A Response to the Concept of Caricature
This post is the second in a multi-part series on the issues raised by Longbow Games’ ancient real time strategy series, Hegemony. Jeremiah McCall will continue this series in the next installment. Hegemony: Philip of Macedon was released in 2010 and was followed by Hegemony Gold, which included the Peloponnesian war. Longbow is currently developing a new Hegemony focused on Caesar’s Gallic Wars.
Jim MacNally’s post gave us a rare look into the extremely difficult decisions that a design team is faced with when creating a game set in a historical period. As I’m sure many readers will agree, his explanation via the concept of caricature was helpful in framing certain play mechanics, namely the map and unit morale. Having played through much of Hegemony Gold myself, I was happy to hear that the unique style in which the game map was produced would continue in the newest Caesar installment. The Latin teacher in me, with Caesar fresh on my mind on account of the latest iteration of the Advanced Placement syllabus, found Jim’s post to be a bit of a tease — in a good way, of course.
It is from that teaching perspective that I want both to reflect upon Jim’s idea as history-as-caricature and to explore the implications for doing so. By natural instinct we, as educators, tend to create caricatures of the subject matter our respective fields. Heck, we even create caricatures of ourselves in the classroom. We do this because, like Jim and his design team, it allows us to boil down the essence of the ideas we hope to convey into morsels that are both accessible and manipulable by our students. Too often, though, we fall into the same trap that ensnares even the best game designers; creating too complex of a system for our students to understand and manipulate.
I found thinking about the Hegemony game mechanic of food and its relation to troop morale/combat effectiveness to be timely and relevant to recent developments in my own classroom. As part of Operation LAPIS, a recent historical training immersion sent the Recentiī back to the First Punic War. Among the many issues at hand, Rome’s rapid expansion during, and as a result of, the First Punic War was at the forefront. The most important prize that Rome acquired as a result of victory in the war was the island of Sicily. So why was Sicily so vital at that time to the burgeoning Roman empire?
Here’s where Jim’s mechanic transfers so well to the classroom. I posed the question to my students to see if they could figure out the significance on their own. After ten minutes of researching, reading, and discussion in their teams, we came back together to talk about what we discovered. The big discovery for many was that Sicily (under the shadow of Mt. Aetna) had rich volcanic soil — rich soil which produced an abundance of grain that the Romans desperately needed to feed their growing army. While Sicily was important for a number of other reasons, a version of this caricature of “food=morale=combat effectiveness” gave an accessible entry point to a lot of students for beginning to understanding an aspect of Roman expansion in the aftermath of the First Punic War.
The real payoff came just a few days later while, when discussing Roman Alexandria, a student suddenly blurted out, as if he had a epiphany, “Wait a minute, Augustus was concerned about securing Egypt as a personal province because he needed the grain so that his army would continue to fight, right?”
Food=morale=combat effectiveness, indeed. I think that all of us educators could spend a little bit of time thinking about how to leverage the idea of caricature — good caricature, that is — in order to design systems which will afford greater accessibility to our students. As Jim noted, the simplification that comes from the caricature is easier to manipulate. If our students can manipulate the content with greater ease, then they, like the players of Hegemony, will find themselves more readily drawn into experience.