An educational video game about shipwrecks packs an immersive punch.
The opening screen in The Legend Of The Lost Emerald, a game released in February by PBS Wisconsin and UW-Madison’s Field Day educational games lab, pans upward across a long freighter, torn in half and sinking at a steep angle. It’s a striking introduction for a game primarily meant for fourth-graders to play in Wisconsin classrooms. The game’s protagonist, Jules, boats and scuba-dives her way across Lake Michigan and Lake Superior to investigate a series of shipwrecks, each a lightly fictionalized version of an actual wreck. It’s meant to get students interested in regional history—one story connects back to the massive Peshtigo Fire of 1871, for instance, and the game ties in with a recent PBS Wisconsin documentary titled Shipwrecks!—but more importantly to give them a feel for how we piece that history together. (Full disclosure: I worked for WisContext, a joint project of PBS Wisconsin and Wisconsin Public Radio, between 2015 and 2018.)
The Legend Of The Lost Emerald is meant to be played in Chrome with just a mouse, and the gameplay has enough guardrails on it that an elementary-schooler can finish it in two class sessions. The game’s creators have packed more than enough emotional depth and visual texture into this simple interface to draw in older players.
“The really neat thing about when you make an educational game is that it has to be really simple to interact with,” says Terra Lauterbach, who served as lead engineer on Emerald and has been developing games since the early 2000s. “So what you get from that, is that almost anyone can play it, right? You kind of get it for free, where … even though it’s a game for kids, it still maps on to [older] people who still have interest in [the subject matter].”
In each level, Jules dives down to an unidentified shipwreck, takes photos, and searches for the truth with help from archivists, maritime archaeologists, and her family members—who have their own connections to a Great Lakes shipping tragedy. A corkboard in Jules’ office gives the game its central mechanic. Only by forming solid, empirical links between fragments of evidence can Jules really tell the stories behind the intriguing remnants—a section of hull with a name partially faded away, a 1920s sedan gathering barnacles on the seafloor, a newspaper clipping, and so on.
Field Day’s Creative Director, Sarah Gagnon, says this approach helps students “embody the practice” of history instead of just reading about it. A real scientist or maritime archeologist, Gagnon points out, doesn’t simply gather information or read things or take pictures. They have to get hands on and go through a whole process of assessing their clues and making connections. The board is a way of giving students a bit of that experience.
“Eric [Lang], who’s our lead graphic designer, came up with the board,” Gagnon says. “We were very inspired by those big boards you see on TV shows or whatever where somebody is kind of obsessive, they have got a big wall and pins and yarn together. We just love that as a kind of visual inspiration.”
Discovery and tragedy
The game does have to strike an emotional balance for young players, given that it’s dealing with catastrophes where real people died horrible deaths. It manages to make space for the gravity of these losses without dampening the thrill of discovery. “You can see in the game that it’s not hidden that there are sad aspects to these stories, but I don’t think it’s overwrought either,” says Alyssa Tsagong, PBS Wisconsin’s Director of Education.
The writing team also grappled with this, in part by giving the story a bigger arc as Jules’ family tries to understand what happened to her grandfather, a Great Lakes ship captain. “I wanted to make it more than just, like, ‘Here’s another hard, horrible thing for you to encounter,'” Gagnon says.” A shipwreck is really about lives being lost, a ship being lost. I wanted to bring them into a story that showed a family healing through that, and not just another loss getting thrown at them.”
Art and music help the game achieve a balance as well. Reyna Groff‘s watercolor paintings form the basis of animated cutscenes that depict how each shipwreck in the game happened. The paintings’ tactile detail and delicately blending colors come through on screen, creating rich atmospheres that drive home the scale of these tragedies and the fearsome power of the Great Lakes. The game’s art team—which also includes Rodney Lambright II, Emily Meredith Lewis, Mary Benetti, Forest San Filippo, and Eric Lang—helps Emerald feel sleek but also as warmly inviting as a well-worn storybook. In the background of Jules’ office, Lewis created accurate yet adorable posters detailing Lake Michigan’s native and invasive species.
Madison-based musician Luke Bassuener created Emerald‘s music with a mix of percussion, trumpet, accordion, and software instruments that emulate marimba and vibraphone sounds, with post-processing by Cyril Peck. The music sets a contemplative mood, but there are elements of tension that help to round out the game’s emotional gravity. The score’s lilting rhythms also pair well with the sounds of waves, scuba breathing, and snippets of radio noise. It’s one of those video-game scores that you can leave on a pleasant loop for a long time.
