Friday, May 28, 2010

Starting design of Operation ΜΗΝΙΣ: a potentially cool idea


Over the next year, I'm going to have the pleasure of developing an online version of the course I've always considered my favorite to teach: CAMS 1101 Greek Civilization, in which I get to tell my students the amazing story of how Western Civilization discovered the questions that still obsess us--above all, the question of ἀρετή arete ("excellence"). Simply put, that question is more or less just "What does it mean to be a good person?"

Now, though, I get to design it as a practomime from the ground up, and I think I've just had a wonderful idea for the framing:

The Demiurge recruits the students as operatives in Project ΑΡΧΑΙΑ in the usual way (cryptic e-mails on the course's web-site saying that their services have been commandeered to save Western Civilization yada yada yada). In order to reach the mission objectives of knowledge and skill necessary to brief the world about Greek cvilization (including sub-objectives of reading ancient Greek), the Demiurge has coded the following practomimetic simulation into the TSTT:

It's the lead-up to the trial of Socrates, and operatives are inserted into Athenians who could be called on to be jurors. In order to make the best possible decision about his guilt and his penalty, they must learn everything they can about how Socrates ended up on trial (which is, when told correctly, a story that goes back to the Bronze Age), and what the consequences of the trial have been for Western Civilization.

Operatives travel via the TSTT to the agora of Athens in the spring of 399BCE. They must find the answers to the questions put to them by the Demiurge and brief him on those answers, questions like, "What does Achilles mean to Athens?"

In order to complete this task (here's where the "activities" and "assessments" come in): they must gain certification on the TSTT through Challenges in the form of multiple-choice quizzes; they must heighten their particular skills through Ancient/Modern-Interweave Skill-Practice Exercises (AMISPE's); they must power-up the TSTT through Imaginative Text Analysis (ITA), including reference to features of the ancient Greek that demands developing skill in reading that language; they must carry-out Practomime once in the Demiurge's TSTT-simulation, and provide him with Briefings (in disguise as exam essays).

Oh, and did I mention they're going to have to learn the beginning level of ancient Greek to do that?

Thinking about the coming design process energizes me in a way that I have to say nothing else in my professional life ever has: the lessons learned from ΚΤΗΜΑ, FABULA AMORIS, and ΚΛΕΟΣ are going to let me have a real go at convincing the world that game-based learning is a fantastic way to teach anything. And as a special bonus, my students and I are going to engage this world-beating material more deeply and immersively than we ever have before.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Red Dead Redemption diary, day 2: in which character and practomime seem to have a cage-match, or, *yawn* cutscenes again

A long time ago, I was going to write a book about character in Athenian tragedy. I think it would have been a good book, but I stopped writing it because nobody was really excited about it except for me, and then video games came along. The reason I couldn't get people excited was mostly that I couldn't convince anyone but myself that I'd finally found the true definition of character, and month after month I was writing draft after draft, none of which seemed to improve the thing's persuasive qualities even in my eyes.

But when I started working on games, I quickly realized that their relation to mimesis—the relation, more-or-less, that I now call "practomime"—meant that I would be able eventually to say about epic, tragedy, and Plato in relation to games precisely what I'd always wanted to say about them in relation to psychoanalytic theory. Moreover, if I said it in relation to games people might actually read and even enjoy it.

Briefly, what I wanted to say then about e.g. Oedipus the King, and what I want to say now about Red Dead Redemption, is that characters are actually produced by the audience of a performance, and not by the text of a drama, or a game, or even by the enactment of that drama or game. Like I say above, I could spin you a lot of theory on this subject. Just to assuage my scholarly super-ego, I suppose I'll drop some names in telegraphic fashion: Lacan, Fineman, Benveniste, Calame, Loraux, Silverman. Ah. I feel better now.

A character, that is, is the impression of subjectivity that arises from discourse organized around a peformance as a subject. To put it another way, when a tragedy or a video game shows us and tells us that a bunch of signifiers of various kinds (including images and inarticulate sounds) is supposed to be like a person, we get the impression that it's a person. That's a character—not the signfiers, but the impression: it's what we do with the signifiers that makes the character.

That's what was in my subconscious, I think, last night as I tried to work out my relationship with John Marston. The character-impressions of a practomime (or game, if you like) are obviously going to differ in certain very important ways from those of an epic or a tragedy or a film-Western. The problem, though—and by "problem" here, I mean not to criticize but to critique—, is that John Marston frequently becomes a character who's much more recognizable as a film-Western character than as a practomime character.

Practomime characters, just for the sake of argument, though I think there's probably a book waiting for me out there about this topic, if not about the equivalent one in Athenian tragedy, are characters like the player-character in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) and Bioshock. To oversimplify vastly, they don't talk in cutscenes, and they don't talk during missions. Famously, in Bioware games like KOTOR and most recently DragonAge: Origins, they listen while other characters talk during missions and especially cutscenes.

