This past Columbus Day, arts organization launched Tropical America, a free online game that explores 500 years of Latin American history. Conceptualized by Los Angeles high school students and artists, this game exposes a rich and painful past forgotten and unknown to the children of those who fled the region. Twenty-five students, mostly of immigrant families, spent two years learning to design a video game. In the process, they unearthed their Latin American roots and embarked on their own discovery of the Americas.
The journey began two years ago when OnRamp Arts, Belmont Senior High School and the nonprofit Los Angeles Educational Partnership (LAEP) received a media literacy grant from the U.S. Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Arts. The grant funded projects that worked with low-income schools to address media violence through arts programming. Recognizing the impact of electronic games, OnRamp Co-Directors Steven Metts and Jessica Irish proposed that students collaborate with artists to conceptualize, develop and produce an alternative video game. Metts and Irish brought in media artist Juan Devis to help lead the project. Like other artists working with OnRamp, Devis espoused the belief that the best “approach to media literacy is to engage people creatively in how they represent themselves, so that these [media] issues bubble up naturally.”
In 2000, OnRamp recruited 25 students from several classes of Belmont High School, located in the shadow of downtown LA. It’s one of the largest high schools in the district with an almost 90% Latino student population. These classes were chosen through LAEP’s network of humanities teachers who use the arts to teach across all disciplines.
Devis initiated students to the project with a trip to Olvera Street, an outdoor market fashioned from the first Mexican village in LA. In 1932, Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros was commissioned to paint a tranquil scene to attract customers to the marketplace. When he unveiled “Tropical America,” the local business owners were outraged at the mural’s emotionally charged symbolism against US imperialism. Within the year, the mural was completely white-washed and not re-discovered until the late 1960s.
“After seeing the mural, we realized these kids weren’t very connected to their history,” according to Devis. “Many didn’t even know why their families left their native countries.” Before students could understand their role in history, they needed to understand the role in the modern day. Students spent the next year exploring their identities and environments and ultimately their histories. These explorations were aligned with key elements of an interactive game: Character, Space and Interactivity.
Phase I: Investigating Character
From a table covered with dolls, puppets, action figures and stuffed animals, students chose one character with whom they identified. Their assignment was to invent supernatural powers for this toy and re-create them digitally. Students began by answering comprehensive questions to flesh out that character’s persona, which according to Devis encouraged them to “explore the space between the characters and themselves.” Pairs of students, with guidance from Devis, massaged answers into narratives and storyboarded their scenes. They were taught by UCLA Design/Media Arts interns to use Flash animation in order to breathe life into their digital selves.
The students created a "crew" of archetypal characters: CJ, a man who transforms into a low-rider; Thomas Thorn, defender of the poor; Zacarias de la Rocha, a rock guerilla freedom fighter; and Aurora, a mermaid who brings peace by finding the “eye of the sea.” Student Lisa Burgos commented that “At first, it seemed funny, but it really brought out our creative side. It was surreal because I now had the power to give a toy the characteristics I wanted.”
In addition to accompanying students to after-school sessions, teachers attended their own workshops, designed to integrate the “Investigation of Character” in a curriculum for social studies, language arts, and theatre.
Phase II: Creating a Space
To explore the space around them, students started with the low-tech tools of pencil and paper to draw a floor plan of their home, street block and neighborhood as an organic way to raise awareness of their surroundings. Surprisingly, students revealed personal experiences when presenting their floor plan, stating facts like “My father gets drunk in this room” or “Ten people sleep here.” Devis was touched, “These were just floor plans but they allowed students to open up to each other and to me.”
Students expanded on their floor plans by transforming puzzling household occurrences into intriguing mysteries. Students could then use their mysteries to craft digitally interactive stories. For example, student Lisa Burgos’s “mystery” was why so many people bought her mother’s homemade tamales. Her mother managed a profitable tamale business, a fact Lisa didn’t always volunteer. “I wasn’t embarrassed, but I didn’t understand what was so special about these tamales.” The final story, a combination of five individual narratives, was titled “Making of the Delicious Tamale.” In it, a young girl forgets her Grandmother’s tamale recipe. The user must help the girl search for the great Tamale God in order to find the recipe.
