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Passage (The Eillis Island Project)



Document Name: Passage

Date Started: 08/2008

Intended Audience: Varied

Purpose/Context: Preliminary Thesis Work

Links: Our Wiki, & Website (coming soon)

My Comments:

Passage (originally Ellis Island), has been keeping me up nights since before I even started classes at Georgia Tech.

Celia (Pearce, my probable thesis advisor) knows me from way back, as a massive dork, and purveyor of historically -themed tabletop role-playing. So, as the result of a short email conversation with her about two weeks before classes start, I found myself putting together a project studio from the ground up on the basis of "emergent gameplay, tabletop role-playing, and Ellis Island". I recruited a small handful of fellow grad students, and over the course of a semester we built a (really quite lovely) board game/paper-prototype for an MMO.

This semester, we're taking that prototype, and going in about ten different directions with it: a small team is taking bits and pieces from it to make a proper board game (we're going for an all-ages rating there, so it's quite a bit simpler, and much less....'gritty' than the original prototype); another is taking a different handful of elements to create a pencil and paper role-playing system (a la GURPS or D&D) set in 1920s-1930s era New York; and finally, a slightly larger team is beginning to build an isometric browser-based MMO. For a more formal explanation, our abstract, for the graduate symposium I will be presenting at later this month:

Passage is a test bed for emergent gameplay design techniques: by learning to balance simulationist game mechanics with collaborative narrative play, we can create artifacts that encourage rather than simply allow player to player interaction. We are currently working on three interlocking game artifacts: an experimental massively multi-player online role-playing game, set in New York City during the Ellis Island Era (1892-1954); a cross-generational educational board game about the process of entering the United States through Ellis Island; and a table-top roleplaying game which focuses on the situated experience of life in Hell's Kitchen, New York. The MMO, tentatively titled “5 Boroughs”, draws heavily from the tradition of exploratory MMOGs like Myst Online: Uru Live, and will allow players to assume control of a virtual world populated by other players. "Ellis Island" and "Passage" (the board and role-playing games) will provide an analogue counterpart to the digital artifact, allowing younger and older players to experience the narrative context of "5 Boroughs" with less technological investment, and providing us with a fast iterative tool for testing emergent gameplay concepts before introducing them into the MMO.

The rich cultural backdrop of this period also affords us opportunities to examine the endemic racism and sexism of the time; and in an era of inescapable globalization, it is valuable to consider the role that forced cultural assimilation has played in the emergence of an explicitly defined 'American' identity. Within that historical context, players have the freedom to direct not only the course of their own lives and destinies, but that of the world at large. They can contribute to the creative and intellectual life of their community by participating in oral traditions and folk activities, write and publish literary materials, produce art, get involved in social or political organizations (labor unions, religious groups, or organized crime, for example), or open their own businesses. In the process, they might work as trailblazers to overcome cultural and economic barriers in an era of racial and sexual discrimination, or attempt to balance the construction of vibrant immigrant communities against the desire to assimilate into the American identity; all alongside (or in opposition to) historical figures of the day. In so doing, players actively engage with their own cultural history, and gain a nuanced understanding of the role immigration plays in that history.