BMCR 2021.03.02

Classical antiquity in video games: playing with the ancient world

, Classical antiquity in video games: playing with the ancient world. Imagines - classical receptions in the visual and performing arts. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020. Pp. xvi, 294. ISBN 9781350066632. $102.60.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Classical antiquity in video games is a good and useful volume for the field without being revolutionary. This collection of papers on games, gaming, and history brings attention to an important type of modern reception which, like movies, has become one of the primary avenues through which the public encounters the classical world. Our students increasingly join our classes with an interest in the past sparked by games, and the recent release of titles like Hades and Fenyx Rising suggests that antiquity is losing none of its luster as a setting in which to reimagine, reenact, and renegotiate the past and our relationship to it. This volume is a very welcome sign that Classics is ready to engage with historical game studies.

The collection avoids simplistic questions about historical accuracy, such as “Does X game depict the Roman Empire correctly?”, instead examining topics like players’ preconceptions, depictions of gender, and game design and composition methods: that is to say, it takes games seriously as an art form and type of historiography worthy of complex engagement. David Serrano Lozano’s chapter, for instance, discusses intertexts between cinema and games and how the visual semiotics of movies contributed to the development of the visual language of games. In one of the most interesting historiographical contributions, Dominic Machado considers cutscenes (short movie-like game segments) in Total War: Rome II, their reception of ancient battle narratives about Varus’ defeat at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, and nationalistic German mythologizing of Arminius.

One of the best parts of this collection is the variety of expertise which the contributors bring to it. Academic fields represented include classical studies, game studies, ancient history, educational sciences, media studies, archaeology, public history, and reception studies. Other contributors have industry experience: Alexander Flegler is a game designer and creative director, while Maciej Paprocki has been a historical consultant for games set in antiquity. Many authors are part of larger efforts to invigorate game studies: for example, Jeremiah McCall’s website ( and prior book (Gaming the Past) are significant precursors; Nico Nolden is part of a European working group on digital games and history; and Erika Holter, Una Ulrike Schäfer, and Sebastian Schwesinger belong to a project at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin on archaeology, auralization, and gaming and VR technology. The variety allows for a number of different approaches to games as objects of interest both in themselves and for their potential usefulness to ancient studies.

Flegler and Paprocki’s chapters showcase developers’ perspectives on games. Flegler discusses developer-created “embedded” narratives vs. player-created “emergent” narratives in Age of Empires, a long-running series of strategy games for which he is a creative director at Microsoft. He makes the point that players may not always play the game as intended, and may in fact actively subvert the developer’s intentions. Paprocki looks at the exceptionally beautiful 2015 combat and agility game Apotheon, on which he consulted, in a fascinating musing on both deicide in Greek myth and choices in game development. Both pieces are interesting, and Paprocki’s in particular is a high point for the volume.

Other chapters consider technical issues. McCall examines two strategy games (Total War: Rome II and Field of Glory 2) and how they model ancient combat, concluding that, despite the shortcomings and compromises found in these examples, games have potential as a way of reconstructing ancient battles. Another look at digital tools and scholarship occurs in Holter, Schäfer, and Schwesinger’s chapter, which bridges game studies, sensory studies, and archaeology. The authors discuss the use of VR and game engines for simulating the ancient experience of archaeological spaces, using the reconstruction of sound and aurality on the Athenian Pnyx as an example. This chapter, like McCall’s, focuses on games and gaming components as a tool for research rather than classroom use. By contrast, a pedagogical approach is taken by Neville Morley in his piece on creating a text-based game in the style of a choose-your-own-adventure based on Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue. Morley reflects on the choices which the game offers to the player and the uses of interactive fiction, and of alternate history in general (what if the Melians or the Athenians had made other choices?) in understanding and teaching Thucydides.

