Final Project – Egyptian Mythological Representation in Video games

For my project, I originally intended to make a blog with a series of posts discussing the role of Egyptian history in video games, but after doing a survey and external research on the mythological representation, I ended up with an accidental research paper. I ended up reaching out to 27 participants who completed the survey which was a series of questions situated by demographics, short answer recognition of gods, multiple-choice recognition of popular symbolism, and self-report questions regarding personal views of historical accuracy in video games.

I think a study like this could succeed in a much larger setting with more participants that allow it to be generalized to the public, but for right now it was a fun learning experience while also getting to utilize some of the research and study design techniques I learned in my undergraduate degree. Despite the small sample size, I can safely say a strong takeaway I got from this project was that, while people don’t actively seek out historical games because of their accuracy, there is a market for people who would prefer their games to be accurate as well as fun. I think it just falls to game developers and writers to present a system that is fun mechanically and narratively while still being accurate. And since Assassin’s Creed: Origins did so well, it’s safe to say there’s a strong market for that type of thing to succeed in.

My limitations were well documented in the discussion section of my paper, but one main one I wished to touch on was the fact that people really like to make jokes out of studies like these. I had to wade through several “silly” answers despite explicitly stating I was looking for “N/A” responses. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact I knew 85% of the people taking the survey and they felt comfortable not following the rules, but in a follow-up study, it should definitely be done in a more professional atmosphere so that the results are publishable, reliable, and potentially valid.

-Bailey Murray

Mission America Online games about American History Grant Proposal

This article was a grant proposal for the web-based game Mission America which detailed its intent to “advance humanities education” by utilizing “interactive media to engage students in learning and analyzing U.S. history.” The opening paragraphs discussed how only about 17% of eighth-graders (fewer in underprivileged areas) performed at or above proficiency level in U.S. history, and the way Mission America intended to reach its audience of 5th-8th graders was through a hobby that 97% of boys and girls aged 12-17 do: gaming.

The game was focused on Revolutionary through 20th century American history over the span of 5 games in which students take on the role of apprentice, slave, railway worker, journalist, or a family member during the Great Depression. Mission America‘s intent was to allow players to “navigate historic settings, interact with key figures, investigate primary documents, witness pivotal events, and ultimately decide their fate in the face of history.” They also discussed how important it was to foster the “core skills of history education” by including actual evidence to allow students to form interpretations, understand cause and effect, and identify turning points in history.

Learning Goals and Goal Achievement

The proposal discussed a series of 3 goals the project had including helping students learn the story of America and recognize its struggle for liberty and equality, understanding the role of the ordinary man and woman in history, and developing historical thinking skills to perpetuate further understanding and perception. To do this, they had planned out 5 narrative-driven “missions” to cover events and nation-shaping ideals and institutes; they wrote stories informed by the most recent historical scholarship, created immersive environments that allowed unfettered interaction with characters, and created the idea of choice to create a picture of cause and effect, incorporated primary documents to enhance interpretation skills, and created authentic designs to immerse players in the visual culture of the time.

Prototype Mission

They went on to discuss the prototype missions they had planned, but for the sake of brevity I’m going to discuss the first one only: “For Crown or Colony?” In this first mission, students play as 14-year-old Nathaniel (Nat) Wheeler in the week leading up to the Boston Massacre. Nat works as an apprentice to Patriot publisher Benjamin Edes, and the game involves completing a series of tasks set forth by Mr. Edes and his wife to introduce players to the “full strata of Colonial society and the growing tensions within it.” During this time, students are also presented with primary documents to interact with and historical figures like Paul Revere or Phillis Wheatley.

The whole point of the game is to promote a valid interaction with the time period, so students will be presented with emotional and ethical choices to make it feel like what they do matters. Nat likes a girl named Constance, but her uncle is a Loyalist while he is working for a Patriot printer. When Nat witnesses the Boston Massacre he’s faced with a decision to continue his work for the Patriots, move to London with Constance and remain loyal to the Crown, or run away to sea to escape everything entirely. While there are no wrong choices, students are given the opportunity to see what would happen if they apply modern ideas (such as forgetting to doff their cap at a superior) to the past (Nat gets hit on the head), and they get to see the result of their choices by the end of the game when they either follow a Loyalist path with the girl they like or fight alongside Paul Revere.

