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Gaming the past at the University of Arkansas

Professor's radical idea: to teach history, myth and game design through courses that virtually immerse students in the ancient world.


GRAFFITI: Fredrick points out details in a virtual Roman house.
  • GRAFFITI: Fredrick points out details in a virtual Roman house.

In this age of whiz-bang gadgets, when most everyone has a supercomputer in their pocket, cars are smarter than the family dog, and the combined span of human knowledge is available in milliseconds via Google, Greek and Roman history and myth might seem like the deadest of dead subjects. Ovid? "The Iliad"? Trying to keep Aphrodite, Artemis, Athena, Andromeda, Ares and Achilles straight? While a classical studies education is the unblemished marble foundation the university experience is built upon, it's understandable that a lot of people in 2015 A.D. might assume that a degree in Greek history and $4.50 will just about get you a venti mocha at Starbucks. If you're lucky, they might have a "help wanted" sign.

One person working to change both that perception and the marketability of students coming out of his classes is University of Arkansas Classical Studies Prof. David Fredrick. With a small team, all plucked from the courses he teaches, Fredrick started the Tesseract Studio for Immersive Environments and Game Design in 2010. Since its inception, Tesseract has been taking history from the lecture hall to the digital plain. Starting with virtual models of houses in Pompeii, Fredrick moved on to teaching game design, then to building historically based video games that are conceived, scripted, animated, voice-acted and scored entirely on campus. These games form the core of Fredrick's wildly popular online classes that allow students at UA to learn about ancient history by playing a video game over the course of a semester, fully immersing themselves in the period. It's an idea that's apparently unique, for now, to the University of Arkansas.

The course constructed around one game, "Mythos Unbound," has been taught at the university since the fall semester of 2013. The game puts students in the sandals of a Roman slave, working his way to freedom while learning about mythology. The journey sometimes requires students to play the game as the mythological figure they're learning about, from Hermes to Hercules. A second game, the even more ambitious "Saeculum," teaches students about ancient Roman culture by following members of a single family through several hundred years of Roman history.

In addition to giving Tesseract employees and student interns (many of them drawn from the humanities) valuable, real-life experience in 3-D modeling and game design, Fredrick is providing students with insights on ancient history, architecture and culture that they'd never get from a traditional lecture.

MYTHOS UNBOUND: A screenshot from a Tesseract game.
  • MYTHOS UNBOUND: A screenshot from a Tesseract game.

My own, private Pompeii

Educated as a classicist, Fredrick had been teaching Roman history, Greek and Latin at UA for over a decade when the Mother of Invention came knocking in 2006.

One point of his research is the great houses of Pompeii, once-luxurious townhouses and villas that had been largely preserved when nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., burying the town in a layer of ash and pumice up to 20 feet high. The biggest houses in Pompeii contained intricate murals, mosaics, fountains, reflecting pools and other decorative features. These features, Fredrick knew, were laid out so that they formed a kind of visual dialogue with each other. Decoding that artistic and architectural conversation in full meant getting inside the houses and seeing them as someone might have before the eruption.

To do that, Fredrick approached colleagues in the University of Arkansas architecture department and the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies. Together, they started building three-dimensional digital representations of a few of the larger Pompeiian houses. As the project progressed, Fredrick and his colleagues noticed their work looked remarkably like a level in a video game.

"In trying to recreate those environments, I started getting involved in 3-D technology," he said. "Eventually, that led to a game engine. As I started trying to put those house environments together to figure out how the art worked together with the fountains and the sculpture and the space ... I was really struck by how powerful it would be for a lot of other things."

Fredrick said while he's never been much of a gamer, he saw the potential for video games to make the jump from time-killer to educational tool almost immediately. For one thing, modern games are often information-dense, requiring players to learn and remember multiple storylines and skills. Too, games are efficient at teaching basic rules and concepts in a short amount of time so the player can get on with his goal, which is to play the game without being frustrated by the rules. If a game could be made that used real history, students could learn a large amount of information in a short amount of time, while feeling like they were actually a part of the culture and world depicted on screen.

"There's been a lot of national discussion about the power of video games to transform education, and I think there is still a lot of work to be done there," he said. "The only thing I could think of was, well, in order to force myself to learn about this and in order to explore what this game engine can do, I'm just going to teach game design. I had a research associate with a very strong programming background. I was already doing a lot of what was game art. I didn't know it, but I was making assets that could go in the 3-D environment. So I already had a pretty good 3-D modeling skillset by that point. So we put ourselves together and taught game design, which wasn't being taught in any sustained way on our campus."

