The long arc back into 3D digital game-based learning

While I was enrolled in the Instructional Technology and Learning Sciences Program at Utah State University (2004-2007), I became very interested in the use of digital game-based learning, immersive virtual environments, and instructional simulations as a way to teach humanities topics. At the time this interest fortuitously aligned with the emergence of the “digital humanities” as an area of scholarly activity in the United States, although my background and training in instructional technology led me, I think, to be more concerned with how to create instructional goals, performance objectives, and context analyses than other people working in the digital humanities were. One of my earliest articles, a synthesis of contemporary pedagogical, instructional design, new media, and literary-historical theories, was an attempt with Brett Shelton to articulate guidelines for designing and developing 3D digital game-based learning (3D-DGBL) environments to teach literature and history.

Although I think the article was a needed contribution for understanding how these types of environments can be used to teach humanities topics, I nevertheless came away with the feeling that it was perhaps a bit too theory-heavy and prescriptive. I think I was listening too much to what the theory says 3D-DGBL environments should be doing instead of discovering how these environments actually function in an instructional setting. It is not bad, I suppose, to rely on theory as a way to initially approach and attempt to understand a new technology, but in the end I felt a strong need to interrogate and understand the technology on its own terms.

At the time I was an assistant professor of German and most of my courses were introductory language and culture courses; I was teaching no literature courses and certainly not anything in medieval studies. I was also unaware of anybody else doing research in 3D-DGBL for literature and history. Since I wanted to have something that I could test in the classroom, and since I also wanted to have something tangible that I could submit with my tenure portfolio, I decided to shift my focus away from literature and history toward second language acquisition. In hindsight, this was not a bad move for me professionally since I was able to start two major research projects, both of which led me to understand the affordances of various game platforms more fully and to open a research agenda examining the use of 3D-DGBL environments to develop mental narratives. Here are a couple of videos distilling what I discovered on this journey:

Life, however, is full of circular motions and once again I find myself moving back into 3D-DGBL for literature and history. In a few weeks I will be presenting my research at the Immersive Environments Colloquium at Vanderbilt University, a two-day event exploring best practices for creating synthetic immersive environments and 3D historical adventure games for teaching medieval languages and cultures. Unlike six years ago, when I first tried to find a connection between the humanities and 3D-DGBL, it seems that now there could potentially be more people interested in how immersive environments can complement humanities teaching and research. A lot of this interest, of course, may derive from the buzz around virtual reality. That being said, I don’t think it is a bad thing to get a bump from this interest as it provides us with an incentive to rethink how digital game-based experiences can help students approach well-trodden humanities topics in new ways that support embodied cognition, empathy, kinesthetic learning, spatial narratives, and activity systems. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it is precisely the immersion and sense of presence these 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. Hopefully, this time around, my loop back into 3D-DGBL for literature and history will have a longer and deeper arc. I will, I think, be better prepared for the journey with both a theoretical and a practical understanding of the technology.

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