Thursday, January 21, 2010

Pedagogical practomime

This semester, as I mentioned below, I'm going all in on practomimetic education.

In my myth course, I've divided the three hundred students into teams of 15 who are going to compete in a series of mythomachies on such questions as "What's the better example of modern myth, Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings?" for the title "Lords of Myth." I'm also awarding Honor Points for answering trivia questions that I've stuck into the intros of my video lectures, and for doing cool stuff like coming up with innovations that make their fellow students' lives easier.

My (Gaming) Homer course is now a full-on Alternate-Reality Practomime (what most people, if they know what to call it at all, would call an Alternate-Reality Game [ARG]--the kind of game that entered the public consciousness really only with David Fincher's flawed-but-wonderful film The Game). Little bits of information about that will be emerging in various places, including here, as the semester continues, but, although I (Roger Travis) am not supposed to know about this, I (shadowy leader of a clandestine, ancient guild of bards) am now in the process of recruiting the students to fulfill bardic missions in The Lord of the Rings Online.

And, the real subject of this post, my advanced Latin course on Horace and Ovid is a practomimetic narrative in which the students, acting as young Romans in 8 CE, must make the choice between amor romanus (Roman love--that is, getting erotic with Ovid in Augustus' Rome) and amor Romae (love of Rome--that is, getting serious with Horace and getting with Augustus' fascist program). In the first fabula of the course, the students, all cousins one with another, have been sent to Rome to stay with their wicked uncle, Gaius Recentius Malus, and look after an important lawsuit in which the Recentii are attempting to recover a farm that was confiscated by Octavian (you know, Augustus before he really got going) after the Civil Wars and given to a veteran.

Their mothers have made Gaius promise that he will not let them leave the house until they have read and understood the Roman Odes of Horace, those first six poems of Book 3 that pretty much tell a young Roman how to cleanse his Augustan way. The fabula is called Carmina Romani Gravis "Poems of a Serious Roman."

We'll be using Google Wave for a great many of the course activities, including the explicitly practomimetic aspect (there are several other ludic elements, like collection of forms for Latinity Points, which I frame as a way that Gaius is making their study fun for them). For interest's sake, here's the document about practomime in the course that I've posted on the course website:


What it is

Alright, I'll concede it just for the moment: if you wanted to call practomime "playing pretend" or "playing a role-playing game" I wouldn't argue. Think about it: how much do people learn playing pretend, whether that's playing a game, acting in a play, going through a religious ritual, or reading a historical novel? I would contend that it's more than they ever learn in school.

How it works

From a purely technical perspective, the entire course is a big practomime. (In fact, if you think about it, every course you've ever taken [with the exception, to be sure, of my previous courses] is a boring practomime in which you pretend to be a student who's getting to know the stuff he or she needs to know to pass the course.) You are learning to be something like a Roman who could function in some small range of ancient Roman culture.

From a practical perspective, your sessions of reading Latin poetry, however, which would be interludes in the life of the Roman you portray, will in the world of this course dominate his or her practomimetic life. The rest of his or her existence—the times in which he or she gets to "do stuff"—will be squeezed in between the reading. This fact of course means that we get to skip the boring parts of Roman existence (sleeping, walking, eating non-banquet food) and concentrate on the interesting ones.

In between defined units of poetry, we will be doing this practomime. Some of it will occur in class-session, but most of it will happen in Google Wave, once I get you familiar with the system. Once we're up and running, you will be required to take at least one turn in each break between class-sessions (as you'll see in a moment, a "turn" is just an action you take in ancient Rome). You will find that there are many interesting things to be found out from the characters you meet, beginning with your uncle Gaius Recentius Malus, but if you would rather spend your time doing rather than talking, the only limits are your imagination and our fairly scanty knowledge of the period. At the start of the course, you will be confined to the house, but once the first fabula is over, you'll be able to roam the streets of Rome. As you'll see from the syllabus, I've got a broad idea of where I'm going to try to funnel you, and at some points I may have to tie you up to get you where I need you to go, but those moments will be few and far between.