The original game design course asked students to read a mythological text and then create a video game around that text. Fredrick said a survey of Southeastern Conference colleges found that, like Arkansas, none of them offered a major in game design. "I really sort of got on a soapbox at that point," he said. "I started teaching game design and became pretty passionate about the importance of it as an interdisciplinary thing to do for a state school."

Lynda Coon, dean of the Honors College at UA and a professor of medieval history, and Fredrick taught an interdisciplinary course together for many years. Coon said Fredrick has always been interested in moving undergraduate education far beyond the status quo.

"He always used visual culture, material culture," she said. "This was even back in the '90s. He was always ahead of the game in terms of making the experience the students were having in the ancient world sort of over and beyond the stale lecture. I'm not surprised by anything he's doing, because I saw the origins of it back then."

The brilliance of the game-based approach, Coon said, is that it is an example of classical studies meeting online education at a high level. Though some might assume a game-based course would be a cakewalk, Coon said Fredrick's classes are known for being challenging. "These online courses have a reputation of being extremely rigorous," Coon said, noting that the courses have what she called "an ambitious writing component" stressing analytical skills and critical thinking.

Though Coon was a believer early on, Fredrick said that it was a long process to convince some in administration that teaching game design and, later, a video-game-based history course was a good idea. A lot of the issues he ran into revolved around the fact that to build a modern, 3-D video game on campus — an effort that requires expertise from a host of departments, including theater, computer science, music, architecture, visual arts and others — required the somewhat disparate clans to unite around a single idea.

"For any institution, certainly not for just the UA but for any state school, to move in this direction is very hard," he said. "Traditionally, it's not been easy for state schools, especially the big ones, to cooperate across disciplines. They get in their silos, and it's hard to talk. In my mind, what we've done is actually really fast. We've done really well with that, and I think we're poised to do a whole lot more. It was a hard sell at first for sort of institutional reasons."

Over time, Fredrick got the ball got rolling, with crucial assistance from the Global Campus, a division of UA that provided instructional design support for Fredrick's online classical studies courses, and UA Honors College grants for course development. He created the "Digital Pompeii" course, then his game design course. Soon, Fredrick had enough current and former students of game design to start thinking bigger. In a video on the Tesseract website (online at, Fredrick explained: "It's like, we kind of have a thing here. A thing like a studio. What do we call it?" Tesseract Studio — named for a fourth-dimensional representation of a cube — was born.

  • QUITE THE CHARACTER: A game avatar.

'Togas are really hard'

Originally crammed into a narrow bowling-lane of a room in the J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. Center for Academic Excellence on the UA campus, Tesseract Studios recently moved to a new and larger lab space across the hall, giving employees there at least some leg space. The lab is a mix of the old and new, with six-sided, cutting-edge gaming computers (bought to support virtual reality, which is the next big step) sharing space with white plaster busts of historical figures.

One of the students working in the lab on a recent Wednesday morning was Amy Richter, an art major who is interning with Tesseract. With just four full-time employees, Tesseract often relies on student interns to do the heavy lifting on 3-D modeling — stuff that's only ever going to be really noticed by players if it screws up. Ten to 15 interns work on the project.

"A lot of the development is done by student interns," Fredrick said. "I put a huge emphasis on that, because that's a key place where kids can learn by building the game. They've got to research everything. If you're going to build a game about ancient Rome and they're going to be building a piece of a Roman theater or a Roman house or tavern or whatever, you have to do a lot of hardcore research to figure out what that was and how we can represent it. ... I think it's very powerful to have that on campus and let kids have that experience. They know they're building the game that other kids will play. That's really powerful."

The day we visited, Richter was working on the toga for a digital character, using a stylus and electronic pad to "paint weights" — essentially shading different parts of the character's body to tell the digital fabric which parts of the character's body to cling to. As Fredrick had said earlier: "Togas are really hard. It's a ton of fabric, and any time you try to animate fabric, it wants to go through pieces of the body."

"Fabric is an extremely complex thing," Richter said. "There's so many ways it can move, different ways it can move. If you just generically put [clothing] on a character, it doesn't understand that it's fabric. So if you move an arm it clips [goes through the character's body part]. When you move a body, it doesn't really understand it's supposed to flow."

Another of those in the lab that day was Keenan Cole, technical director for Tesseract. A 2008 graduate of UA with a degree in Classical Studies, Cole got in on the ground floor at Tesseract, helping Fredrick with his original "Digital Pompeii" and game design courses.

