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Cultural Analysis, Volume 7, 2008

Playing Folklorists Online: Teaching about Folk Art through Interactivity

Natalie M. Underberg
University of Central Florida, USA

Abstract: This review concerns an online game designed to teach elementary school students about the artists on, an interactive website about Florida folk artists. In the review I look at the way that the game allows players to play the role of folklorists involved in public programming by intentionally foregrounding the research and public programming encounters within the structure of the game. The objective of the game is to successfully plan a Folkvine public event at which the artists' website is premiered to members of the public. The "chance" cards in the game are kernel narratives about the experience of doing public arts programming, answering the "task" cards mimics the ethnographic encounter of doing field research and learning about artists, and the "junction" cards imitate the brainstorming about the titles/themes of artists' sites. The project is intentionally playful in more senses than one, and imitates the public programming/fieldwork work folklorists do in sharing community-based arts.


The Folkvine project ( is an effort to utilize new media to share the stories of Florida folk artists and their communities on the internet. Through the use of digital media, the project seeks ways to present and, most importantly, experience their art and culture as well. This form of online ethnographic storytelling provides an arena for enacting the research process in a way that moves beyond text-based presentation. The design and navigation structures of the websites on seek to simultaneously present the context for understanding cultural stories and the experience of ethnography and ethnology (method and interpretation). By creatively exploiting the characteristics of digital environments, reflects the narrative and reflexive trends in anthropology and folkloristics (Pink 2001; Van Maanen 1988).

The Folkvine elementary school game is an online board game created through the joint efforts of the University of Central Florida and the Florida Department of State Division of Cultural Affairs . Elementary school students at Sterling Creek Elementary in Orlando, Florida, created brightly colored artwork for the game, based on the artwork of Folkvine artists Lilly Carrasquillo, Ruby C. Williams, and Kurt Zimmerman. The game board consists of seventeen spaces for "task" questions about individual artists, as well as several "junction" spots (addressing key themes and requiring a detour if they are answered incorrectly) and "chance" spots (relating to unforeseen events and circumstances surrounding the Folkvine public events). Although there are three main game boards focusing on three artists, the questions involve, to some degree, all of the seven artists featured in the first two years of the Folkvine site (including Taft Richardson, Ginger LaVoie, Wayne and Marty Scott, and Diamond Jim Parker).

The player joins the Folkvine team as an event planner in-training, and must complete several steps along the way. First, the player mixes and matches a bobblehead avatar from various parts and color options. The player then chooses an artist from a splash page. When the user picks an artist, he/she is taken to the game board for that particular artist. The game board reflects the art and life of the artist. For example, Lilly Carrasquillo's board has drawings of coquis (a type of frog common to Puerto Rico and the figure which she first sold when she became an artist) and Mexican sun masks (a form of art she creates).

Then the player can begin the game. There are three types of cards on the board. The "task" cards send the player to the artist's site to answer questions about the artist; question topics generally concern the motivations behind, uses of, and history of various artistic practices. Solutions to these questions take the form of a multiple choice answer and a freeform response which expands on the multiple choice answer. The "junction" cards are in play at two main points in the game. These cards require players to name the theme or overarching metaphor that structured the creation of the artist's site and provides the rationale for the public program's title—information that can be inferred from an exploration of the site. Players are evaluated on the basis of these answers; if players provide poor responses to these fundamental questions, they are sent off on a detour lined with more task card spots so they may learn more about the artist. Finally, when players land on certain spaces, "chance" cards are drawn. These cards represent challenges or opportunities for the folk art event planner. "Chance" cards have to do with the public event at which the artist's website is presented to the community. They address questions about the date, time, and place of event, as well as questions relating to refreshments and the presentation schedule. Answers are scored "really good," "acceptable" or "poor," and the player receives a different number of points based on his or her response to the "chance" card.

As an event planner in-training, the Folkvine elementary game player balances learning about the artist with considerations of how to present that artist to the public. After all, an understanding of traditional arts cannot be usefully separated from the folklorist's encounter with the forces of the real world that influence the public presentation of this art.

"Task" Cards: Imitating The Ethnographic Encounter

Sarah Pink notes that:

…working with hypermedia we can make multi-layered audio visual reflexive representations of anthropological research that allow students to 'look behind the text' (both written and visually) to fieldwork experiences…By combining visual and written texts and printed and electronic media we can come closer to representing and learning in a way that draws theory and experience together. (2004, 218, 220)

The Folkvine game enables this drawing together of "theory and experience" that Pink cites by bringing students "behind the scenes" to explore in search of answers to relevant art- and culture-based questions raised in the ethnographic encounter. Like the ethnographic fieldwork on which the project is based and which the game mimics, "task" card topics deal with biographical issues, themes or topics in art, inspiration, cultural and geographical context, materials and processes in art, stories behind pieces of art, and so on. Questions for the Puerto Rican artist Lilly Carrasquillo's game, for example, concern definitions of traditions and art ("What is a vejigante mask?"), functions ("When are vejigante masks traditionally worn?"), changes to the tradition ("How has Lilly changed the tradition when she made her own ofrenda?"), themes in the art and values of the artist ("What does Lilly say is the most precious thing in the world? Answer: the sun"), and inspiration ("What kind of art has Lilly made inspired by the Taino Indians?"). These questions delve into a variety of topics relevant to the understanding of an artist's work and life.

