A picture looking back over part of the Great Wall of China.There’s nothing quite like the real, visceral experience of being somewhere. You can read about the Great Wall of China, but you can’t appreciate the immensity of the project unless you walk along it, and look out from the guard towers.

Aside: Yes, I took that picture from the top of the Great Wall of China. That was an awesome trip last summer…

When you can’t go somewhere – because it’s too far away, or because it doesn’t exist anymore – the Internet and technology can offer the next best thing. The Global Museum on Communism has a “Virtual Gulag” which is a pretty cool environment to roam around.

For the past week, we’ve been working in class on researching the police states created by totalitarian societies. I offered students three options – Italy, Russia, or Germany – and they were to read through accounts of the totalitarian society in each country. While planning this activity, I did some research of my own, looking for resources about the Gulags, the Gestapo, and the Black Shirts.

In my own research, I stumbled on the “Virtual Gulag”. It’s an immersive environment which the student can explore. It’s very much like walking around in a typical video game these days. You look around with the mouse, and you use a few keyboard buttons to move forward, backward, or sideways.

The Good: What the Virtual Gulag is Like

gulag-zekLet’s start with what I like about this little resource.

The environment is visually very stimulating. The graphics are pretty impressive, similar to what you’d expect from a relatively modern 3d video game. There’s a nice audio track in the background, and with some good speakers or headphones it provides a nice, immersive experience.

Walking around the Gulag is kind of like walking around a museum. There are virtual signposts with little blurbs scattered about the camp. It took me about 20 to 30 minutes to explore the whole thing, and it was fairly interesting. I knew a lot about the Gulags already, but for someone who didn’t know much this would be a pretty comprehensive overview.

I would think that this would be a much more engaging activity for the average student than reading a textbook or simply reading a website. I would also think the game-like environment would appeal especially well to boys.

The Bad: What I Don’t Like About Virtual Gulag

Ultimately, I think this is an awesome concept but it leaves a lot on the table.

No interactivity. Despite being such an immersive environment, there’s absolutely no interactivity. You can’t talk to anyone, you can’t open and close doors, you can’t move things around. In fact the only thing that moves at all in the entire game world is a group of inmates leaving the camp on work detail. Otherwise, all of the characters just stand there like statues.

Overly textual. This struck me as an insane oxymoron. They created a virtual environment for you to walk around and “experience” things, but all of the information is purely textual. At the very least, an audio recording of each signpost would be nice for students who are struggling readers. A much more engaging experience would occur if you could talk to the inmates, guards, and administrators of the camp to learn things.

It would require a little more effort in design and production, but there’s clearly already been a lot of time and money invested in this activity. So why not go the final mile and produce something great?

Poor navigation. There’s absolutely no map, heads up display, radar, or anything like that to help cue you about where to go. It’s pretty easy to find all of the signposts and follow them throughout the camp. However, you can wander pretty far from the camp. There’s no point to this, since there is nothing but snow, trees, and shrubbery. But a student could easily wander and get lost, and there’s no easy way to get back to camp without quitting and restarting.

Technical issues. Ideally, this would simply work in the browser. But, it doesn’t. First, you have to install the Unity player, which probably requires administrator privileges on the computer you’re using. Next, I tried to play this in Chrome on my MacBook (my browser of choice), and it was absolutely unplayable. There are apparently some technical issues with Chrome. You can opt to download the entire simulation to your computer, and this let me play the “game” outside of the browser.

The Bottom Line

I’m not sure how I feel about using this in class with all of my students. It’s got a lot of potential, but it also leaves a lot to be desired. If it was more interactive and you could listen to all of the information as dialog, then I wouldn’t think twice about jumping through some technical hoops to get it working at school.

As it is, I think it’s a valuable tool, but one that serves more of an enrichment role than a fundamental role. Next year, when I have a more well developed webquest about totalitarian societies, I will definitely identify this as a resource for students to use at home. But I won’t be using it in class.

That being said, there are some other valuable resources on the museum’s website. There’s a rich timeline with information about the history of the gulags. Another exhibit displays a collection of Nikolai Getman’s art about the gulags, and it includes some evocative and powerful paintings. Finally, there’s an annotated map of Russia identifying gulags across the region.

But don’t take my word for it. Head over to the Global Museum on Communism and check it all out for yourself.