School of BioShock: Rapture as RPG

Two weeks ago I tried to demonstrate that giving students a perspective from which to see their learning as practomime–that is, as a play practice–constitutes an interruption of the usually-closed mimetic cultural system that Plato identified in his allegory of the cave, and that Irrational Games lets the player of BioShock play within in Rapture. I suggested that the reflection on the purpose and meaning of learning encouraged by such a perspective, which comes through the ARG component of a practomimetic course, serves to get students thinking outside the Cave and outside Rapture–even if there is no outside the Cave and no escaping Rapture.

In this post I want to begin to discuss what happens when that ARG is itself augmented with a collaborative RPG, letting students play themselves playing someone else, and letting them learn in that way to play both parts–the character and themselves–more effectively. To put it another way, I want to talk about what happens when players take the plunge and enter a practomime–whether dialogue, game, or course–where they will be forced to see the limitations on their actions, and why that provides a model for a powerful kind of learning we can recover today through games.

The story of the cave comes to a head when the man who has returned from the outside world stops playing the prisoners’ games and tries to convince them to stand up. It’s at that point that Socrates asks his interlocutors “Don’t you think they’d kill him?” and they reply, in that way that so many interlocutors seem to have, “Indeed, yes.”

Now the cave-culture game the prisoners play is about the rewards of life in the polis: the prisoners give prizes and honors to those who can correctly identify which shape will appear next on the cave-wall, and in what order the shapes will come. The larger practomime in which this cave-culture game is framed–Plato’s Republic–is about the rewards of the life of the philosopher, which are much less tangible.

It’s the intrusion of the latter (the philosophy game) into the former (the cave-culture game) that on the one hand gets the man-who’s-gone-outside killed and on the other provides the characters of Republic with illumination. The characters of Republic–stand-ins for us who are learning to do philosophy through this practomime called Republic–identify as a group with both the remaining prisoners and with the man-who’s-gone-outside. That’s how the story fosters their learning.

When Socrates’ avatar inside the cave-culture game refuses to play the game anymore, and tries to change the culture–hack the game-engine, if you will–the characters of Republic (and, in identification, we students) move further towards the learning objective “Do philosophy.”

How can we possibly put this immense learning potential of the cave to work? I think there’s an infinity of different ways to design practomimes that can get students to reflect on their positions as learners within a culture that reproduces itself mimetically–after all, as I’ve tried to point out, BioShock has its own way of staging the interruption of illusory interactivity, just as Republic does. What we’re doing at UConn and in what we call practomimetic courses (though it’s possible to imagine many different ways to design a practomimetic course) is an elaboration of the way to design in the cave that I started working on with the first offering of Operation KTHMA in Fall 2009.

The ARG step I described in my last post is like the invitation to the practomime–in the terms of Republic, the invitation to the conversation that reading the text presents, or in BioShock’s terms, turning on the game and assuming control of the player-character. There are two more steps, which I’ll make visible now, and then describe one at a time in my next two posts.

The second step is the equivalent of playing the game, whether the game is BioShock, Republic, or the adventure of the students’ ancient Athenian characters in 431 BCE Athens. Though this part of the practomime is destined to be exposed as misleading, when its interactivity is shown to be illusory, nevertheless it is in itself engaging–indeed, it must be engaging if the final exposure is to have any cogency.

Rapture is an extremely engaging–hair-raisingly engaging–place to play; the dialogue of Republic is of course a masterpiece of philosophy; students enjoy the high-jinks they can get up to in ancient Athens. Moreover, a great deal of learning happens here–even if the learning is only, for example, where certain groups of splicers are hiding, or how, according to Plato, the three parts of the soul are constituted. I’ll talk much more about this step in my next post.

The third step, though, is the step where the higher-order learning happens–the step of reflection and analysis. Here, the game forces the player to realize that she or he is a player of a game. As I began to talk about two weeks ago, this step can be unpleasant for players, whether students or not. I suspect that a great deal of the negativity aroused by BioShock comes from precisely this direction, as does a good deal of the resistance to seeing how ironic and impenetrable Republic truly is. Or, in the words of several of my students from time to time, “This is the most confusing course ever.” More on that two posts from now.

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