Travale’s Travails

Educational adventure-game explores Elizabethan Age.

HUMANITIES, November/December 2012, Volume 33, Number 6

Two things that wouldn’t seem to go together—video games  and early modern British history—are turning out to be a perfect  fit at the University of South Carolina. A lively dramatis personae of villagers from a fictional place called Travale appear in an instructional video that’s gone through a beta test and is ready for the classroom. There’s Mopish John, who’s depressed, Unlucky Lizzie, who’s unmarried and pregnant, and Absent Andrew, who’d rather knock back a few on Sunday morning than  squeeze into a pew. “Desperate Fishwives” is the name of the game.

The educational adventure-game is geared to high school and  college students who may find learning about  the reigns of monarchs a bit distant and off-putting. The hope  is that the bottom-up approach will be a dynamic experience in immersion learning. “Most video games  are designed to teach a particular skill set,” says doctoral candidate Grace Hagood, a team member with a background in video game design, “whereas we’re trying  to explore  a particular time period.” The project,  which  received an NEH Digital Start-Up grant,  is “emergent” and “experimental.” “It’s a game about  community,” says Hagood.

Game sessions  are an hour  in length. Nine players  conduct their respective charges through the virtual  village, confronting social problems of the day such as witch hunts. In the absence of police, villagers, who all come equipped with varying quantities of social capital, grapple with appropriate solutions. “Everybody ’s got a different role,” explains  John Hodgson, a USC graduate student who is writing the code. “You delegate among yourselves and  end up cooperating to solve the objective. It’s either  you all win or you all lose.”

The project  brings together students and  faculty from computer science, media  studies, and  English. “Desperate Fishwives” is a prototype, and  the aim, says Heidi Rae Cooley, a team member who works on game aesthetics, is that this game and  future ones will help teach students how history  unfolds and  is “determined by individual decisions.”