“Traveler’s Notebook: Monster Tales”: A Video Game to Encourage Cultural Empathy

by Kaley Rittichier, Ball State University

“Traveler’s Notebook: Monster Tales” is a two-player digital game in which players travel the globe encountering monsters, piecing together stories, and acquiring new skills. They can travel to Africa, Asia, Oceania, Europe, North America, and South America. Each one of these locations has monsters specific to that location; these monsters exhibit something about their cultures. The goal of the game is to foster in children empathy for different cultures through monsters, who are engendered by their cultures.

This game is a product of a Ball State Immersive Course, created by a multidisciplinary group consisting of myself, nine other undergraduates, and a mentor. The game was inspired by a certain form of narrative gameplay which is exhibited in the board game Tales of the Arabian Nights. To us, the interesting aspect of the board game was its ability to represent the culture that appears in the renowned book of the same title. The question arose as to whether this same idea could be stretched further to include more cultures. This is how we began our project.

Using monsters as the theme wasn’t decided at the beginning, but a few weeks into the project. We decided on monsters as a theme because a) they are especially interesting to kids, and b) we realized that monsters have a quite unique unifying aspect to them, in that, although each culture has its own monsters, there can be, not only differences from, but also similarities to the monsters of other cultures.

It is important to note the level of empathy that we hope to achieve. There has been much research devoted to fostering empathy, especially in children,, none of which sets it up as an easy task. It  can’t be achieved simply by hearing a few facts about a culturally different  person/group. It is, therefore, important for us to note that we simply want to put a foot in the door regarding this

phenomena and give kids the idea that different people have different customs and views. This goal may seem small, but the understanding is crucial to a child’s ability to more fully empathize with people.

Jeffery Cohen, in his paper “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” offers terrific arguments about how monsters represent the culture that they reside in, specifically the cultures’ fears and customs. Cohen argues that a lot of the fear of monsters can come about because they challenge customs. This gave us some dimensions to work with when it came to writing the stories. On the one hand, the writers were able to have the monsters demonstrate their cultures through the way a player must deal with them. An example from the game is the way in which the player is supposed to deal with the Kappa. The Kappa, a monster from Japan, exhibits certain features of that culture by requiring customary mannerisms, such as traditional Japanese bowing to show respect.

The other way we can familiarize the kids with the cultures is through the fear that brought about the monster. An example of this is the New Zealand monster Taniwha. This monster shows the fear small villages had. The monster could be viewed as being good/helpful to the villagers because it would protect the village. The fear exists in that it might turn bad/hurtful, especially if villagers do not do certain things. This demonstrates to players some of the fears of living in a small village, leaving the players to wonder what it would be like to be one of the villagers.

One of Cohen’s main theses is  “The Monsters Dwells at the Gates of Difference” (7); that is, monsters represent differences, which makes them scary. This can obviously be seen as a drawback to our project. If we are showing other cultures through what is scary about them, are we just further instilling the scariness of otherness? Yet the stories in the game are written so as to showcase the sameness of a lot of the monsters. Some might be scary in different ways, but none of them are necessarily scarier than the others. All of the monsters incite fear, demonstrating a unity amongst the differences.
You can play–and find more information about–the game, including our paper in Game Learning Society (GLS), at:

www.travelersnotebookgame.com

Work Cited

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Monster Theory: Reading Cultureedited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. University of Minnesota Press, 1996. pp. 3-25.