Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Operation KTHMA: The end of the mission, the birth of the practomimetic course, part 2—doomed mission to Methone

See this hub for a guide to my posts on Operation KTHMA.

On Friday, in the final class-session of Operation KTHMA, I killed my students. Never have I had less desire to harm a class than I had to harm this one; nevertheless, it's the historical views of Thucydides we've been exploring in the second half of the semester, and no more appropriate ending could be imagined. This post is the first of two in which I talk about how those tragic, realistic deaths came about.

Of course, this utterly realistic ending was accompanied by an utterly fantastic collocation of Thucydides himself (whom they had gotten to know under his "nickname" Olorides), Herodotus himself, and Alcibiades himself, all of whom had volunteered for the same reconnaissance mission of which the students had been in charge. Such a fantasy, I told the operatives of KTHMA, was the kind of thing the texto-spatio-temporal-transport (TSTT) system (aka the teacher's desk at the front of the room, upon which rested my laptop) dreamt up in its AI in order to help the operatives get to the truth of the various ways to interpret Greek historical writing.

At any rate, having those three luminaries there made it possible to recover the bodies of the operatives' Athenian hosts, and get them back to Athens for burial at the public funeral later that year. You know, the one where Pericles delivers the funeral oration. Several weeks ago, I'd sent them back on a special ops mission to that funeral, to talk to Olorides about why he had written the oration up the way he did. The reason for sending them back out of sequence was twofold: 1) President Obama had just given his eulogy at Fort Hood, and the comparison to Pericles' speech was striking; 2) I suspected that I was going to kill the operatives before, chronologically speaking, the winter of 430, when the public funeral took place.

Here they were, though, at a place in Laconia called Methone, as recorded by Thucydides in Book 2 of his history—a place where Athens had its first success delivering hoplites into enemy territory, and where Brasidas of Sparta first enters the history, a general whose extraordinary fate will later be bound up with Thucydides' own, when Thucydides is exiled because of the battle of Amphipolis, where Brasidas triumphs, and dies.

On the flag-trireme, cruising off the Laconian coast, they had been asked by the three Athenian generals to stage a debate, the winner to be in command of the reconnaissance mission. Being in command was of great importance, because the teams' Athenians were now at odds with one another. Two teams had chosen to ally with the aristocratic faction led by Thucydides son of Melesias (not the historian) and three with the demotic faction led by Pericles.

The generals demanded that they imagine that a small island had opposed annexation by Athens. The artistocratic side was to pretend to be the islanders, attempting to persuade the Athenians to let them go free; the demotic side was to pretend to be the Athenians, attempting to persuade the islanders to surrender without a fight. In short, they were to enact the Melian dialogue. It was the TSTT's way (that is, my way) of talking about how the inevitable slide into a Law-of-the-Jungle, realpolitik world was already happening, as Thucydides sees it, at the very start.

In the event, we didn't get to finish that debate (leadership, as I'll detail in the next post, was determined by a die-roll). The operatives, however, made very fine contributions under the new model of action that closely follows the HoneyComb Engine. In this model, the students must declare what they want to do, then roll a die to see how successful they are, then narrate what happens. In a dialogic situation, it can make for very interesting and entertaining results. Above all, it takes a great deal of pressure off the students, who get to take refuge in silliness like "I say 'Athenians, we think that the gods will save us' and then I nearly fall off the boat." The other side can then respond, "Did they save you from falling?" and Thucydides' lesson about realism and idealism advances in their minds an important step. It's that wonderful situation where learning happens unnoticed.

This HCE model, from my perspective, is an extraordinary learning tool. On Wednesday, the second to last class-session, we took the whole class-period to debrief about the course. The bottom-line is that they liked it. More importantly, both their praises and their critiques were really well thought-out, and incredibly useful. I mention it now because a wonderful operative, code name Jessep, had two great things to say that have a bearing on the narration-by-students model: first, he, one of the most participatory and enthusiastic operatives over the course of the semester, recalled something I had forgotten about the first day of the course—that he had raised his hand and said, "Does anyone else just have no idea what's going on?"; second, he said that he had been taken aback by how many little things he now knew about the culture of Herodotus and Thucydides that profoundly affected his understanding of them.

Next post: which beacon are they going to light?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Operation KTHMA: The end of the mission, the birth of the practomimetic course, part 1—the collaborative research paper

See this hub for a guide to my posts on Operation KTHMA.

Yesterday I debriefed the operatives about the final challenge of Mission 6, which they had just completed, having been awarded a week's extension by the Demiurge (that is, me) when I saw that things were not progressing as quickly as I'd hoped but that nevertheless the progress was very promising. This final challenge was the briefing in the form of a collaborative research paper that I mentioned at the end of my last KTHMA post. The topic for the briefing was "What is Thucydides' attitude towards Athens?" (a subject that's much more complex than the non-reader or even the cursory reader of Thucydides might think).

The operatives had a wealth of insight into how to make the assignment work better, but were nearly unanimous in their enthusiasm for the assignment itself. (Or so it seemed to me, though of course some might have been hiding daggers in their bosoms, waiting until I was safely out of grading range [I'm jesting here; I've never been more convinced of or impressed by a class' good will than I am by these operatives'].) Three of the teams have handed in papers that are collaborative (and very good indeed) from top to bottom; the other two shared sources and ideas, and I think (though I haven't waded into the depths of the papers yet) certain passages that were deemed especially felicitous.

The linchpin of this assignment is the class-team forums, where I insisted all collaboration take place. By picking through those forums, I'll be able to tell (indeed, I've been following along and so have a fairly good idea already) who did what, and grade accordingly not on the finished product but on the mastery of course objectives that their collaboration shows.

For me, this means that I can stamp "solved" on a problem I've had with the assessment of college writing since I began to teach it as a graduate student fifteen years ago: I have never had the opportunity to grade anything but a final product that is nothing but a stale exercise in trying to give the instructor what he seems to say he wants. Even with mandatory rewrites, I had no justification that would let me judge anything but what the student handed in, as a paper in fulfillment of a requirement for the course.

For classics majors, this was fine, because that stale exercise was a key part of disciplinary formation, or so I justified it to myself. But what about the students who desperately need to learn to write, but who get so, so little from learning to write a dead-end research paper containing unoriginal ideas about Thucydides?

And that's without even taking into account the absolutely enormous benefit the students derived from seeing each other work. Some of the students in this class are in fact very talented writers of research papers who may well go on to academic careers in which they put that skill to good use in producing new knowledge. The students who don't fall into that category had never, I'm fairly sure, had the opportunity to see that kind of student at work. I don't think I'm reading too much into the posts I saw in the class-team forums when I say that many of them found it truly eye-opening.

Did this assignment or its evident success have anything to do with the practomime of the course's framework?

("Practomime" is a word I'm audtioning to substitute for "game." Fear not: if it passes the audition I'll explain it further, and quite likely will never shut up about it either.)

While I would certainly recommend this kind of collaborative paper in any course, I think its success in this practomimetic course had a great deal to do with two elements that are unique to the practomime:
  1. The operatives of the course are used to collaborating because of the "AMISPEs" (Ancient/Modern Interweave Skill Practice Exercises) they've been doing from the beginning of the course. One could argue I suppose that if I'd divided the class into teams with no practomimetic frame I would have gotten similar results both on the AMISPEs and on the paper, but that seems to me more or less to grant my central point that things like "teams" are good; anytime you put teams on the field, you're doing practomime, I think. It was wonderful to hear one of the operatives say, "The paper was just like one big AMISPE."
  2. The narrative framework of the practomime has subtly influenced the way the operatives think about Thucydides so that they have a familiar lens through which to see the articles they were reading for the research. For all but the most seasoned students, research papers in past versions of this course have been an arduous exercise in trying to graft classics scholars' complicated arguments into the students' much simpler ones. This time, although as usual I could be thinking wishfully, the final products I've seen indicate a much deeper relationship with the secondary sources. It seems to me that that relationship can only come from the feeling that the operatives know what Athens was like and what Thucydides was doing there.
Over the next week or three I'll be adding to this post mortem series about Operation KTHMA. Next up (I think): the KTHMA team stands trial for hubris.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Brief classical thoughts on "No Russian"

This blog may have some readers who have managed to miss the controversy surrounding the single-player campaign of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (MW2). To orient you, my VGHVI colleague Erik Hanson brought together some of the most important responses to the controversy on the VGHVI Context Clues blog.

