Digital Embodiment: The Importance of Character Design

After playing as different avatars and exploring the worlds that the Digital Embodiments project created as historical representations of Lakeport and Soweto, I found that which avatar I chose did affect my personal experiences. For example, when I chose the black female slave avatar at Lakeport Manor, I was slightly cautious and worried as I explored the world. I felt a little bit uneasy and uncertain of the world I was in, and I questioned whether or not I had permission to enter certain places. When I chose the white male plantation owner as my avatar, this uneasiness went away.

However, while this did affect my thoughts and emotions while I explored the game, I still would have explored the world in the same way each time, regardless of which avatar I had chosen. Although it’s clear that which avatar I chose had an effect on my experience, I feel like this effect wasn’t nearly as strong as it would have been if it were in combination with a storyline or plot in which I was clearly treated differently depending upon my avatar.

Ultimately, I think avatars are important in having players think more about the physical attributes they have and how that may affect the world they are in. At the same time, I feel like it is much more important that when trying to create historical accuracies, the way in which the world “makes” them explore should reflect their avatar’s physical characteristics to some degree. At the very least, I think that the way in which the avatar is treated by its environment should change depending upon the avatar’s physical characteristics.

Types of Avatars in Playable Reality

When creating a playable reality, the overarching goals of the game must be considered before implementing any sort of avatar. Some games let players create their own avatar to increase emersion, while other, more story driven games often give the player a predetermined avatar for reasons tightly wound to the narrative.

In a spatial reality, where the player’s goal is to explore a specific location of a historical event, the avatar does not truly matter, because the reason for playing the game is to gain a deeper understanding of the environment one is in. In an operational reality, where specific events in history are depicted in games, the avatar is incredibly important because most often the player will be assuming the role of a real person who existed in the past. The closer the avatar resembles that person, the more the player can feel immersed in that specific event.

In a procedural reality, where the player plays through an underlying situation and not a specific story, the avatar has more flexibility. Aa specific person’s story can be hindered by an avatar not closely aligned with the person’s true appearance. However, if a player is playing through a broader situation, avatar creation can draw players in and make them more immersed in the game. Therefore, they can understand the behaviors that arise in a situation in a deeper context. Trepte and Reinecke discuss the “ideal self” and the “actual self” in their essay, “Avatar Creation and Video Game Enjoyment,” discussing how players will generally create avatars with characteristics the players strive for or already have. Creating avatars that are similar to the player in this way links the player to their avatar in a way that a game where they are assuming the role of someone else cannot.


Trepte, Sabine, and Leonard Reinecke. “Avatar Creation and Video Game Enjoyment.”Journal of Media Psychology (2010), 21 Dec. 2010.

Digital Embodiment

Character design is a crucial part of portraying a person as we immediately make inferences about people based on their appearance. When playing Dangerous Embodiments I was surprised the extent to which I started creating stories around the character models I was playing and by how much my imagined stories differed between character models even though the surroundings were the same. Creating character models is difficult for our projects though because we have little to no visual evidence for the paupers we are looking at. We know what the clothes they would wear look like, however, the physical appearance of paupers is rarely mentioned in the transcripts. This leaves us tremendous amounts of creative license when creating character models. While we should ensure that the models are historically accurate, we must also be wary of what emotions and thoughts they will elicit from users. What muddies the water is that users will have modern perceptions and stereotypes that they will apply to the models of historical figures. This can be used as a teaching moment to expose users to their usually unconscious modern stereotypes and even prejudices. One of the reasons studying history is important is that it can help inform current decisions, so drawing out users’ modern prejudices by applying them to a historical figure and showing how they don’t fit would be a great way to make users wary of their stereotypes. In practice, it may be hard to do and would require an introspective and alert user, however, it would be worth the work to make users question their beliefs and prejudices.

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.


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.

“Walden: A Game” Critique

“Walden: A Game” focuses more on the entertainment side of the spectrum between historical scholarship and entertainment, but through the authentic setting and Thoreau related objects with which you interact, the developers balanced the entertainment with humanities scholarship.

The developers articulated their goals in the “about” section. In creating “Walden: A Game”, they aimed to cater to a wide range of players from gamers who enjoy playing experimental video games to Thoreau/Transcendental literature lovers and scholars. They also aimed to create a game that would allow players to experience how Thoreau lived at Walden Pond. I think that they successfully met these goals because it is a beautiful and easily playable game (even for someone who has very little video gameplay experience) that allows players to get a sense of what life was like at Walden Pond and what the landscape looked like, all while helping players learn about Thoreau and his life through the letters from his family and friends and the voice overs quotes from his writings.

Reflections on the Virtual Pompeii

The project of virtual pompeii basically showed the model of a building within two different ambient backgrounds. One at night and the other in the day time. The building resembles that from a Mine Craft at a distance, but if we get close enough, we find that the building has far more details then previously expected. We can notice the swaying flames on the torch models, and we can distinguish leaves from wigs on a plant. The project gives us a very nice reconstruction of what a building in Pompeii in the long past history may look like. We can observe tons of details including the patterns and painting on walls, the coloring of pillars and the design of religious altars. It is a finely made model, and one may only improve on the texture qualities.

However, this model has its defects in its ability of providing a funny experience. Just like the model of the workhouse we used to explore, this model only allows player to behave like a camera existing in another space. Players can only observe the historical objects, but can’t have any interaction with the observed building. Also, only the aspect of material culture is reflected in this project, but no information of people is demostrated. Players can see religious altars, but they are not able to understand how the ritual goes. In general, players can get a comprehensive view of the past.

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.

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.

Historical Video Games

Using video games to learn about history can be a great way to engage a wider audience, however, by the nature of video games, the history shown must be an interpretation of history modified to allow user experience and entertainment. In fact, an argument could be made that video games are at odds with portraying historic accuracy as games by their nature allow the player to decide what to do while history has a concrete set of events that occurred. This was mentioned by McCall and Chapman earlier. Looking at historic games, like Walden: A Game, there are still issues with how history is portrayed. Walden: A Game sells itself as “an exploratory narrative and open world simulation of the life of American philosopher Henry David Thoreau during his experiment in self-reliant living at Walden Pond” (according to the game’s website). Walden seems to avoid some of the problems other historical games have by not trying to show the events of history but rather put the player into the life of a historical person to try to shed light and meaning on their story. They do so fairly well by including numerous quotes and passages from Thoreau, exposing the player to his way of seeing the world. However, the game has its weaknesses. Players must find “inspiration” to progress through the game by doing various activities and must scavenge for food and resources. These additional game mechanics could become the player’s main focus depending on their disposition and interest in the game’s subject matter. However, a bigger problem with Walden: A Game is that it seeks to place the player in the mind of Thoreau as he experiences nature and humanity. The irony is that Walden is trying to do this through a computer screen, the antithesis of the experience it is trying to simulate.