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Digital Munya 2.0: Using Unity & VR for Immersive Experiences of a Medieval Islamic Villa

Digital Munya 2.0 is a research project developed by Islamic visual culture researcher Dr. Glaire Anderson on using the Unity video game engine to create an immersive digital experience of al-Rummaniyya, the only villa (Arabic munya) with extant remains from 10th century Islamic Spain. This and other villas of the time were a key feature of the landscape of the early medieval cities of Islamic Spain (Arabic al-Andalus). Those that surrounded Córdoba, the capital of al-Andalus, were celebrated in the literature of the period. The Arabic court chronicles describe villas as the primary settings for court feasts, musical and poetic performances, diplomatic receptions, and leisure activities such as hunting. Despite the importance of these villas in the medieval period, they have not survived as standing monuments. The project has its roots in the Digital Munya Project (2010-2012), a multidisciplinary effort to visualize this important medieval building type, its landscape setting, and its interior decoration using the Unity game engine to creatively suggest visual possibilities of these vanished medieval architectural and landscape spaces  (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: The original Digital Munya Unity build. View from the villa reception hall looking out over garden terrace. 2011.

Creative Informatics PhD RA funding supported a new phase in this research, supporting two postgraduate researchers at ECA/University of Edinburgh to work with me in my new Digital Lab in Islamic Visual Cultures & Collections: Deniz Vural (History of Islamic Art) and Dara Etefaghi (video game development and audiovisual art). The aim was to update the original Unity 3D build, to further develop the immersive experience of the space by adding 3D models of artefacts and ‘lore’ about the artefacts and the villa, and to introduce auditory elements to convey the villa’s function as a medieval space of musical and poetic performance.

The first step was to make the original Unity build (the navigable 3D model) accessible to players again. Due to changes in web browser technology since 2012 the build hadn’t been accessible online since around 2017, but Dara successfully updated the files, making improvements to the underlying geometries in the process. Thanks to his efforts the original 3D navigable model is once again freely accessible to all at: https://glairedanderson.com/digitalmunya/munya-game/.

Figure 2: Digital Munya 2.0. Views of the updated villa from the garden terrace
Figure 3: Digital Munya 2.0. Another view of the updated villa from the garden terrace

The next step was to update the appearance of the villa and its garden terrace (see Figures 2 and 3)­. Dara and Deniz collaborated here, using my published work on the villa to enhance the visual authenticity of the villa’s exterior appearance and the garden. Visually the importance of the garden space to the villa, and its agricultural function, comes across more clearly now (see Figure 4).

Figure 4: View of the garden from the reception hall. The garden has been updated with trees and a variety of plants to suggest its medieval function as an agricultural space

We also returned to the idea of using a game format to teach players about the villa that inspired the Unity model (see Figures 5 and 6). We were inspired by games such as Bloodborne, Dark Souls, and Skyrim that use detailed ‘lore’ to introduce players to complex fantasy histories to create narrative and context for a game.

Figure 5: Period artefacts that players can ‘discover’ as they explore the interior, in this case one of four 10th century Cordoban ivory containers that players can find within the villa
Figure 6: Discovering one of the artefacts in the villa rewards players with a closer view and its historical ‘lore’

Using my publications about the villa and period artefacts from Cordoba, Deniz provided Dara with the detailed historical information that served as our game lore. Dara then created a new game mechanic that allows players to explore the villa’s interior, ‘discover’ 3D replicas of real artefacts, and then be rewarded with historical information about these artefacts and their connection to the villa, its patron, and the social history of early Islamic Córdoba. Dara created a walkthrough explaining this process, which you can watch below:

We hope to take the work forward by continuing the work to improve the visual authenticity and to enhance the game mechanics in the updated build. We would like to introduce additional historical lore, specifically a medieval description of the villa, its humans and animal inhabitants, its patron (a high-ranking unfree court eunuch), and a court feast held there in the tenth century. Players will be able to choose between reading the lore in the original Arabic version or in English translation.

We will continue to update the garden terraces, introducing high quality 3D models of the specific types of trees and crops (such as olives, figs, grapevines) that were grown on the garden terraces (as revealed by recent archaeology. We’d love to collaborate with an artist or 3D designer to create additional authentic period furnishings, including textiles, for the villa’s interior spaces. Finally, we would like to experiment with adding audiovisual elements to provide players with an immersive experience of the musical and poetic gatherings and other social occasions that were held in these villas, and which brought together people of different genders and classes as both audience and performers.

Video games are one of the most popular ways that people engage with the past today. This project has led our team to new insights about how immersive game technologies can be used not only as a research tool for visualising the past, but also as a way to make historical research more accessible to audiences outside the academy.