Home > reviews > Arté Mecenas – Review

Arté Mecenas – Review

Arté: Mecenas™ portrays the rise of the Medici and the interconnection of art, patronage, spirituality, economics, and politics in Renaissance Florence.  Purposefully designed and marketed for students in art history surveys or general surveys of early Modern Europe, the game is accompanied with statements of learning objectives and a fair number of  teacher support materials. These details help the game be integrated more smoothly into a teacher’s existing curriculum. The game also offers an instructor’s portal that enables the teacher to monitor students’ progress through the game.

The stated learning goals of Arté: Mecenas, are really more game goals rather than  a list of the cognitive skills and knowledge the student will hopefully acquire and develop. Still they give a reasonable overview of the understandings the game designers hope students will acquire.

  • “Develop interconnected networks of Renaissance economics, art patronage and production, including art markets and collecting, conventional banking, trade and alternative banking practices such as usury.”
  • “Develop strategies to evaluate the impact of art and architecture patronage on generating spiritual and religious status and social and political prestige.”
  • “Distinguish between major artistic media, forms, techniques, and theoretical and critical concepts to develop a more holistic interpretation of the Renaissance era.”
  • “Leverage historical circumstances, conditions, and events surrounding art and architecture and their commission.”

It is important to remember that the game is designed to fit into a course that wishes to accomplish the learning objectives of the game; in this sense, it is an educational game. Rather than assessing the game as a gaming-market commercial game, therefore, it needs to be assessed as gamic tool for classroom use. This means one should consider the learning objectives it proposes to meet and compare it to other typical classroom media (lecture, class discussion, image, video, etc.) Still, it is billed as a historical game, and it is fair to consider its game play.

 Play centers around the player’s office in Florence, headquarters for their activities as a banker and member of elite Florentine society. As a member of the Medici family in Florence, your goal is to spread Medici
Arte Mecenas Office

Main Screen – The Player’s Office

 influence by engaging in trade, growing influence, developing connections in Italian and European society.  There are three critical metrics of your success: money, reputation, and soul . Each turn a set of messages require your attention. To view the messages along with the player ledger (which includes the player’s commodities owned and total account balance), the player clicks on the message pile on the bottom right of the screen.
Arte Mecenas Level 1 Messages

Messages and the Ledger

Each message provides a proposition, an associated cost if there is one, and buttons allowing the player to accept, reject, or hold the message for a time before ultimately deciding. Since the player’s resources are relevant to most activities contained in the messages, easy access to the player’s accounts and to the Florentine commodities market are on the left side of the screen, as in the picture above. There are a variety of different kinds of decisions the player can make. The first category falls under trade transactions. A merchant offers wool, alum, and in the final level linen, to the player for a certain price. The player can easily check the ledger to determine what the going price for the commodity is in Florence and decide whether to buy or sell the commodity to the interested party. So, if the trade partner wants to buy wool at a cost of more than 35 florins per bale, the player can purchase the desired amount from the market and resell it to the trade partner at a profit. If the trade partner offers to sell wool at less than the market selling price, the player can (assuming they have the necessary funds) buy the wool and resell it on the market for a profit.
Arte Mecenas Market

The Florentine Market

 This basic economic system is the heart of the game. The second kind of action involves donating a historical work of art to some element in Italian society, often local churches. This usually has two parts. A cost the player pays in florins for donating the artwork and a presentation of three artworks, one the historically correct one and the others not (but still historical artwork from the Renaissance). For the donation to be successful, the player must correctly identify the historical artwork. So, in the example below, the player is asked to donate an altarpiece. Doing so requires correctly identifying that two of the historical Renaissance works depicted are not, in fact, altarpieces (the leftmost and rightmost in the picture below). Failure to successfully identify the correct piece reduces the player’s funds, and, quite possibly, his reputation and soul scores. The third kind of
Arte Mecenas Painting CHallenge

