Path of Honors: Second Response

Marc Saurette
2018-04-06
Citation: Saurette, Marc. 2018. “Path of Honors: Second Response”. Epoiesen. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.22215/epoiesen/2018.6

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Marc Saurette is an Associate Professor of History at Carleton University (Marc.Saurette@carleton.ca). ORCID ID: 0000-0002-5448-5053.

This piece is a response to McCall’s Path of Honors

Scholaris ludens: Developing Games in Teaching History

“To our way of thinking,” commented noted medievalist Johan Huizinga, “play is the direct opposite of seriousness”. [1] This prefaced his lengthy meditation, Homo Ludens, arguing to the contrary that play –and games– were at the centre of human culture and much more than just “fun”. This seminal text was first published in 1938 (appearing in English translation a decade later) and lent academic respectability to what would became a new field of inquiry into the history of play, games and sport. [2] But we academics are so wedded to the seriousness of our task that it has taken a very long time for the value of play to be accepted into the solemn business of teaching history. Jeremiah McCall’s work on Path of Honors maps one promising road to allow games entry into our pedagogy. I should confess that I have been reading his posts on playthepast.org over the past year and so have dipped my toe into various iterations of the game. [3] As a reader in the far-off past of the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books and a former dilettante of MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons), I was predisposed to enjoy it and to see the value of interactive text games (not quite interactive fiction, but not quite interactive history). But even the unconverted should remark on what it seeks to do and what McCall highlights in his article: namely to show the new perspectives on the past that are possible by engaging in game development.

I first read Huizinga’s Homo Ludens during a core course in Medieval Studies. [4] It was not a “fun read”, but I was a budding cultural historian so its message about questioning the familiar resonated with me. By the end of my PhD I had learned what I thought it meant to be a serious historian – all gravitas and concern for transmitting the whole historical picture to students (usually by assigning a punishing amount of primary source readings). This attitude did not survive my first few years of contact with actual students in actual classes and I kept searching for the perfect way to package the material. How could I (the authority) best teach, for example, the medieval concept of honour, so that students would understand how the hero of the twelfth-century Raoul de Cambrai is simultaneously hyper-rational for his time and wonderfully bizarre to ours? And how could I keep students engaged without simply becoming an entertainer?

Jeremiah McCall offers one answer. Taking inspiration from graphics-based RPG video games, Path of Honors uses the medium of Twine to draw the audience into the world of Late Republican politics. Players are asked to take on the identify of an auto-generated Roman man and then choose a course of action (e.g. whether to spend more time commanding men in battle or working as a lawyer) in order to rise in skill until able to ascend the political ranks of Roman power. Repeated play, I can attest, is necessary to allow the player to intuit the rules underlying the system and begin to make informed decisions about how best to advance. Interactive text allows McCall to be a game developer without the considerable design resources necessary for commercial games set in the past (e.g. Assassin’s Creed, Crusader Kings 2). As a de facto indie game developer, he can thus pursue decidedly non-commercial goals such as historical accuracy and making use of that critical apparatus of academic history, the footnote. The endeavour, nonetheless, is a massive one for a single person to manage on their own. I cannot imagine how much time and text it takes to produce sufficient branching storylines to avoid the appearance of repetition and to give the semblance of agency to the player. McCall’s final comments admit that Path of Honours remains in its infancy, even though it has clearly advanced far beyond the text game it started out as. This ability to expand the game, I find, is a pedagogical strength. McCall rightly notes that in order to be successful, historical games need to let students see themselves as agents with an ability to affect meaningfully the course of the game.

Students as Designers

Developing a feeling of historical agency can also happen outside the game, by using students as game designers. McCall’s previous post on student-assisted game development suggests how an interactive text game, such as Path of Honors, could be perpetually supplemented with more material to match changing pedagogical concerns. How better to engage students than to get them to research the material necessary for supplementing the core story? The game already identifies the overall arc of the life of male Roman elites, but students could work in groups to research and then develop new content. To supplement the existing narrative arc, students could further research Roman military life, typical legal cases or what allowed the elite to distinguish themselves. What better way to get students to read Cicero than to mine it for rules and anecdotes for judicial oratory? Students researching the experience of Roman soldiers could explore different militarized regions –the Rhine, the Danube, North Africa or on the border with Persia. In developing new combat scenarios, students might depict not only how Roman camps adapted (and didn’t) to these different environments, but also how Romans understood their enemies and allies. A focus on military service thus could become an opportunity to discuss how Romans saw themselves in their world and even to problematize this world view. A Roman tribune along the Rhine could be brought into contact with the (albeit Imperial) world of Tacitus’ Germania, for example – a text which provides ample social observations to populate a lengthy military excursion or even to describe interactions with fellow soldiers who might be non-Romans. The legal cases could take on a longer narrative element, so that students could engage deeper with Roman ideas of law and other issues relating to the differing access to justice by aristocrats vs. women, slaves and foreigners.

This expansion of the narrative to include women and people of colour is a necessary one. Classical Studies is in the midst of a redefinition – with younger (Sarah Bond) and more senior scholars (Mary Beard) pushing us to imagine a more diverse representation of the Roman past. Given that text games like Path of Honors combine the creative with the historical, they are well suited to allow students to visualize what place the non-male Roman might have in this world. What better way to get students thinking about Roman power, than having them research, imagine and compose new roles for those who lacked it in the historical path of honours?

Cover Image “Image taken from page 231 of ‘[Farthest North. Being the record of a voyage of exploration of the ship “Fram,” 1893-96, and of a fifteen months’ sleigh journey by Dr. Nansen and Lieut. Johansen … With an appendix by Otto Sverdrup, etc” British Library

Masthead Image “Image taken from page 343 of ‘Cassell’s Illustrated Universal History.’”British Library


  1. 1.Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A study of the play element in culture, Second edition (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1949; reprinted 1980), p. 5.
  2. 2.For recent trends in this field, see the contributions to Games and Gaming in Medieval Literature, edited by Serina Patterson (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015). The afterward, "Medieval Ludens" by Betsy McCormick (209-22) lays out Huizinga’s innovation, his limitations and the still developing field he opened.
  3. 3.My thanks to Shawn Graham for tipping me off to its existence years ago.
  4. 4.In full disclosure, this was the first and only time I read Homo Ludens cover to cover. But I do find myself coming back to it again and again for ideas; you should too.