There's really no need to divulge the nature of the atrocity here; if you're interested you can follow-up through the link to Context Clues. What you need to know is that there's a chapter of the game in which the player-character is forced (if he or she chose to be forced, at the start of the game, since the game asks you if you want to play the disturbing sequence or skip it) to aid in the commission of a terrible atrocity. What's important for the purposes of the classical comparison is that 1) it's something that no rational person could view as anything other than an atrocity; and 2) the player (if he or she has chosen to play the sequence) is forced to aid in committing it.

The game critics whom I consider worth reading are near-universally agreed that the chapter does not deliver the profound meaning it seems pretty clearly to be attempting to deliver. There are a host of reasons for this impression that arise in the execution of the chapter, ranging from its context in the larger story of the game to the odd and jarring way its interactivity is managed. With regard to this failure of execution, it's perhaps worth noting from my classical point of view that there are several tragedies of Euripides that are marred (if we wish to put it that way, though scholars disagree) by a similar failure to integrate horrific acts into their plots in a meaningful way. I would hesitate to credit Infinity Ward, the developer of MW2 with this level of depth, but it's just possible that 100 years from now what looks now like the inappropriateness of the sequence will be hailed by scholars hoping to get published as a brilliantly dicomfiting coup de jeu.

There is, however, another point about "No Russian" that appears more strongly from a classical perspective than perhaps any other. It seems to me an undeniable fact that Infinity Ward, who put analogously atrocious action in MW2's predecessor, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, is maintaining a commitment to bringing the players of its games face-to-face with the ethical ambiguity of war. That fact by itself shows a development of game culture that mirrors the development that we can see in the homeric tradition when we look at that tradition diachronically, and pick apart its strata: in the Iliad, for example, the ethical simplicity of tales of glory becomes, over time, the ambiguous story of an Achilles who drags Hector around Troy, in front of his grieving parents, and then kills Trojan youths on Patroclus' funeral pyre. Indeed, this development leads in ancient Athens to tragedy, the ne plus ultra of literary ethical thought, where atrocities are used over and over to expose the fragility of our ethical claims and to strengthen our understanding of why we must make those claims nonetheless.

MW2 reaches in an old, old direction. Its failure to lay hold of the profundity it seems to seek is sad, but the reach itself means much more than I think many have acknowledged.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Operation KTHMA: handing over the reins

See this hub for a guide to my posts on Operation KTHMA.

Here's what I uploaded over the weekend to the KTHMA team. The idea of requiring the students to start telling the story, as engagement and as assessment at the same time, comes partly from the HoneyComb Engine and partly from some comments helpful readers made on earlier posts.


The Demiurge advises you that it has become clear to him that the situation is worse than he thought, and the danger to Western Civilization greater. Because of the continuing diminishment of the imaginative exploration of the past in the general population, the TSTT cannot function as intended, and requires more input of psychoporeutic energy than the KTHMA-team has yet been able to generate. (The Demiurge recommends that if the operatives have seen the movie
Elf they make the analogy of Christmas Cheer and its role in the flight of Santa's Sleigh to the role of psychoporeutic energy in the function of the TSTT.)

The Demiurge does not plan to take this dire state of affairs lying down. This mission will achieve its objectives if the Demiurge has anything to say about it, and so the Demiurge has resolved to attempt a desperate experiment, and he requests the KTHMA-team's assistance, although he knows it will demands a level of mastery the team has not yet achieved.

Specifically, the team will need to boost its Vitality signifcantly, in order to get the answers we need about the meanings of Herodotus and Thucydides. In practice, this will mean merging each class' Athenians into a single Athenian of that class, a sort of classics superman, and taking a greater degree of control over the TSTT's imaginative function than the team has yet taken.

The Demiurge has already laid the groundwork for this new responsibility in instructing the TSTT to reformulate your secrets. Now, as the mission proceeds, the KTHMA team will take the next step by demonstrating their growing mastery of Greek historical writings in preparing to imagine, and then, in mission-session, actually imagining parts of the action biotized by the TSTT. That is, to put it in clearer real-world terms, you will be responsible for creating chunks of the mission-action, and thus adopting the role of the historical writer. As you create, you may narrate any action of the plausibility of which you can convince at least half the KTHMA team.

This new responsibility will work as follows. The Demiurge will notify you in session and on HuskyCT about what will be happening in Athens in upcoming sessions. When you are doing your pre-session reading, you will also mine both the section you are currently reading and the rest of the texts available to you in Herodotus, Thucydides, and any other works such as Plutarch, tragedy, Aristophanes, and Plato that you wish to bring in, for ideas about what information needs to be obtained in the upcoming encounter in relation to your class-team's goals in the interpretation of history. In your class-team forum, and in brief in-session team-meetings, you will agree upon what you hope to accomplish in the upcoming TSTT session.

The central idea behind what you narrate will be to advance your class' idea of what historical writing is about by accomplishing your class' in-Athens goal, and at the same time defending your secret from the "damaging" textual information supplied by the TSTT as a psychoporeutic stimulant. The Demiurge will discuss how this works with you in your team-forums, and will always assist in the in-session narration when you request assistance.

The rewards for demonstrating your mastery at analyzing Greek historical writing will be twofold: first, the usual experience points that contribute to your class-participation grade in the mission's course-cover; second, as you make your psychoporeutic contributions you will gain in Vitality, which will in turn advance your Stage rating; that advance will earn unique awards of honor in the Demiurge's Hall of κλέος.

The Demiurge advises you that even if you do not manage to prepare for a given mission-session, there are still experience points to be gained from showing up and contributing, though obviously it will be possible to win more experience points by making more deeply prepared contributions.


Along with that briefing, I also uploaded new instructions for each class, specifying their worldviews further and suggesting ways in which their view of how history should work, and what it should do, might differ from the other classes. Yesterday I informed them that after they were done in the Athenian assembly (where they'll get to see the debate in which Athens decides on war), they would be going to court, accused of breaking and entering. I gave each class-team a different text to mine for the necessary data, for example Xenophon's Apology, Plato's Apology, and Aristophanes' Wasps, all key texts for our understanding of the Athenian legal system, and thus the development of rhetoric during the end of the 5th Century BCE.

And, in a step that's really only vaguely related to the game but seems to me to have been enabled by it, I've made their research paper optionally collaborative, with all collaboration to happen in the KTHMA discussion forums. I've grown less and less happy about the college-class paper as a form over the years, though my belief in the importance of teaching writing and the critical thought that goes with it has never wavered. Since at least four of these class-teams have formed themselves into functional collabroative units, and the fifth shows enough spark that I don't despair of it, it seemed worth giving a collaborative model for a research paper a shot.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Noted: Michael Abbott on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 marketing

I'd be quite surprised if there were anyone who reads this little blog who doesn't also (and indeed more frequently) read Michael Abbott's The Brainy Gamer, but just in case, and in tribute to his wonderful post this morning, I'd like to point any such hypothetical reader to a great example of the power of the blog form, which is at the same time the most incisive analysis of the forces controlling AAA gaming I think I've ever read.

Here's what I posted in Michael's comments:
From my hobby horse, blaming Infinity Ward for this callousness is like blaming the homeric bards for the graphic violence and smacktalk of their battles. By doing that kind of blaming, we certainly assert our own superiority (which is not an unimportant thing to do). But we also start from a position of having missed something that's culturally interesting about the game and its marketing. You catch precisely that interesting facet here.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Operation KTHMA: arts, crafts, and card-based combat

See this hub for a guide to my posts on Operation KTHMA.

The boss-fight with the High Priest of Apollo at Delphi delivered the information I was hoping my students would get about how Delphi actually worked, according to what I think is our best evidence. (That is, it was rather like Switzerland, banks included, and with a girl on a tripod substituting for the magical power of Swiss Chocolate.)

But it also crystallized a problem with the logagonistic system that I've been avoiding: as it has stood hitherto, it's not interactive enough. The basic idea is that students discover the information that they need both for the game and for the course above all by deploying skills (a la weapons and spells in traditional RPG's both paper-and-dice and digital). When they deploy a skill, as the Demiurge I tell them what their character is saying and how their "target" (that is, interlocutor) responds.

