Revisioning the Global Middle Ages:Immersive Environments for Teaching Medieval Languages and Culture
This essay synthesizes the perspectives of eleven participants in a colloquium that brought together experts in medieval language and culture, second-language acquisition, and video game production to assess the use of three-dimensional (3D) immersive environments for learning about inaccessible or lost cultures. We suggest that technology offers a unique method for experiencing the past; and when harnessed effectively, immersive environments can increase empathy and learning while appealing to a new generation of students.
The global Middle Ages were a highly visual period during which objects, images, and public performance played an outsized role in supporting communicative and representational strategies [End Page 86] (Hanawalt and Kobialka; Starkey).1 In both secular and religious spaces, meaning was frequently constructed through spectacles and rituals that reaffirmed existing social structures and an overarching metaphysical order. People entered these performative spaces possessing a gendered and classed body that influenced how they were not only constructed as a subject on the public stage but also subjected to dominant social and cultural narratives. For example, elite houses in East Africa often included a courtyard for women to gather and interact.2 In the Mississippi Valley region of North America, residents of the Native American Indian city of Cahokia gathered at the Emerald Acropolis during key moonrise events in their 18.6-year-long lunar cycle (Pauketet). Medieval European languages, which in themselves were highly visual and spatial, could also be used as a performative space. European chivalric romance, like the stories of Chrétien de Troyes, relies heavily on spatial movement to suggest the passage of time and the interlacing narrative structure.3 Marco Polo charts his own movement through time and space, creating a complex history of global interaction. Like Polo's mix of Old French and Italian, many medieval languages were not codified but displayed a rich linguistic variety depending on the situational context in which they were used.
Because medieval communicative and representational strategies are rooted in understandings of embodiment and performance that are no longer current, they can be difficult for modern audiences to understand. Indeed, the text-based approach frequently used to teach these topics at the college and university levels cannot fully transmit the rich spatial, cultural, social, physical, and participatory contexts on which these strategies so critically depended in order to produce meaning. However, 3D immersive environments and video games, given their performative and visual affordances, may provide directions for making these communicative and representational strategies more accessible to a contemporary audience.4 3D video games in particular are highly visual, and meaning is constructed within these games primarily through player interaction with virtual objects in a simulated real-world or imaginary space. This interaction is displayed as constantly changing images on the computer screen, which players (who are versed in acceptable norms of game performance) must decode in order to keep track of the game state and their own role in constructing it. David Fredrick describes these norms as the "spatio-visual grammar which governs expectations with respect to level design, appearance, narrative, and user interface" (462). Therefore, game-based activity is not only influenced by the mental state of the players and their goal-directed intentions but also simultaneously [End Page 87] directed by the virtual spaces and communities through which player avatars move. In many games, these avatars may be organized by race, class, and gender, each of which provides the player with certain affordances and limitations within the game world as well as responsibilities toward the gaming community in which the player participates. Language usage in these gaming communities is characterized by repetition, neologisms, and linguistic borrowings that are spatially contextualized and situationally dependent (Piirainen-Marsh and Tainio). Similar to the physical spaces and linguistic performances that could be found in a medieval cathedral, which ordered the universe and provided a teleology for the outside world, the virtual spaces and language acts found in video games order players, rationalize their existence in the game world, and direct their activity toward an end state and an ultimate higher order. There is, to use Johan Huizinga's description of play in general, an aspect of play in video games that "transcends the immediate needs of life and imparts meaning to the action." Like all other forms of play, playing a video game "means something" (1).
