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“…And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.”

As read­ers may know, one of my sev­er­al activ­i­ties is audio pro­duc­tion, both voice-over work and the pro­duc­tion of com­plete pack­ages with voice, music, effects and so on.

Recent­ly many of these pro­duc­tions have been par­tic­u­lar­ly asso­ci­at­ed with edu­ca­tion­al pro­grammes, clients includ­ing the British Library and City of Sun­der­land Col­lege. Inter­est­ing­ly, all these projects have result­ed from meet­ing peo­ple in the vir­tu­al world of Sec­ond Life. (Par­tial­ly as a result, inci­den­tal­ly, I do not have a great deal of time for peo­ple who crit­i­cise me for “play­ing” in SL or try to con­vince me that noth­ing sig­nif­i­cant will come of it.)

I have a teach­ing qual­i­fi­ca­tion myself, and I’m par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in the edu­ca­tion­al pos­si­bil­i­ties of vir­tu­al worlds: Sec­ond Life is by far the most pop­u­lar and wide­ly-used of the vir­tu­al worlds cur­rent­ly avail­able, although there is increas­ing activ­i­ty in “Open­Sim” vari­ants using essen­tial­ly the same technology.

Most recent­ly I was intro­duced to some of the staff of the First World War Poet­ry Dig­i­tal Archive, based at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Oxford. They are on the point of launch­ing (on 2 Novem­ber) a new region in Sec­ond Life (named Frideswide after the patron saint of Oxford) which is home to a painstak­ing­ly-built envi­ron­ment designed to shed light on aspects of the life of sol­diers in the trench­es along the West­ern Front dur­ing the First World War. Stu­dents can vis­it the site and learn not only about the con­di­tions endured by infantry­men dur­ing the Great War but also hear poet­ry from the ‘War Poets’, along with inter­views and tutorials.

Here’s how they describe the installation:

This tour of a stylised ver­sion of the trench sys­tems in the West­ern Front has … two objectives:
• to show you the phys­i­cal con­text of the trench systems
• to expose items held in the First World War Poet­ry Dig­i­tal Archive in a three-dimen­sion­al environment

…This [is] not an attempt to give you a real­is­tic expe­ri­ence of what it was like to be on the West­ern Front. The phys­i­cal depra­va­tion, or the chance of seri­ous injury or death, can­not be repli­cat­ed, and this should always be remembered.

More impor­tant­ly per­haps, this is but one view of the War – and it would be safe to say this is a view open to dis­cus­sion. …we have pre­sent­ed rain-sod­den trench­es, infest­ed by rats, in gloomy sur­round­ings. But this was not always the case. The open­ing day of the Bat­tle of the Somme, for exam­ple, was a beau­ti­ful sum­mer’s morn­ing in stark con­trast to the depic­tions we often see of the mud­dy hell of Paaschendaele.

Chris Stephens, who has been instru­men­tal in putting the sim­u­la­tion togeth­er, com­mis­sioned me ini­tial­ly to pro­vide an audio ver­sion of an A‑level/U­ni­ver­si­ty-lev­el Tuto­r­i­al on “Remem­brance” along with four poems: Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wil­fred Owen, Does It Mat­ter? by Siegfried Sas­soon, plus Louse Hunt­ing and Dead Man’s Dump by Isaac Rosenberg.

I’ve now record­ed some addi­tion­al poet­ry read­ings – Repres­sion of War Expe­ri­ence, After­math, and On Pass­ing the New Menin Gate, all by Siegfried Sas­soon; plus 1916 Seen From 1921 and Can You Remem­ber by Edmund Blun­den – and an intro­duc­tion and epilogue.

These poems have a great deal to tell us about the feel­ings of their authors, and many of them are pow­er­ful­ly mov­ing. Dead Man’s Dump in par­tic­u­lar is full of vivid, detailed imagery.

The tuto­r­i­al, on the oth­er hand, encour­ages us to ask a num­ber of ques­tions about our con­cep­tion of what the Great War was like, and uncov­ers where much of our infor­ma­tion has come from. It also chal­lenges some of our assump­tions about the con­flict. At the time of writ­ing, there are only three vet­er­ans of the First World War left alive, so we rely increas­ing­ly on indi­rect sources.

In the Sec­ond Life rep­re­sen­ta­tion, you start off at an army camp and then pro­ceed to the trench­es via a float­ing bub­ble, dur­ing which you hear the intro­duc­tion to the installation.

Once at ground lev­el in the trench­es, you can walk around and vis­it dif­fer­ent aspects of the trench net­work. Along the way, images of sol­diers flick­er into view and you might hear an inter­view or a piece of poet­ry. The tuto­ri­als are accessed via a “HUD” (Head-Up Dis­play) enabling you to pro­ceed through the mate­r­i­al and exer­cis­es at your own pace. Addi­tion­al audio extracts are ini­ti­at­ed by click­ing on loud­speak­er symbols.

A scene from the University of Oxford's First World War re-creation in Second Life. The visitor is able to walk around in the trenches; the cubes with a loudspeaker symbol on them enable playback of audio material such as poetry readings and interviews. Photo courtesy of First World War Poetry Digital Archive.

A scene from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Oxford’s First World War rep­re­sen­ta­tion in Sec­ond Life. The vis­i­tor is able to walk around in the trench­es and ulti­mate­ly climb a lad­der up on to the bat­tle­field itself; the cubes with a loud­speak­er sym­bol on them enable play­back of audio mate­r­i­al such as poet­ry read­ings and inter­views. The green-tinged cloud and float­ing text ahead are part of a sec­tion on the use of poi­son gas dur­ing the War. 

Over­all, the Sec­ond Life rep­re­sen­ta­tion is quite an intense and pow­er­ful expe­ri­ence, and I can imag­ine it will be a par­tic­u­lar­ly effec­tive edu­ca­tion­al tool.

The chal­lenge for an envi­ron­ment like this is that there is a fair­ly steep learn­ing curve before vis­i­tors can ful­ly expe­ri­ence what a vir­tu­al world like Sec­ond Life can offer – before you can expe­ri­ence an instal­la­tion like this you have to learn how to move around, acti­vate things and gen­er­al­ly oper­ate suc­cess­ful­ly in the envi­ron­ment. How­ev­er in this case you real­ly need to be able to do lit­tle more than walk around and click on objects, so most peo­ple will require no more than a few min­utes of train­ing to be able to get the most out of vir­tu­al re-cre­ations like this.

I wish the First World War Poet­ry Dig­i­tal Archive every suc­cess with this project and am very pleased to have been able to make a small con­tri­bu­tion to it. This instal­la­tion will also be fea­tured in the 10 Novem­ber edi­tion of the Design­ing Worlds show on Treet.TV.

*“…And each slow dusk a draw­ing down of blinds.” is the final line of Anthem for Doomed Youth by World War I poet Wil­fred Owen – one of the WWI poems I’ve record­ed for this project. Pho­tos cour­tesy of First World War Poet­ry Dig­i­tal Archive.