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Report on the Greek and Roman Games in the Computer Age Conference, Trondeheim, Norway

Report on the Greek and Roman Games in the Computer Age Conference
Norwegian University of Science and Technology
February 20-21, 2009
Prepared by Andrew Reinhard


A revolution is happening now and the flashpoint is Scandinavia. Both Sweden and Norway have fought and won to keep Classics as a vital and viable subject of study at the secondary school and university level. Activist bloggers like Moa Ekbom in Sweden (see her Latinblogg), and activist students like Magnus Eriksson in Norway have been responsible for rescuing canceled Classics programs while at the same time finding ways to resuscitate Classics, promoting and publicizing both Latin and Greek as important for contemporary audiences, not just relating to scholarship, but also to popular culture, stripping the stigma of elitism from Classics and proving that Classical Studies is indeed essential for anyone.

The Greek and Roman Games in the Computer Age conference was organized by Classics professors Thea Selliaas Thorsen and Staffan Wahlgren, both of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology just outside of Trondheim, Norway. The first of its kind, this conference sought to survey Classics in computer games and virtual worlds as presented by fifteen speakers from Norway, Sweden, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The media were invited to attend and document the conference proceedings, and bloggers were also invited to record and comment on the sessions. I was happy to be invited to speak at the end of the conference and to blog about it on behalf of Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers and eClassics.

What follows are summaries of the presentations and a look ahead to what is next for our group of enthusiastic Classicist-gamers and how we can use games as a lever to get more people interested in Classics and also to use games as ways of teaching Classics.

Friday, February 20

Session 1

NTNU Dean Kathrine Skretting provided the opening remarks for the conference, speaking specifically on why Classical topics are valid today. Her answer was on the universality of these themes as seen in contemporary Classical elements like clothes, heroes, conflicts. These universals raise an interest in Classical studies and are present in games with Classical themes. As such, these games (just like movies) can serve as recruitment tools to draw students into the field of Classics. Skretting stated that emotions are important when making career choices, and if we can inspire passion in Classics within younger people by way of engaging computer games, then we are serving the field well.

Conference co-chair Steffan Wahlgren then officially opened the conference thanking the two main funding agencies, The Institute for History and Classics at NTNU, and Norway’s Freedom of Expression Institute. Wahlgren called for interdisciplinary approaches to Classics and gaming, and the following papers offered the variety needed to make a perceived elite field more accessible and viable to a general audience.

Martin Dinter of King’s College, London, gave the first paper, “Ludological Approaches to Virtual Gaming”. He cited the recent dominance of online gaming (especially social gaming (e.g. games that encourage cooperative play from online players)), and discussed how play has been a perpetual human pursuit. He cited the landmark study published by Johann Huizinga, Homo Ludens (1955) which stated the importance of play for people, and that it is logical for one to make the leap to create new games (or to use existing games) in support of teaching and testing. Dinter cited recent studies made by other researchers in using games like World of Warcraft as viable tools for studying economics and virology. He also cautioned the conference delegates about the use of games (and other digital assets) in class where the lights dim and some students disengage. The usefulness of games lies in the hands of skilled teachers and the school environment in which these games are used, and we must continually be aware of ludology vs. narratology, the perpetual argument of show-don’t-tell, to ensure that students are active participants instead of passive learners. Dinter recommended the book Intermedialität that articulates this argument rather well.

Frank Furtwängler, Universität Konstanz, spoke next on “God of War and the Mythology of New Media”. Furtwängler is a German project manager whose team recently wrapped a Classically informed social site for children that merged Classical themes and architecture with Spongebob Squarepants. God of War is a console game developed for Sony’s Playstation 2 and has a partner game for the PSP called Chains of Olympus. The game itself incorporates elements of Greek mythology into an extraordinarily violent war-game featuring a Spartan anti-hero, Pandora’s Box, Cronos, a journey to Hades (and back), a visit to the Sisters of Fate, and more. As Furtwängler studied this game, he was impressed by the emotional depth and poetic nuance available, perhaps more engaging that what a viewer feels when watching a film because the gamer is actually the lead character in the ongoing drama. The game serves as a state between reality and fantasy, putting the gamer into a dream-like state of play where the world is fictional but the emotions are real. The question of fate vs. freewill surfaced here within the gaming context, and the gamer finds him/herself channeled into the ultimate end result of the game designer’s plan. Furtwängler also explored the silliness of the “resurrection effect” experienced by gamers’ characters that die and are then brought back to life to try again. If only that was possible in the real world.

New York University graduate student, Stephen Kidd, presented a paper on “Herodotus and the New Historiography of Virtual Gaming”. Kidd’s thesis sought to explore the idea of history (and recording it) of the virtual world. Events happen in games like World of Warcraft that go above and beyond the generic slaying of monsters in the game, and Kidd cites the “Serenity Now Massacre” as an example of a highly documented, historical event within the game. The event was recorded and posted on YouTube and now boasts over three million views as people watch the virtual world funeral of a real-life player as it gets crashed by an opposing faction who slaughter all of the avatars attending the event. On a more prosaic level, many guilds have their own historians who record guild-level events on websites and wikis like the WoW Chronicles. Other events are recorded as webcomix by Scott R. Kurtz. I asked Kidd if he knew of a feed aggregator for these WoW histories and blogs, but he did not know. It would be nice to have a central location to record all guild histories. Kidd thinks the next step of this kind of virtual history would be to arrange for avatar-to-avatar interviews in-world to talk about guild history as well as the in-world history of the game itself. Kidd gave two other resources for learning about gaming or virtual world histories including The Making of Second Life by Wagner James Au, and the Terra Nova blog by Dmitri Williams.