That is, it ends up being a roundabout way to lecture, in which the top-down nature of lecturing becomes starkly, even absurdly apparent. Not un-engaging, I think, because I always try to make my descriptions and presentations of the information entertainingly goofy and iconoclastic, but definitely not as engaging as I want Operation KTHMA and the other courses I hope to base on it to be.

As I lamented this defect a bit, one of the few students who's truly both an experienced gamer and an experienced classicist nudged me along the path I've been trying to travel—the path of text. You may remember that the basic nature of the gameplay already has a healthy helping of textual analysis in it: each mission-part begins with a session in which the teams use their skills in reverse, analyzing a key section of Herodotus or Thucydides to "power-up" the transport device that sends them back in time. That "power-up" phase is without a doubt the most successful part of the course thus far, in my opinion (though the multimedia team skill-practice exercises are a close second): the power-up is the time when it really does feel like we're making the ancient world come alive.

What if somehow the logagonistic (that is, "combat") system were a real continuation of that textuality? The difficulty I saw was that I wanted the students to practice analyzing the text, but the point of skills in RPG's is that they function as a clever metonymy to cover over a player's lack of real skill in, say, sorcery.

That's when I got out the card-stock and the glue (which I borrowed from my kids' craft box and which, hilariously, turned out to be sparkle glue), and made the skill-cards. One of those cards is pictured above.

Skills, you see, seem to me to tend to teach a player about his or her class, and, by observing other players playing other classes, about those other classes. Their rule-based existence teaches players not how to cast a spell or swing an axe, but how to be a loremaster or a champion—at least insofar as the designers of the game have managed to encode in that rule-based existence some nugget of their idea of what those classes are. To that end, I realized that it's not what the skills do that matters for the teaching aspect of the course, but what they mean.

The reason for the cards is first that I want to see if standardizing the skills brings their basic point across better—the point being that these are discursive techniques that various ancient Greek cultural figures used. Second, the cards will be an easy way to simplify the mechanic of the expense of character-energy—each team has three cards for their basic skill, two cards for their second-tier skill, and one for their third-tier skill; as they play them on a given mission, the cards are put in a discard pile.

Third, though, and probably most importantly, standardizing the skills this way allows me to introduce a new framework for the discovery of the secrets in logagonistics—both the NPC and the PC secrets. From now on, I'm going to formulate each secret as a declaratory statement with discrete elements, and tie each of those elements to a passage that the character-skills can discover.

For example, the secret the operatives discovered from the High Priest of Apollo was "Delphi seeks to remain neutral." If we had been playing under the new system, I would have broken the statement into four parts: "(a) Delphi (b) seeks (c) to remain (d) neutral." For each of those parts I would have assigned a particular sentence in one of the important texts (not just Herodotus and Thucydides, but also homeric epic, tragedy, Aristophanes, and Plato—all instantly available on the internet, to be projected on the screen in the classroom). For example, I might tie "Delphi" to the moment in Sophocles' Oedipus Turannos when Oedipus tells the chorus that he has sent Creon to Delphi. Ideally each "damage-passage" would have some sort of thematic relationship to the secret itself (as the Sophocles passage does), but that's not really necessary: the idea is that the students will have to find the passage first and then identify the key-word that forms part of the secret.

You can probably guess where my high hopes for this new version of the system lie: not only will the students be closer to the text at all times, but opportunities open up for texturing their idea of what Athens was like with a wealth of different material, and for texturing their knowledge of the texts of Athenian culture with a new idea of Athens. I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Operation KTHMA: the road to Delphi

Yesterday the team made its way from Athens to Delphi by way of a series of short encounters with their new acquaintance Olorides, who turns out to be Cimon's great-nephew and thus himself a member of the Philaidai. Each night of the arduous journey, they could get one "hit" in on Olorides before Aristides, the henchman sent by Pericles to shepherd the mission, came to tell them to shut up so that no brigands (or other unfriendlies) could hear them. Olorides turned out to have a great many thoughts about what Herodotus is trying to tell the Athenians, though he was careful to make clear that these thoughts shouldn't be taken as somehow definitive.

Olorides does seem, though, to have a firm grasp on the cultural scene of Athens, and how Herodotus' innovative ideas about the role of law in human life and in the ordering of the cosmos relate to it. When the team's Athenians reached Delphi at last, and stood with Olorides by the Castalian Spring, with a clear view of the amazing wealth of the Sacred Way rising toward the enormous Temple of Apollo built by the Alcmaeonidae, becoming thus the proximate cause of Athenian democracy and Pericles' rule over it, they had a last chance to detain him and pick his brain about the meaning of Herodotus.

Aristides would take them to the temple and tell them what to do. He, Olorides, was on his way to see some people he knew.

The class-teams furiously deployed their skills, revealing that Olorides, though he disagrees with Herodotus about this, thinks that Herodotus is trying to tell the Athenians to act Greek, rather than Persian.

On the pedagogical side of things, it's becoming clear that this game-method thing is wonderfully flexible as a framework for several different kinds of learning. Judging from my students' reactions, any time I downshift into "ordinary" teaching mode, and either just start telling them things e.g. about Greek history, or tell them about course mechanics liks the upcoming Mission Final Challenge (that is, quiz), it's very much like they're reading a post in, say, a forum about The Lord of the Rings Online or even Halo, telling them how to defeat a particular boss. I'm not sure it would be an exaggeration to say that the frame of the game-space, engaging in and of itself, makes even "ordinary" teaching more engaging. Indeed, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that students become positively grateful for that ordinary teaching that will help them get further in the game-story, in the same way I feel positively grateful, after dying multiple times, to learn the best approach to defeating a Nazgul.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Operation KTHMA: aristocratic feuding by torchlight

See this hub for a guide to my posts on Operation KTHMA.

One of the students said something at the end of class on Friday that I don't think I've ever heard a student say before, especially not on a Friday: "Can we keep going for another hour?" He wasn't more than half-serious, to be sure, but I felt I wasn't too far off in taking it as a compliment to the course, especially since matters had just reached a crescendo in their encounter with the (fictional) wife of Thucydides son of Melesias (sM), whom I called Aidonice.

Taking my cue from moments I have found very meaningful in video games in which a player-character receives unavoidable, massive damage, I had Aidonice say "You all should not be so confident that working for Pericles is in your best interest. We know your secrets." Then she turned to each of the class-teams and revealed what must have felt to the students like very large parts of their secrets. (I'm reasonably sure that in actual fact the teams are still a good distance away from guessing each other's secrets even after Aidonice's critical hits.)

This occurred at the end of the encounter, after the students had managed to infiltrate Thucydides (sM)'s house (though not without raising an alarm, which proved crucial as the situation developed). Aidonice had come down from the women's quarters and led them into the andron, where she had whirled and launched a surprise attack, accusing the students of undermining the peace of Athens, and claiming that her husband had nothing to do with the stories being spread by Herodotus.

It transpired in the encounter that that wasn't quite true, because Herodotus had (this is my own fictionalization) sought a meeting with Thucydides son of Melesias, for reasons that neither Aidonice nor Thucydides himself understood. So Thucydides (sM) did know that Herodotus was spreading stories against the Alcmaeonidae, Pericles' family, and Pericles' political faction, but continued to profess ignorance of Herodotus' motives. (The whole encounter was punctuated by extensive "text-time" interludes in which we zoomed through the essential Herodotean passages about aristocratic and tyrannical influences on human events.) Friday's session ended there.

On Monday, she made the teams an offer: they may send her a message at any time and seek the protection of the Philaedae (the family of Miltiades, Cimon, and Thucydides (sM)), and join with the aristocratic faction to attempt to keep the peace with Sparta. Otherwise, the aristocratic faction will come down as hard on them as they know how, and Pericles might well not be able to save them.

I told the students to talk about it in their team-forums. Over the last couple days, they've been making their choices, between Philaedae and Alcmaeonidae, and, as I hoped, not all of them have chosen the same way. I'm delighted above all because with my new understanding of the HoneyComb Engine I very much want to end the course with the students demonstrating their mastery of important course objectives by taking the active part in the storytelling around which Corvus bases some eseential components of the system.

Yesterday, the mission finished with a big set-piece I had dreamt up on the treadmill. Thucydides (sM) appeared with many of his henchmen. Aidonice told him what had happened, and he told his henchmen to arrest the students' characters. One class-team had the wit to try to use a new skill of command to get the henchman to stop in their tracks, but there turned out simply to be too many to stop.

