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CivCity: Rome: Simulation, Interactivity, and the Experience of Being Roman

*Please note that this is not meant to evaluate how fun this game is, but rather its educational merits and relevance to art history (and not necessarily precise historical accuracy, either).

I. Introduction

The interaction between architecture and ancient imperial Roman society spans many different levels of social history, from the nature of everyday life, both commercial and domestic, to the long-term planning of urban spaces. To gain a better understanding of how the buildings and spaces in which ancient Romans lived and operated shaped and influenced their culture and society, one must understand how the public spaces and architecture functioned, how they were built (by whom and for whom), and how they affected those who worked and lived within them.[1]

Cities in ancient imperial Rome were designed for pedestrians and physical proximity, and as such, the urban areas containing public buildings such as businesses, the forum, theaters, and baths saw much intermingling between various classes. Cities were built carefully, arranged with grid-like patterns, conveying a sense of order. However, not all cities were granted the same status. The Romans categorized cities in a hierarchical fashion in order of importance, mirroring the hierarchy of rank among its citizens and dwellers. Favored Roman colonies that were granted tax exemption were followed by other colonies which were not granted such privileges. Municipalities followed them, and finally, the outlying cities and villages existed, living under their own cultural customs and laws.[2] What did this all mean for the daily lives of those who existed in different strata of city, and how is this reflected in video games whose main concept is designed around the functioning of ancient Roman colonies? Did buildings that fall under the same typology function similarly in different cities? How did the public spaces differ from each other in different colonies? How did the buildings and monuments reflect the desires of the individuals who commissioned them in expressing power and identity? Is this something that a video game can express and expand upon?

There are numerous video games focusing on giving a player the chance to experience ancient Roman cities and architecture: what they looked like, what they were constructed of, and even what it might have been like to serve as a city-planner. CivCity: Rome is one such game in which players are given the chance to either strategically build a functioning ancient Roman city, sandbox style, or partake in various missions that involve governing civic functions to help out particular cities or colonies in trouble. By comparing how this game presents and defines ancient Roman monuments, spaces, and other architectural features in comparison to their actual physical counterparts, one may gain a better understanding as to the insights and problems, that a game like CivCity: Rome may provide for the understanding of Roman architecture, social history, and those who had the power to plan and build. More importantly, it will reveal the answer to the main question I wish to pose: Does the interface of CivCity: Rome allow for a player to experience how these monuments and spaces shaped what is known of ancient Roman social history in a way that may grant more insight than a textual or literary source? To explore this question further, the interactions between history, digital media, and video game theory must be consulted.

II. Video Game Theory

Tom Taylor, a scholar of history, states that the relationships between historical phenomena and causation may be understood in a more complex way through digital media, of which video games are a subset. He outlines the three characteristics of this medium that contribute to understanding as “interactivity, representation of complex process in a dynamic, visual and integrated manner, and presentation of the past as it was experienced by those who lived it.”[3] On the surface, a video game such as CivCity: Rome seems to attempt to offer up all of those factors. As with other video games that strive to recreate historical circumstance, CivCity: Rome references historical knowledge in its creation of an interface that attempts to duplicate a Roman city, considering everything from buildings to fashion to religion. However, an examination of actual game-play, or how the interface of the game allows the player to interact with the information and visuals will reveal if this is the case.

In the early stages of game development, video games have been approached by the industry as extensions of both narrative and drama, much like film. Gonzalo Frasca, a scholar of video game theory, argues that this model does not realize the full potential of video games with relation to the learning of any given subject. He states that “video games are not just based on representation but on an alternative semiotical structure known as simulation.”[4] While he agrees that narratives and simulation share some common elements such as settings and events, he states that their mechanics are fundamentally different, and that each offers its own distinct rhetorical device. Using traditional semiotics and literary theory to explore the realm of simulation is problematic, because video games that incorporate simulation are not just made of sign sequences, but operate as machines of sign generators. Frasca then turns to “simulation semiotics,” or simiotics, to further explain video game simulation. He states that simulation not only retains the characteristics of an object, but also models its behaviors in an interactive environment, unlike narrative in film or literary sources. Video games offer to a player the chance not only to interpret an object (much like film or books), but to also manipulate and influence an object.[5] In the case of historical video games, importance is placed not just on accuracy, but also the dynamics in which social history has been framed. A player may “live” the experience (to an extent) of an ancient Roman bathhouse through a video game in ways not possible when being exposed to a narration or the presentation of one in other sources.

