Socrates the Gamer

In this post I’ll expand on some points I made in my last. By opening out the notion of Socrates as fundamentally a participant interactive performances (that is, like his fellow Athenian elites, steeped in a culture founded on homeric epic), I mean to launch the principal argument of this post-series/book.

We know next to nothing about the education of Socrates, Plato’s mentor and thus the catalyst, if not the founder, of Western philosophy. Though Plato, in his dialogues, reports him as discussing the subject of education over and over, all that we can gather about how he and the other elite men of Athens who created the cultural context that continues to make most of the Western world who we are 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.

Based on those hints, and hints dropped by other writers, though, we can say for certain that what I’ll show in this chapter to be the interactive storytelling of the homeric epics—the Iliad and the Odyssey—played an absolutely decisive role in the educations of Socrates, Plato, Thucydides, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, to name only the writers whose works I will draw on here. When the moment came for Socrates (and/or Plato, through Socrates) to make incendiary statements about the inadequate education of the Athenians and to lay out the new system of interactive storytelling he hoped might replace it—the system we call Platonic philosophy—the relation of the educational technology they endorse to the epics that shaped their own educations tells us much more about how we should design our own situated learning environments than is immediately apparent to a reader who doesn’t have a thorough knowledge of a) ancient Athenian culture and b) video games. Obviously, I’d like you to think that, since I happen also to think I’m that reader, but I’m hoping that when I lay out my evidence you’ll find the case persuasive.

To make the potential benefit of this chapter clear, before I get into the heavy-lifting with the quoted passages from ancient literature, I’m going to begin by speculating about what Socrates’ education might have been like. Because I want to start you out with an idea of where I’m headed with this strange-sounding argument about how the Iliad and the Odyssey are some of our earliest game-based learning environments, I’m going to make certain parallels clear between ancient and modern. You’ll probably find them jarring, and you may want to see my evidence and argumentation right away; I promise that I’ll back up each of the parallels as the chapter goes on.

As we move forward, you may notice that I don’t capitalize “homeric.” That’s because, though the topic remains controversial, I like many of my fellow classicists don’t believe in a man named “Homer” but rather in a tradition of homeric bards who developed the Iliad and the Odyssey, along with several other epics now mostly lost, over the course of hundreds of years. To put it another way, the Iliad and the Odyssey, written down as we now have them, are fossils of a once-living epic tradition in which bards performed new versions of their stories night after night, just as a gamer, night after night, performs a new version of her favorite game (see Lord 2000 for the basic theory and Travis 2012 for an application of it to digital games).

Just as Socrates, night after night, must have reimagined his own role in the epic of his own life, even without an XBox or a Playstation or a dungeon-master.

Picture a group of boys, ages ten to fourteen, seated on wooden benches in the shade of a portico in the courtyard of the house of one of their families. A slave—a prisoner of war, perhaps, from one of Athens’ campaigns in the islands—is telling them about today’s lesson.

“It’s time for you young men to learn your letters,” he says, holding up a wax tablet on which he has engraved with his stylus the word ΜΗΝΙΝ (mēnin: “wrath”). “Who can tell me what this says?”

Grumbling ensues among most of the boys. Surely writing is for the slaves who keep the accounts, not for real Athenians like them?

Socrates doesn’t grumble. He has been working out what the inscriptions on the Acropolis and in the porticoes say since he was five years old, pestering his paidagōgos—pedagogue (that’s the slave who leads boys to their lessons)—to tell him what the letters sound like. “That’s mēnin,” he says excitedly.

Some of the other boys stop their protests. Another of the more enthusiastic ones can’t restrain himself, and bursts out, “Mēnin aeide, thea, Pēlēiadeō Akhilēos!”

“Exactly,” says the paidagōgos, looking pleased. “Today we’re all going to practice writing the very first words of the doer’s work.”

Maker. Doer. Composer. Poiētēs: poet means someone who does, and makes, Socrates realizes not for the first time.

