Why the digital humanities could benefit from digital game-based learning

My presentation at the NEH Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) on 3D modeling of cultural heritage sites detailed the work I have been doing on a digital recreation of the Uncle Sam Plantation. During the presentation I also made a case for using the 3D models I have developed as the basis for an instructional simulation or serious game that would virtually recreate the spaces of the plantation complex and tell the lost histories of the people who lived there. Ideally I would like to create an virtual experience that would approximate, in a thoughtful manner, the real experience that a person can have at the Whitney Plantation.

It was at the end of this presentation, as institute participants were milling around the coffee on the table and waiting for the next session to begin, that I was asked an insightful and probing question that gave me pause. Why, a librarian from a large research university in California asked me, do you want to make a game? Why not create a digital repository that merges existing archival materials with the 3D models and open it up to researchers?

It was a very good question and, for a few minutes, I didn’t quite know how to answer it. After all, my participation in the DHSI had made me aware of the Herder Institute’s Digital 3D Reconstructions in Virtual Research Environments project, which seeks to reconstruct the lost architecture and interior decoration of palaces and parks in Former East Prussia. In addition to creating a Cultural Heritage Markup Language (CHML), a human-readable XML schema for semantic annotation and integration of various meta and paradata, the project also aims to foster new research in the area by creating a web portal for indexing sources, documentation, semantic modeling, and visualization of 3D data sets using WebGL. I could certainly see the strengths of this approach for plantation complexes in the United States. What would an instructional simulation or serious game have to offer that would be substantially different?

As I spoke with this librarian, feeling around for an answer to her question, I began to think of an indie 3D exploration game I read about and briefly saw being played at the 2015 Des Moines Mini Maker Faire. The game, That Dragon, Cancer, is an exploration of one family’s experience with providing care for their son, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer at the age of 12 months. This game, I suggested to the librarian, illustrates why the humanities could benefit from more digital game-based learning.

I have never played That Dragon, Cancer. My wife was treated for Stage 2 breast cancer a few years ago and I don’t know if I have it in me right now to deal with those emotions and experiences again. I certainly wouldn’t have the courage to deal with one of my own young children having cancer. But I suppose it is exactly these emotions and experiences that help me understand more fully how digital game-based learning can be so effective, and why we need more of it in the humanities.

I read in a Wired review that the idea to make the game grew out a wrenching experience that the game designer, Ryan Green, had in caring for his chemo-sick son:

Green’s idea to make a videogame about Joel came to him in church, as he reflected on a harrowing evening a couple of years earlier when Joel was dehydrated and diarrheal, unable to drink anything without vomiting it back up, feverish, howling, and inconsolable, no matter how Green tried to soothe him. He had made a few games since then and had been thinking about mechanics, the rules that govern how a player interacts with and influences the action on the screen. “There’s a process you develop as a parent to keep your child from crying, and that night I couldn’t calm Joel,” Green says. “It made me think, ‘This is like a game where the mechanics are subverted and don’t work.’”

Green—along with Josh Larson, his codesigner—built a scene around that idea, and in early 2013 they started bringing it to videogame expos to drum up interest. Players found themselves in a hospital room with Ryan, clicking the walls and furniture in search of some way to relieve Joel’s suffering and quiet his screams. Yet every action—rock him, bounce him, feed him—only caused the crying to intensify. On the soundtrack, Green’s voice grew increasingly frantic until, pushed to the edge of despair, he broke down in prayer, at which point the scene ended.

These “subverted mechanics” are the whole point of the experience and are, I think, what work so well in connecting the game with core human emotions. Normal game mechanics provide a sense of hope and forward motion; the sense that your activity moves the game towards a meaningful conclusion and resolution to the problem at hand. The subverted game mechanics Ryan Green describes have neither hope nor resolution. In fact, they even make you question your activity since every course of action only increases pain and suffering. But this, I suggest, is exactly what a caregiver for a person with cancer goes through: The helpless frustration, then the despairing anger, and finally the exhausted recognition that you are in uncharted waters and – if you are religious – completely dependent on a higher power.

As I discussed with the librarian, a 3D model of a chemotherapy infusion station could allow a person to see in hyperrealistic detail what oncologists and cancer patients see. Topic modeling of, say, cancer patient narratives could reveal hidden themes that provide deeper insight into the experience of chemotherapy treatment. A digital repository would provide a larger audience with access to these documents and 3D models, encouraging more research and scholarly engagement. But these approaches seem – to me, at least – removed and distant from actual human experience. 3D models can look unnaturally perfect and words of a narrative run the risk of being reduced to data points in a multidimensional array.

uncle_sam_plantation_02 (Time 0_02_02%3b03)

A prototype quest in the Uncle Sam Plantation project: Code and functionality will be detailed in a later post.

It is precisely the immersion and sense of presence these digital game-based experiences provide that make them so valuable – even essential – for the humanities. If designed reflectively and developed correctly, a digital game-based approach to humanities topics could provide a deeper understanding of a human experience, of the cultural and social systems that situate human activity and imbue it with meaning. It can grant access to the emotions and inner life of another person. Research in VR and video gaming has even mentioned the capability of these platforms to develop empathy, although there are certainly limits as well. This is, of course, not to say that 3D modeling or textual analysis are somehow inferior. On the contrary, these fields are necessary for understanding and designing the mechanics of a digital game-based learning experience. But it seems to me that many current digital approaches to the humanities place the textual and analytical in the foreground, and marginalize the experiential and emotive.

One of the primary reasons I decided to study the humanities so many years ago was to see the world from another perspective, to feel more deeply what others feel. Digital game-based learning, I think, can provide a doorway into this perspective. What is it like to be a caregiver for a cancer patient? What is it like to have a sister who comes out as lesbian? What did enslaved people experience on a plantation? Questions of this nature should not encourage mere emotional spelunking, and the virtual experience should certainly not be mistaken as being definitively real. That being said, digital game-based learning can, I think, provide the first step toward understanding and respecting the other.

4 thoughts on “Why the digital humanities could benefit from digital game-based learning

  1. Nice article David, thanks for writing and sharing. The librarian question about creating a repository instead of a game was answered well by you. It comes back to the question about why game-based learning is effective in the first place – it’s because games are an interactive, engaging, and personalized experience that are unique from any other media (including digital 3D repositories). Games are also the medium of choice for today’s gamer generation.

    Looking forward to hearing more about your project(s) in the future.



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