What does manipulation and influence in a video game mean for the player’s relationship to an object or experience? Torben Grodal, a scholar of media studies explains:

Video games may have some high-order motivations, but for a series of reasons games will often also have a strong focus on the execution of low-level (sub)goals like simple navigation and handling processes. An intro to the game may provide the superior motivation, say, to crush an evil empire, and this will provide motivation for the lower-order processes.[6]

In short, the player will have an emotional and embodied experience with the simulation of gameplay, based on the motivations that the interface and story of the game provide. This may very well prove to be the vehicle through which a player is allowed to experience in an embodied fashion the role of an emperor or civic leadership figure, furthering the understanding of the creation of ancient Roman social identities and power structures through simulated and interactive construction.

Claudio Fogu, a historian with interests in the relationships between continental philosophy and visual culture, contextualizes and defines the purpose of historical gaming. He states that historical games “replace representation with simulation and presence with virtuality,” and allow “history to replace poetry and philosophy as the realm of the possible.”[7] This conclusion might explain the eagerness of some historians to embrace digitalization, or video games more specifically, as they allow for more complex analyses of historical subjects. Video games which focus on historical themes or subjects encourage a shift (from literary models) from issues of representation to experiences of interactivity and “sensory immersion” that attempt to redefine history as “the experience of the virtually past.”[8] This shift may be better explained in a case study.

Taylor describes such a study in which his students played the empire-building game Civilization in addition to learning Paul M. Kennedy’s theories concerning shifting global powers. While the game is not designed to be a replication of Kennedy’s argument, the students noted that the game helped them to “see and experience Kennedy’s arguments.”[9] Instead of remaining static, factors such as geography, technology, and leadership style became interactive and visual learning tools that fit within Kennedy’s model. Not only did the students get to experience Kennedy’s theories, but they also became active participants in the construction of the model itself. The motivation to succeed within the game was carried out by a bodily and interactive experience with the game interface, and influenced by the learning of Kennedy’s theoretical model. A video game such as Civilization does not simply invite a player to participate in the recreation of historical events, but allows one to interact with both historical processes and experience theoretical models in an engaging and visual way.[10] Can it do the same when faced with a more narrowly-focused building simulation concerning the cities of Rome? Does a game which focuses on a more narrow and precise building concept open up even more possibilities for experiencing these theoretical models? An overview of the functions and motivations for Roman architecture and city-planning with relation to social history will help lay the foundation for such a study.

III. Roman Culture, City Planning, and Identity

“I found Rome of clay; I leave it to you of marble.”[11]

While this quote – genuine or otherwise – may have captured the spirit of the emperor Augustus and his successors, the city of clay (brick) still survived in what Lionel Casson, a scholar of travel in the ancient world, called “middle- and lower-class quarters.” [12] Near the forum, the Senate House, the temples, and the spacious colonnades were spaces that contained blocks of cramped apartment houses, shops, and buildings of flats that reached four stories or more.[13] Since there was much intermingling of classes within urban areas, the understanding of shared public spaces may grant more insight as to the lives of both the elite and the common.

James C. Anderson, Jr., a scholar of Roman architecture and archaeology, states that public buildings in the ancient Roman Empire fall into three categories: sacred (religious), civic or municipal, and recreational (entertainment).[14] He also states that in traditional architectural scholarship, one would generally separate the sacred from the civic and the recreational, and lump the latter two together into one topic called “public.” However, in studying architecture as a reflection of a particular society, it may be more helpful to study each space as a distinct part of a greater whole.[15] For instance, a forum and a bathhouse would have served entirely different purposes, and grouping such spaces together as one topic may be problematic for the understanding of their relation to both each other and the people who functioned within them.

