Monday, November 2, 2009

A new immersion experience -- British poets of the Great War

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.


Sort of.

In the orientation area

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.

In the trench environment--note the poppies, the
fire step and the ladders for going over the top

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:


  1. I swear, Dio, I don't know how you retain such a massive amount of knowledge. I half expect to lift up your hair in the back and find slots where you've expanded your memory!

    Fascinating article, thank you for writing it. I'm going to try to go in world and visit this soon.

  2. I saw the blurb from Laird Brideswell as well, and made a note to see what the exhibit was about. I'm glad you beat me to it - you obviously have an amazing store of knowledge about, well, about a great many things, it appears. Including WWI, of which I know practically nothing. Thanks for writing it up.

  3. Grumble grumble - bloody Blogger ate my comment - here's the potted version:

    1) You know too much about guns ;-D

    2) Great write up - I must go!

    3) SL really has the power to move us. I remember going to sim about the Darfur crisis and being very moved and Elle went to a sim about American Slavery and found it very moving - you should look for that on her blog... hang on...


    Amazing stuff - her's is one of the best blogs around.

  4. Hey Mah,

    Actually, many segments of my memory have pretty much gone to shit. But thanks to Google and the fact that I remember bits and pieces of stuff, I can at least retrieve a good bit of what I used to know from a handy source.

    WWI, however, is one of those subjects that endlessly fascinates me, and when I have some spare funds, I still buy original photo postcards of Imperial German soldiers (the so-called "real photo" images which were one of a kind or done in very small batches, rather than being published in mass quantities for sale to the public) and patriotic/propaganda postcards from the era.

    Now mind you there are a lot of subjects that I don't care and/or known much about--I simply ain't gonna write about em here. Like String Theory. That shit utterly eludes me.

  5. Hey Rhia,

    Hmmm, Laird Brideswell? Is there a rl connection to this consulting company there?

    One of the interesting things here is the convoluted and interconnected and expanding ways we find things out. And the really funny thing about this one is that I found out about the new build from twitter, the siren call of which I was bravely fighting off.

    I only started using twitter just recently, thanks to Headburrow making big bambi eyes at me (metaphorically speaking, of course) and gently cajoling me into giving it a go. What pleasant surprise, finding in it clues that led me to a SL build that addresses a subject that I have such an abiding interest in.

    Anyhow Rhia, being as you say that you don't know much about this era, I will be very curious to hear your reactions to the build and what it says to you.

  6. Hey HB,

    Yeah, ain't that a kick in the balls when you have written something fairly extensive and the giggling aether faeries spirit it away to the dark and mystic place where lost blog posts and the occasional sock from your dryer live out their days in a strange sort of never-never land...

    Anyhow, I was not aware that there is such a thing as knowing "too much about guns." That's like "eating too much chocolate." I am sure it does actually happen now and then, somewhere in the world, but I have never witnessed it myself.

    And I shall make a point of checking out Elle's blog. You have always given me good advice in the past (see above reply to Rhia) and I trust you won't let me down now.)

  7. Yes, a great writeup! Thank you for the in depth commentary. I would agree that the title should specify "British."

    I had to remind myself that Stephen Crane died well before WWI, but his work has always struck me as contemporary to the Great War.

    "Do not weep, babe, for war is kind.
    Because your father tumbles in the yellow trenches,
    Raged at his breast, gulped and died,
    Do not weep.
    War is kind."

    On the other hand, my favorite WWI poet is Yeats, who wrote exactly one poem, "On being asked for a War Poem":

    "I think it better that in times like these
    A poet keep his mouth shut, for in truth
    We have no gift to set a statesman right;
    He has had enough of meddling who can please
    A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
    Or an old man upon a winter’s night."

    But I'm cranky like that.

  8. Oh, interesting thoughts there Asto, I wasn't familiar with the Yeats poem.

    I find it intriguing that some of the most engaging experiments I've seen in SL have been related to literature, like this and the Macbeth build, or the ever-expanding supply of storytelling events in-world.

    But then, after all, social interaction in SL primarily takes place though communication, mostly in written form (voice is still, I think a bizarre and unreliable aberration). The fact that intense communication is at the heart of SL is one of the reasons why our social interactions on the grid are characterized by the accelerated and intensified building and demolition of relationships and communities.

  9. And I just visited this a few days back, commenting on it.

    Just FYI, in case you don't know--Laird Brideswell=Elrik Merlin, DJ @ Radio Riel, landowner, former employee of the BBC, I think, and VERY involved in radio theatre and recording. He's been pimping this on Twitter, which is why I went.

    *grabs the URL to the blog, dragging it off to the sidebar*

  10. Hey Emilly,

    yes I enjoyed your very through commentary on the project. I find it interesting how you and I related to the exhibit in rather different ways, but still both found it very engaging and agreed that people should go see it.

    I was not in fact aware of Elri Merlin's connection to the project, though I did find it an odd little coincidence that it was being promoted by by a consulting firm called Brideswell Associates...


    *heel of hand impacts forehead*

    Sometimes putting two and two together takes me a while.

    And for those who missed your post on the WWI poets build it may be seen at:

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