Imagine you’re 10 years old when you’re told to prepare for a dangerous journey across a vast desert.

You’ll have to load a cart with supplies, figure out how to ford a river, find water when it’s scarce and, ultimately, survive.

That’s what 22 third graders at a San Elizario school did this spring, virtually speaking. They tested a video game designed to teach them the history of the Paso del Norte region while building pride in the place they call home.

“The video game helps students understand the concept of traveling a trail, colonizing America years before the Pilgrims,” said Holly Packard Cobb, executive director of the Tom Lea Institute. “It puts a spotlight on our region, and helps students understand their own history.”

The game recreates the historic 1598 expedition of Spanish colonizer Don Juan de Oñate.

He led a caravan of colonists, priests, soldiers and livestock along El Camino Real, from New Spain right through what is now El Paso.

The game’s title, “Mighty Horses on El Camino Real,” refers to Spain’s introduction of horses as a mode of transportation in the American Southwest.

The institute provided the game’s content and learning strategies. Its design is the work of computer students and staffers in UTEP’s Academic Technologies.

“It’s a great way to show that games have educational impact because of the high engagement levels associated with them,” said Steven Varela, associate director.

“They teach beneficial skills – multitasking, problem-solving, being willing to fail and start again.”

Varela said his team got good feedback from the students at Alfonso Borrego Sr. Elementary School on the design of the first of three modules.

The plan is to make the game part of the third-grade curriculum in San Elizario next fall, and the El Paso school district is interested.

As students played the game, they are introduced to world-class artists who made El Paso their home: Tom Lea, Jose Cisneros and John Houser. Images of their famous paintings, illustrations and sculptures add visual depth to the game.

“When students are exposed to the rich cultural heritage of this region, they develop a pride of place they’ve never had before,” Cobb said.

The game may also help get international recognition for portions of El Camino Real in the United States. The Spanish royal highway in Mexico is already designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

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