Log in Subscribe

Sunday Favorites: Merging History with Modern Technology

Rancho screen shot. 

I never played video games when I was a kid. I wasn’t allowed to.

My dad didn't like the idea. He said my brother and I would have to save up our own money if we wanted a game system. My brother did, but to me it wasn't worth paying for.

As small children, we were never exposed to video games. When my brother and I were at our babysitter's house, a single Nintendo with two controllers served about 15 kids. Only the older kids got to play; like Piggy and Ralph fighting for the Conch shell, the controllers went to those who were most worthy.

I’ve always had the opinion that video games were basically useless. What good was a bunch of simulated sports and violence anyway?

And so it has been surprising to see a new kind of video game, which incorporates history, for what one Sarasota area professor thinks is a great opportunity for area kids to learn about the past while having fun.

New College Professor Uzi Baram is launching a computer game in the vein of "Oregon Trail", the popular game that gave kids a chance to tame the 19th century west; this time, kids can learn the history of the Sarasota Bay region in the 1800s.

"Rancho Race" and "Sarasota Bay Rancho" are games that immerse children in the culture of Florida pioneers, getting to experience the lives of seasonal Cuban fishermen who fished local bays and cultivated area grass flats, building settlements along the Southwest Florida coast.

Travis teaches Miriam the basics of the game.

According to Baram, the games can be a "powerful medium" for learning and a way for kids to see Sarasota Bay in a “new light through engagement in the video game.”

Seasonal Spanish fishermen would fish area waters and sell their products in Cuba. They used to construct palm-frond huts near the shore as shelter. They dried and salted fish for trade in the Cuban market. The most popular species was mullet that they caught in nets made of cotton twine. Mullet roe was considered a delicacy. 

"Rancho Race" attempts to recreate some of the historical plight of the Spanish, focusing in part on allowing two players to compete with each other, guiding their boats through currents and around islands to Sarasota fishing grounds. The boaters then have to return, dodging hurricanes, to get their fish back to market. The winner combines the most fish with getting back to the market first.

Perhaps even more realistically, in "Sarasota Bay Rancho", players direct an entire team of fishermen over the course of a season. Starting in Cuba, players purchase supplies and then choose a route to Florida, where they eventually build the facilities of a fishing camp, a rancho – housing, fields, drying and salting stations, and fishing nets.

With the rancho completed, the player can divide the team between catching, drying and salting fish. The player has to coordinate the team members’ work, keeping them rested and fed, while dealing with problems like torn nets and supply shortages, which can be solved by trading.

Baram hopes the game will appeal to a wide swath of kids, historians and knowledge seekers in an effort to highlight the unique and fascinating history of Sarasota Bay.


Beram, who says the wildly popular "Tomb Raider" games are simple adventures, thinks his two new games are an "addition to the toolkit of public archeology." With that kind of effort, he's hoping the games will teach people about material cultures, landscapes, research and the process of archeology.

"The Cuban fishing rancho industry is a fascinating chapter in Sarasota Bay history that should be better known," he said. "I want (kids) to appreciate the peoples of the past."

I'm not sure I've changed my stance on video games; I doubt I'll be heading out to buy the new Playstation or Xbox, but I'll think twice about what video games can provide.

If these new games help some kids to learn about the uniqueness of Sarasota Bay, and the plight of the Ranchero fishermen, then I could recommend it to anyone.


No comments on this item

Only paid subscribers can comment
Please log in to comment by clicking here.