Playing with the Classics

It’s a lonely and frustrating world for the classicist, viewing with horror, as their passion is dragged kicking and screaming, through the dust and blood soaked lands of ages, landing head first into Hollywood and the popular entertainment industry. Indeed, depictions of classical civilizations in video games would have many a classicist groaning and trolling, and let’s not even get into how the subject is taught in schools.

The wonders of the ancient world have always offered a certain allure for the video games industry, a distinct otherness, easily recognisable – whether through adaptation or historical abuse, certain triggers are called upon: the Colosseum – always ubiquitous; Medusa’s gothic snake heads hissing and pouncing; fictitious military units in just-about-survive or die-horribly turn based strategy games; British-accented praetorian guards, no one could possibly voice an American accent, it just wouldn’t do; mythical gods bellowing from the heavens – the classics permeate into popular culture like nothing else.

Indeed, for most people, movies and video games are their only access to the ancient world, classics being seen as the reserve of public and grammar schools and a clique of ‘high minded individuals’, and the study of classics in state schools has dropped dramatically over the years – despite this, classical related themes still remain popular throughout our culture. But whether thrashing to death a pixelated centaur is the intellectual equal to reading Homer’s The Odyssey or trawling Virgil’s Aeneid is for the reader to decide. Whether we like to admit it or not, in video games as in education there’s a ‘high brow’ and a ‘low brow’.

Indulge me for a minute. Growing up my puritan mother banned me from playing games that she didn’t regard as ‘educational’: ‘Burn that Atari,’ she’d shout. ‘Ban the Nintendo,’ she’d holler. Super Mario and the blue hedgehog were regarded as the domain of wastrels. What was the point of playing games, if you couldn’t learn at least something? Sound parenting you may think. Worthwhile pedagogic titles included such empire-building games like Age of Empires (almost impossible to play without throwing a tantrum) and Civilization (back then more complex than trying to assemble a Rubik‚Äôs cube hand-cuffed and blind folded whilst hanging from the ceiling by your ankles).

The point is that both were seen as educational because of the tenuous link to the classical world. ‘THIS IS EDUCATIONAL AND WORTH PLAYING’, the game screams at us, as we tirelessly scroll through the CivPedia in the Civilization series: a kind of mini encyclopaedic reference guide, as the game desperately attempts to capitalise on the worthiness of its subject matter – the first incarnation of Civilization took micromanagement to new glorious and bewildering heights. Yet in what alternative reality could the Mongolians defeat the Romans, the Aztecs lead the nuclear age, or warlord Gandhi be negotiating a cease fire with Tutankhamen?

But it’s not all high-minded lunacy. Unlike the empire building games the effortlessly entertaining God of War series has no pretensions to being anything other than arcade style entertainment. Our supernaturally muscular – unusually white – bald headed hero Kratos rampages this way through antiquity slaughtering anything and everyone from piles of discarded rubble to innocent bystanders – a real testosterone fuelled carnage fest complete with Wagner-esque soundtrack. Yet scratch beneath the surface and the classical link is there. Kratos (a tragic hero much like Theseus and Odysseus) is tricked by god of war Ares into murdering his family. Throughout the game he is haunted by horrific memories, and strives to reclaim his rightful place as the new god of war, by eventually defeating Ares and taking his place. Such themes can be found throughout classical literature.

Yet the classics are dying, this generation will have less stake in the wonders of Greece and Rome, than any other; in fact Camden School for Girls in London will be the last comprehensive in the country to teach Greek A-Level, as it is planning to drop the subject all together this September.

But fear not, perhaps movies and video games – however tenuous and dubious the link – can rekindle a spark for the ancient world especially amongst the young. If any parents out there feel that their children are being deprived of the wonders of a classical education indulge them, there are plenty of historically themed games of all genres. For as Seneca the Younger wrote: ‘The journey by teaching is long, by examples – brief and effective.’ And what can be more effective than grabbing and slamming a Siren’s head half a dozen times until it pops like a grape. Long live the classics.

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