Identifying an Altarpiece for the Archbishop

 of action involves donating charitably to the world, helping build orphanages, libraries, monasteries, etc. These cost money but add to the player’s reputation and soul scores. Finally there are actions that require the player to respond to a historical situation in a way that brings about the historically documented outcome. So, for example, the player might back Pope John XXIII and this will help them to a point. Then the player is  given a message about the historical Papal Schism, when three men claimed to be the rightful pope. Historically,
Arte Mecenas Pope Action

Supporting Giovanni XXIII

John XIII (the antipope of the 15th century; not to be confused with Pope John XXIII of the 20th century) did not last as pope in the Great Schism: Benedict and Gregory did, and John was condemned and deposed. Suppose the player does not know this historical detail and backs John/Giovanni, reasoning that backing him so far has brought church favor? A punitive message and a reduction in reputation and soul result for picking the loser in the struggle. We will return to these kinds of actions later. For now though, it is worth noting that the penalty feels like it is simply based on picking an unhistorical pope. In other words, getting a history question wrong has caused the drop in reputation and soul.
Arte Mecenas Pope Action Response

Backing the wrong pope

There are four levels to the game, each representing a different segment of the Medici’s historical trajectory. Level one takes place in 1397 as the player, “a member of the Medici family,” has opened their first bank. The level goal is rather concrete: increase the player’s reputation score to 40. At level two, about 1430, the player is informed that they are an established banker, albeit with fierce rivals, and the goal is more opaque: build a strong reputation with Florentines and abroad. Level three notes that the player has had a hard time in exile and there are concerns about the proper management of the player’s banks outside Italy. Now the goal is to have a reputation of 55 and a soul rating of 65. Finally, level 4 sees the player at an apex where they can strive to become ruler of Florence. The goal now is to establish the Florentine Academy of Arts of Design, with a bonus goal of being made Duke of Florence and earning nobility for the Medici family. These levels follow the historical trajectory of the rise of the Medici family as the leading banking, then ruling family of the Florentine Republic in the 15th and 16th century.

There are several features that make this game well suited for classroom use. First, game play itself is easily understood: read messages and act on them using the information provided by the resources in the office: map, codex, market, ledger, and reputation and soul ratings. Students from high school to college should be able to grasp the basics of play quite readily. The game itself takes only a few hours (perhaps 5) to play in its entirety, a bit longer if levels need to be be tried more than once, also a plus for inclusion in a class. Second, the economic system combined with the metrics of reputation and soul in the game reinforce regularly that, historically, economic transactions in this period of Italy were about many things–a reputation for business sense, cementing and sustaining political and social friendships, and developing a reputation for piety–not just about making a monetary profit. The Church will try to gouge you with high prices for

Arte Mecenas Profit not always in Florins

A reminder about religious currency

alum, but failing to trade with them will reduce the player’s soul score. Conversely, the Ottoman Turks tend to offer great deals on alum. Trade with them and the player will net a profit and increase their reputation, but decrease their soul rating since the Church frowns upon conducting business with people outside the Faith. A game is an outstanding medium to reinforce and place players in a position where they must work within the complex tensions between business, ethics, piety, honor, and friendship. One can say these things in a lecture or read them in a book, but with Arté: Mecenas, students gets to deal with it themselves, virtually. Finally, Arté: Mecenas does reinforce the basic content of an art history course and gets students to view images of a number of Renaissance artworks. To be successful at the game, the player must accurately identify a number of works of art and art terms from the Renaissance. Sometimes, it is simply a matter of identifying which picture was painted by, say, Masaccio. Other times, the player must identify the correct picture based on some terms: a tondo, for example (a round sculpture or painting). Still other times, the player must correctly determine the theme of a painting, such as in the task to have Fra Angelico paint an “image that reinforces the link between the Resurrection and salvation” or to have Masaccio paint a “fresco that includes atmospheric perspective, linear perspective, and synoptic narrative”  These are questions that go beyond simple identification to art historian’s skills.

