07 February 2011

Roman Town and other archaeological video game adventures

Last month there was an interview with Suzi Wilczynski in the local Maryland Gazette. Suzi, who lives in Chevy Chase, is the founder of Dig-It Games, a company that "promotes learning through active discovery and the development of critical thinking and problem solving skills in young learners." The company's inaugural game is Roman Town, described as an interactive educational game set in Fossura, a Roman town destroyed in 79 AD when Mount Vesuvius erupted. Players "unearth buildings, find ancient artifacts, dig up priceless treasures and, just maybe, uncover the remains of Roman villagers."

Unfortunately there is no demo to test out, so I cannot speak much for the game play. However, according to the screen shots, it appears players can move through 3D environments and engage in various puzzles and side-games like reconstructing a vessel from its pottery fragments (pictured here) or matching up ancient objects with their modern counterparts. The excavation site stills also look pretty accurate. Players lay out grid squares and can choose between trowels, picks and other tools to determine how they would like the excavation to proceed. Once players excavate artifacts, there also appears to be a "field lab" where they sort them by material (i.e., stone, bone, metal). I even spied a "report" menu.

Players also learn about context; perhaps the most important aspect of archaeological research (and something I would really like to see taken into account with the World of Warcraft archaeology profession). Thus not only do players excavate artifacts, they take note of where exactly it was found (i.e., kitchen, storage room, alleyway) and even the position of the artifact within that room context. From this it appears players are encouraged to consider what this contextual evidence means for use of the space and use of the object.

Sadly, the Gazette (like every other media outlet) has to drawn attention to the fact that Roman Town (like other history-based educational games) offers "violence-free entertainment." Don't get me wrong. I think violence-free entertainment has its place, especially for games of the type like Roman Town where violence would only take away from the educational goal. Plus, as my husband points out, archaeology as a profession rarely has violence associated with it anyway (I say "rarely" because I do have some stories...oh boy).

But the fact that games like Roman Town encourage players to "solve mysterious secrets about Roman life and discover how kids like you lived centuries ago" could be misleading in several ways. First, are there "mysterious secrets" about Roman domestic life that I don't know about? For a game that goes to great lengths to show children the true practices of real archaeologists, down to sorting finds and writing reports, why ruin that for the pure marketing appeal that phrases like "mysterious secrets" evoke? Second, was the life of a Roman child essentially peaceful? In particular, were they not confronted with aspects of war, famine, and diseases? Is a non-violent game about ancient Roman life really that accurate?

Similar critiques have been leveled at other history-based games like Discover Babylon, where the exceedingly non-violent daily routines of the characters, like a scribal student, have been held up against the realities of life in ancient Mesopotamia; some ancient school texts, for example, mention the physical reprimand of students for being late to class (ruler on the knuckles perhaps?).

These examples underscore the tensions in archaeological gaming between education and outreach on the one hand, and historical accurancy on the other. Is there a happy medium?

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