Back in mid-June, Ball State University Department of History faculty members Jim Connolly and Doug Seefeldt, along with their colleague John Fillwalk from the IDIA Lab, visited Cody, Wyoming to establish a grant partnership to research and develop “Virtual Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” with the Papers of William F. Cody at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. Initially funded by a BSU ADVANCE Proposal Development Program award, the project will develop in virtual, three-dimensional form, the most popular public spectacle in the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World, an international traveling exhibition that visited Muncie, Indiana on three separate occasion between 1899-1908. It will include live and scripted interpretive animations, as well as avatar-driven role-playing exercises that explore social dynamics circa 1890-1910. Users, acting through avatars, may for example purchase a ticket, watch and listen to the Buffalo Bill Band on the midway, and witness a performance by Annie Oakley. They will also encounter interpretations of social experience, such as popular reactions to Native American, Mexican, or African-American performers. While in Wyoming, in addition to visiting significant sites associated with William F. Cody like Yellowstone National Park, Connolly, Fillwalk, and Seefeldt made a presentation to the Buffalo Bill Museum Advisory Board that laid out the project and proposed a collaboration with Museum staff. This presentation resulted in a commitment of $25,000 in matching funds from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.
The Virtual Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, while a stand-alone project, will be associated with the larger Virtual Middletown initiative, a recreation of Muncie, Indiana during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries based on the research presented in Middletown (1929). Virtual Middletown’s intent is to document in new ways the emergence of industrial society, focusing on the six areas of activity highlighted in Middletown research: work, home life, education, religion, leisure, and civic life. The Virtual Wild West module will serve as the leisure experience for the 1890s period. Connolly and Fillwalk have previously developed an initial version of this approach in a reconstruction of the Ball Brothers Glassmaking Company factory circa 1925, a prototype that experimented with approaches to embedding digitized sources within the virtual world and developing a web-based archive of original source material, including video, text, and photographs.
History graduate student Sadie Ritchie began working with professors Connolly and Seefeldt in May to identify some 200 pieces of supporting primary materials related to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West that will be used to create an accompanying digital archive of textual and visual material. The three of them also collaborated to produce several conceptual frameworks for organizing the materials in ways that can be effectively integrated with the virtual world. While there are innumerable examples of rich digital archives and a growing number of virtual worlds designed for scholarly purposes, the integration of the two remains a technical and design challenge, one that Connolly, Fillwalk, and Seefeldt propose to meet by developing the Virtual Buffalo Bill’s Wild West module in a robust and innovative way. The research, archive creation, and virtual world development will continue during the 2014-15 academic year.