"We discovered that [creating games based on texts was] a really effective way for students to sort of grapple with the themes and motifs that are in the texts themselves," Cole said. "From there we then said, 'Why don't we make a game that's an online course that students will walk through and interact with actual characters from ancient times, from literary texts, and see how effective that could be?' " They started creating the game "Mythos Unbound" in the fall of 2012, and launched the course built around it in the fall semester of 2013. Originally offered as a "beta" version to only 30 students, the game and course have since been through heavy revisions, and the course is now open to up to 150 students per semester. Cole said that feedback from the game-based courses has always been excellent, with many students saying that it was a favorite class of their academic career, something Fredrick said is rare for an online course.

MYTH MAKER: Keenan Cole.
  • MYTH MAKER: Keenan Cole.

Nearby, Chloe Costello was building a digital representation of a Roman house. An architecture major who is now the art director for Tesseract, Costello originally started at Tesseract in 2011 as a student, helping make 3-D models of houses.

Growing up, Costello said, she'd always been a gamer and loved learning games as a kid. While she had dreamed of a career in game design, when she got to college she took what she called "a more typical route" with her degree.

"I was going to be an architect," she said, "but then I got the part-time job here and I liked it a lot. I thought, maybe I can have a career in games. I'd always dreamed of it."

While learning games and recreational games usually have different goals, she said, the games built at Tesseract are particularly good at putting historical ideas in context so students can feel like they're immersed in history. "In a classroom," she said, "they'll give you a problem that's something like, 'Sally has to fill this bucket with water. How many liters does she need?' You'll think, 'Well, why is she filling this bucket with water? What's the point?' Games give a context to that, [such as] 'Oh, she's filling the bucket with water because she needs to bring it to the blacksmith.' That's what I think is most important in a learning game. It gives you a reason why you're learning something. It gives you a framework so that the problems make sense."

While the life of an architect can be a lonely pursuit, Costello said she has learned to love working with a team. "You realize that people have their strengths and weaknesses," she said. "The product comes out better for it really, having the diversity of people's backgrounds."

VIRTUAL ARCHITECT: Chloe Costello in the Tesseract lab.
  • VIRTUAL ARCHITECT: Chloe Costello in the Tesseract lab.

Greg Rogers is the design and narrative lead for Tesseract. He wrote the scripts for both "Mythos Unbound" and "Saeculum." Like everyone else who works at Tesseract, he's a vet of Fredrick's courses, taking the game-design course "three or four times because I couldn't get enough of it. I had a passion for it and the material. I felt like it was really relevant."

Rogers said when Fredrick first came up with the idea of teaching game design and later game-based history courses, there were naturally "some cocked heads" on campus, but the concept has now proven itself. Like Fredrick, Rogers pointed out that even though video games have a reputation for being time-wasters, they're very good at teaching complex ideas. "Games teach very economically," he said. "The stigma that's been applied to games is that they rot your brain or whatever, but it's really kind of backwards. The language that games use is very natural in teaching people the things they need to know."

Rogers said that as cheaper virtual reality headsets come online in the next few years, games will make the leap to more and more classrooms, giving students the ability to experience a historical setting as if they're actually there. "That presents a whole new level of immersion," he said. "I don't think there's something that will come in and replace teaching. But as new technologies are introduced, they supplement. I think it's been proven that games are not a fad. Games are not going away, and they have something of worth to offer. I absolutely think you'll see that grow in the future."

Fredrick said one goal that could be down the road is licensing the game-based courses to other universities, though they'll need to go through several iterations of the concept before they're ready to do that. They're also working on outside projects, including a "virtual gallery" application for an online course in art history. It's a representation of a space at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, giving students the ability to virtually rearrange works of art, tag pieces and alter the lighting scheme.

Fredrick said support from the university and from his colleagues in other departments has been crucial to Tesseract's success so far. "I'm really grateful for the support of my colleagues in the Classical Studies program and the Department of World Literatures, Languages, and Cultures, as well as Computer Science and University Information Technology," Fredrick said. "While we started small, this really has become a collaborative effort across the campus. We've come farther, faster than many state schools ever could."

Now that he's been pushing the idea of game design and teaching through games for a few years, Fredrick said a game-development ecosystem is starting to emerge at UA. The pieces are beginning to fit together, he said. That's preparing the university for the digital future.

"Video games are thought of in this frivolous way," Fredrick said, "but in fact they're the biggest entertainment industry on the planet now. That's a major thing. That means their way of teaching and their way of approaching 3-D is becoming kind of a lingua franca, a common language of experience. The way I put it to UA to get the ball rolling was: Are we planning to do more 3-D or less? Looking ahead to the next decade, there's only one answer to that question."

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