Some commonalities among the games discussed here may already be apparent: this volume slants towards covering games which deal with military action and combat. This includes the category of battle simulators and other strategy games; some of these, like Rome: Total War 2, come up repeatedly. Morley’s Melian Dialogue game also focuses on military negotiation, against the inevitable backdrop of the violent historical fate of the Melians. Another large group of games discussed here include adventure games, RPGs (“role-playing games”), and the evocatively named hack-and-slash category. In these somewhat overlapping groups a player controls an individual character’s actions, and in many of those discussed, engages in quite a bit of individual combat. Certainly, a large proportion of titles inspired by antiquity use military and combat mechanics, but not all; for example, the category of city-builder games, in which the player is tasked with building and managing a community, includes a number of antiquity-themed games like the Caesar I-IV and Children of the Nile, which are only discussed in Rollinger’s introductory chapter. Militaristic empire-building games, such as the long-running Civilization series, are also not discussed; nor for the most part are RPG or adventure games which are not dominated by combat (e.g., Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis), racing games (Chariot Wars), visual novels (Helena’s Flowers), or other genres. The volume also has a preference for historical realism, and only a few contributions touch on games inspired by mythology, although these are very numerous (Age of Mythology, Kid Icarus), or games which engage in more transformative reception of the classical world (e.g., the Spartan faction in Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri). VR games (Gorn) are not discussed, although VR technology is in Holter, Schäfer, and Schwesinger’s chapter. I describe this focus on realistic strategy and fighting games not as a criticism of this volume, which cannot cover everything and should not try to, so much as an observation of the narrower focus that underlies the more general title, of the directions in which this may nudge future work on games and classics, and of the shape of some of the spaces the book leaves open.

A point which does bear criticism is that the volume includes mainly male contributors. Of the seventeen authors, only three are not men, and only one chapter (Sian Beavers’ piece on Ryse) is wholly by a non-male author. More BIPOC authors would also be welcome. The diversity of fields and experience among the authors is not well-echoed in this respect, and it’s fair to ask to what extent the focus on particular types of games is a result of the mostly white, mostly male list of contributors.

The volume draws on author/developer-centric and sociohistorical approaches to material which use the familiar theoretical tools of the classicist. For example, Sian Beaver’s chapter on representations of women in Ryse: Son of Rome, an action-adventure title in which women exist mainly to motivate the (male) main character through their death or mistreatment, situates itself in relation to familiar feminist critiques of media, with the additional dimension of theory drawn from game criticism. As Beavers demonstrates, the game and the Hollywood vision of antiquity which it draws on relegate women to secondary characters, to the extent of removing primacy and agency—as in the case of Boudica—which are present in the ancient sources, a historical distortion which occurs in part to avoid the discomfort of moral ambiguity on the part of the player character. Beavers’ piece shows what existing gaming discourse can add to our understanding of classical reception. Roger Travis’ chapter on the Elder Scrolls and Fallout series of RPGs similarly highlights that methodologies familiar to the classicist, in this case oral formulaic theory, are already being employed to productively discuss digital media in other fields in ways which classical reception studies can benefit from. Travis uses oral formulaic theory to consider the mechanics of play in Bethesda RPGs, looking at game elements like joinable factions and in-game lore and performance as themes which drive recompositional narrative choices. In another contribution, Ross Clare offers a thoughtful look at Nethergate and Titan Quest from a postcolonial perspective, examining two games rooted in classical antiquity in which the player must travel to regions which are “foreign” from the perspective of a Roman or Greek (a recently occupied Britain in Nethergate; Egypt and Asia in Titan Quest).