Audience and Accessibility

The main point Mission America hoped to come to beyond a renewed interest in U.S. history was accessibility. All of their resources would remain free and there was an accompanying website where students could interact with primary documents and character biographies, and teachers could find a plethora of PDFs to help bring the game into the classroom beyond the bounds of the computer. As it is a text-based game, they noted the threshold for vocabulary was quite high, and there were students who may not meet the base requirements needed to get the most out of the game. While in the proposal they noted their “Smartwords” feature was still a prototype, they planned to make an interaction where harder words (like deposition or apprentice) could be pulled into a student’s inventory where they’d then be able to read a definition of the word.

In their own test that they ran on about 120 students, most of them showed measurable gains in their knowledge of American history as well as improvement in their ability to identify historical arguments and points of view. Kids seemed interested in the stories and went on to discuss them, and the history surrounding them, outside of the classroom and among themselves in their peer groups which speaks volumes about the success of the game in that controlled setting. It also presented cause and effect as well as ethical dilemmas to children so that they were faced with the consequences of their actions. Unlike Civilization IV: Colonization, there was no right ending because the point was to give students a better understanding of American history through their own interaction with the world, rather than pigeon-holing them into one type of victory through conquest and the superiority of the American spirit.

-Bailey M

Discussion Questions

  1. When they stated how they hoped to achieve their goals, they noted that Mission America was going to utilize the most recent historical scholarship to highlight certain events. As history changes over time (and video games do as well), would this game need to be remade or updated to continue to display accuracy?
  2. Is it important to cover more nuanced historical topics with middle schoolers or should it be kept at a more “overview” level? E.g. the first mission is about Nat, a boy who lives in Boston during the Boston Massacre. Is it important to discuss with students why their character is a boy and they don’t have a choice since playing as a girl in the time frame would have a drastically different outcome (no apprenticeship at a print shop, exploring the world would look different, etc.)?
  3. Where does this game fit in relation to a game like Civilization IV: Colonization? Since it has to fit within a middle school curriculum, does it also need to remain “sanitized” (not covering harder topics in great detail) even though the second mission covered the conditions of slavery in the 19th century?

Nakamura Gender and Race Online

Lisa Nakamura’s Gender and Race Online focused on the “racial and gender climate in the world of console gaming, identify some cases for the pervasive sexism and racism to be found there, and assess the potential for change.” She argued that society believed that racism was becoming a thing of the past, but one could state that the Internet and Internet culture can be defined by the racism that is rampant there, removed from the “real world” by anonymity and the “magical world” created in games.

Gaming has become so prevalent in our culture that males are disproportionately represented as “gamers” as they are far more likely to label themselves as such due to the strong masculine tie between playing games and being a man. Conversely, females, transgender women, and genderqueer or nonbinary individuals were less likely to consider themselves “gamers” even if they played the same amount as their male counterparts.

Racial Issues Online

Nakamura immediately pivots from gender representation in video games into a study of racism in gaming culture. She states that black and brown bodies were still disproportionately represented by drug users, gangsters, and athletes while also lacking representation in the form of playable avatars (World of Warcraft was called a “blackless fantasy”) She also noted that, despite all of this occurring within games, non-white youth make up a larger proportion of at-home gamers. 

Nakamura quotes sociologist Ashley Doane’s definition of racial discourse as the “collective text and talk of society with respect to issues of race,” while racial ideologies are a “generalized belief system that explains social relationships and social practices in racialized language.” Video games are a type of text that encompasses the “racial ideologies” of the culture and the developers writing the game and, according to Nakamura, they can hide behind the fact that they are removed from the “real world” to utilize more racialized themes and speech that may not pass in face to face conversation.

Trash-Talk and the War Against Sexism and Racism Online

The intersection between gender and race Nakamura came to at the end was the use of trash-talking in video game culture and how it is an issue for women and people of color. Typically, gamers differentiate between “trash-talk” and discourse that crosses the line (e.g. racial slurs or death threats), but developers and gamers alike also argue that “trash-talk” is a part of gaming culture. With the addition of voice chat on console franchises like Halo or Call of Duty, players in multiplayer lobbies are inundated with “salty” individuals who utilize language to combat the fact they might be losing or to help them with an air of superiority.

