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TROPICAL AMERICA

2002

Tropical America was the third phase project of a US Department of Education media literacy grant to address issues of youth violence. OnRamp structured this project around issues of computer games which are very timely and important, especially in regards to the young people in central Los Angeles, most of whom are from recent immigrant families. In wanting to find a new and compelling way to connect young people to their history, OnRamp artists decided early on to create a database of historical texts, imagery and resources that would exist as a parallel web site to the online game.

To help visualize the terrain they would collectively explore, students drew maps of the Northern, Central and South America. One student map greatly enlarged the US while shrinking South America. Another map placed South America far above North America. “Many of these kids didn’t have a sense of where they were in the world. That’s very dangerous, especially as an immigrant. If you don’t have an anchor, you are easily swept away by the dominant culture” said Juan Devis, the project director for this phase of the project. Devis spent the following months presenting a series of lectures on 11 episodes of Latin American history, culled from a play he had previously written.

Then the students condensed these complex historical concepts into symbols that would serve as game icons. They were discussing relationships, causes and effects between historical events.” Student Lisa Burgos commented that she “valued learning so much history that I never got in school. After the workshops, I would go home and ask my dad ‘Did you know this event happened?’ and we would begin discussing it.” Students worked with visual artist Artemio Rodriquez, who produced the game graphics based on the historical symbols chosen by the students. Sound artists Weba Garretson and Mark Wheaton invited students to their local sound studio to record the game audio.

For many this was their first time visiting artists’ studios. According to student Irene Rodriquez, “This was my first time to really meeting artists, seeing their work and going to their studios. I never would have had the chance if I wasn’t involved in OnRamp.” Other artists – from game designers to novelists -- also presented a variety of perspectives that influenced students’ thinking about the historical game.

Tropical America is the result of a two-year journey of students and artists. After intense exploration of three levels of game design -- Character, Space and Interactivity – these Los Angeles students also realized that their modern lives reflect 500 years of Latin American history. In addition to this history, students gained digital media skills, explored their artistic talents and developed an understanding of game design. Most importantly, this historic journey empowered students to find their own contemporary voices.

>> VIEW THE PROJECT