Friday, October 7, 2011

The Cave, unpacked: part 3

Then, in that post, came this bit:
2) Plato hated Homer—the sheer number of times Socrates tells us, especially in Republic, that Homer (whom he thought of as a single person, though at this blog we know better) was pretending to be something he was not, proves that beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Again, this declaration is probably a bit too broad--the word “hate” is of course much too strong. If the statement is true, the negative emotions Plato felt towards the fictional Homer whom he believed to have been a real writer were probably much closer to anger, frustration, and envy than to hate.

If there’s an emotional basis to the famous passage from the last book of Republic where Plato has Socrates speak of the ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy, that’s what it seems likely to me to be: Plato sees how powerful his own education, centering on homeric epic, has been in determining the way he looks at and acts in the world, and is mad at the figure who perpetrated it. He’s frustrated that it was so hard for Socrates, and is so hard for him to think past that education into the new philosophical world that he wants to create in memory of Socrates. He envies, perhaps most of all, Homer’s seemingly ineluctable control over the ruleset of the cave-culture game within which the Athenians have risen to power, fallen from it, and finally ended up in a cultural position that Plato must have regarded as going nowhere.

This is, I think, the way game-designers hate games like HALO and BioShock, even as they often play them to death, and enjoy “hating on” them in every conceivable corner of the internet. Maybe in that very modern, fanboyish sense of the word “hate,” I was on target in my post--Plato is a Socrates fanboy, and he’s jealous of Socrates’ indie cred. So perhaps a more accurate formulation would have been “Plato was jealous of philosophy’s cultural credibility”--the game that he was designing, a game perhaps on best display in the middle to late dialogues, above all Republic, Timaeus, and Critias, needed to establish itself, just as the books of Herodotus and Thucydides sought to establish themselves, in contradistinction to the hegemonic game of “Homer.”

Remember that “jealousy” and “envy,” when used properly, are different, though related, emotions: we’re envious of what we don’t have (that we may have it), but jealous of what we do (that we may keep it): Plato’s emotion, such as it was, was perhaps the feeling that the grand practomime of philosophy could not but be under siege from the apparently grand practomime of epic.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Cave, unpacked: part 2

So, since no one seemed to object to my idea of using Living Epic, for the foreseeable future, as a place to riff on my stuff at PlaythePast. . . The next bit of that post is:
Here’s what you need to know starting out: 1) Plato loved Homer—the sheer number of quotations from Homer, made in passing by Socrates and others, almost always provided to give unquestionable support to a commonly understood point, proves that beyond the shadow of a doubt.
I suppose if there’s a difficulty here, it’s in what I mean by the word “loved.” Let’s look at an example--and where better to find it than the story of the cave itself. Socrates, in telling his interlocutors about how strongly the philosopher, who’s been outside the cave, would reject the life of the prisoners, quotes the Odyssey. Not just any passage, either: Socrates quotes the famous words from the mouth of the shade of Achilles in the underworld, about how he’d rather still be alive as the meanest slave in the world than be king of the dead. Ironic, huh? The philosopher would rather be in the upper world--the “real” world--than in the lower one, just like Achilles.

More ironic: if I’m right that the shadow-puppet play of the cave is in large part Plato’s metaphor for the education provided by Athenian culture, comprising above all the epics of the homeric tradition, then Plato is using “Homer” against “himself.” The philosopher wants to be free, specifically of Homer.

But doesn’t it take a critic who loves Homer to create this fantastic, nostalgic web of irony and metaphor?

When I say in that post that Plato “loved” Homer, I’m using “loved” as a short-hand for something like “regarded as indispensable and ineluctable,” but this riff may let me follow on to some sort of greater love, albeit one much more complex. Homer was Plato’s education, as it was Socrates’; how could Plato despise it, when it had led him whither he had arrived, able to imagine a world outside the cave?

