Virtual Oakland, Downtown Jazz

One of the winners last year in Knight Foundation’s News Challenge Grant was UC Berkeley’s Journalism Department professor Paul Grabowicz. The $60,000 award went toward “the development of an online video game, Remembering 7th Street, that recreates Oakland’s jazz and blues club scene from the 1940s and 1950s.” Poynter Online’s interview with Grabowicz (the source for this quote), is thought-provoking for its insight into the use of games for telling stories meaningful to people and community.

7th Street, once a thriving Bay Area mecca for jazz and blues performance, was decimated through a series of ill-fated redevelopment projects. The video game attempts to tell the story of the musicians, clubs, and people who lived there during the Second World War and immediate post-war eras. Oakland’s African-American community newspaper, the Oakland Post, has also supported the project and run stories on the neighborhood’s history.

In the interview, Grabowicz says, “[W]e’re trying to use video games to reconnect people with their community, their culture, and their heritage. … Games and video games will be a way that news organizations of the future tell stories. … All of these technologies are challenging, to say the least. They’re upending the news industry. We don’t know what the future looks like as a result of all that. But these same technologies offer opportunities to tell stories in wholly different ways that are more fulfilling and engaging for the communities we serve.”

That seems to me one of the most important insights from this interview. Grabowicz observes that he is not attempting to create a video experience for a national audience – this is about a community, for the community, Oakland, the East Bay, and people who care about urban development, and jazz and blues.

This is a lesson of equal weight and importance for publishers. There are going to be wholly new ways of telling stories – interactive fictions, games, videos – that are educational, immersive, and engaging. Often, they will be local in one dimension or another – place, time, community, people, or interest – and they will have as much or greater worth as traditional narratives and story-telling.