Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Life in Rome: examples of excellent practomime


To celebrate my students' efforts, and to entice others to try the practomimetic method, I want to start highlighting some of the incredible things students in these courses are doing. The students of FABULA AMORIS ROMANI are now on their way North from Rome towards two neighboring farms in the Sabine Hills: one is the famous farm of Horace, given him by Maecenas; the other is the farm of the Recentii, the gens of my students' Romans.

Along with them go their wicked uncle Gaius, and the future emperor Tiberius, whom I call Drusillus (an unattested but plausible nickname), and a disreputable poet named Naso (that's Ovid's real name, from one perspective, and indeed the name by which he has frequently been known through history; it means "nose," so it also has the benefit of just being kinda funny). They've been sent on this sojourn by none other than Augustus the princeps himself, after having performed for him his favorite song, Horace's Carmen Saeculare, with which a chorus of boys and girls had celebrated Augustus' New Age of peace 25 years before. My students' Romans performed the song as a chorus in the portico of Aeneas in the Forum of Augustus, as Augustus himself took a regal position next to the life-size statue of his "ancestor."


Earlier, when they had first entered the Forum, the student who goes by the Roman name Portia had practomimed thus:
Portia, fearing that all these extravagant plans for creating commotion might fail--i.e. anger the Princeps instead of gain an audience with him--decides to create an Augustus-pacifying back-up plan. 1d10=9 (9)

After the group has re-emerged from the dark alley with the litter and continued on its way on the Via dei toward the Forum pincipis, she slips away for a moment to Julius Caesar's temple of Venus Genetrix. There she pauses to admire the apse and eight splendid columns [from the source, I cannot quite tell whether these were Trajan's creation or whether they existed in Caesar's construction, storing up details its construction and the impression they gave in her memory. If Augustus cannot be distracted by more flamboyant means, she might be able to compliment him on the beauty and inspirational qualities of his father's temple, which could even lead to allusions about the connection between the temple's patroness and the temple's builder. Then stories of any of the three illustrious figures (Venus, Caesar, or Augustus), or at least didactic advice for young Romans, might ensue, if the Princeps should feel loquacious, and his narration would not likely prove short. By the time he has finished, perhaps he will have forgotten to punish the malefactors for bringing commotion into his forum--or at least he might be slightly more willing to mitigate the punishment.

Source about the temple:
Orlindo Grossi, "The Forum of Julius Caesar and the Temple of Venus Genetrix" (JSTOR)

And, that the dramatic element not be excluded, here's what the student cui est Romulus nomen did in hopes of entering the forum:
Romulus is feeling a bit confused about the plan to meet the princeps, but he decides to try a radical plan. He notices a group of slaves standing around a litter that looks particularly fanciful and ornate. Being a country rube, Romulus has never seen such a thing.
"What's that?" he asks the slave.
"It's called a litter," says one of the slave. "Rich people use them to ride around the city so they don't step in all the sewage. It's our job to carry it."
"Who does this belong to?" Romulus asks.
"It belongs to the princeps himself," says the slave, somewhat proudly. "We're bringing it to pick him up at the forum principis. Well, I'd better get going now."
"Wait," says Romulus, putting an arm around the man's shoulders. "Come talk to me in this dark alley for a second." Once they are inside the alley, away from the profanus vulgus, Romulus draws his gladius and charges at the slave with murder in mind. 1d10=9 (9)
Romulus stabs the slave 9 times and the man falls to the ground, quite dead. Romulus strips off the man's livery (or whatever the Roman equivalent was) and quickly puts it on. Then he steps back out on to the street. Along with the other slaves of the princeps, Romulus picks up his side of the litter and begins walking towards the forum principis. Disguised as the princeps's litter bearer, he should have no trouble getting close to him.
For enrichment: http://www.vroma.org/images/mcmanus_images/litter.jpg

It has also become clear that Augustus has plans for Naso that Naso hadn't known about. Ovid, clearly being a poet who prides himself above all on his cleverness, had, it seems, placed much too much faith in the princeps' obtuseness. It now appears that the princeps knows about what Ovid has been up to. I don't want to spoil the story, but if you're reading this post, you probably know how it ends. . . . Obviously the signal benefit of the practomime is that my students and I get to experience it for ourselves in such a way that we may be able to understand the poetry surrounding the event in a deeper way.

