Play the ancient game

May 10, 16 Play the ancient game

I’m glad to say that I have real hope of starting to contribute to PlaythePast again. I’m working on a book I’m excited about, though I have no idea whether it will ever actually emerge in any traditional “book” format. In any case, I’m going to start broaching the subject of the book, tentatively called “What Homeric epic an teach us about game-based learning” in this post, which comprises a brief keynote address I gave at the University of Connecticut’s Scholar’s Day event.

Being able to address such a wonderfully broad range of amazing students who are on their way to even greater things humbles me, but it also makes me want to share some very strong feelings about what academic achievement means—or maybe what it can mean—in the university and in the society in which we find ourselves today.

I want to talk to you briefly today about games. I also want to talk about stories, and learning, and the connection among games, stories, and learning. There are quite a few good books these days about this subject, strange as it may seem, but what I want to say is a little different, I’m hoping in an interesting way. I want to talk about ancient, homeric epic—the Iliad and the Odyssey—and how, as a game, it provided the educational backdrop for one of the world’s most extraordinary ancient civilizations—that of Greece, and of Athens in particular. And I want to talk about how your intellectual achievements, whether or not they have anything to do with ancient Greece, can help you lift all of us up.

To put it bluntly, I want to tell you how I think you can build on the achievement that brought you here today, and make your lives intellectually epic and, at the same time, save the liberal arts and the humanities. That’s right: I’m asking you to save your professors by playing games. In fact, I’m really asking you to play games to save us from ourselves.

My work these days both in the classroom and in my scholarship is about changing some part of our ongoing conversation about the meaning and value of games, especially videogames. In the process I bring into that conversation the works of those ancient Athenian writers whose names you’ve probably heard at some point even if you never took a course with me or my colleagues in classics and ancient mediterranean studies.

So I try to bring the work of writers like Sophocles, Thucydides, and Plato some way back into the prominence I think they deserve in our discourse about the future of education. Many recent defenses of the liberal arts in general and of the humanities in particular have attempted to demonstrate the value of a time-honored curriculum whose reputation has recently suffered. Now I’m adding my voice, but maybe from a new perspective.

I have to start by saying that I think the humanities’ reputation has suffered in some part because of an impression of elitism that continues to hang around fields like classics and philosophy and even English literature. It’s worth pointing out that that impression of the humanities being for professors in ivory towers and rich kids who don’t have to get real jobs has to some extent resulted from that curriculum’s historical power to enrich lives and the cultures in which we live those lives. The highness of high culture, from Plato to Shakespeare to Jane Austen to Toni Morrison—though it’s well worth noting that every one of those writers intended his or her works for the broadest possible audience—results from its association with an elite group, who used humanistic education, very often unconsciously but always wrongly, to reinforce its privilege and exclusivity.

I hope that I can persuade you, though, that when we look at them through the lens of that most modern, low-culture form, the videogame, Homer and Plato might still be relevant to our understanding of how we can become the best possible citizens of the modern world. By showing you their relationship to videogames as interactive stories, however briefly, I want to whet your appetite for more Homer and more Plato, more Sophocles and more Thucydides: the glories of the cultured past really are glorious, and their association with old ideas of privilege should not cause us to turn away from them and throw out the elderly sage with his bathwater.

So. Philosophy itself was Plato’s new game, and his new form of interactive storytelling. He wanted it to replace the game of homeric epic—the old interactive storytelling of the Iliad and the Odyssey. That’s what you see when you look closely at that famous allegory of the cave, where the prisoners award honors—you know, like A’s—for who can predict what shadow is coming next on the cave wall.

I could spend a really, really long time telling you about why homeric epic was actually a game, but let me try to give you the thirty-second version. The big books we read in civilization courses, the Iliad and the Odyssey: they’re fossils of what was, twenty-eight hundred years ago, a living tradition in a culture that had lost the knowledge of reading and writing. Every night, in the same way a videogamer can’t play a level of Super Mario exactly the same way twice, the homeric bards couldn’t sing the story of Odysseus’ adventures the same way twice. The bards knew the rules, and so to improvise that night’s version of the story they had to make what the amazing game-designer Sid Meier once called a series of interesting choices.

If you’re into games you may have seen what I did there. That’s Sid Meier’s basically indisputable definition of the word game. A game is a series of interesting choices. If I do nothing else, I want to make you think about all the things that might mean for our cultural lives, as you’re walking away from Jorgensen this evening.

Now we know next to nothing about the education of Socrates, Plato’s mentor and thus the catalyst, if not the founder, of Western philosophy. Plato, in his dialogues, reports Socrates as discussing the subject of education over and over, always above all trying to figure out whether it’s possible to teach excellence. But all we can gather about how Socrates and the other elite men of Athens who created the cultural context that continues to play a big role in making modern world civilization what it is, acquired the skills they needed to function as Athenian citizens we get from oblique, almost off-hand statements that reference what both Socrates and his interlocutors already know.

The one thing we know for sure is that the Iliad and the Odyssey, the stories of the heroes of the Trojan War, served as their most important learning resource. They played the game of homeric epic. That was school for them. When Sophocles wrote tragedies that told the same stories in a new way, and Thucydides invented history by saying that Athens’ war with Sparta was greater than the Trojan War, they were playing their new versions of the game that taught them to be citizens.

If I’m correct that learning through the game—the interactive adventure narrative—of the Iliad and the Odyssey underlies the achievements of the Athenians, and that those achievements may be well described as putting forth new versions of that interactive narrative—making new games—, if I’m right about that, the humanistic skills of analysis and intepretation, beginning with the writings of ancient Athens, loom a good deal larger in a world in which so much learning, inside and outside the classroom, happens in digital examples of the same kind of interactive narrative. As Plato shows us in the allegory of the cave, learning to participate in culture is by its very nature the adoption of a role in an interactive story. We learn to be citizens by pretending to be citizens, and our first make-believe games, based on the stories we hear, never stop making us who we are.

Plato thought that his new game, philosophy, could be an end in itself, just as Halo and World of Warcraft can be ends in themselves for their players. Don’t I know it, as a gamer and the parent of a gamer.

Plato also saw, though, that philosophy’s best use was to enrich the ethical lives of the city’s inhabitants, only a very few of whom would themselves be philosophers. That’s why the man who leaves the cave has to come back down and try to get the rest of the prisoners to get up, even though they kill him instead, as happened to Socrates.

The humanities and the liberal arts can be ends in themselves. We professors love them for themselves, and we tend to want to persuade our students that what we do—writing books and articles that few even of our colleagues will ever read, for example—is the best way to practice our fields. I hope that I can make you consider trying on a different way of understanding the role of the humanities and the liberal arts that had their start in the marketplace, the assembly, and the theatre, of Fifth Century BCE Athens.

The disciplines that teach the skills necessary to understand the games we play, and to shape them, could have much more capacity for good than they’re usually given credit for, if their practitioners would only learn not to shy away from the yoke of service to the building up of civilization. Training philologists and philosophers is a worthy pursuit, but giving financiers and engineers and pharmacists and lawyers and soldiers and doctors and teachers of every kind the tools they need to understand the interactive-narrative forces that shape social media as well as videogames is even more worthy, as far as I’m concerned.

It’s on that basis that I’m begging all of you to demand more liberal arts, and more humanities, for yourselves and your children. Play the game. Make interesting choices. And remember how you learned to understand it so very well, through old-fashioned educational institutions that desperately need your help at reimagining themselves.

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