So: aliquid age. Do stuff. That's how it works: decide what you want to do; determine how well it goes; tell the rest of us what you're doing, and you've done it.

(What follows [that is, how action is governed in the practomime] is a version of Corvus Elrod's HoneyComb Engine.)

Any time you set out to narrate yourself doing something, you'll roll a ten-sided die, either with the dice-link on Wave or with a real die in the classroom (zero is zero for this purpose—9 equals critical success; more fun that way [oops, I said the f-word]). The result on that die determines how well you succeed in what you've undertaken to do.

Thus, you'll first tell us what you want to do, then roll a die, then narrate what happens. There are ways to modify the roll which we'll discuss as the course moves along, but I want you to grasp, first of all, the simplicity of the concept.

Here's an example. I'm Gaius Recentius Malus, your uncle. I'm at a banquet and I've just been told that I'm to be prosecuted for adultery. I decide that I'd like to take a sip of wine to buy myself a moment to think. I announce to the class: "I'm going to take a sip of wine" or, better, "Vinum bibam." I roll a die, and get a 1. I narrate, perhaps, "Conor a sip vini bibere, but end up spilling it super togam meam."

Some guidelines

The purpose of practomimetic coursework is always to achieve course objectives. For this course (CAMS 3102 Horace and Ovid) that means that in your practomime your object is to enhance and to demonstrate your growing mastery of the thematic meaning of the poetry we are reading, of the language in which that poetry was composed, and of the cultural background from which that poetry derived its meaning. There are no limitations on what you, in acting the life of an ancient Roman, can attempt to do in the virtual world we are creating together, but in order to demonstrate your work towards course objectives a few guidelines will be helpful.

  • Try as hard as you can to use Latin. Broken Latin is absolutely acceptable (e.g. "Pono money meum in arca" [arca means "safe"] would be perfectly acceptable, if you should happen to forget that argentum means "money"), as is incorrect Latin (I would never e.g. tell you that you should have used a Future Less Vivid condition instead of the simple present one you used).
  • Try hard, also, to use the Latin we're seeing in the poetry. Echoes of Horace and Ovid in our practomime are exactly what I'm hoping for.
  • Try to find out things about the story you're in. The course is going to put you in situations conducive to discovering the information and developing the cultural skills that will satisfy course objectives. How you do that discovery and development is up to you.

So I'm thinking it's going to be an immersive semester!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A note on the word "practomime"

I'd like to express my thanks to Charles Pratt, a wonderful sparring partner ιn such matters, for discussing this subject with me in the Google wave that led to this post; if you'd like access to that Wave, let me know in the comments.

If my work should continue in the direction I think it's going, you're going to see me use the word "practomime" with increasing frequency. Essentially, I mean by it exactly what I meant by "performative play practice" (PPP). Practomime is what games and stories have in common—playing pretend in a context where everyone agrees that playing pretend is what you do. I'm seeking to replace my own reflexive use of the word "game" with "practomime" in any context where I consider it important to bring the performative element of the practice to the fore. I made the word from two authentic Greek roots, πράττω (pratto: do, act—the word that of course gives us πράξις praxis, which is what Aristotle says tragedy enacts) and that all-time fave of mine μίμησις (mimesis: performance-as [often misleadingly translated "imitation"]—this is what Plato and Aristotle say tragedy is), so I think it's sturdy enough for my purposes, at least.

As I try to figure out what the things people call games are doing and what they can do, I increasingly feel the need to make the connection to mimesis (see this post for a bit more detail). For my own purposes, I need a term that captures certain connections that I have proven to my own satisfaction at least to be fundamental. That doesn't mean I think those connections are by any means exhaustive, and I still think it makes sense at the very least to talk about "game elements" in what I'm relabelling, for my own purpose, "practomimes."

