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.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Operation KTHMA: Day 1

(KTHMA means "possession," and it's a word that turns out to be very important in the course. I'm going to try to avoid spoilers here in the early stages, because I'm lucky in that a few of my students actually read my blog, and thus I won't spell the significance out right now, but feel free to find me via e-mail or Twitter and inquire. The irony of a guy who has probably spoiled Bioshock for more people than anyone else in the world being careful about spoilers in his own game isn't lost on me, by the way.)

Day 1 of the course/operation will be an in-class briefing. I'll be taking the role of the Demiurge from the beginning, but making it clear that the Demiurge has disguised himself as a simply university professor, and that that disguise needs to be maintained for the integrity of the operation. I'll start by expressing the premise of the course/game: the Demiurge has made a mistake in his teleological calculations. Western Civilization is in danger of losing vital skills and information that can help world culture survive and help people spread world civilization to the stars. I may throw in a reference to Zefram Cochrane. I will emphasize (as I do at the beginning of all my courses) that Western Civilization and its roots in ancient Greece have no inherent superiority to any other part of world culture; I'll say that the Demiurge is also launching other missions to places like Africa, India, and China.

In order to resolve this crisis, the students must change history in the subtle way that, the Demiurge says, such a thing is possible. The Demiurge can't reveal right now what the method will be, but he promises that he will reveal it soon. He can, however, reveal the reason behind the method: the fundamental importance of play. Because Herodotus and Thucydides, like the homeric bards before them, engaged their culture in a fundamentally ludic (that is, playful and interactive) way, reshaping the past as they found it into a discourse intended to enlighten their audience, the Demiurge has the ability to use his operatives' (that is, the students') imaginations to immerse them in the past, and to allow his operatives themselves to play the world.

The Demiurge realizes he is being obscure, but promises that this fundamental notion will become clear in the course of the mission.

We'll then talk about the central goals and objectives of the course/game, which would be the same whether we were "playing" it as a game or "taking/giving" it as a course. It's worth noting that before now I've never thought of laying out goals and objectives this way for this course; it's a notion that's come to me both from instructional design and from game design, and is not something in which I ever received training in graduate school. I'm nearly certain that I am far, far from alone in that among professors.

The goals of the course are
  • skill at analysis of the writings of Herodotus and Thucydides
  • skill at analysis of historical discourse across time periods
  • knowledge of the writings of Herodotus and Thucydides
  • knowledge of the practice of Herodotus and Thucydides (that is, what they actually were doing in ancient Athens in the context of Greek and Athenian culture)
  • knowledge of the cultural context of that practice in ancient Athens (in particular homeric epic, tragedy, and Plato, as well as what we know of daily life)
  • knowledge of the relationship of the practice and writings of Herodotus and Thucydides to what we know of the actual events of the past
The objectives associated with those goals are, for the skill-based goals, the ability to analyze the relevant discourse, and, for the knowledge-based goals, the ability to summarize the relevant information.

The Demiurge will express those goals and objectives in the form of the students' mission--these are the objectives that they must achieve in order to help save the world's hope. The Demiurge can at this point only reveal that they will demonstrate their attainment of these objectives in completing each of seven individual mission modules, and in completing the entire mission of Operation KTHMA.

Then we'll take a look at what the Demiurge has done with the HuskyCT site for the class, especially the "Pyschometric Sortition Tool" (in some ways resembling the questions at the start of some games from Bethesda like Morrowind and Fallout 3), which they'll be expected to complete before the next operation meeting.

(When they complete the tool, I will assign each of them to a numbered class, with the rank of "Observer Class 1," "Observer Class 2," etc. At that point, I will add them to groups for their classes on the website, and give them access to a document that describes the first level of their class, and the skill that goes with that level; they will have access only to their own classes, and will have to learn about the other classes from one another. Once that reveal has happened, I'll post more here about it.)

If we have time left, the Demiurge will engage the operatives in a discussion about their preconceptions about history, focusing primarily on the ever-new difference between history as the events of the past and history as accounts by people of their ideas about the events of the past. We may get into the etymology of "history," but I'm hoping to save that for Day 2.

Monday, August 17, 2009

CAMS 3212 Greek historical writings as Operation KTHMA--first RPC ever?

One of the directions the Main Quest of this blog will eventually go is into Herodotus and Thucydides, who I believe were playing games they designed themselves based on the homeric bards' AAA titles Iliad and Odyssey. I think that these games were in a genre similar to Sid Meier's Civilization series.

With that nagging thought in the back of my mind, and heavily influenced by a talk by Ian Schreiber at the Game Education Summit in June, I'm taking a plunge into very murky waters and turning my fall course CAMS 3212 Greek historical writings into an RPG with ARG elements called Operation KTHMA. I've come to believe that when correctly practiced game design and instructional design are really the same thing. It's time to see if I'm right. One incredibly neat thing about doing this is that I can enlist the students in helping me design the next iteration of the course, and they'll be learning the material even better that way.

So on this blog through the end of summer and the fall, I'll be keeping track of what I'm doing with the course/game. For now, I'll say that I'm really, really excited to get my hands on Corvus Elrod's Rev 03 system--I'm beyond hopeful that it will be exactly what I need to give this thing some backbone. I'll also say that I would love any advice any of my readers might give as to how to plan things at this paper 'n' web stage to make a transition to a digital format as smooth as it can be, someday.

Finally, here's the premise. The Demiurge has recruited the students in the class to project themselves via his Textospatiotemporal Zapper (think the "Animus" in Assassin's Creed) into host bodies in Athens in 431 BCE. There, they must save Western Civilization by explaining to people like Pericles and Plato what Herodotus and Thucydides are trying to tell them about the proper use of the past and discourses about the past.

The central gameplay mechanic will be the discovery of who each student is in ancient Athens. At the start of the game, I'll sort them into groups (with an assessment on our Web course tools that I call the "Psychometric Sortition Tool"), but they won't know what class each group is portraying, and as they progress (via XP awarded by me), they'll gain knowledge of their role in the mission along with the skills they need to complete it. All the classes have a distinct relationship to discourses about the past, and only together will they be able to explain what Herodotus and Thucydides were really up to, and thus save us all.

So if you've heard of anything like this, I'd love to know, so that I can compare notes with someone. At any rate, stay tuned. I think it's going to be an interesting fall.

(Subsequent posts on Operation KTHMA may be found here, here, here, and here.)