Operation MENIS: a soldier, a rhapsode, and a tragedian walk into the agora

This post is a reflective update on the course I was feverishly developing all this past year (and which I teased here a couple months back), Operation ΜΗΝΙΣ. As readers of Play the Past know, the brand of game-based learning in cultural heritage (and other) fields on which my UConn team and I are working is something we call “practomimetic learning,” based on my formulation of the fundamental identity between stories and games. The “practomimetic principle,” as I call it, which plays an essential role in every one of our “operations” (courses/games), proposes that instructional designers can and should map play objectives (or victory conditions, if you will) onto learning objectives in a 1:1 relationship, thereby turning learning activities into game mechanics. Exams, for example, become boss-fights; papers become mission briefings.

Operation ΜΗΝΙΣ is a practomimetic transformation of my course Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies 1101 Greek Civilization. Now that I’m done with the design of the course and the materials, and the operatives (aka students) are busily involved in trying to figure out what τὸ μυστήριον (the mystery-thing) is, it seems like a good time to make an update, and to share some thoughts on how the course is going.

First, the apparent bad news: more than half the students dropped the course in the first week.

But although I’ll admit my vanity is wounded, that bad news is in fact good news in disguise, for three reasons.

Reason 1: Dropping students expressed regret. Three of them emailed me to say specifically that they wish they could take the course; not a single one told me that it was the game-based format that made them drop (though of course this is an argument ex silentio and I’m sure some at least were in fact put off by the format; the absence of strident anti-game-based complaints, though, is something). And, further to ease my mind, an old veteran of no fewer than three previous Project ΑΡΧΑΙΑ courses joined the course to escape from a terrible traditional one. Vanity soothed.

Reason 2: Students dropped for the right reason. Those same students all said that it had quickly become obvious that they wouldn’t be able to keep up. I don’t know how universal my experience with summer courses is, but I’ve found over the years that at least half of my summer students expect to be able to work a full-time job and take my course at the same time. Since four hours per week-day for six weeks is the bare minimum of what it takes to do well in a three-credit summer course, as I design it (I think with a reasonable understanding of what a three-credit course should entail), that expectation has often led to very unfortunate results, in which students end up paying ca. $1000 to get a terrible grade on their transcripts.

What happened in Operation ΜΗΝΙΣ, on the other hand, seems to point to an unexpected affordance of practomimetic learning: it makes clear to the student exactly what the expectations of the operation are, and, in a pay-for-play educational situation, allows the student to make the kind of informed decision that’s frequently impossible in more traditional courses.

Reason 3: The remaining students are a crack team. We’re down to three Κεκρόπιδαι teams (the Cecropidae [sons of Cecrops] are the fictional family in ancient Athens from which the operative-team’s avatars come–they’re the equivalent of the Recentii in Operation LAPIS). Each team has at least two power-hitters, as I think of them, who are in the Google Docs version of the reading making annotations for Hellenism Points from dawn to dusk, it seems (this simple points-for-annotation mechanic is probably the most successful tool I’ve ever found to encourage close-reading).

And that’s the good news: the air inside the TSTT is crackling with excitement. Their first AMISPE (Ancient/Modern Interweave Skill-Practice Exercise) is on the books, getting them deeper into their “class” skills (the party at this point consists of a soldier [base skill-verb “fight”], a rhapsode [base skill-verb “compete”], and a tragedian [base skill-verb “sing”]). Their immersion responses–the role-playing part–are starting to lose some of the stiffness of the initial forays, and their boss-fight with Ion the rhapsode was a thing to make this teacher nearly weep with joy.

I’ll be back in a few weeks with some notes on specific mechanics that I’ve designed or refined for Operation ΜΗΝΙΣ, in particular in the area of teaching basic ancient Greek, which is going much better than I expected.

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