Immersive History Experiences

Education researchers have found that embodied learning, especially those experiences where choices are connected to movement and visual scenes help students learn.  This can be increased through follow up activities. In addition, the “novelty and interactive possibility of VR improves student motivation and increases student recall.”[1]

Two of my favorite virtual reality environments that I plan to try in my US History class are Ford’s Theatre (Ford’s Theatre Historic Site) and Civil War: 1864 by the American Battlefield Trust. Both provide students with immersive experiences that promise to bring history to life as they provide content that transcends “edutainment.”

The Ford’s Theatre virtual tour takes you into the refurbished theatre to imagine what it was like the night that Abraham Lincoln was shot.  It retells the story in compelling detail and points out specific features that help students understand the event.  For example, it explains how the balcony box was decorated specifically for Lincoln to be “presidential” and how no one would have wondered about the famous actor, John Wilkes Booth wandering around the theatre.  The tour also takes the viewer across the street to the Peterson House where Lincoln died.  Here we learn that the boarder William Clarke returned to his room on April 15, 1865, even though Lincoln had died there that morning.  The virtual tour is directed, leading the viewer through a specific story. In each space, however, the viewer gets to look all the way around as if they are standing in the middle of the room.

Ford’s Theatre, Screenshot of the Presidential Booth

Civil War: 1864 uses immersive technology and multiple cameras to offer a 360-degree perspective. The film takes the viewer into the story of a Union and a Confederate regiment. We see the middle of trenches during an 1864 battle, follow soldiers on their rounds (a battle breaks out), and visit soldiers in a hospital scene at a nearby farm.  Through realistic visuals and sound, students might glean what war was like.  Captions in the film help the reader understand the action in a historical context. Although the viewer does not choose whether to enter into battle, they choose which way to look and can interact with the scene.

Civil War 1864: A Virtual Reality Experience, Full Version. Screenshot showing the captions and action.

Immersive history is powerful and emotional. As Andrew M. Coke cautions, however, “It is called virtual reality appropriately, and feeling that something is real makes it believable and seem true.”[2] We must continue to teach our students that the immersive worlds are based on primary sources, some of them incomplete, and the researcher’s interpretation. Like any text, they must learn to think critically about their immersive history experiences.

Historical events that are conducive to VR include those for which there is a specific location that can be either recreated with good blueprints, photographs, and oral histories, or that have been refurbished or preserved (such as the Ford’s Theatre Tour). I worked on the Little Manila Recreated VR Game and Project at University of the Pacific, and the location was ideal because we had historical sources to document the neighborhood and interiors of buildings. In addition, it had been destroyed by urban renewal, and many community members wanted to see it reconstructed in VR.  Little Manila is Stockton’s Filipino neighborhood where, from the 1920s to the 1960s, the largest concentration of Filipino immigrants in the US lived. Oral history interviews with residents helped to ensure accuracy.  Still, even for locations that are well documented like Little Manila, VR is far from perfect.  The exploratory mode allows users to roam the historically accurate streets and building facades, but the system’s limited memory prevented adding the bustling crowds that were such a vibrant part of 1940s Stockton.

An intersection in Little Manila Recreated, University of the Pacific, Digital Deltas Project.

VR experiences are not necessarily the same as game experiences, though increasingly VR includes games, and games can be built in VR.  My colleague, Joshua Salyers, is teaching students to build escape rooms in VR. Those students will need to research an episode, create a virtual environment, and build quests and riddles into the room in order to be able to escape. Games help to incentivize learning by sending students on a quest to collect documents or knowledge.  They result in points or other awards.  VR can be immersive and directed without allowing the choice that is part of gaming.

Many of these technologies (VR, AR (augmented reality), gaming, 360 videos, cinematic experiences) allow users to embody history. It is interactive or immersive.  As such they stimulate our emotions and our memory.  Many students recollect game-playing and VR experiences as the most memorable activities in their history classes. Embodied history allows us to feel present and can be a powerful learning tool.[3]

[1] Alison Burke, Elana Blinder, Leah Potter, and David Langendoen, “Mission US TimeSnap: Developing Historical Thinking Skills through Virtual Reality,” Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, May 20, 2020,

[2] Andrew Koke, “Virtual Reality and the Classroom: How Historians Can Respond.” Perspectives on History, October 1, 2017.

[3] Burke, Blinder, Potter, and Langendoen, “Mission US TimeSnap”


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