Virtual embodiment, deep learning, and the humanities

Although the topic of digital game-based learning and gamification did not make this year’s New Horizon Report (it was mentioned in the 2014 report), I was happy to discover an interview with EDUCAUSE President and CEO, Diana Oblinger, in which these instructional approaches were mentioned first on a list of three trends that will impact the future of information technology in higher education:

Leading into a brief discussion of how virtual environments develop fluid intelligence and problem-based learning skills, she states that this “technology can be inseparable from the person and yielding much bigger returns in terms of learning.” I found this comment particularly interesting given my past research into 3D digital game-based approaches to learning a second language and culture, and how the sense of “presence” and virtual embodiment in these environments led to increased instructional gains.

To summarize my research study: I designed and developed a 3D game to teach German two-way prepositions and specialized vocabulary within a simulated real-world context of German recycling and waste management systems. I theorized that students who were immersed in this environment would have an advantage over students who were not when it came to producing written narratives describing an imagined situation closely resembling the gameplay of the environment. If students were to experience an event beforehand — even virtually — this lived experience should powerfully influence how they wrote about it afterward. Basically, personal experiences in the game world would require students to develop “story maps” for organizing and managing the problem spaces they encounter there, which in turn would be called upon afterward to structure their written narratives.

A comparison of the written narratives produced by the control and experiment groups reveals a marked difference in the way that both groups structured and interpreted the activity of their imagined personal experience. The written narratives produced by the control group seemed to focus primarily on the final stage of the activity system, the disposal of an object in the appropriate recycling or waste management container, whereas the written narratives generated by the experiment group tended to pay more attention to all stages of the system, with significant attention being paid to the acquisition stage.


More subtle differences emerged in the way that both groups construed the problem space of their imagined personal experience. The written narratives generated by the control group tended to describe the problem space primarily in terms of objects found solely in the the recycling and waste management systems. Although factually correct, these narratives described a problem space that was oddly devoid of other objects that could potentially serve to anchor these systems within a broader real-world context. On the other hand, the written narratives generated by the experiment group tended to frame the problem space within broader real-world contexts. Some written narratives in the experiment group even began to adopt the perspective of the first-person player interface from the environment. In sum, the experiment group tended to produce written narratives of the imagined space that were not contextually isolated and disembodied, as did the control group, but rather physically situated within a simulated real-world setting of a German pedestrian zone.


So, how can an increased sense of presence and situated activity be leveraged to teach humanities topics? Thinking about this question has brought me full circle back to my roots as a medievalist and my dissertation on the role that embodiment plays in Mechthild of Magdeburg’s mystical theology. As I discovered, representations of the body in Das fließende Licht der Gottheit (“The Flowing Light of the Godhead“) are situated at the intersection of numerous social, cultural, and theological discourses, and Mechthild’s perception of her body, as well as the manner in which she negotiates her authority, are ultimately embedded in and defined by these discourses. Could a well-constructed 3D game and the sense of virtual embodiment it affords be a more powerful way to access and teach these medieval discourses of the body? If it is — and this is certainly a topic I will start to investigate at an upcoming NEH summer institute I will be attending — colleges and universities with a liberal arts focus may be the few places where such games could be researched and developed as larger publishing houses, I have discovered, seem to focus more on maximizing their return on investment. Although this business model may benefit more popular disciplines (e.g., Spanish and Biology), less-popular disciplines (e.g., German and Medieval Studies) may potentially be marginalized as innovative and forward-looking digital resources are developed.

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