That then is the narrative context in which we find one of my favorite exasperating students, whose Roman is named Fabius, formulating the following:
Fabius has not a multitude of things to say about paved roads, but he recalls something very specific about roads and the end of the third servile war...but since he feels like it at the moment, Fabius reasons, he shall first talk a little more about Russell Crowe.....

From his youth to the present, Crowe has had a special love of horses. "They're just like people," he told CraveOnline. But how does this relate back to paved roads? An excellent question, for, well, it doesn't. But Crowe's critically acclaimed film Gladiator is much based on the events of the rebellion led by Spartacus in 73 b.c....a rebellion also known as the last of the servile wars...Fabius recalls that his father's father ('s father, possibly) witnessed the brutality with which the defeated slaves under Spartacus were treated after the war...all six thousand prisoners were crucified along the Appian way from Rome to Capua...Fabius thinks it'd be totally intimidating if one had to walk along a road lined up full of rotting corpses..."But surely the corpses have been taken down by now...well if not they're definitely skeletons"
Will they reach the farms before Naso's fate finds him? Can we find a way to make that fate less, or perhaps more, than tragic?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The table and the screen: a curious resistance

I've seen it frequently enough both in myself and in people I'm talking to—notably my students and my classicist colleagues—that it no longer surprises me. People who haven't spent time studying games seem to have a fundamental resistance to the nearly self-evident idea that video-gaming, or, as I've taken to calling it, digital practomime, is fundamentally the same thing as tabletop-gaming. Or, as Pete Border (whom I don't know except through this one post) put it in a post on the GLS Educators' Ning, "If a game isn't fun with everybody in a room playing it on a table, adding a computer won't help it."

It was a major breakthrough for me, which only occurred over the course of several months, to realize the absolute truth of the notion that ludic practomime (i.e., game-playing) doesn't really change in the essential elements of its construction of meaning as it goes from the Monopoly board, or paper-and-dice RPG's, or Live-Action Role-Playing, or even live-action sports, to those things' digital versions in what we usually call video games.

Just as that other kind of practomime, storytelling, is recognizably the same thing between book and computer screen, and even between oral composition and textual book, and even between book and film, the more obtrusively interactive kind of practomime that we call games is the same thing between table (and dice, and books, and board, and field) and screen. Which is not to say that books and movies themselves are the same--rather that storytelling as an act is consistent between them.

There are obviously things you can play easily on the screen that would be very difficult, if not impossible, to play on the table. If someone were able to drop objects of certain stereotypical shapes from a height down to you, and you were able to rotate those objects as they fell so that they fit together as efficiently as possible, it would be Tetris, and be recognizably the same as Tetris on the computer screen. But of course, as even the famous video of Live Action Tetris makes clear, Tetris is a game that's not possible in the physical world. Nor is it practical to get your friends to wear mushroom- and turtle-suits so that you can try to jump on them, a la Super Mario Bros., although it would—obviously, I think—be fun if it were possible.

And there's no question but that the integration of the verbal with the visual and the manual, and even the visceral, that comes in video games, along with the opening up of possibilities like jumping on Goombas and Koopas, has a role in our seduction into thinking that it is video games that are revolutionizing the way we think about art and education and even culture itself. But I don't think that the sheer impact of that integration, or those possibilities, can fully account for the resistance we find to seeing games (or practomime) as a single art form between table and screen.

So what does account for this difficulty, and why does it matter?

To a classicist trying to develop a field that I'm thinking of these days as "applied classics," the table-to-screen shift looks rather like the oral-to-written shift that leaves legible marks on the remarkable culture of 5th Century BCE Athens, in the works of the tragedians (Aechylus, Sophocles, Euripides), the historians (Herodotus, Thucydides), and the first philosopher, Plato. I could go straight back to Plato's cave, and then add a soupcon of the Phaedrus, to say that Plato was trying among so many other things to get people to pay attention to the bad things (and the good) about the changeover, but I'm sure you're sick of me on the cave by now.

