August 25, 2014, BY Matt Hughes

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The wide-eyed ingénue, fresh from the English countryside, steps into the masquerade ball. The spectacle of London society is decked in ornate costume, and she is dazzled by the mansion decor, given over to a lush Oriental theme. The girl quakes at the amorous ambitions of the libertine, the rake and the gambler, but she also tastes power and liberty. Behind her mask, no one can tell who she is.

That rush of awe and excitement is exactly what Bucknell University Professor Ghislaine McDayter, English, hopes players will sense as they enter The Masquerade Project, an educational video game she is writing and developing in collaboration with students and Digital Scholarship Coordinator Diane Jakacki. The project, one of six endeavors funded this summer as part of a $700,000 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant to promote digital scholarship on campus, aims to transport players to an 18th-century masquerade ball — and provide a unique lesson in the social and sexual mores of English high society.

"It will be interactive, it will be immersive, and it will ideally be visually spectacular," said McDayter, chair of the Department of English.

The grant provides funding for preliminary scripting (the ingénue's is the game's first storyline) and initial 3-D modeling. McDayter and Britt Allen, a master's student and summer research intern majoring in English, are writing the script, while Kyle Raudensky, a junior computer science major and summer research intern, is experimenting with Sketchup, a 3-D modeling program, to show how the final game might look.

Funding was awarded through Bucknell's Digital Scholarship Center (DSC), an initiative committed to building engagement with digital scholarship across disciplines. In addition to McDayter's humanities project, the DSC funded projects in both the natural and social sciences this summer. The others are:

  • "A proper motion search for the smallest stars," Professor Katelynn Allers, physics and astronomy, and Damon Frezza '15
  • "Community level effects of foreign aid in Africa," Professor John Doces, political science, and Erik Heinemann '15
  • "Empowering conservation through integration of GIS data and community surveys," Professor DeeAnn Reeder, biology, and graduate student Laura Kurpier
  • "Health atlas of Pennsylvania," Professor Amy Wolaver, economics, and Jonathan Walls '16
  • "Refracting environmentalism through a tire: a view of 'fractivism' through an anti-incinerator campaign in central Pennsylvania," Professor Amanda Wooden, environmental studies, Morgan Greenly '15, Anne Scott '15 and Lauren Sion '15. | Read more about the projects.

Jakacki is helping to direct to all of the projects, including McDayter, Allen and Raudensky's, where she has provided valuable aid in identifying scholarly databases to enrich the game.

"My role is to work with faculty to adopt (or not) digital forms of engagement in and out of the classroom that work for them," Jakacki said.

McDayter hopes The Masquerade Project will give players insight into the complex social customs characters must negotiate in many 18th- and early 19th-century novels by allowing them to navigate those mores first-hand. An expert in the cultural mechanisms of flirtation and seduction in Romantic period literature, McDayter said the game will provide an insightful supplement to Romantic novels because those customs are quite foreign to contemporary readers.

"One of the arguments that we came up with in class last year is that ours is a generation that does not flirt," McDayter said. "We don't know how to flirt, because flirting is precisely the endless deferral of desire and consummation. There is no end. It is wit and play on language and sexuality for its own sake."

Ghislaine McDayter, chair of the Department of English

The choices a player makes in response to virtual flirtation will have very real consequences, as public dances and balls were the sites of social interactions that often led to marriage.

Throughout the game, players will have the opportunity to learn more about facets of 18th century culture via links to outside scholarly resources. Allen said the game lays the groundwork "for a new type of interactive database that is a true example of the possibilities of scholarship and research beyond the norm."

"It is important for students, and professors for that matter, to strive for an expressively involved learning environment," Allen said. "And it is through projects such as our masquerade game that this type of education can flourish."

McDayter said the project will take at least two years, and likely longer, to develop, and that she will need to obtain additional funding to achieve her vision of it: an experience as immersive and spectacular as the popular Assassin's Creed series of video games.

Jakacki said that timetable isn't unusual for a digital scholarship project, however, and that the grants the DSC distributed were targeted at helping such ambitious projects get off the ground.

"Real, rich and meaningful incorporation of digital approaches to important professional research requires a longer and more extensive commitment — in terms of training, infrastructural support and scholarly experimentation — over a longer period of time," Jakacki said. "We're proud that Bucknell students take part in these forms of professional scholarship with their faculty mentors."