The spectacle of God of War and the meticulous strategy of Rome: Total War comprise two examples of what we might call “ancient games”. Examining how representation and gameplay functions in this genre is Dr Ross Clare, a writer and game narrative consultant who has taught Classics and Ancient History at the University of Liverpool.
Dr Ross Clare is the author of Ancient Greece and Rome in Videogames (Bloomsbury), a book that explores how antiquity is portrayed in video games and how players interact with it. We spoke with him to explore the role, representation and potential of history in games.
Interacting with history
So how do players engage with history in games? “I think this is the biggest question facing anyone who’s interested in ‘history in games’,” says Clare. “Personally, I’m not sure that we do engage with ‘history’. And if we do, it’s a particular version that’s part of a kind of composite of other, you might say, non-historical sources.”
For Clare, it’s more productive if we regard historical materials in games as “nebulous, amorphous, malleable bits-and-pieces weaving in and out of other things.” Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is a stunning interpretation of 5th century Greece. But it’s also “an X-Files-y story of clandestine powerbrokers operating in the shadows, a take on the science-fictional trope of prehistoric alien races interfering with humanity, and a quest for liberation and family and home.”
“The history is vital, but it’s one element of a wider, more complex mechanism. This is what makes it so fabulous. We engage with new, ever-changing forms of ‘pop-culture history’ when we play with history in games, as far as I can tell. That’s what I try to explore.”
Historical gaming’s educational value
Given the complexity of games and the forms of history they produce, do we overstate their educational value? “Definitely, yes,” says Clare. Like cinema, history is generally wielded for entertainment, or to serve as connective tissue like any other narrative. Similarly, Clare suggests, when Marvel’s Loki series references a past film, “it allows you to tie together an imaginative world and participate in it.”
“That’s not to say games are mindless or teach us nothing,” says Clare. “Rather, if we see historical reproduction in games as inherently modern, then through playing them we can learn about the culture that produced them, and the society that produced us.”
Clare points to the God of War series to show how games can use history to explore important topics. On the one hand, the older titles “did something of an injustice regarding the female Olympians.”
“We had a drunken, spiteful Hera, a sex-obsessed Aphrodite, and a kind of Odyssean ‘helper’ Athena.” 2018’s God of War, however, took cues from Norse mythology while exploring “serious contemporary themes of fatherhood and masculinity”.
Applying history differently
This is how Clare believes historians can contribute to the making of games. “No-one wants a stuffy old man rocking up to a studio and blustering that this hoplite’s wearing the wrong shin-guard,” he says.
“But studios might want us to help in deploying our historical knowledge to collaborate on games that help push boundaries, ask difficult questions, and force players to deliberate and even change the dominant narratives. We’re seasoned problem-spotters, we’re trained to see misogyny here and racism there, so why not use that to assist in making thoughtful, interesting games?”
Have a go on that
Games can teach history, to some extent, but perhaps the way knowledge of the past is acquired in games is largely incidental. “Those fragments of history are parts of a wider, chaotic milieu, and eventually they are changed by that milieu.”
Clare agrees that video game technologies can be great in classrooms, but, he says, “I’ve never been sold on the idea of slapping kids in front of Civilization and saying ‘have a go on that’. If you want them to really ‘do history’, you’d need to foreground it with a million disclaimers and end on a kind of ‘debunk’.”
There’s no need to force games into a formal, intellectual space if their original intent was to be an entertainment product, says Clare. “‘Real’ histories can be fit into games like jigsaw pieces, moved around, even altered to serve wider needs. If it stops being ‘proper’ historical knowledge at that point, so be it. It’s something else now, a fresh and vibrant form of modern knowledge.”
Playing the ancient world
While there are exceptions such as The Forgotten City, most games set in the ancient world depict war and introduce violence as a primary means of interaction. “It’s kind of like watching horror films,” says Clare. “Games provide a safe space for us to mess around with stuff we can’t do in the real world.”
Yet for Clare, “Greece is myth and magic, Rome is war and management, and while that’s alright to an extent, so much more can be done with them.” He attributes the prevalence of war games to conservative publishers and industry culture.
Meanwhile it’s fallen to small indie studios to meet the demand of players drawn to novel and fun experiences. Games like Helena’s Flowers “wield Greek myth to interrogate everything from sex and gender to racism and issues of social class.”
It’s a real-time strategy classic that Clare highlights as a popular game that is creative in its approach to genre and the classical world. Age of Mythology “constantly plays around with what a strategy is supposed to be, and plays around with what classical content can do.”
While it’s still about fighting people and building colonies, it unusually emphasises a single character, a Greek hero named Arkantos. The narrative also involves cooperating with other cultures to stop a world-ending threat. “When you can get creative with the game’s rules and the way the entire world is represented,” says Clare, “something cool happens.”