Saturday, October 31, 2009

Noted: Michael Abbott on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 marketing

I'd be quite surprised if there were anyone who reads this little blog who doesn't also (and indeed more frequently) read Michael Abbott's The Brainy Gamer, but just in case, and in tribute to his wonderful post this morning, I'd like to point any such hypothetical reader to a great example of the power of the blog form, which is at the same time the most incisive analysis of the forces controlling AAA gaming I think I've ever read.

Here's what I posted in Michael's comments:
From my hobby horse, blaming Infinity Ward for this callousness is like blaming the homeric bards for the graphic violence and smacktalk of their battles. By doing that kind of blaming, we certainly assert our own superiority (which is not an unimportant thing to do). But we also start from a position of having missed something that's culturally interesting about the game and its marketing. You catch precisely that interesting facet here.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Operation KTHMA: arts, crafts, and card-based combat

See this hub for a guide to my posts on Operation KTHMA.

The boss-fight with the High Priest of Apollo at Delphi delivered the information I was hoping my students would get about how Delphi actually worked, according to what I think is our best evidence. (That is, it was rather like Switzerland, banks included, and with a girl on a tripod substituting for the magical power of Swiss Chocolate.)

But it also crystallized a problem with the logagonistic system that I've been avoiding: as it has stood hitherto, it's not interactive enough. The basic idea is that students discover the information that they need both for the game and for the course above all by deploying skills (a la weapons and spells in traditional RPG's both paper-and-dice and digital). When they deploy a skill, as the Demiurge I tell them what their character is saying and how their "target" (that is, interlocutor) responds.

That is, it ends up being a roundabout way to lecture, in which the top-down nature of lecturing becomes starkly, even absurdly apparent. Not un-engaging, I think, because I always try to make my descriptions and presentations of the information entertainingly goofy and iconoclastic, but definitely not as engaging as I want Operation KTHMA and the other courses I hope to base on it to be.

As I lamented this defect a bit, one of the few students who's truly both an experienced gamer and an experienced classicist nudged me along the path I've been trying to travel—the path of text. You may remember that the basic nature of the gameplay already has a healthy helping of textual analysis in it: each mission-part begins with a session in which the teams use their skills in reverse, analyzing a key section of Herodotus or Thucydides to "power-up" the transport device that sends them back in time. That "power-up" phase is without a doubt the most successful part of the course thus far, in my opinion (though the multimedia team skill-practice exercises are a close second): the power-up is the time when it really does feel like we're making the ancient world come alive.

What if somehow the logagonistic (that is, "combat") system were a real continuation of that textuality? The difficulty I saw was that I wanted the students to practice analyzing the text, but the point of skills in RPG's is that they function as a clever metonymy to cover over a player's lack of real skill in, say, sorcery.

That's when I got out the card-stock and the glue (which I borrowed from my kids' craft box and which, hilariously, turned out to be sparkle glue), and made the skill-cards. One of those cards is pictured above.

Skills, you see, seem to me to tend to teach a player about his or her class, and, by observing other players playing other classes, about those other classes. Their rule-based existence teaches players not how to cast a spell or swing an axe, but how to be a loremaster or a champion—at least insofar as the designers of the game have managed to encode in that rule-based existence some nugget of their idea of what those classes are. To that end, I realized that it's not what the skills do that matters for the teaching aspect of the course, but what they mean.

The reason for the cards is first that I want to see if standardizing the skills brings their basic point across better—the point being that these are discursive techniques that various ancient Greek cultural figures used. Second, the cards will be an easy way to simplify the mechanic of the expense of character-energy—each team has three cards for their basic skill, two cards for their second-tier skill, and one for their third-tier skill; as they play them on a given mission, the cards are put in a discard pile.

Third, though, and probably most importantly, standardizing the skills this way allows me to introduce a new framework for the discovery of the secrets in logagonistics—both the NPC and the PC secrets. From now on, I'm going to formulate each secret as a declaratory statement with discrete elements, and tie each of those elements to a passage that the character-skills can discover.

