The Potential of Humanities Games: How Game Design and Humanities Research Can Empower One Another

Speaker Name: 
James Coltrain
Speaker Title: 
Assistant Professor
Speaker Organization: 
University of Nebraska
Start Time: 
Thursday, February 28, 2019 - 11:15am
End Time: 
Thursday, February 28, 2019 - 12:15pm
Location: 
E2-506
Organizer: 
Noah Wardrip-Fruin

Abstract: Although many Serious Games have educational goals, only a small percentage focus on humanities topics, despite the unique modes of interactive storytelling only possible through games.  In this presentation Dr. James Coltrain will explore not only how games can reinvigorate humanities education, but also how deep humanities engagement can enrich the practice and teaching of game design.

Dr. Coltrain’s project is Cassius, a first-person narrative exploration game designed to emphasize the centrality of slavery in America’s founding.  The result of archival research on site in Virginia, Cassius follows an escaped slave sheltering in an evacuated plantation during the American Revolution. As they explore, players learn about not only about the Jeffersonian, ruling white family, but much more importantly, about the hundreds of enslaved people who worked to sustain such opulent Enlightenment lifestyles, all the while enduring and actively resisting the slave system.  Cassius uses the environmental storytelling techniques of so-called “walking simulators” to realize a historic landscape far more faithfully than the sanitized surviving plantations now open to tourists, but the game also models the process of history, as players piece together difficult and painful realities of oppression through a record of period objects and documents.

Dr. Coltrain will also discuss how humanities research can transform his future games and those of his students.  In his classroom, intensive readings of primary historical texts not only provided students with vivid imagery and compelling stories for their game designs, but also challenged them to grapple with difficult issues like agency, identity, and colonialism.  Such deep understandings of culture have the potential to enrich all games, from the serious to the silly.

Bio: James Coltrain (PhD History, Northwestern University, 2011) is an Assistant Professor of History and a Faculty Fellow in the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska.  His current research focuses on the development of public-facing, humanities-themed games, and his first project is Cassius, a first-person narrative exploration game set in colonial Virginia.  He is also a scholar of the historic architecture and material culture of the early Americas and has worked for over a decade building historical 3D visualizations.   At Nebraska he has taught graduate and undergraduate classes in digital humanities, game design, and American history.