When I was 12, I decided I wanted to learn Latin. At first, my family were puzzled: we were more likely to eat dinner in front of the TV than muse over Cicero. It didn’t take much to win them over.
Latin was all you needed to understand history, I confidently declared. It was the basis of most modern languages. And it was really useful for studying the law, which everybody agreed was a Good Thing.
I kept my real reason for wanting to learn Latin hidden. I wanted to study it because it was ancient and cool, and my favourite video game, Age of Mythology, was about ancient and cool stuff.
Age of Mythology, or AoM, is a real-time strategy game, a darling of the real-time strategy golden age. Produced by Ensemble Studios, the (now fallen) titans behind the Age of Empires series, AoM turns the player into an omniscient super-general. With a bird’s eye point of view, you control an army and the economy that rears it—gathering resources, building infrastructure and training troops to defeat a hostile enemy.
I wasn’t very good at any of that. When I got AoM as an eighth birthday present, computers still daunted me. I blazed through campaign mode on the ‘very easy’ difficulty setting and made liberal use of cheat codes.
I may have removed all challenge, but the game still engrossed me. Unlike Age of Empires, which has a historical setting, AoM throws you into the world of myth: you fight in the Trojan War and build the famous horse (you have to gather 1000 pieces of wood first).
You gather and recombine the body parts of Osiris, the slain Egyptian god. You save Odysseus from life as a pig on Circe’s island. You prevent Loki from unleashing Ragnarök, (Marvel was nine years too late). And, after traipsing through Greece, Egypt, the Nordic countries and the underworld, you watch Atlantis sink into the endless blue.
Of course, if you move with the main currents of culture discourse, then video games are only ever a waste of time. They are anodyne distractions—Angry Birds for the train commute at best, and at worst, corrupters of youth.
For young gamers, these fictional worlds were not just childhood pastimes
Fortnite can only ever be, it seems, an addiction risk or a path to gun violence. Children who play games are instead told to read or exercise or socialise instead. But screen time seems to have taken my gamer friends to a lot of new places: many of us stumbled on interests, cultural pursuits or even passions through games.
Liam, a drummer and music enthusiast, told me he “wouldn’t be wearing a single band t-shirt were it not for Guitar Hero”. For context, Liam’s standard outfit features a ‘King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard’ top.
After hours staring down an onslaught of primary coloured notes, Liam started downloading Guitar Hero’s catalogue so he could hear the original songs. But it didn’t stop there: “It guided the way I sought out music,” he explained to me.
“I got exposed to a lot of classic rock and guitar-based music, which presumably conditioned my young and ignorant brain,” Liam said.
Guitar Hero not only had an effect on his taste, but also invited him to investigate back catalogues, and familiarise himself with the tropes and lore surrounding rock music.
“I already harboured ambitions to go into music to some extent, but it crystalised those ambitions.”
For young gamers like Liam and I, these fictional worlds were not just childhood pastimes, but gateways into future passions. I still study Latin today, along with Greek, and I harbour foolhardy ambitions of becoming a classicist.
I often wonder if I would be studying classics if it weren’t for AoM. And, even if I were, would the ancient world still seem quite so alive without it? I also wonder if my intellectual life is cheap since its foundation is something as flimsy as a video game.
Yet, whenever I imagine the ancient world, AoM is my touchstone—the images, sounds and landscapes I spent hundreds of hours with as a child.
As unscholarly as it may be, I still return to AoM’s pixelated evocations of sun-parched Greece, its guttural cyclops, its off-white colonnades and wind-swayed temple groves.The ancient past is a familiar country, however essentialist and ahistorical that familiarity might be.