For example, the secret the operatives discovered from the High Priest of Apollo was "Delphi seeks to remain neutral." If we had been playing under the new system, I would have broken the statement into four parts: "(a) Delphi (b) seeks (c) to remain (d) neutral." For each of those parts I would have assigned a particular sentence in one of the important texts (not just Herodotus and Thucydides, but also homeric epic, tragedy, Aristophanes, and Plato—all instantly available on the internet, to be projected on the screen in the classroom). For example, I might tie "Delphi" to the moment in Sophocles' Oedipus Turannos when Oedipus tells the chorus that he has sent Creon to Delphi. Ideally each "damage-passage" would have some sort of thematic relationship to the secret itself (as the Sophocles passage does), but that's not really necessary: the idea is that the students will have to find the passage first and then identify the key-word that forms part of the secret.

You can probably guess where my high hopes for this new version of the system lie: not only will the students be closer to the text at all times, but opportunities open up for texturing their idea of what Athens was like with a wealth of different material, and for texturing their knowledge of the texts of Athenian culture with a new idea of Athens. I'll keep you posted.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Operation KTHMA: the road to Delphi

Yesterday the team made its way from Athens to Delphi by way of a series of short encounters with their new acquaintance Olorides, who turns out to be Cimon's great-nephew and thus himself a member of the Philaidai. Each night of the arduous journey, they could get one "hit" in on Olorides before Aristides, the henchman sent by Pericles to shepherd the mission, came to tell them to shut up so that no brigands (or other unfriendlies) could hear them. Olorides turned out to have a great many thoughts about what Herodotus is trying to tell the Athenians, though he was careful to make clear that these thoughts shouldn't be taken as somehow definitive.

Olorides does seem, though, to have a firm grasp on the cultural scene of Athens, and how Herodotus' innovative ideas about the role of law in human life and in the ordering of the cosmos relate to it. When the team's Athenians reached Delphi at last, and stood with Olorides by the Castalian Spring, with a clear view of the amazing wealth of the Sacred Way rising toward the enormous Temple of Apollo built by the Alcmaeonidae, becoming thus the proximate cause of Athenian democracy and Pericles' rule over it, they had a last chance to detain him and pick his brain about the meaning of Herodotus.

Aristides would take them to the temple and tell them what to do. He, Olorides, was on his way to see some people he knew.

The class-teams furiously deployed their skills, revealing that Olorides, though he disagrees with Herodotus about this, thinks that Herodotus is trying to tell the Athenians to act Greek, rather than Persian.

On the pedagogical side of things, it's becoming clear that this game-method thing is wonderfully flexible as a framework for several different kinds of learning. Judging from my students' reactions, any time I downshift into "ordinary" teaching mode, and either just start telling them things e.g. about Greek history, or tell them about course mechanics liks the upcoming Mission Final Challenge (that is, quiz), it's very much like they're reading a post in, say, a forum about The Lord of the Rings Online or even Halo, telling them how to defeat a particular boss. I'm not sure it would be an exaggeration to say that the frame of the game-space, engaging in and of itself, makes even "ordinary" teaching more engaging. Indeed, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that students become positively grateful for that ordinary teaching that will help them get further in the game-story, in the same way I feel positively grateful, after dying multiple times, to learn the best approach to defeating a Nazgul.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Operation KTHMA: aristocratic feuding by torchlight

See this hub for a guide to my posts on Operation KTHMA.

One of the students said something at the end of class on Friday that I don't think I've ever heard a student say before, especially not on a Friday: "Can we keep going for another hour?" He wasn't more than half-serious, to be sure, but I felt I wasn't too far off in taking it as a compliment to the course, especially since matters had just reached a crescendo in their encounter with the (fictional) wife of Thucydides son of Melesias (sM), whom I called Aidonice.

