One of my main interests over the last couple of years has been videogames and pedagogy. This fall, I have participated in a working group, led by Prof. Lynn Ramey, at the Vanderbilt Center for Second Language Studies. We meet once per month to share ideas, discuss scholarly articles, and teach each other the Unity3d game design engine. I have also been learning Unity3d on my own as part of Ramey's and Dr. Todd Hughes's “Discovery of the Americas” project, which uses interactive 3d environments to engage students in the voyages of early modern travelers. Recently, I have been practicing with the “terrain” feature of Unity3d, which allows users to create, shape, and texture land masses, which can then be populated with objects and characters. Here is an example of what I've achieved in my first attempts:
In this post, I would like to consider an example of videogames and pedagogy taken from one of my research areas, Brazilian narrative. Although the examples that I will share were produced in Portuguese for Brazilian children, their use of technology to interest young readers in “classic” literature offers important lessons for all of us who have thought about presenting our materials through interactive games. In an essay currently under review, I examine in depth the adaptation process and its consequences for the “identity” of each work. Here, I will speak more broadly about how the designers used videogames as a medium to make the books more attractive.
The website livroegame.com.br (literally, “book and game”), sponsored by the Telefônica Foundation, contains videogame versions of three famous and much-studied nineteenth-century Brazilian novels: Dom Casmurro, O Cortiço (The Tenement House / The Slum), and Memórias de um Sargento de Milícias (Memories of a Police Sergeant). The text messages that alternate on the introductory page make clear the project's attempt to convince young Brazilians that reading is fun, but there seems to be also a desire to reassure educators that students will be learning: “Play with the past, see the present, and dive into the world of senses, meanings, and ideas”; “Navigate through the pages of the books and discover plots that weave fun, moving, and mysterious tales”; “Book and Game is fun, entertainment...and culture too.” One can find similar rhetorical strategies in the United States, but the Brazilian context features an important difference. As historian Marshall Eakin pointed out in his 1998 book Brazil: the Once and Future Country, Brazil's struggles to eliminate illiteracy have given technology a special role in contemporary culture. Whereas educators in the U.S. lament the effects of film, television, and videogames on children's reading skills, many Brazilians' first cultural experiences were with these newer media, and educators have used technology to introduce audiences to the traditional, printed word.
The videogames on livroegame.com.br draw from a wide variety of media. Graphic novels and animations are re-mediated most frequently, but conventions of television and cinema also make an appearance. Several videogame genres provide the basis for interaction. O Cortiço, reminiscent of Sim City, requires players to administer housing blocks, adjusting different variables as the situation changes. Familiarity with the novel earns players an advantage in the game. The initial available funds depend on the results of a quiz, whose questions test whether players have accessed the informative background readings on the site. Dom Casmurro, the least engaging project, resembles the point-and-click games of the early PC era. Memórias de um Sargento de Milícias, probably the most complex adaptation in terms of programming, uses an assortment of minor and major game genres, such as scrollers, platformers, fighting, memory, cards, and guessing.
A careful study would be necessary to determine to what extent these adaptations encourage young Brazilians to read the original works and to explore literature more generally. After multiple runs through each game, however, I would argue that the adaptations, though well made and worthy of praise, fall into the oft-maligned category of “learning games,” where the interactive component seems to be a thinly disguised attempt to expose players to the literary content, and not an independent and rich cultural experience in itself.
This type of adaptation raises an important question for all of us who use digital tools to present our research to a wider public. Although technology can make our work more accessible and appealing to non-specialists, and is therefore a valuable resource in teaching, do we run the risk of creating the impression that our work is somehow inherently uninteresting? This is a fear among many scholars that I know who reject the digital humanities as a “dumbing down” of their complex topics, a type of “selling out” in order to attract an audience. Even if those of us who use technology to enhance our teaching and research understand the fallacies of such reasoning, we need to be aware of its existence among our colleagues, not only to explain our own projects, but also to help academics overcome the fear that DH rejects their traditional scholarship and is attempting to put them out of work.