Technology is continuously advancing, and with it, our gaming experiences. From playing Galaga on your Atari 7800, to playing Pokémon on your Gameboy Color, to eventually finding yourself in photorealistic landscapes when playing Red Dead Redemption 2 on your Playstation 4: virtual worlds have become ever more believable.
And yet, the videogame industry has shown no signs of complacency when it comes to technological advancements. One of the most recent breakthroughs is the Virtual Reality (VR) experience. Through the use of VR-headsets, we can now walk through fantastical worlds, experiencing whatever the creators of these worlds imagined as if it was happening right before our very own eyes.
It begs the question: what more could we do with this kind of technology? For example, could we use VR tech to transport us to ancient places like classical Athens, the historic city of Sparta or the imperial capital of Rome? Would we be able to bring the famous people that inhabited these places to life once more?
The question, no doubt, is a tantalizing one. Trying to answer it, however, presupposes a set of underlying questions: Could we, with the amount of information we have left of these historical places, actually provide ‘visitors’ with a correct representation of the past? And more importantly: do we even want to?
A screenshot of Discovery Tour, showing the famous Sphinx.
A Stroll Through Ancient Egypt
But first things first. What would a virtual replica of an historical location actually look like?
Let’s look at a game which already takes place in a historical setting: 2017’s Assassin’s Creed: Origins. This game is set in Ancient Egypt around 49–43 B.C. Under the motto: “making history everyone’s playground”, the creators even made an extra museum-like version of the game called “Discovery Tour”.
This allowed players to follow any of 75 different tours through the game, curated by historians and Egyptologists, to experience Egyptian customs, daily life, and the like. A narrator offers you information about what you are seeing, while images of artifacts from museums or libraries around the world provide you with a link to the actual source material.
All in all, Assassin’s Creed: Origins and its Discovery Tour suggests that representations of the past via digital mediums can be, to a certain point, quite accurate. Sure, we can never know every detail, but incorporating sources and the knowledge of experts into the experience certainly enhances their credibility.
A screenshot of Discovery Tour, showing the city Alexandria.
The Opportunities of VR
Now that we have established that it is actually possible to recreate convincing virtual replicas of our ancient past, we can turn to a different question: would we actually want to revisit history’s most famous locations?
In order to answer that, we need to take a step back, and reconsider the opportunities VR technology provides. Many scholars have investigated the possibilities of VR, 3D environments, and other forms of technology to change the way we view and learn about the past. Among these is Sean Kheraj, who writes about how VR might influence the future of history. Kheraj describes one of the great attributes of VR as being able to provide a ‘sense of presence’, which could therefore enhance history education. Imagine how observant a class of teenagers would be if they’re not just reading about the streets of Rome, but actually would be able to visit them: hear the sounds of screaming merchants or see how different clothes might implicate difference in status.
In fact, VR experiences intended for historical education already exist. Kheraj has shown some great examples of this. The Discovery Tour of Assassin’s Creed: Origins without a doubt belongs to this list as well. Already, technology has made recreating the past continuously easier. Thanks to Google Maps’ Street View for instance, visiting your old neighborhood from a couple of years ago is now just a couple of clicks away.
However, visiting your own childhood home is quite different from recreating ancient Greece. The further we back go, the less digital material we have to work with. Luckily, other sources, like written accounts or painted artefacts, still provide a well of information. And those who have studied these subjects can surely paint a colorful picture of how things would have looked.
The Past is the Future
Would we actually visit these virtual recreations? Again, I believe we would. A common thought is (unfortunately) that history is ‘boring’. Being able to close that huge gap between past and present, to actually experience it, would certainly sound like something many people would be interested in.
And should we invest in what would effectively be VR time machines? We definitely should. Of course, realizing such a new way of teaching would require an enormous amount of effort, time, and resources. But just imagine what we might gain: key figures from the past would become real characters rather than abstract names on a page, long-lost structures may cast their looming shadows over us once more, and era-defining speeches can once again be experienced from the perspective of an enthralled crowd.
In this way, fully embracing the technologies of the future may actually bring us closer to the past than we have ever been before.
Historian, writer, lover of cats
Read our references
-  Mikel Reparaz, Assassin's Creed Origins - Discovery Tour Q&A with Historian Maxime Durand (2018) https://news.ubisoft.com/en-us/article/46PlC3yAeikjDI652TayLm/assassins-creed-origins-discovery-tour-qa-with-historian-maxime-durand.
-  Roel Konijnendijk, The Spartans at war: Myth vs reality (2019) https://www.ancientworldmagazine.com/articles/spartans-war-myth-vs-reality/
-  Sean Kheraj, ‘8. The Presence of the Past: Possibilities of Virtual Reality for History’, in Andrea Eidinger and Krista McCracken, Beyond the Lecture: Innovations in Teaching Canadian History (2019). https://ecampusontario.pressbooks.pub/beyondlecture/chapter/the-presence-of-the-past-the-possibilities-of-virtual-reality-for-history/