But the category of human experience that's being touched on in these practomimes is so far beyond the semantic range of "game," as I see it, that for me a new term is necessary. That new term needs to capture the greater depth of "games'" aesthetic relationship to Hamlet than to Monopoly. Note that I'm not saying that they're not fundamentally related to both those things.

Consider New Super Mario Bros Wii, which I'm finding, with my aged reflexes, fiendishly difficult. "Is this really a practomime?" I have said to myself, as whatever exiguous story there is in the game faded into the far background to reveal the stark horror of failing over and over to make a particular jump. "Yes," I thought to myself, "but just as calling DragonAge a game doesn't get me anywhere interesting and can in fact serve to impede my critical progress, calling NSMBW a practomime doesn't capture what's most interesting about the game."

On the other hand, I do think it's fascinating, from a practomimetic perspective, that NSMBW is, like a re-composition of the oral epic tradition, a virtuosic variation on what's near-exactly the same story in so many earlier games. That's the sort of thing that for me simply can't be discussed with any degree of facility if we call it a game. But the critical language I'd use might be something like "As a practomime, NSMBW possesses several interesting features that tend to be obscured by the understandable tendency of most critics to frame it primarily as a game."

Monday, January 11, 2010

Let's all go to Rapture!

The Video Games and Human Values Initiative (VGHVI) has weekly multiplayer nights, usually on Thursdays. This week, I'm hosting a simultanteous playthrough of the opening two hours or so of Bioshock, with live conversation on Skype. I've posted a provocation for our conversation on my blog at VGHVI. The event is also an experiment in coordination with the Vintage Game Club, who are talking about Bioshock this month in preparation for the release of Bioshock 2.

I hope to visit Rapture with you!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The end of KTHMA

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

I'm deep in the midst of planning not one but two more practomimetic courses for the semester that begins (gulp) in less than two weeks (I'll be posting some key documents soon from the one that's not top secret and ARG-y), but I do want to finish the KTHMA story in at least a skeletal fashion.

Under cover of darkness, the team landed on the beach at Methone, accompanied by Herodotus, Thucydides, and Alcibiades. They observed that there were two conveniently located beacons: one that would alert the Athenian ships to land and disembark their 1000 hoplites to take the town; another that would alert the Spartans further inland that Methone was under attack.

Team 2 rolled a nine, to their delight, when it was time to get off the fishing boat that had been commandeered to take them in to shore, and thus disembarked in style. The whole mission team successfully gathered the available intelligence, which indicated that the wall of Methone was undefended. One of the pro-Pericles teams lit the beacon that alerted the Athenian ships, and they heard a horn-call as the troop transports headed on-shore.

At that point, things became confused, as the fog of war descended. One of the pro-Spartan teams apparently forgot that there was a conveniently placed beacon to alert the Spartans, and decided instead to tip over the coastal beacon in hope of starting a fire big enough to attract Spartan attention. They were quite successful, and much of Methone went up in flames, attracting the attention of Brasidas, greatest general of the Spartans, who actually does enter Thucydides at this point.

Unfortunately, the fire also allowed the Methonians to surround the team.

I rolled a die. "There are no survivors," I reported.


"But," I continued, "Herodotus, Thucydides, and Alcibiades step from the shadows, evade the flames, and manage to get your bodies back to the beach, where they take ship for Athens and are thus among the dead of the first year of the war. . ."

I have videotape of this moment. There is something on the audio that sounds like a gasp. I'm sure it's not actually a gasp, but a prof can dream.

". . . over whom Pericles delivers the funeral oration."

To call this course the most rewarding experience of my teaching career thus far would be true, but wouldn't capture the feeling of rightness I've had about it since I first started to dream in this direction, and the change of register it's involved in my thoughts about the entire educational enterprise. It didn't all go particularly well, but so much of it was so extraordinary that I can't imagine the experience failing to transform every class I teach from here on.

My thanks to you for reading these precis, with the hope that I'll have more to share in very short order, as this adventure continues.