Opening remarks: Immersive Environments Colloquium at Vanderbilt University (9-10 December 2016)

Below are my opening remarks and charge for the Immersive Environments Colloquium at Vanderbilt University. Although the remarks include comments that I have already made on this blog, I thought it would still be useful to publish them here since, I think, they succinctly summarize how video games and digital game-based learning can benefit the humanities, specifically the field of medieval studies.

Video games are experience-generating systems; they tell stories. And since they tell stories, it is perhaps fitting that I start this colloquium with a brief one. A few months ago I had the opportunity to discuss digital game-based learning with a librarian from a large research university in California. The gist of our conversation was this: Why do you want to make a video game out of your project? Why not create a digital repository that merges existing archival materials with the 3D models that you make and open it up to researchers?

These, of course, were valid questions that led me, as I stood next to the coffee table fumbling around for an answer, to a moment of existential crisis that academics occasionally face. What am I doing here? Am I too deep into my own research that I have lost all perspective? What can digital game-based learning offer the humanities?

During my conversation with the librarian, I thought about a recent indie game that has garnered a lot of positive reviews. That Dragon, Cancer is a difficult exploration of one family’s experience with providing care for their son, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer at the age of 12 months. One challenging  scene in the game is, I think, particularly important for us to understand. In this scene the player must console the young child, who is “dehydrated and diarrheal, unable to drink anything without vomiting it back up, feverish, howling, and inconsolable.” Frantically clicking around on objects in the game to soothe the child, the player soon finds out that nothing works. The scene helps players understand – on a visceral level – the despair and frustration that all cancer caregivers sooner or later experience.

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 indeed 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. Words of a novel, once they are stripped out of the text by for-loops and regular expressions, become data points in a multidimensional array.

I think you see what I am trying to get at here. It is precisely the immersion and sense of presence that video games 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 the 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. Video games recenter ideas such as embodied cognition, empathy, kinesthetic learning, spatial narratives, and activity systems squarely in the middle of humanistic inquiry.

So, here we are. Either we all understand the powerful potential of video games, or we are all too deep into our own research and have lost all perspective. I prefer to think it’s the former. For two days we have the rare opportunity to think about – and to discuss! – how video games and immersive environments can enrich the teaching of medieval languages and cultures. It’s clearly time to “level up” in the field of medieval studies. To foster opportunities for rich conversation we have assembled researchers in second language acquisition, professional game designers, digital humanists, researchers in instructional technology and learning science, historians, and medievalists. Let’s make the most of this opportunity and talk as much as we can with each other.

Thank you, and game on!

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