Digital Embodiments: Superficiality and Scrutiny

In terms of viewing digital embodiment and VR as empathy machines, the Dangerous Embodiments software did not necessarily achieve that end for me. As we discussed briefly in class, the game modeled an open world exploration experience (with no goals or interactions) and gameplay was the same regardless of chosen character. The default view–following the backside of the character so you can never see their face–actually distances you quite a bit from your character with whom you attempt to empathize; in effect, the whole empathy element of the game becomes refigured by superficiality. However, there might be some merit to this kind of distanced and equalizing embodiment. At one point playing as the female slave in the plantation world, I discovered a door that would not open, and later came to find that the door was also glitchy for the male plantation owner as well (I had expected the door to be accessible to the male owner). Perhaps the act of bringing my own expectations to the game is educative in of itself, even as gameplay remains unchanged through different characters’ perspectives.

An entirely different experience of digital embodiment for me was engaging with the MakeHuman software. Given the ability to sketch up pauper avatars in a matter of minutes, I quickly became concerned with the level of detail at which users could exert control. Put in conversation with historical accuracy and authenticity, this sort of granularized avatar creation urges users to make guesses without adequate background knowledge. What nose height or eye distance should we give Mary Jones, a question we ask while we have virtually no physical descriptions of her in our archives? Clearly it’s a difficult question, and yet the software encourages uninformed choices in the name of experimentation– lest our pauper be given default characteristics.

Walden: A Game, a Historicized Open World Done Right

I’d like to start off by saying I thoroughly enjoyed watching gameplay of Walden: A Game. As a first-person open world simulation set in a woodland landscape rendered to the finest detail, Walden captures an experience suspended between historically authentic and accurate. On the one hand, interactivity with textual, material, and environmental artifacts moves the game very close to accuracy. However, it is difficult to know and thus convey the exact accounts of Thoreau’s day-to-day activities (which the game makers don’t try achieve: “it follows the loose narrative of Thoreau’s first year in the woods”), aligning the experience closer with authenticity. This caveat is one seen before; historical accuracy is often not possible in games due to archival voids and player choice.

Beyond the discussion of authenticity versus accuracy, there might be something distinctly powerful, in terms of its educative potential, surrounding Walden. Compared to other open world simulations, as Drama in the Delta comes to mind, Walden occupies a sweet spot in allowing for a very flexible, engaging narrative where regardless of how it’s played out, is still grounded in historical fact. Playing through Walden is nothing like the museum mock-up of Drama in the Delta lacking ‘procedural reality,’ especially in full-screen with the volume turned up. Perhaps the Transcendentalist storyline of living in the woods simply lends itself well to a flexible gamification, though, and it’s just a matter of ideal historical topic.

Earthenware Teapots

The above image features the typical teapot or kettle found in British workhouses in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Although the one depicted is ‘bronze-glazed’ earthenware (pottery made from hardened clay), there are accounts of copper-glazed and ‘Old Fashioned’ earthenware teapots. In addition, it is likely that tin-glazed teapots were commonly found.These teapots were placed all through the workhouse in common spaces, more private bedded wards, and even authority chambers.

In the museum context, it would be most intuitive for visitors to first engage with the teapot as part of a larger–perhaps interactive–display of tableware in kitchen and pantry settings. The display would ideally convey some background information on the commodification of tin-glazed and earthenware items, as well as provide an interactive experience on the cooking of food in the workhouse. Maybe a digitization/projection of a cook at work would be appropriate here; the hologram cook could beckon visitors to take a look at the bowls on display, in which images of onion gruel/other foods could be projected on cue, and then it could encourage visitors to pour out tea or water from the kettle.

To emphasize the ubiquity of the teapot outside the context of meal preparation, multiple replicas could also be placed throughout the museum in different areas. They could be contextualized with plaques varying on this theme: Thirsty? You might be able to find a water fountain right around the corner, but with three strictly regimented meals a day, a pauper might have found oneself craving water outside of mealtime. They could have drank from these common kettles.

First Census and the Demographic Transition

The late eighteenth century marked a period of intense demographic changes in Britain. Having remained relatively stable at 5.1 million through the seventeenth century, the British population reached eight million at the end of the following century. Mortality crises caused by widespread disease (plague) and agricultural dearth was notably less frequent by this time and contributed in its absence to the population boom. The rising prominence of the industrial sector in the economy, too, was linked to the demographic growth of the period. Many citizens participated in the mass transition from finding work in the agricultural, trades, and cottage industry to that in the large-scale mineral processing and consumer goods industry. Evidently, Britain’s ‘dual economy’ of the feudal-industrial order shifted from a 90-10 percentage split in 1760 to a remarkable 50-50 in 1830.

Of course, the hallmarks of progress did not come without their underlying currents of unease. As Britain began to undertake a heightened consumer revolution and unprecedented numbers in the wage labor force, government agencies, social scientists of a budding field, and everyday citizens alike internalized growing concerns about the exploding population. The wary wave of thought affected perspective on the sustainability of traditional parish-based welfare, structures of poverty, the inevitability of famine, and other issues.  In 1798, Thomas Malthus published his fears that spoke for a generation: An Essay on the Principle of Population. Following Malthus’s publication, the Parliament enacted the Census Act of 1800 to place matters of accounting for and regulating demographic changes in governing hands—in the form of a ten-year census collection cycle. 1801 saw the distribution of the first ever census in Britain.

Fideler, Paul. Social Welfare in Pre-Industrial England: The Old Poor Law Tradition. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006. Print.

Office for National Statistics United Kingdom. Focus on People and Migration. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005. Accessed web version 21 Jan. 2018.

Timmins, Geoff. “Working Life and the First Modern Census.” BBC History. Last updated 18 Sept. 2014. Accessed 21 Jan. 2018. Web.

Distinguishing the historical video game from the museum

In Mark Sample’s analysis of the game Drama in the Delta, he makes a point in the importance of distinguishing the video game from the museum. Drama in the Delta, he attests, obscures the difference to a negative end in its overreliance on ‘telling’ (captions) and ‘showing’ (photographs) versus active modeling. It’s true… playing this game would be virtually no different from walking through an exhibit on Japanese internment. And here arises a fundamental challenge of capturing historical memory in video games: how does a game designer utilize the characteristics of the video game, as its own distinct medium, to produce an experience that both (a) fulfills its potential in educative power and (b) is historically authentic?

I appreciate Sample’s reference to the idea of ‘procedural reality’ as the missing piece of Drama in the Delta. Indeed, video games possess the ability to bring an audience through a fully rendered world of physical spaces, signifiers, and emotionality–what museums and other mediums can’t do—and it is exactly this quality that allows video games to valuable sources of learning in their own right. Often times, however, creative license and the construction of procedural reality pose directly at odds with the goal of historical authenticity. Spontaneity and freedom of choice are scary things to give an audience when it comes to preserving a rigid narrative, after all. The crux of decision in the historical game design world, it seems, lies in the carving out of priority between maximizing learning potential and achieving alignment with a narrative. We get a glimpse of what Drama in the Delta and other educationally-oriented games of its kind privilege.