Registration opened last week for the online course/game I’ve been working on since last summer. The formal title of the course is Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies 1101 Greek Civilization, but as an Alternate-Reality game I’ve titled it Operation ΜΗΝΙΣ. Μῆνις (menis) means “wrath,” and it’s the word used by the bards of the Iliad to describe the way Achilles feels when Agamemnon takes away the the girl who was awarded to Achilles as a prize of honor. It’s also what the bards of the Iliad announce as the theme of the lliad itself in that memorable opening of Western literature,
Μῆνιν ἄειδε, θεά, Πηληιάδεω Ἀχιλῆος. . .
Sing, goddess, the wrath of Peleus’ son Achilles. . .
I’ve long argued, when I used to teach this course in traditional lecture format, that the civilization of the classical period in Athens–that is, what everybody thinks of as “ancient Greece”–can be described as founded to a great extent on the culture of the homeric epics, and of the Iliad in particular. To learn about the history of menis is to learn about that civilization, because the idea of that implacable wrath, and its–literally, in more ways than one–tragic consequences echoes from the bards to the trial of Socrates and beyond. A course about that history might have as its primary learning objectives: describe and analyze key works of ancient Greek civilization; describe and analyze ancient Greek literary, political, and philosophical practices; analyze modern practices in light of ancient Greek practices and works.
Now if there were a game whose play objectives (or victory conditions, if you will) were those same objectives–if for example a player should become an operative in a collaborative project to enter a simulation of ancient Athens and save civilization; if he or she should be charged by, say, the Demiurge to fulfill that mission by discovering new ways to describe and analyze works and practices ancient and modern; if he or she should be ordered by, say, Mission Control to develop those skills by imagining how he or she would vote in the trial of Socrates as an Athenian juryman–then it might be possible to get those players at least as far towards those learning objectives as one might in a traditional course, while at the same time 1) giving them a reason to care about some seriously awesome, otherwise fairly inaccessible, foundational works of Western culture, 2) increasing the likelihood that they will continue taking humanities courses in general and classics courses in particular, 3) actually saving civilization, from an admittedly humanistic point of view, by attracting more devotees to its foundational works.
Wait, there’s more. What if it were possible to add in, as a learning sub-objective, “Read ancient Greek with beginning fluency”? What if it were possible to realize a classics teacher’s long-cherished dream of demonstrating that learning the ancient languages is not actually the arduous task as which it has for so long been portrayed in the classical establishment’s terrible elitist claim that has now gone so horrifically wrong? What if turned out that reading the Iliad in the original were as simple as putting Pokemon in your Pokedex?
What if there were a game that could turn you into a classicist?
I know you’ll be shocked to hear that that’s exactly what I’ve designed Operation ΜΗΝΙΣ to be and to do.
SEE the villainous (or is he?) Meletus swear out an indictment against the virtuous (or is he?) Socrates!
HEAR Herodotus explain in his own words why it’s not, after all, so good to be the king!
LEARN to read, understand, describe, and analyze τὶ ἐστὶν ἀρετὴν ἔχειν!
VOTE to sentence Socrates to death, or let him eat free at city-hall!
The core mechanics/activities of Operation ΜΗΝΙΣ comprise iterations on the mechanics/activities of our previous courses, most notably Operations ΚΤΗΜΑ and LAPIS: textual analysis towards collaborative role-playing, collection of key cultural elements (including linguistic ones!), and operative progression and levelling will all feature prominently. In addition, a couple of new mechanics, being tested right now in Operation ΑΡΕΤΗ, will appear in ΜΗΝΙΣ. A favor system in which gameplay consequences result from the way teams choose to develop their ancient avatars will line some students up against others in a friendly player-versus-player dynamic that allows operatives/students opportunities to engage the fascinating social history of Athens. Also, using what I call a memory-verb progression system, operatives will add to their teams’ avatars by giving them new verbs to use in their role-play responses, and tying those verbs to memories they create for those avatars–verbs that must assume the proper morphological form, memories that must be based on the reading.
I’ve tried to design every game mechanic as a way to demonstrate some element of the central notion of Project ΑΡΧΑΙΑ: that learning to do classics is learning to imagine yourself as a participant in a tradition that stretches from Homer to HOMER (the acronym of UConn’s library catalogue). Analyzing a tragedy or a vase-painting or the sculpture of the Parthenon has for me always been a playful act of imaginary recreation: at last, perhaps, I have a way to let my students in on the fun.
(It would be wonderful indeed if a Play the Past reader or two wanted to play the course with me in June! Just like a real game-designer, what I need now is players/students/operatives to tell me what’s going right and what’s going wrong. I wish I could make it worth your while in some way other than giving you three college credits for your hard-earned money, but there’s always my undying gratitude to go along with it. Click here for information on UConn’s summer session.)