Digital Embodiment in Historical Representations: Complications and Ethical Issues

The creation of virtual bodies for a historical recreation is a difficult process. Every aspect of the design of the figure must be intentional; no single feature or component of the body can be represented in a certain way without interpretive or historical reasoning. This process is further complicated when one attempts to create a digital embodiment of a historical figure. In many cases, the creator may have no evidence of what the person being represented actually looked like, and must carefully exercise historical imagination to represent the body in a respectful and ethical manner. I grappled with some of these issue when I attempted to create a virtual representation of James Moore, the first master of the Gressenhall House of Industry. I found myself questioning every minute detail I changed; why did I make that choice? Can I justify that? What does it mean to represent him this way?

Issues also arise in how the player is meant to experience the character. In a first person view, the player is immersed in the body and sees through the characters eyes. In a third person view, they can see the body itself at all times, and are therefore constantly aware of it, but they do not see through it. It is also important to intentionally design an environment that reacts to and interacts with the character. If the body is incidental to the space in which it moves, there is not meaningful interaction between the space and character.

Walden, a (historically authentic and meaningful) game

Video games that attempt to convey an experience or historical moment effectively must balance historical authenticity with engaging, accessible mechanics. Walden, A Game attempts to virtually represent Henry David Thoreau’s experience of living off the land at Walden Pond, near Concord, Massachusetts in the 1840s. The game does this by allowing the user to play as Thoreau and partake in many of his experiences portrayed in his book, Walden, and also includes many excerpts from the book, which Thoreau’s character recites throughout the game.

Walden, A Game is effective at creating a historically authentic experience while also engaging the player. The gameplay itself can draw the player out of the immersive experience at times. The food mechanics, which involves picking fruits, growing vegetables, and hunting, can seem clunky. Ralph Waldo Emerson serves as your spiritual guide throughout the journey, and even places inspirational books throughout the woods for you to find. Arguably the strangest mechanic is your inspiration meter, which you must keep at a high enough level that you can continue to write and reflect. While these mechanics can detract from the authenticity and immersion of the experience, they make it an engaging, challenging game that keeps the player interested. The game is not perfect in either of these aspects- It is not as challenging as many “survival” games, and its clunky mechanics can break immersion- but the balance the developers strike between them keeps the game interesting enough that the user plays long enough to absorb the historical message of the game: Thoreau’s experience and the fundamental tenets of transcendentalism.

Iron Stove

An iron stove was noted in an inventory of the Carleton Rode House of Industry in 1787. The stove was located in the paupers’ bed chamber and was fixed to the wall. Though a stove is not an intimate, personal object, its function of keeping people warm would have been important at night and in the winter. This object allows us to infer that the chambers of a pauper might have been a relatively comfortable place for them, and possibly even a sanctuary within the workhouse.

An attempt to physically convey the importance of a stove in a museum could engage the senses of a visitor to a museum, and by doing so, help create an authentic representation of the past. Something as simple as placing an iron stove with an electric heater in it in a corner of chilly room allow visitors to experience the comfort this object could have provided, and how important it could be. As visitors gravitate toward its warmth, they would be able to imagine paupers in a workhouse doing the same on a cold winter day. A digital projection of a group of paupers around a similar stove or a fireplace would help them relate this experience to one that an actual inmate may have had.

Passage of the Slave Trade Act

For roughly 200 years, from the middle of the 17th century to 1807, Britain was heavily involved in the trade of slaves from Africa to its colonies in the Caribbean and America. During this time, British slave traders transported approximately 3.1 million Africans to the Caribbean and Americas, 2.7 million of whom survived the gruesome middle passage. The 18th century abolition movement in Britain, a popular response to atrocities of the slave trade, was based on the same Enlightenment and Protestant principles that informed discussion of reform of the English poor laws.

The movement emerged in the 18th century with such early abolitionists as Thomas Clarkson, William Wilberforce, and Josiah Wedgewood, and gained momentum towards the end of the century. Many of those who supported the movement at its height were white women, including Mary Birkett, Hannah More and Mary Wollstonecraft, as well as many working and middle-class women. Olaudah Equiano, a former slave who had bought his freedom, published an autobiography which described the horrors he had endured as a slave. This autobiography brought more attention to the abolitionist movement, as did the involvement and contributions of other Africans.

The Abolition of Slave Trade Act was passed in 1807 and officially banned involvement of any British ship in the trade of slaves. Scholars argue British Enlightenment thought and Protestant religious values, by inspiring widespread critiques of slavery, drove the abolitionist movement in Britain. Quakers, Evangelists, and Rational Dissenters are cited as the most vocal religious groups in the movement.

Page, Anthony. “Rational Dissent, Enlightenment, and Abolition of the British Slave Trade.” The Historical Journal 54, no. 3 (2011): 741-72. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23017270.

“Abolition of Slavery.” The National Archives. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/slavery/. (Accessed January 20th, 2018)

Ali, Linda, and Siblon, John. “Abolition of the Slave Trade.” Black Presence: Asian and Black History in Britian, 1500-1850. The National Archives. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/blackhistory/rights/abolition.htm. (Accessed January 20th, 2018)

Creating Meaningful Engagement with the Past in Video Games

This is a response to the discussion “Historical Accuracy and Historical Video Games?” on the website Gaming the Past.

Discussion: Historical Accuracy and Historical Video Games? (Part 1)

I thought that many of the issues discussed in this post were thought-provoking. I found the comparison of historical video games to academic history as representations of the past particularly interesting. Understanding the relationship between videogames and the past as one would traditional scholarly history allows us to think about authenticity in video games in ways that we might not consider otherwise. Given that videogames exist primarily as entertainment, historical setting and narratives in video games can seem, in some instances, to be implemented only as a gimmick that draws in more potential consumers. The idea that videogames, like scholarly history, can contribute to our understanding of the past or, as Adam put it, “say something meaningful about the past,” can allow us to more seriously approach video games as a source of historical interpretation.

To continue with the comparison of games and academic history as representations of the past, a game that attempts only to insert a “presentist” narrative into the past, or one in which historical setting is incidental to the narrative of the game or the gameplay itself, can be compared to positivistic history. Much like meaningful textual history, it is important that a game contribute some historical interpretation. This could come in many forms; it might need to, as Jeremiah writes, “offer defensible explanations of historical causes and systems”, or simply offer the player a better understanding of the past and its significance.