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’s 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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The Real, The Virtual and The Ugly

I’ve never pretended to be a massive gamer. I spend a few nights a week cruising Los Santos, frequenting strip clubs and mowing down unsuspecting members of the public, but let’s admit it, who hasn’t fantasied about doing at least one of the above, especially the latter? But a ten-year stretch in real jail because of some repressed disinclination toward the general public probably isn’t worth it.

There’s a lot of media hype about whether or not video games, like the one mentioned above, which virtually glamorise violence, actually inspire real hatred to one’s fellow man. The argument follows that violent games and movies inspire young people to go out and commit similar acts in the real world, just as they would in its virtual counterpart. True, the characters in GTA V are a bunch of psychopathic, fouled mouthed, sons-of-bitches, but that’s part of the attraction, especially in this age of unrelenting political correctness which saturates all other forms of the entertainment culture from TV to Hollywood, which the games industry seems to have escaped unscathed from.

Anyway, isn’t the whole point of gaming is to escape reality, not mirror it? It wouldn’t do, if a new release were entitled: The Convert: follow the trials and tribulations of Mohammed Whodehella (formally John Smith), radicalised over the Internet by boy band ISA (formally Individual Savings Account). From his suburban dwelling in Blackburn, we follow the ‘I can’t believe he could do it’ grade-A student on a soul-searching journey across the Turkish border to Syria, from the slaughterhouse blues of cavernous dwellings to the refugee camps of Christian minorities – an odyssey of pure discovery. Or what about Depression Quest: an interactive game where you play someone living with depression, tackling a series of everyday events such as the precariousness of your mental illness, relationships, jobs and possible treatments. (Actually I tell a lie, the latter is a real game not a virtual construct of this writer’s warped imagination).

Moving on, the point of games is to escape reality not to inhabit a surrogate virtual reality. It’s a generational thing, this obsession with micro-managing every minuscule aspect of our lives: from calorie intake to Facebook friends to our Curriculum Vitae, we have our ‘life paths’ charted and graded from birth to death, and this culture even transmutes into the virtual realm. Ask your self how many hours of your ‘precious life’ you’ve spent cooking or organising your ‘home’ in Skyrim? Or what about The Sims, which is practically an alternative life – with all the really boring bits – for those sad enough to play it. Even Football Manager feels like a full time job, with the charts, meetings, sackings and financial budgets; don’t we have enough of that prosaic banality in our real lives? Perhaps not, especially if you’re an obsessive compulsive, desperate for more.

So what is it that attracts people to living these bizarre and often tedious virtual realities? Who knows, maybe life really is that dull; but if it is, it’s only because we choose it to be. Are we all slowly being mutated into automatons; calculated droids unable to pass even a few minutes staring into space without catching a quick glimpse of twitter or some other alienating social networking machination, when even our leisure time (a supposed hiatus from all the life-tedium) is spent charting, organising, and budgeting – in the virtual? Think about all those hundreds of management-game Apps, played by millions of commuters on the way home from an ugly 8-hour stretch at the office.

So where does all this leave us? The late veteran gamer Robin Williams said that: “Reality is just a crutch for people who can’t handle drugs.” Quite, but for a lot of us the new drug is the virtual realm, whether it be our phones, tablets, consoles, dating sites or internet pornography; and no doubt in the near future we’ll be strapping some sort of contraption across our faces, sticking microchips in our brains, accessing the internet through our cerebral cortex or whatever it’s called, living in virtual ignorant bliss. But until then, I’ve got the real laundry to do, got to pay my real bills and really wake up to go to work; oh and need to arrange my virtual library in Skyrim. Where do I find the time?

Are video games a waste of time?

“Video games are a waste of time for men with nothing else to do. Real brains don’t do that,” said science fiction writer and master of narrative Ray Bradbury. Admittedly he was writing in the 1980s when games consisted of a square bouncing around a screen, but he has a point doesn’t he? As past-times go it’s a pretty ineffectual way of passing the time isn’t it? What did you do today? Umm… I sat in my underwear guiding a yellow ball with a mouth around a maze eating yellow dots trying to avoid other balls that wanted to eat me. But if you have nothing else to do with your life, why not? Yet if Bradbury was writing about video games today he’d be completely wrong, and not only wrong but snobbish. Nowadays intelligent narrative, solid scripts and voice acting are taking centre stage, and in some cases are even better than film.

Read the rest here at Gamersftw.co.uk