Can a virtual world bring together young and old people to explore a community’s history in a shared video game experience?

This is a question we’re pondering in the wake of some user testing of our Remembering 7th Street video game.

We previously showed a video version of our game world to people who remembered Oakland’s 7th Street blues and jazz club scene from the 1940s and 1950s, and were surprised by their generally positive reaction to the virtual re-creation of what they had actually lived.

Several also said they hoped the game would help young people in Oakland learn about the important role 7th Street played in the city’s heritage, especially the connections between the old jazz and blues musicians and the music young people enjoy today.

More recently we tested the game on a group of 10 high school students (not from Oakland). Three of the students said the game was interesting or fun, seven said it was somewhat so, and none of them said it was not. Six of the 10 said they would be interested in playing the game on their own time.

The students also had a number of suggestions for improving the game, including wanting more interaction with other players and historical characters.

Most interesting was the enthusiasm they expressed for the idea of playing the game simultaneously with older people who remembered 7th Street and learning about the music scene directly from them. Some said they didn’t feel they absorbed a lot about the history of 7th Street from the existing game and thought interacting with older people might improve it.

While we’ve been trying to design a game that appeals separately to young and old, we hadn’t really focused on how shared game play might be the key to a really enjoyable and educational experience.

This opens all kinds of possibilities for using video games to bring people together across generations to better understand their local communities or other events. The older people could bring their direct knowledge of historical events to the game, while the younger people could bring their expertise in navigating game worlds. They could draw on each other during game play to create a new, and possibly more enriching, form of interactive learning.

If anyone knows of successful video games or virtual worlds that have similarly focused on joint play by adults and youngsters to improve learning I’d appreciate hearing about them.