Instead, let me point to Thucydides' hope that his work, by taking full advantage of the technology of writing, would become a possession forever, a ktema es aei, as opposed to what he saw all around him, contest-pieces for immediate hearing—that is, for oral delivery and auditory reception. Thucydides was clearly including Homer and Herodotus among those whose work would not survive, or at any rate would not be useful for future generations. Similarly, my students seem to think of their gaming as occurring in a world apart from the world of tables and classrooms.

(The ktema es aei passage has a very great deal to tell us about practomime, and I plan to come back to it soon, because the "contest-piece" side of the equation is also the practomime side of the equation, as opposed to cultural material like textbooks and [traditional] courses. Deconstructing that opposition has, I think, a lot of potential for understanding the power of practomime in culture.)

But Thucydides' resistance to seeing the traction that oral composition has over our relation to the past is also closely analogous to our characteristic failure to see that a Dungeons and Dragons module and DragonAge: Origins are fundamentally the same thing. Playing pretend on a tabletop in the "real world" is in crucial ways the same as playing pretend in a digital medium. Thucydides is seduced by the textual as we are seduced by the digital. (Plato, notably, is not seduced this way, and his ability to break through the resistance to seeing the continuity of oral and written—and thus also the actual discontinuities—is perhaps what permits him to formulate the cave.)

It's important to fight against this seduction, I think, for at least two reasons, one of them metaphysical and the other eminently practical.

Metaphysical first: if we fail to grasp that digital practomime (i.e. the video game) is a continuation of tabletop practomime, we lose an opportunity to see the practomimetic construction of "reality"—or, to put it in my usual terms, we fail to learn the lesson of the cave, and instead simply become more deeply implicated in the unnecessary fetters that Plato so vividly put on his prisoners' limbs.

To fail in this way is analogous to failing to see that the Matrix trilogy is about all of culture, not just about digital culture, and to failing to understand that Facebook is an extension of "real-world" social relations, not a new way to relate to other people. As a teacher of the Humanities, I see an urgent need for my students' cultural competency and for my own career-survival, to persuade the world of the truth that the "real" world is as virtual as the online world, and always has been. Such an understanding would make clear for example that terms like "the digital humanities" misunderstand both our opportunities and our challenges.

Practical next: if we fail to see that we can do practomime with nothing more than our imaginations and our voices, and can build the technology up from there, and that e.g. Googlewave is easily a more powerful technology for practomime than any currently functional 3D digital world, we lose an extraordinary opportunity for doing culture, whether we call our practices—that is, the culture we do—art, or education, or even entertainment.

I would really like to see more teachers, yes, playing around with the possibilities both online and off-, both digital and physical, both table and screen, of the huge strides people like Jim Gee and Kurt Squire have made in studying what video games tell us about learning. I would really like to see more developers understanding the implications in this area of the explosion of social games, which seek to obscure the connection between the table and the screen even as they trade on it (how else to characterize the constant updates about Farmville and Bejewelled, that use your friends as marketing materials?). Also, though, I would really like to play more practomimes that take me back and forth from physical to digital. Like Wii Fit. But with gods and monsters.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Updates on my practomimetic pedagogy

I apologize for this blog's darkness as I teach my way through an amazing semester of practomime. In case you're desperate for news, I've posted a few updates about the ARG version of (Gaming) Homer at a great LOTRO blog called LOTRO Reporter.
The Advanced Latin practomime in Rome is finally hitting its stride. After a night in a brothel, learning about the machinations of their uncle, Ovid, and the future Tiberius to recover a priceless treasure that includes the reputed necklace of Venus, my students' Romans have been directed to go to the Forum of Augustus and get to see the princeps (Augustus, that is) by making a commotion. One of them decided to murder a litter-bearer and disguise himself in the unfortunate slave's uniform so that he could gain access to Augustus; another has been knocked unconscious at the threshold of the forum. And in the reading-Latin portion of the course, we're now reading Horace's gloriously obscene Satire 1.2, in which much is revealed about the erotic character of Rome in the years leading up to the Lex Julia which outlawed adultery and inspired Ovid's outrageous Art of the Lover, and so also his exile.