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ISAW Papers 22.2 (2022)

The Painful Art of Abstraction: Representing the Ancient World in Modern Games

Hamish Cameron, Victoria University Wellington

Abstract: Abstraction is a vital process behind any attempt at understanding or representing reality. This paper argues that the logic of abstraction is the same whether the abstraction is the work of a cartographer making a map, an ancient historian writing a text, a scholar creating an argument or translating a text, or a game representing a historical, fictional, or historically-imagined fictional reality. I begin with the abstraction of space and how maps embed the choices of the cartographer in the representation of the landscape. I then analyse a student-created board game based on Homer’s Iliad to reveal design goals that shape the game’s representation of the text. Finally, I use the example of my own game based on the history of the Mesopotamian Borderland to discuss how explicitly articulating historical and practical design goals in the design process can guide the processes of abstraction and help produce a coherent game that makes intentional and controlled historical arguments.
Library of Congress Subjects: Board games--Design; Board games in education; History, ancient--Simulation games.

This paper addresses a methodological consideration that every teacher, researcher, and human being existing in the world faces daily. Abstraction is a vital process behind any attempt at understanding or representing reality. As such, it is key to the role of the historian, and to the game designer attempting to create a simulation, no matter how loosely that simulation adheres to our understanding of historical reality. For the historian creating games or simulations, abstraction is a painful art, because creating something that succeeds as both a game and a historical work requires a ruthless commitment to selectivity.

In what follows, I will discuss some specific examples of abstraction, outline why attention to abstraction is critical to intentionally designing games that address historical topics, and show how I considered issues of abstraction in a historical design of my own.1

Abstracting Space

In geographical representations as in ludic representations, abstraction is essential. The process of translating the world that we see around us from satellite imagery to a human-useable map is a process of abstraction, that is, selection, aggregation, categorization, measurement, representation and a host of other decisions by the cartographer. A cartographer applies their judgement in this process of abstraction and thus translates that information about the world into a map. The kind of map that is produced and the kind of information it conveys reveal some of the priorities and judgements of the map’s creator and the cultural forces of their society. For example, how different designers draw the subway lines, land masses, hours of operation and whatever other information they include in a subway map suggests something about how they imagine the lived space of the city (fig. 1).

Fig. 1: The Abstraction of New York. Satellite imagery to Subway Maps. From left to right: Satellite image from Google Maps, New York City MTA Subway Map designed by Massimo Vignelli in 1972,2 NYC MTA Subway Map designed by Michael Hertz in 1979,3 Eddie Jabbour’s unofficial “KickMap” of the NYC subway system.4

This logic of abstraction might be articulated as follows:

  1. A text is an abstraction of a world (including imaginary and historical worlds).
  2. An abstraction is built through processes of selection and aggregation.
  3. Acts of selection and aggregation are guided by individual judgements (often unspoken & implicit) made by the creator of the text.
  4. Texts produced within a society are permeated by the assumptions of that society and the positionality of the creator within it.

This process can be applied to any text, including maps, visual art, and literary texts that construct historical worlds, fictional worlds, or historically imagined fictional worlds like that of the Iliad. It also applies to ludic representations. After all, a game is a text that abstracts a world through procedures, rules and systems to create a space for play. In other words, game design is an exercise in selection and aggregation with the purpose of creating an abstraction.

The intersection between games and cartography is illustrative of how historical games use abstraction to make historical arguments and encode assumptions about the ancient world. The following three examples, show the relationship between gameplay, player goals, and the map as a play space.

Fig. 2: Imperium Romanum II (1985).5

Imperium Romanum II (West End Games, 1985) represents the geographical space of the Roman Empire as a uniform hex map (fig. 2). The victory conditions vary by faction and scenario, but most involve some combination of elimination of enemy leaders and control of provincial regions. The player’s goals and the play space encourages a 19th or 20th century model of warfare in which two lines of opposing armies attempt to block or penetrate the other.