Are you man or monster?

A Beowulf-themed gaming project by UCL academics is opening up literature

By Melissa Bradshaw | UCL Communications

‘Grendel moves through the hall’, made by a youth theatre group working with the University of Sydney, as part of Playing Beowulf

In a battle between a hero and a monster, would you be the man or the monster? And what if you didn’t know which you were?

In the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf, one of the oldest surviving pieces of literature in the English language, there are words and passages that create parallels between the hero Beowulf and the hideous monster Grendel whom he vows to fight and kill.

Beowulf is a Geatish warrior (the Geats were a tribe living in what is now Götaland in Sweden). Grendel is monstrous, but since he is a descendent of Cain, and a ‘man…deprived of joys’ (‘rinc…dreamum bedӕled’), he is also in some way human. He is an outcast who lives in isolation and darkness, bringing cannibalistic terror on the society from which he is excluded.

Both Grendel and the Beowulf are described as aglӕca, a term that means something like ‘monster’, ‘hero’ or ‘warrior’. Beowulf kills Grendel by tearing off his arm and goes on to fight more monsters (Grendel’s mother and, later in life, a dragon).

More than 1,000 years on, UCL students were able to bring Grendel’s character to life in the world of video games, by designing a level of a game that explores the ambiguity between man and monster:

“One of the things that Beowulf plays around with is the difference between being a monster and being human,” says Dr Vicky Symons, a scholar of the Anglo-Saxon period at UCL English.

“Our students had this genius idea that you’d enter a room where you’d either be Beowulf or you’d be Grendel, but because it’s first person you can’t look at yourself and you don’t know which character you are.”

To create their game level, the students used Missionmaker Beowulf, a game design software developed by Playing Beowulf, a collaboration between the UCL Institute of Education (IOE), UCL English and the British Library, led by digital.arts.research.education (DARE). DARE is a partnership between the IOE and the British Film Institute, that focuses on the digital arts in education.

The software enables people to create a level of a game based on Beowulf by providing components from the poem, such as characters, rooms, scenery and weapons — and, of course, manuscripts. They can use these to create problems (including fights) that their players will have to overcome.

In a workshop run by Dr Symons and Professor Richard North of UCL English, the students came with both the idea of making players have to discover whether they are the man or the monster, and with the concept of a prologue that introduces players to the original manuscripts:

Beowulf is written in Old English and its strange language and references can make it seem distant from life today.

“What we’re trying to do with Playing Beowulf is take a very old story and make it immediately accessible to young people through a medium that they understand, and give them an opportunity to be creative and playful with that,” says Stella Wisdom, a Digital Curator at the British Library, who collaborated on the project.

Professor Richard North reads and translates the passage in which Grendel enters the hall

The software is designed to support teaching Beowulf to school and university students, or alternatively to use Beowulf to teach students about game design.

“You can take anything you like really and I think the people that make the game can learn little bits of Beowulf in different ways,” says Dr Alison Gazzard, Lecturer in Media Arts and Education at the IOE and member of DARE. “Your game could be about thinking about genre or characters and character types and then what games are, so you could rewrite Beowulf for a modern day audience and then translate that into a game.”

The resulting level doesn’t have to reflect the plot of the poem, but by allowing users to take a part of the story and bring it to virtual life, the software enables students and players alike to grapple hands on with Beowulf’s intriguing and timeless themes.

Beowulf: the proto video game

Translated many times and reworked in popular culture, notably in Robert Zemeckis’s 2007 computer animated film version, Beowulf is particularly apt for adaptation as a game. The poem has a similar structure to games, says Abel Drew, a Developer and Games Designer at the UCL IOE, who designed Missionmaker Beowulf. “There are, essentially, three boss fights, increasing in difficulty, with each fight offering greater rewards. First Grendel, then Grendel’s mother, then the dragon.

Fighting the dragon, in a game level made by a young game-designer at Game City

“The story has a flow between high and low stress, and videogames are often designed in a way that the player must overcome some larger difficulty, but then the difficulty eases off a little before it builds up again. Constant difficulty leads to frustration and, conversely, if the game is too easy it leads to boredom.”

To decide what the game components should look like, DARE Co-director Professor Andrew Burn, Drew and Symons consulted the original manuscript and various translations and adaptations. There were some problems to solve.

After some debate about the objectification of women in video games and in Zemeckis’s adaptation (in which Grendel’s mother is reinterpreted as a seductress played by Angelina Jolie), the team decided to include a ‘sexualised’ female character so that students can discuss this kind of representation. (Many critics prior to Zemeckis’s film noted that the fight between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother in the poem is also sexually suggestive.) There was also the question of representing the violence inherent in the story.

“I’m interested that the world sees video games as being about more than violence and negative combat sort of games,”

Wisdom says. “However, obviously with Beowulf’s action scenes it is very easy to translate into a gaming environment. And when we were doing the workshop with the 10 to 12-year-old children at Game City (the world’s first National Videogame Arcade in Nottingham), they were interested in making the characters fight.”

Missionmaker Beowulf is a new version of Missionmaker, a software package that was originally developed in a project directed by Burn and Professor David Buckingham. Drew adds that the package is also helping teachers talk about violence in games. “In the original Missionmaker there was a Raygun item,” he says. “I’ve run workshops with this version and, without fail, at least one teacher in every class will raise the concern about guns and violence in games. But without the gun, how can you have the conversation?”