At the moment when the student-characters were about to be arrested, though, a strange sound was heard. I always delight in describing the music of the aulos as resembling the most annoying bagpipe imaginable, and so I imitated this sound for humorous effect as the henchmen and Thucydides (sM) went out into the courtyard to see what was happening. The student-characters followed, and they saw many more torches approaching down the street than Thucydides' henchmen had, and heard the sound of the aulos coming closer.

Thucydides (sM) muttered, "Oh my gods, you're kidding me."

An enormous party of sailors arrived, led by the students' friend Aristides and a man about their age whom they hadn't seen before, playing the aulos and looking ridiculous.

Thucydides (sM) said, "Alcibiades, of course. What other self-respecting person would walk down the street playing the aulos."

Alcibiades removed the aulos from his mouth and said, with a grand gesture, "At your service."

Aristides beckoned to the student-characters and said, "Pericles is waiting for you!"

To some of the teams' surprise, certain other of the teams were a little reluctant to go, but in the end they followed along. Before they left, Alcibiades nodded to the shadows, where the student-characters now noticed another young man, also about their age or a little older. "Are you coming, Olorides?" asked Alcibiades.

The young man nodded, a bit indecisively, and looked at Thucydides (sM), who said, "Do as you must, Olorides." Olorides went to the side of Alcibiades, Aristides, and the student-characters, and walked with them, as, accompanied by Pericles' faithful, they at last escaped (or were taken unwillingly away from) the leader of the Philaedae.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Operation KTHMA: Boss-fight!

Last Wednesday, the operatives' Athenian hosts were led by their new acquaintance Aristides into a section of the city they had never seen. Here, it appeared, lived many metics, the resident foreigners who were an essential part of Athens' economic prosperity. For the first time in their young lives, I told them, they also saw prostitutes.

(Would Aspasia—whose house the students were quickly approaching—have lived in this kind of neighborhood? We'll never know, though I actually think not. On the other hand, I decided to put her there because it introduced the students to several important concepts that may help us understand Pericles and the Athens out of which Herodotus and Thucydides come: the metic population, its relationship to Athens' status as a sea-city, Pericles' relationship to both of those things.)

Outside the courtyard of the house of Aspasia lingered four burly sailors. They asked Aristides where he was taking these kids. He replied "The chief wants to see them." The sailors let them pass.

In the courtyard, they saw an old man talking to a beautiful middle-aged woman. They kissed, and parted. The old man said, "I'll see you later, Aspasia."

(In the classroom, furious typing on at least two lap-tops.)

(Wednesday's class ended there.)

Friday's class-session was entirely devoted to the boss-fight with Pericles. In the interim, to my nearly-shameful joy, I had received the tuchic determination devices I had ordered, and I distributed one d6 and one d10 to each class-team.Pericles opened the encounter by leading them into the andron of Aspasia's house, where they could see the remnants of last night's symposium, not yet cleaned up, and saying, "Aristides tells me you may be trustworthy. I have a job for you, because you've been asking around town about that Ionian storyteller. But I can't tell you what it is, because Pericles cannot have been heard to ask for help of this kind. You must figure it out for yourself."

Again, writing can't convey either the tautness of the educational atmosphere, or its confusion as the operatives and I struggled to come up with a balance between flow and pedagogy. Pericles never hit them, so their secrets didn't come into play, but that was principally because Class 4 had studied their skill-sheet carefully, and deployed their skill "Confusion," which on a miss (which is what happened) at least stuns the opponent so that he can't attack.

One mechanic that I hadn't fully appreciated was in fact the miss, which can lead, I realized, to dynamics that are really much more interesting than simply passing the turn to the next character in line. When the framework is this logagonistic one I'm developing with reference to Corvus Elrod's HoneyComb Engine, a question that Pericles refuses to answer can be interesting and revealing because of the specific way Pericles refuses to answer it.

So as I called on one student from each class-team in turn, he or she would roll the d10 (I meant to have them roll the d6 to hit, then the d10 for damage, but I have to admit I had too much to manage in this first boss-fight, and in the end it was only the d10's that got rolled). One of the brilliant advances of the HoneyComb Engine is the way it allows players (whom Corvus calls storytellers or 'tellers) to improvise the outcome of an action according to a die-roll. I'm hoping I can get my students to do that eventually, but on Friday I took my inspiration from the Engine and used the number each student rolled to do my own improvisation about what happened. For example, Class 5 deployed their skill Divine Melody, to attempt to make Pericles think he was in the presence of a deity. They rolled a 1, and I told them that they had sung a terrible bit of doggerel about the gods, on hearing which Pericles had looked puzzled for a moment and then said, "Yes, well, that's true," and turned away.

From an educational perspective, the most important breakthrough I think we made in this boss-fight was at the several moments during the encounter when as a team discussed what they wanted to do on their turn, I intervened as the Demiurge to lead them through a passage of Herodotus that was related to what was going on in battle of wits with Pericles. Above all, I called their attention to the passages that had to do with the two more-or-less ruling families of Athens, the Alcmaeonidae (of whom Pericles was descended) and the Philaidai (of whom Cimon, and Miltiades, and Thucydides son of Melesias, and almost certainly Thucydides the historian, were all descended).

In the end, it turned out that Pericles wanted the operatives' Athenians to go to the house of Thucydides son of Melesias and find something he could use to discredit the things the Ionian storyteller seemed to be saying about him. Pericles said that he really couldn't figure out what the man from Halicarnassus was up to, but that it seemed very dangerous indeed not to be taking action, when the Spartan ambassadors were on their way, and the moment of decision was at hand.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Operation KTHMA: Memories of Egypt

One thing I probably could have foressen if I had thought about it, but which has nevertheless taken me by surprise, is the effect that the game framework is having on what looks from an external perspective like ordinary classroom discussion. There are plenty of times when I have to treat the class-meeting as I would treat a class-meeting of any other discussion-based course: that is, telling the students stuff about the ancient world and asking them questions about what they know—that is, what they've read so far for the course and what they may know from previous courses. That kind of discussion has always been my bread-and-butter, since in any pedagogical situation it's an extremely important way of getting students to engage the course material critically, and thus of achieving the key course goal that I call "Skill at Analysis." It's also a key element in achieving the other major goal that I call "Knowledge of the Ancient Material" in a way that makes that knowledge more readily available than would be the case if I just stood up and lectured.

I'm pretty good at getting these discussions going and keeping them rolling in an ordinary class, if I do say so myself (and my teaching evaluations seem to bear this out, thank you very much). But the quality of discussion in CAMS 3212/Operation KTHMA has been beyond anything I've managed before. First of all—though this is finally not the most remarkable development—a larger fraction of the students in the class are talking than is ordinarily the case. That's undoubtedly due in part to the direct link that the experience-point dynamic is drawing between talking in class and final grades. I also think, though, that it has something important to do with the less visible, but in my view more remarkable, development that I've observed, which is the engaged atmosphere in the room.

This afternoon, after another round of skill-practice exercise debriefings (including among other things Herodotean connections to Spinal Tap and Kim Jong Il), the students were accosted in Athens by a veteran of the disastrous Egyptian campaign named Aristides. Under questioning, Aristides revealed that none other than Pericles wanted to see the operatives, because he'd heard about their interrogations around Athens, but that Aristides wouldn't send them on to Pericles until they showed him that they were true supporters of Pericles' cause. (It's very much worth noting that some of the teams have actually been told, privately, that they're not supporters of Pericles' cause.)

In my own conception of the story, this turn towards Pericles is the moment when things start to get serious. I tried hard to convey that feeling as Aristides told the operatives the story of the campaign, of how it had started well, but how, with the First Peloponnesian War looming in the 450's, Pericles and Athens had had their attention diverted, and had allowed horrendous loss of life and treasure in Egypt. Aristides' secret, which is my own fictionalization (though one that has some support from the scant evidence), was that the disaster in Egypt was Pericles' fault.

Class 2 came through to get that secret with a truly wonderful role-playing attack. As a reward for their skill-practice exercise they had received as a reward earlier in the day a pet, a Palaeornis, a small bird/dinosaur creature. (They had linked the idea of empiricism to the empirical basis of paleontology, as demonstrated in a recent article published in Nature about dinosaurs' relation to birds.) They showed Aristides the creature and said that they were sure Pericles would want to see it, since it was such a curiosity and they knew Pericles to be interested in such curious and novel things. In the way they formulated their statement to Aristides, they came rather close to the substance of another class-team's secret, which added nicely to the tension.

