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Michael Griffin envisions students creating and sharing 3-D virtual models of ancient Rome or Greece - photo by Martin Dee
Michael Griffin envisions students creating and sharing 3-D virtual models of ancient Rome or Greece - photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 51 | No. 10 | Oct. 6, 2005

3-D Gaming Brings Classics to Life

Students’ brainchild allows learners to enter world of Plato

By Lorraine Chan

What gets UBC classics graduate Michael Griffin really stoked is the idea of providing people with an experience much like the popular game, The Sims -- where players assume cyber characters -- but all set in antiquity’s great cities of Athens, Rome or Babylon.

“It would be quite fun and exciting, where hundreds or thousands of people can interact in the simulated society, simulated economies and politics of the ancient world,” muses Griffin. “For example, we’ve always wondered how the Athenians, despite being desperately outnumbered by the Persians, won the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC.

“Well, with Ancient Spaces you could enter that battle and solve the mystery.”

Ancient Spaces is a UBC website and innovative teaching tool created by Griffin and Jo McFetridge, who graduated with a MA in classical archeology, and Dieter Buys, a computer science student with a passion for online gaming.

During 2003, Griffin, McFetridge and Buys were all working as summer staff at the Faculty of Arts IT help desk. They hatched the idea of using 3-D gaming technology to animate long-ago worlds. For example, students could design virtual replicas of Acropolis structures instead of just reading about them.

“The idea is to put ourselves in the shoes of an architect, philosopher, priest or playwright in ancient Rome and Greece,” says Griffin.

During fall 2003, the three students proposed Ancient Spaces to Shirley Sullivan, then head of the Dept. of Classical Studies, Near Eastern and Religious Studies. Sullivan immediately backed the project. The initiative also won over Ulrich Rauch, Director, Arts Instructional Support and Information Technology (ISIT), who gave $10,000 seed money.

At that point they hired professional IT modelers to create basic building blocks, explains Griffin. “These were like ‘Lego’ pieces so students wouldn’t get bogged down in the technology. They could quickly master the basics and start designing.”

To use the program, students start by viewing a 3-D representation of the Agora, the marketplace and heart of ancient Athens, as empty terrain. They choose a site for their buildings and click on an icon to create a round or geometric shape. Users then fine-tune the structure’s proportions, surface and lighting. To decorate the interiors, students can select from a diverse inventory of 40 objects that include vases, bread, coins, beds and hammers.

During 2003 to 2004, the Dept. of Classical, Near Eastern and Religious Studies successfully piloted Ancient Spaces. Eighteen first-year students produced virtual models of eight Agora buildings, among them the mint, museum and theatre.

“This brings a wonderful channel of learning that’s in tune with kids who have grown up in a video game society,” says Dietmar Neufeld, the department’s associate head.

“Not everyone learns in the same way so this approach really works well for visual or auditory learners,” says Neufeld, whose strong support helped the project garner a $31,000 UBC Teaching Learning Enhancement Fund grant.

He says the hands-on approach of Ancient Spaces requires students to present a rationale for their designs. “Students realize quickly that it’s not about memorizing dates.”

This technology, says Neufeld, helps students connect the dots between past and present and see life in a larger framework.

“By building the world of the ancients, they’re able to see how those historic concerns are still driving humanity today -- questions of identity, survival and territoriality.”

Neufeld says he sees a huge potential for UBC to be at the forefront in developing this educational model.

“This groundbreaking project can create virtual classrooms and online collaboration between institutions.”

This is exactly what Griffin has in mind. Currently a Commonwealth scholar, he’s now at Oxford, in his second year of an MA in classics. While in the U.K., Griffin will continue to work for UBC Arts ISIT in co-ordinating Ancient Spaces.

Griffin says he’ll be looking for ways to foster collaboration between UBC and Oxford. “The plan is to develop a common platform for all universities so it’s dynamic and anyone can edit it and add to it.”

His ultimate vision is to see Ancient Spaces encompass research, teaching and outreach, in addition to the gaming aspect. For example, Griffin says he would love to post the exciting research underway by world-renowned UBC Egyptologist Thomas Hikade in Egypt.

“Prof. Hikade is now excavating at the City of Horus. It’s probably the most important Egyptian site that a Canadian is directing. Quite soon, we’ll be able to post his findings on the true origins of the Egyptian kingship.”

For more information, visit: www.ancientspaces.com.

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Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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