Re-Rolling the Past: Representations and Reinterpretations of Antiquity in Analog and Digital Games

By Gabriel McKee , Daniela Wolin
02/13/2020

Depictions of antiquity in popular media are not a new phenomenon; visual media such as television programs and movies have long been used as a means of entertaining and educating people about the ancient past. Games about the ancient past, however, are a kind of simulation: they formalize real-world events into a system of rules which are then enacted by players who take on the role of an agent inside a narrative system. Requiring active engagement with the subject matter through world building and decision-making, games—both analog (or tabletop) games and digital (or video) games—can provide a tool for modeling and experiencing events in fantastic, modern, or historical settings.

When turning the past into play, an informed and critical approach is essential. The creation of a game based on real-world historical settings and events requires reducing a number of complex phenomena to a set of simple rules. In devising games based on ancient history and archaeology, some elements will always need to be simplified, essentialized, or left out. These retellings and reimaginings can come at a cost, as certain narratives and storylines can be perpetuated by games, detrimentally reinforcing past and present stereotypes. Players are starting to demand more from their games, using online platforms to challenge cases of cultural appropriation, gender and racial stereotypes, and historical and archaeological inaccuracies. These calls for change are accompanied by an increase in the number of academic studies that take games and gaming culture as their subject, particularly within the humanities and social sciences.

A surge in conferences, academic journals, and book series on games; commercial games that seek the input of scholars for greater veracity; instructors who use games as pedagogical tools; and researchers who design games as an alternative avenue for presenting research all demonstrate the increasing cross-pollination between the academy and the gaming industry. Of particular scholarly interest is the newly coined field of archaeogaming, which explores the representation and practical application of archaeology in/of video games. These topics are being discussed and debated through online journals, books such as Andrew Reinhard's Archaeogaming: An Introduction to Archaeology in and of Video Games, and a wealth of recent academic meetings, including: “Playing the Past: Archaeology and Video Games Play Well Together” (Brown University, 2019), “Interactive Pasts: Exploring the Intersections of Archaeology and Video Games” (Leiden University, 2016 and 2018), and “Archaeology of the Near East and Video Games" (session at ASOR’s Annual Meeting, 2019). 

ISAW's forthcoming conference “Re-Rolling the Past: Representations and Reinterpretations of Antiquity in Analog and Digital Games” critically builds off this growing scholarship by examining games as important avenues for communicating information about the ancient world. In this one-day conference, we will bring together historians, archaeologists, scholars of gaming, and game designers for an interdisciplinary exploration of the representation of antiquity in recent games. Past conferences on the topic of ancient history and games have focused primarily on digital games, but this conference will explore a diverse range of games with a variety of media and mechanisms—including video games, role-playing games (RPGs), board and card games, pedagogical games in classroom and museum settings, and alternative games—to acknowledge the common issues and challenges that cross-cut these categories. Topics of conversation will include critical approaches to games about ancient history and archaeology, the methodology of devising game rules, and pedagogical gamification and the use of simulations in educational settings. 

This one-day conference will be held on Friday, March 27 at ISAW. Space is limited, and advance registration is required. To register and view the full conference program, please visit https://isaw.nyu.edu/events/re-rolling-the-past.