Computer Science Professor Magda El Zarki and History Professor Pat Seed were thrilled to see their game, “Sankofa,” first on the list of Bronze Medal winners for the 2018 International Serious Play Awards. The awards recognize excellence in serious games designed for use in K-12 or higher education, and “Sankofa” is designed to teach history and anthropology in a fun and engaging way by bringing 19th-century Ghana to life through gameplay.
El Zarki, who is also director of UCI’s Institute for Virtual Environments and Computer Games (IVECG), first visited Ghana back in 2010. “That is when I got interested in the history of the west coast of Africa,” she says. Upon her return to UCI, she teamed up with Seed — and later Jessica Kernan, a video game designer and IVECG staff member — to create a video game that teaches children, ages 8-12, about Ghana’s rich history and culture.
“ ‘Sankofa’ aims to bring to life ethnographically authentic historical Ghana in everything from the characters to the environments, giving a cultural understanding of history not regularly covered in standard educational curriculum,” says Kernan. “Schools may cover the topic of slavery, but there is not often an opportunity to understand and relate to the personalities and day-to-day lives of the people affected by it.”
The Power of Play
Both El Zarki and Seed know from personal experience that gameplay can lead to exceptional learning. “I started teaching games because when I took my kids to Greece… I was astounded by how much they already knew because they played the game “Age of Mythology,’ ” explains El Zarki. “Kids would remember a lot more if geography and history were done in this kind of context.”
Seed had a similar experience with her own son. “He was 11 and had learned from the ‘Age of Empires’ (AOE) Expansion, Reconquista, which is one of the best history games that I’ve come across.”
So they created “Sankofa,” a novel game that explores the daily life of a young girl in Ghana. On her way to the local market, she learns about some of the folklore of the Asante Kingdom, and players can unlock meaningful symbols to design their own storytelling cloth. The idea behind Sankofa, which means, “go back and seek it” in Twi, is that you move forward when you understand your past. Learn more about the game by watching the demo, or download it to play on your desktop.
Finding the Path Forward
“It took us a long time to get off the ground,” admits El Zarki. The game is painstakingly accurate in its portrayal of artifacts and surroundings, thanks to the team of cultural and historical advisers, both from Ghana and the U.S., led by Seed and El Zarki. Furthermore, both Seed and El Zarki utilized their fluency in Dutch for their research. “Most of the sources for the 19th century are in Dutch, since the British don’t come in until 1896,” explains Seed. So with some new sources of funding, they hired several artists to bring the team’s knowledge to life. “The art was the biggest thing. The game changed completely,” says El Zarki.
Now, they want to add more characters and build on the plot, which will require more art and animators and, of course, another influx of funds. The game currently lasts about 15 minutes, making it more of a teaser, but if they can garner additional resources and funding, the interest is there. El Zarki notes that the Smithsonian liked it, and the California African Art Museum (CAAM) and Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) expressed some interest in using a longer version for their after-school programs.
So El Zarki and Seed are trying to leverage the increased visibility stemming from their recent win. For example, the award caught the attention of Nicole Gilbertson, who, as site director of the UCI History Project, works with teachers in Southern California to promote history-social science education. “Sankofa” currently comes with 10 related lessons plans, and Gilbertson and Seed plan to meet to further discuss the game’s educational outcomes.
In addition, the award comes with free registration and a shared exhibition table at this summer’s Serious Play Conferences — where thought leaders in the game-based learning industry gather to share their knowledge and experience. El Zarki attended the July conference at George Mason University to showcase the game and garner further interest and support. She’s also looking for ways to get the African American community more invested.
“Sankofa” is not the first game to show cultural history through gameplay. For example, the video game “Never Alone” paired industry game developers with Alaska Native storytellers and elders to delve into the traditional lore of the Iñupiat people. Furthermore, with the growing acceptance of serious games, perhaps such collaborations will become more common. Partnering with a game development studio is thus another option for “Sankofa,” but the final game must remain nonprofit. “Companies want to make money,” notes Seed, “and we want kids in underserved neighborhoods to use the game at school for free.”
Although El Zarki and Seed aren’t yet sure of their path forward, they now have formal recognition of the potential of “Sankofa.” They hope the medal will serve as a stepping stone in expanding the game and making it readily available to middle school students across the U.S., allowing the students to experience another time and culture as they explore the world through the eyes of a child in 19th-century Ghana.
If you’re interested in learning more about “Sankofa” or would like to get involved, contact Pat Seed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Shani Murray