Engaging With Digital Embodiment Through MakeHuman

Through the process of engaging with the MakeHuman platform, I got a chance to try and embody James Moore and to think about how I would historically defend my design choices. It made me realize that the prospect of creating a faithful digital embodiment of someone who we know relatively little about is a daunting one.

For an exercise like the twine story, it’s easier to make creative decisions about what James Moore could have done on any given day because his whole life wasn’t chronicled. The unrecorded parts of Moore’s life can be filled with historically defensible claims, allowing modern observes to take some license when describing his life. The same is not true of recreating his likeness.

James Moore looked a certain way, embodying him allows for less creativity because the possibility of creating an inaccurate result is much more real than in another medium such as twine. Because of this, the stakes are higher and there are times when it could feel like not populating a simulation with character models would be better than guessing based off of limited information and producing an ineffective result.

This is especially true in cases of difficult histories such as the Rosewood Virtual Environment or the Apartheid Heritage Project when using less accurate character models would devalue the importance of the individuals who lived through those experiences. So while VR and digital modeling might not themselves be empathy machines, engaging with difficult ideas such as accurate character creation can help us develop empathy for other historians who attempt to create historical accuracy in the digital medium.

Virtual Pompeii and Public Expectations Surrounding the Digital Humanities

As technology becomes more and more integrated into daily life it is natural to try and push it to its absolute limit. In the realm of historical research this has lead to incredible gains in terms of enabling the general public to view primary source material that was previously reserved for a limited academic elite. The main downside to this otherwise incredible leap is that the public is now in a place of transitioning expectations regarding historical material. Most people have an expectation of what they will experience when they enter a physical museum. The ease of accessibility and availability of information are expected to be high because that’s what the museum aims to do. Similarly, when people use the Internet, they have an idea of the quality of service they should expect. Web design is now at the point where many people think there is something wrong with a website if it isn’t as easily navigable as the polished interfaces they are most used to.

These two ideas can come into conflict in a project that aims to create a playable experience such as the digital model of a house in Pompeii produced by the University of Arkansas. It doesn’t line up perfectly with one expectation or the other and can thus seem like a let down. However, one can fully appreciate the work when looking at it not simply as an online museum or a game with some historical content, but as a work of digital humanities with its own aims and expectations surrounding it.

The project aims to create a searchable repository of art from Pompeii that pairs with a 3D model run in the Unity game engine. The project does an effective job at presenting these two parts individually. The database is easy to search and provides detailed information about all of the art that’s been tagged. The model itself is also well put together and provides a good sense of the physicality of the art as it would have originally been displayed. However, the two parts aren’t well linked together. When one is using the model, there isn’t an easy way to connect the images to the information in the database.

This is where the idea of expectations creates a stumbling block for the project. It’s not a traditional museum in the sense that the information isn’t physically juxtaposed. It also doesn’t fit the average persons definition of an effective website due to its lacking connectivity. However, this does not mean the project has failed at its aims. It has successfully created an interface that allows users to learn about art in Pompeii and see it in context. It just requires a transition from the existing expectations surrounding the digital world and humanities to a new expectation governing how one looks at digital humanities as a combined concept to be fully appreciated.

The Master’s Chair

A chair like the one cataloged at Assington

Cataloged in 1808, the master’s rush-bottomed armchair from the Assington Poorhouse would have been made of wood and either bulrush or cattail and would have likely been where the Master sat while he conducted official workhouse business.

One way to display the chair could be putting it in a lineup of other rush-bottomed chairs from the workhouse to show how similar the master’s chair was to that of the paupers. It could also be interesting to provide some more comfortable or opulent looking chairs and having visitors guess which one they think the masters was. These modes of display could support the idea of the commonness of the chair and help visitors realize that workhouse masters weren’t surrounded by the kingly luxury they are sometimes credited with.

One way to supplement this with digital tools could be providing an interface that would allow the visitors to go through a normal workday of the master while sitting in a replica of the chair. They could meet with paupers through video or look through shipping manifests on a screen in front of them, creating a physical experience that could emulate the life of the master, contributing to a better understanding about the reality of the situation the masters lived in.

Beccaria publishes On Crime and Punishment

In 1764, Cesare Beccaria published On Crime and Punishment, a work that advocated for reform in the European criminal justice system. Borrowing from the works of Enlightenment philosophers such as Montesquieu, Beccaria advocated for a system in which penalties matched the severity of the crimes they punished and where the threat of the gallows wasn’t the main tool for keeping the citizenry in line. This idea of institutions being judged on what did the most good for the most people foreshadows the ideas of utilitarianism that would become better developed in the early 19th century.

The work was a hit across Europe, and as other philosophers read it, a new, more enlightened, way of looking at punishment emerged. The emphasis began to shift away from purely punitive measures and towards the idea of reforming criminals. Drawing from the Enlightenment idea of the perfectibility of humans, reformers believed they could devise institutions that would turn criminals into better people.

The Englishman Jeremy Bentham was one such reformer. Remembered as one of the pioneering philosophers in the development of utilitarianism, Bentham took the ideas that Beccaria alluded to and applied them to life as a whole rather than just criminal justice. He believed that the best way to manage society was through a broad network of institutions that confined people based on their category, such as pauper or orphan, and controlled every aspect of their inhabitants’ lives. While Bentham’s so-called panopticons never came to dominate Europe, the idea of a total institution being used to reform certain social groups formed the basic scaffold of what many workhouses aimed to do.

Allen, Francis A. “Cesare Beccaria.” Encyclopædia Britannica. June 20, 2017. Accessed January 17, 2018. www./britannica.com/biography/Cesare-Beccaria

Driver, Julia. “The History of Utilitarianism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. March 27, 2009. Accessed January 2, 2018. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/utilitarianism-history/

Ignatieff, Michael. A Just Measure of Pain: Penitentiaries in the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850. 1st ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

The Conflict Between Player Choice and Historical Truth

While reading the discussion of historical accuracy in video games, I was most interested by Mr. Chapman’s point about player agency. It seems to me that the need to balance between creating a game that is compelling for a modern player while still being faithful to the historical truth comes down to a question of how much agency a game developer gives a player. If a player’s choices determine everything in the game, it becomes a fiction written by the player within a vaguely historical setting. On the other extreme, removing all player choice preserves the historical accuracy of the narrative at the expense of the player’s agency. Since the point of video games is to be played, it would seem that a developer’s bias would be towards agency and away from historical accuracy. However, some developers still attempt to make their games somewhat historically accurate, and people still buy such games. I believe that this shows players willingness to cede some of their agency in order to participate in the grander historical narrative. Having the ability to literally play the past adds a level of enjoyment to a game that is absent when a game is not rooted in a historical context. I would even go so far as to say that in some cases historical accuracy is appreciated by players as much as agency and would be interested to hear what the authors opinions on that idea are.