When we who are trying to use such insights to reform education yet again think about our own educations, I hope we can treat it much as Plato treated Homer--rejecting gently but firmly, speaking of ancient quarrels, but acknowledging, as Plato does in the story of the cave, our eternal debts.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Cave, unpacked: part 1

I’ve been searching for a way to use this blog, where I’ve done so much that I’m proud of, as something other than an adjunct to what I’m doing as part of the team at playthepast. The difficulty is that the mission of playthepast is a superset of the mission with which I founded this blog, and there’s not a single thing that I’d post there that wouldn’t be appropriate here, either on the scholarship (how Homer and Plato can help us figure out what’s going on with games in the modern world) or on the pedagogy (how Homer and Plato can help us figure out how games can serve as an engine for educational reform) side.

On the other hand, I don’t feel as constrained here at Living Epic to avoid my tendency to formulate things abstrusely, and so as of today I’m undertaking the experiment of taking my recent string of posts about Plato’s cave (which are in fact mostly rewritings of posts originally made here) and unpacking them further, and more obscurely, here.

The posts at playthepast are written to bring the arc of my scholarly project into close contact with my pedagogical one. They pick up from the scholarly foundation I’ve built over the past seven years of the analogy between the form of practomime called homeric epic and the form called narrative videogame, and move through the scholarly edifice I’ve been building on it since 2008, of the way Plato’s reaction to homeric epic can help us contextualize videogames’ role in modern culture. From there, in recent weeks, the playthepast posts have turned towards applying the blueprints of that edifice to the building of learning practomimes like the ones on which my UConn team and I are at work.

At any rate, I want to start with the post that makes the turn to Plato. It starts like this:
This post takes us from homeric epic to a key moment of its reception in classical Athens, Plato. In it, I cover ground I’ve also covered in print, in a chapter in the collection Ethics and Game Design.
The first thing to say is that although I like my chapter in Ethics and Game Design very much, I’ve managed to move beyond it in the past year: in the chapter I manage to say, pretty much, “Plato tells us that mimesis only teaches when it gets interrupted the way Bioshock interrupts itself”; now, in these posts, I’m capable of saying also two more things, “I know how to interrupt mimesis to make that learning happen” and “I know how to analyze, and learn from, videogame mimesis when it doesn’t get interrupted.”

The former of those things is the basis of the practomimetic curricula we’re working on at UConn; the latter is the basis of my current work on the digital narrative videogame, which to this point comprises my analysis of BioWare’s epic style and will I hope soon also comprise analyses of the Bethesda, Bungie, and Square Enix styles.

So that kind of thing is my idea for Living Epic going forward. If you have a strong feeling about it’s worth or lack thereof, I’m pretty easy to find on social media these days, and I love both thoughtful conversation and bruising intellectual brawls.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Operation ΜΗΝΙΣ: after-action report

Operation ΜΗΝΙΣ is in the books. Most of the nine students who stuck it out have done extraordinary things. Seven of the nine made some kind of A, and I sincerely believe that they would have those A’s no matter how the course was being assessed, but that at least four of them wouldn't have had A's if the course had been delivered in a traditional way. What I see in these students' work is what I can only describe as a “situated” attitude about ancient Athens that far exceeds anything I’ve ever seen in even the best students in this course previous to it being turned into Operation ΜΗΝΙΣ.

The easiest way to characterize that attitude is by describing their ability to make connections between texts. In the traditional version of the course, year after year I’ve lectured until I’m blue in the face about how Thucydides and Sophocles are talking about the same problems in pre-Peloponnesian-War Athens, but the exam essays answering the question "How are Thucydides' and Sophocles' views of Athens similar?" always came back in the form of a laundry list. I never managed to get students to think about it like a classicist until I had Aeschylus, grandson of that Aeschylus, introduce my students’ avatars to the grand-daughters of Pericles.

And the way I see this difference is in a trivial little mechanic I used for the very first time: team annotation. The texts for the course are all on Google Docs (all public domain), and the operation team earned Hellenism Points every time they commented on the text. Casually, at the end of the course, they drew connections between Plato and Homer, Aristophanes and Thucydides in those little comments that were hardly bigger than tweets, and then they shared those insights with their individual character-teams as they deliberated on what action to take in 399 BCE without even realizing that they had absorbed an understanding of ancient Greek culture far more nuanced than that of the A-students of past years.

