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VR and the Humanities

Virtual reality is a versatile medium. As you can see in our latest roundup of educational VR (and AR) games, VR runs the gamut from STEM to fine arts education. Just like there are boundless applications for VR in medicine and other fields, there are so many ways VR is taking the humanities to another level. Read on to discover how virtual reality is impacting archaeology, literature, activism, and more!

An intuitive pairing

First, let’s discuss our game Breaking Boundaries in Science. You might be thinking to yourself, “wait, I thought this blog was about VR and the humanities, not VR and science!” But if you look a little closer at the game, or if you’ve ever had the pleasure of playing it, you’ll realize there’s more than equations and chemicals to explore and ponder. While all of the hard science in this game is central and necessary, so is the humanity of the scientists the game brings to life. Breaking Boundaries makes an intentional effort to humanize Grace Hopper, Marie Curie, and Jane Goodall – showing their lives outside of their work in STEM too. The historical and human aspects of the game alongside the groundbreaking research are what make it feel whole, and what keeps it real. 

That’s all to say, storytelling and VR are an intuitive pairing. Learning games, from multiplayer to VR titles, are great tools for social-emotional learning and fostering empathy, so it’s no surprise that VR’s immersive power is a natural complement for learning games that aim to tell human stories. 

Could VR unlock a whole new way of experiencing books themselves? For example, check out Joycestick, a VR experience created by students at the University of Boston based on the James Joyce novel “Ulysses.”

Novels aren’t the only literature to be explored in VR either – poetry is too! For instance, John Ashbery’s Nest, created by the Yale University Digital Humanities Lab, is a VR tour, that allows players to explore the American poet’s home as they discover the inspiration behind many of his poems, complete with audio clips, photographs, and other archival resources. 

via Educause Review

Visual art can also tell powerful stories without words. We’ve previously touched on simulated art galleries before on the blog, specifically, Full of Birds, a 3D art gallery experience created by Ashlee Bird featuring the artwork of Sarah Biscarra Dilley, which invites users to explore how the two Indigenous artists “choose to maintain and recreate, or bend and reshape, spaces and places through our creation.” 

VR specifically offers another form of immersion into an artist’s imagination and use of space. In the Dalí Museum’s experience, Dreams of Dalí, participants step inside the artist’s piece “Archaeological Reminiscence of Millet’s ‘Angelus,’” seeing it like never before. 

This article from Educause Review written by Emory Craig and Maya Georgieva includes more details on the above examples and even more information on how VR and AR are providing new opportunities for scholarship and exploration in the humanities and social sciences. They write, “Unlike a book or a painting on the wall, these projects become immersive platforms for human experiences by creating new spaces for multisensory human perspectives.” The current VR offerings on literature, visual art, history, and archaeology are only the beginning of “new ways to understand our heritage and the rich complexity of human experience.” 

The archaeological sites and museums of the future

Did someone say archaeology? For those looking to immerse themselves in the histories and cultures of the past, the applications of VR in this field are particularly vast and exciting. Just take a look at the graphic below for the breadth of possibilities!

via Allerin

That’s right – according to Naveen Joshi for Allerin, VR is being used to recreate archaeological sites, providing researchers with more secure access to narrow or otherwise constricted areas, such as cave openings. The virtual renderings of these sites also provide more opportunities for educators to share their expertise and for archaeologists-in-training to learn safely and efficiently. Thanks to VR and other technology, it is possible for students to learn archaeology practices remotely.

With VR, you don’t have to be an archaeologist or studying archaeology to tour delicate dig sites. You can even tour historical sites that no longer exist. A group of Yale students did just that in 2017 when they “traveled” to the ancient city of Nimrud in Northern Iraq via VR.

