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.)