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Undergraduate researchers develop video game to help understand how people get caught up in modern slavery

Pablo Solano (‘22) and Julia Gibson (‘22) have been exploring a new avenue to enlighten those in the anti-slavery community: a video game. In collaboration with the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery, and W&M Assistant Professor of Chinese Studies Paul Vierthaler, the two seniors have undertaken more than a year of research to develop what they believe is an innovative outreach and teaching tool.

“We realize how absurd it sounds to take such a dark matter and turn it into a game,” Solano acknowledged. “It's a lot of responsibility. A game about slavery raises a lot of alarm bells.”

Julia Gibson '22

But Solano, a Computer Science major with aspirations for a career involving game design, and Gibson, feel a video game may have a wider draw than a traditional slide presentation or reading assignment. The video game’s first audience would be professionals working for organizations like the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery.

“One of the biggest questions academia is facing is access,” said Gibson, who is double-majoring in History and Film and Media Studies. “This project just in its medium is a challenge to how you can present information. I think [the video game format] can be really unique and effective.”

Solano also hopes the game will reach a broader audience. “When people think of slavery, a lot of the times they think of American slavery, so I do think there’s a lack of awareness that slavery still happens in the world. Our hope is that a game will be more effective than a powerpoint and disseminate this information,” he said.

Solano and Gibson’s project is well-informed. The two researchers are basing the game off of data and in-depth interviews from a University of Massachusetts and Global Fund to End Modern Slavery report on labor abuses in Taiwan and Japan.

Dr. Shannon Stewart, Senior Data Scientist at the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery, explained that the study found forced labor to be shockingly common. Still, Stewart says, “It's a mistake to think that the migrants do not understand the risks or are going into it naively. They are all making the best decisions they have with the information available to them at the time. They do more-or-less understand the risks, but their options are very constrained.”

Pablo Solano '22For this reason, the game is interactive and players must act on unreliable or incomplete information. It is from the perspective of a person in Vietnam looking to migrate to Taiwan for work. As they make decisions about how and where they will work, the player communicates with others who either have an incentive to warn or mislead the player.

Dr. Stewart has migrated for work and experienced parallel challenges related to bureaucracy and incomplete information.

“It's a bit of a different situation for knowledge workers, but there are quests and side-quests, and new challenges open themselves up in stages. You think you have all your documents together and then realize you need an apostille birth certificate.”

Feeling the experience could translate to a game format, she pitched the idea to the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery. Solano and Gibson plugged the benefits of a video game versus less dynamic game format.

While their game draws inspiration from the emotional anecdotes, Gibson stressed that they did not adapt any one individual’s experience into the game. The game blends the experiences of many, emphasizing those which arose most frequently for the majority of people in the reports and data available.

“It's kind of a balancing act of trying to make it meaningful and compelling and trying to stay true to the data,” Gibson said.

Video GameSolano and Gibson have also had to balance their initial objectives with the reality of their situation. They are the only students on this project, both are graduating seniors who want to deliver a usable research product, and neither had seen a similar project created. There was no model for this innovative and applied undergraduate research, so they have sailing in uncharted waters.

Solano also noted that “it was a little intimidating at first encountering so much data. The Global Fund to End Modern Slavery gave us everything they had that would be appropriate to share, which was a lot of data to get thrown at us.”

Solano and Gibson are coming up on a year of working on this project. Their hope is to have a polished version of the first game level finished by the end of this semester.

Dan Cristol, Director of Faculty-mentored Undergraduate Research at W&M, said that research like this, which results in creation of new knowledge with real value out in the world, is characteristic of W&M’s undergraduate research experience. “I will bet you that both of these students end up talking about this project at length in their job interviews next semester” Cristol said, stressing that “undergraduate research is good for training aspiring researchers, but it’s even better for developing future knowledge workers who can solve problems independently and have original thoughts.”