Professor Develops Computer Games To Teach Region's History

To teach children about the history of the Sarasota Bay region in the 1800s, Prof. Uzi Baram took what at first appears to be a decidedly untraditional route: He developed a pair of computer video games.

It’s a major leap of faith for Baram, professor of anthropology and director of the Public Archaeology Lab at New College of Florida. His opinion of video games: “a waste of time,” much like the image of television being a vast wasteland.

But he notes that television also brought us “Sesame Street,” now accepted and praised for its educational aspects. And he points to “Oregon Trail,” a 1980s computer game developed by educators to teach about the settling of the American West – and one of the most popular titles ever.

That thinking led him to develop “Rancho Race” and “Sarasota Bay Rancho,” games that immerse children in the culture of the early 1800s seasonal Cuban fishermen who worked the Bay’s waters, built settlements along the Southwest Florida coast and interacted with the Anglo American and Native Americans of the region.

“Games can be a powerful medium for formal and informal learning,” Baram said. “The goal for the Sarasota Bay Rancho game is for children to see Sarasota Bay in a new light through engagement in the video game.”

Baram developed the concepts with Sherry Svekis, a historical interpreter. Svekis recruited Jameson Wilkins, a recent graduate of Ringling College of Art and Design, as the game designer. Julie Morris, assistant vice president for Academic Affairs at New College, connected Baram with grant support for the project.

Both games have been popular in pre-release play during the College’s Public Archaeology Festival, Baram said, and he would like to see teachers will bring them and supporting material into their classrooms.

“I hope teachers either incorporate the early 19th century rancho industry into history lessons or have it available for students to use during computer time,” he said.

The games are aimed at elementary to middle-school students; Florida students typically study local history in fourth grade. Both offer ways for children to be engaged in the landscape of early 19th century Sarasota Bay. The “pre-explore” materials provide the history of the rancho era and the post-explores are available for follow-up projects.

The games and supporting materials can be downloaded for free through EdExploreSRQ.com, a website that links schools with community learning opportunities in arts, science and history.

The first and simpler game is “Rancho Race,” inspired by a demonstration still used at New College’s Public Archaeology Festival. In that hands-on version, players race toy boats down side-by-side gutters, representing the voyage of sailing boats from Havana to Sarasota. “The activity was successful. But wet. I wanted another version, one that would be portable and dry,” Baram said.

The computer version allows two players, at one keyboard, to compete with each other, guiding their boats through currents and around islands to Sarasota fishing grounds. Then they have to return, dodging hurricanes, to get their catch back to market. The winner isn’t necessarily who brings home the most fish – getting there first gets you a better price at market.

Developing “Rancho Race” led to a second collaboration with Wilkins. In “Sarasota Bay Rancho,” the player learns the life of the early 1800s Cuban fishermen who were seasonal residents on the shores of Sarasota Bay.

Wilkins said it stems from his memories of “Oregon Trail.” Parents and gamers may see a resemblance to acclaimed titles like “Sim City” or “Civilization.”

The player directs a team of fishermen over the course of a season. Players start in Cuba, purchasing supplies like food, salt and thread in Havana, then choosing a route to Florida and building the facilities of a fishing camp, a rancho – housing, fields, drying and salting stations, and fishing nets.

With the rancho completed, the player can divide the team between catching, drying and salting fish. But the player has to coordinate the team members’ work, keeping them rested and fed, while dealing with problems like torn nets and supply shortages – which can be solved by trading with Seminoles or maroons, the free African-Americans who settled on the Manatee River as part of the Angola community.

Over the course of the game, players can get bonus supplies by clicking on pop-up cards that provide period photographs and information about archaeology, artifacts, the Sarasota Bay’s marine resources and the people of the Rancho era – Native Americans, Spanish explorers, Anglo-American settlers and maroons.

The game is available in English and in Spanish, and both come with instructional materials teachers can use to introduce the games and teach the history they allow children to relive.

In a recent paper, at the annual meeting of the Florida Anthropological Society, on the games’ development, Baram asks this question: “Is this public archaeology?”

He notes that many computer games touch on archaeology. Some, like “Tomb Raider,” are simply adventures. Virtual dig simulations teach scientific aspects of excavations. The Rancho games are different.

“I have not wanted to train young children in excavations,” Baram said. “I want them to appreciate the peoples of the past, connect past and present, and think through material culture, both in terms of objects and landscapes, to the results of research, not the process of archaeology.”

“This type of addition to the toolkit of public archaeology will transform the past for our present, meeting the rising generation in Sarasota on its own platform to entice new insights and expand interest on the nearby past,” Baram said. "The Cuban fishing rancho industry is a fascinating chapter in Sarasota Bay history that should be better known."

Funds for the Rancho Race game came from the New Florida Initiative Grant to New College of Florida for the project, "Our Southwest Florida Coastal Watersheds: A Collaborative Integration of Research, Education, and Policy Outreach." The Sarasota Bay Rancho game was funded by the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County through EdExploreNext.

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