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Rome wasn't built in a weekend

I bought myself a copy of CivCity: Rome in mid-April, but hadn't dared play it until I knew I had some proper free time to devote to it. This weekend, I've been finding out how wise that policy was!

It's actually quite frightening how compelling it is. I started playing yesterday evening at around 9pm, and the next thing I knew, it was 2:40 in the morning. Then today, I started again around 1ish. I knew the afternoon was slipping by, and because I'd got up late I hadn't any lunch, so was starting to feel a bit crappy. "Penny, you really must stop this - I bet it's gone 4," I said to myself. Try gone 6.

Right now, that's OK, because I really can afford to spend a weekend playing with it. I can enjoy letting it be a time-sink, because wasting time is precisely what I want to do this weekend. I also suspect that, even now I've tried it, I'll find I don't actually want to play when I have proper, worky things that need doing, because I don't like the guilt that comes from wasting time like that. Just getting on with the work feels better than the guilt of avoiding it. But it's obviously something I'll need to treat a bit carefully, now the bug has bitten.

From this, you might gather that I rather liked it. OK, so it may not be a perfect recreation of Roman city development. But within the parameters of the sort of game it is, they've done a bloody good job. Their bakeries have hour-glass shaped corn-mills, just like the ones at Pompeii, and you can watch them being driven round by horses, just like on the Eurysaces relief. Their insulae have shops in the bottom storey, their temples have cult statues inside and their children are taught by a grammaticus. And my icon alone (a medieval copy of a late Roman drawing from a manual on how to found cities) shows that the Romans would readily have recognised the idea of a whole city with a population in the thousands being represented by a few key buildings. In short, someone has done some research.

Their main tripping-point is with names and Latin terms - fairly understandable, given that these must be completely alien to the average computer game designer. For instance, game money is counted in denarii, which is great. But every now and then, a character pops up saying how the priests in the Temple of Diana are making 'a denarii or two' these days. Which is just annoying, because that should be singular, and the singular of denarii is denarius. And don't even talk to me about the way the voice-overs pronounce words like 'aedile' or 'quaestor'... Add to that a bizarre synchronic blending of historical periods, so that emperors are marrying horses while Hannibal is coming over the Alps, and architectural oddities such as aqueducts which somehow suck water up out of rivers to bring to the city, rather than gathering it from a spring somewhere higher and then letting gravity do its work, and yes - you can pick flies. But when the game-play is so involving, and they've so obviously tried to get the basic historical veneer right, I'm not complaining.

What seems odd to me, though, is that it would have taken someone like me only a couple of days to go through all those little details (especially if they were presented to me systematically, rather than through game-play) and set them straight. And I'd have done it for £500 or less, and considered myself lucky to have the opportunity. Presumably, that's peanuts in proportion to the overall budget for the game, and would have given them the right to put phrases like 'historically accurate' and 'based on historical research' on the box - which things like Rome: Total Realism show there is a market for, and their own inclusion of a 'Civilopedia' so that players can read up on the historical background of the game suggests they are interested in doing.

So why didn't they do it? I can only assume that the answer lies in a lack of awareness of the opportunities for dialogue, both in the computer games industry and in Universities. As I say, they obviously did some research, but as far as I can tell, the main people involved in this aspect of the game (Casimir C. Windsor and Stephen Pomphrey) are games-industry researchers with a fairly broad expertise - not professional historians. By the looks of the Civilopedia, they picked up the Kids' Big Bumper Book of Illustrated Roman History, maybe Googled a bit, and generally did their best. Either it never occurred to them to check things over with a specialist, or they thought of it, but assumed on the analogy of consultancy work in science and technology subjects that it would cost the earth.

And if that's the case, then it means that we on the academic side of the equation aren't quite doing our jobs right, either. Because part of the function of Universities is to impart knowledge - not just to each other and to our own students, but to society in general. We call it 'Knowledge Transfer' - and it's something the games industry should understand, because Universities often play exactly that role in civilisation-type games - 'researching' new developments which will improve your society at large. And a case like this game (as indeed a crummy documentary, a silly swords and sandals epic or the myth of the vomitorium) shows that we're not doing it successfully enough.

To be fair, we are trying. Knowledge Transfer is certainly a buzz phrase at Leeds, and by the looks of it at many other UK Universities too. And the increasing interest in popular receptions of Classical culture shows that historians in my own field are becoming more and more actively concerned with how ideas about the ancient world are mediated, morphed and disseminated outside the world of academia. Hell, the very idea that we should be getting more involved with the way computer games in particular represent the ancient world was a major theme of the CA panel on this topic which inspired me to buy this game in the first place.

So the right sort of noises are beginning to be made on the academic side, and the interest is clearly flourishing on the gaming side. We just need to stretch our hands out - that - little - bit - further...

Comments

( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
dakegra
May. 12th, 2007 10:11 pm (UTC)
So why didn't they do it?

time, effort involved, probably, coupled with the fact that for 99% of their target audience, they were close enough that no-one would notice the difference, sadly.

