Practomime in the school of BioShock

In my last few posts, I’ve argued that Plato’s Republic and Irrational Games’ BioShock present a challenge to culture, and, in particular, to the educational systems (read “school”) that transmit that culture. Still more, I’ve tried to show, do they present a challenge to those who are trying to harness the power of games to help students learn, whether we call that harnessing “gamification” or “game-based learning.”

Briefly, school tends to be a closed system, in which flawed notions of what it means to be a student, a citizen of one’s community, and a person, are too easily transmitted, and in which critique of those notions is impossible. Only by seeing the system as a performance–a mimesis or, to put it in other terms, a game–and by critiquing the rules of that performance, can we gain the skills and knowledge we need to bring about change in the system. Both Republic and BioShock force their players to enact their own enslavement by that system, as a way of inviting them to break the system and build something better.

In this post, I begin to go into the nuts and bolts of how those of us who are designing what we call practomimetic curricula hope to do the same thing, even as we teach the same skills and knowledge that curricula in the old mimetic system teach. We believe that school has always been a game (even when people have forgotten that ludus means both)–it’s just that as it’s currently conceived, it’s a very bad game that conceals its ruleset in a pernicious way, attempting to make students forget, for example, that grades don’t measure their actual worth.

I’ll start with the most obvious mechanic of our practomimetic courses–their ARG/RPG duality. Students in a practomimetic course, as we define the term, play as operatives who play as characters. At the start of each course, all the students in the class are recruited as part of a project to save civilization by reaching the learning objectives of the course. That’s the ARG (Alternate-Reality Game) part.

In order to save civilization by reaching those learning objectives, they must, as part of a team, play as a character in what we call a simulation, but which has a clearly-defined ludic ruleset. That’s the RPG (Role-Playing Game) part.

In this very simple set-up, there’s a wealth of material for me to address in future posts, from a Cave/BioShock perspective (the collaborative nature of the RPG, the difference between the ARG and RPG rulesets, the power of mimesis itself, etc.).

For now, though, I want to point out only that forcing students to see themselves as on the mission they are actually on–the mission to learn, in order that they can contribute to the saving of civilization by the communities they will join when they reach the appropriate stages of their lives–breaks school in a way that we consider revolutionary, and crucial.

When a student sees him or herself on a mission to save civilization by learning, say, Latin, at first an enormous cognitive dissonance arises. “Wait a second. Is this idiot actually trying to tell me that school is useful? That Latin can save civilization? I’m not here to save the world! I’m here to get a grade so I can get the Hell out of here!”

Then comes the frustration, especially among the best students. “Why won’t this guy tell me what I have to do to get an A? I don’t want to hear about how I’m on a mission to save civilization, or that my learning matters! I want my A dammit!”

Some students–some wonderful students, under the old model–drop at that point. The ones who don’t, in my experience, universally undergo a transformation in their ideas about learning. Suddenly, they begin to take charge of deciding what they’re going to learn in order to get to the next stage of the RPG. That’s what I’ll talk about in my next post.

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