Game based learning and Latin Literacy

Recent items I’ve seen concerning game-based learning of language, and the use of ‘fake dead people’ to populate archaeological VR, reminded me of a project I conceived back in 2005 and had hoped to find money to do. So with the unhelpful help of the XP file search thing, I eventually dredged up the original brainstorm, but not the proposal itself. I did float the idea at a Classical Association of Canada conference session that year – but attendance was rather thin in the session on digital media and learning  (… and there’s probably a lesson in that …)

Thinking it might be useful for someone else, here it is below:

CSI – Cicero’s Sullen Ides, or, Get the Tusculum Villa Ready!
A game-based learning experiment for Latin literacy

Game playing – cognitive benefits
-examples of language games
-examples of literacy games
-so why not mash the two together?

-interactive fiction
-how can learning be assessed in interactive fiction
-through scoring based on completion of in game tasks
-different levels of scoring: basic, for very limited tasks
advanced, for uncovering ‘hidden’ tasks
-benefit also: cost, computing resources, also creates a learning environment similar where performing the skill is similar (literacy is text based).


Written completely in Latin, ‘Cicero’s Sullen Ides, or, Get the Tusculum Villa Ready!’ is a text adventure taking place in Cicero’s villa outside of Rome. Settings include every room in the house, as well as locations on the grounds.

The player plays as Terentia, the wife of Cicero. As the game opens, Terentia is in her room in the Villa. The game opens with a description of the room. Out in the hallway, on a table, is a letter from Cicero advising Terentia to get the villa ready as he will be arriving soon from Rome – time is slipping away! Terentia does not know that Cicero is coming. In fact, she is woken by a slave who informs her that a quantity of money has gone missing from the villa strong box, and the same slave neglects to inform her of the letter. She does remember some turns later, and informs her mistress…

The Aims of the Game:

The game then involves two challenges – solving the mystery of the missing money, and getting the house ready for Cicero. The player will have to have an understanding of the daily routines of a Roman villa in order to successfully complete the second task, as well as a grasp of the Latin language. Since most people today do not need to know how to write Latin – and the structures of latin are mostly too complicated for a simple text adventure to parse – the game will be structured to accept simple imperative constructions – read the letter, go north, tell the servant to clean the room. The level of Latin of the descriptions will be aimed at the student entering a second year Latin course, or finishing off a first year course. Indeed, the game could be used as part of the summative evaluation of the course, where the scoring indicates the level of literacy the player has achieved (sub-plots can be explored by the player, requiring higher literacy skills to solve, and accordingly, higher scores when puzzles are solved or ‘rooms’ are unlocked).

Implementing the Game:

The ADRIFT game generator (v4.0, Wild 2005) can display graphics files associated with different rooms and events. Careful selection of imagery then to support the text will help the player to decipher the text or give hints as to what the player should do next. Similarly, sound files may be added to the game, either as background in particular ‘rooms’ (running water by a fountain in the garden) or as auditory clues for particular events (a chiming bell indicating that a meal has been laid out in the Tablinum, heard from elsewhere in the Villa. A player understanding the significance of the bell would process immediately to the tablinum…) Non-player characters will be roaming the house, doing tasks, and the player will be able to interact with them to a degree, directing slaves to do particular tasks, or interrogating them to discover what happened to the money. Terentia will have to interact with the non-player characters correctly in order to proceed.

Concerning the language capabilities of the game generator software, a simple text file can be created that swaps the english in-game commands for their Latin synonyms. Students should be advised before playing the game of the correct mood, tense, and voice to use when playing; alternatively, they could be left to figure that out on their own and the score adjusted accordingly once they’ve issued their first successful commands in the game. Scores may be adjusted too to reflect how many ‘hints’ the player needed before successfully completing a task. Finally, the game generator can scale the total score within the game against a maximum. That allows the game creator to decide that ‘all easy tasks will be worth 5, all medium tasks will be worth 20, and all hard tasks will be worth 50 points’ and then the game will rescale the total points during game play to, say, 100 points, allowing the final score to actually represent a score out of 100. This allows the game creator to create appropriate game tasks without having to worry about the ultimate weightings and point calculations.

Finishing the Game

The game could end with Cicero’s return to the Villa, which could be triggered by Terentia completing a particular task, or it could be triggered by a certain number of turns expiring. At that point, Cicero might interrogate Terentia about the missing money, asking very simple questions to which the student would have to compose (equally) simple responses. These might be in the order of – where are my slippers? –who took the money? –has the bath been heated? That is, he could ask a series of questions that relate to all of the various tasks that Terentia may or may not have completed, or objects she may or may not have collected. Because these would be simple responses (and because the creator knows what kinds of possible answers there might be and can accordingly let the program know what to expect), scoring would be simple in this part of the game. A certain number of ‘correct’ answers, and Cicero could pronounce himself well pleased, and the player would win the game. A certain number of incorrect answers, and Cicero could become very petulant and sullen, making Terentia go back and complete the missing tasks and then return to him (at which point, the correct answers would be worth half as much).

Game play and learning

In this fashion – through play and immersion in an imaginary world that relies on the student’s knowledge of Roman civilization and the Latin language – the game would reinforce the student’s grasp of the language, and through game play the student would be able to display an understanding of the language divorced from the usual ‘sight translation exam’.

[… you can see that I ran out of oompf in that last session, though now I have a much greater grasp of the relevant literacy, case studies, etc. If I was to do this over again, I’d move that section first and flesh it out greatly, as classicists sometimes need greater prodding than others – though, in fairness, this isn’t always the case.]

Going on an Expedition (National Geographic Expedition Week)

When I found the crack-den, I knew I was in trouble.

Who climbs up a nearly 2,000 year old aqueduct, opens a hatch, and climbs down inside to make a crack-den? The evidence was clearly littered around me – pipes, needles, an old lawn chair for that homey feel… all 13 metres up in the air, in a field not far from the GRA, the modern Roman ring road. At this point, I had to ask myself, ‘is measuring the depth of plaster in this aqueduct’s water-channel really worth this?’

I was on my first real expedition. I’d been on excavations before, but this was the first project where I’d designed the research questions, got my sorry butt out to where the structures were, and began my research (I was doing a quantity-survey of the materials, and hence manpower, required for the construction of the Aqua Claudia and the Aqua Annio Novus, to explore the economics of aqueduct construction, for my MA thesis- turns out, ca 30,000 men over six years). Every archaeologist has stories like that. On another occasion, a venerable and noted archaeologist took a group of us to see a particular aqueduct dam on the outskirts of Rome. Down the path we trotted, following his lead… and around the corner, in a clearing, stood a four-poster bed, complete with pink duvet. The city council of Rome had banished the prostitutes to the periphery, and we had come across one’s… boudoir.

These memories bubbled up when I received an e-mail last week, from National Geographic. Turns out they are having an ‘Expedition Week‘ November 16-23. On tap:

  • The Expedition Game This original game mirrors the Expedition Week theme and challenges players to find priceless artifacts and earn virtual cash to fund more ambitious expeditions. During each night of Expedition Week program, secret codes will be revealed.
  • March of Explorers Timeline From the National Geographic archives, hear historic audio clips of explorers, view photos of personal items and discover what made their expeditions so significant.
  • Interactive Panoramas Explore Egypt’s Giza Plateau with interactive 360° panoramic images of iconic locations like the Sphinx, and the Great Pyramid.
  • Plus behind-the-scenes trivia, videos, photos, and more!

I’m particularly interested in the Amazon Cities’ blurb:

Over the centuries, explorers have traded tales of a lost civilization that once thrived amid the dense Amazonian rainforest. Scientists dismissed the legends as exaggerations, believing the rainforest could not sustain such a huge population. Now, a new generation of scientific explorers armed with 21st century technology have uncovered remarkable evidence that could reinvent our understanding of the Amazon and the indigenous peoples who lived there. Re-examine 16th century Spanish conquistador Francisco de Orellana’s search for this “lost civilization” of ancient Indians. More like Los Angeles than New York City, the Amazonian matrix of settlements was spread out rather than condensed in a vertical orientation. Using CGI and dramatic re-creations, we reimagine the banks of the Amazon 500 years ago, teeming with inhabitants living in the Lost Cities of the Amazon.

…and the blurb about Alex the Great:

Alexander the Great is one of history’s greatest warrior kings, and he was the leader of the most powerful nation in the ancient world. Although Macedonian by birth, he would die a pharaoh of Egypt, and his legacy would shape the Egyptian empire for the next 300 years. The location of his tomb has eluded archaeologists for more than 2,000 years. It is a hunt characterized by speculation, controversy and political wrangling. Now, for the first time, we join a new generation of experts using innovative research and thinking to retrace this pharaoh’s journey through Egypt, in search of Alexander the Great’s Lost Tomb.

No doubt, expedition stories from lost cities in the Amazon are going to be a great deal more exciting than a crack den aerie. I’ll be getting a sneak preview of some of those programs, and I hope to be able to review them before they air.

All of this makes me thing of ‘Learning from Las Vegas‘: the idea that archaeologists, as much as their work is about the past, are also crafting experiences for people in the present: an experience of the past (which is especially important given that today’s economy is in many ways, an experience economy). This is the ‘romance of archaeology’, and if it sells our work to the laypeople who pay for it, well, all the better.

Of course, that day we discovered the boudoir, romance wasn’t really on anybody’s mind…


Just started playing the expedition game. While it was fun creating my character ‘Howard Aardvark’, so far the game play is rather like those ‘eye-spy’ or ‘where’s waldo’ books. You have to find a list of items in an image, and if you do, you recover the lost statue of Minos or what have, and are rewarded with cash you can then spend on outfitting your avatar.

While I appreciate that a points-system is often used to reward game play, and promote further play, does National Geographic really want to be complicit in what seems to be a game promoting archaeology as looting?

True Life Archaeological Adventures (…or, Who Needs Dr. Jones?)

Having just watched the last Indiana Jones flick, I can safely say that it was better than IJ 2, worse than IJ 3, and cannot even begin to approach Raiders of the Lost Ark.

And don’t get me started on aliens. As a friend of mine said, ‘there are so many *great* archaeological stories… why’d they go with aliens?!’. But that got me to thinking. What are my great archaeological stories? What are yours?

My two favourite stories, that I trot out as occasion demands, involve a vampire and a scooter. When I was 18, I was excavating with the Pontifical Institute for Medieval Studies from Toronto, at the site of a Cistercian Monastery near ancient Stymphalos. We discovered a skeleton, placed against the wall of the church. Its head had been removed, and replaced with a cut stone block… near its feet was the skeleton of a neonate. The treatment of the adult seemed consistent with what the folklore of the region prescribed for vampires. Remove the suspected vampire’s head, replace it with something else, and the vampire goes into a bit of a holding cycle. It feels complete, so wants to rise; but it isn’t complete, so it can’t get out.

For an 18 year old kid, fresh from the backwoods of Quebec, that was quite an adventure. I mean, digging up vampires sure beats working at McDonalds…

When I was a grad student, I went to Rome to study the aqueducts. I wanted to follow the course of the Aqua Claudia, backwards from Rome up to the mountains. When in Rome and all that: I rented a scooter from a dealer near the Termini train station in Rome.

“Take it around the block for a test drive, to get used to it” suggested the dealer (in Italian).

And off I went, wobbling at first, then with increasing confidence. Hell, this is easy! Look at me, just like a Roman! Down the back stretch, around the final two corners, and back to the dealer. Problem: two tram cars parked in the road. Solution: lift the front of the scooter onto the sidewalk, and drive around them, just like the Romans do. Disaster: lifting the front wheel, while holding firmly onto the accelerator, causes the scooter to shoot out from under the rider a la Wiley Coyote.

oh, sh*t!

I have blurred memories of sheer panic as the scooter races down the sidewalk, me running behind it still holding onto the accelerator making it go faster as pedestrians jump aside, shopping flying, little faces peering out of the windows of the tram… I got around the trams, leaping onto the scooter, and put-putting down the street to the dealer.

He wasn’t looking at me, but rather back towards where I’d come. I turned around: and an entire street of people were running after me.

Good times, good times…

oh, and somebody shot at me last summer when I was doing a heritage inventory of Gatineau Park.

Be an archaeologist, live the adventure!