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.
Ancient maritime mobility was shaped by and has traditionally been studied through a broad range of physical and material factors – winds and currents, seasonal shifts and fallible harvests, politics, maritime technologies and the evolution of ports. The human side of the question has increasingly risen to the fore, with studies focused on the social connections that tied traders, pilgrims, worshippers and armies together across sealanes laid down over multiple centuries, and confirmed through human memory, mythic invention and thousands of individual choices made in real time. These networks are reconstructed through data available at a range of scales: the ceramic remains that trace broad movements, the spread of cult and ritual innovation, epigraphy on Roman bricks, Athenian vases and personal votives, and literary and epistolary records.
Each of these offers its own limitations and subjectivities, from the accidents of preservation to the interests of the authors. At its core, however, network analysis always blends a global and a personal scale, seeking to provide a view from 30,000 feet of the trends of connectivity in which ideas, perceptions, affect and the drive for reputation were as impactful as rational calculations of profit and avoidance of danger. Those most personal interactions are among the most difficult to study: our material data often reflect the final results of mobility rather than the personal and interpersonal realities en route. It is in those interpersonal interstices that serious video games – with their open ended narratives, capacity for affect and emotional engagement – may constitute a resource for research and data creation as well as education. Our project is Sailing with the Gods, an interactive, 3-D game in which players, with the hero Jason as their avatar, pursue kleos in a simulation of the ancient Mediterranean seascape.
The inspiration for the game was our work modeling the social networks of the mystery cult of the Great Gods of Samothrace, a project founded on the hypothesis that the rites did yield the maritime safety they promised by creating networks of collaboration, communication and mutually agreed non-aggression. The island’s inscriptions offered some bare bones of those networks, in the form of inscriptions recording proxenia, initiation, theoria, and the places from which individuals came to the rites. No glimmer of insights into their interactions with each other, however, remained – and those interactions, on the seas and in the ports far away from the rites, were key in our hypothesis for the realization of the mystery’s promise. A ‘gamification’ would need to offer players a chance to simulate those exchanges, in an environment characterized by the promises and risks appropriate for the ancient initiates. And – like most good games – it would need a story.
We chose the Hellenistic Argonautica as our narrative framework, as a tale rooted in maritime exploration, whose route included the rites, and whose characters are compelled by perennial concerns of the Greek hero. The constraints of our budget and hours meant that we could only focus on a single-player game: every player thus takes Jason as their avatar. They seek, however, not simply to re-play Apollonius of Rhodes’ account: the goal is to gain the kleos (‘klout’ in our game) which informed both the heroic tradition and the cultural norm. This means getting rich, not getting killed, not starving or dehydrating your crew into oblivion, and making sure that the NPC ‘others’ of the game actively contribute to your expanding klout. As Jason, you begin with the klout level of a goatherd, and a tiny vessel; play the game well, and you may level all the way up to godhood, with a fine trireme at your disposal.
The first years of the game’s development were necessarily focused on the physical environment – a night sky appropriate for the 2nd century BC, a georeferenced terrain accurate to 1 km, and a simulation that replicates the curvature of the earth as viewed from 10 m above sea level. Our energies over the past two years have been especially directed to peopling these spaces, to giving a sense of the interactions that made mobility a reality. We have approached this through a series of mini-games that engage the player with NPC’s from pirates to angry gods, tax collectors, and patrons of the taverna where news is exchanged and reputations increased.
Your pirate encounters may give you the chance to bargain, based on shared social networks, as you determine whether to fight, to pay them off, or just to try to run away. Proper performance of rituals while trapped in storms at sea can lighten the skies and ensure your survival The Telones may be persuaded to reduce your port taxes if you butter him up with proof of your network connectivity. As a patron of the taverna, you may find out more about your route ahead by making friends with the guy-at-the-bar who has the munchies: you purchase him the snacks he is eyeing from a menu, built from the delicacies described in Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae. And you can build your klout directly by triumphing in games – a song contest with not-too-vague invocations of Dance Dance Revolution, a game of kottabos (soon to be finalized), IMAGE 8, and board games – Petteia and the Royal Game of Ur.
