UCI computer game explores culture of 18th-century Ghana


Magda El Zarki recalls hassling her children to stop playing video games and enjoy the outdoors.

She laughs at the memory now.

A visit to Ghana in 2010 inspired the UC Irvine computer science professor to try her hand at creating virtual reality spaces and later computer games.

She and Patricia Seed, a UCI history professor, and Jessica Kernan, an industry professional and a staff member at the college’s Institute for Virtual Environments and Computer Games, developed the computer game “Sankofa.”


Set in 18th-century Ghana, then known as Asante, the storyline begins when a mother sends her daughter to gather yams from the market. The mother cautions her daughter about Ananse, a trickster spider.

Gamers experience the West African country through folktales, cultural practices and daily activities of the Asante people.

The goal was to create a game suitable for teachers who want to teach African history, said El Zarki, who also is director of the Institute for Virtual Environments and Computer Games.

For now, it’s about an hour-long game, she said, though there’s hope that with additional funding it could be lengthened to 90 minutes with built-in lesson plans.

More than $200,000 was spent to complete what is available now, she said.

El Zarki previously collaborated with Seed to create a virtual reality piece on 15th-century Ghanian slave forts that El Zarki viewed on a visit to the country. The finished product, “Elmina,” allows users to virtually explore the forts.

“I thought this is so important for African-American history, it’d be a nice gesture to do that if kids are learning about the slave trade,” she said.

But feedback from students proved otherwise, some calling it “depressing” and instead suggested a game showing West African arts and culture.

El Zarki understands the hesitance in accepting games as educational tools.

Her viewpoint shifted after realizing her children knew more about Greece when they visited in 2007 than she had expected because they had played the “Age of Mythology” video game.

“I realized I guess there is something to games,” she said. “I realized games would be the future.”

To download “Sankofa,” visit

Twitter: @vegapriscella