Taking my cue from moments I have found very meaningful in video games in which a player-character receives unavoidable, massive damage, I had Aidonice say "You all should not be so confident that working for Pericles is in your best interest. We know your secrets." Then she turned to each of the class-teams and revealed what must have felt to the students like very large parts of their secrets. (I'm reasonably sure that in actual fact the teams are still a good distance away from guessing each other's secrets even after Aidonice's critical hits.)

This occurred at the end of the encounter, after the students had managed to infiltrate Thucydides (sM)'s house (though not without raising an alarm, which proved crucial as the situation developed). Aidonice had come down from the women's quarters and led them into the andron, where she had whirled and launched a surprise attack, accusing the students of undermining the peace of Athens, and claiming that her husband had nothing to do with the stories being spread by Herodotus.

It transpired in the encounter that that wasn't quite true, because Herodotus had (this is my own fictionalization) sought a meeting with Thucydides son of Melesias, for reasons that neither Aidonice nor Thucydides himself understood. So Thucydides (sM) did know that Herodotus was spreading stories against the Alcmaeonidae, Pericles' family, and Pericles' political faction, but continued to profess ignorance of Herodotus' motives. (The whole encounter was punctuated by extensive "text-time" interludes in which we zoomed through the essential Herodotean passages about aristocratic and tyrannical influences on human events.) Friday's session ended there.

On Monday, she made the teams an offer: they may send her a message at any time and seek the protection of the Philaedae (the family of Miltiades, Cimon, and Thucydides (sM)), and join with the aristocratic faction to attempt to keep the peace with Sparta. Otherwise, the aristocratic faction will come down as hard on them as they know how, and Pericles might well not be able to save them.

I told the students to talk about it in their team-forums. Over the last couple days, they've been making their choices, between Philaedae and Alcmaeonidae, and, as I hoped, not all of them have chosen the same way. I'm delighted above all because with my new understanding of the HoneyComb Engine I very much want to end the course with the students demonstrating their mastery of important course objectives by taking the active part in the storytelling around which Corvus bases some eseential components of the system.

Yesterday, the mission finished with a big set-piece I had dreamt up on the treadmill. Thucydides (sM) appeared with many of his henchmen. Aidonice told him what had happened, and he told his henchmen to arrest the students' characters. One class-team had the wit to try to use a new skill of command to get the henchman to stop in their tracks, but there turned out simply to be too many to stop.

At the moment when the student-characters were about to be arrested, though, a strange sound was heard. I always delight in describing the music of the aulos as resembling the most annoying bagpipe imaginable, and so I imitated this sound for humorous effect as the henchmen and Thucydides (sM) went out into the courtyard to see what was happening. The student-characters followed, and they saw many more torches approaching down the street than Thucydides' henchmen had, and heard the sound of the aulos coming closer.

Thucydides (sM) muttered, "Oh my gods, you're kidding me."

An enormous party of sailors arrived, led by the students' friend Aristides and a man about their age whom they hadn't seen before, playing the aulos and looking ridiculous.

Thucydides (sM) said, "Alcibiades, of course. What other self-respecting person would walk down the street playing the aulos."

Alcibiades removed the aulos from his mouth and said, with a grand gesture, "At your service."

Aristides beckoned to the student-characters and said, "Pericles is waiting for you!"

To some of the teams' surprise, certain other of the teams were a little reluctant to go, but in the end they followed along. Before they left, Alcibiades nodded to the shadows, where the student-characters now noticed another young man, also about their age or a little older. "Are you coming, Olorides?" asked Alcibiades.

The young man nodded, a bit indecisively, and looked at Thucydides (sM), who said, "Do as you must, Olorides." Olorides went to the side of Alcibiades, Aristides, and the student-characters, and walked with them, as, accompanied by Pericles' faithful, they at last escaped (or were taken unwillingly away from) the leader of the Philaedae.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Operation KTHMA: Boss-fight!

Last Wednesday, the operatives' Athenian hosts were led by their new acquaintance Aristides into a section of the city they had never seen. Here, it appeared, lived many metics, the resident foreigners who were an essential part of Athens' economic prosperity. For the first time in their young lives, I told them, they also saw prostitutes.

