A big concern we had when we started our Remembering 7th Street video game project was how older people who lived and worked on Oakland’s 7th Street in the 1940s and 1950s and frequented the jazz and blues clubs there would react to our virtual world rendition of it.

Would it look like what they remembered? Or would it seem an alien world to them? Worse, would the game just trivialize a precious memory?

On Oct. 8 we got a chance to test this when my journalism students and I went to the West Oakland Senior Center to interview people about their memories of 7th Street and show them a video of the virtual world we’ve been creating.

When we played the video for the first of the seniors, I cringed over how he might react.

To my surprise, he seemed to immediately connect with the game world.
pawnshop.jpgWe had modeled a generic pawn shop on 7th Street, and he pointed at it and said, “Moon’s, that was it,” referring to one of the biggest pawn shops that had existed on the street.

Another old-timer was viewing our re-creation of Slim Jenkins’ Place, the area’s premiere jazz and blues club, when he suddenly got animated when he saw the bar we had modeled from old photos.

jenkinsbar.jpg“That’s where Joe Lewis would sit, and people would line up to see him,” he said, jabbing his finger at the stool at the end of the bar.

The buildings the Architecture students working on the project had modeled seemed to resonate with the seniors and even triggered some old memories.

So we had passed an initial test – the game world was engaging enough that these players were willing to overlook the unreality of some aspects of it. This is what video game developers, borrowing a concept from Coleridge, refer to as willing suspension of disbelief.

But this little test only involved a handful of seniors, and we’re planning more extensive viewings of the game with many more older people in the future. So we’ll see how they react.

And a different test looms with another group that’s part of our target audience for the game – young kids from Oakland who we hope will learn about the history of 7th Street through the game. There the main challenge will be not the realism of the game world, but whether the game play is engaging and fun for them.

Note: the photograph above of the bar at Slim Jenkins Place is courtesy of the African American Museum & Library at Oakland. The museum has provided us with access to their photographic collections, including one on Slim Jenkins Place. For people in the Oakland area, you check the the schedule on the museum’s Web site for visiting the library and museum and viewing their exhibits and collections.