Monday, March 02, 2009

genus ludorum

I will admit to a certain sluggishness the next morning (see microbrewery), but was revived and fortified by the breakfast, apparently voted the best breakfast buffet in Norway (there is a joke in there, somewhere), and then it was back to the university, which is situated slightly outside of town, making it necessary to go there by buss.

We were in a different building on this second and final day of the conference, and getting there provided some unintentional hilarity. Picture the scene, a gaggle (a parliament? A brood? A grumble? A pride?) of academics, poised to scale the small hill leading to the entrance of the building, and realizing that it was completely covered in the most slippery of ice. Half turned back and found another path, some of us were stuck halfway and had to be pulled to safety (thanks to the kind bearded student who came to my rescue). Comedy at its finest.

Settled in the new auditorium, the first paper of the day once again dealt with strategy games of the roman variety; Entertainment and empire. A critical Engagement with Roman themed strategy games. AG, an archaeologist by training, recited some statistics about demographics, economy etc, especially regarding the aging of the game-players, it isn’t something you outgrow, and the high female percentage of these.

We were given a brief historical overview of the numerous games that deal with classical and/or roman culture (Caesar form 1992 is an early example), and I’ll skip most of the technical jargon (turn based?) as it sounds ridiculous when I try to sound conversant with that terminology.

Age of empires, both 1 and 2 were mentioned (the original games focused on Egypt, Babylon, Greece, and Japan, Rome was added in expansion, and the later roman empire also features in AoE 2), these having historical notes in the manual and screens, but using pseudo-historical ages. The game combines resource gathering and warfare.
The next game mentioned was The Praetorians, a much more a straight up war-game with limited resource aspects, focused on 58-45 BC. There are three civilisations; Roman, barbarian, Egyptian, with some religious/magical plays used by non-roman armies, the Romans are, of course, rational, but the Egyptians have priests who can cast spells.

Next, Rome: Total war was discussed (“a turn based game with strategic and tactical levels”), where religion doses play a role. Total war is an interesting title, as it is not so much war as governing with resource. Finally, Legion arena, a relatively recent war game with limited role-playing elements was mentioned, that was endorsed by history channel (which makes us recall the previous session and their catch 22), but despite this it was pronounced “tedious” by our lecturer.

This introduction was obviously tailored to the needs of people like me, who have little experience of games, so that we could follow the reasoning and conclusions.
In studying the key themes of the Roman Empire in games, violence and conflict naturally stand out, with the games repeated emphasis on warfare and conquest, and little sense of the cultural context of violence. Also a theme of civilisation versus barbarism emerges, with limited cultural differentiation, except in very broad stereotypes (this led to a discussion of the accents used in the games, and the “American”-looking Romans and the often dusky “baddies”), and as regards to time and space, there is a very arbitrary mixture of timescales and periodicity, and the landscape exists for urban exploitation. Furthermore, only leaders and soldiers are differentiated, with all games are from the generals’ point of view (well…).

There was also some points made about games in classrooms, and games and the military, and the usual call for reception study, but what really captivated me was the existence of Rome: Total realism, which is a reimagining of the game Rome: Total war, that strives for accuracy, in not only historical timescales, but also in the uniforms and language.

Our next speaker, LIP, presented the paper "Warfare in Computer Games: Problems and Possibilities", and basically called for an increase and accuracy of siege warfare in computer games. There is today apparently few such scenarios in the virtual worlds, and we all agreed, after his persuasive arguments that more catapults and sieges would be awesome.
He outlined the uses and documentations of catapults, and in general the history of siege warfare, and introduced me to the trebuchet, which was love at first sight.

The presentation, with several pictures and maps was excellent, but I really can’t recap the history of the catapult here, he did it way better and I advise you all to read his dissertation when it is published.

In hurrying past the catapults and trebuchets, I not only for once have a shot at brevity, but also reach our last presentation that directly has to do with computer games. JHF presented a paper that raised plenty of very interesting questions. His paper “Studies of Rome: Prospects for Research in Ancient History after ‘Gaming’”, basically started with him asking; Can games influence future research topics? As the games set in antiquity probably is one of the most important media for experiencing the past there will be consequences of games for future research.

After discussing some theories on games and learning, some definitions on the concept of history in these virtual scenarios were made. It could be said that history in games is masculine (or “masculine” if you wish) with a focus on war and economy, stereotypically male things, and systematic etc.
For this paper he had conducted some interviews with his students on their experience of playing Roman-themed games. Unfortunately, he had only been able to find male students who were willing to admit to playing these games, the females claimed not to, or at least didn’t admit having indulged.
Findings included that the players enjoyed being a roman commander and that realism was not all that important, but some felt that realism is better, (the above mentioned modified version of Rome: Total war was appreciated), and to the question of what one could learn form the games several had mentioned the uniforms and equipment, and to some extent the timeline, and such things as the cursus honorum. (As some of the students that had participated in the study were in the audience, there were some charming giggles during the presentation, and the row where a majority of them had gathered looked wonderfully self-conscious during certain statements.) In answering the question what they had not learned, these smart kids mentioned that you did not learn much about culture or women, and that more specific facts, such as pertaining to individual emperors were not offered by the games.

As we see there definitely seems to exist self-awareness and critical interpretation regarding the games. However, it was suggested that the portrayal of history and Romans might lead to such possible turns in research interests as a factual oriented history with a materialist conception of history, and the aforementioned “masculinisation” of history. (The end of social and cultural history?!)

I loved this paper, as it tried to discern what kind of impact the games might directly have on the humanities and on the reception of antiquity (it is of course hard to separate such influence from the similar impulses of other pop-culture, for example Rome), as all these factors have a crucial role in shaping cultural memory and understanding of history. In teaching Latin or anything related to antiquity one encounters constantly references to games and other modern media from the students, and I believe one must be aware of their influence and the reception of antiquity that they create. Despite the claims that 40 % of game players these days are female, there seems to be a majority of males involved in the Roman games, and I do wonder about this. It is a recruiting ground for studies in history and classics, does it change perception of antiquity and how should we classicists approach the games and their impact? Plenty of questions to study further were raised, and I do hope to see more of this. The presentation also was one of the few to discuss the invisible women on the games, and the causes and effects of this, there is definitely more here to study. (The conference was, of course, quite male-dominated, which goes to show.)

There surprisingly (or not so surprisingly considering the audience) seemed to be a consensus that games were in no way generally harmful in simplifying and outlining alternative and false scenarios. As someone said, which ties in neatly to the first session of the conference, contrafactual history has been there since Herodotus, and playing and engaging in contrafactual history can give greater appreciation for what actually happened.

The conference isn’t over, there is still the learning and educational aspects to be presented, but the purely game-related presentations have passed, and while I still don’t feel any itch to play, I have gained a greater respect and understanding for the games and this area of reception studies, and believe them to be essential for our field and too important to leave to the studies of media and gaming, classicists and archaeologists must claim parts of this territory and approach the media from their unique perspective.

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