Rhetoric, Embodiment, Play: Game Design as Critical Practice in the Art History of Pompeii

David Fredrick


This paper explores the consequences of using the game engine Unity to construct 3-D models of Pompeian houses, linked to art and spatial databases, as an ongoing research colloquium for advanced undergraduate and graduate students in the humanities. Rather than serving as a neutral piece of visualization software, the game engine functions as critical tool because, more than any other visualization platform, it permits real time, embodied movement through the houses. One outcome of such embodied movement has been the recognition that the traditional vocabulary for describing space in Pompeii is inadequate, and a much more careful methodology is required, using network topology and visibility graph analysis to establish spatial profiles for the rooms. As they construct the models in Unity, students also encounter the contradiction between the texture pipeline used to produce immersion in games and the emphasis on accuracy and scientific objectivity found in cultural heritage discourse, a discourse which paradoxically also stresses immersion. Finally, the game engine encourages students to consider the rhetoric of embodied play in the Pompeian decorative ensembles themselves. Rather than a static, hierarchical structure or strictly linear progression, this rhetoric rather seems procedural, stressing dynamic, emergent meaning revealed through exploration along a variety of paths. The House of Octavius Quartio illustrates this rhetorical play, as its mythological repertoire moves between a Cartesian subject position distant from the body and in control of the landscape and an anamorphic subject position close to the body and immersed in the landscape, represented through the reflection of Narcissus and the dismemberment of Actaeon. The movement between Cartesian and anamorphic subjectivity is further mapped onto gender in the sculpture of Hermaphroditus which was discovered by the rear exit of the house.