With their ability to immerse players fully in a simulated environment and to provide them with a sense of unmediated presence, 3D immersive environments and video games can potentially help students understand aspects of medieval languages and culture that, because of their performative, spatially situated, and embodied contexts, cannot be as easily taught with textbooks and classroom lectures. As James Gee notes, "[v]ideo games are good at putting language into the context of dialogue, experience, images, and actions. They are not textbooks full of words and definitions. They allow language to be situated" ("Learning and Games" 36). But what are the best practices for designing and developing 3D immersive environments and video games to teach medieval languages and culture? What is already being done in the field, and what remains to be done? How will gaming technology develop in the near future? Higher education is moving forward into the twenty-first century by embracing innovative digital technologies in support of teaching and learning. Likewise, medieval studies programs, if they wish to retain their relevance in this changing digital landscape, can no longer afford to remain anchored in the past in terms of instructional strategies and research focus. The Immersive Environments Colloquium, which was held at Vanderbilt University on 9–10 December 2016 (https://my.vanderbilt.edu/games2016), was a focused effort by a group of scholars and professionals in medieval linguistics, medieval cultures, second-language acquisition, instructional technology and learning sciences, and the video game industry to find points of connection between [End Page 88] visual and representational strategies of the Middle Ages, contemporary video game culture, 3D immersive environments and digital game-based learning, and current approaches to teaching the languages and cultures of the Middle Ages. Each person brought their expertise to bear as we discussed how we can use technology to help better access the past and learn from it. With advances in virtual and augmented reality, as well as the release of user-friendly (and sometimes free-of-charge) game engines for creating virtual worlds, this technology is within reach of today's learning and teaching communities. The ability to enter into the multisensorial world of other times and places allows students and researchers the opportunity to experience a truly global Middle Ages that is no longer accessible.
In this essay, we present our individual contributions to the colloquium in an academic forum, reflect on the points of connection that we discovered during our two days together, expand on ideas that emerged through our discussions, deepen these ideas with the inclusion of secondary research, detail avenues for future interdisciplinary collaboration, and highlight areas in which research and development might bear the most fruit. Beginning with challenges facing the field of medieval studies and current instructional approaches to teaching subject matter in the field, the essay then moves to a discussion of the affordances of digital game-based learning and second-language acquisition in 3D immersive environments and video games. These perspectives are rounded out with views from the video game industry and computer science. Although perspectives from instructional technology and learning sciences, the video game industry, and computer science may be seen as unusual when discussing the future of medieval studies, their intentional inclusion at the colloquium created an exciting synergy among participants and opened avenues that would not have otherwise been considered. The essay concludes with a discussion of best practices for using 3D immersive environments and video games in medieval studies and next steps forward. The sections in the essay have been jointly authored by colloquium participants and edited for flow and clarity by the colloquium organizers. Video recording of the original presentations can be viewed by following the links included in the body of the text.
The Evolving State of the Medieval Studies Classroom
In many institutions, medieval studies is a peripheral and dying field. Stories of Chaucerians retiring and not being replaced are commonplace, and modern language departments may choose to focus their limited [End Page 89] resources on more contemporary fields or hire generalists expected to cover all time periods and genres. Particularly in small departments, the choice to put resources elsewhere may seem obvious to some. More modern fields—for instance, postcolonial literature—are thought to deal with issues such as race, identity, and changing gender roles that closely affect today's students. Medieval languages are rarely taught at the undergraduate level, where students are often just learning the modern version of some languages, and even some graduate programs have found medieval languages too difficult or unpalatable to require an entire cohort. The popularity of conference sessions devoted to learning the basics of reading medieval languages aloud attests to a need for further instruction. Even when medieval languages are taught, instructors generally use the outdated pedagogical method of grammar-translation, and the culture learned is confined to that of the extant written record, most often elite court culture.
More disturbing than its moribund academic status is the field's long link to rightwing and/or racist attitudes about the glory of the past. A cadre of predominantly white medievalists continues to teach a canon of dead, white, usually male authors without acknowledging an everpresent and growing fascination with the Middle Ages among nationalists who are looking for a (nonexistent) past that shared "their" values and "their" countenances. Immediately after the 2016 U.S. election that brought Donald Trump to power with the aid of extremist rhetoric from the likes of Steve Bannon, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Stephen Miller, Sierra Lomuto drew a direct link between white nationalism and the way in which medieval studies is taught, decrying the lack of attention to race and the desire within the academy itself to code the period from 500 to 1500 as pre-racial. Others echoed and built upon Lomuto's concerns; summer and fall 2017 saw a raging debate about representations of the medieval past playing out everywhere—from the classroom, to Facebook postings, to KKK gatherings.5 Thomas Craughwell may find it normal that medieval studies is dominated by white faculty, comparing the field (and whiteness) to African American studies and its largely black faculty. Yet in making such claims he, like many others, neglects the rest of the world during the years 500 to 1500, instead imagining a hermetically sealed, white, European globe. The urgency for a more inclusive approach to medieval studies has been evidenced by at least one new journal devoted to the global Middle Ages, several recently edited special issues pertaining to the topic (Amer and Doyle), and working groups springing up from Sydney, to Texas, to the European Union, connecting scholars from around the world who are sharing their work on medieval life and culture. [End Page 90]
One of the co-founders of the Global Middle Ages Project, Geraldine Heng, sees strong potential for 3D immersive environments and video games in helping create empathy by making the past live again while challenging "some of the old, tired, received clichés in the West, like the claim that there was only one industrial revolution, or only one scientific revolution, and these occurred in modern time in the West, or the claim that sub-Saharan Africa had little engagement with the world till colonization? (Heng and Ramey). She asserts that users' ability to virtually enter magnificent but now lost or inaccessible locations such as the Mogao caves at Dunhuang along the ancient Silk Road extends our "possibilities of knowing" (Kenderdine; Cameron and Kenderdine). Experiencing life as an embodied avatar can serve as a new kind of "humanizing encounter" of cultures. 3D immersive environments and video games are not without potential pitfalls, however. Heng warns of the importance of using data-driven models and thorough research into the cultures being modeled, lest they be misrepresented and thus compound the problems already at work in the selective historiography commonplace to medieval studies.
