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Angus Mol: ‘It all began when I saw Super Mario Bros at a friend’s house.’

He was so disappointed that he couldn't go on that archaeological field trip to the Caribbean, he spent most of his time at his computer working on his dissertation instead. But that didn't keep him from gaming from time to time, a personal passion that ultimately led to his current job. Since February of last year, Angus Mol (34) has been a lecturer at the Leiden University Centre for Digital Humanities (LUCDH).

Every cloud has a silver lining

‘My interest in video games started when I was about six years old, when I saw Super Mario Bros for the first time at a friend’s house. But the first time I ever did anything with video games and saw their value was during my PhD on Caribbean archaeology where I was using digital tools to explore how ‘new cultures’ come about. Unfortunately, I couldn't go along on an archaeological field trip that summer in 2012 because I needed to finish my dissertation. But even during the writing process I still managed to game quite a bit. At a certain point I started recognising elements from my own research in those games, such as the way that people in the games were constantly trading using digital objects and the way that social networks developed out of that. I then wrote a short paper on the subject in The Cambridge Archaeological Review and the ball really got rolling.’

Knowledge at play

‘Games are a sort of storytelling: history becomes interactive; you’re right in the middle of it and you discover multiple storylines and perspectives. A good example of this is Assassin’s Creed, where you can walk through splendid 3D cities from Ancient Egypt, Greece, or France in the time of the French Revolution. Another example, and my own personal favourite, is Civilization, in which you preside over all sorts of civilisations at various periods of time. This game also engages with current topics, such as climate change. The value of video games lies in their use as theory and as a tool for understanding both the past and the present. Additionally, the way the video games are designed says quite a bit about how we think about the past and the present. From a humanities perspective, that’s very interesting, not because a game is historically accurate, but precisely because it isn’t.’

Our faculty as a place for dialogue and discussion

‘The Leiden University Centre for Digital Humanities (LUCDH) has not existed for very long; it officially opened in 2016. It was established because we want to look at digital tools from a humanities perspective, to provide a foundation for the digital domain, which is becoming more and more important. In video games, for example, people acquire knowledge and experience about the past in a way that takes place outside of the academic context. That is where LUCDH can contribute by initiating dialogue. I think that these are discussions that should be given a place within the Faculty of the Humanities. Together with my colleagues I'm teaching, with the idea of further developing digital humanities teaching and research in our faculty. We also give advice to colleagues that have questions about how to imbed digital tools within their own research.’

Making history accessible

‘Videogaming isn’t always taken seriously, but when people actually see it, they immediately understand it, regardless of how old they are. With VALUE, a non-profit foundation that builds bridges between videogames and the academic world, we organise public-oriented activities in museums, galleries, and libraries to show the connection between history and digital media. We make history accessible, something that is often difficult for these kinds of institutions, especially for a young audience. But it isn't only young people who like video games. I can give you an excellent example: in the Museum of Antiquities there was an elderly woman, about 80 years old if I had to guess, who had difficulty walking. She came in the morning, and I think that she spent the whole day watching a large screen on which we were digitally rebuilding the Gates of Nineveh in Minecraft.’ 

An involved father, former hockey player, beginning archer

‘I have a daughter who is two and a half years old; I get a lot of energy out of being a parent. In evenings and weekends, I free up time for her. I also used to be a fanatical hockey player, but I can’t do that very well any more due to back problems. Not long ago, I started doing archery at a club in Oegstgeest. You might also think of that as something historical, but you can also think of it as something purely technical. It’s not terribly physical; you don’t come home exhausted, but it’s a wonderful way to use your body in a completely deliberate way. That’s not something you do a whole lot when you’re in the office. And what else do I do? Enjoy life. I’ve got a dog that I enjoy taking to the beach, that sort of thing. There are still enough things going on outside of the virtual world!’

In the Humans of Humanities series, we will do a portrait of one of our researchers, staff members or students, every other week. Who are they, and what do they do? You can find more portraits and information on this page.

Lieselotte van de Ven 
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