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?

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