Sahar Amer, the convener of a global Middle Ages faculty working group at the University of Sydney, participated in the Vanderbilt colloquium via video call (video link). Amer noted that her own field of medieval French literature has been particularly slow to embrace a global view of the Middle Ages. Although medieval French studies have long looked to the Latin, Celtic, and Provençal traditions as interlocutors with medieval literature of the European territory of France, the interactions that France had with Muslim societies have been neglected. These Arabic interactions played a role equally important to that played by those acknowledged European influences, Amer observes, and not just at the level of reintroducing Greek science via translation, a role French medievalists readily acknowledge. French literature, culture, and the arts were profoundly impacted by centuries of cultural interaction with Muslim cultures, though little hard data survive to prove exactly what themes and tropes originated in which culture. Amer sees 3D immersive environments and video games as potential ways to target precisely those places where adequate data are lacking. In a role-playing world in which users can enter the multicultural environment of, say, the crusader kingdom of Cyprus circa 1200, the everyday use of multiple languages and the sharing of stories would make it evident to a user that cultural exchange was not only possible but inevitable. Video games provide a historically based imaginative world in which to model the transmission of ideas, goods, languages, and cultures. Such models can raise awareness, leading scholars and students to consider how [End Page 91] their objects of study may have been affected by contact between east and west. Perhaps more important, due to their popularity video games can influence public perception and general awareness about the longstanding interconnections among different races and faiths.
Speaking of her pedagogical role as a historical linguist within the field of medieval studies, Barbara Vance (video link) noted during the colloquium that her primary objective in teaching both undergraduate and graduate courses on medieval French is to sensitize students to the fact that language systems evolve naturally over time. Yet in efforts to make students aware of this evolution, Vance noted, there is a tendency to privilege the study of language by isolating it from the sociocultural contexts that undoubtedly influenced this evolution during the Middle Ages. Not only does this approach fragment the instruction of medieval languages by leaving much of the specifically medieval sociocultural background for colleagues in literature and history departments to cover, but it may also shortchange our students by providing them with the false sense that languages—medieval as well as contemporary—are closed systems that operate independently of real-world contexts and are immune to the frictions that occur at the intersection of linguistic communities. There is, Vance concluded, a need to reinsert these missing sociocultural elements into the study of medieval languages and to understand these languages as fluid systems with historically and spatially contingent variables.
Vance also noted the potential utility of historically researched commercial games, such as the Assassin's Creed (Ubisoft 2007) franchise, to begin introducing these concepts to students in an attractive and interactive way, a point that Brandon Essary (video link) discussed in greater depth in his presentation. Essary uses the video game Dante's Inferno (Electronic Arts 2010) to teach the medieval epic poem Inferno to third-and fourth-year undergraduate students. While the game is by no means a re-creation of Dante's iconic text, Essary found it to be a useful teaching tool in its reimagining of the medieval story. He sees the game as particularly useful in encouraging students to think about the interplay between game and story, a way to focus less on accuracy or inaccuracy and more on the complexities raised by experiencing the story as a game with user agency (Essary "Dante's Inferno"; Essary "Teaching Dante"). In particular, he pointed out a theme that was common to the experience of many colloquium participants: good video games incorporated judiciously into the curriculum attract students to courses in fields such as medieval studies that might not be popular draws when taught in a traditional manner. In addition, good games have the power to breathe [End Page 92] new life and understanding into the texts that are frequently taught in medieval studies programs as well as in literature as a whole. However, Essary notes, students must first be familiarized with basic concepts about video game production and design in order to approach the genre in a sophisticated manner. Likewise, teachers must become comfortable with the idea that video games can be sources of teaching and learning and that they may be embedded with deep and powerful learning principles (Gee What Video). Instructors must decide whether to ignore these games or leverage them in a manner that encourages critical thinking and engagement with academic content (Squire and Jenkins). Like Vance, Essary saw the Assassin's Creed franchise as another historically based inroad into medieval culture that could be exploited in the classroom.
