Classics for Modern Use
BY JACK EMMERT
Jack, a classics graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, University of Chicago, and Ohio state University, currently works in the video game industry.
I’ve been making video games for over seventeen years. I co-founded Cryptic Studios back in 2000 and designed all five of the games we released. Starting out as a designer, I worked my way through the ranks as lead designer, Creative Director, Chairman of the Board, Chief Creative Officer, COO, and ultimately became CEO of the company. I also led Cryptic through two major acquisitions. Last year, I decided that I needed a change and became the CEO of Daybreak’s Austin studio.
I frequent panels and conferences across the country (and occasionally the world not just to continue learning, but to also share knowledge I’ve gathered throughout my career. I especially enjoy traveling to universities and talking about my experiences. But inevitably the question comes up, “what did you do before you founded Cryptic Studios?” Most people assume that I must have had a long career of working my way up at one of the established video game companies before I would make the precarious leap into a startup. My answer never ceases to astonish people: “I was working on my PhD in Greek and Latin at the Ohio State University. Frankly, I have loved Classics ever since middle school. I studied Latin through high school, majored in Classical Civilization at the University of Pennsylvania, and received a MA in the Committee on the Ancient Mediterranean World at the University of Chicago. I took a year off, and then returned to academia at Ohio State. Ostensibly, there seems to be little crossover between Classics and video game design, let alone executive management. In reality, I believe that all of my early studies were integral to preparing me for my career.
One of the most bandied about terms in any video game company is “vision.” Every game needs a coherent vision that a team unites behind since most games I’ve made take many years and millions of dollars to complete. A successful vision keeps the project on track through the dog days of development and gets the team focusing on successful completion. A great lead designer should be able to close his eyes and picture just about every detail of the game. Even more importantly, they must be able to communicate it. That is exactly what classics was to me: a continual process of visualizing the ancient world.
When I read ancient Greek and Roman works, I wasn’t simply reading a story. Each word carried with it centuries of history. I always read these works in a context of understanding the culture and history behind it. When reading Cicero, I would consult the maps and recreations of the Forum, so that I could better understand his orations. I’d look up every phrase that Cicero used to understand the notion of each word so that I could appreciate his singular brilliance all the more. Studying Classics was one gigantic “vision” where I drew from a variety of sources in order to recreate the ancient world in my mind.
Nearly every Classics student (especially in grad school) has been given a seemingly impossible assignment. For example, I remember receiving in my Greek survey course the assignment to read a whole book of the Iliad in a week. Naturally, this meant a lot of late nights and many cups of coffee. But I surveyed it. I can also recall a class at the University of Chicago where our paper assignments were due the first week of class, even before I had learned a thing about the subject. I madly dove into research in order to find a suitable topic. Or the memorable couple of nights where I had to write the Gettysburg address in Ciceronian prose – and then Caesarian prose. All of these assignments were tough; there were a lot of late nights. And weekends? I can’t think of one where I didn’t work at the library (Sat. and Sun. I’d only stay till 5pm though). The years of Classics taught me that I could do a lot that I thought I couldn’t, if only I applied enough hard work to it.
Another hidden benefit of Classics was the ability to understand programming, at least at a basic level. Learning any language expands a person’s analytical abilities; students typically learn the grammatical underpinnings alongside the vocabulary. In other words, studying language expands the ability to break down a language on an abstract level. Since Latin and Greek area almost exclusively written languages, there is no fluid way to learn it. We can’t go into restaurants or live abroad to pick it up conversationally. In this way, learning Greek and Latin is just like learning a programming language. Programming languages are entirely “grammatical” – in other words, very strict rules determine the usage of the language’s limited vocabulary. And once you understand the theoretical underpinnings of a programming language, you can understand what it can and can’t do. Learning Greek and Latin puts a person in a unique position to be able to pick up the issues facing game development engineering.
The last advantage Classics provided me is perhaps the most obvious and deceptively valuable. The games I build involve creating a virtual world for thousands of players to interact in for years. It’s no easy thing to generate plausible sounding names for people, places, and the occasional piece of future technology. With my Latin and Greek, I easily generate names for any occasion. Even more important to a virtual world are its history and tales. In order to make a world seem like it is truly alive, we need to invest it with a background that players slowly learn through playing the game. Every character has a backstory; every adventure needs a plot. What better place to mine for ideas than the vast troves of Roman and Greek myths, legends, and history? Many of those tales succeed because their values resonate to us even today.
In short, my years of Latin, ancient Greek, ancient history and archaeology might not have an obvious link to my current career, but I’ve found those years well spent in preparing me for my job. All classicists won’t be able to achieve teaching and doing research at a higher institution. Most of us must transition into some other career. I deeply value every moment I spent on my degree and I use those lessons every day.