Epic immersion, part 2: the interactivity of the homerids

I think it’s fairly easy to see that the story of an adventure video game comes to be about the person playing the game—especially when we think of the various sorts of games that fall into the RPG (role-playing game) category in one way or another, in which a player generally plays a character over whose composition he or she has a great deal of control. He or she often chooses the character’s class and abilities, and usually these days can customize the character’s appearance to a very great degree. The moment of immersion I was talking about in my last post–the moment when a game or a story puts the player in medias res and the good stuff begins–in HALO as in an RPG like Dragon Age, is a very bright, almost literal line of demarcation between a story about someone else and a story about the story’s actual real-time participants, in the telling of which those participants have, yes, a role to play. 

It’s less obvious, of course, that the combination of ludics and storytelling of the Iliad and of other ancient epics really do have something like that moment of immersion, and so to make this comparison clearer it’s necessary to go into some detail about the strange way those epics came together, and what that meant for some important later epics that came along, and were created in a way that’s more familiar to us. Going back to ancient epic this way will also bring us to what I think is a more illuminating description both of how games come to be about their players, and even to a new way to look at the concept of immersion itself.

So now I’m going to tell you about the homerids—which, as we’ll see, is quite possibly the real name of the homeric bards (“singers of tales”). For a very long time, indeed since what’s called the archaic period–the time of the Greek civilization that emerged from the Dark Age that ran from about 1200 BCE to about 800 BCE, people thought that there had been a poet named “Homer” who had personally written down his masterworks, the epics called the Iliad and the Odyssey. (The ancient Greeks also knew several other works that they thought were also by “Homer,” many of which they were already starting to have arguments about, on the matter of whether they really were actually by him; these works are now almost entirely lost, not least because they were acknowledged from very ancient times not to be very good.)

But, as we’ve known for certain since the 1950’s, thanks above all to the work of the classicists Milman Parry and Albert Lord, this very ancient conventional wisdom was wrong, and ancient Greek epic actually emerged from an oral tradition of recomposition of traditional stories according to a highly-developed system of bardic improvisation. There’s very good reason to doubt that there ever was a single bard named “Homer”: it seems much more likely that we should speak instead of “the homers,” or more probably “the homerids”—that is, the guild of bards who made a living singing these tales to admiring audiences.

There are as many ways to construct the history of how the ancient Greeks got the notion of a blind poet named Homer as there are people who have studied the matter, of course. My own view goes like this. The word homerides in the oldest form of Greek looks awfully like it means “a guy who puts it together.” That word, which is best put into English as “homerid” would look to later Greeks like it really meant “son of a guy named Homer.” We know that there was some sort of professional group called the Homerids during the classical period, who had some sort of jurisdiction over deciding who was good at reciting Homer. So I’m convinced by the current state of our evidence that the idea of a man named Homer arose from a misinterpretation of the ancient title for a singer-of-tales, homerid.

We can know almost nothing for sure about these bards, but we do have precious evidence in the epics themselves at least about how they hoped they would be seen. Most importantly, the homeric Odyssey has two characters who are bards (the Greek word, aoidos, comes from the verb “sing,” and just means “singer”) themselves. These characters are, as one might imagine, very popular with their audiences, although one of them ends up in hot water for pleasing the wrong audience (don’t worry, he gets acquitted on the same grounds we gamers acquit game developers every day, that he was just trying to please his target market).

For now, the most important thing I want to point out about the bards of the Odyssey is that that the (real) bards who sang that epic into the form in which we have it emphatically depict themselves through those (fictional) bards both as singing the song the way they want to sing it and as responding to their audiences’ requests. Here’s a passage about Phemius, the bard who sticks around Odysseus’ palace while Odysseus is away in Troy and on his homeward-bound travels. The speaker is Telemachus, Odysseus’ son; he’s telling his mother Penelope not to criticize Phemius for singing a song that makes her sad:

Why do you begrudge this fine singer, mother, his pleasing himself as his
mind directs? The singers are not responsible—Zeus must be responsible,
giving to mortal men, everyone, in the way that he wants.
There is nothing bad about singing the sad homecoming of the Greeks.
People certainly always give more favor to the song
that goes about most recently among its hearers.

Phemius is singing the song he wants to sing, because he knows his audience will like it; his audience are the suitors who are trying to get Penelope to marry one of them, and it makes the suitors happy to think that Odysseus, like the other Achaeans, is going to have a nasty homecoming. The song, that is, is about them in a very important sense, and, the bard of the Odyssey clearly thinks, that makes them pay Phemius better—or at least makes them keep him around.

But there’s another implication of this passage that follows on from discussing how the bard chose his stories, together with our understanding of bardic improvisation. Because every performance of an epic song was newly improvised, the bard’s re-creation of the epic occurred in an interaction with his audience on the one hand, and the material of the epic tradition–the technical, though awkward, word is “themes”–on the other: the bard was a sort of interactive conduit between the two. If you remember my story about the herdsman-turned-bard, you can see that that figure—the young man who starts in the audience and then becomes a singer himself—first interacts with the story through the bard, then (when he is the bard) gets to please himself, as long as he keeps his audience happy.

The bards did both those things–the self-pleasing and the audience-pleasing–through a system that Albert Lord memorably called “composition by theme.” The materials of the epic tradition, in which the bards trained in order to become bards, were at root a set of themes (where “theme” is defined as “recurrent element of narrative or description”). A bard learned those themes, and he learned to elaborate them and put them together in new ways.

Describing a play practice with a narrative element as composition by theme is, I believe, a methodology classics can offer game studies. The materials provided to the player by a game, both rules and content, are highly analogous to the existing themes of an epic tradition; the player’s (or players’) performance(s) within the game consist of elaborations of those themes. Most interesting (to me at least) of all, the interaction between bard, tradition, and audience, is highly analogous to–and yet very interestingly different from–the interaction between player and game.

The bards pleased their audiences; a player, at first sight, pleases only him or herself. And yet, what of the endless walkthroughs on YouTube and elsewhere? What of the gameplay videos proudly displayed by the gamers who consider themselves virtuosos of games like HALO and Call of Duty? Maybe most interestingly, what about the player of an MMO’s frequent need to please his or her guildmates? The dynamics of epic may provide a way to read these practices that relates them to practices of the past in exciting ways.

One overarching analogy, interesting in and of itself, to my mind conditions all the questions in the last paragraph: the ludics–the rules and conventions–of both systems of play practice immerse the practitioner in the system by establishing and, more importantly, by elaborating a relationship between the practitioner and the system. As the player of a video game composes his or her performance by elaborating on the themes provided by the game, those elaborations themselves become part of the relationship of the player to the game. As Phemius and the suitors experience Phemius’ song as about them because Phemius is recomposing it by theme, according to his skill, to please him and them,  the player experiences the game as about him or her because s/he is recomposing it, by theme, according to his or her skill and pleasure.

Here I think we find some piece of the true nature of immersion. The very broad connotation of that word is that immersion makes you feel like you’re there, like the cultural experience is, literally, about you. We understandably tend to describe immersion using spatial metaphors, a problem exacerbated by the marvelous spatial metaphors we call video games. But the truth revealed by a comparative study of games and traditional epic is that immersion arises in a relationship between player and ludic system whereby the player, composing by theme, remakes the system for him or herself.

This way of looking at immersion has the benefit of explaining immersion in a Jane Austen novel just as well as immersion in HALO or the Iliad. It also frees us, I think, from the tyranny of the graphics card. If the immersion of the homerids is somehow the same as the immersion of the digital RPG, how many other extraordinary play practices does our culture have in store for us than can be dreamt of by our GPU’s?

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