There are also some issues with the game design that may affect players’ experiences and learning. The first is the quiz-like manner the artwork is integrated in the game. The artwork identification components are easily bypassed by simply googling the terms, artists, and artworks. This may or may not be problematic. Perhaps it is a salutary thing when students are motivated to find out which dome is the one designed by Brunelleschi. But the art identification pieces, though somewhat cleverly worked into game content (i.e. pick the right painting to donate to such-and-such a place), can give the impression at times that the game is a grandly-designed art quiz.

One of the great drawbacks of many educational games is the lack of integration of content and game mechanics and theme. Ideally, a game that is intended to facilitate learning will make the academic content integral to the game world. That is often not the case, and in educational video games the academic knowledge the player is supposed to apply often has little to do with the actual game mechanics.  Arté: Mecenas does not bridge this gap between academic content and gameplay completely but offers a workable solution to the problem. The historical content of the game that the students is supposed to know or learn consists of the various artworks, their topics, their technical features. Instead of just quizzing though, the game gives the player the chance to be a patron. But the overall effect diminishes the game-world somewhat. The player cannot choose between different works of art to donate in this or that case; they must identify the “correct” piece of the three, or have their reputation and soul go down.

In addition, the economic system is what even the most charitable would call problematically simplistic. Commodities in the Florentine market, whether wool, alum, or linen, have one purchase price, one selling price, and a limitless supply for the level. There is no need to wait for opportunities to buy low and sell high and no reason to build up a warehouse supply or speculate about the market. The player simply needs to:

  1. see an offer to buy or sell a commodity in the messages,
  2. look at the market (or just memorize the prices–they never change) to see if they can make a profit buying low from the trader and selling higher to the market or buying lower from the market and selling higher to the trader
  3. Make the deal if so

The fact that some deals are important for other than economic reasons adds some depth to this, but the economic model is far too simplistic. One might fairly argue that the system is just there to provide a gaming context for the art questions. It does not function as a compelling model of trade.

There are also bugs in the economic system, at least later in the game. I ran out of money in my account in level 3 before the level’s end, only to be told a few turns later that I had successfully completed the level with the message, “Congratulations! You have avoided bankruptcy amidst trying financial times …”. Actually I had done quite the opposite. Moving on with no funds to Level 4, I was gifted 500 florins, but the game allowed me to sponsor an early sculpture from Michelangelo at the cost of 700 florins. I hit the accept button and found my account at 0 florins (500 – 700 ≠ 0 in the finance world). Something’s wrong here.

And though it likely falls outside the issue of whether Arté: Mecenas is effective as a learning tool, some space should be spent considering the historical models at work in the game.  In this case, the game raises questions of historical determinism, agent choice and counterfactual history. Historical games, as interactive models of the past, necessarily generate counterfactual history. If the player has no choices, the game is not a game, certainly not an interactive one. If the player-agent is historical and placed in a specific historical setting, significantly counterfactual histories will be generated as soon as the player makes a choice that does not map onto the documentary record, or as soon as the game AI (if there is any) takes any unhistorical actions.  The approaches to dealing with this counterfactual stuff while still making the game a “historical one” are fairly standard. One can use what I like to call the “historical-fiction” approach that tends to map onto what Adam Chapman has usefully termed realist simulations, games like Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed. The setting and overarching historical narrative remains preserved in such games, while the player character, a fictional agent, operates in the past but does not do anything (usually) that disrupts the overall flow of the documented past.  The other approach is the systems-based approach, which maps fairly well onto Adam’s conceptual simulation approach (and Uricchio’s non-specific historical games). In these games–Civilization, Total War, and the myriad city builders being some examples at-hand–the player tends to be a guiding intelligence rather than a specific historical agent. The game provides a historical starting point and a series of historically authentic systems that the player must engage, but from the start of play the narrative created is of a past that never happened but perhaps could have.