I think that’s because they knew they needed to use the intel in these texts to figure out how to meet the challenges their characters face in ancient Athens. At the end of the operation, they were trapped inside Plato’s head as he tried to figure out how to deal with the death of Socrates. The ΜΗΝΙΣ operatives had to figure out how to help him, by explaining to him why he wrote what he wrote. They couldn't have done that unless they understood how he agrees with Thucydides and Euripides about the reasons for Athens doing things like killing Socrates.

Their final exam--their final boss fight--was of course to justify, on the basis of everything they’ve read and “seen,” their characters’ votes to convict or acquit that same Socrates. And when they did that justification, to my great joy, they voted as Athenians. That is, they achieved the learning objectives of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies 1101.

This post originally appeared at

Monday, April 18, 2011

Epic choices, and the lack thereof

This is a republication of a post from, which in turn was a drastically re-written version of a post that appeared on this blog in its early days.

This post serves as a prelude to some heavy oral formulaic lifting I’m planning to do in a subsequent one, following on from the more general argument I made about immersion in my previous two posts on games and homeric epic. Hopefully, these posts will clarify both the similarities between the interactivity and immersion to be found in oral epic and that to be found in games, and their important differences. My central contention is as usual that the practice of homeric epic was fundamentally ludic, and that an understanding of the rules of that practice, and how they worked themselves out in the narrative of the epics as we have them, can help us understand our own ludic (that is, to use a term that continues to be contentious, gamer) culture better. So even though the play I’m analyzing in this post is mostly far in the past (with a sizable nod towards Bioshock in the end), I’m convinced it has a significant impact on the present and future of playing the past, too.

The first thing you need to know to take this epic journey with me (sorry--the jeux de mots that go with “epic” are really hard to resist) is a little about the ninth book of the Iliad, one of the most famous and influential texts of all Western literature. Let’s start with the inoffensive-seeming word “book” itself: both the Iliad and the Odyssey as we have them are divided into twenty-four separate books. These units of the stories didn’t become formalized into “books” until the epics were written down, probably some time in the 700’s BCE, but there’s reasonably good evidence to suggest that a bard might have sung for an evening’s entertainment just about the same amount of stuff as is in a single book of the epics as we have them. So we can think of Iliad 9 as a self-contained piece of epic performance.

By Book 9 of the Iliad, things have become pretty bad for the Achaeans (the guys usually called “the Greeks”—the ones who have come to Troy to get Helen, the wife of one of their number, back): their greatest warrior, Achilles, the son of a goddess, has refused to fight for several days now, and the Achaeans are losing ground very quickly. Agamemnon, the overlord of the Achaeans and the guy at whom Achilles is pissed off, finally gives in, and authorizes an “embassy”—a delegation, basically—to go to Achilles and offer him fabulous wealth if he returns to battle. In the book as we have it, Agamemnon sends three ambassadors, Ajax, Odysseus, and Phoenix. Achilles, who is (not coincidentally) singing epic to his friend Patroclus when they arrive, responds (long story short) with these immortal lines:
My life is more to me than all the wealth of Troy while it was yet at peace
before the Achaeans went there, or than all the treasure that lies on
the stone floor of Apollo's temple beneath the cliffs of Pytho.
Cattle and sheep are there for the thieving,
and a man can get both tripods and horses if he wants them,
but when his life has once left him it can neither be gotten nor thieved back again.
For my mother Thetis tells me that there are two ways for me to meet my end.
If I stay here and fight, I shall not return alive but I shall have imperishable glory:
but if I go home my glory will die, but it will be long before death shall take me.
To the rest of you, then, I say, 'Go home, for you will not take Troy.'
So that’s why Book 9 of the Iliad is cool. Now let’s imagine that we’re in a bard’s audience something like twenty-eight hundred years ago. When a homeric bard went to sing what he might well have called “The Embassy to Achilles” (because obviously there was nothing called the Iliad then—there were just a bunch of different stories you could tell about a place called Ilium [what we call Troy]), he was not singing it exactly as he had sung it before. Instead, he was re-composing it for the immediate performance occasion. He knew the way the story was supposed to go (maybe he had been the one to come up with the particular story he was going to sing), but he always sang it differently from the way he had sung it before.