Due to the recent availability of low-cost or free game engines, instructors are not restricted to using commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) video games. Some instructors are creating games specifically for their classes and research. Lynn Ramey (video link) spoke about having students build 3D immersive environments and video games using the Unity game engine and low-cost medieval assets (buildings, people, animals, objects) purchased from outlets for game designers (Ramey and Wenz; Ramey and Panter). Brendan's Voyage is a game designed to allow users to experience the medieval world of twelfth-century Ireland and to learn about aspects of medieval culture and Anglo-Norman language along the way. The game, based on a twelfth-century version of the story of Saint Brendan, begins with immersion in a court environment and moves to the problems of manuscript creation and medieval travel. Religion plays an important part in the story, as do questions about the ways in which medieval people experienced space and time. Ramey underscored the importance of students as producers in her experience; both she and the students who worked on the game gained a far greater understanding of the story and its cultural context than did the students who simply tested the game. Future projects in the classroom will allow students to play different characters in a medieval setting, with the game play changed so that the avatars experience different outcomes based on their age, gender, race, religion, and/or class.
Digital Game-Based Learning and Second-Language Acquisition
3D immersive environments and video games, including historically researched commercial games and custom-built experiences using game [End Page 93] engine technology such as Unity or Unreal, are already being used to teach medieval language and culture. Nonetheless, it is important to be cognizant of their instructional limitations as well as their natural affordances, and Brett Shelton (video link) has suggested that research conducted in the field of instructional technology and learning sciences may be useful in developing best instructional practices. While this research has shown that student engagement with the material is heightened through 3D immersive environments and video games, other approaches may yield better results when bringing gamelike attributes to traditional subject matter. One example is the Voices of Spoon River text-based interactive fiction game created to enhance a literature curriculum (Shelton et al.; Shelton and Scoresby). Here, the game designers chose not to focus on engaging students with exterior or superficial attributes that might commonly be found in arcade-style video games. Rather, the game was designed so that each of the activities was aligned with instructional objectives, thereby ensuring that progression within the game meant that students were completing the goals of the instructor. Interacting with and through text on the computer screen may provide a reading experience more consistent with what Edgar Lee Masters may have originally intended, while offering academic activities that promote deeper involvement with the narrative. This type of game experience created outcomes that were very different from classroom use of the prolific Oregon Trail game. When students playing that game were offered opportunities to learn about geography and history, they instead only remembered details like hunting expeditions and dying of dysentery (Rawitsch, Heineman, and Dillenberger). An additional aspect to consider in the instructional design of effective video games is flow—that is, users' state of feeling enveloped within the game activity to the point where they experience a sense of euphoria and loss of time (Csikszentmihályi). Although commercial game designers often see achieving flow for their participants as the ultimate in good design, research has suggested that flow is not necessarily beneficial to the learning process. Instead, even within good gamelike activities in immersive spaces, opportunities for reflection and review of one's learning are important elements in the learning process (Scoresby and Shelton). Designing for these automated rest and reflection periods can be difficult, but these aspects are necessary for recall, deeper learning, and application of the material.
