Developers at USC reach across disciplines to create video game exploring 17th-century life
It doesn’t offer the adrenaline-rush of a shoot ’em up video game, but Desperate Fishwives, a prototype game under development at USC, does have its own peculiar brand of intrigue.
With a backdrop of domestic conflict, premarital pregnancy, drunkenness, and witchcraft accusations in a 17th-century English village setting, Desperate Fishwives is designed to get the attention of high school and college students—and impart a subtle understanding of early modern history.
“We’re trying to introduce players to the social history of England at that time, but we want it to have a playful, cartoonish look,” said John Hodgson, a USC computer science graduate student who is writing the computer code to bring Desperate Fishwives to life.
“A lot of educational games are heavy-handed, chocolate-covered broccoli,” said Duncan Buell, a computer science professor involved in the game project. “One of the goals we have in this game is that you don’t have to realize that you’re supposed to be learning something.”
Buell and Hodgson are joined by film and media studies assistant professor Heidi Rae Cooley and English doctoral student Grace Hagood in using an NEH grant to develop Desperate Fishwives for beta release later this year.
The game is the brainchild of Ruth McClelland-Nugent, an Augusta State University history assistant professor who attended a humanities gaming institute at USC last summer. McClelland-Nugent plans to try out Desperate Fishwives in her classes.
“Of all the game ideas presented at the institute, this one looked like a winner, and NEH agreed,” Buell said.
Desperate Fishwives is set in the fictional village of Travale and explores the dynamics of order and disorder in early modern England. With no police force or standing army nearby, 17th-century villages maintained order from the bottom up. Neighbors took it upon themselves to keep the social fabric intact and prevent the heavy hand of the law from affecting the entire town.
With that premise in mind, players of Desperate Fishwives are assigned specific problems to solve in a limited number of rounds. Those problems might include a suicidal neighbor—Mopish John—or a woman facing an extramarital pregnancy—Unlucky Lizzie. Then there is a quarrelsome neighbor, Raging Robin, who is liable to get violent at the drop of a hat. It’s the players—assigned roles as villagers in different occupations, including fishwives—who must help the depressed neighbor overcome his depression, convince the unwed parents to marry, or calm down Raging Robin.
They do so by engaging in different social rituals and strategically using information, reputation, and commodities.
“Playing the game helps show students how history unfolds—how the outcome of events is determined by individual decisions and can change depending on different circumstances,” said Heidi Rae Cooley, who is working with Grace Hagood on aesthetics, scripting the game, and developing the game experience.
Developing Desperate Fishwives into a working game is only the beginning, Hagood said. “We want to step back and figure out how to make this a prototype for similar games that could be used in high school and college classes.
“In our society we use games as learning tools for K-5, then don’t use them again. Game study scholars say there’s no reason to ditch educational games for the teen years and beyond.”
This fall, Buell and Cooley are co-teaching a new course, Gaming the Humanities, that enrolls an equal mix of humanities majors and computer science majors.
“The aim of the course is to show how to broker the marriage of both areas with the kind of collaboration we’ve been using to develop Desperate Fishwives,” Buell said.
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