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Immersing in virtual realities; potential futures and climate change

I have for a long time been very interested in the potential of 3D and virtual realities; both personally and academically. Video games is an interest of mine, both from an artistic perspective but also let’s face it; it is also a favourite activity with my step-kids. In “In the Eyes of the Beholder: Virtual Reality Re-Creations and Academia” (2006), Diane Favro writes about the idea of “edutainment” and history being used as an added attractive element of video games but more there for the dramatic effect rather than historical accuracy. Archeology, history (and treasure hunting) has been frequently used as themes within games; today we see popular series such as the reboot of Tomb Raider and the just finished series of Uncharted.  Some elements seen in the 3D visualizations and collections for our readings are remarkably similar in its design and interface. Here is a GIF I created from a walk through video made by PS4Trophies on Youtube, of the game Uncharted: Lost Legacy. You play the character of a historian/treasure hunter who along the journey find small artefacts that you can zoom in, twist and turn the three dimensional object you just picked up. The way of looking at the artefact in the game is remarkably similar to Smithsonian X3D collection, even though it is obviously more detailed and a minimal background. This may not be surprising, as The Naughty Dog, the makers of the Uncharted video games have disclosed in interviews that they put in extensive research into their game, including scholars, archeologists and historistians as consultants for most parts of the game. Historical themes within video games has often been portrayed as a "way in" to more serious history, which perhaps may be true but is certainly not the main reason to the historical elements and has not been properly studied.

GIF from gameplay, Uncharted: Lost legacy and still photo from Smithsonian X3D.

As Foni et al. (2010) argues, historical themes in video games lacks the accuracy required, and if any it is just a by-product of the dramatized narration of the game. A new subgenre has however emerged of what they call “serious games” that implements video game components, but the focus is on education or training rather than the entertainment value. The virtual realities or interactive story games has come either from small indie producers such as Red Redemption that in 2011 released the video game Fate of the World where you are in charge of the earths limited resources and all scenarios are based on scientific research. 

Virtual realities and games has been used within studies of climate change communication for the last few years; Large claims have been made around scholarly projects, an example is this article from last year with the bombastic title from the media outlet Forbes; Stanford Scientists Use Virtual Reality To Save The Actual World. Using virtual realities is used as a way to visually communicate data and potential futures, in this project about the acidification of our oceans.

Stanford's project on ocean acidification using virtual realities.

Artists such as Marina Abramović with her piece Rising (2018), where visitors are invited into a VR world of the rapid rising sea levels. In Abramović artwork, the visitor is at the end of it emerged within an apocalyptic world, framed as a potential catastrophic future for the planet.

Both Favro and Johanson (2009) debates around the uncertainties of attempting to render 3D visuals of historical sites or architecture. Johanson begs to question what is actually meant when we talk about accuracy when it comes to reconstructions; to see them as knowledge representations rather than just reconstructions of the past and with that creating new ways of learning and immersing with the body of knowledge. This balance and question of accuracy is not only within historical renderings but is shared with the battling of uncertainties when creating future potential visualization. No matter how much data or calculations are produced, whatever is formed is still just a potential future and can not be known for certain until it is the present. The more scholarly and educational projects also have to battle the difficult line between being entertaining as a tool that may reach out to larger audiences, whilst still being scholarly and depict accurate scenarios. The apocalyptic scenarios has been a common video games setting since the creation of video games and I have always been fascinated by these dramatized depiction of what a world would look like after years without human interaction, or after anthropogenic catastrophe. Another one of Naughty Dog’s latest games are Last of Us, known for its stunning landscapes, that portrays a planet earth that has been without humans for more than twenty years. Other visualizations of anthropogenic climate change is Metro 2033, where the world has gone through drastic climate changes due to nuclear accidents. 

Landscape shot from the video game Last of Us

Landscape shot from the video game Metro 2033.

Visualizations of future climate and our surroundings are incredibly fascinating and it always makes my mind wander; what will the world look like without humans? What does these dramatized visuals from video games aimed at being part of entertainment tell us about how we visualize the apocalypse and our future? And as the scholarly and artistic projects, what other narratives are they portraying in contrast to the entertainment formats? As Favro argues, the “re-creations call for a theorization of historical experience” where re-creation models can further look into sensorial experiences not just focusing on sight. How could this idea be interpreted not in re-creations of historical sights, but in depicting our potential futures and future climate change? How will it smell, taste, sound? Could further sensorial experiences within virtual realities and visualizations aid scholars and artists attempt to create understanding or further knowledge production? Even though I find the possibilities thrilling, I also feel hesitations regarding who the educational projects and artworks are for, but that is probably a blogpost of itself and also even more outside the realm of the topic of this blogpost.  

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Dec 13, 2019

Linnéa, I also share your interest in learning through 3D and virtual reality, and the visual recreation of the past through video games and film has certainly been an early inspiration of that. I remember watching the movie Gladiator (2000) for the first time as a kid and being absolutely captivated by the gladiatorial battle scenes, not so much due to the action of the fighting, but because these scenes presented hyper-realistic recreations of what Roman amphitheaters would have looked like and also gave me an imaginative window into what an individual's experience would have been like as a spectator. From what I know about the production of this film, a one-third scale replica of the colosseum at Rome was…

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