Current research in second-language acquisition can also provide useful guidelines for how best to teach aspects of medieval languages and culture in 3D immersive environments and video games. Jonathan [End Page 94] deHaan (video link) presented research suggesting that students can indeed learn a second language through digital game-based learning approaches, but the students he studied had difficulty noticing, analyzing, and meaningfully applying the target language in games (deHaan, Reed, and Kuwada). Although it may be less important for students of the Middle Ages to produce a dead language than it would be for those who are studying a living language, it is worth noting that the sense of presence and flow provided by full immersion in a game can potentially be an impediment to meaningful learning. It is therefore important, de-Haan noted, to provide structure to game-based language learning tasks through carefully designed and implemented supplemental materials (Miller and Hegelheimer). Best practices for designing these materials will emerge as instructors of medieval languages and cultures begin to use 3D immersive environments and video games in their courses and experiment with their curricular implementation. Although it may be somewhat daunting for instructors to begin using these environments, deHaan has suggested that low-tech design options such as the Reacting to the Past role-playing games, board games, or even card games can also offer students meaningful simulations in which to learn a medieval language and culture. Giving students the responsibility to build these games themselves can also be a valuable learning experience and the first step in creating an immersive environment prototype.
Like deHaan, David Neville (video link) discussed the instructional limitations and natural affordances of 3D immersive environments and video games that are used to teach a second language. Drawing on data collected from student interactions with a 3D game that he built with the Unity game engine to teach German two-way prepositions within a simulated real-world context, he noted that the game was not effective in teaching students the mechanics of the grammar topic. Instead, it was more suited to helping them generate mental narratives of the problem space and how it operates. They then relied on these mental narratives to structure written narratives describing their in-game experiences (Neville). Although there was, in sum, a significant transfer of knowledge between the game and the real world, this knowledge was contextualized within the activities of a specific situation and was more procedural than factual. Additional instruction during a debriefing period following the game would be required to situate what students learned in the game within the grammar and sociocultural topics being explored in the course. Neville suggested that approaching game design through the lens of activity theory could be a potentially fruitful way of creating learning tasks in the game and aligning them with course learning [End Page 95] objectives (cf. Engeström; Jonassen and Rohrer-Murphy). Medieval studies topics could, for example, be structured as game quests, allowing students to explore the interplay between historical subjects, rules governing the construction of a simulated real-world space, and communities that existed within that space. The disequilibrium that may arise when students approach the representation of a historical space from a contemporary perspective could result in fruitful learning experiences that could be further articulated in course discussions (Neville and Shelton). Exploration of literary texts could also be facilitated through game quest structures that depict the quest structures found in numerous medieval works.
An alternative approach to using video games is the application of game-based learning and gamification in a real-world classroom setting. Felix Kronenberg (video link) presented a multiyear community simulation project in German at Rhodes College. At the heart of the simulation are two pieces: the idea of a simulated city, "Pfefferhausen," that is used throughout the curriculum; and a gamification engine, which keeps track of what the learners have accomplished so far. One gaming principle at play is learner agency because students can choose among many player pathways. For example, the simulation allows students to choose among numerous activities: develop their alter egos, create a business and its website, develop videos and other media, write a résumé, design pages for the city website, and play through quests (simulated business mixers, phone calls, or competitions for a "best business" award). The simulation is flexible enough to accommodate different teaching and learning styles, and the gamified setup allows for data tracking, badges, awards, and leaderboards (Kronenberg).
Views from the Worlds of Technology and Industry
Medieval source material often provides inspiration for video game titles, such as Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed franchise and Electronic Art's Dante's Inferno, but scholars of the Middle Ages generally do not know how this source material is used in the game design process or what the process even entails. Representatives from the video gaming industry, as well as a computer scientist researching digital storytelling using computational intelligence, were invited to the colloquium to present their insights into this process and to discuss how video games will continue to develop in the near future. Maxime Durand (video link) explained how Ubisoft Montreal, a large video game development studio, approaches and uses historical source material to influence the design of [End Page 96] video games. Although the primary focus of Ubisoft Montreal is entertainment, the studio has made it a priority to root the games it develops in historical fact. Durand's role as studio historian, he explained, is to inform and support the development teams in the studio, verify the historical accuracy of the models and gameplay that they develop, and make historical source material, such as maps and paintings, accessible to them. This careful consideration of history in the game development process helps the teams to relate the difference and otherness of the historical moment they are trying to represent, which in turn provides players of the video game with a heightened psychological sense of historical presence and flow. The richer the historical source material, the more effectively a team development dynamic can be fostered that allows history to impact core gameplay mechanics. In addition to archival research, Durand described the importance of consulting subject-matter experts and leaders of indigenous communities to develop historically accurate as well as culturally sensitive game scripts. Finally, he noted that site-based research is essential for development teams to better understand environmental details that can only be discovered through personal inspection of historical sites.
