Friday, August 27, 2010

Teaser: coming posts about Halo: Reach


The epic tale of my relationship with the game Halo has arrived at a new and, for me, frankly, magical place. I had the privilege to play through Halo: Reach on Tuesday at an event held by Microsoft and Bungie to allow reviewers to get a thorough look at the game. I can't deny the the thrill I felt to be told by Joe Tung, the producer of the game, that I was the first person outside Bungie to finish the single-player campaign.

I've made no secret over the last four years of my admiration for Halo and for its creators. I've variously described it as epic, profound, and educational; I've even written a chapter for the forthcoming book Halo and Philosophy that says that Plato would have let the guardians of the Republic play Halo.

I'm not going to try to review the game (especially not in this post, since I'm not allowed to publish anything that might be construed as a review until 10 September). I am, though, planning a series of three posts from my particular perspective as the guy who sees in Halo much of the promise of narrative games' reawakening the epic tradition: "Halo: Reach as epic," "Halo: Reach and the idea of narrative canon," and "Halo: Reach as practomime."

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Operation LAPIS: the HUD mechanic

The mechanic of a heads-up display, usually called a "HUD," is well known to players of a wide variety of different kinds of games. Probably the most familiar kind of HUD for most gamers is the one found in games with a shooting component: the overlay of various important pieces information on the picture of the virtual world in which your character is trying to complete his or her objectives. Two of those pieces of information are nearly universal: a targetting reticle (the little shape in the middle of the screen that tells you where your firearm will deliver its projectile) and some kind of health-bar (the indicator of how much more damage your character can take before he or she reaches some kind of failure state—most often analogous to death).

Learning to manipulate the HUD of an FPS or an RPG is perhaps the most basic objective of games that have such a mechanic. After all, if you can't use the information in the HUD effectively, you won't achieve any other game objective. Games have become very good at teaching players—that is, creating the opportunity for players to learn—how to use their HUD's through simple game-opening tutorials, but the reason they've been able to get so good at it is that basic nature of the mechanic, like all game-mechanics, is itself an opportunity to learn. The reason experienced gamers can pick up a huge variety of games and play them almost right away is that through game after game they've learned the HUD mechanic by doing things in games with HUD's. In that sense, the HUD is a kind of microcosm of the potential of game-based learning.

What if learning how to read Latin were like learning to use a HUD? What if the information overlaid on the screen were information about the grammatical and cultural aspects of an ancient situation, to respond to which a student had to interpret and assimilate that information?

LAPIS operatives, as we've discussed in previous posts, will find themselves in ancient situations that demand that they read Latin and respond like Romans and in accordance with the worldview of their characters. To assist them, in the same way that a health-bar assists a gamer playing, say, Halo, they will have a HUD that contains vocabulary, grammar notes, and cultural information—including multimedia and links to places to obtain more information. They will absolutely need to use the information in their HUD's to contribute effectively to the team collaborations where they will be assessed on their progress towards mission objectives. Remember that teams of students control a single Recentius (player-character), and that they will need to collaborate on what action to take in response to the prompts they receive from the TSTT.

From the pictures you can see that we envision the HUD being displayed on mobile devices. To marry the ARG aspect of LAPIS to students' actual lived experience with the technologies of everyday digital culture by sending them information vital to their mission on their handheld devices—well, you can just call it potentially engaging. The same information could also be displayed in a browser tab, though, so students will have multiple ways to access their HUDs.

"Student-centered learning" is a term that gets thrown around a lot. The HUD may be the best mechanic I've ever seen for letting players and students keep the learning centered on them. At the same time, the HUD mechanic shows clearly a fundamental relationship between game mechanics and learning activities: in a game, as in LAPIS, a player manipulates information given by the game to reach objectives. The mode of manipulation is a mechanic; the process of reaching the objective is an activity. Thus, in a traditional course, one could describe using a glossary as a mechanic; in fact, the LAPIS HUD is in a certain sense a glorified glossary. If there's a breakthrough here, it's in the way the mechanic is integrated into the activities and learning objectives of the course: whereas a traditional glossary has no integral relation to what students are doing when reading Latin (that is, to look up a word in the glossary isn't actually a part of reading but rather takes students out of that activity and into the glossary), using the HUD is explicitly a part of the ongoing narrative of Operation LAPIS. When students use the HUD, they will be working towards their real learning objective—not just decoding the words of a passage of Latin, but performing as a reader of Latin.