The simplest reason for this recomposition is that in the absence of writing a bard couldn’t sing a tale the same way he had before--indeed, the system of oral poetics in which he had trained was a way of dealing with the difficulty of accurate memorization in an oral culture. Just as importantly, though, audiences, as we saw in the first book of the Odyssey, always like something new. Bards, as we saw in that passage, made a virtue of necessity, and instead of trying and failing to re-produce a song that had won acclaim, elaborated it differently the next time.

Now a bard who was singing a part of the big story called “The Wrath of Achilles” (what we know as the Iliad) couldn’t change the fact that Achilles comes back to battle, eventually to die. But he could most certainly change the way that coming back went down. At some point, one bard did, and came up with the immortal lines I quoted above about what’s been known forever after as the Choice of Achilles.

But there’s an amazing tension here to which critics rarely call attention, perhaps because it seems to undermine the meaning of the Iliad. The absolute necessity that Achilles will return to battle--the shared knowledge of bard and audience that it must happen--means that the Choice of Achilles actually isn’t a choice at all. And the bard of Iliad 9 uses that necessity with stunning virtuosity. It doesn’t seem to me to be an exaggeration to call this moment in the Iliad the Birth of the Tragic: the choice that is no-choice, in the face of which we must say οἴμοι, τὶ δράσω; (oimoi, ti draso “Alas, what shall I do?”) and know that that question has no meaning.

And strangely enough this is also where we get back to games at last, because games are beginning to use such necessities to similar effects. Achilles, that is, can’t leave Troy any more than the main character of Bioshock can, at the crucial moment of that game, fail to do what the game requires of him, or the player to participate--willingly or unwillingly--in that fictional action.


At that crucial moment, evil objectivist genius Andrew Ryan tells the player-character to kill him. The murder then takes place in a cutscene in which Ryan says, over and over, “A man chooses; a slave obeys.” The player has no choice, as the Achilles of the Iliad has no choice: both are, according to Ryan’s formula, slaves.

But both the bard of Iliad 9 and the creators of Bioshock call attention to this lack of choice in a way that gives rise to a much richer and more complicated meaning: a kind of meaning that only a ludic narrative practice could yield. The player-character of Bioshock and the Achilles of the Iliad are slaves to the same extent that Andrew Ryan, Agamemnon, the bard, the creators of Bioshock, and we ourselves are all slaves. To understand the non-choice of Achilles and the non-choice of Andrew Ryan is to understand how complex and perhaps illusory is free will itself.

Only an overtly ludic, interactive, immersive performance practice can interrupt interactivity in the service of creating this kind of meaning. The implications, as I hope to show in future posts, are fascinating for our understanding both of Iliad 9 and of Bioshock; in fact, those implications reach even deeper into our intellectual history in the way Iliad 9 underlies both tragedy and a crucial part of the thought of Plato. After all, the guy released from his seat in Plato’s cave has to be dragged kicking and screaming into the light, his interaction with the marvelous shadow-puppet play interrupted for good, in a pale echo of the terrible fate suffered by a gamer who has to take out the trash.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The BioWare style: index

This is an index to my "BioWare's epic style" posts. The chapter is in revision now, and looks likely to make it into the final volume, yay. It turned out quite different in some ways from what I envisioned. I'll post links when the volume is published, in case anyone wants to put his/her cash on the barrelhead.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Operation ΑΡΕΤΗ: my current practomimetic course

It probably makes sense to post a small note about Operation ΑΡΕΤΗ, the game-based course on Greek philosophical writings that I'm currently teaching (or rather, I suppose, demiurging) at UConn. I think it makes sense because I suspect that the small number of people who read this blog probably intersects fairly closely with those who follow me on Twitter or Buzz, or are friends on Facebook. Since I recently introduced a Twitter assignment to the course (based on the wonderful inspiration of an ornithologist colleague at UConn, for whom I suspect Twitter might actually have been invented), you may be seeing a series of mystifying tweets with the hashtag #3207arete, and I thought it would at least be courteous to explain them.

