I’m as relieved as anyone that we seem now to have left the period of COVID lockdowns behind us, but, as hard as 2020 and 2021 were, there were a few silver linings. For me, one of the most fun – and unexpected – things to have happened during those gloomy and uncertain times was that I found myself spending hours and hours playing video games for more or less the first time in my adult life. In fact, it was mainly just one game: the ancient Egypt-themed Assassin’s Creed Origins. Not only did I buy the game and a console to play it on, after a while I found myself a part of a university-funded public engagement project exploring the use of such games as a way of sharing expertise in, in fact teaching, Egyptology.
The Step Pyramid enclosure at Saqqara as depicted in Assassin’s Creed Origins.
The project was called Playing in the Past (PITP). It’s two years now since I first got interested in the game, and around a year since our final public session. Since then, the game has frequently been mentioned to me by people who knew about the project and my involvement, and by others who didn’t. ‘Have you ever heard of Assassin’s Creed Origins? I think you’d love it…’. Well now I can say, ‘Yes, I have and in fact, since you ask…’
It occurred to me that it would be good to be able to gather together some of the resources we produced and other stuff that arose from the project so that anyone interested can find them easily enough, and as a way of capturing something I thoroughly enjoyed working on, and am proud to have been associated with.
So how did this come about?
In summer 2020 I was finalising the text for a book about Cleopatra for children (which was published earlier this year in fact – Cleopatra Tells All!) and was looking for visualizations of the Ptolemaic city for the illustrator, Guilherme Karsten.
One of Jean-Claude Golvin’s superb reconstruction drawings of ancient Alexandria. Taken from https://jeanclaudegolvin.com/en/project/egypt/ JEAN-CLAUDE GOLVIN COPYRIGHT © 2018
I was familiar with the brilliant reconstructions drawn by Jean-Claude Golvin (many examples are available via his superb website, and in his books, including Voyage en Égypte ancienne), but otherwise what kept coming up when I searched for images online were screen shots from Assassin’s Creed. Initially, I was inclined to ignore them – because I’m not a gamer, I don’t have access to the game and it’s just not for me. But then I kept seeing them, and they seemed to be quite good… And in fact I do like my gadgets and as I started reading about the game I became aware that it incorporated a ‘Discovery Tour’ in which you could just walk around the virtual ancient landscapes without having to play the game. I was always terrible at video games when I was young, which perhaps explains why I had then avoided them in my adult life, but if I could just walk around without having to worry about being virtually shot or killed, then well, I would certainly be interested in walking around a virtual Ptolemaic Alexandria, especially if it was done well.
So I posted this tweet:
One of the people who saw my tweet was Egyptologist and gamer, Gemma Renshaw and to cut a long story short Gemma offered to show me round AC Origins’ virtual Alexandria via a livestream – she would play the game and share her screen via a video call so she could also talk me through what she was doing and I could ask questions or yelp with excitement when a recognisable ancient monument came into view (The lighthouse!! The Heptastadion!!). We were also joined by my very good friend Dr Kate Sheppard of Missouri University of Science and Technology. In fact by the time of the virtual tour I had spent so much time eyeing up games consoles online that I had decide to buy my own – an Xbox One – so I could play the game myself, and had been stumbling my way through the game for a few days by the time Gemma, who is very good at these things, stepped in to show how it should be done.
Both Kate and I were completely blown away by the game: by how rich the virtual world was, and by the attention to detail: the virtual Alexandria had clearly been designed according to the textual and archaeological evidence, with all the gaps in the evidence filled in with what seemed like very reasonable conjecture.
Looking out across the harbour at Alexandria towards the famous lighthouse on the island of Pharos.
The textures were astoundingly realistic – the stone of the roadways and grander buildings, the mud brick of the ordinary houses, the fabric of the flags, carpets and drapes, the green of the grasses and scrub, the waters of the harbour and ocean beyond, the way the shadows play on the pavement as the palm leaves blow in the wind… I could go on – there is just so much to look at and enjoy in the game, just by walking around. Paving stones and walls didn’t look too perfect or brand new – an ideal the designers could have realised but avoided in favour of a city showing signs of wear and tear, a little crumbling stonework here and there, or tufts of grass emerging from cracks in the pavements – probably much closer to the reality of late Ptolemaic Alexandria, a city almost three centuries old by this point.