Websites like The Border House: Breaking Down Borders in Gaming, The Hathor Legacy, or  Fat, Ugly, or Slutty Racialicious work to create safe spaces for LGBT, ally, PoC, and female gamers. Players can post pictures of messages that they’ve received to the forum including the Gamertag of the offending player so that they can be subjected to semi-public ridicule or be avoided at all costs. They used the example of xXStonerXx1690 who sent racial slurs to a player and stated that xXStonerXx1690 would have to face the consequences of their actions because people from Fat, Ugly, or Slutty would refuse to play with them, or the game devs might ban them for hate speech.

Personal Discussion

I had a few issues with this article that I wanted to address as a female in the gaming community. When Nakamura discussed the notion of “crunch-time” she didn’t discuss the fact that crunch time and unpaid overtime are the main causes of developer burnout regardless of gender and should be handled no matter what gender is being exploited. I also didn’t like how this article didn’t possess any sort of constraints. She states that she’s focused on consoles and named Xbox, Playstation, and Wii, yet mentions MMORPGs like World of Warcraft that only exist on PC. 

Not to mention there were no age restraints in the study to look into the differences in generational gaming cultures. Under the Bridge: An In-Depth Examination of Online Trolling in the Gaming Context by Christine Cooke et. al. found that “these behaviors appear to be dispersed unevenly across generations of gamers, creating a generational gap between trolls. Veteran gamers take on a trickster archetype when they troll, and tend towards misdirection and subterfuge, while new and younger gamers go for a more abrasive approach, engaging in behaviors such as trash-talking and killing teammates.” That doesn’t, by any means, make such behavior acceptable, but I think it’s important to look at all the factors when discussing racism and sexism in gaming culture. It also doesn’t mean such behavior is strictly relegated to younger gamers. There was also an issue with the assumption that the offending players are all male. In the case of xXStonerXx1690, while they do state that “he or she may suffer other consequences,” they refer to the players as male twice before that which gives into the Internet’s constant innate bias that anyone on the internet is male until proven otherwise.

-Bailey M

Discussion Questions

  1. What do we do with games like Grand Theft Auto that Everett noted treat Black and Brown bodies as expendable targets or violent stereotypes? Do games like these need to be removed from the market entirely to combat racism in gaming culture? Or do we just let them fade into obscurity with the onset of newer titles? (e.g. fewer people are playing GTA IV now that GTA V is out. It doesn’t remove play entirely, but people are more likely to play the newest title). Would people play a version of GTA that didn’t match the themes presented in the original titles?
  2. Does trash-talk belong in gaming culture as long as it doesn’t cross that well-known line into hate speech?
  3. Is there an inherent problem with presenting female gamers as playing games like the Sims, Bejeweled, or Angry Birds? While all considered video games, could the disproportionate likelihood for women to underreport themselves as gamers be attributed to the fact that gaming culture does not weigh all games equally?
  4. This exact study has been done a hundred times over in the Psychology field with control variables and interviews, what does this work offer us as insight that more in-depth studies have not? Or can it better be read as an accumulation of research in a more approachable format? How does it relate to us as historians?

Mir & Owens Modeling Indigenous Peoples

Modeling Indigenous People: Unpacking Ideology in Sid Meier’s Colonization by Rebecca Mir and Trevor Owens looks to find a somewhat middle ground between the critiques and defense of the game Civilization IV: Colonization. On the one hand, Variety writer Ben Fritze stated that the game allowed players to do “horrific things…or whitewash some of the worst events in human history,” while Firaxis Games president Steve Martin argued that “[a]s with all previous versions of Civilization, the game does not endorse any particular position or strategy – players can and should make their own moral judgments.” Owens and Mir stated that their goal was to “unpack how ideology is created and works in a historical simulation” because “games should challenge our preconceived notion of the world by evoking guilt or highlighting causal relationships.” They also stated that the interactivity and agency that a player can experience in Civ games allow for playing from disturbing points of view and lets players feel the guilt of their actions.

Colonization is a turn-based product management game where to win, the player must play out the American independence story by colonizing land, rebelling against the motherland, and waging war against European powers and, if a player wishes, Natives. Mir and Owens state that Civ presents a certain ideology and said model restricts players to a limited playstyle, even if there are mods and changes a person can make to amend the gameplay. Media scholar Alexander Galloway stated that these games are “ideological interpretations of history” or the “transcoding of history into specific mathematical models.”