John Marston, however, like other characters in recent Rockstar games (Niko Bellic is the other notable example), won't shut up. His cutscenes are full of pithy observations about the state of the West. When he's riding to town with his new patroness Bonnie he's full of long-winded though evasive answers, and even asks a few questions about her upbringing. During these moments, even when I'm controlling the wagon or the horse, I tend to wonder if I would have phrased things the same way John would—or, to put it another, less charitable way, the character-impression tends to disappear.

My critical instincts are screaming at me to gesture towards a reading of Red Dead Redemption's practomimetics of character as thematizing alienation, and to throw in some kind of filip about such a reading perhaps being helpful in understanding Grand Theft Auto IV's Niko better than we have so far. I'm not sure that kind of reading would be wrong, either: Marston seems like a pretty alienated guy, and the cutscenes definitely distance me from him, causing me to develop a sort of snap filmic character-impression of him, as if Red Dead Redemption were a practomime in which my character, Mejohn Marston, every so often gets to take a load off his feet, sit down on my couch, and watch a movie about a guy not entirely unlike him living a life not entirely unlike his, just more alienated.

But I think there's something more immediate going on here—something that involves genre, and makes me think of a discussion I had with Michael Abbott on the Critical-Distance podcast back when we were all just speculating about what Red Dead Redemption would be like. I theorized then that the Western hero, as fundamentally a cipher a la Shane or various John Wayne roles like the Ringo Kid of Stagecoach, could well be a perfect player-character for a practomime. A cipher—that is, a performative organization of discourse as metaphoric person—allows for really robust character-impressions, as players bring the character to life, and the ethical ambiguity of the Old West is a perfect backdrop against which to make practomimetic choices that let players explore their own inner landscapes.

I could be critical in two ways on this subject, I think, evaluative or descriptive: I could say that Rockstar failed to realize that generic potential and that we still await a truly profound Western practomime, or I could say that their refusal to make John Marston as much of a cipher as he could be forces the player to pay closer attention to the character-impressions he or she is forming. Like the alienation reading, that one may also be true, whether or not the dev team was thinking along those lines at all.I also like this latter one better, since it makes me feel better about the $60 I spent.

In the end, I believe the quasi-Western honesty of that critical transaction gives me more satisfaction than I could ever have expected from trying to find theory-imbued excuses for why Aeschylus' characters are flat, in an attempt to convince a university press' anonymous readers that I deserve another credit on my CV, for a book I'd be lucky to get even my graduate students to read.

Westward ho!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Red Dead Redemption diary, day 1: In medias res, again


It's not often that I get to play a game in synch with the rest of the gaming world—that is, when the game releases—and most of the time I consider that a good thing, because it means that like a good little scholar I get to absorb the critical context along with the work. I also get to take my time when I play a game late, and avoid the unpleasant realization of just how "bad" I am at games. (Oh, how little consolation it is that I'm "good" at, say, the Iliad.)

But with the start of summer coinciding with the release of Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption, and with my longstanding interest in the relation of the Western to the epic tradition (I teach the Iliad in my myth course with The Searchers as my opening gambit), I thought it might be fun to blog on a semi-regular basis in a sort of diary-commentary form. Here goes.

I got to play from 9 to 11 last night, after I got my kids into bed. I entered the practomime as a character whom I later learned is named John Marston. He got off a paddle-boat between two semi-official looking men, who were clearly making sure he went where he was supposed to go. In medias res—or, as my friend Nels puts it, in medium ludum, though I personally think the older phrase is better, because it operates at the level of the res (the matters, the subject) of the practomime.

How did I know I was the man with the scars? Three things spring to mind: 1) he was clearly the man on the cover of the game; 2) he was in the middle of the shot, and in the middle of the semi-official men (I still have no idea who they are [in medias res again]); 3) it's a Rockstar game, and if there's a single disreputable character on screen, it must be you.

I think I'll save my frustration with the horseback-riding and with the narrative itself for another post and explore this practomimetic framing for a moment.

A bard or a member of his audience, when striking up his lyre or listening to a lyre being struck, would have had a subtext already running: this bard sings this kind of song, and thus is likely to be about to sing this kind of song again. Not to mention: when bards sing, this is the range of possible subjects, whether or not this bard decides to sing within his usual domain of styles and subjects.

When the bard began for example μῆνιν ἄειδε. . . (the beginning of the Iliad as we have it), it was like seeing the Rockstar logo. When the bard continued and sang that the tale that night would begin with the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles, it was like seeing a scarred dude get off a paddle boat in the middle of the screen.

In medias res isn't just about the story—it's about the context of the story, and its relation to the tradition. Red Dead Redemption isn't just about John Marston: it's about the player's relation to John Marston, as broadly conceived as that relation can be—inside his or her gaming life, inside gaming culture, inside all of culture.

And that, of course, is where Plato comes in. What will Red Dead Redemption allow its players to learn about the West, and more importantly about themselves? What will those players be, after they have been John Marston? Despite the frustrations I'll bring up as we go, I think even I will emerge transformed by the beautiful and profound aspects of this practomime.