Category Archives: Guides

Games, AR, VR and the Digital Humanities

Virtual museum tours (like those for the British Museum and Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership) can be tricky to get right. As someone with a background in museums, I was unsatisfied with the readability levels of the exhibit labels and panels featured in these virtual museum tours. However, I realize that for most individuals with a generic interest in history or art, a comprehensive non-detailed glimpse of some of the British Museum’s most renowned artworks would probably be sufficient. These types of museum tours could perhaps be supplemented with online exhibits to provide more details on the objects featured in the virtual experience. In my opinion, virtual tours are better suited for historic places, like Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site. The value in historic locations is inherent to their space, not necessarily any interpretive exhibit occupying the space, so less is lost in translation if images are not crystal clear.

The Civil War virtual reality experience presented by the American Battlefield Trust seemed to be the best virtual example out of the three. The experience was fully immersive and allowed participants to actively explore scenes while still providing structure and guidance. The visuals were crisp and the audio was multi-faceted. The video put forth a stellar example of what the life of a Civil War soldier may have been like on the battlefield. It can be difficult sometimes to tap into the elusive “x” factor that makes history come alive when using traditional history tools with the general public. That challenge is practically eliminated when a history project immerses participants in a Confederate/Union battleground. The same can also be said for the A Sailor’s Life for Me online game from the USS Constitution Museum. Just like the Civil War VR experience, the video game encourages players to step into and learn about a different life – that of a sailor on a US battleship. Whereas the VR project tackled serious issues head-on, the USS Constitution video game tackled similar issues somewhat more light-heartedly. Importantly, the game forced players to  make decisions along the way — something that none of the virtual tours utilized and the VR experience utilized only minimally.

As detailed in the Koke article, there is a risk that users of this type of media will develop the expectation that every interaction with history should be as engaging as a game or VR/AR experience they have encountered in the past. Over time, this can discourage individuals from interacting directly with sources or even simply picking up a book and reading about a topic in history. Additionally, as more experiences of this type are developed, consumers will demand more and more entertaining experiences, possibly cutting the educational elements entirely out of the narrative.

In reflecting on the kind of historical content that would and would not be best suited for these types of media, one thought came to mind: “Definitely not the Holocaust.” And yet, after a quick online search (in incognito mode, because that’s how hesitant I was even to put the words “Holocaust” and “game” next to each other), I came across an article about a game developer and a Holocaust survivor that are working together to release a video game to educate players about this monumental moment in history. If something as horrifying as the Holocaust can be turned into an educational video game, is there any topic in history that can’t be given the same treatment?

Podcasting and Digital Humanities

In my opinion, history is well-suited to the audio format. As Liz Covart stated in her 2019 AHR Interview episode, “humans are hardwired to receive information via oral storytelling.” This means that any attempts to do history via podcasting should lean hard into storytelling techniques and audience engagement. Podcasts like NPR’s Throughline, Omohundro’s Ben Franklin’s World, and Consolation Prize from the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media are thoroughly produced and utilize atmospherics like music, voice over actors, and interviews with guests to create an immersive narrative.

However, these elements are not necessary for all storytelling projects. Storytelling occurs naturally in our day-to-day lives in conversations with friends, family, and colleagues. I’m not sure about your conversations, but in mine, no editor is present to remove my awkward pauses or pipe in dramatic music. Podcasts like Dig: A History Podcast and the Waco History Podcast follow a conversational model, with minimal additional elements to enhance the story. Personally, I find podcasts that follow this model to be the most intriguing. It’s easy to be drawn in by “flashy” production techniques, but listening to a podcast with bare-bones editing can require an individual to listen actively instead of passively. This active listening can inherently increase the level of investment and engagement on behalf of the listener.

That being said, I’d love to see a highly edited history podcast about the eugenics movement in the United States. Books by Paul A. Lombardo, Adam Cohen, and the Buck v. Bell Supreme Court case could be used as inspiration for the podcast. The breadth of the project could be wide-ranging. Topics could explore Margaret Sanger, Nazism, genetic counseling, genome editing in human embryos, disability rights and the history of individuals with disabilities, miscegenation laws, and modern examples of coerced sterilization. A quick search reveals that a number of individual podcast episodes have already been released on the subject (Dig has 4 episodes that fall under their “eugenics” tag), but I am not aware of any shows that exist and are entirely dedicated to the topic. I think a topic of this nature would benefit from high-production efforts and increase the accessibility of the product, therefore increasing the potential audience base.

