Dealing with Multiple Narratives of “Truth” and Creating Meaningful Play

A certain amount of knowledge is required for players to navigate video games, whether this means remembering the weak points of the different splicers in BioShock, or remembering the buttons to press to play Epona’s song in Ocarina of Time. This knowledge is gained throughout play, rather than presented to the individual to quiz them, however when the knowledge is required it can drastically affect how well the player performs. As Adam discussed in his post on the role of content and form in historical video games, there are often problems of balancing the mechanics and form with content. While the game itself is more fun, it is at the sake of historical accuracy. He proposes that we should create games in which the player is engaging with the historical content rather than passively interacting with it. In a previous post on Assassin’s Creed, I argued a similar point, noting that the content needed to be part of the form and structure of game play. In designing meaningful or educational games, it is this dynamic knowledge that we need to tap into to create games that teach players about the content, but not at the sake of the game mechanics or fun.

I am currently the lead game designer for Ethan’s NEH game, Red Land Black Land. The game is a mod of Sid Meier’s Civilization V, and is based on a series of six scenarios. Each scenario plays through a portion of a period in Ancient Egypt. The purpose of the game is three fold: allow players to explore the process of historical and social change from the Pre-Dynastic to end of the New Kingdom, explore the construction of knowledge about each period, and provide a counter-point to mainstream understanding of Ancient Egypt.

One of the problems with teaching Ancient Egypt is that there exists a wide range of interpretations in archaeology and Egyptology. Each discipline tends to privilege specific information over other. In archaeology the material culture is privileged, interpreted as a direct reflection of the actions of individuals in the past. In Egyptology the text, epigraphy and inscriptions are paramount, being that they are the words of the individuals who lived in the past. To make matters more confusing, interpretations of inscriptions and archaeological sites change over time, and are subject to the biases of the interpreters. While having a knowledge of the time period, culture, politics, economy and social structures is important, it is vital for students to understand how this information has been created, especially when there are disagreements. One example is the question of how the Kingdom of Egypt was formed. Egyptologists argue that the kingdom was united through warfare based on a number of palettes depicting warriors, whereas archaeologists argue for a slow amalgamation of the various smaller groups with increasing trade between them creating cultural homogeneity. There is a lack of material culture which points to warfare, such as the presence of mass graves or even high numbers of weapons. It is necessary for students to know how this highly contested knowledge is constructed.

The question was how to convey not just a single educational strand of information, but a number of conflicting strands of information. Most meaningful games focus on a single topic, with the goal to memorize the content and use the information to pass to a different level. How do you get players to learn a number of different interpretations and then use that knowledge to make historical choices while still being engaged in the game mechanics?

In order to achieve this, we embedded the knowledge into four historical learning agents. In Civ V, the player has access to four advisors who give them hints and advice on how to proceed in economics, foreign affairs, military campaigns and science. In Red Land Black Land, the player is advised by different academics who share their knowledge of the time period. These historical learning agents include an archaeologist from the late 19th century whose conclusions are based on theories of diffusion and seriation, a 21st century archaeologist who uses a range of modern sites and techniques to interpret material culture, an Egyptologist who focuses on epigraphy and inscriptions, and a graduate student who is, like the player, navigating the different streams of knowledge.

The player needs to properly interpret the knowledge in order to make decisions about how they will proceed in the game. One problem that continues to plague the design is that we, as developers, are privileging one interpretation over another. The development and design is in the hands of two archaeologists, so there is a clear bias on what interpretations we believe the player should follow in order to win. This doesn’t mean that they can’t win if they choose to follow the advice of the Egyptologist, and in some cases it may be the appropriate choice. Due to the game being a mod, there are limits on the number of potential winning narratives, which forces us as developers to pick a ‘more correct’ version of history. Regardless, the player will be required to interact with different strands of dynamic knowledge and make decisions based on this in order to play.  When testing begins in the next couple weeks we will see whether this approach has been successful.


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