Your practomimetic school: Duck Hunt or BioShock?

Oct 21, 11 Your practomimetic school: <i>Duck Hunt</i> or <i>BioShock</i>?

The cave-culture game that Plato outlines as the most immersive part of what the prisoners do as they sit watching the shadow-puppet play is in fact from one perspective the first recorded game of Duck Hunt.

Socrates: I said, “ . . . if they [that is, the prisoners of the cave] were in the habit of conferring honours among themselves on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honours and glories, or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer, “Better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner?”
“Yes,” [Glaucon] said, “I think that he would rather suffer anything than entertain these false notions and live in this miserable manner.”
“Imagine once more,” I said, “such a man coming suddenly out of the sun to be replaced in his old situation; would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness?”
“To be sure,” he said.
“And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in observing the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the den, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable) would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death” (Republic, Book VII.)

Add hit-detection technology, and put among the shadows a goofy looking dog, and Duck Hunt is what you get. How do you learn to play Duck Hunt? You play Duck Hunt. How do you learn to observe the shadows? You observe the shadows.

How do you learn to practice as a competent citizen of a culture? You practice. Plato’s Socrates is pointing out that Athenian culture, founded on mimesis like, above all, homeric epic, confuses education with no-education, and the reproduction of representation with the search for reality.

Athenian culture, and specifically the transmission of that culture–learning, that is–, is an endless game of Duck Hunt.

Or we could say, perhaps more optimistically, perhaps less, an endless game of HALO, for HALO and Call of Duty are also analogous to the cave-culture game–since they’re about figuring out what enemy is coming next, and in what order–as are, truth be told, RPG’s, where you must figure out where you’re supposed to go and, in the case of my favorite games, what you’re supposed to say.

Learning to be excellent at these practomimes–learning, in Greek terms, their aretē–is a matter of practice–both in the sense of enacting them and in the sense of enacting them over and over in order to improve.

And being good at homeric epic is the same: bards and rhapsodes learned the rules just as the prisoners learn the rules, and one of the most fundamental of those rules is the one that tells you what comes next in the story–and the best rhapsodes were those who could put everything in order very artfully, as the bards before them had done, though with much more freedom.

And this is what school is, too. If you think there’s a more important learning objective than “Figure out what will be on the test” in most schools, I’m of the opinion that you’re fooling yourself.

School is a game, as homeric epic was a game, as HALO and Duck Hunt are games.

When these games are well-designed, they can teach a great deal. Plato wouldn’t have seen homeric epic as a threat if the students of homeric epic–the citizens of Athens, that is–weren’t learning their practomimetic lessons all too well. The best students in my traditional classes used to a do a wonderful job of figuring out what would be on their exams.

That’s why, in the practomimetic courses we’re developing at UConn, we give the students the RPG layer that we call the “immersion-session”: not only can it be actually fun (though fun is expressly not a goal for which we strive; we strive instead for engagement), but the students in such courses learn to practice as citizens of the ancient world by practicing as citizens of the ancient world. Inside the TSTT (Texto-Spatio-Temporal Transmitter–think of it as a text-based RPG), students practice, practice, practice being Athenians and Romans: reading, speaking, buying stuff, talking to Sophocles and Sulla–miming the learning objectives, more or less. Because the TSTT is text-based, of course, they’re also practicing writing about the ancient world, one of those old-fashioned fundamental learning objectives of a classics course.

In a recent immersion-session in Operation KTHMA, for example, operatives had to answer a question from Thucydides about the role of oracles in Athenian politics. They cheerfully regurgitated a bunch of what they’d been reading, with the added flair of their characters’ worldviews (RPG classes, more or less)–the aspiring tragedian gave a marvelous performance using a flower to illustrate the evanescence of prophecy.

The ruleset inside the TSTT is unfussy: the TSTT works as a simulation of the ancient world, with just one added mechanic, really: when the operatives post their responses (for example, the tragedian’s performance), the TSTT (that is, in this case, I) processes those responses and determines how well the operative embodied his or her character’s worldview. What happens in the TSTT in reply to the students’ responses then depends on that worldview-score. In this case, the tragedian gained some followers (groupies, if you will) whom s/he will be able to use in future immersions if s/he likes.

By the same token, when students collect forms to unlock CARDs for CARDtamen, in Operation LAPIS, they’re practicing, practicing, practicing the ruleset of the game–like a MMORPGer grinding mobs or a Halo-player fragging opponents, or a BioShock-player destroying Big Daddies with different tonics. It’s all good, powerful, mimetic learning: the LAPIS student learns morphology–a key mechanic of the game called Latin class–just as the game-players learn the mechanics of their games and how to perform virtuosically within them. We consider it a virtue of our practomimetic courses that whereas in a traditional Latin class students did their morphology because their teacher told them that they would be graded on it, in a practomimetic course they do it because they want for example the Vergil CARD.

CARDs, in case you missed this excellent post by Kevin Ballestrini, are not empty rewards–they’re a mechanic in what in the context of Operation LAPIS might be called a minigame–CARDtamen. The motivation to do the mimetic practice that brings about the mimetic learning comes from the mechanics of the practomime itself. On the other hand, we recognize that if that was all we were doing, our practomimetic courses could be called a form of gamification.

That’s not all we’re doing.

Plato saw that practomime by itself wasn’t enough, even as he realized that it was also, in a certain sense, all that he had: Republic itself, as I never tire of pointing out, is itself a practomime. That’s where the disruptions I talked about last month come in: in the cave, as in BioShock’s Rapture, the enchanting interactivity that makes practomimetic education so powerful is interrupted, and the players are forced to confront the problem of their own agency–that is, the problem of their learning.

It’s for that reason that the courses we’re developing at UConn incorporate–in fact, are top-heavy, if you will–with exactly that kind of disruption. More on that in two weeks.


  1. I’ve been enjoying your series on practomimetics, although I have to admit that I was struggling with the concept. This post helped me make some more sense out of it.

    If I’m interpreting this correctly, your approach is similar to Alistair Cockburn’s formulation of software development as a cooperative game of invention and communication. In this game, the primary goal is the production of software that has value for the client, and a secondary goal is positioning the team for future success—setting up for the next round of the game. This model was designed for application in industry and it is also successful in my teaching undergraduate Computer Science courses. The model dovetails beautifully with the concept of reflective practice as well as the science of teaching and learning.

    It sounds like your approach to teaching classic culture takes a similar vein: model it is a game, defining what moves are legal and what is the desired goal state, and use iterative play for continuous self-improvement. Perhaps it might be appropriate to refer to Cockburn’s formulation as a practomimetic one?

    • Definitely–I think any time a ruleset is involved in creating a performance space, you’ve got practomime, whether it’s a game, a narrative, or a project for a client. And of course I would argue that the learning affordances are always there, too.

      Thanks for the comment, Paul!


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