The Future of History: Students in History and Computer Science Team Up to Bring the Past to Life

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A student plays a student-created history video game.
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Early one morning in April, computer science major Kendall Breivogel and his team members were discussing how to lift the texture of a building off a hi-res archival photo and use it to create a realistic 3-D model of the historical Black Mountain College.

Breivogel and his classmates in Game Programming spent the semester collaborating with history students in the Digital History course to create interactive video games based on local Western North Carolina history. Breivogel’s group focused on the WWII years of Black Mountain College, an experimental educational institution near Asheville that was active from 1933-1957.

The game takes players through an elaborate and meticulously researched and recreated 3D model of Black Mountain College during a period of construction in the 1940s, with ghost-like figures of the real people who lived and worked at Black Mountain College appearing throughout the game to give the player challenges to complete.

“As the player progresses through the simulation, they’ll complete the structure as it was during that time period,” Breivogel explained. Exploring the rooms in the college by opening drawers or inspecting shelves reveals the articles, letters and other papers that the Digital History students used for their research, which help the player complete the game. 

The game explores “the refugees who came to Black Mountain College, the people who stayed behind and attended Black Mountain College or worked at Black Mountain College, and the students and faculty of Black Mountain College who left to join the war effort, and what effect that had on the college campus community,” said Joe Mitchell, a member of the team from the history class.

The cross-course collaboration has been an exercise in “learning each other’s language,” according to Professor of History Ellen Holmes Pearson, who teaches the Digital History course.

“They’re learning how to interact with colleagues who are very intellectually different from them,” Pearson said. “That is so valuable, whether they go to grad school or whether they go into the workplace immediately, they have a skill there, an interpersonal skill.”

“We have students who are very much open to connections,” said Marietta Cameron, chair and associate professor of computer science, and teacher of the Games Programming class. “We’re at a liberal arts institution, so they’re already inclined to already be open to connections that they don’t think of initially, but that make sense.”

The connection between history and computer science is an especially apt one, Pearson said, as “technology is the low hanging fruit; it’s everywhere and we’re all going to have to learn how to work with it, even those of us who are ‘humanists.’”

“To have a better understanding of how we can work with one another across disciplines is truly what we’re all about,” Pearson said.

The students presented their semester-long projects on Monday, May 8, where they discussed the research they’d conducted and showed demos of the games they’d built. Along with the Black Mountain College project, students researched and created interactive games based on the Agudas Israel Congregation in Hendersonville, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Asheville, and the Mountain Dance Folk Festival. Each team also built a website displaying their research and hosting links to the games.

To visit the websites and play the interactive games, visit ais.uncadighist.org, bmc.uncadighist.org, mdff.uncadighist.org, and uuca.uncadighist.org.