Videogames have become not only a crucial part of today's mediascape but also a valuable tool for educators. Projects and scholarly articles exploring the connections between gaming and pedagogy are increasingly common, with linguist James Paul Gee as one of the most well known advocates (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnEN2Sm4IIQ for an example). The HASTAC community has been equally interested in thinking up new ways to teach through videogames. A recent post by Beth Seltzer imagines a "Videogame University" (https://www.hastac.org/blogs/bethseltzer/2014/03/13/videogame-university...), while Ashleigh Faith considers the potential to interest children in STEM concepts through Minecraft (https://www.hastac.org/blogs/ashleigh-faith/2014/01/27/stem-sandbox-gett...).
This year, as part of the Discoveries of the Americas project (http://www.discoveriesoftheamericas.org/about/), led by Prof. Lynn Ramey and Dr. Todd Hughes at Vanderbilt University, I have been using the Unity game design program to build virtual worlds. In this post, I will introduce you to the program, show some examples of what is possible, and provide tips for getting started.
What is Unity?
Unity is a free game design program, available for download at https://unity3d.com/unity. The games created for this engine can be extremely sophisticated. A glance at the Showcase (https://unity3d.com/showcase) reveals a number of beautiful games created for desktop and mobile devices, capable of rivaling games produced by large studios.
What can I do? Where do I begin?
Even if you don't have the time to learn all the nuances of Unity and put together a full game, a simple terrain populated with objects can offer a 3D model of a site or engage students in an imaginary setting. I made the following world in just a couple of minutes:
Despite its seeming complexity, Unity can be very user-friendly under the right conditions. A number of excellent free tutorial videos are available at http://unity3d.com/learn/tutorials/modules, and a YouTube search will yield many useful videos as well. Unity's online Documentation (http://docs.unity3d.com/Documentation/Manual/index.html) is superb. Another nice shortcut is to do a Google search of "Unity" plus the issue that you're having. The results are almost always helpful.
Once you've downloaded Unity, installed it, opened it, and created your first project file, it's a good idea to make a terrain, as shown in this screenshot:
Within the Terrain menu, you will find the option to raise/lower land, add textures (dirt, grass, sand, etc.), and add details such as trees and flowers. This may sound intimidating, but if you've used a program like Paint or Photoshop, you'll have no trouble figuring out the terrain editor. The resources that I mentioned above contain great introductions to terrain creation, but if you experiment with the options and brush types, you'll have a world set up in no time. Here's a very simple example, created in just five minutes:
In order to explore your terrain, you'll need to add what is called a character controller. Unity comes with a first-person and a third-person controller. You can find them in the Assets folder, under Standard Assets. Just drag them onto the Hierarchy view, place them where you wish within your world, and press the "play" button to begin exploring! If you find yourself falling, you probably need to reposition your controller so that it is above the terrain, not below or floating past its boundaries.
Unity is a fantastic resource for 3D visualization with broad applicability to research and teaching. Don't be overwhelmed by the interface! Building a terrain is easy, fun, and instantly gratifying.