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.
The first time I had to opportunity to use video games in the classroom, I was VERY excited. Having been playing video games myself since I was in kindergarten, I knew that I finally had the opportunity to show other people just how much you can do with them and how much information students can learn through them.
The year was 2018 and I was helping out teaching a class on Religion and Magic in the Ancient World. Me and Dr. Suzanne Lye wanted to offer a holistic approach to this class, where we would not only have lectures, but also museum visits, practical assignments in the campus makerspace, and a group presentation at the end. Incorporating a video game in this course felt like a natural decision. And being a huge Assassin’s Creed fan, I knew just the game I wanted to use: AC: Odyssey.
I am first and foremost an archaeologist studying the ancient Near East, and perhaps more specifically, a biblical archaeologist: I study the material culture of ancient Judaism and early Christianity in Syria-Palestine. My research interests include the history of Jerusalem, Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls, Iron Age temples, Roman-Byzantine synagogues, early Churches and monasteries, numismatics, and the ethical issues surrounding the looting and trafficking of antiquities.
However, I am also an avid gamer. I remember turning on the family pc when I was 4 or 5 years old and playing early 90’s games for hours; games with bad graphics and annoying sound effects. But, I also remember playing games where I learned to read and do math. Games that were not translated into my native language of Dutch, and thus forced me to master English from a very young age. Later games had me solve puzzles, think about different strategies, or introduced me to unknown historical topics and local folklore. Sure, I was also a fervent reader, but games offered me a different perspective and I never felt like they were deliberately teaching me things: they were my reward for when I had studied enough.
Fast forward 30 years, and games have come a long way. These days, many games are cinematographic experiences, with realistic gameplay, deep background stories, and historical realism. Some video game producers pride themselves with trying to make games set in worlds that look and feel as close to our own history as possible. Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is one example of such a game, set in ancient Greece during the Peloponnesian War (431–422 BCE). And seeing we wanted to talk religion and magic in Antiquity, this game was ideal.
So, we went ahead and bought several copies of the game (which also come with a free Discovery Tour: a game mode in which you can just walk around and explore the world without any assignments or enemies attacking you). Luckily, my university had a gaming space with PlayStations, so after a short introduction, the students were able to play the game on their own and explore as much of the world as they wanted. Eventually, the whole experience was a success. Guided by questions we asked them to focus on (What forms of religion/magic did you see? Who was participating in the religious practices (men/women/children/enslaved people)? How did a standard temple look like?), all students reported that they learned so much new information through the game that they did not get through any other form of media we used in the class. Reading a description of a shrine is not the same as actually seeing one with your own eyes, walking around it, hearing the Greek chants, etc. The assignment offered them a perspective that was as close as possible to actually traveling back in time, and they were able to do it in their own time, for free.
Video games can thus be an amazing tool in the class room. However, archaeogaming, as a field of study, is so much broader than that. Another area that I have been studying, for example, is the representation of archaeology or archaeological remains within video games, as part of the depiction of our past in broader pop culture. Many games still represent archaeologists as your standard adventurer-looter, with material remains as objects to be taken out of their cultural setting, to be sold or given to some collector. This old stereotype is still being recycled in many video games, basically telling gamers that ancient artifacts, especially if they come from non-Western cultures, are objects of financial value, that one can legitimately buy and sell.
I believe it is part of the archaeologist’s ethical duty to educate the audience on our concerns surrounding this issue, as well as to try to work with video game studios to perhaps step away from this portrayal. Because just as video games are able to teach young people historical geography or linguistics, they are also instilling in them certain value attitudes that they take with them into the real world. Thus, one of the goals I have in my work is to make sure the larger field of archaeology reassesses its current codes of archaeological ethics to also include video games and other digital practices (like VR simulations), and that the general public demands “better” from their favorite game studios.
Through organizing sessions on video games at conferences or giving public lectures on the topic, I hope that I am increasing awareness on this medium, both positive and negative. Video games are here to stay, and not only should we embrace them, we should make sure they represent the field of archaeology and material culture as best as it can be. Participating in the discussion can be the first step.
Chapman, Adam. 2016. Digital Games as History: How Videogames Represent the Past and Offer Access to Historical Practice. Routledge, London.
Dennis, Lauren Meghan. 2019. Archaeological Ethics, Video-Games, and Digital Archaeology: A Qualitative Study on Impacts and Intersections. PhD dissertation.
Mol, Angus A., Aris Politopoulos, Csilla E. Ariese, Bram van den Hout and Krijn H.J. Boom (eds). 2021. Return to the Interactive Past: The Interplay of Video Games and Histories. Leiden: Sidestone Press.
Rassalle, Tine (ed.). 2021. Near Eastern Archaeology, Vol. 84, No. 1: Special on Archaeogaming.
Reinhard, Andrew. 2018. Archaeogaming: An Introduction to Archaeology in and of Video Games. New York: Berghahn Books.
Rollinger, Christian (ed). 2020. Classical Antiquity in Video Games, Playing with the Ancient World. Bloomsbury Academic.
Tine Rassalle recently graduated with a PhD in Ancient Mediterranean Religions and Archaeology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has an MA in Archaeology of the ancient Near East from Gent University (Belgium) and another BA in Hebrew and Aramaic Languages and Cultures from Leiden University (the Netherlands). Her main research focuses on the material culture of ancient Judaism and early Christianity in Palestine. Tine is the field supervisor of the Horvat Kur excavations in the Galilee, an executive staff member of SASA (Save Ancient Studies Alliance), and a member of the ASOR Early Career Scholars Committee. She is currently on the hunt for a job.
You can follow her on Twitter via @Tine_Rass