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History reanimated and relived
Posted: Sun Sep 05, 2021 3:31 pm
To many who've experienced the long hours of sitting through history classes rotely memorizing names of key figures, dates, and various factoids, the question of the relevance of much of this information would surely have arisen at least once during their time dilated school years. What was the point of learning any of it if the usefulness would become apparent only in games of trivia or general knowledge with little relevance to the pursuit of wealth? Such a question is indeed applicable to any school subject depending on the child's interests, but history as taught in classrooms with its names, dates, and achievements have very little practical application to many of the wage earning class. The lessons are particularly dry and clinical in their treatment of the past, whereas they can potentially be a wonderful re-living and a re-telling of personal stories of brilliant people. I imagine that that's what history in its original oral traditional form was. The stories of the important people were embellished and told in narratives with key lessons to be learned, helping the listener to make better decisions regarding his own predicaments based on the actions and consequences of those protagonists. The lives of these historical figures were not meant to be dropped in as a sentence or a paragraph in a text book crediting/vilifying them with their achievements/failures by scholars and academics. Their lives were meant to be re-lived.
Biographies bridge this gap and focus on the personal side of individuals and their relationships. They're often comprehensive documentations delving into key events reconstructed from various sources. Biographies however are too voluminous and involved to be practically teachable in classrooms. But what if those biographies can be condensed and used as teaching vehicles similar to the oral traditions of yore? What if the discoveries and the thinking processes leading to those achievements can be reconstructed and be presented as a puzzle/game to the student? What if prevailing ideas of the Zeitgeist and the world environment of the past can be used to teach about cultures and customs?
We've seen such "what if" scenarios making appearances through various forms of media and entertainment in the recent past. Time travel in the movie "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" takes the slacker high-school duo through history in an attempt to bring important historical figures back to their present time to help them pass a crucial oral presentation. The teens actively engage in learning and living in those historical eras, and casually pick up information as they go along rather than attempting to rotely memorize from a book sitting in front of a desk. "Star Trek: The next generation" introduces the "holodeck", a holographic virtual simulation allowing full immersive experience, often featuring fictional settings based on historical reconstructions, almost giving the impression of time travel. Games such as "Assassin's Creed" attempt a faithful rendition of the past environments and the events as they are remembered, but also intermix them with the fiction of the main narrative. Then there's the episode of the "Simpsons", where Lisa imagines a virtual reality history lesson of Genghis Khan's conquest as narrated to her by the Mongol lord himself.
There are many more examples like these, confirming that the idea is already well established in many minds. Today we have the technology and the means of enabling such a vision using computer technologies. However using it as a teaching tool rather than as a source of entertainment has yet to come about. There are also informational videos and CGI generated content, but none that are geared towards the type of re-living experience proposed in this topic. Is it possible to form a curricula based on such a method? Can such an interactive experience be used to impart historical reconstructions and be used as a vehicle for teaching in general? What are the limits and possibilities from the current viewpoint? And how should it be used with traditional schooling?
Re: History reanimated and relived
Posted: Wed Sep 08, 2021 3:39 pm
A highly rated yet very little known computer game that made a lasting impression on me is called "The Journeyman Project 3: Legacy of Time". It's a first person adventure game, where you need to solve a series of puzzles to progress to the next stage. The premise of the story is that you, the player, takes on the role of the protagonist "Gage Blackwood". Gage is a temporal agent working at a facility dedicated to time travel and protecting the timeline from the bad guys who'd like to alter history. You, as Gage, need to travel back in time to several key locations in search of clues to the whereabouts of the missing "Agent 3". I won't go much further in revealing the rest of the plot but I will only say that it gets a lot more interesting than just trying to find Agent 3.
