Digital Landscapes

2014: Dangerous Embodiments: Theories, Methods, and Best Practices for Historical Character Modeling in Humanities 3D Environments

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In March 2014, the “Dangerous Embodiments” proposal was funded through a Level 2 NEH Digital Humanities Start-Up grant.

Despite the abundance of 3D virtual environments for historic sites that have emerged over the past decade, the impact of historical character modeling in the digital humanities has received little scholarly attention. Instead, when characters (or avatars) are used, the emphasis often tends to be on the constructed space with less attention paid to the modeling of the characters themselves and how these virtual embodiments impact the viewer/player. While this lapse may be due, in part, to a lag in technology, avatars now have the potential to become increasingly realistic. This presents us with many conceptually significant choices as we create avatars, each with important cultural and historical implications, and we need to think about how to make those choices. This Level II proposal addresses this need through the development of a comprehensive typology for avatar creation–an essential, new, and potentially valuable contribution to the field–and through the deployment of different possible representative avatars in two virtual ‘difficult heritage’ environments (Soweto, Johannesburg and the Lakeport Plantation, Arkansas). We intend to study viewer responses to different representative avatars within these environments using tools drawn from experimental philosophy, and to publish the results with interpretation by scholars in diverse fields. Our efforts would culminate in a Dangerous Embodiments symposium hosted by Arkansas State University (ASU) that would invite discussion and peer review of the project. The proceedings of this symposium will then be published in an edited volume that will be an important contribution to the field as more projects in the digital humanities reach maturity.

Scholars of ‘difficult heritage’ are often confronted with the challenge of producing meaningful engagements with diverse audiences through the use of new digital technologies. With this engagement we often face risks as we represent serious, often painful and controversial, historical content through a medium so closely aligned with popular entertainment. Despite their prolific use, the transformative promise of 3D models and virtual environments has yet to be fully realized. Forte has called attention to this disparity, noting, “…the use of 3D representations has been completely random and thus has not had a great impact on the development of research methodologies and protocols” (2008, 23). The Unity 3D game engine has literally been a game changer, bringing in its wake increasing benefits and pitfalls. While on the one hand these realistic 3D environments seem to engage directly Gillings’ call for “dynamic interactive visualization (1999), little work has been done on the impact of character representations within these environments, with little research into how those choices might shape the narrative for the viewer. The dangers of iconic representations and the powerful sway images exert over us have long been recognized by scholars working in the humanities, with Molyneaux (1997) eloquently noting that, “The reinforcement of ideas in some images is very powerful…Pictures and other visual representations—have a tremendous inertia, or staying power, that may persist long after the ideas behind the images have gone out of fashion.” In recent collaborations between art historians and neuroscientists, the idea has been floated that even static images can create a feeling of “empathetic engagement” with the characters, an engagement that rises even to a phenomenological level (Freedberg and Gallese 2007,197).

While this proposal focuses on the ethics of avatar creation and why there is a need to consider the impact of avatars within virtual environments, it is also useful to consider, even briefly, analogue examples of embodiment in living history contexts. Amy Tyson has raised awareness of the emotional toll of interpreting (often painful) histories in living history contexts, and her study of gender and power at the Historic Fort Snelling in Minnesota discusses the emotional costs of living histories for the performers in public “edutainment.” (Tyson 2011, 2013) A vivid example of this is a 1999 Colonial Williamsburg living history piece, Enslaving Virginia, in which reenactments were so realistic that some audience members attacked white actors in the slave patrol.

Screenshot from “Ask a Slave” (http://www.askaslave.com/watch.html)

In the new “Ask a Slave” comedy web series, Azie Mira Dungey portrays the character “Lizzie Mae” who plays an enslaved housemaid in the household of George and Martha Washington and hosts a talk show where she fields questions from tourists. As humanists, we are challenged to question the impact of these embodiments, and to consider not only the ethics of character creation, but also the ways in which those characters impact the narratives that viewers take from them. In the 2013 NEH Advanced Topics in the Digital Humanities Summer Institute Humanities Heritage 3D Visualization, a number of scholars (including five of whom join together in this proposal) began to question the dangers inherent in the embodiment of the viewer as ‘avatar’ in a historical game context. This Level II proposal is based on two sites supported by ASU and Hamilton College with established virtual environments: the Lakeport Plantation in Lake Village, AR and the Soweto riots, in Johannesburg, South Africa. The rationale for choosing these particular sites is threefold: 1. Extensive documentation exists on both sites as the result of extant archival materials and extensive fieldwork conducted by project lead researchers; 2. Both sites are the result of domestic vernacular architectural and social engineering; and 3. Both sites pose challenges as sites of ‘difficult heritage’ and its interpretation.

a. Enhancing the humanities through innovation
As 3D environments proliferate, the creation of a comprehensive typology for avatars and publication of the consequences of certain choices that we make when creating avatars in these environments is needed. The preamble to the London Charter for the Computer-based Visualization of Cultural Heritage (2006) notes that “a set of principles is needed that will ensure that digital heritage visualization is, and is seen to be, at least as intellectually and technically rigorous as longer established cultural heritage research and communication methods,” and yet the London Charter does not make mention of characters or avatars. Why is this an important issue for the humanist? Delivering high quality 3D content in an interactive way via the web was practically impossible a few years ago. As new software facilitates this sort of delivery, including programs like the Unity 3D game engine used increasingly in the humanities to deliver 3D content, the need for a study of the impact of avatars on the viewer within the virtual environment along with the ethical implications of avatar creation is needed (Kalay & Grabowicz 2007; González-Tennant 2010; Rua & Alvito 2011). This project is therefore an essential next step as it covers new ground for cultural heritage visualization and historical recreations.

While ambitious, this proposal seeks to address budget limitations in innovative ways—primarily through the leveraging of existing resources of two digital humanities centers: one at a state university in the Arkansas Delta (ASU) and the other at a small liberal arts college in upstate New York (Hamilton College). The proposal brings together scholars from across the country to work on an issue that crosses disciplines, with a far-reaching impact that includes humanities character visualization as well as a more general academic and public audience. The resulting publication will serve as a key resource that is much needed, and the interplay of the advisory board with the project team will yield provocative results. This project also addresses the moral dimensions of avatar construction in virtual environments that have difficult heritage. It will yield several innovative products: a study of responses to avatars targeting humanities students and scholars deployed by team members at four universities and colleges throughout the country, a website that follows the project progress and issues we are raising on the Humanities Virtual Worlds Consortium website, a Dangerous Embodiments symposium in June 2015, and a follow-up publication.

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