After that, the fictionalization grew rather stronger—though again there's nothing in the record that's actually inconsistent with what Aristides said. Aristides told the operatives that Pericles needed help spreading the story that the disaster was actually Cimon's fault. At that moment the Demiurge intervened, to say that the operatives' new imperative is to discover more about Pericles' and Cimon's rivalry. I'm thus hoping that the shadowy figure of Cimon, most unheralded of Athens' great statesmen, will haunt their thoughts until Wednesday. (Discussion in the team forums seems to indicate I won't be disappointed.)

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Operation KTHMA: the logagonistic system

See this hub for a guide to my posts on Operation KTHMA.

Last Wednesday, the KTHMA team (that is, the students of CAMS 3212) tried out the logagonistic system for the first time in an encounter with their Athenians' old school-teacher. The logagonistic system is the equivalent of the combat systems to be found in many kinds of games, role-playing games (RPG's), whether tabletop or digitally-mediated, in particular. The system is based, to the extent I've been able to do so, on Corvus Elrod's Kiai-Megill Variant (KMV) of his HoneyComb Storytelling Engine. (My difficulty in using Corvus' engine is that we're all still eagerly awaiting its actual release, and so my own efforts are in fact based on my reconstructions from his sometimes cryptic posts about it.) On Friday the operatives (that is, the students) began an encounter that continued yesterday, with a minor tragedian.

The basic idea of the KMV, and of logagonistics, is of verbal contest. At the key moments of the course-game-story, the operatives have conversations. In those conversations the operatives discover the information that allows them to achieve course/game objectives. In their broad outlines, these conversations are played according to a game-play model that closely resembles the combat system to be found in games ranging from paper-and-dice RPG's to action games like Prince of Persia.

The genius of Corvus' idea for the KMV is in my opinion the use of a secret kept by each character in a conversational encounter as the measure of that character's distance from a failure-state. Once a character's secret has been revealed, the character is defeated; players of RPG's and many other kinds of game will recognize that the secret is thus a stand-in for "Health" or "Hit Points." In the KMV Corvus also uses the device of a suspicion for each character; I've elected to let the operatives form their own suspicions and follow up on them.

When I first considered the idea of the secret, I wondered whether it might not be too restrictive to allow the encounter to feel representative of a real conversation. A thought of the way we accept the pressing of buttons and the accompanying onscreen action as the swinging of a sword or the casting of a spell, however, made me realize that as those things are metonymies of real action, so secrets are metonymies of the real interpersonal dynamics of a conversation. It's hard to put into words how strongly the atmosphere of a KTHMA session demonstrates the truth of that realization.

Before the encounter with the schoolteacher, I gave each class-team a secret by posting it in a briefing only visible to that team. I must admit to having had fun devising these secrets, precisely because of the two constraints I put on myself:
  1. Each secret had to have an integral relation to the career and worldview by which I've shaped each class.
  2. Each secret had to have an integral relationship with a real event of great significance in the cultural history of Athens.
To put it another way, I wanted every secret to tie back into the goals and objectives of the course. It feels to me like it's worth noting that here again instructional design and game design seem to intersect: in an engaging game, game-mechanics like secrets need to be integrally tied to the player-objectives of the game. Unfortunately, I'll have to be vague about these secrets until one of them is revealed, but they tie the operatives' Athenian hosts into the history of Athens in the 5th Century BCE in ways that I at least think are fascinating; maybe more importantly, having those secrets has made the students do and share research on the period in a way I don't think they ever would have otherwise. I've told the operatives that the rewards for guessing another team's secret will be great.

Logagonistics occurs in a rudimentary turn-based system, upon which I improvise as the occasion warrants—for example, even if it's not the NPC-opponent's turn, strictly speaking, if the teams have got too bogged down in considering their next moves, I'll have the NPC launch an attack. On the operatives' turn, each team rolls a die; highest roll goes first. On each turn, the class-team has three options:
  1. Simple discourse—ask a question or make a statement. If the question or statement is well-phrased enough, I score it as a hit, and have the NPC answer the question or respond to the statement in a way that reveals part of his or her secret. If the question or statement is too vague, I have the team roll a die; depending on the result, the NPC either reveals something or responds evasively.
  2. Class-skill—deploy one of your team's skills (for example Objectivity or Novelty). According to stats that are more or less simply abstractions designed to differentiate teams from one another, the operatives wager power-points and spirit-points to modify their roll and their potential damage. The team rolls, and, on a hit, I take over and tell the team what they're saying to the NPC, in accordance with the skill; the NPC responds to them with a revelation whose importance corresponds to the damage on which the team wagered their power-points.
  3. Role-play (RP) attack—this is the wildcard, and I've made it clear that it has the greatest potential rewards in terms of XP, stats-boosts, and gear-drops. The idea is to do something that RP's their character, potentially using the gear that they've collected so far (each has a weapon and other random things like a happy mask or a flag). This option clearly gives scope for the creative relationship to the material that seems to me to be at the heart of what's making Operation KTHMA successful.

In turn, at least thus far the NPC's have only simple attacks: I roll for the NPC to determine which team he or she is going to attack; I roll again, and on a five or six the NPC reveals a part of that team's secret. (Each team has previously communicated to me what piece of their secret will be revealed on a hit; they've discussed in their team-forums how to subdivide the secret for that purpose.) When the schoolteacher Geromenes hit Class 4 last Wednesday, the tension in the room was palpable—unlike anything I'd ever experienced as a teacher.

I'll leave you hanging as to the very significant encounter with Charicles the tragedian, but the logagonistic encounter with that schoolteacher was over quickly. The operatives, as their Athenian hosts, found the house of Thucydides son of Melesias (that name is important, but not for the reasons I imagine you're thinking, and for which I think almost all the students are thinking it's important), where they had had their early education from a slave named Geromenes. He was just finishing up a lesson about the first book of the Iliad, and he greeted them happily, but with a shadow behind his smiling eyes. (Gotta love narrative shortcuts.)

The encounter opened: the operatives asked why Geromenes seemed so guarded. Class 5 missed with their class skill, Lyrical Fancy. Then Geromenes, suddenly defensive, landed his attack on Class 4: he studied their faces, seemed to remember something, and said, "Wasn't your father involved with the law, a few years back?"

Class 2 then went all in on their Objectivity skill, and spent every point they had for Mission 1 (which would soon be over, admittedly) to get an automatic critical hit. "How can you teach children these homeric stories of heroic glory when they're so clearly bigoted tales of Greek prowess?" I told them they asked.

Geromenes broke down, weeping. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" he cried. "This is my secret shame! I taught all of you your Homer for so many years, and now I'm afraid that war against Sparta is coming, and you'll all do what you learned—you'll all fight, and die, in a pointless, bloody conflict. I know that some of the men are preparing to send their sons away—I beg of you, think hard about it!"

Thursday, September 17, 2009

A fun classical time on the Colin McEnroe Show

I had the honor of being the guest of one of my very favorite radio hosts, Colin McEnroe, this afternoon on WNPR. Here's a link to the show notes, where you may also download the episode and/or subscribe to Colin's terrific show.

If you happen to be coming here for the first time, I recommend the links at the top of the righthand column to get a sense of what I'm up to here!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Operation KTHMA: Closing in on Homer

The unexpected development of Friday was that the more-or-less standard—that is, just students and a teacher talking about stuff—discussion of the transport-passage, where Herodotus tells his audience that the Persians say that the Achaeans who went to Troy must have been idiots, was so good that we barely had time to get to Athens. I despair of a way to get any usable data on this dynamic, because I don't think the students actually realize how much better they're doing at discussing a classical text than they would be in a traditional course. Even if I were to ask them a survey-question like "Was your regular class-dicussion enhanced by the game-format of the course?" I wouldn't trust the answer. On the other hand, I do think that they've noticed that they're talking a lot more than they usually do.

