To immerse, or not to immerse?
For professors designing virtual reality versions of Shakespeare’s plays, that is the question. The answer(s) may have implications for designing new edtech tools—and VR technology intended to be used beyond the classroom, too.
The Bard’s masterpieces, plays written in the late 1500s and early 1600s, have received all kinds of digital makeovers in the 21st century. Two current efforts designed by academics for use in teaching draw on extended reality tools that invite users to actively participate in scenes from works like “Romeo and Juliet.”
Play the Knave is a video game that helps users design actor-avatars they can direct with their bodies around virtual theater spaces. Shakespeare-VR is a project-in-development that will enable users to don a VR headset, step on to a virtual Elizabethan stage and perform alongside avatars voiced by professional actors.
Both offer experiences that may best be described as “Shakespeare karaoke.”
Each tool displays the lines for a specific character—say, Juliet—so that a user can read those words aloud—like, “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?” This prompts a Juliet avatar to utter that famous sentence while a Romeo avatar awaits his cue to reply.
Another similarity: Both systems are designed based on the premise that three-dimensionality matters a lot to understanding the art form of theater and the stories it has to offer.
“Shakespeare wrote with a particular sort of space in mind, a particular sort of theater,” says Stephen Wittek, project director of Shakespeare-VR and an assistant professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University. “Part of really getting into Shakespeare’s head and understanding how the drama works has to include some understanding of the theatrical situation he’s writing for.”
The creators of both systems also share the belief that acting out a scene from a play is a natural form of active learning.
“Shakespeare was meant to be performed. But in an English classroom, you’re often just reading it aloud,” says Gina Bloom, project director of Play the Knave and a professor of English at the University of California at Davis. “There’s just been a lot of research in Shakespeare studies and education and game studies that has shown when people actually get up and use their entire bodies, this ‘embodied learning’ really helps them understand concepts.”
Yet there is a significant difference between Play the Knave and Shakespeare-VR when it comes to what traditionally has been a key component of theater: the audience.
Shakespeare-VR is designed for a student to experience while wearing a VR headset. As a student acts and speaks, his or her avatar will perform in front of a virtual audience, but other humans in the room won’t see the virtual theater that the student sees. The performance essentially takes place in private. In this experience, when a Juliet avatar talks to a Romeo avatar, no one else in the physical world witnesses their romance unfold.
Play the Knave, however, is designed for students to experience collectively. There are no headsets involved. A student controls an avatar character using a Kinect sensor, the kind designed to power Xbox video games, in plain view of everyone else in the classroom. In this experience, when a Juliet avatar talks to a Romeo avatar, other students serve as the audience for their tragic love story.
Does edtech work better as a solo encounter or a group experience? Is it more effective the more engrossing it feels, or are there advantages when a user maintains some literal and metaphorical distance from a simulated environment? These are the kinds of questions that the creators of extended reality learning tools are thinking about.
The folks behind Shakespeare-VR say that a deeply immersive experience—the kind you can have while wearing a VR headset—may help support learning by inviting students to deeply explore other people’s perspectives. They cite projects that their collaborators have worked on that teach about the Holocaust and about a community of women in South Korea trying to preserve their culture.
“With that immersion comes this idea of a very sort of visceral, empathy-driven experience,” says Ralph Vituccio, a teaching professor at Carnegie Mellon University who helps to direct the virtual reality technology for Shakespeare-VR.
But Bloom, of Play the Knave, argues against striving to offer students too much immersion—and isolation—with new tech tools. She says that the audience is a critical component of theater, one that should not be neglected when performances are translated in digital environments.
“I think leaving the audience out is a big danger of virtual reality theater,” she says. “It’s not to say the audience has to be live in the room necessarily, though I do think some of the magic of theater happens because of that. It’s such an embodied art form.”
Bloom also wonders whether immersing students too deeply in a virtual experience could undermine a key educational goal: helping them connect what they encounter in VR to their own physical realities and the broader world. For example, Bloom has conducted research about how inviting students to act out violent scenes using Play the Knave informs their beliefs about violence in their own communities.
“We don’t want people to get lost in these worlds,” Bloom says. “They need to return to their bodies and be critically reflective on what it means to perform these characters, what it means for their own bodies and own physical spaces. Unless you get them to get back into their own bodies, I think you lose a really important teaching moment.”
For edtech designers and humanities professors thinking through the options for how best to use VR in teaching the arts, there’s one more consideration that may be worth taking, Bloom adds: “There’s just nothing more ridiculous than watching someone else play a virtual reality game.”