Operation ΑΡΕΤΗ is a practomimetic course in the style of Operation ΚΤΗΜΑ and Operation ΚΛΕΟΣ, with antecedents also in what was originally called FABULA AMORIS, and will probably be called Operation AMOR next time I offer it. It's an RPG in an ARG wrapper, which is listed in the UConn catalogue as Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies 3207 Greek Philosophical Writings. I won't bore you with the details of the mechanics, since they're really only a slight iteration on the ones you can read about in various posts about Operation LAPIS.

The RPG component--that is, as we call it, the TSTT immersion--involves controlling characters in 360 BCE in Athens, who are invited to join the Academy, and who then must decide how to describe and analyze the practice of Plato in the context of that time and of our time. I've also decided to incorporate a great deal of real ancient Greek, in much the same way that an MMORPG like World of Warcraft incorporates a great deal of terminology like "DPS" and "Mana." Operatives of Operation ΑΡΕΤΗ are doing "attunements" that involve collecting various kinds of Greek words in lists for which they receive bonus Philosophy Points, in which their grades are calculated, as well as reading Key-texts that come from the real text of Plato.

The Twitter assignment, which was the trigger for writing this post, has the operatives (students) making Twitter accounts with their codenames (things like "Poplar," "Island," and "Lemon," assigned to them at the start of the course), and tweeting any time they see someone in need of ἔλεγχος--that is, Socratic cross-examination. Every time they make such a tweet, which is judged by "Mission Control" to be of a certain quality, they earn 100 PP (for comparison purposes, an A+ for the semester is equal to 100,000 PP). So feel free to follow up on the #3207arete hashtag and see what they come up with!

I'm also very happy to answer any questions you might have about this course or about my team's practomimetic courses in general, on Google Buzz or via e-mail.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The BioWare style: manifest identification (sketch 6)

This post introduces my argument about the relationship of the BioWare performance-slider to the BioWare RPG’s modularity of theme. My thinking when I stated to write this sketch was that this section of the chapter could prove a nice way to package my conclusions, as I also put the argument itself together. The creation of the meaning-effect of the games through the relationships of their sliders to their modular themes seems to me to be the absolute essence of the BioWare style. While I do that final synthesis, I was hoping, I would be able to accomplish two other goals: first, to triangulate the differences of the three games the chapter is supposed to be about; second, to bring in other styles for comparison, to demonstrate that the BioWare style is distinctive and that it can be usefully described as I have described it, in terms of the analytic methodology of composition by theme pioneered by Lord for traditional oral epic. That last bit will prove tricky whenever and however I manage finally to do it at length, but it may well be the most enjoyable: I’m convinced there’s a major contribution to be made both to the study of these individual games and to the study of the RPG in general by demonstrating that a thick description of the way an RPG handles composition by theme provides a critically revealing index of the role that the digital RPG has played and can play in culture.

But although I still want to close the chapter I’ve been sketching towards with some version of that argument, it’s become clear as I’ve proceeded to exceed the word limit for the chapter, with no end in sight, really, of what I’d like to say not just about BioWare RPG’s but also about Bethesda, Square Enix, Lionhead, and Atlus RPG’s, just to name a few, that there’s a project here that my training would ordinarily make me think of as a book: specifically the type of book called a monograph, which is basically a scholarly article that got too long for its own good. The problem is that nobody publishes monographs any more, because, generally, monographs just aren’t profitable, because they’re useful only to other researchers on the topic, and then only for perhaps a single footnote, if that. Add to that the problem that nobody publishes me (well, not nobody, but the market for this stuff would only be described as “limited” by a very generous observer) and you’ve got an occasion for me to kick over the traces and say “Here (yes, here, on my blog) is where I stand.”