Part of the enhancement of their learning experience comes from the simple mechanical tricks of letting them see me punch numbers into a spreadsheet every time they say something and of putting them into small groups for a few minutes to prepare to comment. I'm convinced at this point, though, that without the play context of the game, those tricks wouldn't work anywhere near as well as they seem to be working. In particular, the idea of giving them a "class," which puts them on a "team," and carries a "worldview," seems to be causing them to think much more imaginatively than I've ever seen a group of undergraduates think in an advanced class.

When we did manage to return to Athens, they made their way down to the Piraeus (the port of Athens) and found their way to the merchant ship of Iophon of Halicarnassus, who was able to tell them that he had grown up with Herodotus and that Herodotus had spent a lot of time asking people questions. He said that there had certainly been Persians in Halicarnassus to talk to, but to Iophon's knowledge none had told versions of Greek myths the way Herodotus tells us they did. (That was my way of indicating that we have no evidence that the Persians retold those stories, but also that if we want to say that Herodotus made it up, that argument can only ever be from silence.)

It's probably worth noting that the RPG game-play almost always recapitulates what we've talked about in the discussion of the transport-text, with the added frisson of actually imagining what it would look like to Athenian eyes. In turn, the continuing notion of "playing the past" will hopefully bear fruit when we get to see Herodotus and Thucydides themselves trying to do that same thing and trying to get their audiences to do it. The frisson, that is, becomes the teachable moment of practicing historical discourse.

On Monday we spent most of the time on their first skill-practice exercises. All the class-teams did what I thought were outstanding jobs; I'll single out the comparison of the figure depicted above, and his meme "truthiness" to Herodotus' way of persuading his audience by making his account sound good. The class-skill involved was Class 5's "lyrical fancy," and they were quite convincing on the subject of Herodotus' appeal to what feels true.

I also told them that I'll be pushing a patch to the combat system tomorrow. This patch is based in large part on Corvus Elrod's staggering write-up of the Kiai-Megill Variant of his HoneyComb Engine. In this discursive variant, standard RPG physical and magical combat is transformed into dialogue. In my version, each character (PC or NPC) in what I'm now calling "the logagonistic situation" has a secret s/he must keep; the secret is divulged in bits as the character suffers "hits," and full disclosure of the secret means defeat (for an NPC or a PC in a sparring match) or adverse game consequences (for PC's in Athens). I'll post more about the new logagonistic system on Thursday, hopefully, after the operatives go head-to-head with their old school-teacher, who's holding out on them about Homer.

Operation KTHMA post-hub

Here's a hub for my posts about Operation KTHMA aka UConn CAMS 3212, my role-playing course about the Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides that first ran in the Fall semester of 2009.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Operation KTHMA: Day 4

The dice—one six-sided die for each class-team, borrowed from my kids' copy of Yahtzee—went out yesterday. I'd been going back and forth on whether the downside of distraction was worth the upside of engagement, and finally decided that the upside is potentially enormous (I have indelible memories of how I cherished my D&D dice and added to them over time), and the downside probably minimal. At any rate, with about ten minutes left in the class-session, Team 4 rolled a six, giving them the initiative in a conversation with a man with a heavy accent who had been muttering about how the Ionian storyteller—this man Herodotus, who the man knew had come from Halicarnassus—was telling lies about the Persians. Team 4 decided to ask how the heavy-accent man knew, and the man told them that they should go see a sailor named Iophon in the Piraeus; he knew they wouldn't take his own word for it, since he was a Persian, but Iophon was an Ionian, and had known Herodotus growing up. There the class-session ended.

Earlier in the session, I'd rated three operatives at Stage 1 for posts they'd made in the forums in the interim that were more or less in-character. One of them had won the piece of gear pictured above, for a particularly belligerent post. Then I'd introduced the Ancient/Modern Interweave Skill-Practice Exercise, which is a collaborate weekly multimedia project that each team must complete and post on most of the Mondays of the course. They'll then present their work to the rest of the KTHMA team in our Monday session. The idea is to use their class-skill in the modern world, and connect multimedia bits of modern culture with the ancient text. It's my fond hope that I'll be able to get their permission to post some of these here on Living Epic.

Then we'd turned to the mission-text, which was the second chapter of Book 1 of Herodotus, in which the writer tells of what the Persians say was the origin of the conflict between Persia and Greece. Either I'm fooling myself or even the non-Greeked students are becoming comfortable with having a big chunk of text in a foreign language with a foreign alphabet on the screen in front of them. My strong feeling is that the game-frame is absolutely crucial here; take away the high-stakes grade-related nature of complex classwork and suddenly everything comes naturally. I wish I had some kind of data to back this assertion up, but I've felt for several years that the biggest problem in my teaching was that I haven't had a way to present complex critical analysis without scaring the clear majority of my students into the disengaged torpor of "This is too hard to understand—I hope he'll just tell us what we need to know for the test." My previous solution, which was to say 1) there's no test and 2) OK, here's a list of precisely the stuff for which I'm actually holding you responsible, has always been unsatisfactory. Again, it's unsupported by data (yet!), but I think the game may be the answer.

As soon as I developed in the operatives a certain skepticism about whether Herodotus could be on the level about what the Persian λόγιοι (wordy-guys, story-tellers) say, the TSTT started to glow, the room faded away, and there they were in Athens again. They got a little lost on the way to the Agora, and ended up at the Acropolis, where the guards told them to get lost, but provided directions to where the Ionian storyteller was holding forth. When they arrived, they found that the crowd was already too big to get close, but they were able to listen to the bystanders, including the heavily-accented man.

I'm a bit surprised by how naturally the course/game has fallen into a turn-based system, and how cycling through the whole class to take the next turn simultaneously removes the vast majority of the pressure of being called on cold and preserves the tremendous benefit of that practice. It's been several years since the last time I tried cold-calling on my students in the traditional way, and I've regretted that because there's absolutely nothing like it for maintaining engagement. To make this turn-based class-participation even stronger, the next piece of the game-development is I think to come up with a handy chart of the possible actions for a turn, for example speech, movement, call to the Demiurge, attack, skill-use.

Tomorrow we'll be meeting the ghost of Homer head-on for the first time. Since I don't believe there was any such person, there unfortunately won't be any combat with the undead.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Game-rules and story-elements

Here at last is the fifth in the PPP series. The skeleton of this post was written more than a year ago, but in writing it I realized that I was having a hard time expressing the ideas without jargon, a difficulty that I've learned to take as a warning sign that I haven't thought something through, and one which obviously stands in the way of sharing the idea with the broad audience I'm hoping it will build. With a few semesters of explaining this notion to students and friends behind me, I think I can push on down the road of the PPP.

When I left this series hanging, so many months ago, we'd come to the end of the unpacking process as far as the definition of the PPP itself was concerned. In this post I’m going to get into the first corollary, a corollary so important as really to make it an essential part of the definition. Here’s the whole definition, again, as usual:
A PPP is an intersubjective performance that takes place in a cultural zone demarcated for play (that is, as not having a direct effect on material circumstances, although that demarcation does not mean in actual reality that material circumstances are unaffected). Within that zone conventions may be and usually are determined by rules analogous to the rules for the setting up of conventions in the misunderstood-as-unzoned “real world.”
The part I’m going to talk about in this post is the first part of the last sentence, which is about conventions within the zone of play, and their relation to what we usually think of as rules. I want to suggest that what we think of as “rules” and what we think of as the key elements of story-telling—genre, setting, plot, characters—are actually two varieties (flavors, even) of the same thing. Then, I want to suggest that that thing, whether it appears in a homeric epic or in a first-person shooter, gets its meaning from the way the PPP's participants (author, audience, designer, player) shape its relationship to the “real world” in their imaginations.

I think “rules” is as good a term as any, since rules and play are closely associated in a variety of areas, and play is the heart of the PPP. So I’ll keep using that word. Retaining “rules” also means that one end of the comparison is relatively neatly anchored—everybody has played games, and has an insinctual feel for what a rule is, even if "rule" remains hard to define exactly.

Interactive storyteller Corvus Elrod defines a game-rule as "a precisely-defined relationship within the gamespace." ("Gamespace" is Corvus' term for what I would call a game's particular instance of the zone of play.) This definition will seem abstruse at first, I think, but its usefulness appears quickly when we apply it, because it covers game-phenomena as diverse as "At the start of the player's turn, he or she roles the dice" and "When the player pushes the A-button in this situation, the player-character jumps" and "When the player has killed Andrew Ryan, he or she must disarm the self-destruct sequence for the story to proceed" and "If the player chooses those dialogue options, he or she will be given the opportunity to kill Carth Onasi." Each of those relationships is precisely-defined within the gamespaces of Yahtzee (among many, many others), Super Mario Brothers (among many, many others), Bioshock, and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.