Roman cities housed a great deal of specialized public buildings and spaces, ranging from structures utilized for entertainment to honorific monuments. Building aesthetics and functions then, just as now, were affected by both the economy and political environment.[16] However, as Mark Jones, an architectural historian states, the details of such interactions between ancient society and architecture are best found in the study of the actual monuments and buildings. He also raises the issue of interpretation. New art history is becoming aware of the problems of the subjective, and as such, one should be aware of the distinction between context and the historically probable when attempting to determine how the study of ancient buildings frame social history.[17]

Eve D’Ambra, an art historian specializing in antiquity, defines a relationship between Roman cities and culture. She states that the Roman Empire consisted of many cities connected by a network of roads. It was arguably the first civilization in the ancient western world to have such an urban landscape, and as such, the creation and planning of Roman cities served as the building blocks for culture and identity. Public buildings and structures such as those for administration, theaters, baths, aqueducts, and fora were placed in each city and conquered territory, assimilating those newly under Roman rule, and serving as attractants for others. Monuments were erected by imperial figures to display and solidify their identity and power.[18] The emperor was viewed as the embodiment of Rome (the empire), and Roman culture was found in its network of cities, each modeled in some fashion after the original capital city, Rome.

Naturally, ancient Romans were highly aware of the concept of city planning. O. F. Robinson, a scholar of ancient Roman law, states that Roman authorities were attuned to the effects of city planning on the individual. However, it was not the governing body that planned out each building and monument, as emperors and private citizens also individually commissioned these works of art.[19] Whether the purpose of erecting a new monument or public building was to create an identity or reinforce the power of the imperial cult, or perhaps both, these structures that constitute the Roman city directly affected the social lives of those who lived within its borders.

IV. CivCity: Rome and the Interactive Experience of an Emperor

CivCity: Rome places its players in an interactive space, one that has the potential to allow a player to experience theoretical models of how Roman cities were built, planned, and what effects these might have had on those who dwelled within their boundaries. Can experiencing in a video game the direct effects that the building of monuments, public spaces, and infrastructures had on the social framework and cultural identities of ancient Roman peoples place the player in the position of a virtual emperor, or one whose power and identity were marked by these structures? Taylor’s case study describes a situation in which students were able to better understand the theoretical models surrounding global powers by playing Civilization, a game that interactively simulates the expansion of ancient civilizations. Can the embodied and interactive experience that a player has within a game such as CivCity: Rome, one that places motivation on the completion of goals such as expanding a city through planning and building, further the understanding of the motivations of those who used buildings and public spaces to create an identity and solidify power? Or does this understanding fall directly into line with the experience of learning information through other sources? A description of the flow of game-play in CivCity: Rome contrasted with the previously discussed historical and video game theory models reveal the dynamics of interactivity that a player may experience.[20]

Immediately after loading the game, a player will have access to many functions. Before actual game-play, a player may access the game’s Civilopedia, which serves as an encyclopedia for many of the game’s objects, themes, and functions. This Civilopedia hosts many interesting facts and visuals concerning the architecture and social history of ancient Rome. While revealing nothing about the mechanics of actual game-play, the information found in the Civilopedia provides a useful backdrop to Roman culture. Players may click on topics (which are represented as visuals) to learn more about Roman entertainment, housing, food, economics, and even marriage. This textual and visual display provides a framework for linking the functions of Roman buildings to the activities that may have taken place within them, and serves to assist a player in visualizing and conceptualizing important aspects of daily life for Romans. The Civilopedia is not a necessary task that players may undergo (they may skip straight to game-play and ignore this function entirely), but it offers much basic information that supports objects that are utilized during game-play nonetheless. As players progress through the game, they will also find that the Civilopedia is available as a reference tool during campaigns.