Regardless of the format and editing, doing history via podcast can have its challenges. So much of history is visual – photographs, letters, government documents. All of this is left out in an audio communication. The issue of how to credit sources referenced in the production of a podcast episode also needs to be resolved. Websites and show notes can be viable solutions for both of these challenges – encouraging listeners to visit a website for more information or to view images related to the episode – but this requires individuals to go beyond the original platform. Many people who listen to podcasts do so while multi-tasking: driving, performing chores, or exercising. I wonder how many listeners would actually follow through on these prompts from a host.

Take for example, the eugenics movement mentioned above. A podcast episode centered on Buck v. Bell could describe the tests that were performed on Vivian Buck that resulted in her being declared mentally deficient, then encourage listeners to visit Paul A. Lombardo’s website to view an accompanying photo. But if the listener is in the middle of a long run or about to walk into work, will they stop what they’re doing and look up the photo? Will the task be added to their to-do list? Will they ever actually engage the source? Regardless of the answers to these questions, the potential of podcasting is too rich to pass up. Podcasts allow listeners to access history on their own terms and on their own time – even if it means squeezing an episode in while tidying up the house.

A Guide to Ethical Dilemmas in the Digital Public Sphere

In module 10 of this course, we examined the potentially problematic situations of Wikipedia and deepfakes (video and audio). The 2 articles we read about Wikipedia presented a comprehensive view of crowd-sourced projects – its potentials, its successes, its pitfalls, and its failures.

I think in regards to Wikipedia, or any project where content can be easily and quickly modified, every user should always begin their engagement with the resource in a very guarded manner. Of course, it’s always a good idea to cross-reference sources and do your own fact-checking. A good place to start with Wikipedia would be the references section of a page. Ask yourself the following questions: How many references are there? Is every statement and every claim on this page substantiated by a reference?

Of course, just because a page has a lot of references doesn’t necessarily mean that the references are high quality or trustworthy. If a good portion of a page’s references come from reputable academic journals or scholarly works, however, this might be a good sign. This doesn’t give you the all-clear to take the Wikipedia page as gospel, it is merely a step in the right direction. It’d be a good idea to verify the contents of the page in other ways – reviewing the editors and contributors to the page, cross-referencing content with other sources, etc.

The other part of module 10 focused on the blatant fabrication of sources. Rapidly advancing technology like CGI, holograms, photo editing tools, and deepfakes mean that scholars, historians, and the general public will need to work that much harder to determine the veracity of the media and sources they consume. As with the Wikipedia example referenced above, a good place to begin is by answering some questions about the media: Who made this, where did this project originate from? What names (individuals/companies/organizations) are attached to this? How was this made? If this information about the project is not easily accessible – why not? Can this information be provided upon request? If not – why not? Generally, a lack of transparency is not a good sign.

Of course, things become a lot trickier in situations where authentic materials are intermingled with doctored materials, as was the case in the article we read concerning a documentary about Anthony Bourdain. To me, this is a worst-case scenario. The doctored audio clips of Bourdain’s voice were surrounded by authentic audio clips of his voice. The fabricated materials did not make up a significant portion of the audio in the documentary, and the content of the fabrications were relatively mundane. It’s easy to be skeptical of something that is blatantly unrealistic (see the 2014 Michael Jackson hologram). But when a lie is shrouded in truth and authenticity, it makes it that much easier for it to pass as reality. I don’t have a solid solution for this particular problem. The best advice I can give is to reflect on the creator or the origin of the source material. Does the originator have a reputation of putting forth truthful and forthcoming products? Or do they have a reputation of withholding information on the creative process and manipulating or bending the truth? These questions might be a good first step when encountering new material moving forward.

A Guide to Digitization

When digitizing material, it’s important to aim to recreate the in-person experience as closely as possible. Because of time, money, and space constraints, this can be virtually impossible to achieve, but nonetheless, every attempt should be made. Here are some suggestions to keep in mind when beginning a digitization project:

  • If possible, put forth representations in various mediums. If a photo is worth a thousand words, how much more valuable is a video, especially one with audio? Digitized photographs might make more sense for documents and photos, video and audio might be better suited for objects that have more dimensions.
  • Be transparent about the digitization process. Provide users with information as to how an object or document was captured, uploaded, and edited. Do not assume that the user doesn’t care or won’t understand the digitization process. Err on the side of caution and provide as much information as feasible. Users deserve to know how the representation they are consulting has been edited or modified, since it will impact their research and work.
  • What elements about the material are lost through the digitization process? Communicate this information to users when possible. While it may not be possible for a user to hold an item, provide information about the item’s weight and texture.