Arté: Mecenas does not really commit to either of these approaches, and the mix is a bit puzzling for those interested in how games model the past. The player character is, as noted above, an unspecified member of the Medici family. That character lives and controls the destiny of the Medici bank from the late 1300s to at least the early 1500s, far longer than his historical counterparts (not an expert; just using this site): Giovanni (d. 1429), Cosimo (1389-1464), Piero (1416 – 1469), Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449 – 1492), Piero II (1472-1503) and then, after a period of exile, many others from 1512 on.  So it would seem that the player character is not a specific historical agent but rather a guiding force, as in a game of Civilization. Yet the events in game follow a historical course as if the player were first Giovanni, then Cosimo, and so on. The Medici player rises to power, expands the banks, is exiled, then returns to glory. There is no alternate narrative: nothing the player does, so long as they meet the objectives of the level, will change the narrative. The player either goes through the Medici historical trajectory or loses.

Fair enough; so the game is really more of a historical-fiction type, where the agent is fictitious and has a great deal of leeway in their own world and doings, while the overarching historical narrative remains unchanged. But then the historical choices the player receives through the messages are problematic.  Here are some examples. The player may support Brunelleschi or Ghiberti in the competition to design the doors of St. John’s Baptistery. But back the unhistorical Brunelleschi and a message chides , “Without your support, Ghiberti’s vision is lost to the ages, and the more established Brunelleschi wins …,” and subtracts 1 reputation. Choosing to ally with Venice against Milan (historically Florence allied with Milan) loses the player 1 reputation and displays the message “it is unwise in this climate to turn against Milan.” Opting not to lend Francesco Sforza  3000 florins in a war against Naples (historically he and Cosimo were friendly) results in another 1 point ding on reputation and another reprimand. Choose not to spend 200 florins to relocate artist Andrea del Castagno from Milan to Florence (which a Medici did do, historically) and receive another -1 to reputation. What do these all have in common? In each case, choosing the unhistorical option results in negative consequences, most often a decrease in reputation. The message is clear: to play correctly you must choose to do what the Medici did.

But if one only has one valid in-game choice in these circumstances, the choice that brings about the historical outcome, the game essentially suggests that the only good choices, the only “right” choices were those the Medici actually made. This is at heart a deterministic view of history, denying the possibility that free agents could have made different choices and not always inferior ones. The way the past happened is the way that it should have happened, in this system, and a valid game about the past, by corollary, requires making sure the narrative of the past is preserved. In some ways this undermines an important reason for historical games, their sense of creating new possibilities in a historical framework.

Whether these issues are decisive problems for the game really depends on the teacher. So, let’s get back to the context of the history class. Consider the take-away test. What would a student, playing  Arté: Mecenas, and having no prior knowledge of the subject matter, take away, i.e. understand, about the subject? Here are some possibilities:

  • That wealth, reputation, piety, and politics were connected in Renaissance Florence and distinguished individuals like the Medici had to cultivate all of them.
  • That art was not “just art” but important for religious, political, and social reasons and that patronage of art was very important to the reputation of the  wealthy townspeople.
  • That Renaissance art involved a variety of techniques and approaches and often focused on religious and classical topics
  • That trade and banking increased in importance during this period
  • That the Church was a major political player in Eurioe and the Church’s mores often conflicted with business principles

A reasonable set of take-aways.

Overall, Arté: Mecenas is not without problems, and fails to offer enough in the way of trade systems models and the ability to make a variety of historically authentic choices within a world system. These are lapses that make it difficult to recommend as a historical game independent from a class. But then, that is not what Arté: Mecenas claims to be. And so as a classroom focused interactive experience designed to get students more immersed in the historical context and details of Renaissance art and Florentine politics, it may well be worth a look for interested teachers.

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  1. December 16, 2017 at 9:18 pm
  2. December 17, 2017 at 10:01 pm

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