The game of Ur exemplifies one of our routes to building player engagement and affect, both through visual charm and through the wealth of ancient texts. The ancient game was a contest of speed, bringing to a board game the ultimate skill for the merchants, traders, bandits and pirates who roved the ancient world in a ceaseless round of competition. Kylie Gilde, our spectacular programming volunteer, became an artist for us in this effort, reconstructing the board from the example preserved in the British Museum. Pyramidal lapis-lazuli dice twirl at each throw; as players move through the game they challenge, gloat, and insult each other with poetry taking from ancient Greek and Near Eastern contexts, appropriate for the chronological and geospatial reach of the game.
At its best, archaeogaming opens a world of pedagogical and outreach potential; it engages our students with a focus and energy that has put us at ease as we trot out, every semester, one more version of this still-emerging game. The value of both their engagement, and of the data we ultimately hope to generate as comparanda for our epigraphically traced networks, relies on both the scientific and the subjective aspects of this reconstruction. It was imperative for us to get the landscape, the night sky, the requirements for food and water for grown men working in the hot Mediterranean sun, into our program – and that was the exciting, and groundbreaking, focus for our first few years. That value is also rooted, however, in the affective side of the game – from hope and fear to triumph and laughter – through which our players may come closer to the interpersonal subjectivities which were equally powerful in forging a networked Mediterranean world.
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Blakely, Sandra. 2018 “Sailing with the Gods: Serious Games in an Ancient Sea”, Thersites 7: 108-146; 2020
Blakely, Sandra. 2020. “Playing the Argonauts: Pedagogical Pathways through Creation and Engagement in a Virtual Sea”, in Sebastian Heath (ed.), Digital Approaches to Teaching the AncientMediterranean. Grand Forks: 97-126
Blakely, Sandra and Joanna Mundy. Forthcoming. “Strong ties and deep habits: the Samothracian diaspora in network perspective”, in Anna Collar (ed.), Strong Ties. Networks and the Spread of New Ideas in the Past. New York.
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Sandy Blakely is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Classics at Emory University: she completed a doctorate in Classics and Anthropology from the University of Southern California, and has focused her research on the intersection between religion and practical matters, from metallurgy to maritime mobility, in the ancient Mediterranean context, using lenses derived from ethnography, historiography, and material culture. The project of this blog post is part of a larger analysis engaging anthropological approaches to the Mystery Cult of the Great Gods of Samothrace.
Joanna Mundy received her doctorate in Art History from Emory University and is a Digital Projects Specialist at the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship. Her dissertation research explored the built domestic environment in ancient urban houses, domus and insulae, in the icty of Rome in the first to fifth century CE, and includes a social network analysis of households in the fourth century city. She coordinates the Sailing with the Gods team, works extensively with our student volunteers, and assures that the project database of the Samothracian Networks interacts with geospatial and network data.
Kylie Gilde is the lead programmer developing Sailing with the Gods. Kylie Gilde graduated from Kennesaw State University in 2020 with a degree in game design, and came on board the game in Spring 2020 as a student on the user interfaces for the pirate and storm mini-games. After graduation she continued to work as a consultant on the project on user interface design for the game UI, port menu, taverna, and tax collector scenes. You can see more of her work on her website at https://gamesbykylie.weebly.com/ or download some of her games at https://games-by-kylie.itch.io/.
Kevin Dressel is the senior programmer, acting as technical architect for Sailing with the Gods. Kevin founded Shiny Dolphin Games LLC in 2016. He is an independent programmer who has previously worked at Zynga on games like CityVille, Ninja Kingdom, and Puzzle Charms.
Want to learn more about ancient sailors in antiquity? Check out Dr. Anja Krieger’s blog post on the daily lives of sailors here!