posted August 12, 2013

NEH Grant to Support Broader Adaptation of “Valley Sim” Platform

Dr. Christian Spielvogel of the Hope College communication faculty didn’t have experience in programming or a model to follow when he developed “Valley Sim,” an educational, multi-player, web-based roleplaying game set during the Civil War.

Spielvogel created “Valley Sim” through a start-up grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and a fellowship from the Virginia Endowment for the Humanities.  Now, through a major new grant from the NEH, the only one to a liberal arts college through the endowment’s “Digital Humanities Implementation Grants” program, he is leading a three-year effort to turn the framework that runs “Valley Sim” into a tool that other educators can easily use to develop games of their own.  And then he’ll give it away.

Spielvogel has been using “Valley Sim”—short for “Simulation”--in his classes at Hope since 2009, and has also shared it with college, university and high school instructors around the country.  The response has been enthusiastic, with Spielvogel finding many teachers wishing that they had a similar resource for other eras and topics as well.

“No digital tool exists that makes it possible for nonprogrammers to easily develop their own humanities games and simulations,” said Spielvogel, an associate professor of communication.  “While similar applications have been created across a variety of commercial publishing contexts to enable individuals to create their own course, social website or textbook, this will be the first authoring workflow for humanities games and simulations that allows teacher/scholars with no programming background to develop and scaffold their own multi-player simulations in five simple steps.”

The new project, “Scaling Digital Gaming to Humanities and Praxis,” has received $299,221 from the NEH that will provide support through 2016.  The award is one of only six nationwide announced by the NEH in July through the “Digital Humanities Implementation Grants” program.  The other five recipients were at Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the New York Public Library, Stanford University and Washington State University.

In “Valley Sim,” students take on the identity of one of 25 real-life citizens of two communities that were on opposite sides of the Civil War.  The students then interact, in character, via Internet chat as they learn about and respond to the events of the war through information featured in an online database.  The emphasis is on helping students reflect together on the motivations and perspectives of those who lived through the events.

Spielvogel includes “Valley Sim” as one component of his “Communication and Conflict” class at Hope.  It has also been used by more than 100 other college, university and high school instructors, reaching a total of 2,000 students.

The project has been featured in national publications such as “Campus Technology Today” and “Education Week,” as well as on C-SPAN2 and in two articles by Spielvogel that were published in refereed journals.

In a precursor to the new initiative, the “Valley Sim” framework was adapted for use with “Marriage of Cultures,” created by cultural anthropologist Dr. Laura Ginsberg Spielvogel of Western Michigan University, who is Spielvogel’s wife, with students playing members of either a Japanese or Italian American family in the weeks leading up to a fictionalized cross-cultural wedding.

“The authoring portion of the project was challenging because the ‘Valley Sim’ was a customized digital tool,” Spielvogel said.  “However, ‘Marriage of Cultures’ has been so incredibly successful that it has spurred our project team to redesign the platform for widespread scalability.”

The new project will involve nine teacher/scholars in the humanities, at colleges and universities around the country as well as in South Africa, in developing simulations of their own using the “Valley Sim” framework.  Three will be developed each year, with topics ranging from the Salem witch trials, to the Russian Revolution, women’s rights, slavery in the United States, and the tension between traditional and democratic forms of governance in South Africa.

Beyond helping the scholars create their modules, the grant will be used to incorporate a peer-review process to validate the quality of humanities games, develop community features so instructors can share and rate supplemental simulation content, and host nine hands-on workshops at the authors’ home institutions to demo each completed sim and provide training to allow attendees to use the authoring wizard to create their own simulations.  Ultimately, all of the materials developed through the grant, including the platform and the individual simulations, will be made available for free, unlimited use during the grant period.

In addition to Spielvogel, the staff for the three-year project includes Ginsberg; Andy Mink, executive director of LEARN NC, a program at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill that focuses on K-12 education; and Dr. Megan Mullins, a senior research associate with the Carl Frost Center for Social Science Research at Hope.  TekWorkforce, a web-application firm that worked with Spielvogel on earlier iterations of “Valley Sim,” will be in charge of technology development for the project.

Spielvogel received crucial help in developing the platform for “Valley Sim” from Hope colleague Dr. Ryan McFall, who is a professor of computer science and chairperson of the department, and Hope computer science students.  Hope students will play an important role in the new initiative as well, with students in the college’s Mellon Scholars Program working with Spielvogel and other project collaborators on various aspects of the grant, such as creating animations, original videos and marketing materials, providing graphic design, and conducting administrative work.