The elements of interest relevant to this topic however is the general structure of the game, and its presentation as an immersive historical adventure. First of all, the interface looks like a virtual reality game, where you view the world through the helmeted eyes of Gage, through the visor of his temporal suit. You have the ability to interact with the various objects by pointing and clicking, and can move about in set areas contrary to the open world philosophy of many modern games. While it may not seem important, I think this type of closed-off linear approach is a better way to focus the attention of the player, especially when trying to teach them in order to solve puzzles. The first-person approach is important for the immersive experience, but I think the fact that there's a visor between the outer world and the inside of Gage's helmet provides a healthy distance, much like giving the feel of being inside a vehicle rather than being strapped to the nose of a car. Such a dashboard and windscreen experience also provides other positives such as having other passengers with you on the journey.
Your constant companion from the onset of the game is a comical AI by the name of "Arthur". Arthur is a very chatty and friendly software personality, but the level of his chattiness is configurable by the player. So if you find him annoying, you can even turn him off for the rest of the game. But I found his hints, jokes, tidbits of information and cultural references to be pleasantly entertaining throughout the entire journey. It brought a light bubbly feeling to the game that would have been otherwise quite dark and clinical, something I found to be the case in the previous Journeyman Project games. Arthur is your guide, teacher and friend throughout the game. He is the instructor of the simulation and performs a crucial role in the adventure, which I think many other games fail at doing. For the type of historical reconstructions or for educational purposes, I think this model works quite well.
One more thing to note is that all of the characters in the game were actually acted out by real people rather than done through CGI. This made a big difference in the experience as it gave an entirely different organic feel and greatly enhanced the immersion. If the characters were created as generic computer models like in every game of today, then it wouldn't have had that realism and personal connection. The fact that the actors embodied the characters is crucial as they breathed life into them. The surroundings such as trees and buildings can be sharp-edged soul-less polygons for all I care. People on the other hand need to be represented by people to bring the characters to life.
Re: History reanimated and relived
Posted: Fri Sep 10, 2021 2:40 pm
This sounds a bit like guided tours through recreations in museums, or archaeological sites, or observing dioramas. Or maybe it's a bit like playing dress-up or cosplay in a fantasy world. Maybe dress up as a Roman centurion and solve some puzzles to get that next big bag of salt as payment? The example is a bit mundane, but it's the typical dynamic of "do something and get rewarded" pattern often seen in role playing games. In order for this sort of game to be interesting, it needs to have a good narrative/story. Then combine this with the desired reward system for the things that you want the player/student to exercise and improve. In other words, if the point of the game is to impart knowledge, it needs to have some pedagogical basis. Just walking around listening to a tour guide or solving basic "fetch" problems is likely not the best way to learn.
Let us take an example of learning a language. I've heard it said that one of the best ways to learn a language is to be thrust into the midst of the language speakers and be encouraged to practice it. If we're to turn this process into a game, you would place the player in the culture of the language of interest. Then you would have the person engage in conversations to use the language. This could be simple things like going to pubs, taverns, and markets and ordering things or asking for basic necessities. The steps and lessons would be structured to maximize picking up basic conversational language as easily and as quickly as possible. This would provide the foundation and the cultural exposure for other learning methods to build upon.
The language itself need not be foreign either. It can be "ye olde English" of the Renaissance England for example. Imagine if you could play as an assistant or a close acquaintance of Shakespeare or Newton. You can be part of famous plays at the globe theater or journey together in discovering the laws of motion or dropping apples on heads of passerbys out in the country. I think just being a part of key moments of history (and popular fictions) that lead to the important things we teach in schools is a great context builder and could allow better associations and absorption of knowledge. It certainly won't be an education in and of itself, but the potential for fanning the flames of interest and fostering an appreciation for the marvelous achievements brought about by the hard labors of our ancestors would be extremely valuable. At least one would hope that the student would take advantage of such a valuable resource that is presented in this manner.
And finally, although none of this actually requires virtual reality to bring about, it would be nice to have the immersive experience with human actors faithfully recreating and resurrecting the past. Hopefully the production cost won't be so high with all the computer automation and ML technology at disposal. It would be even better if this can actually encourage people to create monetizable content. The potential certainly is there but whether the market or the interest for this would allow for such creations of art is a separate question. The artists will need to step up and get creative and support each other to bring up the bar.