That is, I think I’m going to try to write the book here, by drafting the kinds of sketches I’ve been drafting, then refining them gradually into a more organized and articulated structure. The experiment of drafting a chapter intended for publication here on the blog has encouraged me to think that other bits of this new sort of blogograph might find their way through the peer-review process and become “real” scholarship. That’s not to say that I think the chapter I’m sketching here will get accepted; rather, it’s to say that I feel reasonably confident that the process of blogging these sketches has led me to a chapter that I feel comfortable submitting to a traditional peer-review. Readers of Living Epic won’t see the back-end scholarly stuff unless the chapter gets accepted and published, but it’s very easy to do that back-end stuff by pounding on the blog posts in a series of Google Docs for a few days, with an added dash of Zotero goodness.

Enough front-matter. My focus in this post shifts from KOTOR to a broader comparative view of KOTOR, Dragon Age: Origins (DAO), and Mass Effect, as a way of beginning to discuss both the essential shared elements of re-composition in the three games and the differences that reveal the way the style has manifested itself not as a single set of ludics but across several different ludic systems. I begin with a consideration of the difference between Mass Effect’s version of the slider and KOTOR’s, then use that discussion to open a three-way comparison of analogous moments in the three games.

I’ll be arguing that modularity plus sliders equals a particular kind of meaningful identification. I plan to demonstrate that the re-compositional thematic ludics of the BioWare style allow players of BioWare RPG’s to form a specific kind of identification with their player-characters: an identification that enacts a subjectivity manifestly negotiated between the game’s thematic system and the choices the player makes within that system. The player of a BioWare RPG relates to his or her PC through the enactment of modular themes and the manipulation of sliders, with the result that his or her performance enacts a visibly unique claim to selfhood.

Through the manifestation of that negotiation, the player gains the special impression of individuality and of fullness that distinguishes the BioWare style. Whereas the homeric bards and their analogues in Yugoslavia performed their thematic recompositions in relation to a public occasion and a public role, the player of the BioWare RPG performs him or herself to him or herself, gaining a self-identity that we may describe theoretically in the terms I use above, of a subjectivity of manifest negotiation. I’ll try to show that manipulating the modular themes of the game in relation to the game’ sliders peforms the player’s subjectivity as not only capable of saving a world worth saving, but also as capable of making that salvation meaningful outside the game.

The Renegade/Paragon slider in Mass Effect can serve, in comparison to the light/dark slider in KOTOR and the party-character sliders in DAO, as the emblem of this meaningful identification: the negotiation of dialogue choices involved in performing a particular version of that slider produces a manifestation in the “Squad” screen of what kind of human the player’s Shepard is. Because the cultural topic of the game is the status of the human race vis-a-vis the other races of the galaxy, what the player sees on the squad screen is a visual index of a numerically determined relationship between his or her performance and the meaning of that performance with respect to the cultural topic. That is, the player’s identification with Shepard--the way he or she is performing Shepard as an extension of him or herself--is visible as a negotiation on that squad screen, a screen the player must visit every level if he or she is to continue playing the game.

KOTOR and DAO share the essence of this ludic performance of manifest identification. When we compare this effect to the light/dark slider in KOTOR, we see the essential similarity of the two systems; although the DAO system differs in that the sliders are not centrally located, it is similarly essential to continuing the game that the player visit the party-characters’ individual screens with great frequency (at least those of party-characters the player has chosen to adventure with), and each party-character’s approval/disapproval slider is displayed prominently on that screen. Just as in Mass Effect, the player sees a visual representation of a quantitative index of the relationship of his or her performance as the player-character to the in-progress cultural meaning of that performance of the game.

My plan for the next sketch of what I’m now thinking of as a never-to-be-published book not to be titled The Epic Styles of Major Developers of the Digital RPG: Realizing the Ancient Potential of Traditional Oral Epic in a New Age of Performative Technology is to push further in my argument about this special, manifest kind of identification in the three BioWare games under discussion with reference on the one hand to traditional oral epic performance and on the other to the “modularity plus sliders” system of the games.

Concerning comments: I'd be incredibly grateful for any corrections and/or refinements you'd care to suggest about this chapter-in-the-making--Google Buzz is my preferred discussion-place now, so comments are turned off here. You’re most welcome to follow me on Buzz, here; you’ll find this post there, too, with any luck, and I hope to discuss it with you there!