The mask of Apollo and the ruleset of civilization, or what game-based learning can get you

The operatives of Team Agathoboulos in Operation KTHMA (aka Greek Historical Writings) are tasked with playing an aspiring tragedian. Tragedy, that arguably greatest of dramatic genres, held incredible cultural importance in the Athens of Herodotus and Thucydides; the tragic drama of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides–along with that of the countless poets whose work is now lost–directly and profoundly influenced both the founders of the Western historiographical tradition. So pretending to be (practomiming as) Agathoboulos, a young composer of tragedy, affords these operatives an opportunity to relate the works of the historians to the works of the tragedians 1) as part of a narrative, 2) in an active and integrated way, and 3) in relation to themselves–three things that by themselves we know foster authentic learning.

More importantly, though, they are pretending to be Agathoboulos, aspiring tragedian, as part of the overall mission of Operation KTHMA: save civilization by usefully analyzing the works of the Greek historians. To be tedious, and say what I’ve said countless times before in this ad nauseam series of posts, that just happens to be the overall learning objective of the course called Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies 3212 “Greek Historical Writings,” as long as you’re not too jaded to admit that saving civilization is what education should be about.

Agathoboulos in Mission 4 became the proud owner of a tragic mask, the mask of Apollo–which sounds very ominous, but just means that it would be that mask that an actor would wear to perform as Apollo. He received the mask as a reward for delivering an especially resonant tragic response in a conversation with Pericles, with the admonition that whenever he donned it he would speak with the voice of prophecy (because Apollo is of course the god of prophecy).

On one level, it’s a game-mechanic that’s familiar to players of role-playing games as diverse as Dungeons & Dragons, World of Warcraft, and Mass Effect, and even of action games like HALO and Grand Theft Auto: the mechanic of gear. Doing things in the game gets us shiny stuff; the more complex the things we do, the shinier the stuff we get. More, we’re motivated to get better at the game because we want the shiniest stuff; or, to put it just a slightly different way, we learn the game’s ruleset as thoroughly as we can so that we can explore that ruleset further. Does the ruleset include a vorpal sword somewhere in the depths of the dungeon? We learn as much as we can by playing, and then we turn to the forums and the FAQ’s when we just can’t find the vorpal sword, and we learn more of the ruleset from that research, and then we go back into the game and find the sword.

When the ruleset gives my students the mask of Apollo, they go to the sources I provide to learn about how essential the mask was to Athenian tragedy, and then they find more on their own, so that when they’re taking action as Agathoboulos in the immersion-world of ancient Athens, they can act more like a tragedian, and get more tragedian-gear. They don’t do this research all at once, but always do it when they need the information, which means of course that they’re likely to retain it. Agathoboulos has a vendetta against Sophocles, and the Mask of Apollo is a way to achieve the victory over the great tragedian that Team Agathoboulos is longing for, just as a vorpal sword is a way to kill a Jabberwock.

All of that happens inside the game–even the part that takes them to the scholarly articles about the mask in tragedy–, because it’s all about the immersion of the players in the ruleset. To go back to the story of the cave, the way this mask of Apollo mechanic plays out within the ruleset of the game is like a player of Plato’s game Cave-Culture realizing that he or she can read books about the order of the shadows, and win more prizes with the aid of the shadow-puppet equivalent of opening theory in chess.

But there’s another level here, and it’s the level where civilization really gets saved. When Team Agathoboulos talks about how to use the Mask of Apollo, they’re not just talking within the ruleset–they’re also talking about the hypothetical (my comp. lit. Ph.D. obligates me to put it that way) ruleset-free space outside it. And through that discussion, they’re grasping the crucial impossibility of breaking free of the ruleset of civilization, and the even more crucial need to re-design that ruleset.

That’s because the mask of Apollo came to them explicitly as part of a mission not to get the shiny stuff but to save civilization, and in order to save civilization you have to reflect on civilization’s rules. As BioShock makes you obey Atlas to show you that you are a slave, as Republic makes you read Socrates saying “‘Certainly, Socrates,’ said Glaucon,” over and over to show you that there is no outside-the-mimetic-cave, Operation KTHMA makes Team Agathoboulos use their mask to critique culture.

It’s not shiny, and it’s not 3D, but it brings about a kind of learning that tops even BioShock: in the same way that Plato’s video game forced his students to think about the very nature of their education, Operation KTHMA forces its operatives to think not just about how to use the mask of Apollo to defeat Sophocles but how to use it to make that victory, should they achieve it, ring down the ages in such a way that they get better at doing civilization.

To put it from the perspective of an instructor: they have to think about what they’re learning; it’s part of the ruleset. And if you don’t think that’s potentially revolutionary, either you’re not a teacher or you haven’t been one for very long. Next post: the mask of Apollo in practomimetic context.


  1. Great post as usual Roger. The timing is particularly good for me as I was just engaged in a conversation with some folks over at Filament Games yesterday about Jim Gee’s learning principles from What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. One of the principles we spent a bunch of time discussing was 19, the Intertextual Principle. Principle 19 reads:

    The learner understands texts as a family (“genre”) of related texts and understands any one text in relation to others in the family, but only after having achieved embodied understandings of some texts. Understanding a group of texts as a family (“genre”) of texts is a large part of what helps the learner to make sense of texts.

    The non-technical version of this is very closely connected to your explanation of how gear operates as a hook that invites the player to explore the game’s rules. Your explanation also touches on Gee’s 2nd and 3rd principles which are also closely bound up in the same phenomenon of design and play.

    1. Author

      Thanks as usual for the very helpful feedback, Moses! I really like the connection to Principle 19, because it’s precisely what I try to embed in my learning objectives for any literature course (which is pretty much everything I teach).

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