Blog Post #51: Digitizing Empire: Studying Ancient States with Video Games with Eduardo García-Molina

March is gaming month! Peopling the Past brings you a suite of fantastic posts by scholars who incorporate video games into their teaching and research, who reflect on how games both popularize and complicate the past for us. 

By now, most scholars recognize the impact that video games have had on popular perceptions of antiquity and are more willing to study how the ancient world is translated into virtual ones. Often the depiction of antiquity presented to the player conforms to the mechanics of specific game genres. For example, the exploratory nature of the action-adventure series Assassin’s Creed means a larger emphasis is placed on depicting places in Classical Greece and Hellenistic Egypt in minute detail; much of the appeal of the series for scholars comes from this focus on the detailed environments that lend themselves to guided walkthroughs like the ASCSA recently did with Dr. John Camp discussing Athens. I have found myself interested, however, in strategy games like Rome: Total War that aim to emulate ancient battles and the governance of states by allowing the player to take control of whole polities instead of an individual character. 

A colourful map of the Roman Empire as seen in the video game Imperator
Fig.1 Map of the playable area in the grand strategy game Imperator: Rome (2019). Grand strategy games are defined by their large scale that has players commanding whole states, peoples, and armies. Screenshot taken by GameWatcher (https://www.gamewatcher.com/news/imperator-rome-world-map-full-size-map-revealed

One particular aspect I study is the ways these types of games aim to make ancient states unique by granting them different bonuses and buildings that affect their playstyles. The bonuses, called traits, attempt to emulate certain historical characteristics of states; Rome might be given bonuses to the strength of its troops or manpower supplies, emblematizing its famed bellicosity and, in turn, goading the player to adopt a particularly aggressive playstyle. A similar process occurs with specific buildings and units that are limited to only one civilization; Rome in Civilization VI can construct the unique “Bath” district which allows for more population growth in the region.

Why are these faction-specific buildings and traits important? They say a lot about the interplay between game mechanics and ancient civilizations. More specifically, they combine playstyles with the perceived characteristics and behavior of ancient states and peoples to develop a particular portrait of how polities interacted with one another and subject peoples.  

An animated image of smiling Emperor Trajan standing with armor on in a video game menu still.
Fig. 2 Screenshot from Civilization VI showing the select screen for the various playable civilizations. Note the bonuses given to Rome and the developer’s choice to make Trajan the face of the civilization in this iteration. Screenshot taken by author.

Both ancient and modern historians have debated the existence of inherent qualities and customs of peoples that cause them to rise or decay in the shifting political situation of the Mediterranean. When I teach either Roman history or Graeco-Roman historiography, I have made it a habit of underscoring how these questions of qualities affect the view of antiquity presented in our sources. Very often, many of these qualities are directly referenced in video games and serve as a springboard for class discussion centered around both ancient and modern explanations on the success of civilizations. 

For instance, in the game Humankind the player can chose to progress as Rome and receives bonuses to their army capacity, discounts to army upkeep, access to a unique Praetorian Guard infantry unit, and the ability to construct the “Triumphal Arch” exclusive building. In Imperator: Rome, Rome can more quickly integrate conquered territories, hold larger levies, and actually has a penalty to naval combat. Total War: Rome II allows for more options, but Roman factions still have a bonus to recruit more units and additional movement for armies that allows them to traverse the map quicker. For Age of Empires: The Rise of Rome, the Romans get cheaper swordsmen and their buildings cost less to construct. All of these traits lend themselves to a naturally expansionist, land-based, bellicose depiction of Rome.

A promotional photo for the game Humankind, showing three images: fighting gladiators in the Colosseum, a Praetorian Guard, and the Triumphal Arch.
Fig. 3 Promotional infographic displaying the unique unit and building for the Romans in Humankind (2021). Released on Twitter by the official Humankind account (@humankindgame) 

Such a defined depiction can then be naturally grafted onto conversations about the portrayal of Rome alongside various other forms of media that are more traditionally discussed in classrooms (namely, movies and TV series). What makes video games unique in this regard, however, is the inherent interactivity. While I rarely play these types of games in a classroom setting due to their complicated mechanics and less flashy presentation, students have been keen to link the various traits given to Rome in virtual worlds to those discussed in the real one and to discuss how these preset traits affect the player experience and the subsequent narrative developed during their playtime. In effect, how do our preconceived notions of peoples and states affect the narrative we build for their histories? 

Of course, students hold this conversation on Rome in video games later in the semester after multiple prior classes and discussions that provide further context on ancient and modern theories on Roman expansion. For instance, the emphasis on manpower present in some depictions of Rome in these games coincide with discussions on modern studies on the demography of Italy. By thinking of video games in this way and examining how various aspects of ancient states are gamified, both students and scholars can reveal how more complicated historical processes are translated and understood by a sizeable audience. 

Moreover, when discussing buildings, it is interesting to compare the buildings the developers chose for specific factions and the archeological record. Does the presence of baths make a place “Roman”? Could other cultures construct baths? What does such narrow thinking say about our inherent biases when looking at a site and its material culture? These are all springboard questions for not only classrooms, but for the broader study of ancient reception in video games. 

In converting the ancient world into virtual ones, video games do much more than simply replicate ancient objects, recreate battlefields, and render locations with exacting detail. The underlying game mechanics that affect the player experience and shape the narrative of the virtual world, often inspired by historical theories and attempting to emulate historical processes, are just as important as the visuals. Archaeogaming is a rich field that is being propelled forward by a dynamic set of scholars and, as I have tried to hopefully show today, can not only be incorporated into classrooms in new ways, but can also lead to research on how complicated historical processes and ancient states are digitized and presented to a modern audience. 

Further Reading

Flegler, Alexander. 2020. “The Complexities and Nuances of Portraying History in Age of Empires.” In Classical Antiquity in Video Games: Playing With the Ancient World, Rollinger, Christian (ed). London: Bloomsbury Academic. 205-216. 

McCall, Jeremiah. 2020. “Digital Legionaries: Video Game Simulations of the Face of Battle in the Roman Republic.” In Classical Antiquity in Video Games: Playing With the Ancient World, Rollinger, Christian (ed). London: Bloomsbury Academic. 107-123. 

Mol, Angenitus Arie Andries, Csilla E. Ariese-Vandemeulebroucke, Krijn H. J. Boom, and Aris Politopoulos (eds). 2017. The Interactive Past : Archaeology, Heritage & and Video Games. Leiden: Sidestone Press.  

Reinhard, Andrew. 2018. Archaeogaming: An Introduction to Archaeology in and of Video Games. New York: Berghahn Books. 

Online Resources

A recording of a lecture presented at the Antiquity in Media Studies conference in 2021 on grand strategy games, Hellenistic empires, and questions about cultural assimilation: 

Examining Hellenistic Empires and Culture Mechanics in Grand Strategy Games 

Eduardo García-Molina is a fourth-year graduate student in Classics at the University of Chicago. Alongside his main research focusing on administration, information, and communication in the Seleukid Empire, he is also interested in and has written on the reception of Classics in Latin America and Archaeogaming.  

One thought on “Blog Post #51: Digitizing Empire: Studying Ancient States with Video Games with Eduardo García-Molina

  1. This is a fascinating blog post, and subject to think about. I’ve been reading about the work of religious scholars to understand how virtual environments are scared to those inside of them. But to think of these games as portals or lenses to human history, that’s a new one for me. Thank you for your thoughts and the insights.

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