Exploring and Designing Virtual Worlds

What can we learn from the creation and exploration of a virtual world? The impulse to create imagined spaces occupies a longstanding tradition in the humanities. Whether it be Plato’s Cave or Mount Olympus or Yoknapatawpha, virtual landscapes hold out the promise to expand our human capacities to create, to imagine, and to analyze beyond our physical constraints. Advancements in computational media enable the production of increasingly sophisticated, multimodal technologies that in turn raise new ethical, political, and methodological questions for humanities scholars. This eighth issue of the Journal of Digital Humanities offers multiple perspectives on the digital and physical worlds we create, inhabit, and study.

“World-building is both the creation of media and a design research practice, and in neither case is its interdisciplinarity a luxury,” notes computer scientist Noah Wardrip-Fruin in his introduction to a presentation delivered by Alex McDowell to the Media Systems Workshop. Over the course of the workshop, design and media production professionals convened with humanities and media studies academicians and identified four shared characteristics of their computational media work: technical, creative, interpretive, and collaborative. In their executive and final reports, Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Michael Mateas advocate increasing support for cross-disciplinary media projects to sustain, develop, and share work through increasingly robust platforms.

For a group of undergraduate students of game design — Joe Dempsey, Daniel Hargreaves, Daniel Peacock, Chelsea Lindsey, Dominic Bell, and Luc Fontenoy of  De Montfort University, Leicester — detailed historical research greatly informed their award-winning recreation of “Pudding Lane” and the bakery that started the Great Fire of London in 1666. By conscientiously placing their archival research in conversation with their training in design and digital production, Pudding Lane Productions shares the process by which they learned not only to imagine and recreate, but also to interpret, a specific site in seventeenth-century London.

Building virtual recreations of historic sites also can offer fresh interpretive perspectives about the reception history of orally performed texts, such as seventeenth-century sermons. More than a visual reconstruction, the Virtual St. Paul’s Cross project leverages computational advantages of sound technologies and oral performance to produce online and physical installations of John Donne’s famed “Gunpowder Day Sermon” from November 1622. By creating a “single experiential research environment” for this particular public performance, project director John N. Wall uses a virtual environment to demonstrate that sermon texts are “traces of the sermon-in-performance,” and he argues for expanding current critical approaches to the genre.

The same tools that have enabled historians to recreate historical places and sounds offer the researchers interested in culture and social relations the opportunity to see the digital penumbras of those they study. For ethnographers, that may mean assessing a group’s presence online, mapping a community, or investigating the technological conditions of cultural productions. Wendy F. Hsu argues for a new methodological framework for ethnographers that highlights the insights gained when using digital tools in traditional ethnographic fieldwork. Though digital methods have often been the tools of those studying virtual communities or digital cultures alone, Hsu argues that “rather than walking away from the digital, we ethnographers should give serious considerations to software as infrastructure and materiality at the sites of our research.” By offering examples from her own research, she introduces possible digital approaches to the collection, interpretation, and sharing of ethnographic work. By sharing a “Code Appendix” that includes the macros she developed to perform her research, Hsu extends the collaborative ethos of digital ethnography through her own praxis.

Finally, in a continuing effort to disseminate work at multiple stages of development, this issue includes a second installation of posters originally presented at the DH2013 conference at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln in July 2013. As imagined and actual virtual communities extend and reshape, we aim to provide access to a diversity of presentations and publications across digital humanities.

From their first circulation in Digital Humanities Now to the versions formally published here, each featured project has demonstrated impressive results that are made possible by the intentional integration of technical, creative, interpretive, and collaborative applications of computational media. We hope you find this issue represents holistic, broadly-informed approaches to the design and creation of digital scholarship that balances visionary potential with humanistic values.

Joan Fragaszy Troyano and Lisa M. Rhody, Editors