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Campus Currents May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2

Japanese Internment— Press 'Play' to Learn

During WWII, more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans were forced into “War Relocation Centers.” Most of these U.S. internment camps were west of the Mississippi, but two were in Arkansas, in the Jim Crow South.

Some 15,000 people of Japanese descent were interned in the Rohwer and Jerome camps built in the impoverished southeast corner of Arkansas known as the Delta. In a matter of weeks, these barbed-wire enclosures, located in an area already rife with racial tensions, became the state’s fifth and sixth largest cities.

The Arkansas camps first fascinated theater historian Emily Roxworthy several years ago when she heard two former internees speak about the camps’ cultural activities. As young girls held at Rohwer, these octogenarians had participated in Kabuki plays—a form of Japanese theater traditionally reserved for male performers.

Roxworthy, an associate professor in UCSD’s Department of Theatre and Dance, also learned of blues concerts and judo exhibitions in the camps and of drag and black-face minstrel shows. The dramatic potential of the internees’ stories and of performances that, in Roxworthy’s words, were “practiced as a mode of survival” led to “Drama in the Delta,” a 3-D role-playing video game that recreates the camps and allows players to experience the oppressive conditions for themselves.

Together with co-project director Amit Chourasia of the San Diego Supercomputer Center, who oversees a team of student programmers and artists, Roxworthy is turning one of the darker chapters of U.S. history into an educational experience.

But “Drama in the Delta” is no dry lesson or preachy lecture. Each avatar has a mission to complete. “Problem-solving is a way to engage with the history critically,” Roxworthy says, “and is also, simply, more fun.” An element of entertainment, she argues, is necessary to keep players at the computer, learning.

“Drama in the Delta” is funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities. A full version of the game could be freely available on the Internet as early as 2013. In the meanwhile, you can follow its progress at dramainthedelta.com.

—Inga Kiderra