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Rebuilding Palmyra in Minecraft

With RoMeincraft, you get to play the popular computer game Minecraft while learning about the ancient Romans. RoMeincraft, the project of the VALUE Foundation (Videogames and Archaeology at Leiden University), is at the interface between knowledge about the past and computer games.

This is an article in a series on partnerships and societal impact.

VALUE Foundation started out as the hobby project of PhD candidates at the Faculty of Archaeology who had a shared interest in computer games. They realised that many computer games, such as Assassin’s Creed and Civilization, are about the past. VALUE has been an independent, non-profit foundation since 2017. ‘We work on the links between computer games and historical research,’ explains Aris Politopoulos, a lecturer at Leiden University and one of the founder members of VALUE Foundation. ‘The focus lies on the past because VALUE mainly consists of archaeologists and historians.’

RoMeincraft

The PhD candidates began by posting online films in which they play a computer game and provide live commentary and explanations on the archaeological and historical elements that they encounter.

In 2015, they decided to organise an event at the Faculty of Archaeology to reconstruct, in Minecraft, the former Temple of Bel, in the ruins of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. The temple was destroyed in that year by the Islamic State terrorist group. In Minecraft, you can build objects in a world by placing square blocks on a grid. They combined this digital reconstruction project with an academic discussion on the destruction of cultural heritage.

In 2017, the Foundation set up the RoMeincraft project, in collaboration with the Province of Zuid-Holland. Children are invited to reconstruct the Roman forts and other buildings in Minecraft that would have existed around 2,000 years ago in Zuid-Holland. ‘We have repeated similar RoMeincraft projects in Gelderland, Limburg and Flanders,’ says Politopoulos.

Reconstruction of the Temple of Bel in Minecraft

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Interactive Past Conference

VALUE Foundation also organises the biennial Interactive Pasts Conference every other year, in which international historians and archaeologists give presentations on computer games in their field. ‘The first edition in 2016 was a big success,’ says Politopoulos. ‘There were over 100 delegates, and over 600 people watched the online footage.’

And in 2018, the Foundation put on the Culture Arcade exhibition at the Prince Claus Fund Gallery. Visitors could watch and play games that included cultural themes and provided insight into the value of cultural heritage all around the world.

For adults too

Mention computer games and people usually think of children, but the VALUE projects also appeal to adults, says Politopoulos. ‘We see this not only at the conferences but also at our public Minecraft events. Alongside children, lots of adults come to watch and sometimes even play.’

VALUE mainly works with existing games, but in future, they want to do consultancy work for game developers who are developing a game with a historical theme. Politopoulos: ‘We also want to develop our own computer games.

Text: Dorine Schenk
Photo: The Temple of Bel in Palmyra (via Wikipedia)
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