Man, monster, or both? Bringing Beowulf to the gaming sphere

Students at UCL have contributed to a gaming project that is designed to engage people with literature and question the stereotypes that ‘demonise’ video-game players. (Originally posted on London Connection.)

'Grendel', by a theatre group with the University of Sydney for Playing Beowulf

‘Grendel’, by a theatre group with the University of Sydney for Playing Beowulf

Students at University College London are involved in the design of a computer game based around the Anglo-Saxon epic poem, Beowulf.

The game, part of a project called Playing Beowulf, advances a theme in role-playing and strategy games that gives game-players the option to play ‘evil’.

The Dungeon Keeper series by Bullfrog / Electronic Arts, which began in the mid-1990s, was a leading exponent of the genre. It challenged players to build a dungeon and then protect it from ‘heroes’ that would attempt to claim the realm back.

Dungeon Keeper Temple

Going back a thousand years in literary history, Beowulf, one of the oldest pieces of literature in English, creates deliberate parallels between the ‘hero’, Beowulf, and Grendel, his foe. Both are described as aglӕca, a term that could equally mean ‘hero’ or ‘monster’.

In a workshop run by Dr Victoria Symons and Professor Richard North of UCL, keen-eyed students suggested a creative twist that would bring to the game the layers of ambiguity between man and monster that exist in the poem.

The students suggested that first-person perspective could be used to keep players unaware of which character they are directing. Players must discover for themselves whether they are the man or the monster.

The students also wanted to include a prologue that would introduce players to manuscript culture and book history.

‘Genius’

Dr Symons, Teaching Fellow in Old and Middle English at UCL, described the students’ ideas as ‘genius’.

“One of the things that Beowulf plays around with is the difference between being a monster and being human,” she said.

“Our students had this genius idea that you’d enter a room where you’d either be Beowulf or you’d be Grendel, but because it’s first person you can’t look at yourself and you don’t know which character you are.”

To put their ideas in motion, the students used Missionmaker Beowulf, a gaming engine that enables users to customise a level by adding elements from the poem to create challenges for the player. (See the results below.)

The software is scheduled for release later this year.

Engage with texts

Playing Beowulf is a collaboration between the UCL Institute of Education (IOE), UCL English, and the British Library. It is led by the Digital Arts Research Education (DARE), a partnership between the IOE and the British Film Institute, which focuses on the use of digital arts in education.

One of the messages that the teams associated with the project wish to raise is greater awareness of the digitisation of texts.

The one original copy of Beowulf, which was damaged by fire in the 1600s, is currently housed in the British Library. The manuscript was part of the library’s first major digitisation project 20 years ago, and it is now freely available online.

Stella Wisdom, Digital Curator at the British Library, said collaboration and digital development has made it much easier for people to engage with reproductions of original texts.

“The University of Kentucky team who the library originally worked with on digitising the manuscript have just released a fourth edition, and it’s online and it’s free use . That happened while we were doing Playing Beowulf,” she said.

The co-director of DARE, Professor Andrew Burn, says gaming can help readers at all levels to engage with classic texts.

“We’re working on the final version of Missionmaker Beowulf for use in libraries and education, and we plan next to move on to Shakespeare,” he said.

Engage with real issues

Another issue under the spotlight is the ‘demonisation’ of gamers by those who associate video game violence with violent crime.

Abel Drew of the IOE said the ongoing stereotype of gamers as “antisocial teenage boy is a darkened room” is both outdated and counterproductive.

“There are kids out there with real issues being swept under the carpet because of the notion of big bad videogamers and the ‘gamer’,” he said.

He also suggests that the presence of weapons in games can help to educate young people about the dangers associated with video game violence.

“In the original Missionmaker there was a Raygun item,” he explains. “I’ve run workshops with this version and, without fail, at least one teacher in every class will raise the concern about guns and violence in games.

“But without the gun, how can you have the conversation?”

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