(Would Aspasia—whose house the students were quickly approaching—have lived in this kind of neighborhood? We'll never know, though I actually think not. On the other hand, I decided to put her there because it introduced the students to several important concepts that may help us understand Pericles and the Athens out of which Herodotus and Thucydides come: the metic population, its relationship to Athens' status as a sea-city, Pericles' relationship to both of those things.)

Outside the courtyard of the house of Aspasia lingered four burly sailors. They asked Aristides where he was taking these kids. He replied "The chief wants to see them." The sailors let them pass.

In the courtyard, they saw an old man talking to a beautiful middle-aged woman. They kissed, and parted. The old man said, "I'll see you later, Aspasia."

(In the classroom, furious typing on at least two lap-tops.)

(Wednesday's class ended there.)

Friday's class-session was entirely devoted to the boss-fight with Pericles. In the interim, to my nearly-shameful joy, I had received the tuchic determination devices I had ordered, and I distributed one d6 and one d10 to each class-team.Pericles opened the encounter by leading them into the andron of Aspasia's house, where they could see the remnants of last night's symposium, not yet cleaned up, and saying, "Aristides tells me you may be trustworthy. I have a job for you, because you've been asking around town about that Ionian storyteller. But I can't tell you what it is, because Pericles cannot have been heard to ask for help of this kind. You must figure it out for yourself."

Again, writing can't convey either the tautness of the educational atmosphere, or its confusion as the operatives and I struggled to come up with a balance between flow and pedagogy. Pericles never hit them, so their secrets didn't come into play, but that was principally because Class 4 had studied their skill-sheet carefully, and deployed their skill "Confusion," which on a miss (which is what happened) at least stuns the opponent so that he can't attack.

One mechanic that I hadn't fully appreciated was in fact the miss, which can lead, I realized, to dynamics that are really much more interesting than simply passing the turn to the next character in line. When the framework is this logagonistic one I'm developing with reference to Corvus Elrod's HoneyComb Engine, a question that Pericles refuses to answer can be interesting and revealing because of the specific way Pericles refuses to answer it.

So as I called on one student from each class-team in turn, he or she would roll the d10 (I meant to have them roll the d6 to hit, then the d10 for damage, but I have to admit I had too much to manage in this first boss-fight, and in the end it was only the d10's that got rolled). One of the brilliant advances of the HoneyComb Engine is the way it allows players (whom Corvus calls storytellers or 'tellers) to improvise the outcome of an action according to a die-roll. I'm hoping I can get my students to do that eventually, but on Friday I took my inspiration from the Engine and used the number each student rolled to do my own improvisation about what happened. For example, Class 5 deployed their skill Divine Melody, to attempt to make Pericles think he was in the presence of a deity. They rolled a 1, and I told them that they had sung a terrible bit of doggerel about the gods, on hearing which Pericles had looked puzzled for a moment and then said, "Yes, well, that's true," and turned away.

From an educational perspective, the most important breakthrough I think we made in this boss-fight was at the several moments during the encounter when as a team discussed what they wanted to do on their turn, I intervened as the Demiurge to lead them through a passage of Herodotus that was related to what was going on in battle of wits with Pericles. Above all, I called their attention to the passages that had to do with the two more-or-less ruling families of Athens, the Alcmaeonidae (of whom Pericles was descended) and the Philaidai (of whom Cimon, and Miltiades, and Thucydides son of Melesias, and almost certainly Thucydides the historian, were all descended).

In the end, it turned out that Pericles wanted the operatives' Athenians to go to the house of Thucydides son of Melesias and find something he could use to discredit the things the Ionian storyteller seemed to be saying about him. Pericles said that he really couldn't figure out what the man from Halicarnassus was up to, but that it seemed very dangerous indeed not to be taking action, when the Spartan ambassadors were on their way, and the moment of decision was at hand.