Project Proposal – Print

For my print project, I wanted to propose something that could help me as I’m applying to graduate schools for Egyptology, so I knew from the start that I wanted my focus to be Egyptological in nature. At first, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to focus on ancient historical representation in its entirety, or Egypt specifically. I came to the conclusion that my heart always has and always will belong to Egypt, so why not start there.

For this project, I wanted to trace the representation of Ancient Egypt in popular video games. Egyptomania began in 1922 when Howard Carter discovered the elaborate tomb of Pharoah Tutankhamun (born Tutankhaten) and popular culture quickly ran away with the design and aesthetic of the ancient civilization. Mummies, tombs, and Cleopatra quickly became frequent occurrences in cinema, and the fashion of the 20s turned toward Egyptian styles.

1920s Egyptian fashion (the beaded collar, the fan shaped like an ancient handheld mirror, the gilded sandals, and the armbands)

Fast forward to the present day when video game culture has exploded. People have not deviated far from their interests, and Ancient Egypt is still heavily represented in some way shape, or form in video games. My project is going to focus on how reliably these games present the Egyptian mythos and see if I can track, perhaps, where a decision was made to remove the true mythos for the sake of the game, or because of a fallacy in knowledge made by the game developers who didn’t think to do their extra research.

I’ve already extensively played a good portion of games that possess some sort of Egyptian mythos (Assassins Creed: Origins, Sphynx and the Cursed Mummy, Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris, League of Legends, Smite, Civilization, etc.) but I wish to compare more modern titles with games that came out in the 70s and 80s (Imhotep or Sands of Egypt) to see if there is any reliable shift in how the mythos is presented and how factual it is. People have blown Ancient Egypt out of proportion for the sake of media consumption over the past few decades, and many sources present their version of Egypt in a believable way (such as Wilbur Smith’s River God) that could potentially lead the public astray in their knowledge. My main argument for this project will be a need for proper representation of ancient civilizations in video games because, whether people like it or not, video games are an extremely valid method of learning for children. Being able to explore pyramids in Assassin’s Creed: Origins, for example, allowed me to introduce my roommate to Sneferu, Imhotep the architect (not the god version people present him as so often), and Djoser, two Pharaohs that people overlook when discussing the narrative of early pyramid building in ancient Egypt.

Hopefully, this project can discover the thread that ties public consumption of ancient history together, and I hope that, at the end of it, there’s an upward trend in a reliable, truthful narrative being told. I might utilize software like Voyant to scan through transcripts of the game looking for keywords like Pharaoh names, places, and the names of gods, but most of this research will rely heavily on physically interacting with the pieces I am studying as well as parsing through community response to the game and its popularity on the market (i.e. Assassin’s Creed: Origins is still well-rated and popular while Sphynx and the Cursed Mummy was a PS2 cult classic that, even after returning to the Nintendo Switch, has all but left modern memory).

-Bailey Murray

4 Replies to “Project Proposal – Print”

  1. I love this project! I have to admit that I didn’t spend as much time playing Origins as I did Odyssey, but this is really interesting. More people play Assassins Creed Origins than the number of people who have studied Ancient Egypt past high school, especially given the new education modes that the Assassins Creed games have had. As you think about this project, are you going to have a section dedicated to the downfalls of games like Assassins Creed Origins? Or rather are there any downfalls in the representation of Ancient Egypt within the games? Once again, I didn’t get this far but what does Cleopatra look like in Origins?

    1. I think one of my main focuses will be the pitfalls of these games in their representation of the actual history and mythos because, like you said, more people played the game than studied Egypt after school. What they’re learning is going to form their schema of the ancient world, even if they don’t realize it, and it’s important (at least I think it is but I might be biased) to faithfully represent the history in games like Origins where they lauded their connection to the time period. As for Cleopatra, she looked extremely Mediterranean in the game which I was very proud of. Strong features, very Greek skintone, but dressed in the classical Egyptian garb which fully encompassed Cleopatra as the Ptolemaic leader that she was. Both fully Egyptian and fully Macedonian / Greek.

  2. Hi, Bailey! I think this project idea is absolutely fascinating. I am not sure if you are interested in material culture and historical fashion, but it could also be interesting to examine historical characters in these video games and see if their dress/garb is historically accurate. Do the video game creators follow historically/archeological accurate facts on this front? Or do they follow the romanticized vision people have of this era/region?

  3. Hi Bailey,

    This is a great idea for a project. There are a lot of representations of ancient Egypt in video games and as you have pointed out there is a really robust scholarly literature about the history of Egyptomania. As a starting point on this, I would recommend that you read essays from the 2013 book, Playing With the Past (https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/playing-with-the-past-9781623567286/ ) it has a good bit of relevant scholarship, and also is useful in modeling how to approach analysis of individual games or across a set of games. Along with that, I would encourage you to check out Ian Bogost’s book Persuasive Games, ( https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/persuasive-games ) which advances the notion of “procedural rhetoric” which has become a really big issue in games studies. What is useful there is thinking about how the logic/rules of games interact with other aspects of storytelling. It would also likely be worth going through posts from Play the Past that mention Egypt to see if there are other relevant examples there you could draw from https://www.playthepast.org/?s=egypt&submit=Search Along with that, this NEH funded project to create mods of the game Civilization to teach Egyptian history might be of interest too https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:11931/

    My sense is that getting text from the games and using tools like Voyant on them is likely going to be challenging to do and also something that is going to not result in particularly compelling results. So I think focusing on analysis of aspects of the games themselves is likely going to be the most directly useful. Along with that, you might also consider looking into web forums about the games where you could then also get at how audiences/users are engaging with and responding to the narratives in the games. As an example of how to work with those kinds of sources, the chapter that Rebecca Mir and I wrote for Playing with the Past might be relevant to look at http://www.trevorowens.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/mir-owens-colonization-proof-2013.pdf

    My sense is that one of the main challenges with this kind of project is how to set the scope right. There are so many games that have aspects of them that engage with ideas about Egypt that it will likely be difficult to cover all of them at once. If you do run with this as your project, I think one of the key issues is going to be figuring out how to scope the study. If you do want to broadly survey different kinds of games, you might want to more narrowly focus on some aspect of this history. For instance, you might look specifically at represents of pharaohs, or Egyptian gods, or something. Alternatively, if you wanted to broadly consider Egyptian history, you might focus in particular on a single game or series of games.

    Overall, this is great idea for a project and I think you could get into some really interesting issues here.

    Best, Trevor

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