Gaming the Past

Roman-style dice and coins from "Jactus", published by Past Times (1994)

Roman-style dice and coins from "Jactus", published by Past Times (1994). Photo © 2009 David Platt.

Gaming the Past is a working title for my nascent project on the representation and modelling of past societies in games.

Go to any hobby game store or browse through the titles of computer games in an online store and one will find numerous examples of games ostensibly set in the past. For some titles, the setting doesn’t actually matter that much — it’s just a theme that someone has slapped onto a set of game mechanics in an attempt to give them a bit of flavour. Many others do try to recreate one or more aspects of previous societies. Perhaps the most direct and familiar examples are tabletop simulations of battles using tin soldiers but there are also plenty of examples of games that depict grand strategy, politics, trade, or even city building (for instance, the popular City-Building series of computer games that began with Sierra’s Caesar).

I’ve had an interest in different types of games, for more years than I care to admit. One thing that I’ve discovered over this time is the intense enthusiasm for the past that hobby gamers can have. In many ways, they represent just the kind of audience that archaeologists and historians should be able to reach easily with their latest research. Why don’t we do more to engage with them?

I also suspect that games provide an easy way of communicating our ideas to a broader, usually non-game playing, audience.

I believe that these games will bear at least two or three principle areas of investigation:

  1. What do these games model?  What assumptions do they make about the past?
  2. How useful are these games for generating interest in the past (whether this interest remains at the casual level or inspires people to go off and do years of solitary research)?
  3. Are these games useful for the classroom?
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