Since I was very young, I have seen photographs of Jerome, AR. In one, my grandmother is standing in front of a black tar paper-covered barrack. She is holding my infant mother, who is wrapped in a wool blanket, a white cap on her head. There are icicles hanging off the rooftops. The landscape in these photographs is stark: miles of farmland and swamps, massive dark foliage and the visible chill of the Arkansas winters.
The writer's grandmother and mother at Jerome, 1943. Courtesy of the writer.
When I first heard about Drama
in the Delta, a new video game that takes place at the Arkansas Delta
internment camps for Japanese Americans, I wondered how — or if — it was
possible to construct a video game from an experience that I understand, as the
daughter and granddaughter of Jerome internees, as a time of irretrievable and
But Drama in the Delta — a collaboration between the Supercomputer Center and the theater department at the University of California, San Diego — turns out to be a surprisingly moving experiment in historical simulation. This past summer, a free download of the game’s initial level became available on dramainthedelta.org, allowing players a 3-D glimpse into the lesser-known Jerome and Rohwer, AR, camps, the only detention centers located in the racially segregated South.
The game’s first mission — additional levels will be released as the project receives further funding and public feedback — establishes the setting and mood of the Southern camps. The game takes place in 1944 on a day that the majority of internees are leaving Jerome. Players run through the empty camp as Nisei teenager Jane on a mission to retrieve beloved objects accidentally left behind. There is a sense of the desolation and repetitive nature of the space, the blocks upon blocks of barracks.
Jane approaching a guard tower at Jerome, in her search of her friend Akiko's belongings.
Delta is part of a genre of social justice-oriented gaming, which capitalizes on the ability of a video game to be both an aesthetic and educational experience. Websites like Games for Change (gamesforchange.org) showcase digital games that draw upon the expertise of academics and designers alike and intend to educate audiences about history and social issues by immersing players in visually stunning, elaborately fashioned worlds.
Jeff Ramos, a content manager for Games for Change, says that such social justice-oriented gaming allows for deeper levels of interactivity. “The ability to enter a different world and affect it, and be affected by it, creates a unique form of impact and understanding not commonly found in traditional media,” he says.
Photograph of internees creating sculptures from kobu, the root growths of cypress trees.
Emily Roxworthy, a theater professor at UCSD, leads the Delta project, and her research on the internment camps serves as the historical and theoretical foundation for the game. While a graduate student at Cornell University, Roxworthy started her investigation on the role of performance — such as in Kabuki and Noh theater — by prisoners in the internment camps. Such performances, Roxworthy says, were a means of resistance against the scrutiny of camp administrators and the public at large.
The video game centers on these performances and is populated by scenes and characters as wide ranging as African American day laborers who also sing in a blues group, Nisei teenagers performing Kabuki and a “Womanless Wedding,” a long-standing Southern tradition where men dress in drag and act out a wedding ceremony.
Jane with John, a day laborer at Jerome.
The game also explores how the Jerome and Rohwer camps were located at a complex nexus of race relationships in the American South. In one mission that has yet to be released, Kenji, a soldier in the 442nd all-Japanese American army regiment, arrives in Hattiesburg, MS, and is directed to take a bus to nearby Jerome for R&R. Caught in the middle of a black-and-white racial order, the game requires Kenji to choose whether to sit at the front of the bus with the whites or at the back of the bus with blacks.
“[Japanese Americans] were usually allowed, if they were willing to accept it, the privilege of being white,” Roxworthy says, adding that this scenario was based on historical accounts. However, most Japanese Americans struggled against that “privilege”; they could see what was happening to African Americans was unjust. “To pit themselves against African Americans seemed wrong,” she says.
Roxworthy argues that the exposure of Japanese Americans (who came from Los Angeles, Sacramento and California’s Central Valley) to the blatant racism of the Jim Crow South may have spurred later activism by internees. Civil rights pioneer Yuri Kochiyama, Roxworthy says, was interned at Jerome, and she witnessed firsthand the stark segregation between blacks and whites while performing a play she composed to white audiences outside of the camps.
In addition to replicating the era’s race relations, the team at UCSD’s Supercomputer Center strived for authenticity in constructing the visual world of the camps. They drew upon blueprints and archival photographs to meticulously re-create the 3-D world of Jerome. But the tendency of 3-D graphics to look plastic and sterile made it difficult to create a faithful representation. One former Jerome internee who consulted with the UCSD team on the game found that the camp looked too clean and perfect. “We spend a lot of time trying to degrade the environment,” Roxworthy says.
A map of Jerome camp, with the locations of Akiko's various belongings.
Despite efforts to make the game historically accurate, including integrating informational passages and photographs into the missions, there remain potential pitfalls in creating a video game around a weighty historical topic such as the internment. “The idea that the game would be all that someone might learn about the camps is really troubling,” Roxworthy says, pointing out that the Delta website provides more historical information and links to resources.
A storyboard, used in the planning stages of game, of Jane holding on to one end of a paper streamer as a train is about to depart Jerome.
Ultimately, Roxworthy hopes Delta will provoke an emotional reaction among players, namely empathy with the character being played. When I finish the first mission, an animation plays of a train about to depart Jerome. Passengers uncoil rolls of paper streamers to those who stand below, those who will remain in the camp. As the train leaves the station, the streamers become taut and break.
Illustration of Jane grasping at streamer.
I am participating in a moment, in a place that I have only known through black-and-white photographs. I am seeing Jerome in color for the first time. And it is a remarkable sight.
Cathlin Goulding is a books editor for Hyphen. She last wrote about Mr. Hyphen 2010, Kyle Chu.
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