Big orientation signs and some pretty decent stuff--the freebie nurse uniform, and a great period motorbike made by Jenne Dibou
Being as the First World War is a subject that I am particularity interested in, I was intrigued when I followed a twitter link to the blog of a company called Brideswell Associates/Creative Technology Consultants, to find a post about a new WWI-themed build in Second Life. This post reported that Oxford University has created a literary-theme/historical immersion environment mashup to introduce visitors to the poetry of the Great War, describing the project thus:
An exciting new project in interactive education will launch on 2nd November 2009, drawing together the resources and expertise of the University of Oxford, and the possibilities for immersion and interactivity offered by the virtual world of Second Life.
The First World War Poetry Digital Archive and the Learning Technologies Group at the University of Oxford have collaborated to bring together a wealth of digitised archival material from the First World War into an environment that allows this powerful material to be explored and experienced in a radically new way.
“The aim of the initiative is to place the poetry of the Great War in context,” explains Stuart Lee, Lecturer in English at the University of Oxford, “It allows the visitors to the exhibition to visualise archival materials in an environment that fosters deeper understandings. Visitors also have the opportunity to take advantage of the social and interactive aspects that the environment offers.”
Well! And it was opening today! So I dragged myself down to the see this grand experiment without delay.
And you know what, despite there being a good number of relatively small-to-medium things that just utterly irritated the fuck out of me, I think the damn thing worked remarkably well in terms of the big-picture stuff.
I might as well get right to one of the big things that bothered me. You arrive in the entry area, and there are big signs telling you what this is all about, and a nice video to get you started before you enter in the first environment which is supposed to represent the British army base at Etaples. By the way, while this build refers to Etaples as a training camp, it was actually a "transit camp" in France where units got organized and prepped (with some ongoing training as part of the process) before the final leg of their trip to the Western Front. But that's not my big issue--it's just a minor one. The really big thing that honked me off was that on one of the large intro panels, the creators of this experiment stated that "This project has imported of (sic) a range of digitized archival materials for the major poets (my bold) of the First World War."
As far as I could tell, all of these "major poets" were Brits. Seigfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas, Isaac Rosenberg, Ivor Gurney, even poor old Vera Britain (whose work I always found whiny and annoying) are represented--but no Germans like Kurd Adler and August Stramm, no French poets of the war like Charles Vildrac or Guillaume Apolliniare, nor our American Great War poet, Joyce Kilmer (he did a lot more war poems than just that bloody tree thing, you know).
Now mind you, there's nothing wrong with the fact that they concentrated on the British writers--there's great stuff to draw on, especially Sassoon and Owen. But I do feel that this small selection of poets--drawn from mostly one social class from only one of the many combatant nations--provides only a rather narrow perspective on the war. The inclusion of snippets of oral history interviews from a more varied cross section of British and commonwealth soldiers helps to mitigate that somewhat. Even so, I think it would have been appropriate to make it clear that this is a very focused viewpoint and set of voices. They could have said "this project has imported a range of digitized archival materials for the major British poets of the First World War. And then they wouldn't be getting grumped at by people like me.
At the same time, anything about the Great War in a popular culture medium like SL is going to make me pretty happy. Hell, I even watched the Young Indiana Jones TV series, just because it was about WWI. And these folks obviously put a lot of work and thought into this project. There are freebie uniforms to put on (a nurse that is not too bad, and a soldier that, overall, is pretty dreadful, though the Brodie helmet with it is actually decent). Then you go into the camp environment, after which you tp into a section of a frontline trench system, complete with a dugout, a gas attack, a casualty sorting station, bursting shells, planes overhead, and tanks (one of them burning) in no man's land.
As you journey through the environments, all along the way there are media presentations, and little boxes that provide audio of either a reading of a war poem, or an oral history segment from interviews that had been done with British and Commonwealth WWI veterans back in the 1960s.
I spent a lot of time going through the sim, which also features an educational platform with a theater and additional images and interpretive materials.
Out of everything, I thought the trench environment worked the best. The trenches were laid out more or less correctly with communication trenches leading to the fire trench with its zig-zagging traverses. There was a fire step, a sand bag crown, and duckboards to help you walk over the mud. In one place, if you're not careful you sink into what must have been one hell of a shell hole.
Rats scurry about, and ambient sounds of shells exploding and machine guns tapping away help give the trench environment a much more authentic feel than the camp segment offers. You wander, turning traverse after traverse, getting lost, finding yourself back where you started, falling in that damn big hole again, and you know, something? I've been in trenches, and this really reminded me of what's it's like being in a trench. Of course it can never really recreate the true feeling of it. The smell of death and shit, the mud and the dirt, the threat of actually getting killed--you can't really hope to convey that with pixels. But this project does do a nice job of hinting at the reality of it, and I think it achieves the project's goal of putting a portion of the literature of the war into a context.
Yes, I know I said there were things about this project that really irritated the fuck out of me. But hey, you're talking to a gal who got pissed off when she saw the film Nicholas and Alexandra long ago in a theater, and noticed that the czarist troops were armed with Soviet-era M91/30 rifles instead of the old M91 Mosin Nagants. Likewise I was disappointed by Lawrence of Arabia because the Turks had Browning air-cooled machine guns instead of water-cooled Maxims. So pay no attention to me when I'm getting cranky about details.
Malachi in the freebie soldier's uniform in no man's land. It's got web gear that looks like nothing made during the war, no spiral-wrap puttees, a generic sort of green outfit, and of all things, a mediocre rendition of an American '03 Springfield for a weapon--but hey, the helmet ain't bad. And the environment with the burning tank--suitably grim.
I think all in all it's a damn fine experiment, and for people who aren't familiar with this period of history and the literature associated with it, this build will be a real eye-opener. I also think it's a build from which a lot of the "museum in Second Life" people could learn something about playing with the technology in imaginative ways for interpretive purposes.
You can see this project for yourself at: