Mobile gaming is now the largest and fastest-growing sector of the gaming industry. This is perhaps unsurprising given its accessibility: to play mobile games, only a smartphone is needed, rather than a high-powered PC or games console. Many of the games we see on mobile platforms also make use of historical content or myths from the ancient world, in their settings, characters, stories or visual elements. Yet most studies of both classical gaming and historical gaming more broadly have rarely engaged with such games.1 As a result, much of this research is missing out on a key body of valuable evidence for considering the ways in which audiences in the millions are now engaging with the ancient world. This post will highlight the variety of types of engagement with the ancient world found in current mobile games, in the hopes of inspiring greater awareness and discussion of mobile games among other games currently forming the main body of evidence for historical games studies.
Some historically-focused mobile games are not entirely separate from the wider body of historical gaming, since they can be versions of existing historical games or games from an existing series: for example, Civilization VI can be played on android mobile phones, and Ubisoft recently announced that one of their next Assassin’s Creed games, Codename Jade, set in Ancient China, will be released on mobile, joining 2018’s Assassin’s Creed: Rebellion as a mobile entry of the series.
Where we move away from these versions of well-known games, it is also clear that many historically-themed mobile games share features or designs from existing console and PC games of popular genres. City-builders, for example, are frequent across mobile stores, such as Antiquitas (2018), Sim Empire: Origins (2019), Empire City: Build and Conquer (2022), or Forge of Empires: Build a City (2012). The mechanics and gameplay elements are often very similar to games in this genre found on the PC since the 1990s. Sim Empire: Origins, for example, plays much like a Sierra city-builder such as Zeus: Master of Olympus or Caesar, with cities constructed around municipal and cultural sites whose benefits need to extend over houses so that they can be upgraded, to enable additional residents in the city. The game also features detailed historical tooltips for buildings and for technological developments. More simplified games in the same genre are also popular, such as Rise of Cultures, which is a ‘civ-builder’ with a more limited set of options for resources and building types, and thus a rather more straightforward approach to gameplay.2
Likely as a result of the similarities with existing historical games, many of the problematic aspects of the representation of history and relations between nations found in other historical games recur in these kinds of mobile games. Use of the tech tree, often criticised for its teleological approach to scientific ‘progress’, is frequent, as in Sim Empire and Rise of Cultures.3 It is also notable that many technologies in this part of the gameplay of Rise of Cultures require conquest to unlock, and to progress along the tree.
This is part of Rise of Cultures’ particularly colonialist approach to relations with other nations, in that certain NPC and thus ‘othered’ cultures relate to the ‘player’s culture’ purely as locations to be effectively exploited; at certain points in the campaign, leaders from these cultures are met via expansionist conquest, and these leaders then hand over control of their lands in order to enable the player to create and use “goods” from those cultures, which are not producible in the player’s main established city. Indeed, the frequency of words “Empire” in the titles and descriptions of these games (as in the city-builders listed above), gives a fairly obvious indication that this is a shared approach to history and statehood, as both are envisaged in many of these games.
Rise of Cultures also replicates one of the issues associated with the Civilization series; entire ‘cultures’ are represented by individual leaders as if these stand in for all the varied peoples of a civilization, and a ‘great man’ view of history is developed as a result, along with a diminishing view of the agency of other people or peoples who may be involved in events.4
Given the mobile setting of these games, one significant difference in the gameplay mechanics arises, however, in the timing. As with many mobile games, one of the main models of financing is via microtransactions, particularly in the form of paying for speed. Large buildings in later models may take twenty minutes, forty, or multiple hours to build, so players must either dip in and out for short play sessions, or if they want a continuous play session, pay for it. As a result, the relationship between ‘historical time’ and gameplay time is often rather different to that found in other games.5
One further peculiarity of many of these games is the combination of research into obscure details with the divorcing of these details from either the gameplay of the game or a logical use of the material within the ‘game world’. For example, the game Godswar (2009, IGG) asks players to collect ‘warriors’ and ‘partners’ by completing quests, in-game events, or by chance as a result of participating in gameplay (many partners can be ‘met’ by random generation as a result of the ‘stroll’ mechanic). All of the warriors or partners are associated with the Greek world, either mythological or historical. Some of these characters, in both categories, are well-known figures from this world, such as Athena, Orpheus or Sophocles. However, some are best described as obscure, including poets less popular on modern curricula, such as Tyrtaeus or Mimnermus, gods and goddesses such as Glaucus or Aceso, or heroes of myth such as Hyperenor. At the same time, no effort is made to attempt any kind of chronological coherence in the combination of these figures within the game’s notional setting at the start of the Trojan War. Nor is there an obvious logic by which individuals become assigned as “partners” or “warriors”; gods or goddesses can appear in either category, poets are (at least at the start of the game) generally found in ‘partners’, but philosophers can appear among the warriors, and one of the first of these encountered is Solon, himself a poet as well as a philosopher. Historical and mythological characters wander freely across both categories.
Similarly, the time management series of the 12 Labours of Hercules games (Zoom Out Games, 2013+) feature more or less familiar details such as Hercules’ connections with the Hydra, Cerberus, Heracles’ wife Megara, and his dealing with the Stygian birds, but combine these in the first game with a plot more reminiscent of the Orpheus myth, in which Hercules must rescue his wife from the Underworld. The design of Hades in this game perhaps also indicates the influence of Disney’s (1997) Hercules. The game also finishes by projecting Hades into a role similar to that of Atlas after Hercules’ success (see screenshot below), thus again mixing traditional elements with a relatively casual approach to the myth’s usual features.
Mobile gaming has also opened up ancient world games in genres which do not typically appear on PC or console gaming platforms. For example, the ‘survivor’ mode of game which includes multiple medieval examples on PC such as Medieval Dynasty, but does not include popular ancient world versions. This genre does include an ancient world setting on mobile platforms, however, in the form of Gladiators: Survival in Rome. In these games, the player builds a ‘settlement’ alongside exploring and completing quests; in this case, a Roman villa after an attack by deserting legionaries.
Mobile games also feature a very popular genre of games in the form of the ‘chapter’ stories of Choices (2018, 50M+ downloads from the Google Play Store), Episode (2013, 100M+ downloads), Chapters (2017, 10M+ downloads), Romance Club (2018, 10M+ downloads), Scripts (2020, 1M+ downloads) and many others. These games take the form of a type of interactive graphic novel, with players able to ‘read’ books which have a certain number of chapters, and make choices of dialogue or plot to advance the story in particular directions. Most of these are romance focused (as the name of Romance Club makes explicit). They feature ‘premium choices’ which require the players to spend in-game currency (which can also be purchased as a microtransaction) often either for cosmetic outfits or for special scenes, many of which advance a romantic or sexual relationship with a particular character. A surprising number of these apps feature stories including ancient world material, either historical or mythological.
In Choices, the story “A Courtesan of Rome” places the main character in the last weeks of the republic (with a rather adjusted chronology), fighting against her nemesis, Caesar himself.
Romance Club presents a creative Titanomachy-inspired story of gods and titans reincarnated as present-day students (primarily), with a plot driven by the main character’s growing awareness of the reality of stories she’d previously dismissed as myths, and a gladiator story set in a science-fiction “New Roman Empire.”
Chapters includes a short story in which you play as Cupid’s daughter in modern-day America, trying to recover the power of Cupid’s arrows to restore love to the world after a disaster.
Scripts (another game by IGG, and in many ways the most sexually-focused of these apps) has the story “Love in the Arena”, again set in the Roman Republic, in which you play as the wife of a lanista and find love with a gladiator, and “Cupid in Love”, a story featuring a romance with Cupid in a modern-day setting.
What makes these games particularly interesting is their genre and audience; the romance focus of these games in particular is aimed at a young female audience: rather different to the assumed audience of many PC and console games. As a result, the vast majority of protagonists in these games, classical or otherwise, are female (all of the protagonists of the stories listed here are female), and there is more attention paid to the potential experiences of women in the historically-set games than is often usual.6
The levels of engagement with these apps is also significant (with, as noted, multiple instances of over 10 million downloads for these apps, and some with significantly more), and while they often show the same types of creativity of engagement discussed above, players often expect aspects of a “real” historical or mythological element to come in. For example, one commentor on the story “Cupid in Love” in Scripts claimed (perhaps not without a tongue-in-cheek tone) “This app teaches us Greek mythology better than our history teachers,” and multiple reviewers also commented on the relationship between the story and the myths they had learned in college courses.7 Commentators on Choices’ “A Courtesan of Rome” described the story as “a[n] insight into history” and “driven by real history.”8 These games thus tap into often very different audiences than those expected to play strategy or other more ‘traditional’ genres of historical games, and yet are valued for their historical content just as games such as Total War might be.
This is only a handful of the games featuring the ancient world which appear across mobile platforms. But what it demonstrates is persistent engagement with the ancient world across a range of genres, both those represented by PC and console gaming, and those which are entirely limited to mobile gaming. If we wish to really appreciate the types of engagement with the ancient world experienced by game players, therefore, we must begin to recognise those millions of players finding this engagement on their mobile phones. Given the range of genres represented in mobile form, we also have in these games the opportunity to examine a much wider range of types of engagement with the ancient world by both players and developers than is found in more ‘traditional’ gaming landscapes. Gaming often presents a limited or one-sided view of history or myth as it is; we cannot afford to limit that view further by ignoring or dismissing such a significant body of evidence as mobile games prove to be.
Kate Cook (@KatExe) is an Associate Lecturer in Classics at the University of St Andrews. She is the co-editor of Women in Classical Video Games (2022, Bloomsbury), and contributed the chapter “It’s the most freedom a woman can have”: Gender, Genre and Agency in Choices: A Courtesan of Rome.” She has additional forthcoming publications on agency and ‘historical sexism’ in the game Expeditions: Rome, and on the reception of Persephone in recent video games. She has also published on gender and language in Greek tragedy.
Chess, S. and Paul, C.A. (2019) ‘The End of Casual: Long Live Casual’, Games and Culture 14, 107–18
Clare, R. (2021) Ancient Greece and Rome in Videogames: Representation, Play, Transmedia (London)
Cook, K. (2022) ‘“It’s the most freedom a woman can have”: Gender, Genre and Agency in Choices: A Courtesan of Rome’, in J. Draycott and K. Cook (eds), Women in Classical Video Games (London) 223–36
Draycott, J. and Cook, K. (eds) (2022) Women in Classical Video Games (London)
Economou, M. (2015) ‘Heritage in the Digital Age’, in W. Logan, M. N. Craith and U. Kockel (eds), A Companion to Heritage Studies 215–28
Ford, D. (2016) ‘“eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate”: Affective Writing of Postcolonial History and Education in Civilization V’, Game Studies 16.2, 11
Ghys, T. (2012) ‘Technology trees: Freedom and determinism in historical strategy games’, Game Studies 12, 143–52
Luiro, E., Hannula, P., Launne, E., Mustonen, S., Westerlund, T. and Häkkilä, J. (2019) ‘Exploring local history and cultural heritage through a mobile game’, in Proceedings of the 18th International Conference on Mobile and Ubiquitous Multimedia (MUM ’19 ) (New York, NY, USA) 1–4
Malegiannaki, I. and Daradoumis, Τ. (2017) ‘Analyzing the educational design, use and effect of spatial games for cultural heritage: A literature review’, Computers & Education 108, 1–10
McCall, J. (2022). ‘Mobile Civilization Building Genre (Draft)’ Gaming the Past. Available at: https://gamingthepast.net/2022/11/06/mobile-civilization-building-genre-draft/ [Accessed: 29 November 2022].
McCall, J.B. (2023) Gaming the past: using video games to teach secondary history (Second Edition) (New York)
Poblocki, K. (2002) ‘Becoming-state. Bio-cultural imperialism of Sid Meier’s Civilization.’, Focaal: European Journal of Anthropology 39, 163–77
pokemonmasterlucario (2020). ‘A Courtesan of Rome is a underappreciated book with a insight into history and holds one of the best plotlines within Choices’ r/Choices. Available at: http://www.reddit.com/r/Choices/comments/g9s3l3/a_courtesan_of_rome_is_a_underappreciated_book/ [Accessed: 21 November 2022].
Rallis, I., Kopsiaftis, G., Kalisperakis, I., Stentoumis, C., Koutsomitsos, D. and Riga, V. (2022) ‘A mobile game for enhancing Tourism and Cultural Heritage’, Procedia Computer Science 204, 513–18
Rollinger, C. (2020) Classical Antiquity in Video Games: Playing with the Ancient World (London)
1 Of the volumes on classics & video games recently released (Clare (2021); Rollinger (2020); Draycott and Cook (2022)), only one features mobile games, in the form of my own chapter (Cook (2022)). A lack of attention to mobile games is not limited to writing specifically in historical video games studies: Chess and Paul (2019) have indicated that the same lack exists in journalism and other academic writing on games. One area where mobile gaming has been particularly successful and which has been explored in research is the use of mobile games or apps as part of heritage work, see for example Economou (2015) 221–22; Rallis et al. (2022); Luiro et al. (2019); Malegiannaki and Daradoumis (2017).
2 McCall (2022) has looked briefly at these games.
3 Ford (2016) 2–3; Ghys (2012).
4 Poblocki (2002) 173; McCall (2023) 87–88.
5 I will be exploring this issue further at a workshop on ‘virtual time travel’ in Bristol in May 2023.
6 Choices: A Courtesan of Rome is particularly interesting in this regard, and I have written at length about it in Cook (2022).
7 Tess (29-10-21) on Scripts: Episodes and Choices (2020) Version 2.06. [Mobile App] Google Play Store: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.igg.android.scriptsuntoldsecrets&hl=en_GB&gl=US
8 pokemonmasterlucario (2020).