Re: History reanimated and relived
Posted: Wed Sep 15, 2021 2:43 pm
Role playing was certainly also a big part of Legacy of Time. Through Gage's temporal suit, you could take on the guise of various inhabitants you encountered, which allowed you to masquerade as them and opened up key dialogues with certain people. Stepping into other people's shoes and pretending to be them in first person was very immersive, and the way the actors interacted with you when taking on different characters was quite enjoyable to watch. While the game didn't require you to speak the local languages of the various places, the accents of the actors, the mannerisms, and the general effort that were put into their performances made the experience that much more engaging. I could certainly extrapolate how this could be a language learning exercise if properly designed. Genuine human interaction would be very valuable as an experience in gaining the confidence to listen and speak in another tongue. Learning the useful phrases as part of solving larger problems would be quite motivating. However it will need to incorporate elements other than only a language simulation to succeed in keeping the player interested.
The types of problems the player was asked to solve in the game ranged from simple things to some moderately complex combinational challenges. The most simplest was basically picking up various objects and placing them in correct positions or locations. The most complex I would say was the last challenge of the game, which felt very much like solving a Rubik's cube. None of the puzzles were very educational, but it was the passive cultural feel and archaeological references from Arthur that I found was most informational. If the puzzles were to be educational, they could have incorporated actual academic problems such as chemistry, botany, engineering, and astronomy into the mix. For example, brewing a herbal remedy could be quest. You'd need to forage for certain plants and purchase ingredients from apothecaries. Or maybe you could have a basic chemistry set for Sherlock Holmes style detective work. Maybe build a trebuchet as an assistant to a royal engineer, or navigate across the ocean by identifying star constellations and their movements across the sky. There are many fun (and tremendously nerdy) ways of presenting these problems as ways to impart knowledge. And journeying together with your friendly companions to help you through those difficulties would build a very memorable and emotionally enforced learning experience.
As for the cultural background, geography and social aspects of the settings, much can be borrowed from D&D style fantasy world games. The efforts put into the richness, the details and the shear breath of the lores can all be replicated in historical recreations. This is somewhat the case in the Assassin's Creed franchise, but the fact that it's action oriented means that it places too much of the supporting world elements as just background rather than integrating the player into the environment. The player must have a personal connection with the surroundings rather than the feeling of playing with a virtual doll in a cinematic drama. In other words, less grandiose hollywooding, and more simple elements of human actions and deeper plots would better facilitate in conveying genuine realism.
Re: History reanimated and relived
Posted: Fri Sep 17, 2021 2:12 pm
When we're taught history, it's very difficult to get a correct perspective on why people did certain things or why they thought the way they did. For example, when one's taught about a conflict such as the first world war and told that it was caused by "a bloke called Archie Duke shot an ostrich 'cause he was hungry" (look up the reference if you're curious), we do not have a clear understanding of why such an explanation would motivate armies to commit lines of suicide against each other along the trenches of Eastern France. Or what the motivation for any war really was for that matter. The narratives for wars are constructed by the leadership of the military but the motivation and cultural context of the soldiers are oftentimes different. That kind of a perspective can only be truly told in personal stories such as in memoirs and diaries. However such records are not available for everything, and many stories stop being told and are consequently forgotten. At which point, revisionists can easily enter into the narrative and rewrite history as they deem fit.
Hence it's important for historical references to continue faithful retelling of normal people's lives and their viewpoints. The experiences of these regular people are far more important than those told of the dignitaries, heroes and villains of conquests and conflicts. Why should wars, aristocratic feuds, and top-appointed/hand-picked representatives take center stage in our narratives when in fact they are and have always been only background props and stage pieces? Instead let us view history as centered around the achievements of the inventors, thinkers, and pioneers rather than around dynasties, empires and other family-centered hegemony. Shouldn't they be the role models that we want to remember and take after? Aren't they the reverent candlelights in the holy temples or brilliant stars immortalized in the heavens? If society truly wants to reach for the stars then we must point out the stars to follow, and not the falling comets or man-made satellites. And we must quench the light pollution that hinder our vision if the stars are to be visible at all.
