Blog Post

Platform for Public Scholars: Virtual Communities and Digital Humanities

The conference's final panel, Virtual Communities and Digital Humanities, included presentations by Professor of English and Simpson Center for the Humanities Director at the University of Washington Kathleen Woodward and New Technologies in Society Director from Duke University Timothy Lenoir.


This panel's speakers, as moderator Dee Morris says, are radically redefining how we view scholarship and publics.  As Dee notes, Kathleens various projects contribute to the animation, circulation and understanding of digital media.  Kathleen begins by saying there is a movement afoot.  And her entire talk really grows from this energetic and optimistic perspective on the intersection between the digital humanities and public scholarship.  For Kathleen, a convergence between the digital humanities and public scholarship create new ways of seeing our task as scholars, and this convergence leads to the rise of organizations like HASTAC. 


Kathleen is interested in thinking about networks of intellectual engagement.  The particular project she talked about today examines a Latino presence in American popular music.  The project grew out of a pop music conference and an interdisciplinary course at the University of Washington.  Kathleen reminds us how inspiration is one key affect of these projects, both for participants and for people who hear stories about these projects.  Stories assume different forms as they migrate between different media, Kathleen explains, and she sees a lot of possibilities in this transformation.


Latinos and Latinas have contributed a lot to American popular music, but they're oftentimes confined to the margins in narratives about this music.  Kathleen played Cha Cha Cha, with a musicologists analysis voiced over, as one instance of how this cultural impact might be studied in untraditional ways.  The American Sabor project features sound, and it began as a museum exhibit, so it's not rooted in the written text like most academic scholarship.  It's difficult for us to imagine scholarship in non-textual forms, and Kathleen offers these sound tracks as an alternate form of scholarly presentation that is accessible to a wider public.  Oral traditions are additive rather than subordinative, empathetic and participatory rather than distanced, situational rather than abstract--and these distinctions require us to rethink how we define scholarship. 


Visual maps, sound modules, museum exhibits, and posters can be more interactive than traditional scholarship.  (As a side note, Kathleen points to the number of artists that became involved in the American Sabor project as one effect of this revisionary production of knowledge).  The various media used in the American Sabor project really run the gamut, from sound to movement, and Kathleen highlights how each form uniquely contributes to our redefinition of scholarship.  Kathleen talks about exuberance and vitality created through the American Sabor project with exuberance and vitality--her energy is completely contagious. 


Kathleen keeps the big picture in view throughout, and she gestures to how civic engagement projects take on a life of their own, and become bigger than we imagined when we began them.  There is a feedback loop created by this work that, slowly but surely, shapes both scholarship and the academy.


Timothy Lenoir talked on the topic of "Virtual Peace and Emergence: Waging Peace with Engines of Mass Entertainment."  His new project is to create a multi-player online video game to deal with cultural diplomacy in areas of peace and conflict resolution.  First, he begins with some background on the Virtual Peace Project, a collaboration between the Duke Visual Studies Initiative, the Duke-UNC Rotary Center, and the Virtual Heroes company which builds video games for educational purposes.  The project involved Kacie Wallace and Natalia Mirovitskaya, who have background in law and peace negotiation, respectively, along with Professor Lenoir. 


Timothy became interested in military-based video games, which have been used as recruitment and training for the US Army.  Timothy points out that the US Army has historically been better at shooting than negotiating, and he became interested in how these video games could be used for sensitivity training.  His idea was to turn this military platform into a peace and conflict resolution platform. 


With some prestigious grant support, Timothy and his team (including everyone from Virtual Heroes designers to NGO representatives) built a video game called Virtual Peace that simulated an actual hurricane, Hurricane Mitch.  Virtual Peace allows students to role-play negotiations in a virtual peace-training simulation.  The goal for Virtual Peace was primarily pedagogical, but as interest grew, the designers saw the value of making a game that would be more entertaining for users. 


The next game planned is Emergence, the first massive multi-player online game that promotes diplomacy.  Emergence is driven by user-determined narrative, and it is a new breed of game for more socially-aware gamers.  Video games like Emergence are not escapes from reality; they are dynamic, interactive systems that teach important intellectual and social skills like problem solving, active experimentalism, sustained multi-tasking, and strategic action. 


To briefly summarize, the goal of Emergence is a reconstruction of the world's environment after some kind of massive meltdown; the game requires finding out what went wrong, and then fixing it.  In order to survive, gamers must form alliances and create diplomatic solutions with other players and factions.  Each faction has its own memory of what happened, and these narratives must be shared and pieced together to get resources.  In these ways, the game promotes cooperation and empathy in its users. 


Timothy points out a growing variety in gender, age, race, and socioeconomic status in gamers today, and he points to how a game like Emergence can appeal to this widening demographic base.  In addition, there is a growing demand for socially-conscious video games that Emergence models.  Socially-activist game design in Emergence attempts to harness the learning potential in playing video games, and programs like this one show how changing games can change people.  Studies have begun to show how pro-social gaming can be linked to a growth of pro-social skills in gamers; games like Emergence can teach civic and political engagement, cooperation, and diplomacy.  These games have the radical potential to shape American culture--and international perspectives of American culture. 


In the Q&A, Julie Ellison asked Timothy how virtual diplomacy translates into real diplomacy for users.  Does simulation ensure real-world correlation?  Timothy thinks it does; if you are one of the disenfranchised in a game environment, you'll be more likely to take empathetic, nonviolent perspectives in real-world problem-solving situations.  Julie suggests that these games might supplement rather than replace on-the-ground knowledge, raising concern about how well diplomatic skill sets migrate between fictional and real environments. 


George Sanchez brought up a conflict-resolution system that he developed for use in high school American history classes.  Like Timothy's project, this system builds on the idea that being forced to take on perspectives of another race, another gender, or another historical moment helps us to be more empathetic individuals.  The question George raises is, how do we compare historical versus virtual studies of empathy? 


Timothy clarifies that the educative model of video gaming is different from a video game intended for entertainment, and he clarifies that Emergence will appeal to a slightly different demographic than, for example, World of Warcraft. 


Teresa Mangum raised the issue of performance, and how performing changes the way we interact with our various disciplines.  We see how singing together, dancing together, and performing together create communities of learning--and Teresa asks, how does gaming together fit this model of engagement?  And how is this engagement, and the communities it creates, different when it is virtual?  Timothy says that games create real social relations, and that the sense of community responsibility is what makes video games so appealing for users.  The problem of embodiment is less and less, Timothy says.  These games are becoming more and more immersive, more and more real for their users.  Timothy points out that there is an increasing merger of the digital world and the real world we live in, for gamers and non-gamers alike. 


What strikes me most about both Kathleen and Timothy is the optimism that drives their work.  It's a good reminder that successful civic engagement projects require us to not only expand our skill set and rethink scholarship--they also require us to have a real sense of faith in the goodness of people.  What a great lesson to take away from the last session! 



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