You might even say that Grendel is the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the ‘gamer’ in today’s popular imagination.

‘Grendel moves through the hall’, made by a youth theatre group working with the University of Sydney, as part of Playing Beowulf

Both are fictional outsiders who threaten normal society with violence and destruction. “The popular notion of a ‘gamer’,” says Drew, “is still the antisocial teenage boy sitting in a darkened room. This idea seems to have gone on a little too long now — it feels a bit like still having the video nasty conversation 20 years after everyone’s forgotten about it. There are kids out there with real issues being swept under the carpet because of the notion of big bad videogames and the ‘gamer’.”

Two hundred academics rejected this demonisation of gamers last year when they signed an open letter criticising a review suggesting a link between violent video games and aggression. They argued that the methodology was flawed and a significant amount of the research had not been peer reviewed. Research like this that associates videogames with violence and addiction, Drew thinks, is sensationalistic and “actively gets in the way of real research”.

In this light, a game that makes the person playing it wonder if they are a monster like Grendel seems particularly astute.

“Maybe Grendel was just misunderstood too,” Drew jokes. “Although he did eat people, so I think we can say he was much worse than a ‘gamer’.”

The medium and the message

Another theme raised by the project is the challenge that human and technological evolution pose to the concepts of literature, literacy and storytelling.

In Anglo-Saxon poetry, as Dr Symons has shown, there is an anxiety about the status of language at a time of material upheaval, when stories and poems that were previously orally transmitted began to be written down. Symons compares this “seismic shift” with changes happening today.

There is only one original copy of Beowulf, kept in the British Library, and it was damaged in a fire in the late 17th century, when it was housed in the Cotton collection.

Page from the Beowulf manuscript held by the British Library, Shelfmark: Cotton MS Vitellius A.XV

Digitising the manuscript in the early 1990s was the British Library’s first major digitisation project. “And what’s really cool,” says Wisdom, “is that the University of Kentucky team who the library originally worked with on digitising the manuscript have just released a fourth edition, and it’s online and it’s free use — that happened while we were doing Playing Beowulf.”

As an example of rapid material change, the digitisation of Beowulf proves how digital media can enrich rather than detract from people’s engagement with literature. Previously, Electronic Beowulf was only available to buy on CD-ROM from the British Library, but now it is available to everyone on the internet.

“Now you’ve got multispectral images of the manuscript. It’s been scanned with infrared and ultraviolet, so you can see the lost text,” explains Wisdom. “There are also digitised images of old translations so you can compare them to the original text.”

Playing with literature?

“Games have always taken influence from literature,” Wisdom notes. Indeed the accusation of mindless violence has been repeatedly levelled at Beowulf as well as computer games. J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay ‘Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics’ famously criticised the tendency to dismiss Beowulf as a bit low culture, for dealing with silly fights and monsters.

Zemeckis’s film also met with the same criticism. But there is in fact a direct literary influence from Beowulf on modern gaming, so much of which is influenced by The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings: Tolkien’s stories use many of the tropes of Beowulf, including companionship, rings and a gold-hoarding dragon. Just as there was resistance to Beowulf as serious literature, there has been resistance to accepting the literary and educational value of games, says Wisdom:

“A couple of years ago people were asking what gaming had to do with the library, how can you teach literature via games? But every project I do helps win that argument.”

As well as addressing the relationship between violence, gaming and literature, Playing Beowulf takes the poem full circle. “The point of the software package is not so much about the end result,” says Emily Klimova, a UCL English PhD researcher. In the workshops with UCL students she co-designed a game in which the player has to follow manuscript leaves torn from the volume to find textual clues about Grendel’s approach. “It’s about being able to make a story with that package, which leads to some really interesting ideas to do with narrative and storytelling, like how do you lead the player in a certain direction?”

Beowulf manuscript game

“It’s very interesting to look at Beowulf that way because there’s still a lot of debate about whether it’s one whole story or if it’s made up of lots of different bits,” says Klimova. “My pet theory is that everything used to be an oral story that gets written down, and the storyteller will reweave it again every time.”

“Gaming is a kind of storytelling, isn’t it?” she says. “You get good and evil, and you get to interact with your environment, and I think Missionmaker Beowulf allows you to do that and say ‘this is what a cave looks like, and I’m going to make growly sounds over here and a puddle over there…’ It brings it to life for you.”

Gaming certainly poses a challenge to traditional ideas about the text and authorship. If Beowulf was originally made from different stories passed on orally, though, then Missionmaker Beowulf takes the game author back to the poem’s origins. They are put in the place of the poet who must build a story out of the elements handed to them and organise the timeless themes of man, language and monstrosity.

“The project showed that game design helps readers at all levels to understand classic texts in fresh ways,” Professor Burn says. “We’re working on the final version of Missionmaker Beowulf for use in libraries and education, and we plan next to move on to Shakespeare.”


Melissa Bradshaw is Communications Officer for UCL Communications.

Missionmaker Beowulf is scheduled for release later this year.

You can read more about Playing Beowulf on the DARE website.

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