Courtroom 600: A Virtual Reality Encounter with Evidence of the Holocaust
Courtroom 600 is an 3D interactive virtual reality (VR) experience that explores histories of the Holocaust through archival materials, including those of executive trial counsel Thomas J. Dodd’s papers in the University of Connecticut’s Archives and Special Collections. Early plans for the project centered on the Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal, which was held in Courtroom 600 of Nuremberg’s Justizpalast from 1945 to ’46. This effort to hold leaders of the Nazi regime accountable for crimes against peace, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and conspiracy to commit those crimes stands not only as a milestone in the development of international criminal law but as a landmark ingathering, investigation, and preservation of documentation of the Holocaust. Supported by an NEH Digital Projects for the Public Discovery Grant, an international board of scholarly advisors met with the UConn team in Summer of 2019 as part of Greenhouse Studios’ iterative design process. The group reviewed early-stage concepts and discussed issues surrounding the adaptation of serious historical subject matter to this digital medium.
Next Step: Prototyping
The fully-realized Courtroom 600 experience will be composed of several topic-focused modules, each one of which engages the adult learner in a quest to investigate Holocaust history using primary source documents from the Trial of the Major War Criminals, which was held before the International Military Tribunal (IMT) in Courtroom 600 of the Justizpalast in Nuremberg, Germany (1945-46), and materials from other collections.
With the aid of a virtual guide and short tutorials, learners collect, analyze, and contextualize primary sources held in museums and archives. In doing so, they not only arrive at a deeper understanding of the topic being examined but also learn basic historical methods for making meaning from different types of evidence. The first open-access digital collection to be integrated into Courtroom 600 is UConn’s holdings related to the Trial of the Major War Criminals, with materials from other online repositories, such as that of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), to follow. By tasking learners with drawing together primary sources collected at different points in time, the Courtroom 600 experience communicates, as its central humanities theme, that history is not static; rather, it is a product of its time and contexts of production, of the sources consulted and of the research questions asked. This theme, while true of all histories, underscores to learners that the ongoing study of Holocaust history is a continued, necessary reckoning of the present with the past.
In fact, recent reports indicate that broad cultural knowledge of the Holocaust in the U.S. may be in decline among younger generations even as misinformation and outright denial of historical facts—including the evidence presented at Nuremberg—continue to proliferate online. Courtroom 600 aims to engage 18- to 34-year-olds who are among the 65% percent of U.S. adults who play video games. Complex interrelated narratives that unfold across time and space, while demanding skills acquisition and mastery, are not only core features of the proposed Courtroom 600 experience, they are also common and highly valued aspects of games. Leveraging these points of overlap, the project team plans to develop a working prototype of an initial module. This first module takes as its subject the Holocaust as perpetuated and experienced in the Occupied Eastern Territories, particularly the area under the Reichskommissariat Ukraine. The module’s primary sources will include IMT documentation pivotal to the conviction at Nuremberg of Alfred Rosenberg, whose positions included Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories, and, in 1947-48, defendants in the “Einsatzgruppen trial” (USA v. Otto Ohlendorf, et al.) as well as material collected in later periods, such as survivors’ oral histories and recovered artifacts. Module topics will include Germanization, forced labor, resource extraction and mobile killing units as well as Jewish resistance, modes of cultural survivance, escape, and contemporary efforts to understand the spatial dimensions of this history through GIS mapping projects.
Research with Broad Implications for Digital Public Humanities
In addition to developing new open-source software that allows materials in online repositories to be rendered and “handled” in Unity3D environments, the project’s interdisciplinary team of game developers, historians, instructional designers, archivists, and design technologists is also interrogating methodological, ethical, and practical issues raised by using headset-based interactive VR as a medium for history telling and learning. Questions currently being researched include: how the mixed temporal frames of VR “time travel” impact historical understanding; how to deliver sufficient context in an interactive experience; what safeguards are needed to curb misuse of content by “bad actors”; and how to ethically handle visual representations of traumatic themes and perpetrators in a 3D digital context where the emotional impacts of virtual embodiment are not yet well understood.
Courtroom 600 research is supported by a National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Projects for the Public Discovery Grant, a University of Connecticut School of Fine Arts Dean’s Grant and funding from The Dodd Center and the UConn Office of Global Affairs.
Courtroom 600 in the News:
- UConn Today: Engaging Holocaust History with Virtual Reality
- The Conversation: Digital technology offers new ways to teach lessons from the Holocaust
- The Times of Israel: The ‘virtual’ future of Holocaust education is already here
- Monitor on Psychology: Games with Impact
- Courtroom 600 Team Immerses Users in Nuremberg Trials at the 2020 ED Games Expo
- Clarissa Ceglio / Associate Director, Greenhouse Studios
- Greg Colati / Assistant University Librarian for University Archives, Special Collections & Digital Curation
- Tom Lee / Design Technologist, Greenhouse Studios
- Avinoam Patt / Doris and Simon Konover Chair of Judaic Studies and Director, Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life
- Stephen T. Slota / Assistant Professor-in-Residence of Educational Technology, Department of Educational Psychology, Neag School of Education jointly with the Digital Media and Design Department
- Graham Stinnett / Archivist for Human Rights and Alternative Press Collections
- Ken Thompson / Assistant Professor, Digital Media and Design Department
- Graduate and Undergraduate student researchers in game design, Digital Media & Design Department