By integrating the scaffolding of the HUD into the overall practomime of LAPIS, we believe that we've given students a way to engage the material of introductory Latin—grammatical and cultural—on a very deep level. More, the basic activities involved in achieving mastery of this material are made part, as they should always be made part for the scholar as well as the student, of the greater quest for the highest goals of humanistic learning: preserving and improving our civilization. That’s why the Demiurge has recruited them, after all; that’s what they’ll do if they manage to play through all the operation’s missions and at last find and read the LAPIS SAECULORUM.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Operation LAPIS is ĪTE!

I'm incredibly excited to let my readers know that the first-ever fully practomimetic introductory language course, Operation LAPIS, is about to launch. (ĪTE means “Go,” by the way.) Operation LAPIS will be running this school year both here at UConn and at Norwich Free Academy, under the able command of Karen Zook (UConn) and Kevin Ballestrini (NFA) as Demiurges. We've been working all summer on designing the practomime and getting the materials together, including most recently a wonderful set of CARDs (Classical-Attunement Reward Devices) like this one, which will be awarded to students for collecting examples of pronouns (for more information about the CARDs in particular, see this post by Kevin.)

I'll let the Demiurge himself introduce the premise:

SIGNAL “First Contact” START

Congratulations, recruit. The Demiurge has selected you as an operative in Operation LAPIS. The Demiurge wishes to express his hope that you will prove an asset to the operation, and to Project ARKHAIA as a whole. He also wishes to explain your mission.

Project ARKHAIA is a secret initiatve of the Demiurge to preserve and build up civilization by identifying and interpreting the key cultural practices and works of the ancient world. The project is divided into several different missions, including Operation LAPIS.

The essential mechanic of all the operations of Project ARKHAIA is to recruit students as operatives of a system called the Texto-Spatio-Temporal Transmitter (TSTT). You may think of the TSTT as a supercomputer running advanced artificially-intelligent simulation software, or you may think of it as a time-machine. Either way, the TSTT has been programmed by the Demiurge to take mission operatives back to the ancient world. There, they collaborate with other operatives to control ancient Greeks and Romans tasked with discovering the secrets that can save our own world. Inside the TSTT, operatives learn to act as Greeks and Romans, and in particular to understand their languages, ancient Greek and Latin.

These secrets are encoded in the TSTT in the form of texts which operatives must read and understand. Of course, in order to read and understand them, operatives must learn the languages and cultures of the ancient world. Without that leaning, the secret texts would be meaningless. The secret text of Operation LAPIS is the LAPIS SAECULORUM (“Stone of Ages”). Your mission, recruit--operative, now--is to discover what the LAPIS is, and where you can find it.

As you progress in your attunement to the TSTT and the classical world, you will receive Latinity Points, which will eventually be disguised as your grade in order to maintain operational secrecy. You and your team will control a
Recentius--one member of an ancient family--alongside the Recentii of other teams. You will gain levels of attunement, and gain the ability to decide your Roman’s destiny even as you learn more about that Roman’s story. You will collect the essential elements of the Latin language and the Roman culture, and receive special Classical-Attunement Reward Devices (CARDs) to indicate your progress. Above all, you will discover the secrets of the men and women of ancient Rome who shaped the destiny of the entire world: tradesmen, bankers, matrons, senators, courtesans, emperors.

The Demiurge has recruited you to achieve no less a task than to save civilization, but the path you and your team will take will be your own.


The course, that is, is framed as an RPG inside an ARG. The operatives (students), divided into five teams, each of which controls a young Roman, must go to ancient Pompeii and answer prompts like this one:
>Outskirts of Pompeii, Italy, 79CE<
Your Recentius is standing, on a bright Italian summer day, on a road near the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. Refer to the TSTT navigation device for geographic orientation.

There is a field nearby, with an olive tree in it.

Persona tua est in viā.
Malus est in viā.
Malus inquit, "Quid nomen est tibi?"

Prompt: Answer the ruffian; you are not required to tell him your actual nomen.

here for your HUD.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be blogging much more about the mechanics of LAPIS, and about the way we're trying to assess its affordances for engaged learning. We have an amazing, and growing, team working on the operation, and we can't wait to see what paths Karen’s and Kevin’s students choose.