Oh, how he loves the poet: Homer, the wandering bard with his stories of adventure and his two great heroes—Achilles greatest of warriors, who refused to lose his fame but sat out of battle and lost his friend Patroclus, and Odysseus who told so many tricksy tales to get home to his wife, then killed so many men so cleverly to complete the homecoming. One day, as Plato tells us, Socrates will decide that as stirring as these stories are, they are not fit for young people. We can have no doubt, though, that this repudiation arose directly from how readily the boy took to the stories he heard recited over and over from the moment he could understand human speech.

With the boys sitting next to him, about to learn how to write, he has played countless games of “Achilles and Ajax,” “Odysseus and Diomedes,” and “Odysseus and the Cyclops.” He has sat next to them at the All-Athens festival and listened to the reciters tell the tale of how Odysseus shaped his stories to win his passage home, and countless treasure, from his hosts on a magical island.

Above all, he has heard the story of the choice of Achilles: how he stayed at Troy even though he knew he would die. In the final moments of Socrates’ trial for trying to change the way Athens educated her youth, he will tell the jury that he had the example of Achilles’ self-sacrifice before his eyes as he decided that he would embrace the death-penalty, if they bestowed it upon him.

Plato will have him say, in the Republic, that the philosopher who has ascended from the cave would feel as dead Achilles feels in the Odyssey, when Odysseus meets him in the underworld: that he would rather learn what philosophers learn than get all the honors in the school of the prisoners’ of the cave—though they slay him just as the Athenians slew Socrates.

Socrates did not wield a controller, as he played the interactive narratives of the Iliad and the Odyssey. He wielded a stick, perhaps, and he wielded his imagination. These epics were born, in the days before the Greek alphabet, in oral song traditions that featured a good deal more obvious interactivity, between the bard and his epic tradition. In the classical Athens of Socrates’ youth, however—a world without digital games but in which humans had the very same need to play—, epic remained a living occasion. The performances of the reciters, or rhapsodes (as an adult Socrates, suspicious now of the poet’s power, in one of Plato’s earliest dialogues, Ion, shows us), had the effect of bringing the time of legend vividly alive.

Socrates was a gamer. My research suggests that he and his fellow Athenians played the stories of Achilles and Odysseus every time they heard them, because we always play adventure stories, whether we hear them or read them or watch them, and whether we have explicit, if very limited, control over some portion of the story or not. (Remember that every choice you can make in a digital game is programmed into that game’s software, and remember that every choice you can make even in a tabletop role-playing game must fall within the rules.) If it works better for you, though, simply imagine Socrates and his friends playing Achilles, playing Odysseus. At the end of his life, those games became even more interactive, as he decided to become a new Achilles.

As I’ve already mentioned, Plato writes him as delivering an incredible story about all this: the famous allegory of the cave. We’ll return to the story in detail in a subsequent chapter, but for the moment it’s enough to mention that Socrates introduces it as being a story about “education and the lack of education,” and then to point out that what the prisoners chained to their benches do when they watch the shadow-puppet play is to interact with it. They win prizes for predicting which shadow will come next, and in what order the shadows come. I’m not making that up: they’re all gamers, playing the worst game ever.

You know: school.

Socrates and Plato tell us that though the interactive narratives of the Iliad and the Odyssey represent an educational technology so powerful that it can make people chained to a bench in a cave feel good about it, we can leverage the very same affordances in the service of much better education. Plato’s solution is, in fact, his dialogues themselves—a new game and a new way to play. This post-series/book as a whole suggests that if we look back at the texts of the ancient world we can do likewise.

Works cited

Lord, Albert Bates, Stephen A. Mitchell, and Gregory Nagy. 2000. The singer of tales. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Univ. Press.

Travis, R. 2012. “Epic Style: Recompositional Performance in the BioWare Digital RPG.” In Voorhees, Gerald, Josh Call, and Katie Whitlock. Dungeons, Dragons, and Digital Denizens: The Digital Role-playing Game. New York: Continuum, 2012. 235-256.

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