as guinea pigs, asking them to complete the prototype level from each perspective and report back on their findings.
To her surprise, they’ve felt more empathy in the third-person mode—when Jane, the Japanese-American character, was visible on the screen. “They actually could read a lot more emotion from constantly being aware of Jane in the frame,” Ms. Roxworthy says.
Programming and visual design of the game is being led by Amit Chourasia, head of the supercomputer center’s visualization-services group, who oversees a team of five students and one full-time programmer.
Ms. Roxworthy says the team hopes to complete the game, which will be released for free, by 2013, contingent on financing. The project has already received nearly $75,000 from two National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Humanities start-up grants.