Rob Howland (video link) also shared insights into the video game design and development process—this time from the perspective of a smaller independent studio (Howland, Reed, and Kuwada). Describing his work on a 3D game to teach second-language vocabulary in a playful real-world context, he echoed the sentiments of other colloquium participants in arguing that a language is best learned through cultural immersion and that creating a world in which that immersion can take place could be beneficial in teaching medieval languages and culture. Howland noted, however, that the type of 3D game the public generally associates with video gaming (referred to in the video gaming industry as an AAA game, such as Assassin's Creed) is very difficult and time-consuming to develop. Not only do such games require a large amount of financial backing to produce, but they also require the collaborative efforts of large game development teams with specialized roles (for instance, level designer or artificial-intelligence programmer). Given the difficulty of producing high-quality games, the industry focuses its time and resources exclusively on titles that promise the greatest potential return on investment. This unfortunately creates a dynamic in which educational games have proven to be less lucrative, and therefore any investment in their development is extremely rare. Howland suggested that educational institutions, acting themselves as video game publishers, could support the development of educational video games by funding [End Page 97] open educational game development through grant programs and project investment.
Finally, Mubbasir Kapadia presented the exciting work he has been doing in digital storytelling and game design (video link). Kapadia has been working with Roger Martínez-Dávila on a project entitled Virtual Plasencia (http://revealingcooperationandconflict.com), which models the position of the Jewish quarter in a multicultural town in medieval Spain (Martínez-Dávila et al.). As a computer scientist, Kapadia is attracted to working with humanists, noting that researchers in humanities have rich stories to tell. His goal is to find novel and immersive media for the creation and consumption of these stories, grounding his development of immersive virtual worlds in historical narratives and allowing users a unique way to consume pedagogical content in an interactive way. The challenge for him is to provide accessible technologies for the development of interactive digital stories that are cost-efficient and practical while requiring minimum technical proficiency so that humanists can use computers to tell their own stories as simply as possible. In a demonstration of his work, he showed how a computer could be programmed to create a digital story from just narrative input via visual interface, with no coding required. In his example of a bank robbery story, the characters in the story "understood" what the storyteller was telling them to do, such as "crouch and hide" or "pick up a gun from a table." Kapadia closed with the important point that these new technologies and pedagogies demand a quantitative basis to evaluate and validate the benefits of consuming content using games and virtual worlds. We must determine what affordances are offered by games that are not present in other media, what metrics we can use to measure their efficacy, and what the benefits and tradeoffs are between these different mediums for storytelling and learning.
Conclusions and Moving Forward
The Immersive Environments Colloquium was a first step toward exploring how 3D immersive environments and video games—and, eventually, virtual and augmented reality—can be used to teach medieval studies topics. Far-ranging in its scope and perspectives, the colloquium offered tantalizing visions of how interdisciplinary collaboration could potentially serve to support the instructional and research needs of the field. At a time when the field of medieval studies is weathering storms from within and without the academy, this collaboration is a timely and much-needed chance for our profession to refresh dated teaching [End Page 98] methodologies, make medieval topics accessible to a wider audience, and "provide a deeper understanding of emotions, the human condition, and the cultural and social systems that situate human activity and imbue it with meaning" (Georgieva, Craig, Pfaff, Neville, and Burchett 2). Throughout the colloquium the point was repeatedly made that the type of embodied and situated cognition supported by 3D immersive environments and video games could promote a deeper understanding of the other, a critical point for teaching the global Middle Ages.
As technologies continue to become less expensive to develop and less difficult to use, 3D immersive environments and video games are becoming increasingly more feasible for use in both research and the classroom. As scholars, we are tempted to create self-made projects that are more historically accurate and that go straight to the learning or research objectives we have. While it is certainly more expensive and difficult to make our own games, it is far from impossible, and the projects are potential sources of scholarship, grants, and student development teams. Self-made games may provide opportunities for medieval studies to redesign and reinvigorate the field for the twenty-first century, supporting the development of students' technology skills through the lens of an ambitious interdisciplinary project that forges connections to both industry and the digital humanities. COTS video games loosely adapting the Middle Ages are easy to implement, but mistakes in representation such as overly sexualized women and lack of non-European perspectives must be addressed. Class discussion about these issues in the game world could provide a productive entry point into a text. The small number of COTS video games set in the global Middle Ages, coupled with instructors forced to deal with the misinformation embedded by commercial game makers, makes it difficult to use these products in a medieval studies course. Another point to consider is that COTS video games reinforce a dynamic that casts instructors and students as consumers rather than producers of learning technologies. As a result, we find self-made 3D immersive environments and video games to be a better option for learning about the global Middle Ages.
