Monday, April 21, 2008

“Living Epic”: What the title means, and what it implies

This is the first post in a series expressing the essence of my argument about how video games are actually ancient, how they reawaken the anicent oral epic tradition represented above all by the epics of the Homeric tradition, the Iliad and the Odyssey.

The title of this blog gives a pretty good idea of what I’m trying to do here. I want to announce that epic is alive, and that there are people creating epics like the “real” epics, the ancient ones, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and Beowulf, and many others, every day. These people are video gamers, and I’m going to show that their culture is actually not new, but rather as ancient as those ancient epics.

The title is also meant to suggest that you can live epic, too, if you’ll only play more video games.

Imagine a gamer—let’s make him a 16-year old boy—on a couch in his family’s TV room in suburban Boston, his eyes fixed on the screen, a controller in his hands. He is attentive to a story of valiant deeds and eternal glory unfolding not just on the screen but in his mind and through the way he manipulates the action by playing the game. That story, a story he knows very well in its outline, and may know very well even in its specific detail, is unfolding in a way it never has before, because the gamer himself is helping it unfold, and he couldn’t do it the same way anyone else has done it, or even the same way he himself has done it before, if he tried.

Now imagine a young herdsman 2800 years ago, an inhabitant of Salamis,an island off the coast of Athens. He’s at a feast in his lord’s house, and the banquet is nearly over. There’s a singer with a lyre (think guitar) in his hands sitting to the side of the hall, and the young man’s eyes are fixed upon him. The singer is playing and singing an old, old story, but he’s playing it in a way the young man has never heard it before. It’s a tale of valiant deeds and eternal glory, and it unfolds not just in the singer’s words, but in the young man’s mind, and in the singer’s voice and the way he strikes the strings with his plectrum (think pick), made out of bone, or even ivory.

Now magine that the herdsman is so overhwhelmed by the experience that he becomes an apprentice of the singer, and learns to sing and play the lyre himself, well enough to tell his own version of the story. Now he is able to decide how the heroes do their deeds and win their glory, but the storytelling itself remains the same, even if as he sings to his own audience he couldn’t sing it the same way his master did, or he himself has sung it, if he tried.

Through the stories the young men are transported into a world of heroic myth, where warriors fight more fearlessly than real warriors could ever fight, and quarrel with one another, and laugh sometimes, and even cry sometimes. The warriors deliberate, and make choices, and suffer and enjoy those choices’ consequences. For the young men, the gamer and the ancient herdsman, these heroes live.

You can tell that I think there are similarities to be drawn between the two young men, and you can tell what I think some of them are—especially the story about valiant deeds and eternal glory. But there’s a similarity that’s almost out of view in these two pictures that will end up being my fundamental theme in this blog. The immersion of the gamer and the young herdsman in the story—their interaction with the controller and the screen, and with the singer’s voice and lyre—shapes them, even as it shapes the story. They are who they narrate themselves to be, and in the epics they experience, they learn to narrate themselves a little differently than they did when they entered the living-room or the banquet-hall.

So besides showing that the gamer and the herdsman-turned-singer are doing the same basic thing, I’m also going to talk about what I think that means: I’m also going to examine video games as an artistic medium, and to try to persuade you based on that examination that video gaming is a worthwhile cultural pursuit. I think there are still a lot of people around who need to be convinced of that, despite the fact that, unknown to most gamers, there are now professors (I’m not one of them, since my field is the ancient stuff) who teach and write about video games. I hope that some of those people who need convincing will profit from this blog, whether or not they start reading it (or finish reading it) with any desire to read any more of what those professors are writing about video games.

Part 2