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.
Like Tine Rassalle, another blogger for Peopling the Past, I am an avid gamer and grew up with computers and games. I was privileged enough to have parents who could afford an Apple IIe in the 1980s and I recall long hours playing Oregon Trail (1975), Lemonade Stand (1979), and Word Munchers (1985). Looking back on it now, my access to these games was clearly my mother’s attempt to teach me history, economics, and vocabulary, respectively. I don’t recall playing Dig Dug (1982), Frogger (1983), or Donkey Kong (1984) on this computer, games that required skill of hand over skill of mind.
As I wrote this blog, I decided to call her and ask about her game selection motives. Sure enough, like an evil genius at the end of a Saturday morning cartoon she blurted out her devious plan: “I didn’t want you playing shooter games or anything violent. If you were going to stare at a screen, I wanted you to learn something too.” I like to think of my mother as an educational guru, rather than an evil genius, however. Anyone who can teach that age group for as long as she did is clearly gifted and she is the reason I became a teacher.
If you know anything about the three games that I recall playing as a child (Oregon Trail, Lemonade Stand, and Word Munchers) you know that they were produced by MECC or the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium. This company was founded by the Minnesota legislature in 1973 to make classroom computer use more accessible and effective. The user manuals for these games include learning objectives, examples of “certificates” for teachers to give to students, and a sample note to send to parents so that they don’t think their children are wasting valuable time at school. Just from the information in the manual, it’s clear that MECC knew they had to justify the use of video games as educational devices. It’s a struggle that many educators, including myself, still deal with today.
Nevertheless, video game producers like MECC and Ubisoft certainly think gaming can be educational. The latter company created a “Discovery Tour” mode for two of its video games, Assassin’s Creed Origins (2017, set in Ptolemaic Egypt during the 1st C BCE) and Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (2018, set in Greece during the Peloponnesian War), for educators to use the game in the classroom. As I am a Greek archaeologist and teach ancient Greek civilization, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey’s Discovery Tour (hereafter, ACO:DT) stood out as a perfect combination of entertainment and education.
ACO:DT allows players to explore the game without the fear of being attacked by enemies or locked out of certain areas. The mode consists of short tours guided by different characters (including famous historical persons like Herodotus and Leonidas) and is supplemented with detailed information and images of objects curated by museums. The player even receives a brief, informal quiz at the end of each tour to test their understanding of the material, making it perfect gauging learning.
To make full use of the game, I created a First-Year seminar course titled “Video Games and the Ancient World: Assassin’s Creed Odyssey” and received an “Innovations in Teaching with Technology Award” from the University of Iowa to purchase Xbox One Xs which were installed in one of the technologically enhanced classrooms on campus. First-year seminars are designed to introduce new students to the expectations of the university. Instructors are encouraged to teach skills in academic inquiry, active learning, community and connectedness, and exploration of identity. One of my goals for this course was to highlight the challenges and benefits of proper research in the humanities in a fun, interactive, and creative way. I also felt that ACO:DT was perfect for encouraging academic inquiry: looking at ancient objects on a projector in a lecture hall can be a limited and biased way of learning about ancient cultures. When done well, games set in the past can become interactive learning experiences and allow students delve deeper into existing evidence to understand the past more fairly and accurately.
To prepare for each class, students read short translations of ancient texts that explored the section of the game that we would be play in class. For example, our day on Greek politics had them reading Aristotle’s Athenian Constitution. Each class period started with a short lecture on the topic that the students would encounter in the game and then they were allowed to play through a section of the Discovery Tour with their group. For the last 10 minutes of class, students reflected on any adaptations or modifications to their understanding of life in ancient Greece that occurred as a result of playing the game.
The capstone project for the course was for students to write a script and present their own tour on a topic that was not a part of ACO:DT. I let teams choose their topic, but guided them with research suggestions and ideas for possible material. We ended up with presentations on topics in which students were personally interested: animals and pets, burial practices, and polychromy on marble statues. The students worked together to research, design, write, and present their tour. The result was an informative and fun way to encourage research and deeper investigation into ancient sources.
Unfortunately, I received funding and approval for this course before the COVID pandemic. What had originally seemed like the perfect environment for active group learning, was also the perfect environment for encouraging a pandemic. We attempted one in-person class (Fig. 3), but afterwards I decided it was too risky and moved the course on Zoom and having students share their screens while they played the game. Despite his change in format, the use of the ACO:DT in the class clearly demonstrated that video games can positively effect learning and provide critical thinking opportunities for students. Using ACO:DT in combination with traditional primary and secondary sources allowed students to have a better understanding of ancient Greece.
Kapell, Matthew Wilhelm and Andrew B.R. Elliott (eds). 2013. Playing with the Past: Digital Games and the Simulation of History. Bloomsbury Academic.
Rollinger, Christian (ed). 2020. Classical Antiquity in Video Games: Playing with the Ancient World. Bloomsbury Academic.
Toppo, Greg. 2015. The Video Game Believes in You. St. Martin’s Press.
Debra Trusty is currently a lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Department of Classics at the University of Iowa. She received her BA in archaeology from the University of Evansville and MA and PhD in Classics from Florida State University. Her dissertation investigated the political economies of Mycenaean Greece through an analysis of cooking ware vessels. Since completing her dissertation, she has turned her research toward fringe reception studies of the Classical world, including the use of Classical material in video games, board games, young adult and adult novels, comic books, movies, and TV. In the summer she hosts a live Twitch channel where she and her friends play video games that were influenced by Classical mythology and civilization, including Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Hades. You can watch the recordings of streams on her YouTube channel “Doctor Debitage.”