When actual game-play is initiated, players are given two options: to embark on a campaign that consists of various pre-set missions, or to simply start building a city. The campaign is meant to be played first, and also serves as a tutorial, teaching new players about the many goals, sub-goals, and achievements that CivCity: Rome has set up for completion. The various tasks that players may complete to reach these goals are outlined in the various levels of the campaign. It becomes apparent after the first few tutorial levels that the campaign is designed to place a player in the position of one who is striving to be a leader. The in-game motivations to complete tasks are based on a desire to gain recognition from the capital city, Rome, and also encourage a player to create a self that is attempting to build individual power and prestige.[21] While there is no actual avatar for a player to complete actions through, there are various visual and dialogue-oriented cues that strongly imply the role of the player as one whose ambition is to become a civic leader.

Creating this role (and ultimate goal) for a player in the campaign levels is achieved by a combination of narrative, dialogue, the revealing of sub-goals to the player, and direct interaction from the player. The first mission in the campaign begins in Lavinium, which is not represented as a city, but as open terrain, or the site for a potential city. It is interesting that the campaign should start with this location, as Lavinium is the city that the mythical Aeneas was said to have founded.[22] While the game does not seem to imply that the player is a mythical figure, as Rome seems to already exist in the game at this point, it nonetheless provides a location that is tied to pre-Roman mythical tradition.[23] The player is then told of their objective during this mission: to settle the terrain, build stone camps, and deliver a shipment of stone to Rome. The player’s in-game advisor, Gaius Peitonus,[24] states that this mission will help support the enterprising capital city of Rome, and also implies that this area was recently acquired by Rome, setting the player up as one sent by (or designated by) the empire to begin colonization efforts. The player must then perform several actions if he or she is to complete the mission successfully.

These actions include planning out a very basic city-structure. The player is provided with various buildings, roads, and other structures that he or she may place onto the terrain. Each structure serves a specific purpose within the game, and while most are self-explanatory on the surface (a warehouse will store goods, a well provides water), there are also combinations of relationships that arise due to interactions between structures. For example, if a shack, which is a basic housing unit, is within proximity of a set of structures that may provide its inhabitants with luxury goods such as olive oil and wine, or services such as education and religion, the wealth of the shack will increase and it will eventually “upgrade” to a hut. The more goods and services that are provided to the families within these housing units will also cause more upgrades to occur. It is possible for a shack to eventually become an insulae (an apartment building that may also house shops), a domus (a small private house), and eventually, a villa (a large house usually located outside of the urban center of a city).[25] Players must also make sure to provide jobs, food, protection, and entertainment, all in the form of structures, or these “upgrades” will not occur. For example, building a farm provides food, jobs, and goods for trade. While this model of simulation may not turn out to be particularly historically accurate, as players may manipulate game mechanics to create a “perfect” city with equal access and no poverty, it nonetheless provides a player with a basic idea of the type of city-planning that a civic leader must be aware of for a Roman colony to successfully function. If a city is lacking several structures that provide services or goods, for instance, its inhabitants will become unhappy, riots will ensue, and people will eventually leave.

While the mechanics and game-play of CivCity: Rome at this point may be loosely applicable to any city-building simulation, there are further features of the interface that solidify this game’s attempt to narrowly define a particular culture. After the first few levels of the campaign, a player will be granted access to buildings and structures, that when combined, produce a culturally Roman landscape. Aqueducts, bathhouses, and polytheistic temples eventually become necessities within the cities featured in the campaign. If the multitudes of buildings which keep getting introduced become overwhelming for a player, he or she may always reference their Civilopedia entries to learn more information. As each new specifically Roman building is introduced for a player to utilize, an emphasis is placed on the creation of Roman identities. For example, when the bathhouse is introduced (and citizens taking baths becomes its own sub-goal within a level of the campaign), the player’s advisor states:

Now we must breathe some civilization into your streets and show Rome what you have achieved here. There is no greater mark of civilized man, than to take a regular bath and this is what you will provide for Tarentum. When water flows not only in Rome but into a second city of the empire, our triumph will be complete.[26]

The bathhouse is just one example of a structure that is emphasized within the game as a necessity for a civilized culture. When the bathhouse is introduced, the aqueduct and cistern are as well, and a player must manage the relationship that the combination of these architectural structures produces within the game.[27] The player’s in-game identity as one who is attempting to gain prestige as a leader is continually reinforced, as well as the virtual citizens’ identity as Romans.

