Bodies and Digital Embodiment

While working on the MakeHuman platform, I engaged with the pauper I had been researching in a new way. Being responsible for her body meant thinking about her recent pregnancy in physical terms. I had to negotiate between considering the extra weight she might have gained from pregnancy and the lack of nutrition in an 18th century pauper’s diet. Where in her body would each of these manifest? How would her labor tasks from before her pregnancy have affected her musculature? I realized I didn’t know and would have had to circle back to do new research.

Even though I couldn’t shape her appearance exactly as I wanted, I was able to engage in some substantive process-based questions during my MakeHuman session. After an avatar (a product) is built, though, those process-based experiences can disappear for the user, as the experience playing Dangerous Embodiments taught me. However, allowing a user to create an avatar without any historical information seems equally, if not more, at odds with process of building empathy in a historically authentic way.

Virtual St. Paul’s Cathedral Project

The Virtual St Paul’s Cathedral Project has ambitious goals if it wants to “enable us to experience worship and preaching at St Paul’s Cathedral and in Paul’s Churchyard as events that unfold over time and on particular occasions in London in the early seventeenth century.” On the website, these goals only come to us in constituent parts, through playable audio recordings, image captures, text-heavy descriptions, and a painstakingly slow flyover video. As such, it is not immersive or a “fun” game-play experience online. However, the version physically installed at NC State sounds more immersive. The promised experience of being surrounded by St. Paul’s sights and sounds does seem more achievable in a physical room than a flyover video. Hopefully the effects of the room will give them an atmosphere to strive for online as they continue to develop the project.

It is also worth noting that the visual and audio models meticulously represent aspects of St. Paul based on thorough historical research. Furthermore, the project’s creators are well aware that it is a work in process, so it seems unfair to evaluate it as a final product.

Sources:

“Overview.” Virtual St. Paul’s Cathedral Project: A Digital Re-creation of Worship and Preaching at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Early Modern London. Accessed February 9, 2018. https://vpcp.chass.ncsu.edu/.

Blue Furniture

 

During the October 24, 1806 inventory in the workhouse of Staplehurst Kent, some “Blue Furniture” would have created a splash of color in the “Nursery Chamber.” In this case, furniture refers to fabric or linens, most likely those used as a bed curtain.

One way to display this fabric in a museum would be on a bed frame. Let alone, the furniture would remain shapeless and not evoke the shelter it might have given to inmates experiencing childbirth or illness in the workhouse. Visitors could even climb into a model bed to experience the curtains surrounding them.

However, hanging this fabric on a physical bed in a museum exhibit fixes its meaning. As Bayne, Ross, and Williamson note, “Where the material object is stable in time and space, the digital object is both mobile and volatile” (112). Using a digital tool might enable visitors to manipulate the fabric themselves, and explore how it might function as covers, as window curtains, or even as repurposed cloth for rags. Even the scenario I describe limits interpretations, but it might begin to transfer the opportunity to interpret into the audience’s hands.

Sources:

Bayne, Siân, Jen Ross, and Zoe Williamson. “Objects, subjects, bits and bytes: learning from the digital collections of National Museums.” Museum and Society 7, no. 2 (July 2009): 110-124. ISSN 1479-8360.

“An Inventory of All and Singular the Good and Chattels of the Work-house of the Parish of Staplehurst Kent as taken the 24th of October 1806 by order of the Overseers Messrs Ts. Simmons & Ts Bromley at the Death of the late Master Daniel Axell.” Kent Library P.347/18/1.

Foundling Hospital Established

In 1739, Thomas Coram, a sea captain turned philanthropist, received a royal charter to establish London’s Foundling Hospital addressing the desperate need of housing London’s abandoned infants. Two years later, on March 25, 1741, the hospital received its first children and it soon found its permanent home in modern-day Bloomsbury. At the grand opening alone, “as many Children were already taken in as Cou’d be made room for in the House,” according to the Daily Committee’s minutes. Except during a Parliament-sponsored period of general admission from 1756-1760, the hospital imposed strict criteria about the age and health of each baby. Jonas Hanway, famous for his subsequent reform of the relief system for poor children, served as governor of the Foundling Hospital during this general admission period.

Catholic countries on the continent already had similar institutions, but eighteenth-century England was mostly reliant on parish poor relief. The Foundling Hospital may have increased the practice of abandonment or served an already growing population of illegitimate and poor children. Regardless, it allowed mothers to leave children to an institution rather than abandoning them publicly or resorting to infanticide. As Britain industrialized and underwent a massive demographic transition during the late 18th century, the Foundling Hospital only became more necessary as a source of relief for childhood poverty.

Composer George Friedrich Handel and visual artist William Hogarth helped Coram establish and fundraise for the Foundling Hospital, linking philanthropy with the arts. Handel’s organ and benefit concerts and Hogarth’s public art gallery at the Foundling Hospital disrupt the notion that eighteenth-century institutions were all bleak places with no room for the arts.

The Foundling Hospital released its last child to the foster care system in 1954 but has continued operating as a charitable organization for vulnerable children. The site of the original building now hosts the Foundling Museum.

Sources:

Levene, Alysa, “Introduction.” In Childcare, health and mortality in the London Foundling Hospital, 1741–1800: Left to the mercy of the world’, 1-15.
 New York: Manchester University Press, 2007. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1vwmdk5.7 .

McClure, Ruth K. Coram’s Children: The London Foundling Hospital in the Eighteenth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.

“Our History.” The Foundling Museuem. 2017. Accessed 21 January 2018. https://foundlingmuseum.org.uk/about/our-history/.

Taylor, James Stephen. “Hanway, Jonas (bap. 1712, d. 1786), merchant and philanthropist.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, last accessed January 21, 2018. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-12230.

“What is a Foundling?” The Foundling Museuem. 2017. Accessed 21 January 2018. https://foundlingmuseum.org.uk/about/our-history/what-is-a-foundling/

Historically Authentic Ethics in Video Games

An enormous challenge in creating a historically authentic video game is simulating the contemporary ethics and value system. When the game is set in a historically traumatic situation, the stakes are even higher. A conscientious developer must represent a person’s available choices and their consequences, forcing the player to use an unfamiliar ethics system. Yet, the developer must preserve the player-character’s agency to engage the player.

 

The ethics system is foregrounded in Crusader Kings II, as reviewer Peter Christiansen notes. I was particularly fascinated by the nuanced way the developers incorporated the seven sins and virtues, enriching the immersive experience and educational value. However, you play a head of household: the epitome of traditional history. What might happen if developers explored history from below? How would a peasant’s available choices fit into the game’s ethical framework?

 

Verdun and Drama in the Delta focus on less enfranchised characters. In Verdun, a World War I soldier dies for rushing out of the trenches alone and, conversely, a squad does better after playing together for longer. This teaches the player to work together and shun personal glory, as trench warfare did. According to Mark Sample’s review, Drama in the Delta restricts the player’s path, but the historical situation provides ample opportunities to simulate agency within a restrictive society. Hopefully these developers rise to the imaginative challenge of refining the games’ ethics systems as much as Crusader Kings II in order to deepen players’ experience of being a traditionally disenfranchised actor.