Cultural historian Dr. Katrina Keefer has never shied away from a challenge – her latest being recreating historical events using sophisticated digital technologies, which opens up a wealth of opportunities for both learners and Afro-descendants to engage with the past.
Bringing together her interest in deciphering the origins of enslaved individuals with her experiences in teaching Game Studies in Trent’s Cultural Studies Department, Professor Keefer is digitally rebuilding Bunce Island, a small island located close to Freetown, Sierra Leone, which served as a transatlantic slave trading post in the 18th century.
“This project is something that I've been mulling over for years – how best to engage with African descendants who may not necessarily have the opportunity to pursue a higher education and have access to the typical things that scholars would disseminate through their research,” explains Prof. Keefer. “Instead of just writing about some of these places you could, hypothetically, follow reconstructed historical figures through the use of Unreal’s meta-human technology. You could talk to them and follow them through their life narrative, thanks to material drawn from their own autobiographies.”
Prof. Keefer turned to the hyper-real world created through videogames for inspiration, and started experimenting in with Unreal Engine 4.26 and Unreal’s Meta-humans.
“The more I dug into it, the more I realized that this is an incredibly powerful medium,” says Prof Keefer. “It could allow people to really develop greater empathy, and allow people from populations which have previously been silenced, to be able to connect in a really visceral way with their own ancestors.”
Actualizing a vision
Embarking on a project like this is no small feat. Every detail needs to be recreated as a realistic representation of Bunce Island – from the landscape, to the history, faces and accents. To achieve this, Prof. Keefer has established a broad network of collaborators who have shared resources such as photographs of the island and fort and archeological surveys.
She also visited Bunce Island with a group of Trent graduate students to capture photo references for this project. This gave the students the opportunity to conduct some fieldwork and experience the African continent for themselves. Prof. Keefer hopes to take another group of students to Bunce Island in the near future to continue data collection for the project.
Prof. Keefer is working with a global network scholars who are dedicated to reconstructing African identities and African lives, particularly around the slave trade. She also believes this project has the potential for wider interdisciplinary collaboration.
“We should all be working together to try and foster a collaborative digital pedagogy and research mobilization approach,” she says. “We have photographs and all this amazing evidence out there, and finally we have the technology through which we can craft this into something that would not only be an extraordinary teaching tool but also an extraordinary tool for people who are descended from these communities, to feel that connection.”
Prof. Keefer is working on completing the first stage of this project, which is to recreate Bunce Island as it is now, with the next step being building out a series of events with the meta-human character in consultation with a cultural anthropologist.