What also stands out during game-play with regards to the creation of a Roman identity through city-planning and building are the various interactions with the capital city that a player must undergo, as well as the moments of dialogue that occur with Roman officials or leaders. The first few missions of the campaign all involve establishing trade routes with the capital city, providing Rome with various goods and commodities such as wheat, rock, marble, wood, and wine. As levels progress, Rome starts to make requests of the player, and if these requests are fulfilled, the player is awarded with “empire points,” which raises overall score. It becomes clear that the sub-goals that the player is encouraged to strive for are part of the larger goal of becoming recognized by Rome, not only by providing the capital with goods, but also “Romanizing” the colonies presented in the campaign with combinations of structures such as bathhouses, polytheistic temples, fora (town squares), aqueducts, and eventually, colosseums, theaters, and monumental architectures.[28]

If a player successfully manages to place these combinations of structures so that citizens utilize them and become more Roman, he or she will gain recognition from various advisors from Rome. One mission in Capena involves building temples to various polytheistic deities (Diana, Mithras, and Mercury to start) and encouraging citizens to marry. Upon successful completion of this mission, an advisor will meet the player in a bathhouse and confer the title of Quaestor (one who has financial jurisdiction as a representative of the state) upon him or her.[29] Previously, the advisor will have addressed the player simply as a citizen. Upon completion of other missions, a player may obtain the title of Censor (one who oversees the census), a Praetor (a magistrate ranking below Consul), and so forth.[30] The implied objective of the campaign, aside from successfully planning and building Roman cities, is to climb the ranks of the political Roman hierarchy.

While each public structure’s purpose is outlined within the Civilopedia, giving the player an idea of how these buildings functioned within the Roman Empire, their visual qualities and history are not emphasized. Once a player has passed the initial stages of the campaign tutorial, certain monuments and a wider variety of buildings and public structures are available for use. These include colonnades, lavish gardens, fountains, wineries, more temples, and arenas. However, while a player may become acquainted with the basics about how these structures functioned within ancient Rome, their individual historical qualities in the game are de-emphasized in favor of various ratings that determine success on a mission. For example, a theater and a colosseum may have the same value and both grant a player a higher “entertainment” rating, whereas gardens and monuments both boost a player’s “splendor” rating. This contributes to the player organizing these structures within broad conceptual categories if he or she wishes to complete objectives. However, this may be helpful when attempting to visualize general theoretical models concerning city planning and identity in ancient Rome.

An interesting aspect of the use of structures to increase ratings include the game’s presentation of monuments. There are various monuments that a player may build at certain points in the game. Each of these monuments requires the collection and utilization of numerous resources, as well as a significant amount of time. One such monument is Trajan’s column, which was originally a commemorative sculpture depicting Rome’s victory over the Dacians.[31] The way the monument may be utilized in the game is bizarre, as players may build it at any time (and as many as they want) to increase their “wonders” rating. In CivCity: Rome, the column does not represent a unique work of art that is meant to showcase Roman military might and identity, but is treated much like standard Roman structures such as bathhouses and theaters, used only to increase ratings and gain attention from the capital city.

V. Conclusion

While CivCity: Rome does not place much importance on relaying to the player an in-depth analysis of the visual qualities of the architectural structures he or she may utilize within the game, it nonetheless attempts to convey to the player through interaction the connections between city-planning, the use of Roman structures (the “Romanization” of colonies), and the creation of a Roman identity to gain power. This game provides a model for how the interactive medium of video games may give players the motivation to complete objectives that contribute to the understanding of theoretical models revolving around city-planning and the structures of identity within the Roman Empire.

However, the structure of this building simulation may also be problematic. While players are given the chance to directly affect the layout of a virtual Roman city, working through an interface that allows a player to experience what it meant to be Roman, they also are allowed to simulate historically inaccurate economical situations. The game’s objectives, which include managing finances to maintain a steady flow of denarii (Roman coinage), allow a player to create an unrealistically wealthy city in which all housing units may become villas.[32] It is not the game’s purpose to be as historically accurate as possible, but it is clear that the mechanics of the game do not allow player interactivity and accurate historical simulation to occur at the same time. Nonetheless, CivCity: Rome does allow a player to experience a rise to power through the city-planning of ancient Roman colonies. It emphasizes identity, or more specifically, what it meant to be a Roman. It also depicts the relation of the capital city to outlying colonies, and how Rome functioned as a network of urban spaces connected by roads.

