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Game Change: AU Senior’s ‘Code Switch’ Will Explore Identity

By Gregg Sangillo

Purple and blue computer and video game consoles over a white background.

AU senior Eric Vignola is creating a video game that explores complicated identity questions.

The new course on race and social identity, American University Experience II (AUx2), taps into the talent and ingenuity of the AU student body. Each class is assigned a student peer leader to work with an instructor-facilitator. Yet students have contributed in other ways, reflecting the dynamic work already being done on campus.

Eric Vignola is one of those contributors. He’s not only a peer leader working with AUx2 instructor Briana Weadock, but he’s creating a video game expected to be used for the class.

“I had no intention of releasing the game to anybody, but it just turned out that I was in meetings and some of the professors were talking about new types of media they wanted to put into the curriculum,” says Vignola. “Then it came out that I was working on a game myself.”

Code Switch

Vignola’s game is called Code Switch, relating to the practice of adapting speaking styles to specific racial, cultural, or ethnic groups. As part of the game, you might control a character who is purple, or you may be able to change a character’s color from purple to blue. The surrounding environment will react differently to a game character depending on his or her color at a particular moment.

It’s very much a metaphor for code switching, Vignola explains. “It depends on the vernacular I use, or the clothes that I wear, or even the racial makeup of the room,” he says. “If there’s somebody darker or lighter than I am, the environment changes, and the decisions that I can make with my peers change as well.”

Vignola is modeling Code Switch on the Super Mario Bros. games, with hopes of making the game both educational and enjoyable. He’s trying to avoid what he terms “chocolate-covered broccoli.”

“Sometimes [the game] is supposed to be fun, but it’s really not. And nobody’s having fun doing it. So, I wanted to make a game that even if you didn’t get the metaphor at all, it was still a good game,” he says.

Gaming and Identity

Vignola is a senior computer science major, but he’s also taken a number of sociology courses here. His nascent game reflects both his love of gaming and his desire for social change. His biracial background and personal passions influenced not only this game, but his academic career.

Eric Vignola

AU student Eric Vignola.

He grew up in Sicklerville, New Jersey, the son of an African-American mother and an Italian-American father. As a kid, that could spur awkward interactions with classmates. Some people mistook him for being Latino, and others joked that his mom and dad weren’t his biological parents.

Vignola assumed this was just kids being kids, and he didn’t confront the full ramifications of those comments until he arrived at AU. In creating Code Switch, he wanted to explore these complex identity questions.

“There are not many game developers who look like me, and there are even fewer games that are about being biracial,” he says.

He’s found that whether you’re biracial or not, a person’s experiences with code switching vary significantly.

“I think we’ve all felt lonely or isolated in a social environment at some point, and I’m hoping that everybody could at least identify with that in the game,” he says.

Vignola has personally struggled with code switching, and he says it can feel like a burden. “If I’m the darkest person in the room, I become the de facto minority. But if there’s somebody in the room who fits the stereotypical ‘black’ more than I do, all of the sudden I’m not black enough. It’s a weird space to live in,” he explains.

What You Want from Life

Set to graduate in May, Vignola is hoping to move to San Francisco—a hub for technology and gaming. He’d like to start working in a game development studio where he can learn and practice his craft.

At AU, he’s gotten excellent guidance from Joshua McCoy and Michael Treanor, both computer science professors who are also involved with the AU Game Lab. He’s also a Frederick Douglass Distinguished Scholar, and he says FDDS Managing Director Larry Thomas helped him “ask some of the tougher questions about what do I want from life and who do I want to be.”

He remains an enthusiastic believer in using games as tools for positive change. If kids are already spending countless hours mastering these games, there’s an incentive to harness that ability, he argues. Even if you’re just a game novice, you can learn from your mistakes.

“Life is not easy, and games offer a really beautiful way of creating a space for people to fail and feel like failure is OK,” he says. “The medium is so young that I think we’ve only seen a fraction of what kinds of games can be made.”