An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

May 31, 2016

Kline (ed): Digital Gaming Re-imagines the Middle Ages


Kline, Daniel T (ed.). Digital Gaming Re-imagines the Middle Ages. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Reviewed by Helen Young (

Digital Gaming Re-imagines the Middle Ages is the first, and to date only, edited collection dedicated to the vast and expanding field of medievalist (or neomedievalist) digital games. It is a well-structured and comprehensive entry point into the body of scholarship on such works, and an important intervention into the broader field of studies of history it is constructed in digital games. The book has eighteen short chapters, divided into six unequal parts. The breadth of coverage that this structure enables is an important feature of the book, which is might be best thought of as beginning a number of conversations about medievalism and gaming rather than seeking to contain any one aspect of the field. This review takes parts rather than the chapters as its points of departure. 

Kline’s introduction draws lays out the theoretical structures which underpin the chapters, drawing on concepts of neomedievalism and game theory. The introduction balances the needs of its probable audience—scholars who are specialists in either field encountering the other for the first time—admirably, introducing potentially new terms and ideas without oversimplifying or being overwhelming. It is a good introduction to the overlapping fields as well as to the book. 

Part One, “Prehistory of Medieval Gaming,” has only William J. White’s contribution exploring the legacies of table-top role-playing games (RPGs) in medievalist digital games. The chapter offers some interesting insights into the ways ludic structures move from the analog to the digital. If there is one criticism to be made it is that Dungeons & Dragons, the most widely played RPG of the pre-digital era is mentioned only in passing. This chapter doesa not consider fantasy games as such, leaving a significant gap in the history given that Part Three is devoted to the fantasy behemoth World of Warcraft.

The four chapters of Part Two, “Gaming Re-imagines Medieval Traditions,” admirably avoid merely bemoaning historical inaccuracies without simply ignoring them. The collectively reflect the current tenor of adaptation studies—albeit none use that frame explicitly—exploring the significance and meaning of changes from source texts in the case of Candace Barrington’s and Timothy English’s chapter on Beowulf: The Game (based on Zemecki’s film not the poem), and from history and historical material in the other three which thematically explore empire-building, warfare, and the re-making of romance heroism for twentieth-century audiences each focusing on a single game or series.The resulting explorations of the tensions between game-play and history are enlightening, highlighting the particular challenges and affordances of constructing history through the medium of digital gaming. The chapters, both separately and together, illuminate the filtering imposed by the history which is intermediate between the medieval and the contemporary, a core tenet of neomedievalism.

Parts Three and Four are case studies, each containing four chapters, of the fantasy RPG World of Warcraft and the action-adventure game Dante’s Inferno respectively. Given the vast number of medievalist games available in the past decade or so, considering some in detail and from varying perspectives is a useful approach. World of Warcraft is said by game-maker Blizzard to be the most played RPG ever with about 12 million subscribers at its peak, although that number has now at least halved. The size of the player base (past or present), its influence on other fantasy games, and the wealth of existing scholarship warrants the in-depth treatment given in Part Three. The first chapter examines the treatment of digital objects in the game world, and the second takes the 2008 expansion pack “Wrath of the Lich King” as a subversion of Arthurian romance. The explorations of gender and sexuality in the third and fourth chapters take up significant themes around identity which are current in videogame studies and divisive among players and within the industry at present. Nonetheless, one criticism of this Part is that no chapter engages with the large body of scholarship on race in World of Warcraft. This lack of discussion of a significant structuring dimension of most RPGs extends throughout the collection. 

Dante’s Inferno is a less successful game in terms of player numbers and critical reception, but offers a useful counterpoint to World of Warcraft in Part Four because it at least purports to be a direct adaptation of a medieval source text. The majority of medievalist videogames—whether situated in the historical or fantasy genre—do not do so. Bruno Lessard’s opening chapter in the section addresses the question head-on in its opening paragraph, arguing that the critical dismissal of the game as “an unsuccessful attempt” at adaptation represents a failure of understanding, not of the game itself. This takes up a point made more or less obliquely in multiple chapters: that ‘accuracy’ is a false goal when it comes to digital games; they are always simulacra which seek to do more than merely simulate the medieval. Chapter eleven examines masculinities, the next embodiment in the virtual world of the game. The final chapter argues that the game has teaching potential not despite but because of its anachronisms as it presents that past as a simpler time with its own possibility for pedagogy in the present, a treatment of history the authors also find in medieval texts. 

Part Five, “Theoretical and Representational Issues in Medieval Gaming,” is perhaps the least coherent of the sections, with chapters taking various approaches to what Kline terms “broad thematic concerns” in his introduction: maps; books; technology; and the Templars. Nonetheless, a broad interest in game knowledge and epistemologies can be discerned among them. The closing section, “Sociality and Social Media in Medieval Gaming,” has only a single chapter. Serina Patterson examines the relatively form of digital gaming which exists on social networking platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter.

Each of the chapters in Digital Gaming Re-imagines the Middle Ages makes an interesting and valuable contribution individually, while the whole offers a detailed overview of a complex and vast field of study. The authors are approximately evenly divided between specialists in medieval studies and medievalism, and game and cultural studies, resulting in a breadth of approaches and theoretical positions. The collection has been admirably edited to manage this variety with the result that it forms a coherent whole from chapters that are accessible from both fields. 

Helen Young

La Trobe University