photograph by Jamie Betts

Art, history, and imagination

May 23, 2022

Perspective

By Agnieszka Szymanska

Curious about new pedagogical possibilities, assistant professor and art historian Agnieszka Szymanska attended a faculty development workshop on using virtual reality in the classroom. It opened up new ideas about how she could use video games to teach students about ancient art.

The first time I put on the virtual reality headset, I didn’t know what to expect. I was curious, sure, but I was also skeptical. I did the walk-the-plank experience. As someone afraid of heights, I could not bring myself to take a leap. The immersive environment completely overpowered my rational faculties. In the end, I had to close my eyes to “jump.”

My students don’t use virtual reality for class assignments, but I do have them use the video game Assassin’s Creed Origins to explore ancient Egypt. The game’s environment is immersive. One of my favorite places to visit in it is the Great Pyramids of Giza. Using my avatar, I climb to the very top of the tallest pyramid, which is something I have fantasized about doing many times but is off-limits in real life. At first, I was struck by the majesty of these grand monuments in their ancient desert landscape, which made them look exceptionally well-preserved. But the more I explored the cemetery of Giza as a whole, the more I noticed sand-filled chambers and missing stones, signs of aging exhibited by many pharaonic monuments by the time the Romans annexed Egypt, which is when the game is set.

I always have to ask myself what we know, especially when my imagination wants to run wild.
headshot of Agnieszka Szymanska
Agnieszka Szymanska

Assistant Professor of Art History

Despite some historical inaccuracies, the game’s virtual environment is visually stunning, and I am delighted to see Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt as a setting for a blockbuster game series. The word that encapsulates my experience is imagination. As an art historian of premodern Egypt, I need to use a lot of imagination to situate an artwork in its historical context and reconstruct its physical setting while working with oftentimes very fragmentary evidence. 

But I also have to acknowledge the limitations of our knowledge. I always have to ask myself what we know and how we know what we think we know, especially when my imagination wants to run wild. 

On the one hand, I find the experience of playing the game liberating. The game fills in a lot of gaps for which we don’t have much information. It is like a time capsule that offers a past that we can study but can never fully visit. On the other hand, the game does a lot of imagining for us, which means that some players might be tempted to take its virtual environment at face value rather than use their own imaginations to ask important historical questions.

My assignment to students asks them to imagine that the game’s maker, Ubisoft, has recruited them to work as research consultants for Assassin’s Creed Origins. Their job is to examine the historical accuracy of the game’s environment. In order to do that, they must evaluate primary sources used by the game’s developers. They must also offer at least one additional primary source, which can be visual, textual, or archaeological, and grapple with how easy or difficult it is to ascertain the accuracy of the game’s historical setting. In this way, students learn how to look for primary sources, which are foundational tools used in historical interpretation. 

The assignment also encourages students to consider real-world applications of what they learn in an art history course. If you can imagine a distant place a long time ago, then you can imagine what has not happened yet. That skill can be instrumental in correcting a present course of action.