So what are the stories that need to be told and who are these stars the people should follow? Put in another way, who/what are the heroes and who/what are the villains? Broadly speaking, we can state that the heroes are the achievements and the villains are the forces hindering the success of our heroes. For instance, the story of the printing press, the Gutenberg bible, the reformation, Luther's fight against church indulgences, are all connected and can be told in an immersive narrative. There is no single hero in this story but if the point of the telling is to educate, then we can center the chapters around the things we want to teach. The marvels of the printing press and how it changed the regular people's lives and their perspectives can be a focus of a chapter. The significance of standing up against the practice of indulgences can likewise be reflected in the general conversations of the people. Or how Protestantism spread across Europe and carried to the New World to shape the dynamics of society at large, preparing the backdrop for other brilliant stories to follow throughout the ages.
In all these types of narratives, the traditional way of telling history with its dates and events blend into the stage and setting, and are relevant only as a frame of reference and context to the primary focus - the stories of human beings. It's up to you as a student and helper to journey together with these characters and help them achieve their goals. And hopefully along the way, you'll pick up useful skills and gain better understanding of how the world came to be.
Re: History reanimated and relived
Posted: Fri Nov 12, 2021 4:15 pm
There was a popular sci-fi TV show in the early 1990's called, "Quantum Leap". Talks of helping important characters in the past and assisting them in achieving their goals reminded me of this. The premise of the show is that a physicist named Sam Beckett (not the playwright) travels back in time as part of an experiment gone wrong. The process of time travel takes Sam in becoming certain characters of the recent past, where his mind takes over the body of the recipient in what can only be described as something akin to a spiritual possession. In order for Sam to get back to his own time, to his own body, he must help the characters with their problems; apparently in an effort to correct the timeline. Once the problem was solved, he could do a "quantum leap" and jump to the next host (always hoping that it would be his final jump home), and the subsequent episode thus begins with Sam going through another round of playing guardian angel.
Helping Sam, our protagonist, is his comically womanizing military pal named Al, and a "parallel hybrid computer" artificial intelligence named Ziggy. Al appears to Sam as a hologram only visible to him, while Ziggy interacts with Sam using only her voice (she's a tad bit more sophisticated than Siri, Cortana, Alexa, or Gurgle of today). Together they form an effective team in putting the wrongs to right and accomplish the mission of each episode. If only they could ever figure out the reason why they needed to solve other people's problems in the first place and why that would matter at all in getting Sam to jump back to his own time...
Looking back and comparing the two "case studies", there are obvious parallels between Quantum Leap and Legacy of Time. Sam and Gage are both special and brilliant time travelers who need to solve other people's problems to progress further in their respective objectives. The heroes interact with the past as regular characters of those eras rather than as themselves disguised as one of the people. The viewer/player is presented with a worldview of different cultures and outlook and the differences between the contemporary and the past are manifested in the actions of the heroes. Both cases have helpers and guides who journey together with the heroes. Al, Ziggy, and Arthur are all comical sidekicks helping the main character with their problem solving activities. But those sidekicks never perform any direct function in the environment and instead limit themselves to provide only indirect support and help.
If this same model was to be used in an interactive education/historical game, one would hope that the implementation of those sidekicks would work better than the actual virtual assistants of the recent couple of decades. Clippy the office assistant comes to the disastrous fore, which may be one of the main reasons why the idea of an assistant in various applications is cringe-worthy to many. Still, there should be a tutor and a guide if a game was to actually impart knowledge rather than let the player switch off their brains and engage in auto-pilot entertainment.