Saturday, September 5, 2009

Operation KTHMA: Day 3

Actual in-world gameplay for the first time yesterday!

In the time between Day 2 and Day 3, one of the operatives, to my delighted astonishment, wrote a gorgeous post in character as Agapocles, her ancient Athenian host, using her class-skill to meditate on the text of Herodotus in relation to Athenian culture. I instantly rated her as a "Stage 1 Operative of the TSTT," gave her a ton of XP and a boost to two vital stats, and then posted a Congratulations-message, with the gear-drop pictured just above.

I was then delighted (though a bit less astonished) when another of my diligent students mailed me (very politely) to ask how the heck Agapocles had managed to get rated Stage 1 before anyone else, and, by the way, what the heck was Stage 1. I encouraged that operative to post in the forum and ask for an explanation from Agapocles' operative. Since things are still a bit confusing in the course/game, and my operatives all have many, many other things going on in their lives, I ended up posting as the Demo Student, asking Agapocles' operative to explain how she'd attained the rating, and she gamely explained that she'd "had him consider" the text.

That was as far as that dynamic got before we met yesterday, but it sowed a very valuable seed, and let me talk at the start of the session about the theory behind the role-playing aspect of the course: seeing the ancient world through ancient eyes is what lets us understand the most important parts of ancient texts. By understanding what Herodotus meant in Athens we understand what his writing really can mean today.

We turned back to the text of the first chapter of book 1 of Herodotus. The discussion that ensued was easily the best discussion I've ever had on that passage with undergraduates. I went from team to team, asking for the insights their skills had given them. The most wonderfully bizarre thing was that it appears that by telling them I had granted them those skills I'd actually evoked the skills in them. The most obvious example is the way the team to which I'd granted "Objectivity" detected some very important traces of bias in passages later in the book that most students simply gloss over.

Each group had its say, and the incipient, fundamental disputes over whether Herodotus is doing something new or something old, and how invested he is in being right, started to break out.

Then I intervened and told them that the TSTT, fed by their psychoporeutic energy ("For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings"), had sprung to life. The room was fading, and now they heard the sounds of voices speaking in another language.

"You're standing in the gateway of a little courtyard. . ."

After a lot of agonizing, I had decided that for certain scenes, the thirty of them would be compressed into a single Athenian, and we would operate with the conceit that parallel scenes were taking place all over Athens, in the lives of thirty different young Athenian men.

(Note on sex and gender: I defaulted all the hosts—that is, in-mission characters—to male. When I explained this dynamic to the operatives, I gave them two reasons, and an out. First, and perhaps most importantly, given that realism is a central goal not for its own sake but rather to provide the students with as accurate a picture of life in 431BCE as possible—which is in fact one of the course objectives—a female character in a realistic Athens would have a very hard time leaving the house. Second, "masculinity" in ancient Athens was most certainly not the same as masculinity today, and it will be up to the operatives to decide how to perform their genders. Finally (the out), I said that if anyone wanted to work out a role-playing way to have a female-sexed Athenian character (for example a girl whose parents raised her as a boy, a character choice which of course has its own gendering difficulties), I would be very open to the idea.)

In the scene that ensued, the player-character's father discussed the political situation with them. He brought them into the andron (man-room—the dining-room of an ancient Greek house) and uncovered his hoplite armor. I gave each decision about what to do or say to a different operative, assigning them their operative code-names (e.g. Operative Jessep, Operative Boston, Operative Red) as I did so. Their first important decision was whether or not to try on their father's armor. Operative Mal (named by the student after the character in Firefly) decided not to try the armor on.

Crucially, the father then offered them the chance to flee the city if war broke out. If the course/game goes to plan, that offer will be a very important plot point.

"Alright," said the father, "go see your mother, and get some sleep. I'm sure you've heard that a storyteller from Ionia has come to town, and I expect you and your friends will be up early to get to the agora and see if you can get a listen."