FYSM 1405A: Gaming the Middle Ages
Introduction to the course, "Gaming the Middle Ages" taught by Marc Saurette, Associate Professor of Medieval History at Carleton University (Ottawa, Ontario).
If you’ve ever walked past Parliament in Ottawa, been to a nineteenth-century church, watched a King Arthur movie or played a hack-and-slash videogame, you already know that the Middle Ages has a life of its own in modern society. In this course, we will explore what it means to be “medieval”, we will learn how our understanding of this time period was formed, and we will explode many of today’s pervasive myths about the Middle Ages. Our goal is not only to understand what the Middle Ages were, but also to explain how and why we understand it the way that we do. Whether violent Vikings in longboats, greedy guildmasters trying to dominate an economy, cunning kings ruling their courts, or adolescent princesses scheming in their castles (or a hidden dark tower), the Middle Ages provides a ready-made recipe for adventure. But often these stories and images are more fantasy than history.
We will focus our attention specifically on games – both games played by medieval people and games played today which represent the Middle Ages. You will learn the terminology and the tools to make sense of what games are, how games help understand the past. You will also learn to develop games of your own, individually and in groups, that are able to describe the Middle Ages with a historian’s mindset.
This course will provide a small group learning experience incorporating game-based learning, the theory and practice of historical game studies, and game design work. Learning will be hands-on. Students will learn how to think critically about games as a historian/medievalist, examining both games created/made in the Middle Ages, as well as modern games representing the Middle Ages. Students will play games in class and on their own (tabletop, video games) in order to be able to describe and analyze them as complex cultural objects. What does the Lewes chessmen teach us about medieval British kingship? Or about trade roots from India to Northern Britain? What does Crusader Kings III teach us about modern attitudes towards medieval politics? Or ideas of gender projected by us backwards in time?
Our work will be hands-on. We will work in Carleton’s Book Arts lab to typeset rulebooks or playing cards by hand. We will experiment with 3D printing of game pieces. We will prototype our own game. And we hope to organize trips to Ottawa museums to see how they collect and archive games.
You do not need to have any experience with games or gaming culture. Arguably games and play are a universal human endeavour, so you have all played games of some sort that you can draw on to understand the topic (maybe just not medieval ones). This course asks you to experiment and open yourself to new ways of questioning how the past is represented. A willingness to participate actively goes a long way in helping you succeed in this course (and in university generally)!
This is a full (two term) course with three hours of in-person class time, from 11h30 to 13h00 on Mondays and Wednesdays. We will often use Mondays for lecturing, discussing readings and concepts where I take the lead; Wednesdays will require your active participation as we try stuff out.
We will be playing or maybe just thinking critically about modern analog games (possibly, table top games like Castles of Burgundy, Feast for Odin, Deus lo Vult, or RPGs such as D&D), pedagogical role-playing games from Reacting to the Past and video games (e.g. Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla and Crusader Kings III).
We will also be reading academic articles and books, as well as blogs and videos, to learn how historians think about games and history. The work of Adam Chapman and Jeremiah McCall will be key sources for discussion.
The first term will be devoted to analyzing games. The second term will be devoted to building games. In the first term, students will learn how to research and write about games, and will include regular small assignments (keeping a game journal to track observations, library research, scavenger hunt to discover university resources). In the second term, we will focus on a term-long project, working in teams to research, develop and produce a joint history-based game (or maybe more than one). A first-year seminar also functions a bit like an introduction to university. You will develop skills necessary for all students to succeed, not just history majors, like: note-taking, using the library, doing effective research, analyzing texts, writing essays, time management, mental health awareness, understanding academic integrity, career exploration, and presenting ideas to a larger group.
This course does not expect students to have any knowledge of the medieval world, though any background you might have would be great.