We have rules pretty much nailed down, then. The other end of the comparison, though, is still floating free—why am I saying that rules and the elements of a story are the same thing? The answer is simple, though it will take a while to make it fully persuasive: story-elements themselves are precisely-defined relationships within the zone of play. Let's take the most obvious of story-elements first—plot. Plot is what happens in the zone of play constituted by the story—that is, from one important perspective, plot is the precisely-defined relationship between each event and every other event in the story. In the Iliad, for example, the plot of the beginning of Book 1 runs "Chryses comes to ransom his daughter; Agamemnon sends him away; Chryses prays to Apollo; Apollo sends a plague; Achilles calls a council." These events make the story not by themselves, but in relation to one another.

Similarly, character is a set of precisely-defined relationships between parts of a story. This point is self-evident on an obvious level, because Achilles is for example the leader of the Myrmidons and the friend of Patroclus. More importantly, in my view at least, character is a precisely-defined relationship on a deeper level as well: Achilles is the Achilles of the Iliad in that he is the greatest of warriors—that is, he stands precisely-defined in a relationship of superiority both to the other Achaeans of the Iliad and to all the warriors the bard's audience knows. Setting goes the same way: the Achaeans' being encamped on the shore near Troy is expressible as the relationship of where the Achaeans are to where the Trojans are and to where the Achaeans came from. Invididual features like ships and tents are then placed by the PPP's participants (the bard in this case) in relation to that relationship.

Here we run into a question of enormous importance—one that in my opinion demonstrates how crucial the contribution of homeric epic can be to an understanding of how games work. If a seemingly static set of story-elements like the plot and characters of the Iliad as we have it can be expressed in terms of rules, is there then no difference between interactive art and static art? (And, of course, if so, isn't that definition of "rule" clearly wrong?)

The answer is Yes, and No. (And No to the parenthetical question.) The nature of homeric epic is a wonderful guide here, because it demonstrates so clearly the transformation of interactive to static and back. Remember that what we have is a fossil of a once-living tradition of bardic recomposition. The bard begins with a set of rules in the form of a skeleton of plot, characters, setting: because of the bardic tradition's development, he sings within a set of precisely-defined relationships. Achilles for example isn't allowed actually to leave Troy. Achilles is the leader of the Myrmidons. The Achaeans are encamped on the shore near Troy. The bard may order events differently, change details of characters and details of setting, but he may not change the basic course of the story, just as the player of a game like Halo may sometimes do things in a different order, may play the Master Chief as reckless or cowardly, may experience different elements of the landscape the designers have made, but must always do the same things—and in the end, were someone to make a video, or write an account, that player will have produced a static version of the game/story.

The counter-intuitive truth is that that interaction between the participants of a PPP and the rules and story-elements of that PPP produces what looks like a static narrative, but that that static narrative is not actually a different sort of thing, but is rather yet another set of rules for the production of yet another version of the PPP. What looks like a static narrative, when turned into an intersubjective performance by, say, a reader, becomes a new—crucially, constrained in different ways—story or game.

Where does it get us to express the analogy between game-rules and story-elements? It allows us to approach, yes, the relationship between things like interactivity, immersion, and narrative in what I think is a more meaningful way. Among other things, it gets us completely beyond the notion that there's any fundamental split between gameplay and story. To think about rules and things like plot and character this way also helps us talk about the way that events in the zone of play relate to events in the "real world," and what that relation can mean to participants in PPP's.

In the next post, which will hopefully come without such a long hiatus, I'll start exploring the relationship between game-rules/story-elements and stuff in the "real-world." An understanding of games and stories as both being examples of PPP's can get us to some interesting places, I believe, in the intersection of ludonarrative art with the lives we live outside the zone of play.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Operation KTHMA: Day 3

Actual in-world gameplay for the first time yesterday!

In the time between Day 2 and Day 3, one of the operatives, to my delighted astonishment, wrote a gorgeous post in character as Agapocles, her ancient Athenian host, using her class-skill to meditate on the text of Herodotus in relation to Athenian culture. I instantly rated her as a "Stage 1 Operative of the TSTT," gave her a ton of XP and a boost to two vital stats, and then posted a Congratulations-message, with the gear-drop pictured just above.

I was then delighted (though a bit less astonished) when another of my diligent students mailed me (very politely) to ask how the heck Agapocles had managed to get rated Stage 1 before anyone else, and, by the way, what the heck was Stage 1. I encouraged that operative to post in the forum and ask for an explanation from Agapocles' operative. Since things are still a bit confusing in the course/game, and my operatives all have many, many other things going on in their lives, I ended up posting as the Demo Student, asking Agapocles' operative to explain how she'd attained the rating, and she gamely explained that she'd "had him consider" the text.

That was as far as that dynamic got before we met yesterday, but it sowed a very valuable seed, and let me talk at the start of the session about the theory behind the role-playing aspect of the course: seeing the ancient world through ancient eyes is what lets us understand the most important parts of ancient texts. By understanding what Herodotus meant in Athens we understand what his writing really can mean today.

We turned back to the text of the first chapter of book 1 of Herodotus. The discussion that ensued was easily the best discussion I've ever had on that passage with undergraduates. I went from team to team, asking for the insights their skills had given them. The most wonderfully bizarre thing was that it appears that by telling them I had granted them those skills I'd actually evoked the skills in them. The most obvious example is the way the team to which I'd granted "Objectivity" detected some very important traces of bias in passages later in the book that most students simply gloss over.

Each group had its say, and the incipient, fundamental disputes over whether Herodotus is doing something new or something old, and how invested he is in being right, started to break out.

Then I intervened and told them that the TSTT, fed by their psychoporeutic energy ("For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings"), had sprung to life. The room was fading, and now they heard the sounds of voices speaking in another language.

"You're standing in the gateway of a little courtyard. . ."

After a lot of agonizing, I had decided that for certain scenes, the thirty of them would be compressed into a single Athenian, and we would operate with the conceit that parallel scenes were taking place all over Athens, in the lives of thirty different young Athenian men.

(Note on sex and gender: I defaulted all the hosts—that is, in-mission characters—to male. When I explained this dynamic to the operatives, I gave them two reasons, and an out. First, and perhaps most importantly, given that realism is a central goal not for its own sake but rather to provide the students with as accurate a picture of life in 431BCE as possible—which is in fact one of the course objectives—a female character in a realistic Athens would have a very hard time leaving the house. Second, "masculinity" in ancient Athens was most certainly not the same as masculinity today, and it will be up to the operatives to decide how to perform their genders. Finally (the out), I said that if anyone wanted to work out a role-playing way to have a female-sexed Athenian character (for example a girl whose parents raised her as a boy, a character choice which of course has its own gendering difficulties), I would be very open to the idea.)

In the scene that ensued, the player-character's father discussed the political situation with them. He brought them into the andron (man-room—the dining-room of an ancient Greek house) and uncovered his hoplite armor. I gave each decision about what to do or say to a different operative, assigning them their operative code-names (e.g. Operative Jessep, Operative Boston, Operative Red) as I did so. Their first important decision was whether or not to try on their father's armor. Operative Mal (named by the student after the character in Firefly) decided not to try the armor on.

Crucially, the father then offered them the chance to flee the city if war broke out. If the course/game goes to plan, that offer will be a very important plot point.

"Alright," said the father, "go see your mother, and get some sleep. I'm sure you've heard that a storyteller from Ionia has come to town, and I expect you and your friends will be up early to get to the agora and see if you can get a listen."

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Operation KTHMA: Day 2

Yesterday the operatives (students) began their training on the TSTT (TextoSpatioTemporal Transport) System. At the start of the class-session, the Demiurge asked them to divide into their class-teams, according to the classes (for now just known by number) into which they'd been sorted on the course web-site. Much good-humored confusion ensued among the operatives.