Sid Meier's Civilization IV: Colonization (Video Game 2008) - IMDb

Owens played Colonization in sixth grade, and, like every Civ enthusiast, he replayed it a myriad of times to try and pull every possible outcome out of the game. His issues with the game started with the cover that depicts a white, militaristic point of view where strong-looking European men wielding guns seem to promote the idea that colonization is inevitable and that the game is endorsing this as the “best” route to victory.

Conversely, there is an option to play as the Native population, but it requires the player to either go into the folder to manually alter the source code (change “bPlayable” field in Civ4CivilizationInfos.xml to 1) or to download player-created mods. In the CivPlayer.app’s perspective of units, there are “Normal People” (player-controlled colonial units), “Native Peoples” (computer-controlled units), and “Europeans” (computer-controlled units). “Normal people” come with a range of abilities and characteristics (like “Tolerant” which causes immigrants to help colonies at a faster rate), but “Native People” are categorized as “Other.”

Owens argued that, despite this ability to modify the source code, this attempt to mod simply exposes the game designers’ intentions and innate colonialist ideology present. Even if a player takes a pacifist route, they are forced to colonize Natives (the model turns from a Native model to a White colonist model after Western education but, if a player sends a colonist into Native territory they don’t come out with Native traits) and, if they don’t they fall vastly behind the necessary threshold to actually achieve victory.

Yet despite all these “issues” with the game and the fact it represents a problematic point in history with little room for a player’s adaptation of the story, Mir and Owens weren’t arguing for its removal. In fact, they described the game as “too sanitized” and “not offensive enough” because even players who modded the game to make it more realistic or give it more options refused to add in the potential for disease and the slave trade.

-Bailey M

Discussion Questions

  1. Can video games be properly used as a medium for historical learning? Should they be?
  2. Should a video game prioritize historical accuracy despite how difficult that might be to portray? (e.g. when this game was released it would have been incredibly difficult to add a disease element because it would have to be passive AND weaponized) 
  3. Is it up to developers or players to do “the right thing.” (e.g. should Colonization have implemented better options for players beyond colonization, or is the onus on players to take a more pacifist route)?
  4. For people who have played other Civilization games, do the issues and problems presented here extend into those games as well? Why or why not?

Tracking the Historical Authenticity of Egyptian Representation in Video Games -Digital Project

My digital project proposal is going to sound a lot like my print project proposal because it’s practically the same thing! I am really interested in the representation of Ancient Egypt and the Egyptian mythos in digital media (mainly video games) and how it affects the way people recognize and interact with the actual history surrounding Egypt. I might look to expand into popular movies (i.e. Prince of Egypt or The Mummy) if I need a subject matter that more people are familiar with, but for the moment I want to keep my focus strictly on gaming.

Ever since Howard Carter discovered Tut’s tomb in the 1920s, Egyptomania has been, at the very least, an undercurrent of popular culture. In modern mobile games where there are themed levels, often there is an Ancient Egypt themed level because it is easy to recognize the Nemes crown, a pyramid, and a mummy. But how does that affect the way people conceive Egyptian history? Games like Assassins Creed: Origins or Sphynx and the Cursed Mummy are both games that have touched a wide portion of the population be it in their youth (PS2) or more current (Xbox One/Ps4). Assassin’s Creed specifically spoke about how they utilized Egyptologists to help fill in the gaps where mainstream history was silent because the developers wanted to focus on making the game as historically accurate as possible. But that is something that is fairly modern for a video game.

Often big-name titles will utilize the familiarity of the Egyptian mythos and how recognizable the art and architecture are while avoiding the historical authenticity. They will make up the names of Pharaohs or will fall victim to the pitfalls of assuming mainstream media has the information correct (i.e. it is pretty normal to assume Rameses was the Pharoah of the Exodus, but research has shown that it could be one of four, yet the story is always portrayed as Rameses).

For my project, I plan to create a website using WordPress where I will discuss the background of some larger titles and their historical authenticity in regards to the actual evidence we have of Egypt at the time. I also plan to integrate a survey where I will reach out to players and gather information on how their personal schema of Egypt has been formed by the games that they play. For example, in League of Legends, there are characters based on the Egyptian gods. It will be interesting to see if players, with no background in Egyptian history, can even name the gods these characters are based on, let alone where they fit in the pantheon.