"Junction" Cards: Imitating The Brainstorming Process

"Junction" cards result in the player advancing or being blocked in the progression of the game. These cards parallel the work of the folklorist who, in planning community events, seeks to adequately interpret the folklore being presented to an artist. For example, again from Lilly Carrasquillo's game, "junction" questions revolved around appropriate titles for her public event, and major influences on her art. In the case of Lilly Carrasquillo's public event, for instance, the Folkvine team hopes students will grasp that she is an artist who draws inspiration from a variety of cultures to teach and share art. Students are encouraged to intuit this theme through the exploration of her site and its construction. If students answer these key questions incorrectly, however, they are sent back to answer more "task" cards before being permitted to try again.

The "junction" questions serve as reminders of the folklorist's job as advocate for the artistic expression of traditional cultures and artists, expressions that elite culture and the mainstream media frequently overlook. As advocates in-training, players of the Folkvine game enact the public acknowledgement of folk art in the public sphere (Russell 2006).

"Chance" Cards: Kernel Narratives About Public Arts Programming Experiences

As folklorists involved in public programming know, unforeseen events can impact the programs in ways that make for entertaining anecdotes, but not usually for scholarly material. The "chance" cards attempt to deconstruct just that idea. For example, a "chance" card from Lilly Carrasquillo's game reads:

A well known restaurant owner finds out about Lilly's event. She calls you and offers to write you a $200 check to help support your project. Do you:
a) take the money and use it for a celebration party after the event is over?
b) thank them but tell them you really need $500 because $200 isn't enough?
c) thank the donor, use the money on the event, and write them a thank you note

Other topics include publicity for the event, equipment malfunctions, or issues of language.

Questions such as these have their basis in real life experiences of the Folkvine team in planning public events. Several examples will suffice to illustrate. At an event for Ruby C. Williams, the Folkvine team found the community center locked upon arrival and the office closed. Incorrect directions had been printed on the invitations. Pope John Paul II died the day of Lilly Carrasquillo's event at the Puerto Rican Association in Orlando (a large proportion of whose membership was Roman Catholic). The city of Tampa and the University of Central Florida could not come to an agreement on a bomb threat clause in the community center contract for Taft Richardson's event; as a result, the Folkvine team was forced to host an event for over 100 people without the requisite insurance. These circumstances formed the basis for "chance" questions in the game.

Brian Moeran argues:

As an anthropologist, how I record talk and accompanying stories also reflects my own craft of telling stories…In other words, the writing of stories is itself a story of writing, in which, as author, I choose to select certain themes, on the basis of perceived relevance and importance, and ignore others. (2007, 161).

Similarly, Linda Finlay argues that reflexive stories: "open a window on areas that in other research contexts would remain concealed from awareness…[and aim] to expose researcher silences" (2002, 541). With Moeran and Finlay, the Folkvine team members decided that instead of occluding issues of public presentation from the public record, they would draw upon actual experiences, using pseudonyms and other techniques to guard privacy in situations that might be sensitive. Occurrences such as those outlined above are part of the politics of planning an event. Exposing students not only to the cultural context of art but also to the socio-political context of public arts programming provides students with a grounded, holistic view of arts facilitators and artists as members of a complex social network.


Timothy Taylor (2002) and Adam Chapman (2004) view digital technology as inherently social. Digital media may in fact lead to further social isolation in certain cases, but it can also be used to effectively imitate social processes in ways that draw young people into an appreciation of the culture around them. The Folkvine elementary game employs strategies like imitating the research and public folklore presentation process as part of the structure of the game. Rather than leaving this information on fieldwork and public arts work outside the educational game itself (and relegating it to anecdotes to be shared orally or in written form with colleagues only), the Folkvine team has incorporated it into the logic of the game and of the educational experience. Playing the game, then, requires young players visit the artists' websites to research answers to important questions about the art, give appropriate responses to chance events that are inspired by real experiences of the Folkvine team, and identify the key ideas that express the main themes of the artists' work and worldview. Players of the game thus become public sector folklorists in-training and, through this interactive experience, come to understand important lessons about art in its cultural context.

1The Folkvine Team consisted of an interdisciplinary team of faculty and students at the University of Central Florida. The Folkvine project was funded for three years by the Florida Humanities Council. The curriculum project this review addresses was funded by the Florida Department of State Division of Cultural Affairs and directed by Kristin Congdon and Natalie Underberg. Chantale Fontaine and Nathan Draluck created the programming for the game, and Lynn Tomlinson provided art direction expertise. [ Return to the article ]

Works Cited

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