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Video Games Can Bring Older Family Members' Personal History Back to Life

How video game designers are 'gaminiscing' World War II stories.

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In early 2019, media entrepreneur Mati Kochavi and his daughter Maya brought the stories of Eva Heyman, a Hungarian Jew who was murdered in Auschwitz, to social media with the simple question, “What if a girl in the Holocaust had Instagram?”Eva Stories” was a one-day project told through Instagram stories that amassed 200,000 followers before the morning it began and reached 1 million by its end the next day.

Regular people care about the past, and can now engage with it in new ways. As a researcher of games and aging, I’m noticing a trend emerging that has the potential to build even more powerful emotional connections with its audience, through the crackling voices of people who lived through important historical times and events. My fellow game designers and I refer to it as “gaminiscing” – using the tools of video games to share personal history.
These projects, including my own, combine audio recordings of their subjects with modern gameplay, letting players explore a virtual environment to hear – and sometimes even experience – meaningful life stories that are told to them by the older adults who lived through them.

In general, few video games portray older characters accurately. Often they’re presented as a cartoon, or an over-the-top caricature or in a dehumanizing way. Before gaminiscing, there was almost no opportunity for older people to use their own voices to tell authentic, personal stories.

“Grandma Game” is the working title of an intergenerational game by brothers and media artists James and Joe Cox, in collaboration with their grandmother, Barbara. The game is a walking simulator, a popular genre of video games in which players trigger stories by exploring 3D environments. In “Grandma Game,” players find themselves inside the watercolor paintings done by Barbara and her grandsons, while hearing her tell stories of what the images and places mean to her.

The game intentionally limits a player’s interaction, to make it more fun for Barbara herself to play it. “We want the game to be playable (and enjoyable) to her, so we have to design the controls and play around what she can understand and handle,” James told me in an email. “She sees it as a way to preserve her family’s history and as an opportunity to share skills with, and learn from, her grandchildren. Both our watercolor painting sessions and audio recording sessions have given us the chance to spend … quality time with our grandmother – time focused on creating work together as artists.”