Superficial Embodiments in Lakeport and Soweto

The Digital Embodiments projects for Lakeport and Soweto have the main purpose of re-creating the historical environments of Lakeport and Soweto for the player to explore. Before entering the simulation, the player is asked to select an avatar that will represent them in the game space. These avatars represent historically typical figures for each environment that would, historically, have filled different and often opposing social roles.

However, upon interacting with the environment for more than a few minutes, it becomes abundantly clear that the physical appearance of the player’s avatar is nothing more than a generic skin. Despite the various avatars’ drastically different racial and social positions within the world that is being re-created, the player’s actual role is completely unchanged. At Lakeport Manor, the black, female slave is functionally identical to the white, male plantation owner. In Soweto, a student can do everything an officer can do. While these characters would comprise entirely different roles in history, they are identical in terms of the simulation’s functionality.

This is not to say that there is no merit to these digital re-creations. There is much to be gained from immersing a player in the environment and allowing them to explore freely and without restricting game mechanics. This implantation makes the environment much more accessible to people who would be otherwise unable to experience it in 3D space. However, the lack of depth beyond the physical appearance of the player’s avatar detracts from the overall meaningfulness of the experience.

 

Player Immersion and Agency in Walden: A Game

Walden is, first and foremost, a game, and a well-made game at that. It affords a high level of player agency combined with game mechanics that include scavenging for food and building shelter. However, due to that magnitude of player agency, it is difficult to call this title historically accurate since it is impossible to give the player control over their actions while also binding them to a severely strict, historically accurate series of action. Agency is the main characteristic that separates games from other forms of media and removing it defeats the purpose of “gameifying” a narrative.

Instead, we may call Walden historically typical title since it simulates what a typical day might entail for Thoreau during his Walden experiment. As a result, the game succeeds greatly in its goal of immersing the player in the environment of Walden Pond and letting them see and feel the world as Thoreau did during his self-living experiment. This experience is also driven by excerpts from Thoreau’s own writings which let the player take a glimpse inside of his mind in order to fully solidify the player’s place in his shoes.

The developers of Walden state that “the game follows a loose narrative of Thoreau’s first year in the woods” which may worry some gamers who desire a 100% authentic Thoreau experience. For me, however, this is not a concern. The liberties the developers took to create the incredibly rich atmosphere of Walden provide much more enjoyment and education for players than unadulterated historical rigor.

The Paupers’ Looking Glass

In the pauper dormitories of the St. Sepulchre Workhouse, a looking glass is listed in the 1751 workhouse inventories. By exploring the narrative of this object further we can uncover some aspects of the paupers’ lives as well as the true nature of the St. Sepulchre Workhouse as an institution.

The looking glass may seem insignificant at first, but upon further consideration, it seems out place and does not at all fit the common perception of the workhouse as an institution that attempts to destroy any shred of individuality that once belonged to its inmates. Additionally, looking glasses were not as common as they are today and probably would have belonged mostly to members of the upper class.

In a museum setting, this looking glass could immerse the visitors as an element of a larger display containing more of the elements of the dormitory environment. In this way, the setting would be more immersive and would also provide an opportunity to think critically about the workhouse institution and about the everyday significance of a looking glass for the average pauper.

Early Industrialization and Mechanization

Many of the great feats of manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution in England were made possible by the availability of new technologies that vastly expedited the formerly slow, tedious process of textile manufacturing. Inventions such as John Watt’s steam engine and the Arkwright water frame contributed greatly to the massively increased levels of productivity and general economic expansion of the time period. These inventions were themselves made possible by the evolving economic mindset sparked by Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations.

John Watt, driven by this experimental mindset, took it upon himself to improve upon the preexisting Newcomen engine in order to produce steam power at a greatly increased rate and efficiency. This new steam engine, patented in 1769, reduced operation costs and, as a result, became widespread in factory contexts across England.

In addition, the Arkwright water frame, also patented in 1769, contributed to the expedition of textile manufacturing by improving the speed at which threads could be spun using water power. The frames also did not require skilled laborers, allowing factories to hire larger quantities of cheap, unskilled laborers, further decreasing factory operation costs.

The rapid technological advancements during the Industrial Revolution should, however, not be seen as an instigator of the economic growth of the period. Instead, they should be viewed as a direct effect of a changing economic mindset that provided greater incentives for experimenting with the manufacturing process.

 

Sources:

“A History of the World – Object : Arkwright’s Water Frame Spinning Machine.” BBC, BBC, 2014, www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/RyHIgvgsSeCYGZRl4Ep5RQ.
“Industrial Revolution.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 2 May 2017, www.britannica.com/event/Industrial-Revolution.
Trinder, Barrie Stuart. Britain’s Industrial Revolution : The Making of a Manufacturing People, 1700-1870. First ed. Lancaster: Carnegie Publishing, 2013.

Player Agency and Historical Accuracy in Video Games

I strongly agree with Adam Chapman that the more pertinent question that we should ask is not “is the game historically accurate?” but rather “is the game historically typical?” Player choice inherently nullifies the possibility for perfect historical accuracy as it is impossible to force the player to perfectly recreate events while also maintaining the game’s status as an interactive media form.

Therefore, it is imperative that video games are treated first and foremost as a medium of entertainment. However, their potential as a medium for historical information cannot be denied. The level of immersion that a player can achieve in a video game is unparalleled when compared to other forms of entertainment (e.g. movies, books) and this is entirely due to the level of agency afforded to the player. Even if these games are not totally historically accurate, they can serve as a jumping-off point to get people interested in certain periods of history.

The greatest danger with this approach, however, is the potential for the content of these games to be taken as indisputable fact. The level of dramatization of historical events in as depicted in Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty is certainly not trivial and gamers need to be aware of this fact. As long as these games are never claiming to be be-all, end-all sources of historical information they still serve the important function of introducing surface-level knowledge of important events and their historical contexts.