Breaking the chains of Duck Hunt, with an ARG as boltcutter

The prisoners in Plato’s Cave don’t want to get up. The chains are superfluous, as they would be if applied to a player on an BioShock binge, or even on a Duck Hunt one. The interactivity of the contests I talked about in my last post is the real chain, and Plato has his Socrates speak both of chains and of the prisoners’ unwillingness to stop playing to demonstrate exactly that: culture puts chains on us in the form of institutions like school, but the real bondage is in our consciousness itself. The games of culture have chains to fool us into thinking their restraint on us is external–that we have an excuse not to get up–but their more powerful (though insidious) restraint is internal: to put it bluntly, we are brainwashed into thinking grades are worth grubbing.

We don’t want to get up, but failing to get up means that we can’t even conceive of reform that actually changes the rules; garden-variety gamification falls into precisely this trap when it puts shiny badges on top of the broken system of grades. That’s where the ARG-layer of a course like Operation LAPIS comes in: by forcing players (students) to see the RPG-layer of the course as a game, it forces them also to see the ARG-layer as a game; when they see the ARG-layer as a game, they are suddenly free to see their learning itself as a game, and as an adventure in which they have the hero’s role.

Again BioShock and Republic show us the way: make disruption of the game’s interactivity part of the game’s ruleset. BioShock accomplishes this kind of disruption by forcing the player-character to kill Andrew Ryan in a cutscene, then forcing the player-character to disarm a self-destruct sequence through the patently false “interactivity” of a button-press demanded by the game’s villain.

Republic accomplishes the same sort of disruption through the subtler means of the story of the cave itself. Plato’s reader, if he or she has what Plato called a “soul akin to philosophy,” becomes aware of the mimetic nature of culture through a work that is itself transparently mimetic, learning at one and the same time that the game must be reformed, but that the reform must itself be a game–that there is really no outside the cave.

In the practomimetic courses we’ve been designing at UConn, we accomplish the disruption in as many ways as we can find. Remember that the inner layer of a course like Operation LAPIS is a text-based interactive RPG simulation of the ancient world (in Operation BIOME, our biology course under development, it’s a simulation of several different natural environments). Inside that simulation, the player-characters (PC’s) behave more or less like PC’s in a tabletop RPG: players (students) decide what they want their PC’s to do, and then describe the action. The simulation, called the TSTT, responds to those actions and provides linking narration to the next episode. Gear-drops and non-player-character-given dilemmas like “Which guy are you going to help?” serve to give the players a scaffolding into the ruleset of the “world” in which they find themselves, the way a bard provided heroes’ calling cards in the form of formulas like “swift-footed Achilles,” and Plato provided recurring concepts like “the Good” and “excellence”–and BioShock provides concepts like ammunition vending-machines.

But: the players (students) play in teams, taking turns as “lead operative” to control their PC’s. But: they must discuss (the primary learning activity of the course, in fact) the actions their PC’s will take, using textual and contextual evidence, and collaborating to bring as much of the target language (whether Latin, Greek, biology, or historiography) as possible into their “immersion-responses.”

But: their objective, in the operation as in the course that operation embodies, is to save both the world inside the TSTT (Rome, for example) and the world outside the TSTT (their own).

As operatives in Project ARKHAIA, tasked with collaboratively controlling ancient characters inside the TSTT, the players (students) are forced to see the interactivity of the TSTT as a constructed, constraining thing, just as Plato makes his readers see the cave-culture game as constructed and constraining, and BioShock makes its player see the game itself as constructed and constraining. The lessons, I believe are the same: remake this world.

The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming that students in Operation LAPIS and the other operations of Project ARKHAIA make connections among various elements of classical culture, and between classical culture and modern culture, on a level far, far superior to that attained by students in the corresponding courses when we taught them traditionally. We believe that this achievement stems directly from the way these students have learned to see the moving gears of culture, and to throw into them, when necessary, a wrench.

In my next post, then, I’ll begin to flesh out the above with some specific examples, from the Mask of Apollo (just obtained by the tragedian team in Operation KTHMA) to the amazingly creative–and extended!–responses being generated this semester by the players of Operation LAPIS.

But if, as I’ve pointed out, Republic (and the rest of Platonic philosophy with it) is just as mimetic as the cave-culture game of the shadow-puppet play itself, how can we possibly reform the game, whether in the general (school) or the specific (say, an individual course, or even an individual learning activity)?


  1. Your introductory paragraph is insightful. I suspect that, like me, you have had to face the institutional requirement to assign grades to students, putting objective measures on their learning-through-play experience. I am curious as to how you balance the mandate to grade responsibility against the realization that grades are counter to play-oriented learning.

    1. Author

      It’s a great question. The best I can do is try my hardest to get the students to understand that the grading system is in fact its own, poorly-designed game, one in which value is placed on the wrong things. Really, the ARG, as I discuss in this post, is a powerful tool in this regard: in learning how to get up from their seats and begin to analyze how culture is constructed, they’re quite likely to transfer that learning onto the system within which my course is offered.

      Unfortunately, some of my “best” students (by conventional measures) have a great deal at stake in the system, and they’re often the ones who resist this method the most. The upside is that a whole range of mid- to lower-level students (again, conventionally speaking) get engaged, who in my experience never would have been in a traditional setting.

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