Epic Life: Back to Bungie 1

In my last few posts I’ve outlined a massive undertaking: convince the gamers of today (in the Warkian sense, really, of everybody who practices in modern culture, with the caveat that Plato recognized the same dimension of culture 2500 years ago) to be humanists through a demonstration that their lives are epic.
I’m going to begin with HALO, where I began before. I’m going to demonstrate that the national epic of Bungie’s HALO franchise, when considered as a transmedia ruleset along the Nagian lines of mixed synchrony and diachrony, provides a venue for players to explore their Western selfhood, whether knowingly or un-, and that moving players from un- to knowing is the job of the game and of the humanists who play it.

In my previous work on HALO, I’ve argued that in the wake of 9/11, the transmedia franchise has provided its fans with performance materials for the composition of their Western self-stories. These performance materials comprise a ruleset (or more descriptively a closely bound together group of rulesets that together constitute a larger, franchise ruleset) within which players can shape narratives in the course of which their characters resolve, through justified violence, the problems caused for the universe on the one hand by religious fanaticism (the Covenant, who are trying to destroy the universe through ignorance of the consequences of their religiously motivated actions) and on the other by an embodiment of unfeeling technology (the Flood, created as a cleansing device by a long-dead predecessor race).

To recapitulate the conclusions of the Rules of the Text series, whether the ruleset in question is one of the HALO games, one of the HALO novels, or one of the HALO videos (or any of the many other transmedia rulesets of the franchise), players of that rulest are performing within the franchise ruleset sometimes called “The HALOverse.” It’s important to point that out because whereas it’s relatively easy to see that repeated playthroughs of one of the HALO games can iterate a player’s performance to produce new meaning and new cultural significance, it’s more difficult to acknowledge that the same is true of reading and re-reading one of the novels.

Perhaps more appositely, because the ruleset of a novel is certainly in general less obviously rewarding to iterate in the immediate context (re-reading doesn’t visibly change what happens), in humanistic terms or any other terms, we should be ready to acknowledge that a player moving between the individual rulesets of the franchise–say from the novel HALO: Fall of Reach to the game HALO: Reach–has performance materials from the former that can be applied to his or her performance in the latter. The benefit of a “rules of the text reading” of the HALO franchise is in seeing the reader of that novel, the writer of that novel, the designer of that game, and the player of that game (who could all of course theoretically be one person) as linked to one another (or indeed to him or herself) in the Great Chain of Practomime.

Linking them that way in turn allows us to move on from Rules of the Text to Epic Life. For us to live an epic life requires that we become aware of the way the diachronic iteration of our performances reshapes the ruleset (if only for us, though I think it’s immediately obvious how one person’s performance frequently becomes part of another’s ruleset–walkthroughs are only the most obvious example of this process) of the franchise itself. It requires that we develop an understanding of how we are linked in the community of players, and an understanding of the kinds of performances both by ourselves and by others that can on the one hand make us feel good about our lives and our communities and can on the other help those who are engaged on a more material level (developers, novelists, even PR people [maybe especially PR people]) figure out how to make new rulesets that let us iterate even more beneficially.

The central critical move of Epic Life is to apply a methodology of analyzing practomimes as occasions for play-performance within multiply-configured rulesets to the problem of making ourselves and others aware of the need to learn these things–the knowledge of how iteration works in the HALOverse, the skill to iterate for the benefit of all. At the same time, in a virtuous circle (or maybe just a twofer), that very application of methodology begins the practice of iterative ἀρετή (excellence, virtue) wherein players of the ruleset learn by doing, just as the bards learned to perform oral epic, and just as they learned to take their original, unexamined place in the great chain of practomime.

To finish this post, and lead into the next, I want to demonstrate what I mean about applying “a methodology of analyzing practomimes as occasions for play-performance within multiply-configured rulesets” to HALO. HALO: Reach has important tragic elements. Especially at the end of the game, the player is brought face to face with the impossibility of his or her virtuosity at the game’s metaphoric violence (the basic weapons-related mechanics of the game)–a virtuosity that has gotten him or her through the entire length of the game’s narrative to this point–overcoming the game’s final challenge, a metaphoric representation of the destruction of a human world by Covenant forces. At this moment, the player’s character is in a nearly literal virtual sandbox: the final battle takes place on sandy ground; more importantly, though, the player-character can, within the bounded space of the battle, go anywhere and engage in an infinite number of different kinds of performance, all of which end in the character’s death at the hands of the Covenant.

I want to suggest that the player, iteratively performing that tragic ending on the one hand and analyzing his or her iterative performance on the other, with a view to its virtuosity and cultural effect (even if that cultural effect is only that he or she lasted a short time or a longe one), participates in a reinstantiation of humanism. The same is true, of course, of the participants in a production of Hamlet and the audience at a screening of Ah hasard Balthasar and the listener to Roy Dotrice’s audiobook performances of GRR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire: as I demonstrated in the Rules of the Text series, these are all performance of rulesets, and the nature of play-performance itself remains the same across the whole field of human ludic activity. What a ruleset reading of these performance-contexts gives us, like Nagy’s readings of homeric poetics, is the ability to make plain the value of–even the need for–specifically humanistic analysis of this essentially humanistic moment. Rulesets make the past inhabit the present; the humanities analyze the performances and rulesets of the past.

Is it possible to play the end of HALO: Reach without thinking about Sophocles or Shakespeare or Aristotle while we play? Of course: even in the unlikely event that a player of HALO: Reach is familiar enough with one or more of them to call them to mind at such a moment, he or she probably doesn’t see the connection, and may (if I should try to “teach” him or her about it) prove highly resistant to acknowledging it.

But it’s not possible to play the end of HALO: Reach without conducting a humanistic analysis, because to perform as a player of the game is to analyze its effect, and every time I or anyone else plays the HALO ruleset, that analysis is carried farther, with or without reference to the tragic works and tragic analyses of the past. When we play games, we analyze them; games of all types in fact are singularly good at bringing us up against this facet of all play, whether we think of Monopoly or DragonAge in this connection. I can’t play HALO: Reach without the mostly involuntary analysis I made of my last performance serving as the basis for the current one, and I won’t be able to play HALO 4 even for the very first time without the mostly involuntary analysis I made of my performances in other HALO games serving as the basis of the new one.

And if we do think about Sophocles and Shakespeare and Aristotle, and share our thinking about them, we can at one and the same time unlock the virtuous circle of epic life and finally demonstrate what the humanities are good for. I’ll unpack this apparently ridiculous example further in two weeks. (Am I really proposing that we try to get HALO fans to read Sophocles? Yes! Do you think Sophocles is so bad that it’s not worth a try?)

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