When Odysseus lets you type “get lamp,” you’re going to be illuminated
“But tell me, and tell me true, whether you saw any of the mighty heroes who went to Troy at the same time with yourself, and perished there.”
Thus speaks King Alcinous of the Phaeacians, when Odysseus has claimed himself to be too tired to continue the marvelous tale of his visit to the underworld—the climax of those wonder tales called the apologue. Just before this request, he’s promised to send Odysseus home in style, if he’ll just keep telling the story, which to be sure has become a little bogged down in a seemingly never-ending catalogue of the queens of the past (their own maze of twisty little passages, really).
It’s a passage that I return to time and time again, because it gives us such precious witness to so many different facets both of the practices of the homeric bards and of the operation of practomime in cultures and the communities who practice ruleset-based play.
It was only when I looked back to the place where I truly became a digital-player, the text-adventures most famously designed by Infocom, though, that I saw what I think may prove the way to connect game-based, playful learning to the very nature of immersion. I realized, when searching for an adequate homeric comparison to games like Zork and Planetfall, that when Odysseus responds to King Alkinoos’ request and reveals that he did see his old companions from the Trojan War in the underworld, he gives us an opportunity to make a very fruitful comparison of his story, and of the songs of the bards from which it takes off, to text-adventure games.
I’ve argued before that Odysseus in this part of the Odyssey acts like a kind of super-bard, immersing his audience in his fantastic tale even more deeply than they were immersed in the songs of Demodocus that Odysseus requested of the Phaeacians already pretty super bard, the blind singer whom so many readers over the centuries have taken for a self-portrait of the non-existent personal Homer. I’ve also argued that in acting like a bard Odysseus gives us precious insights into the way the ruleset of epic functioned, into the way immersion worked then and still works today, and even into the affordances of game-based learning.
In short, if my arguments are sound, Odysseus presents his narrative to his Phaeacian audience, who he hopes will take him home to Ithaca in style, as a kind of oral version of a text adventure game, in which Odysseus, a virtuoso at the game, at an absolutely crucial moment, invites suggestions as to what he should do next—indeed, he turns the keyboard over to the Phaeacians, and to their king in particular.
Their king asks, “Did you happen to see any of your companions at Troy?”
Imagine thus that Alkinoos is playing a text adventure. Imagine that in the possibility space of that interactive fiction he stands in a cavern into which he has just descended through the metaphor of the words of the text adventure. Just as the Homeric bards depicted in their oral song the marvelous world of the Iliad and the Odyssey, Odysseus himself in the palace of the king of the Phaeacians has depicted his marvelous entrance into the land of the dead.
Those depictions, it might be noted, have a marked similarity to what a text adventure might tell a player if for example that player typed “down” at the prompt provided, while standing in a room perhaps called “Beach above the Underworld.”
Beach above the Underworld
You stand on a beach at the end of the world.
There is a firepit here.
In the firepit are: a slaughtered ram, many pale souls, and the queens of the past.
You descend, goodness knows how, and find yourself in…
Place of the Heroes
Many strong souls of heroes, hurled down into Hades’, mill about here.
Agamemnon is here.
Achilles is here.
I think it’s going to take a long time for me to unpack all the implications of this comparison, but the glaring connection, for me, is the way the moment that Odysseus, as it were, turns the keyboard over to Alcinous, and he types “down” or “examine firepit,” and has that unbeatable moment of discovery, illuminates so very starkly the foundation of game-based learning. Alcinous has learned how to find the heroes of Troy, which is to promise Odysseus presents and a ride home.
And he would never have learned that without the immersion Odysseus created in his story, because the king would never have asked the proper question—did you see any of the mighty heroes?—if Odysseus hadn’t shaped in his Phaeacian audience so strong an identification with the ruleset of his performance that to discover this new rule, and to learn to use it in the same way that a player of Zork learns “get lamp,” represented the inevitable next step.
In Zork, when at last you notice the lantern on the trophy-case, you know to “get lamp” because you have already been eaten by a grue enough times to know you need it. So, similarly, after listening to Odysseus’ narration about the queens of the epic past, Alcinous knows to say “Odysseus, did you see heroes” (in the Infocom style of address).
I want to suggest that the nexus here between immersion, discovery, game-mechanics, and learning can help us understand the traction practomime (games, stories) has over our souls. I want to suggest that learning must always be in some sense learning to play. More to come, I hope.