Virtual Reality & History

Virtual reality seems to be one of the last frontiers of digital humanities. A digital reconstruction of the past is an exciting prospect, and I see the enormous benefits VR can bring to studying history. After reading about fascinating history projects, visiting VR sites, and even playing an interactive game, I better understand why VR is becoming such a crucial educational tool.

For instance, I explored Civil War: 1864, which allows viewers to “be” in the trenches with the soldiers as they engage in battle. I got to experience firsthand the time-consuming process of loading their rifles, something that would be hard to grasp by reading it in a book. The virtual tours offered by the British Museum and the Ford’s Theatre sites are also valuable because they allow one to experience the spaces from a vantage point of view and notice things that still photographs do not show.

Even more fascinating are the VR history projects addressed by the readings. Both articles address the use of VR technology in history classes. Andrew Koke, a historian involved in The American Revolution VR history project, describes students’ excitement traveling through the trenches while listening to recorded lectures. In his article “Virtual Reality and the Classroom: How Historians Can Respond,” he admits that a virtual walk through the battlefield is not a substitute for an actual walk. However, considering that now more students have access to the site, he argues VR history is the way to go.

The second article talks about Mission US: TimeSnap, a game that, in addition, to facilitating students inhabit historic locations, also allows them to interact with people and even analyze and collect artifacts. In their article “Mission US TimeSnap: Developing Historical Thinking Skills through Virtual Reality,” Burke et al. favor “active learning,” highlighting the advantages of using VR in the classrooms. They argue that “the VR historical experience followed by a lesson will be demonstrably more effective at helping students retain and apply historical knowledge and skills than a traditional, paper-based lesson.” I agree with this argument; however, there are two points that I would like to consider.  

The first point has to do with the involvement of historians in the development of the games. In both projects, historians seem to be heavily involved in writing the game’s narrative but not in its production. I agree with Koke when he says that historians need a stronger voice in the game’s development since publishers, to appeal to more customers, are pushing to increase the entertainment value of the games. I am afraid that VR history games run the risk of portrait a Hollywoodize version of history which could be unfortunate. Even more dangerous would be a scenario where historical facts are manipulated for political ends. As history books and articles go through peer review processes before publishing, VR historical narratives should have some sort of accountability.    

The second argument worth mentioning is how the introduction of VR technology in classrooms can affect literacy. The levels of illiteracy are already high, and I wonder how substituting books for computers and lectures for games could hurt reading skills. As VR technology moves into the classrooms in the form of games, which is already happening, digital humanities have to come with more fun digital tools that help students develop better reading and writing skills. Playing A Sailor’s Life for Me!, a game created by the USS Constitution Museum, got me thinking about a quick way in which interactive games could help improve literacy in grade-schoolers. This game displays written instructions and options, but users also listen to them. Simply removing the sound and making students read those instructions could help better the students’ reading skills.

I recently took a class on Pompeii, the Roman city that disappeared from the historical record after Vesuvius’s explosion in 79 AD, only to be rediscovered by some excavators in the 18th century. I must say that I am constantly checking for digital reconstructions of the city Pompeii, the ideal candidate to study using VR technology because of the existence of a great deal of material culture preserved under the ashes and the abundant primary sources from contemporary times. The use of VR to portrait past events that do not have solid historical references to back them up, on the other hand, runs the risk of falling in the category of fiction rather than history.         

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