Exploring the streets of Alexandria in the AC Origins Discovery Tour.
Your avatar (a dastardly-looking Ptolemy XIII in the above two images, but there are lots of others to choose from) could walk, run or gallop around on horseback, apparently without ever finding the edge of this virtual world, and you could summon up an eagle to fly you around should you want a bird’s eye view. As time went by the daylight changed and night eventually fell – the cycle of night and day went round far quicker than it would in real life but still gradually enough to feel natural, and the changes gave the city a different feel with shadows coming and going, and torches lighting the streets after dark.
My friendly eagle, Senu, flying over the main east-west street in ancient Alexandria, the Canopic Way, after dark in AC Origins.
Both Kate and I found the whole thing utterly engrossing, and I loved exploring on my own with my new toy.
Jean Claude Golvin’s reconstructions were well-known to me partly through his books but also because they are so frequently used by Egyptologists in their books and lectures to show what ancient sites would have looked like (in fact a large-scale bird’s eye view of the centre of Alexandria by Golvin is on display in the National Museum of Antiquities in Alexandria). AC Origins seemed to take the idea of reconstructing an ancient place to the next level however, by presenting it on a far grander scale, and allowing you to move through the landscape, which you can hear as well as see, and which the designers of the game have populated with the ancient inhabitants for you to interact with (or bump into as I do – they’re not shy in telling you what they think of that).
By this point, I’d got all the visual material I could ever have wanted for the book I was working on, and I was enjoying my experience of playing video games in almost 30 years. This was more than I could ever have hoped for but Gemma already had bigger plans. She suggested that we host a live tour of the game for an audience online which we did in September 2020 (which was very much the year for hosting events online of course). Gemma took us around Alexandria, but also Giza and Saqqara both of which look incredible in the game. Kate and I chipped in here and there with non-gamer comments about how Egypt was presented, and quite a few ‘oohs’ and ‘wows’ along the way too. The session was recorded so rather than describe it at length I’ll just let you watch – a few highlights are here:
Spurred on by the success of this first event, and having long been interested in the use of history-based video games as a way helping people to learn about the past, Gemma proposed that we do something on a grander scale. In the weeks that followed, she devised a project to be called ‘Playing in the Past’, and applied for funding made available by Southampton University (where she’s doing a PhD on the archive of the pioneer early 19th century Egyptologist, Robert Hay) for public engagement in archaeology. And much to our excitement, she succeeded.
An advert for the first official PITP session.
During the first half of 2021, Gemma organised six ‘Playing in the Past’ sessions, based on the model established by our first event. Each took the form of a virtual tour, of a particular part of the landscape in the game that would allow a specially invited expert to discuss a particular aspect of Egypt in the ancient past and the way the game represents it.
By this point Gemma had also brought very considerable technical expertise to the project: the sessions were broadcast online via her channel on the Twitch platform, and viewers would be able to see the game being played, and a little thumbnail image of Gemma, me and/or Kate as co-hosts, and our expert. Our experts also began the sessions with a short presentation before the gameplay began.
Although Gemma, as the expert gamer, was usually the one to take the controls of the game, she allowed me to take the reins during the first session – ‘A Visit to Ptolemaic Thebes’ – which was very kind and trusting of her, and if nothing else probably added an element of humour to the proceedings as I bashed into the people and temples of the ancient city… A recording of this session is here:
And in case it’s of any interest, the slides – which include a few images of sites as they appear in real life today, and as they appear in the game for comparison – from my presentation at the start are here.
Slide from my presentation showing the temples of Deir el-Bahri as they appear in real life in the 21st century…
…and the temples as they appear in AC Origins.