A number of chapters betray some uncertainty about whether they are dealing with games from the developer/author’s perspective or from the player’s. In Travis’ chapter, for example, if a game is analyzed according to formulaic units and themes, who is the author: the developers and writers, or the player who makes choices about the direction of the narrative in their instance of gameplay? Who is the audience? Few chapters center the players, and when they are discussed, it is often in the context of players who have, themselves, become authors of sorts—authors of game mods, of fanfic, of Let’s Play videos. Here, familiar habits of analysis have pushed the contributing historians, philologists, and archaeologists towards a particular frame of reference for dealing with media. Focusing discussion of games around their creators works well in individual chapters but does incline the volume as a whole towards games in which the elements of classical reception are inherent in the game, put there by the creators, whose choices offer the most interesting grounds for comment. The reactions of players to these games are less discussed. An untapped area of potential discussion is games in which elements of classical reception can be inserted by players: sandbox and simulation games like Minecraft, The Sims, and Animal Crossing have been used by gamers to build Roman villas and Greek temples, elaborate scale models of the Palace of Knossos and full recreations of Pompeii. Again, this is less a criticism of the book than a note on what is unarticulated and perhaps unconscious about its scope and focus.

Several exceptions in which players are a major point of discussion include the chapter on Age of Empires by Flegler, the contributor with the most game development experience; he considers how players react to, ignore, or actively detour around the developer’s intentions. Tristan French and Andrew Gardner’s chapter on types of authenticity in games and how players experience and enjoy them, using Ryse and the Assassin’s Creed series as examples, is also relevant here, and also pays attention to developer’s comments in interviews. Nico Nolden’s chapter on the online multiplayer game The Secret World also focuses on players and how they perform their understanding of history for other players, and delves into online discussion forums about the game as well as his own play experience.

The main audience of the book is classical scholars, particularly those who already have an interest in gaming. It is generally well framed for classicists who are not gamers, but I would have liked to see it make a stronger case to the non-gamers in the field as to why this type of reception is important and worth discussing. (Pace French and Gardner, who argue that this is no longer necessary.) It is less well pitched to scholars of game studies in other fields, who may well find the articles interesting but the historical and literary background under-explained. Similarly, the volume holds obvious potential interest for students, but a few pieces are unnecessarily opaque and jargon-filled. All in all, however, this is an interesting collection which will be an important reference for the growing number of works on gaming and classical reception in ancient history.

Authors and titles

Christian Rollinger: Playing with the Ancient World: An Introduction to Classical Antiquity in Video Games
1. Christian Rollinger: An Archaeology of Ancient Historical Video Games

PART I: A Brave Old World: Re-Figurations of Ancient Cultures
2. David Serrano Lozano: Ludus (not) Over: Video Games and Popular Perceptions of Ancient Past Re-Shaping
3. Andrew Gardner and Tristan French: Playing in a ‘Real’ Past: Classical Action Games and Authenticity
4. Sian Beavers: The Representation of Women in Ryse: Son of Rome

PART II: A World at War: Martial Re-Presentations of the Ancient World
5. Dominic Machado: Battle Narratives from Ancient Historiography to Total War: Rome II
6. Jeremiah McCall: Digital Legionaries: Video Game Simulations of the Face of Battle in the Roman Republic

PART III: Digital Epics: Role-Playing in the Ancient
7. Roger Travis: The Open-World RPG as Formulaic Epic
8. Ross Clare: Postcolonial Play in Ancient World Computer Role-playing Games
9. Nico Nolden: Playing with an Ancient Veil: Commemorative Culture and the Staging of Ancient History within the Playful Experience of the MMORPG The Secret World

PART IV: Building an Ancient World: Re-Imagining Antiquity
10. Neville Morley: Choose your own Counterfactual: The Melian Dialogue as Text-Based Adventure
11. Maciej Paprocki: Mortal Immortals: Deicide of Greek Gods in Apotheon and its Role in the Greek Mythic Storyworld
12. Alexander Flegler: The Complexities and Nuances of Portraying History in Age of Empires
13. Erika Holter, Una Ulrike Schäfer, Sebastian Schwesinger: Simulating the Ancient World: Pitfalls and Opportunities of Using Game Engines for Archaeological Research

14. Adam Chapman: Quo Vadis Classical Receptions and Historical Game Studies? Moving Two Fields Forward Together