Game sounds intriguing, though I'm crap at such things. :-)
strange_complex
May. 13th, 2007 12:56 am (UTC)
Yes, I'm sure that was much of it. I know these things come up pretty tight against their deadlines as it is, usually.

I'm definitely enjoying it. So far I haven't actually got to do any building of Rome, but rather worked my way through a series of missions either building from scratch or revitalising various cities in the empire. You concentrate on your own town, but get to do things like establish trading routes from it, and I think in some missions also defend it from attack.

Basically, exactly what I've always wanted in a computer game!
megamole
May. 13th, 2007 12:38 pm (UTC)
I believe I showed you Rome: Total Realism at some point, yesno?

(Though I always played the Pontics or Seleucids just so I could stuff the Romans).
strange_complex
May. 13th, 2007 12:50 pm (UTC)
I don't think you actually showed it to me on screen, but I do know about it. That's not really my kind of game, as I'm not much into fighting games. But I do appreciate the fact that people have put so much effort into creating an 'accurate' version, and I ought to have a proper look at it some time.
edling
May. 14th, 2007 04:30 pm (UTC)
R:TW is actually perfectly playable without doing any of the fighty bits at all- you can just press a button that automatically decides who wins a battle and play it entirely as a strategic game if you want- it quite possibly still isn't really your cup of tea, but it's probably a lot closer to the sort of thing you'd like than actually playing through all the battles.
I really ought to look at R:TR at some point, but I'm having too much fun with Medieval 2 at the moment.
strange_complex
May. 14th, 2007 04:58 pm (UTC)
Oh, I didn't know that about the battles. What a clever idea on the part of the game designers. I presume there is actually quite a lot to it apart from battles, then? I'd assumed it was mainly that from what I'd heard that.

Well, I may give it a go some time, but I'm afraid I am too busy trying to nurture the good city of Crete to an appropriate level of sophistication at the moment!
ashavah
May. 12th, 2007 11:22 pm (UTC)
I really love history-based computer games, especially when they make attempts at historical accuracy. It was really interesting to read your perspective on them. Thank you!
strange_complex
May. 13th, 2007 12:57 am (UTC)
This one really is particularly ace. I mean, there are a lot more mistakes in it besides the ones I've listed here. But for what it is - 10 out of 10.
ashavah
May. 13th, 2007 02:28 am (UTC)
I've been looking at that game for a while, in fact. Now I have one more reason to buy it!
strange_complex
May. 13th, 2007 10:53 am (UTC)
After your thesis, though! You can make it be a reward for finishing. :)
steer
May. 13th, 2007 10:21 am (UTC)
I'm always on the look out for new games. What makes this better than other city builders like the Caesar series.

I think the whole Civilopedia thing in games comes from Sid Meier's Civilisation which was very influential.
strange_complex
May. 13th, 2007 10:52 am (UTC)
Well, this is from the Civilisation stable, so that makes sense. I guess they are just continuing their own tradition.

As for comparing it to games like Caesar, I'm afraid I can't help there, as I've never played Caesar. But I had the impression a player was responsible for several cities at once in Caesar, whereas with this it is purely the one city (though successive missions might require you to leave that city behind and take up 'governorship' of another one).
steer
May. 13th, 2007 12:25 pm (UTC)
No... they had you building one city... well, I suppose you usually started building a new city on the next "level"
strange_complex
May. 13th, 2007 12:36 pm (UTC)
I guess it must be pretty similar, then. It does say some stuff on the box about how the ability to look inside the buildings, and follow the lives of individual families within the city is new and exciting, though, so maybe that's what they're trying to offer which others haven't. Also, the graphics seem to me extremely impressive - but then, as I say, I don't play many of these sorts of games, so I don't really know how they compare with others.
steer
May. 13th, 2007 01:16 pm (UTC)
Do you ever play any of the period war games? I'm thinking of things like turn-based hex games like "Great battles of caesar"

http://uk.gamespot.com/pc/strategy/greatbattlesofcaesar/review.html?om_act=convert&om_clk=gssummary&tag=summary;review

They're not the most immediately compelling games to most people (slow to pick up and not easy to learn). I rather like them and would be interested to know how "authentic" they are.
strange_complex
May. 13th, 2007 02:13 pm (UTC)
Well, from the write-up you link to, it sounds like the historical context is pretty accurate. I'm afraid I really don't 'do' war-games, though, so I can't comment much on them generally. CivCity: Rome is literally the first 'proper' computer game I've played for over five years (not counting cute little puzzle games like Minesweeper or Boomshine, which I have rather a weakness for!).
strange_complex
May. 13th, 2007 10:41 pm (UTC)
Wow - that does look good! I can see I'm going to have to steer well clear of it, for time-sink reasons. (Your link was borked, by the way, but it just needed the stuff before the second 'http' taking out).
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )

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