Similarly, Dr. Mary Katherine Scott, director of international programs and visiting assistant professor in art history at the University of Wyoming, is interested in recreating artifacts in virtual reality to both preserve them and study how people view their authenticity and value. In an interview with Mechdyne, Scott said, “‘Objects play a hugely important role in human history, it’s how we strive to understand our world. The impact 3D visualization has for conservationists, art historians, and archeologists is incredible. It offers one way to study historical sites and artifacts from a safe distance that is sensitive to their longer-term preservation.’” We’ve discussed before how educational games provide safe places to explore, take risks, and fail. The combination of VR and archaeology is no different. Simulated dig sites and artifacts can preserve the wellness of people and ancient artifacts alike.   

Storytelling beyond the page

History and storytelling have a lot of similarities. To bring us full circle, let’s return to the narrative power of VR. Earlier in this article, we covered how VR can bring classic novels and the lives of writers who are no longer with us into a new 3D realm of exploration and understanding. But what about VR’s potential to help us create and define our own stories and histories? 

For creatives, VR is brimming with new imaginative possibilities. Australia-based artist Mez Breeze created the VR poem Our Cupidity Coda in 2017, and the next year, another VR literature experience called A Place Called Ormalcy.

via The Writing Platform

Writing about her experiences with XR literature for The Writing Platform, Breeze notes that “VR Literature can work to extend the creation of accessible electronic literature beyond the text-centric to truly encapsulate the haptic and the spatially-oriented.” For those who prefer or need visual and tactile elements to learn, VR widens the audience and the accessibility of literature itself. 

Given VR’s distinct immersive qualities, it’s no wonder that many game designers, artists, and activists are creating narratives in VR. Tamara Shogaulo’s Another Dream is a VR film/game hybrid that explores the lives of an Egyptian lesbian couple. Of her project, the founder and creative director of Ado Ato Pictures says “The core of our animated mixed reality piece…lies in the documentary audio recordings of a young Egyptian lesbian couple, whose stories I have followed since their participation in the 2011 Egyptian Revolution through their journey to seeking asylum in the Netherlands today. I wanted to share their story in a way that would best honor their experiences and voices – and share them in a way that challenges the stereotypes and even erasure of women of color, queer people, and the Muslim community that is too often presented by the mass media.”

Screenshot from Another Dream, via Animation World Network

Paisley Smith, a Canadian filmmaker and virtual reality creator utilized VR for impact in Unceded Territories, an interactive experience centered around colonialism, climate change, and indigenous civil rights. Created in collaboration with artist Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, players are invited to toss oil paint all around the environment – only to find out at the end of the game that the environment is irrevocably damaged from the paint.

As a last example of VR storytelling centered around history and social justice, artist Sutu’s Future Dreaming is a VR documentary that “was inspired by the ancient Australian Aboriginal practice of Dreamtime, a mental visualisation technique where you see your spirit move through the past, present or future.” The documentary includes four Australian Aboriginal youth as characters: Ali Lockyer, Maverick Eaton, Nelson Coppin, and Maxie Coppin. Sutu writes, “Future Dreaming represents an opportunity for these young people, who hail from a remote region of Western Australia, to dream big and to be included in the technological possibilities of prototyping their own futures. This work promotes cultural rights through accessibility, and supports emerging artists to increase their skills and capacity in the digital domain.”

You can hear three of the above artists, Tamara Shogaulo, Paisley Smith, and Sutu in conversation with one another in the video below. The creatives were featured on a panel about XR and activism at THE PORTAL, an event produced by Film Independent. In the panel, the artists discuss tradition versus technology, new ways to tell stories and embody ideas, the form and function of activism in VR and vice versa, and more. You can also learn more about these three creators, VR, and activism in Matt Warren’s article “Balancing Social Justice and Immersive Entertainment.”

A unique way to be creative and be human

Though the examples in this article are far from an exhaustive list of all of the innovation between VR and the humanities, we hope you can see how VR provides distinct ways to map and recreate personal and global histories, recover what has been lost, and create new visions of the future. No doubt we’ll see the duo of VR and the humanities continue to transform humanities learning in years to come!

If you’re interested in developing your educational experience in VR, let us know! We have the expertise (over 17 years of it, to be exact!) to help you realize the educational game of your dreams.

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