In this phase, students learned more advanced media production to make their written narratives interactive. In addition to building on their Flash skills, students learned Photoshop, as well as digital video production, capture and editing.
Other students also revealed parts of their life that at first glance didn’t seem story material, such as a girl’s walk to church, a neighborhood Korean restaurant, and a father who was never there. Jessica Irish reflected, “The project was successful in helping the students realize that their experiences are important and that other people are interested in what [the students] have to say. They don’t get that message enough, in their schools, or neighborhoods.”
At the completion of the Interactive Stories, OnRamp hosted a screening for students, their families and friends. The parents beamed at their children’s digital work. Devis reflected, “Lisa’s mother was so proud because she never imagined that her daughter would ever give an inch of importance to the fact that she cooks and sells tamales.” Student Irene Rodriguez added, “My dad was really happy to see his children bringing their own culture into the technology project, trying to know who they were.”
Phase III: History as Interactive Narrative
After exploring “who I am” and “where I live,” the students then addressed “where I come from.” This was a progression, as Irish explained, “of moving from students’ personal experience, to a shared experience to a collective history.” To help visualize the terrain they would collectively explore, students drew maps of the Northern, Central and South America. One student map greatly enlarged the US while shrinking South America. Another map placed South America far above North America. According to Devis, “Many of these kids didn’t have a sense of where they were in the world. That’s very dangerous, especially as an immigrant. If you don’t have an anchor, you are easily swept away by the dominant culture.”
Devis spent the following months presenting a series of lectures on 13 episodes of Latin American history, culled from a play he had previously written. Although called lectures, “they were more like conversations,” according to Rodriquez, “because you didn’t realize that you were learning facts.”
After the lectures, students condensed these complex historical concepts into symbols that would serve as game icons. Developing these symbols, according to Devis, “triggered intense student debates about what was important to history. They were discussing relationships, causes and effects between historical events.” Student Lisa Burgos commented that she “valued learning so much history that I never got in school. After the workshops, I would go home and ask my dad ‘Did you know this event happened?’ and we would begin discussing it.” Irish explained “In the end, we were able to get the kids to really realize that this was important to them personally, and not just to the Department of Education.”
Visiting artists were a critical element of the project. Students worked with traditional Mexican wood cut artist Artemio Rodriquez, who produced the game graphics based on the historical symbols chosen by the students. Sound artists Weba Garretson and Mark Wheaton invited students to their local sound studio to record the game audio. For many this was their first time visiting artists’ studios. According to student Irene Rodriquez, “This was my first time to really meeting artists, seeing their work and going to their studios. I never would have had the chance if I wasn’t involved in OnRamp.” Other artists – from game designers to novelists -- also presented a variety of perspectives that influenced students’ thinking about the historical game.
The game begins after the El Mazote massacre in El Salvador in 1981. The player, who represents the only survivor, must travel down four paths represented by four foods integral to Latin American development. The goal is to collect evidence to prove that this massacre occurred. Once a player collects all the evidence, an angel returns bearing one name of the 800+ victims. As more people win the game, an online ‘memorial’ will grow bearing the names of all the victims. Winners are also showcased in the “Heroes of the Americas” gallery, which currently features winners from cities across the US as well as Morocco, France, UK, China, and Canada.
TropicalAmerica.com is the result of a two-year journey of students and artists. After intense exploration of three levels of game design -- Character, Space and Interactivity – these Los Angeles students also realized that their modern lives reflect 500 years of Latin American history. In addition to this history, students gained digital media skills, explored their artistic talents and developed an understanding of game design. Most importantly, this historic journey empowered students to find their own contemporary voices.
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