All the previous day I'd been assigning them to these classes, and then watching as they found their way to the Hall of κλέος and posted there; when they did, I gave them their name, 22XP, a title, and a piece of gear; depending on how they'd posted, I occasionally awarded "rare drops," like the nerf bat I gave to a student who's declared that he's going to "win the game." (He's a wonderful student, and very rarely says anything unironically.) I'm hoping to establish firmly the idea that progression (which I've now decided is going to be measured on three separate scales, Level, Rank, and Stage-rating) brings game-rewards including a better grade for class-participation, and it seems to be working already for the students who are paying attention.

The issue of students who aren't engaged is starting to surface, though fewer of them than I thought would be the case have raised a protest about the game idea itself. Several students haven't spent much if any time on the website, where the game is really getting played. After some careful consideration, I've realized that in every course I've ever taught (and this includes several honors sections, and even more upper-division courses where I'm at my most engaging and fascinating, though I say it as shouldn't), a sizable percentage of the students have failed to engage. Early, early returns seem to indicate that I may be in the process of bringing that percentage down significantly with Operation KTHMA.

So yesterday, when they had rearranged themselves, they looked at the first paragraph of Herodotus, in Greek (the vast majority of them don't even know the Greek alphabet), projected on the screen, while they had their translations open to the same passage in English. The Demiurge first led them through the passage, going over the pronunciation of some of the Greek letters and diacritical marks. That's information I'll be repeating again and again, because it's essential to the course-play that they be able to draw the connections I want them to draw between Greek words. Because that in turn is the only way they'll attain advancement, I'm banking on them learning the Greek alphabet without noticing it, the same way my son learns the attacks of the various Pokemon.

I flipped to a slide with Greek words closely related to the ones on the first slide, and then led them towards making some connections between the themes behind the words.

Then the course-play really began. Some of them had seen the class-briefing documents I'd put up, which describe their class' basic worldview and their first skill. For example, a Class 1 Observer (Level 1 of that class) has the skill Connective Insight, because he or she sees strange, fundamental connections between things in the world. In-game, that skill will have the function of rendering insights about the situation (more on this to come, obviously); in the TSTT (that is, looking at Greek passages), Connective Insight demands inputs from Class 1 operatives that have to do with the forces that govern the universe, and the connections between them. By contrast, Class 2 Observers have the skill Objectivity, which demands that they try to filter out the bias from an account of events.

At the end of the class meeting, I broke the class up into its teams, and went around explaining their skills, while they looked at the text of Herodotus and tried to use their particular skill upon it. Our session ended at that point, and today, on the website, they're in the process of collaborating in teams to make the connections that will, finally, send them to ancient Athens. Can you tell that I, at least, am feeling rather engaged?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Operation KTHMA: Day 1, as it actually went down

"According to the student administration system, this is CAMS 3212, Greek Historical Writings. Now that the door is closed, however, I can reveal that what will actually happen in this room this semester is. . ."

I pushed the button on the projector control panel. Nothing happened. Groans from the students who'd been following along on Facebook, followed by sympathetic laughter. A few more button presses, and the slides sprang to life.

"Operation KTHMA."

Really the thing went better than I could have hoped. Only a couple students wore looks that suggested they had been trapped in a hot classroom with a dangerous lunatic.

In fact, two game dynamics that hadn't previously crystallized came to full realization as I was leading us through the set-up for the game: 1) discussion-grinding, where students get 11XP for saying anything meaningful, and multiples of 11XP for saying something clever (one of my favorite students is trying to figure out what the minimum meaningful utterance might be; I can't wait to see whether he finds a way to macro it); 2) the beginnings of a PvP system, where the different classes (which I have to be very careful not to spoil here) will act in opposition to one another—the story I've got planned will offer a lot of opportunity for role-playing the worldviews of the classes, which are decidely not in harmony with one another.

As of midnight last night, two thirds of the class had undergone the Psychometric Sortition Tool, and had been placed in their classes. One of the students had actually been proactive and followed an instruction the Demiurge (that is, I) had left on the site but had not mentioned in the session, to start a thread in the "Hall of κλέος." I awarded him his Greek name, Chyrsopolis, with a title, Protocletic (that is, first-glorified), 22XP, and a picture of the "Sword of κλέος," shown above, as a trophy. Subsequent posts will get diminishing rewards.

In my next update, I'll say more about the classes, since by then all the students will have been assigned to one, and about the "courseplay," since in tomorrow's session I'll be training them in one of the fundamental mechanics, the use of the Textospatiotemporal Transportation Device.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Playing the past

SPOILER WARNING: If you are enrolled in CAMS 3212, I recommend that you read this post after the course is over.

I want to see if I can get into writing the theoretical construct behind the premise of Operation KTHMA. That premise is that an omnipotent figure, whom I’m calling the “Demiurge”--invoking Plato’s idea in the Timaeus of a craftsman (δημιοῦργος) who created the universe--, has disguised himself as me, and is recruiting my students for a mission. The Demiurge will help them use the writings of the Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides (that is, the reading for the course) to travel to ancient Athens. There, they will try to strengthen Western civlization by helping to spread an understanding of what Herodotus and Thucydides were trying to say (that is, they will demonstrate that they have achieved the course objectives).

One reason I think this fictional premise will work as a way to achieve the course’s goals and objectives is obviously that it will engage the students in activities that will prove to be inherently more interesting and stimulating than more traditional course activities. But I also have another, more important reason, for attempting this project. I believe that the practice and writing of Herodotus and Thucydides are inherently ludic. I want to get my students to see that what Herodotus and Thucydides were doing has a kinship with games, and that if we can train ourselves to see historical writing that way, we will understand it, our world, and ourselves better. I want to help them practice a ludic analysis of ludic practices.

Just as I have tended to in this course in the past, I could spend a long time talking theoretically here on this blog about the transformations in the Athenian attitude towards the past over the course of the sixth and fifth centuries BCE reflected in the transition from homeric epic to the mixture of tragedy, Herodotean historie, Thucydidean suggraphe, and finally Plato’s critique of the myth-focused Athenian culture. The task of showing what I mean by “practicing a ludic analysis of ludic practices” is probably much better served by way of example, though.

Herodotus is probably, on a word-for-word basis, the most digressive author previous to Laurence Sterne. What I count as the very first of these digressions begins in the second paragraph of his historie, where he commences an account of what the Persian storytellers say about how the trouble started between Greece and Persia. Scholars have differing opinions about whether Herodotus is actually relying here on real Persian stories, or is rather putting words in the mouths of the Persians; I tend towards the latter opinion. What’s really important, however, is that these stories that Herodotus attributes to the Persians are rationalized versions of Greek myths. The first of them is the story of Io, told as an abduction of a princess by Phoenician merchants. This way of looking at the traditional stories of the dealings of the Olympian gods with mortals will later be called Euhemerism, after the Hellenistic scholar Euhemerus, who did a bunch of it.

From my perspective, Herodotus here begins playing his audience’s notions of the past like a game, and he never stops. He benefits greatly, as does Thucydides in his own way, from the cultural context in which he practices his inquiry (the literal meaning of historie, a word Herodotus uses in his very first sentence), in which the dominant way of relating to the past is through the epics of Homer. I’ve spent a lot of time here already showing that homeric epic is essentially ludic; with that idea in mind it’s a small step to see that Herodotus is playing the bards’ game a different way.

Just as the homeric bards could make up for example an encounter between Odysseus and Achilles in the underworld, Herodotus can make up new versions of the stories of Io, Medea, and Europa. To understand Herodotus this way is to understand something vital about Athenian culture in the middle of the 5th Century BCE, when one kind of ludic relationship with the past was giving way to another. Indeed, the difference between Herodotus and Thucydides itself perfectly embodies the shift. Because he is consciously practicing against Herodotus, Thucydides plays a new, different version of the old game, a version based on writing instead of orality, and in the process invents what we today learn to call “history.” It’s always a wonderful, stunning moment for my students when I tell them that Thucydides did that without using the word historie.

Why? Well there are many ways to answer that question. One important one, I believe, is that Thucydides saw himself as playing what we can call a game with Homer, Herodotus, and received traditions about the past. In Operation KTHMA a moment will come when Thucydides himself tells my students that he wouldn’t be caught dead using that historie word--the one Herodotus uses--for what he, Thucydides, is doing. The players will have to figure out why that is in order to progress in the game. In the process of thinking it through in the context of a game they themselves are playing in relation to the past, it’s my fond hope that they will also see various new possibilities for their own understanding of why things happened, and happen, and will happen, as they do. Worth a shot, at least.