Gagnon says Field Day often looks outside the realm of educational games for inspiration. She cites Lucas Pope’s game Papers Please as one influence on Emerald. In Papers Please, Gagnon says, “you have a set of rules, and you get like, information that comes in. And then you have to, like, handle that information.” While playing the game I couldn’t help but be reminded of Gareth Damian Martin’s In Other Waters, a gorgeous sci-fi game that also involves diving and gathering bits of evidence to reveal a larger story, albeit on an alien planet. Gagnon says In Other Waters might have been an inspiration early on in the development of Emerald, but less so further into the process.
Lauterbach, whose big tasks on the game included the complex work of making the evidence board function, had a different frame of reference. “I think it was more of a genre of interaction that I was thinking of,” Lauterbach says. “If you think of working with, like, flowchart software—I don’t know, if you’ve ever done that, but you have nodes of things that need to be connected.”
Students played an essential role in the game’s creation. Field Day and PBS Wisconsin partnered with elementary-school teachers across the state, who then led hundreds of students in play-testing Lost Emerald. Their responses helped Field Day’s developers and writers fine-tune the technical workings of the game as well as the story. For instance, the final version of Lost Emerald includes a bit of a subplot where Jules complains that her sister, Reya, is too interested in finding treasure and not in uncovering the history of shipwrecks. The writing team of Lindy Biller, Eric Lang, and Gagnon incorporated that as a way of making the game more relatable to a specific age group.
“We had initially been writing these characters as embarrassed of their dad,” Gagnon says. “And we did some tests with the kids and it just didn’t read to them. They were like, ‘I love my dad!’ None of the embarrassment writing worked. And so we did a hard pivot towards ‘my sister drives me crazy.’ And then all the kids were like, ‘Oh, this girl is so bad. We hate her.’ It was amazing. Some of the quotes were like, ‘She only cares about treasure. I care about the things that matter.'”
One of the teachers involved, Larry Gundlach of New Century School in Verona, tested the game with second- and third-graders, as part of what has branched out into an extensive series of lessons and activities that center around shipwrecks. Along with fellow New Century teacher Courtney Bennett, Gundlach took students on a field trip to frozen Lake Mendota in March. They drilled through the ice and used underwater cameras to take a look at the smaller sites of wreckage Lake Mendota has to offer, including a sunken Ford Model A car.
New Century students also modeled shipwreck explorations in other ways, like using ropes to map the life-sized outline of a ship in a field, then surveying it with a drone. Another planned activity will involve sending students into a swimming pool to explore a “shipwreck” (cleverly arranged dive toys) and take notes on special underwater paper.
Gundlach recalls one student during play-testing seizing onto the GPS coordinates provided for one shipwreck in the game. The student wondered if those coordinates were actually in Lake Michigan, or possibly the actual site of a shipwreck. Gundlach plugged the coordinates into Google Maps, and it turned out to indeed be a spot in Lake Michigan. They started zooming in on the Google Maps satellite images and noticed a bit of a shadow, which active imaginations turned into a possible shipwreck outline. When we spoke in mid-March, Gundlach told me that his students had been doing shipwreck-related activities for about four months, “and to their credit, it was only last week that I think I got the first report of a kid saying ‘I’m bored with shipwrecks, when are we going to be done?'”
Tsagong recalls a different session with students where one asked why an archivist character in the game doesn’t get to go on dives. “Another child leapt up, threw their arm [and said] ‘because being an archivist is a whole job!'” Tsagong says.
Teachers and students at New Century also used a Twitter account to document their wide-ranging journey through shipwrecks. It’s impressive to see how much they got up to, and this is just one of many schools involved in both shaping and learning from The Legend Of The Lost Emerald.
“To me, it doesn’t matter so much that our topic is shipwrecks. it could have been pretty much any other thing,” Gundlach says. “But being part of a learning community that’s wider than your own classroom or broader than your own family, or that extends out beyond your particular school, where there are kids that other schools doing the same work where you’re doing, we’re sending Twitter messages out and getting responses from people at PBS Wisconsin or Field Day—it really validates for the kids I think, it takes them seriously. And it validates the work that they’re doing. I think it inspires a higher quality of work from them when they’re taken that seriously, and respected to that degree.”