The other sessions in the series, which in all cases were hosted by Gemma, were as follows:
‘How to live forever. Death and the afterlife in ancient Egypt’ with Dr Carrie Arbuckle MacLeod
‘From Potter’s Wheel to Baker’s Oven’ with Dr Sarah K Doherty
‘Who Lived in Ptolemaic Egypt?’ with Heba Abd El Gawad
‘Visions of Ancient Egypt in the 19th Century: Boats and Travel on the Nile’ with Ziad Morsy. Kate also gave a presentation at the start of this one.
‘Visualising a Living and Immersive Ancient World’ with Professor Stephanie Moser (University of Southampton) and Maxime Durand (Ubisoft)
It just so happened that during 2020 I had been introduced online to Kelly Evans, an Egyptophile who works in media relations. Kelly had offered to help with anything that I wanted to publicise so when I mentioned that ‘Playing in the Past’ was now a university-funded public engagement project Kelly set to work looking for interest from the press. And being great at what she does, she succeeded. The project was covered in Games Radar (‘New Twitch series will teach you about ancient Egypt by exploring Assassin’s Creed: Origins‘), Video Game Almanac, the Southern Daily Echo (‘Southampton student exploring ancient Egypt using video game‘) and, most excitingly of all, by Ubisoft, the French company that designed the game. The three of us were interviewed by Youssef Maguid, who by happy coincidence is Egyptian himself, for a piece entitled ‘Why Three Egyptologists Are Teaching History Through Assassin’s Creed Origins’ which was published on Ubisoft’s website in March 2021.
By this point we were of course convinced ourselves of the value of the game as a means of engaging with an audience and sharing our Egyptological expertise, in ‘teaching’ in other words. We were huge fans of the game and utterly inspired by the obvious lengths to which Ubisoft had gone to ensure the world inside the game was as accurate as it could be, and wherever possible based on good solid evidence and expertise, calling on a number of expert colleagues of ours. (For more on the development of the game see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assassin’s_Creed_Origins). The game’s ‘discovery tour’ was a clear attempt to use the game for educational purposes, so it was obvious that Ubisoft had hoped the game might be used for such purposes. Still it was a great thrill that they would want to share our project with their (massive) audience; I certainly felt that their interest helped to validate what we were doing, and perhaps they felt that we had provided a little extra validation for that aspect of what they were trying to achieve too.
Gemma cannily capitalised on the relationship by inviting Maxime Durand, World-Design Director at Ubisoft, who worked on AC Origins to join the panel for the final session in the PITP series. Gemma, Kate, Maxime and I were also joined by Professor Stephanie Moser of the University of Southampton, one of the world’s leading scholars in the reception of ancient Egypt. It was the perfect panel and the perfect way to end the series, and you can watch it back here:
As I said at the start my aim in posting this piece is mainly just to capture what was a really fun project and a very memorable part of the strange period of the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021, and to gather together all the related material that now exists online, especially the recorded versions of the PITP sessions and the interview we did with Ubisoft. And very importantly, this also gives me an opportunity to say a few thank yous:
To Gemma, for offering to run the first virtual tour, which led to me buying my first games console since Christmas 1992(!) and spending hours and hours in the incredible world of AC Origins, and most importantly, for having the idea for the much grander project and the determination and expertise to make it happen. Thank you Gemma and very well done!
To Kate, for a tonne of expertise, for joining in, thereby making me not the only non-gamer on the team, and just generally for helping to make the whole thing so much fun.
It’s not really my place to do the thank yous for the project but I can’t help but mention all the expert contributors, Carrie, Sarah, Heba, Ziad, Maxime and Stephanie for giving up their time and sharing such a wide variety of insights into various aspects of ancient Egypt, and the way it is portrayed in modern times, especially in the game.
And to everyone who came along to the sessions and contributed questions, comments and encouraging noises. We wouldn’t have got anywhere if we hadn’t known there was interest out there online in what we were doing. Thank you!
I should also acknowledge that while it’s true that PITP attracted a bit of attention for using a video game as an educational tool we were by no means the first or only ones to have done anything like this, and indeed there is a growing body of academic discourse and literature about the intersection between archaeology and ancient history and gaming. I am by no means the expert but to learn more you could do worse than to search for the hashtags #archaeogaming and, of course, #playinginthepast on Twitter.
Now back to real life! (Or perhaps to the game…).