Perhaps one of the most fun presentation was given by Dunstan Lowe of the University of Reading on “Always Already Ancient: Ruins in the Virtual World”. His paper focused on how Classical (or classicizing) buildings and environments are presented by game designers, dividing these into four groups: new-in-the-past (the gamer is playing in an old world and the buildings appear to be new), destruction (instant ruins based on action in the game), heritage (ancient-as-venerable buildings with wear-and-tear over time), and fantasy (buildings were never new at all but seemed to be born-damaged). For modern gamers and game design, seeing something in ruins automatically conveys a sense of age or time; they have pathos and are therefore interesting (albeit in some gaming environments and packaging, the ruins are downright silly).

Session 2

A couple of sessions were given by two speakers. The first presentation of the second session was one such example given by Richard Beacham of the School of Theatre Studies and Hugh Denard of Computing in the Humanities, both of King’s College, London. They spoke on “Observations on Staging the Ludi Virtuales”. Beacham and Denard specialize in theatre reconstruction and use Second Life to do it. They consider themselves to be new engineers (compared to the engineers of antiquity who helped to create a state of play). In Second Life, the Theatron area allows the general public to “rez” (push-button construction) of several theaters ranging from the Globe Theater to the Theater of Pompey to the Theater of Epidauros. I took some time to visit the sim in Second Life and watched, slack-jawed, as the Epidauren theatre unfolded before my eyes into an architecturally faithful reconstruction of the theater from antiquity. This ten-year-old digital imaging project is produced by the King’s Visualisation Lab in partnership with watchdog group, the London Charter for the Computer-Based Visualisation of Cultural Heritage. These reconstructions allow visitors to experience these theaters first-hand through their avatars. As part of the project, the Lab actually films actors in motion-capture suits as they perform plays. These actors are then rezzed on-stage in the theater reconstructions. Classes can reserve time on these stages, too, so they can perform and observe plays in real-time through this Voice-enabled environment. In theory, a group could perform and record Terence’s Phormio in-world before a live, virtual audience. The reconstructions of the theaters were originally built in 3D Studio Max and then imported into Second Life for texturing, and have been saved off-line on the chance that Linden Labs, the company that created and hosts Second Life, goes under.

Thea Selliaas Thorsen, co-chair for the conference, presented on “ Virtually There? Women in Ovid, Tatian and the 3D Theatre of Pompey”. Thorsen’s thesis explored the literary and architectural/archaeological evidence for the identification of the female statues on the portico of the Theater of Pompey, and how they have been reproduced in the 3D reconstruction of the theater.

After the coffee break, the delegates were treated to a presentation by Gian Paolo Castelli, the project manager for the ill-fated, Roman-themed game, The Emperor’s Seal. The project started in 1999 as a Roman-themed game created by Italians and marketed by a French distributor (that dissolved during the game’s completion) available in English, French, and Italian, using 3D environments and characters. The budget for the game and its promotion by Ecclectica Publishing was around 500,000 Euros. The game incorporated puzzle-solving, talking to non-player characters for clues, collecting objects, earning rewards for completing mini-games within the larger game, as the player sought to retrieve the lost ring of the Emperor. The game featured real Roman iconography and artifacts plus ten 3D-rendered environments. While fun to watch and fun to play, the game was poorly promoted and never reached the market. The game is currently in limbo despite some interesting quests, fun cut-scenes, and archaeologically derived visual content.

The final presentation of the day was given by Adam Lindhagen from the University of Lund on “Constructing and Governing a Province: Fact and Fiction in Caesar IV”. This paper was both a critique and tour of this game and its rules for gameplay (this is a city-building game). A lot of the game’s design was made our of ignorance of archaeology and carried a Roman aspect that was accidentally more Medieval than it was intended to be. The game served as a leaping-off point for a discussion on games set in ancient times as being either faithful to history or more attuned to fun gameplay outside of any kind of historic realism. Classicists were urged to take back control of historical truthfulness from media companies as we try to determine a compromise between emotional truths and historical truths.

Saturday, February 21

Session 3

Andrew Gardner of University College London is an archaeologist and avid gamer; he presented on “Entertainment and Empire: A Critical Engagement with Roman Themed Strategy Games”. Gardener started off with some U.S. gaming statistics that strategy games are played mainly by 35-year-olds in America, of whom 40% are women. He also gave an overview of war/strategy games and critiqued the use of history in these games. The games do share key themes of violence and conflict, but divorced from any cultural context. There are stereotypes of civilization vs. the barbarian, but the values of each “culture” are largely unexplored. Time and space are arbitrary to gameplay, and little attention is paid to any kind of division within a population. There are leaders and soldiers who manipulate everyone else, which does not necessarily reflect accurately the times/places where these games are set. Rome: Total War features a mod (i.e. modification) called Rome: Total Realism for additional faithfulness to Roman arms and armor, as well as an additional mod for Latin-language use, namely in Latin background audio during fights and set-pieces.

