Historical Video Games as Teaching Tools for Medieval Islamic Art and Architecture

Historical Video Games as Teaching Tools for Medieval Islamic Art and Architecture

Undergraduate students in my “Medievalism in Video Games: Art, Culture and Theory” course (HISTART 393) visited the Computer and Video Games Archive (CVGA) this past fall. The CVGA is located inside the Shapiro Library and has a rich collection of video games, board games, and a wide range of gaming consoles from the 1970s to the present day. The CVGA archivist and librarian, David Carter, welcomed us and introduced the archive. Moreover, several copies of the newly released Assassin’s Creed: Mirage game were preordered in advance for class visit.

HISTART 393 “Medievalism in Video Games” class at the CVGA

The historical events in Assassin’s Creed: Mirage are set in the ninth-century city of Baghdad during the Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258). To analyze the game, students first learned about Abbasid art and architecture and the round city of Baghdad in my seminar. Later, they experienced how certain historical sites, buildings and figures are represented thanks to historical texts and material evidence as well as their creative reimagination of cultural heritage in a historical gaming context.

http://HISTART 393 students playing Assassin’s Creed: Mirage at the CVGA
HISTART 393 students playing Assassin’s Creed: Mirage at the CVGA

After experiencing the Mirage game, Dr. Glaire Anderson (University of Edinburgh), an expert in the art and architecture of the medieval Islamic world, joined the seminar via video conference and discussed with the students the ways of learning about Islamic art and architecture through historical video games. Dr. Anderson is the founder of the Digital Lab for Islamic Culture & Collections, which makes knowledge about Islamic art and history accessible to general audience. As an art historian, she also is a consultant on the Mirage game. She and her team worked with Mirage’s renowned world-design director Maxime Durand and historian Raphaël Weyland. Together, they developed the game’s educational feature, “The History of Baghdad” codex. It is a database that enables students to learn about historical monuments as well as artifacts from a wide range of museum collections and libraries, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design, The Khalili Collections, the Louvre Museum, the David Collection, and the Institut du Monde Arabe.

Dr. Glaire Anderson’s guest lecture via video conference

Mirage is an important historical game that can be used as a teaching resource for students of art and architecture of the medieval Islamic world. Due to its sack by the Mongols in the mid-thirteenth century, there is a substantial lack of archaeological evidence for medieval Baghdad. Textual sources help us to reconstruct an imagined round city. As a historical video game, Mirage contributes to the visually immersive ways of teaching students about the monuments of Baghdad as well as the early urban architecture in Iraq. It helps to learn about the built environment and ecology of Baghdad and its surroundings as well as the geographies and landscapes of the eastern Mediterranean. Among others, it can be used as a teaching resource for tenth-century warships (Byzantine dromon and Arabic shalandi), Abbasid and Tang China trade relationships through the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf, al-Jahiz’s Kitab al-Hayawan (Book of the Animals) documenting 350 species with commentaries, pigeon towers as mudbrick avian architecture for the amassing of natural fertilizer, the construction of badgirs (windcatchers) on rooftops to cool down air into the buildings and much more.

Badgir (windcatcher),” in-game screenshot, Assassin’s Creed: Mirage, 2023
Badgirs (windcatchers), the city of Yazd in Iran (image credit: Shervin Abdolhamidi)

Reimagining the Past in Historical Video Games

I now ponder how the rapidly growing industry of historical video games can create new tools for academics. Despite their historically authentic world-building and use in ludic forms of entertainment, such historical video games can construct visually immersive platforms to teach students about art, architecture, historical figure, and now-lost cultural heritage. They do so by developing opportunities for reimagining and representing a past human complex of creative expression, an endeavor that echoes in many ways the tools and methods drawn from the discipline of art history.

In Fall 2023, “Medievalism in Video Games: Art, Culture and Theory” course (HISTART 393) is taught by Dr. Bihter Esener in the Department of the History of Art. It also is included as an elective course in the undergraduate curriculum of the Digital Studies Institute minor.

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