Thursday, November 19, 2009

Brief classical thoughts on "No Russian"

This blog may have some readers who have managed to miss the controversy surrounding the single-player campaign of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (MW2). To orient you, my VGHVI colleague Erik Hanson brought together some of the most important responses to the controversy on the VGHVI Context Clues blog.

There's really no need to divulge the nature of the atrocity here; if you're interested you can follow-up through the link to Context Clues. What you need to know is that there's a chapter of the game in which the player-character is forced (if he or she chose to be forced, at the start of the game, since the game asks you if you want to play the disturbing sequence or skip it) to aid in the commission of a terrible atrocity. What's important for the purposes of the classical comparison is that 1) it's something that no rational person could view as anything other than an atrocity; and 2) the player (if he or she has chosen to play the sequence) is forced to aid in committing it.

The game critics whom I consider worth reading are near-universally agreed that the chapter does not deliver the profound meaning it seems pretty clearly to be attempting to deliver. There are a host of reasons for this impression that arise in the execution of the chapter, ranging from its context in the larger story of the game to the odd and jarring way its interactivity is managed. With regard to this failure of execution, it's perhaps worth noting from my classical point of view that there are several tragedies of Euripides that are marred (if we wish to put it that way, though scholars disagree) by a similar failure to integrate horrific acts into their plots in a meaningful way. I would hesitate to credit Infinity Ward, the developer of MW2 with this level of depth, but it's just possible that 100 years from now what looks now like the inappropriateness of the sequence will be hailed by scholars hoping to get published as a brilliantly dicomfiting coup de jeu.

There is, however, another point about "No Russian" that appears more strongly from a classical perspective than perhaps any other. It seems to me an undeniable fact that Infinity Ward, who put analogously atrocious action in MW2's predecessor, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, is maintaining a commitment to bringing the players of its games face-to-face with the ethical ambiguity of war. That fact by itself shows a development of game culture that mirrors the development that we can see in the homeric tradition when we look at that tradition diachronically, and pick apart its strata: in the Iliad, for example, the ethical simplicity of tales of glory becomes, over time, the ambiguous story of an Achilles who drags Hector around Troy, in front of his grieving parents, and then kills Trojan youths on Patroclus' funeral pyre. Indeed, this development leads in ancient Athens to tragedy, the ne plus ultra of literary ethical thought, where atrocities are used over and over to expose the fragility of our ethical claims and to strengthen our understanding of why we must make those claims nonetheless.

MW2 reaches in an old, old direction. Its failure to lay hold of the profundity it seems to seek is sad, but the reach itself means much more than I think many have acknowledged.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Operation KTHMA: handing over the reins

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

Here's what I uploaded over the weekend to the KTHMA team. The idea of requiring the students to start telling the story, as engagement and as assessment at the same time, comes partly from the HoneyComb Engine and partly from some comments helpful readers made on earlier posts.


The Demiurge advises you that it has become clear to him that the situation is worse than he thought, and the danger to Western Civilization greater. Because of the continuing diminishment of the imaginative exploration of the past in the general population, the TSTT cannot function as intended, and requires more input of psychoporeutic energy than the KTHMA-team has yet been able to generate. (The Demiurge recommends that if the operatives have seen the movie
Elf they make the analogy of Christmas Cheer and its role in the flight of Santa's Sleigh to the role of psychoporeutic energy in the function of the TSTT.)

The Demiurge does not plan to take this dire state of affairs lying down. This mission will achieve its objectives if the Demiurge has anything to say about it, and so the Demiurge has resolved to attempt a desperate experiment, and he requests the KTHMA-team's assistance, although he knows it will demands a level of mastery the team has not yet achieved.

Specifically, the team will need to boost its Vitality signifcantly, in order to get the answers we need about the meanings of Herodotus and Thucydides. In practice, this will mean merging each class' Athenians into a single Athenian of that class, a sort of classics superman, and taking a greater degree of control over the TSTT's imaginative function than the team has yet taken.

The Demiurge has already laid the groundwork for this new responsibility in instructing the TSTT to reformulate your secrets. Now, as the mission proceeds, the KTHMA team will take the next step by demonstrating their growing mastery of Greek historical writings in preparing to imagine, and then, in mission-session, actually imagining parts of the action biotized by the TSTT. That is, to put it in clearer real-world terms, you will be responsible for creating chunks of the mission-action, and thus adopting the role of the historical writer. As you create, you may narrate any action of the plausibility of which you can convince at least half the KTHMA team.

This new responsibility will work as follows. The Demiurge will notify you in session and on HuskyCT about what will be happening in Athens in upcoming sessions. When you are doing your pre-session reading, you will also mine both the section you are currently reading and the rest of the texts available to you in Herodotus, Thucydides, and any other works such as Plutarch, tragedy, Aristophanes, and Plato that you wish to bring in, for ideas about what information needs to be obtained in the upcoming encounter in relation to your class-team's goals in the interpretation of history. In your class-team forum, and in brief in-session team-meetings, you will agree upon what you hope to accomplish in the upcoming TSTT session.

The central idea behind what you narrate will be to advance your class' idea of what historical writing is about by accomplishing your class' in-Athens goal, and at the same time defending your secret from the "damaging" textual information supplied by the TSTT as a psychoporeutic stimulant. The Demiurge will discuss how this works with you in your team-forums, and will always assist in the in-session narration when you request assistance.

The rewards for demonstrating your mastery at analyzing Greek historical writing will be twofold: first, the usual experience points that contribute to your class-participation grade in the mission's course-cover; second, as you make your psychoporeutic contributions you will gain in Vitality, which will in turn advance your Stage rating; that advance will earn unique awards of honor in the Demiurge's Hall of κλέος.

The Demiurge advises you that even if you do not manage to prepare for a given mission-session, there are still experience points to be gained from showing up and contributing, though obviously it will be possible to win more experience points by making more deeply prepared contributions.


Along with that briefing, I also uploaded new instructions for each class, specifying their worldviews further and suggesting ways in which their view of how history should work, and what it should do, might differ from the other classes. Yesterday I informed them that after they were done in the Athenian assembly (where they'll get to see the debate in which Athens decides on war), they would be going to court, accused of breaking and entering. I gave each class-team a different text to mine for the necessary data, for example Xenophon's Apology, Plato's Apology, and Aristophanes' Wasps, all key texts for our understanding of the Athenian legal system, and thus the development of rhetoric during the end of the 5th Century BCE.

And, in a step that's really only vaguely related to the game but seems to me to have been enabled by it, I've made their research paper optionally collaborative, with all collaboration to happen in the KTHMA discussion forums. I've grown less and less happy about the college-class paper as a form over the years, though my belief in the importance of teaching writing and the critical thought that goes with it has never wavered. Since at least four of these class-teams have formed themselves into functional collabroative units, and the fifth shows enough spark that I don't despair of it, it seemed worth giving a collaborative model for a research paper a shot.