Ultimately, CivCity: Rome may not serve as a replacement for literary and other textual sources concerning art historical theories about Roman cities and the structures that comprise them, but it can serve as an interactive medium through which these theories are better understood. Much like Taylor’s experience with Civilization, the structure of this city-building simulation reveals how it is possible for video games to provide a virtual experience for players that may help them to understand better the dynamics of ancient Roman urban spaces and the formation of an Roman identity, or more specifically, one who utilizes public structures to gain power within the political framework of the Roman empire.

[1] James C. Anderson Jr., Roman Architecture and Society (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1997), xx-xxii.

[2] D. Brendan Nagle, The Ancient World: A Social and Cultural History (Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006), 340-341.

[3] Tom Taylor, “Historical Simulations and the Future of the Historical Narrative,” Journal of the Association for History and Computing 6 (2003): 1, accessed February 28, 2013. http://quod.lib.umich.edu/j/jahc/3310410.0006.203?rgn=main;view=fulltext.

[4] Gonzalo Frasca, “Simulation versus Narrative,” in The Video Game Theory Reader, ed. Mark J. P. Wolf and Bernard Perron (New York: Routledge, 2003), 221-222.

[5] Frasca, 222-225.

[6] Torben Grodal, “Stories for the Eye, Ear, and Muscles: Video Games, Media, and Embodied Experiences,” in The Video Game Theory Reader, ed. Mark J. P. Wolf and Bernard Perron (New York: Routledge, 2003), 131.

[7] Claudio Fogu, “Digitalizing Historical Consciousness,” History and Theme 47 (2009): 103.

[8] Fogu, 113-114.

[9] Taylor, 1.

[10] Taylor, 1.

[11] Cassius Dio, Roman History 56.30.3

[12] Lionel Casson, Everyday Life in Ancient Rome (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 30-31.

[13] Casson, 30-31.

[14] Anderson Jr., 241.

[15] Anderson Jr., 242.

[16] Frank Sear, Roman Architecture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), 30-31.

[17] Mark Wilson Jones, Principles of Roman Architecture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), 2-4.

[18] Eve D’Ambra, Roman Art (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 59-61.

[19] O. F. Robinson, Ancient Rome: City Planning and Administration (London: Routledge, 1994), 14.

[20] Richard Van Eck, “Building Artificially Intelligent Learning Games,” in Games and Simulations in Online Learning: Research and Development Frameworks, ed. David Gibson and Clark Aldrich (Hershey: Information Science, 2007), 296.

[21] Zach Waggoner, My Avatar, My Self: Identity in Video Role-Playing Games (Jefferson: McFarland, 2009), 9.

[22] Howard H. Scullard, A History of the Roman World: 753 to 146 BC (London: Routledge, 2003), 48-49.

[23] Mary Beard and Simon R. F. Price, Religions of Rome: Volume 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 12.

[24] It may be worth noting that the name of this advisor is suspiciously similar to Gaius Petronius, author of the Satyricon and a courtier during Nero’s reign.

[25] L. Richardson, A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 111-112.

[26] CivCity: Rome, 2K Games, 2006.

[27] Paolo Squatriti, Water and Society in Early Medieval Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 22.

[28] Stefan Grundmann, The Architecture of Rome (Berlin: Edition Axel Menges, 1998), 8-10.

[29] Allan Chester Johnson et al., Ancient Roman Statutes (New Jersey: The Lawbook Exchange, 2009), 271.

[30] Johnson, 270-272.

[31] C.M. Wells, The Roman Empire: Second Edition (London: Harvard University Press, 1995), 316.

[32] Michael H. Crawford, Roman Republican Coinage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974), 1-7.
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About vlesditorone of us since 11:12 PM on 09.24.2012