I mentioned in my last post how we’re balancing the sometimes conflicting demands of education and entertainment in our Remembering 7th Street video game, especially deciding how much explanatory text should be included in the game.

Here’s a note from Becca MacLaren, one of the journalism students working on the game, about our discussions:

One puzzle we’re trying to solve in our Remembering 7th Street video game project is how to reach as broad an audience as possible – from people who lived in the neighborhood in the 1940s and ’50s to teenagers who know very little about West Oakland’s rich cultural history. Game play and the virtual world we’re creating need to appeal as much to the 85-year-old (who has perhaps never played a video game) as the 15-year-old (who grew up in an online world).

We also hope to make the game as historically accurate as possible, which raises additional questions for video game storytelling. As student journalists, we’re using our reporting skills to gather information, including archival research and interviews, to gain as complete and accurate a picture of 7th Street as possible. But as video game scriptwriters, we’re in new territory, trying to write compelling narratives that combine a real-life character’s biography with fictional scenarios that advance the game’s story line.

NPC_Raincoat.jpgFor example, the first time a player encounters a main character in the game, such as a famous musician, they need to learn about the musician’s background. But game play is based on quests or objectives in which the player must gradually uncover facts about the musician’s life to move forward in game play.

So which parts of a character’s background do we present to the player up front? And how much information is too much, especially since the information is being presented in text form? Conventional wisdom among game developers is that only very short blocks of text and lots of interaction are the keys to engaging players. But ours is an educational game – one that we hope will offer entertainment and learning. And will older people who remember 7th Street be more interested in the textual information, while younger people are more interested in game play?

To meet these conflicting goals, we’ve decided to only present a quick portrait of a musician when first encountered by the player, with cryptic allusions to other aspects of the musician’s life that we hope will draw players into the game world and entice them to the tasks they need to perform to play the game. Other biographical facts about a character will emerge during game play. And for those who wish to dig deeper into a musician’s biography, we’ll include links to a companion website that has background information presented as a more familiar journalistic narrative.

Whether this approach works is something we only can answer by testing the game on actual players. We’re hoping within the next month to have developed a prototype of at least a portion of the game world and game play that we can show to teenagers at a West Oakland high school. After that we’ll do similar tests with people who remember 7th Street (we’ve already shown a video of the game world to some old timers, and the initial reaction was encouraging). Then we’ll know if we’re on track to creating a vivid game world that is both fun and educational, and that resonates equally with people who lived and worked on 7th Street as with young people gaining an entirely new perspective on their community.