Project Diary: Red Land/Black Land

Dec 15, 10 Project Diary: Red Land/Black Land

For years, researchers have discussed the educational potential of digital games within learning environments (either formal or informal).  It’s only relatively recently that those discussions have started to bear fruit in the form of robust serious game development and (more importantly) published research.   The problem (at least from the perspective of this discussion) is that while serious games have been used in a wide variety of contexts such as healthcare, the military, and language training, there are comparatively fewer instances of games being used to teach history, archaeology, cultural heritage, or complex culture change over time (especially within the context of a formal learning environment).  Many of the games that do exist, such as HistoriCanada or MIT’s Revolution project, are typically targeted at a K-12 audience. Not that this is a bad thing. It isn’t. However, one might easily argue that the intended audience results in simpler treatment of the subject matter.  This doesn’t mean that there aren’t attempts to use games to teach these topics within the context of higher education (or in informal learning environments), quite the contrary.  A great example is Play the Past’s own Shawn Graham, who discussed such a project in his recent My Glorious Failure article.  Ultimately, however, there seems to be a missed opportunity here.  Serious games (or any kind of meaningful play, for that matter) provide an excellent opportunity to explore more sophisticated topics of archaeology, history, and cultural heritage in either a formal or informal learning environment.

It is within this context that I’m kicking off a series of posts to (very practically) discuss and document the development of Red Land/Black Land, a serious game project that I’m directing (currently in development at Michigan State University’s MATRIX: The Center for the Humane Arts, Letters, and Social Sciences Online) intended to explore ancient Egyptian history, archaeology, and culture change over time. In this first post, I’m going to take some time to lay the foundations for future posts in the series by (rather casually) exploring the rationale behind the project, as well as its goals and intended outcomes.

Funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Startup Grant, Red Land/Black Land (the full project name is Red Land/Black Land: Teaching Ancient Egyptian History Through Game-Based Learning if folks are interested) is intended to create a robust Civilization V mod (a mod is a “modification” of an existing game) that will allow players to explore the socio-cultural and historic character of Ancient Egypt from the Early Predynastic Period (ca. 4000 B.B.) to the end of the Third Intermediate Period (ca. 525 B.C.). As a side note, the grant originally proposed a Civilization IV mod. However, just as things got started (the project, unfortunately, suffered some unexpected setbacks and started later than expected), Civilization V was released. It seemed like a missed opportunity not to shift gears slightly and develop for Civ V instead.  The name of the project actually comes from the ancient Egyptian’s name for the Nile Valley, Delta, and surrounding desert.  The ancient Egyptians referred to the Nile Valley and the Delta as km.t (pronounced kemet) – the black land (in reference to the dark, rich soil of the Nile Valley and Delta).  On the other hand, they referred to the wild and chaotic deserts outside of the Nile Valley and Delta (both to the east and west) as dsrt (pronounced desret) – the red land.  The two terms, Red Land/Black Land, are often used to refer to the totally of the (local) ancient Egyptian world.

The project itself has two primary goals. The first (and most basic) is to create a game-based experience in which players can explore ancient Egyptian history and archaeology (with a special focus on socio-cultural change). It is extremeley important to note that the intent of the game is not to force players to restrictively “replay” historical events as archaeologists and Egyptologists believe they happened.  Instead, the game allows players to explore the process of socio-historical change within the framework of ancient Egyptian.  Players are able to explore why things happened (and why archaeologists and Egyptologists believe they happened that way) as opposed to what happened (as they are currently understood by Egyptologists and archaeologists) – something that could easily looked up in a book or read on Wikipedia. By way of example – an early portion of the game is dedicated to the rise of the Egyptian state during the Predynastic and Protodynastic periods (ca. 4000-3000 B.C.). In this context, players will immerse themselves in a scenerio where the possible factors leading to the unification of the Egyptian state come into play.  If, for instance, players reach a point in the game where they control Upper Egypt, would it be in their best interest to conquer Lower Egypt through direct military action, or would they rather attempt the cultural assimilation of Lower Egypt through trade, peaceful colonization, and cultural exchange?  What would be the results (both long term and short term) of either strategy?

The second goal of the project is to create a game-based experience in which players can explore the the construction of historical and archaeological knowledge. In short, adress the question of how Egyptologists and archaeologists know what they do about ancient Egypt (and how that knowledge developed and has evolved over time). Particular emphasis is placed on the complex nature of ancient Egyptian archaeological and historical evidence. In order to acomplish this, Red Land/Black Land extends Civilization’s “advisor” mechanic (which, in normal gameplay, provides summary data and advice about a course of action based on their focus – e.g. there is a military advisor, an economic one, etc.) to create an Egytpology Advisor. This Egyptology Advisor serves two purposes.  First, it provides contextual historic and archaeological information during gameplay.  For instance, if the player is playing the portion of the mod involving the Hyksos invasion and occupation of Lower Egypt during the Second Intermediate Period (ca. 17th Century B.C.), they would be able to refer to the Egyptology Advisor to obtain information about known events (and the associated archaeological materials) of the actual invasion.  Secondly, and most importantly, the Egyptology Advisor provides contextual information about how archaeological knowledge is constructed and evolved. For instance, extending upon the Hyksos example, players will be provided rich content on the ecavations at Avaris (the Hyksos capital in the Eastern Delta) and how those excavations fit into the historic record. In the process of developping the Egyptology Advisor, we have also explored the possibility of linking to external online sources of primary excavation and epigraphic data and information (both contemporary and historic). Ultimately, the goal is not just to provide historic and archaeological information about ancient Egypt, but to provide the vital intellectual context of that information, exploring how and why archaeologists and Egyptologists reached the conclusions they did about a given site, individual, historic event, cultural practice, etc.

At this point, I’m going to break and leave further discussion of the project for another day.  In the next installment of my look at Red Land/Black Land, I’ll spend time exploring some of the technical and design considerations (and challenges) we encountered at the beginning of the project.  In the meantime, I would absolutely love to hear thoughts, suggestions, feedback, or general musings on the project from Play the Past readers.


  1. Marshall /

    This is incredibly facinating to me as I was actually hoping to be able to do something similar, but much simpler. As a study technique. Taking an Egyptology class, I figured I could work on a mod as I go throughout the class, then play it before exams for the most fun studying ever! What you are doing sounds like a great opportunity for students in Egyptology.

    • Ethan Watrall /

      Marshall – Thanks for your kind words. I’m actually going to be pilot testing the game (when its finished) in my Archaeology of Ancient Egypt class..which, once done, will be discussed in a future post.

  2. Sounds amazing! Is this game’s audience undergraduate students?

    I am looking forward to more info on the project. I’d love to read about how are you dividing your effort/time between implementing the in-game Egypt model and the Egyptology Advisor and what led up to the decision for adding the advisor? Will you be testing how players use the advisor? Will the advisor be helpful for skillful play of the game, or more as a source of background info to be used outside of the game? I’m new to serious game development, and my current interests are in how much supplementary material is required for the player to be immersed in and gain understanding of the topic.

    As for the game itself, it would be interesting if there were a way for a player to ‘replay’ a previous game session as an archaelogist – the player wouldn’t know what specific actions/decisions the previous player made, but would be tasked to come up with ideas on this based on clues in the ruins of the previous game session. None of this is directly available within the existing Civ game, of course.


  1. Indignant Desert Birds » Sunday Morning Reading Material: First Sunday in January 2011 - [...] it looks like Michigan State University is going to be creating a mod for Civ5 to teach Egyptian History.…

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