At a video games seminar last month at MIT sponsored by the Knight Foundation, several of the MIT folks talked about lessons learned from games they developed that resonated with our Remembering 7th Street jazz and blues clubs project.

One of the games MIT produced is Revolution, a video game recreation of historic events in colonial Williamsburg. You can read more about it on the blog of Henry Jenkins, director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program.

There were a number of parallels with our game:

- While the Revolution game is designed to be educational, the designers believe “much of the learning takes place outside the box as the experience of gaming gets reflected upon by teachers and learners in the context of their everyday lives,” to quote from the blog posting.

We similarly decided to limit the amount of historical information presented in text form in our game because it bogged down game play. Instead we hope young people will be intrigued by their exploration of the 7th Street virtual world and seek out more information about the area on a companion website or from other sources online or in the community.

- The MIT game allowed two levels of play – players who actively tried to shape events or those who wanted to simply observe.

In our game we also built two levels of participation. A player could just explore 7th Street and learn about its clubs and musicians through simple encounters with non-player characters and objects. Or a player could engage in active game play, pursuing multi-step quests with the ultimate goal of performing a piece of music at one of the 7th Street jazz and blues clubs.

One reason we’re allowing these two levels of participation is to accommodate older people, who might want to just explore and “re-live” what they remember of 7th Street, while also trying to appeal to younger people who enjoy active game play.

- The MIT game developers faced challenges preserving historical accuracy. For example, men in colonial Williamsburg would remove their hats on entering a building, but the game engine MIT used (a modification of the Neverwinter Nights role-playing game) only allowed modeling of player characters with hats or without hats, not with hats that could be removed. The MIT team settled on using male players that always wore hats.

We confronted similar dilemmas trying to make our game as true to life as possible. The game world we modeled (we modified the Torque game engine) was only about a 5-block stretch of 7th Street, but some of the establishments we wanted to include were at addresses outside that area. So we had to fudge the exact location to still include them in the game world.

We also had to disable the ability of players to leap (something Torque builds into its avatars), because seeing people jumping around on the street seemed to trivialize the experience.

We couldn’t find photographs of some segments of 7th Street, so Architecture School students working on the project had to model generic buildings for parts of several blocks. The insides of the clubs also proved problematic, because we didn’t have photos of every room or the clubs would remodel over time and the photos we had showed several different interiors. So we sometimes wound up with a composite of the layout of a club, and with some details filled in based on our best guess about what a room looked like.

- The Revolution project had to deal with the issue of violence: “Leaving violence out of a revolutionary setting would not convey the proper historical content. On the other hand, we’d have a disaster if we let students fight whomever they wanted at any time,” as the blog posting on the project described it. The MIT game developers decided to allow students to be violent in the game, but with consequences, such as being arrested and detained briefly.

On 7th Street, violence also was a fact of life, with frequent knifings and shootings. One of 7th Street’s most famous composers and record producers, Bob Geddins, bemoaned “cuttin’ and shootin’” and other violence in his song Tin Pan Alley.

But we didn’t want to make violence a central part of the game. Oakland has enough problems coping with its high homicide rate, without our adding a violent video game about the city.

So we decided to mention the violence in the game, but without making it part of game play.

One thing is certain in all this: there aren’t easy answers to any of these questions. I’m looking forward to having more discussions with the MIT people about how we’ve dealt with very similar problems in our respective games. MIT is also a recipient of a Knight challenge grant for its Center for Future Civic Media, and one of the things they’ll be exploring is how to make games for specific geographic communities.