Conference participants noted that digital game-based learning has drawbacks, including conflicting evidence on its effectiveness in teaching certain material. More research needs to be done on which kinds of games promote the best learning environment and whether the efficacy can be improved by restricting the learning objectives to certain types of knowledge. Furthermore, very little research has been done on the effectiveness of self-made games and environments, which could prove far more effective than COTS video games since they are designed intentionally [End Page 99] by the instructor for learning. Nevertheless, making bespoke games, while getting exponentially easier, is clearly something few medievalists are willing or able to undertake.
So how might the issue be approached differently? Maxime Durand described how Ubisoft has development teams do site-based research. We might borrow from this model and organize interdisciplinary teams in a similar manner around an ambitious 3D immersive environment or video game project. In this way students would learn to work across interdisciplinary boundaries in an Agile software development setting, learn to break down complex subject matter into constituent components as described in activity theory, and acquire training in industry-standard software that could help them secure internships and employment opportunities after graduation. Howland suggested that higher education institutions should assume the role of a 3D immersive environment or video game developer, supporting open source educational development and distribution. Medieval studies programs could become more like indie game developers, used to working with smaller teams on smaller projects. Their outputs would be easier to develop and demonstrate proof of concept. Furthermore, medieval studies programs could seek out and cultivate partnerships with existing campus units that have a startup mentality (such as maker spaces, visualization studios, innovation hubs, and digital humanities centers).
Finally, our colloquium brought out the importance of interdisciplinary communication and collaboration across STEM and humanities fields. Modern technology provides resources for sharing code (version control systems, servers, GitHub), organizing efforts through online collaborative spaces and digital workspaces (Slack channels and Google Docs), and testing prototypes through hosted immersive environments (VRChat and Sansar). Continued research in the area of 3D immersive environments and video games to teach the Middle Ages is vital, and the Immersive Environments Colloquium will continue its productive conversations through a biennial colloquium held on a rotating basis at the campuses of consortium members.
As we seek to understand the ways in which medieval audiences experienced the time and space of the stories they heard and the worlds they inhabited, virtual reality, augmented reality, and 3D immersive environments give us a powerful tool for experiencing the past. Technology can allow users to travel alongside Chaucer's pilgrims, watch the sunrise on a holy day in Mesoamerica, and wander through enchanted forests with Chrétien de Troyes's knights. While commercial video games offer some of this experience, environments produced by specialists specifically [End Page 100] for learning can teach authentic language and culture and expand the world to include non-European medieval communities. Let's leverage the popularity of video games to teach our multicultural global past. [End Page 101]
1. We would like to extend special thanks to Todd Hughes who co-organized this colloquium; Felekech Tigabu for her video recording and safekeeping of the files; Ardis Butterfield, Julie Sykes, and Virginia Scott, whose participation was invaluable; and Melanie Forehand, who blogged the colloquium for HASTAC. Please visit her blog at https://www.hastac.org/blogs/mjfore/2016/12/19/resolve-use-games-classroom-2017. This colloquium was funded by the Research Scholar Grant program at Vanderbilt University, and we are grateful for its support.
2. A 3D immersive environment of the Songo Mnara site in Tanzania can be found at http://virtualreconstruction.rice.edu/songomnara.html.
3. The Peregrinations of Prester John, a multimedia Scalar project by Christopher Taylor, accessible through the Global Middle Ages Project portal, plots the spatial movements of Prester John's kingdom through time and space in the story's many languages: http://globalmiddleages.org/project/peregrinations-prester-john-creation-global-story-across-600-years.
4. According to Norman, "the term affordance refers to the perceived and actual properties of the thing, primarily those fundamental properties that determine just how the thing could possibly be used. . . . Affordances provide strong clues to the operations of things. Plates are for pushing. Knobs are for turning. Slots are for inserting things into. Balls are for throwing or bouncing. When affordances are taken advantage of, the user knows what to do just by looking: no picture, label, or instruction needed" (9).