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Free video game recreates U.S. internment camps

Inga Kiderra | March 14, 2011

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Jane as a game character (3D modeling: Ben Loggins)

More than 100,000 Japanese Americans during WWII were forced from their Pacific Coast homes to “War Relocation centers” in the U.S. interior. Most of these internment camps were west of the Mississippi, but two were in Arkansas, in the Jim Crow South.

Built in the impoverished southeast corner of Arkansas known as the Delta, the Rohwer and Jerome camps imprisoned some 15,000 people of Japanese descent. In a matter of weeks, in an area already rife with racial tensions, the barbed-wire enclosures became the state’s fifth and sixth largest cities.

The Arkansas camps first fascinated theater historian Emily Roxworthy several years ago when she heard two former internees speak about the camps’ cultural activities. As young girls held at Rohwer, these octogenarians said, they had participated in Kabuki plays – a form of Japanese theater traditionally reserved for male performers.

Roxworthy also learned of blues concerts and judo exhibitions in the camps and of drag and black-face minstrel shows. The dramatic potential of the internees’ stories and of performances that, in Roxworthy’s words, were “practiced as a mode of survival” led to “Drama in the Delta,” a three-dimensional role-playing video game that recreates the camps and allows players to experience the oppressive conditions for themselves.

Together with co-project director Amit Chourasia of the San Diego Supercomputer Center, who oversees a team of student programmers and artists, Roxworthy is turning one of the darker chapters of U.S. history into an educational and interactive game, one that not only teaches about the past (lest it be repeated) but also tacitly poses a difficult question that still resonates today: “Is it ever OK to compromise the civil liberties of some for the ‘good’ of the nation as whole?”

But “Drama in the Delta” – which will be freely available on the Internet – is no dry lesson or preachy lecture. Everything in the game is historically accurate, yet it is inspired as much by the popular (and often controversial) “Grand Theft Auto” series of videogames as by archival research. An element of entertainment, Roxworthy argues, is necessary to keep players at the computer, learning.

“The idea is to make it a game – not just an immersive experience or simulation,” Roxworthy said.

To that end, each avatar has a mission to complete. And many of the missions, Roxworthy said, will challenge players “to creatively navigate and even resist the unjust systems of Jim Crow laws and wartime anti-Japanese policies.”

One scenario, for example, involves a Japanese-American soldier traveling to the Jerome camp for R&R because his segregated U.S. military post in nearby Hattiesburg prohibits him from entering its USO facility. En route to Jerome, this Nisei soldier must decide whether to ride in the front or the back of a segregated public bus. There is a game consequence to either choice.
“Problem-solving is a way to engage with the history critically,” Roxworthy said, “and is also, simply, more fun.”If done right, the game could make a difference, Roxworthy believes. “Some say that video-gaming has made young people less empathetic,” she said. “I think it can go the other way.”

A developing project, “Drama in the Delta” is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities. If all proceeds as planned, you may see a full version of the free game as early as 2013. In the meanwhile, you can look for portions of the project and follow its progress on The developers are actively seeking out community input. That, Roxworthy says, is part of “doing it right.”

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