James Baillie is a historian who specialises on digital methods for the study of medieval history, on the history of the Caucasus region, and on the representation of history in games. He is also a game modder and developer whose work has been featured in Rock Paper Shotgun, the co-founder of the Exilian game development community, and the convenor of the Coding Medieval Worlds workshop series which builds connections and idea-sharing between medieval historians and game developers.
From Vardzia to Val Royeaux: Identity, Oppression and Power between Medieval Caucasia and Modern Games
FROG 2022 – Talk
Role-playing games tend, regardless of implied setting, to represent underlying dynamics of power and oppression that are familiar to modern audiences. This may mean importing analogous factions and beliefs, or othering problems of power and oppression to create a more fantastical setting where the player is discouraged from engaging with those societal dynamics. In the case of medieval and medieval-fantasy settings, this poses two risks: it risks absolving modernity of the horrors the player witnesses by reassuring them that they are engaging only with a distant past imaginary, and it can also risk portraying such dynamics as eternal and thus inevitable.
In this paper, I will unpack these problems by examining a real medieval society, that of the 12th century Caucasus. In doing so I will compare its historical dynamics of power and identity to those presented in modern medieval-fantasy games, both bringing in examples from major published CRPGs and using reflections from my own game design work. Through examining how people in its medieval past navigated their religiously and ethnically diverse world, the Caucasus can show us alternative ways that state and royal power, factionalism, and identity can function in our ludic imaginings of the medieval. These, in turn, potentially transform our play with the imagined past – reshaping medievalist games from systems that portray these dynamics as inevitable into routes through which they can be questioned and reimagined.