Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Operation KTHMA: Closing in on Homer

The unexpected development of Friday was that the more-or-less standard—that is, just students and a teacher talking about stuff—discussion of the transport-passage, where Herodotus tells his audience that the Persians say that the Achaeans who went to Troy must have been idiots, was so good that we barely had time to get to Athens. I despair of a way to get any usable data on this dynamic, because I don't think the students actually realize how much better they're doing at discussing a classical text than they would be in a traditional course. Even if I were to ask them a survey-question like "Was your regular class-dicussion enhanced by the game-format of the course?" I wouldn't trust the answer. On the other hand, I do think that they've noticed that they're talking a lot more than they usually do.

Part of the enhancement of their learning experience comes from the simple mechanical tricks of letting them see me punch numbers into a spreadsheet every time they say something and of putting them into small groups for a few minutes to prepare to comment. I'm convinced at this point, though, that without the play context of the game, those tricks wouldn't work anywhere near as well as they seem to be working. In particular, the idea of giving them a "class," which puts them on a "team," and carries a "worldview," seems to be causing them to think much more imaginatively than I've ever seen a group of undergraduates think in an advanced class.

When we did manage to return to Athens, they made their way down to the Piraeus (the port of Athens) and found their way to the merchant ship of Iophon of Halicarnassus, who was able to tell them that he had grown up with Herodotus and that Herodotus had spent a lot of time asking people questions. He said that there had certainly been Persians in Halicarnassus to talk to, but to Iophon's knowledge none had told versions of Greek myths the way Herodotus tells us they did. (That was my way of indicating that we have no evidence that the Persians retold those stories, but also that if we want to say that Herodotus made it up, that argument can only ever be from silence.)

It's probably worth noting that the RPG game-play almost always recapitulates what we've talked about in the discussion of the transport-text, with the added frisson of actually imagining what it would look like to Athenian eyes. In turn, the continuing notion of "playing the past" will hopefully bear fruit when we get to see Herodotus and Thucydides themselves trying to do that same thing and trying to get their audiences to do it. The frisson, that is, becomes the teachable moment of practicing historical discourse.

On Monday we spent most of the time on their first skill-practice exercises. All the class-teams did what I thought were outstanding jobs; I'll single out the comparison of the figure depicted above, and his meme "truthiness" to Herodotus' way of persuading his audience by making his account sound good. The class-skill involved was Class 5's "lyrical fancy," and they were quite convincing on the subject of Herodotus' appeal to what feels true.

I also told them that I'll be pushing a patch to the combat system tomorrow. This patch is based in large part on Corvus Elrod's staggering write-up of the Kiai-Megill Variant of his HoneyComb Engine. In this discursive variant, standard RPG physical and magical combat is transformed into dialogue. In my version, each character (PC or NPC) in what I'm now calling "the logagonistic situation" has a secret s/he must keep; the secret is divulged in bits as the character suffers "hits," and full disclosure of the secret means defeat (for an NPC or a PC in a sparring match) or adverse game consequences (for PC's in Athens). I'll post more about the new logagonistic system on Thursday, hopefully, after the operatives go head-to-head with their old school-teacher, who's holding out on them about Homer.