FYSM 1405A – Gaming the Middle Ages
Fall 2023 – Winter 2024
Instructor: Professor Marc Saurette
In today’s pop culture, the medieval world is a source for an almost endless supply of stories and images. This course wants you to consider why. Whether violent Vikings in longboats, cunning kings ruling their courts, or adolescent princesses scheming in their castles (or a hidden dark tower), the Middle Ages provide a ready-made recipe for fun and adventure. But these stories and images are more fantasy than history. This class will help you to identify the historical underpinnings of typical pop culture representations of the Middle Ages. I want students to learn that the Middle Ages is not the white-washed Romantic stereotype that Disney peddles, nor the unrestrainedly dirty/ violent/ intolerant horror show of a Game of Thrones world (and that of most medieval videogames). Current scholarship reveals a diverse and globalized Middle Ages that contradicts the well-worn myths of the Middle Ages sold by nationalists since the nineteenth century.
We will focus our attention specifically on games. We will consider how games can be a form of History – presenting ideas about the past to today. By playing and designing games about the Middle Ages, students will learn to think critically like a historian and this course will introduce students to the real world of medieval lords, labourers, monks. You will learn the terminology, methods and tools to understand what games are, how games help understand the past and the contemporary cultures that played them, and that games we play today have a long history. You will also learn to develop games of your own, individually and in groups, that are able to describe the Middle Ages from a historian’s perspective.
Our class will focus on five themes key to understanding the Middle Ages: power, religion, communication, gender and inter-cultural interaction. In the first term, we will seek to understand how games generally represent these themes. In the second term, we will focus on a specific moment in time – eleventh-century Iberia (Spain) – and create a game that allows us to communicate these themes as game developer-historians.
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.
Our work will also be hands-on. We will work in Carleton’s Book Arts lab to typeset playing cards by hand. We may experiment with 3D printing of game pieces. We will prototype our own game.
You do not need to have any experience with games or gaming culture. Arguably games and play are a universal human endeavour and 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 course (two term) course with three hours of in-person class time, split between two 1.5 hour classes. We will often use one class for discussing readings and concepts where I take the lead; the second will require your active participation as we try stuff out. This course is built to promote student participation and expects regular student attendance. Students will submit a variety of written work and make oral presentations to the class.
We will be playing or 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 and playing 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 on a term-long project, working in teams to research, develop and produce a collaborative 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.