Leif Inge Peterson of NTNU spoke next on “Siege Warfare in Computer Games: Problems and Possibilities”. Most wargames set in antiquity do not use realistic logistics for the resources needed for siege warfare. Peterson’s goal for his doctoral thesis is to create a resource for academics to use to plug in information about siege duration and location along with the presence/absence of natural resources, and the amount of people involved in the siege to test theories about siege warfare in ancient times through the Middle Ages. There is potential hear for an outstanding game where the fun is in the preparation for siege warfare and the outcome of the siege.

“Studies of Rome: Prospects for Research in Ancient History after ‘Gaming’” was presented by Jan Frode Hatlen, also of NTNU. His underlying question was whether or not gaming would affect the selection of Classical research topics. He also spoke on how historical authenticity within a game makes it more fun and more believable, and that mods make wargames even better. Hatlen surveyed his game-playing students to discover these results, and will possibly expand his pool of respondents in future study. In these kinds of games, women and a sense of culture are conspicuously absent. Hatlen’s fear is that the absence of these elements in games may directly affect what topics his students choose to study. If anything, I think the absence of those elements would encourage students to explore what is really missing.

My presentation was originally scheduled to close out the conference, but one of the other speakers had to leave to attend a funeral and the conference organizers asked me if it would be okay to speak sooner than I had anticipated. This was fine with me. I spoke on “eLearning Latin via Gaming” focusing my attention on the use of Latin in contemporary computer games not tied to Classics or the ancient world (Harry Potter, Halo, World of Warcraft, and Final Fantasy to name a few), the current state of Latin-learning via games (from producers like Hungry Frog, Cambridge Latin Course, Quia.com, and Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers), how to adapt games and platforms like World of Warcraft, Second Life, iPod/iPhone to use them for Latin learning, and a look into the future for Latin pedagogy through games. As a publishing house, we need to make an effort to find new games to assist with Latin-learning from those Latin teachers who are game enthusiasts. We also need to work with teachers in creating a new pedagogic environment in which computer games are part of the educator’s toolkit (much like games like Jeopardy and Battleship and other board- and card-games were used in 20th century classrooms). We also need a teacher/publisher partnership in affecting a sea-change at the highest levels of education administration so that digital products, ancillaries, and games can be included on adoption lists at federal, state, and local levels.

Session 4

The conference’s final paper was delivered by Daniel Jung of the University of Bergen and its section of Computing in the Humanities, and Barbara McManus of the College of New Rochelle on “Latina Ludens: Educational Gaming in VRoma”. McManus created the two-dimensional virtual world of VRoma for students and teachers of ancient Rome to come and explore Roman culture, history, art, architecture, and archaeology. Jung assisted with the coding of the latest version including the addition of a Latin-language interface and a forthcoming economic system put in place for gamers to learn about Roman money (and to collect and earn cash for in-game purchases). VRoma is based on the Lingo system which is available for free and can be used to create imersive, educational environments. VRoma was also supported by an NEH Teaching with Technology grant. The world is all about game-based learning and is fun to play – visitors can interact with non-player characters and one another, can build their own areas, and can explore a virtual Rome via 2D pictures and text-based scenarios. At present, a 3D port of VRoma is too expensive and time-consuming to explore, but the VRoma content is both rich and accurate and is appropriate for all ages.

What’s Next

Over the next few months the conference organizers and speakers will be working together to produce an official publication via the NTNU university press. The conference proceedings will probably be made available as a printed book with accompanying CD (with images, demos, links, and PDF eBook version), although post-conference collaboration will most likely happen via a yet-to-be-built wiki.

The second conference in this series will most likely be held in August 2010 on Classics and another contemporary theme (not computer games) to continue to demonstrate the omnipresence of Classics in contemporary Western culture and society.

Coda: Klassisk Aften

I was invited to attend an occasional lecture post-conference, given by the Classical students of NTNU. These “Classical Evenings” are hosted on the second floor of an antiquarian bookshop in Trondheim, and seek to explore Classical topics ranging from music to theater to literature. On the evening of the 21st, Swedish Latin blogger, Moa Ekbom, spoke on Internet activism and how it has been used in Sweden to both rescue and promote Classics. Ekbom spoke about the creation and use of her Latinblogg, and encouraged her Scandinavian counterparts to do something similar with Web 2.0 technologies, using them as a force for instant communication and for maximum accessibility by readers/visitors. Talking about technology seemed anachronistic in the candelit bookstore with a quiet fire in the fireplace, yet the setting helped bridge the gap between past and present in a very contemporary lecture.

After the lecture, we were unexpectedly treated to a Norwegian dinner of stew with veal cutlets, roasted potatoes, stewed carrots, and red wine. Conversation ran until midnight, and was a fitting end to an amazing gathering of people all interested in finding new ways of preserving and promoting Classics to a modern audience.

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