Epic Life: Back to Bungie 2

The proposition with which I closed my last post, that we might get gamers to read Sophocles, seems, to be sure, wildly impractical. So let me backpedal on that a bit, and try to lead up to it along another path. What if we got them to play HALO?

Here’s the thing: these HALO players are doing what Stephen Greenblatt calls self-fashioning. Through the kind of on-the-fly analysis I talked about in my last post they’re shaping and integrating their western selves as they play. In that sense they’re already doing humanities, because they’re already analyzing the products, practices, and perspectives of the culture that produced HALO.

(Incidentally this is why I’m not scared about the future of the humanities: every HALO player, every God of War player, every Pokemon player, is a humanist. I’m not sanguine about the future of the academic publishing world that produces journals full of articles that I would hesitate to suggest a fellow professional humanist should read, let alone a gamer whom I wanted to interest in taking his or her humanism up a notch.)

The kind of humanities they’re doing is all about analyzing their own performances and those of others in the context of a narrow gaming culture, with the goal of enjoying their own achievements and reaching still greater ones that promise still greater enjoyment. It’s no accident, though, that the word “epic” springs to their lips and their keyboards all the time. The humanistic analysis they’re doing, on-the-fly, places their performances in relation to the cultural materials at hand–in particular the ones that come from way, way back in the Great Chain of Practomime.

So they don’t need us professional humanists to do humanities. But maybe it would be better for them and better for us professional humanists if they accompanied their playing at Halo with a further kind of analysis–or, more accurately, a nuanced sort of the same analysis they’re already doing.

Why better? What is it that they don’t get from improving their speed-runs and making more headshots, and telling their friends that it was epic? Why should these modern practitioners of the epic tradition learn anything about where that tradition came from?

Quite simply because thicker description is better description–better for our understanding, better for return-on-investment purposes, better for living a rich life. And thickly describing ourselves in relation to our cultural production is best of all. It doesn’t hurt that it makes us feel better about ourselves too. If that’s not material enough for you, though, think solely in terms of the game-designers. With a thick description of how their rulesets derived from the rulesets of the past, they can aspire to create new rulesets through iteration that will stand the test of time.

Let’s put it once again in terms of HALO: If they’re doing it anyway shouldn’t they do it better? Players of HALO should certainly always feel free to fashion themselves badly, but isn’t it worth paying your classics teacher to help you do it well? And given that the price of doing it badly is arguably the hate-speech we hear on XBox live, and that doing it well is quite likely to be susceptible of proof as leading to favorable material outcomes in employment, what we have in the culture of HALO is the beginning of a material argument for the value of the humanities.

The narrative fashioned by a HALO-player is a narrative of violence. But just as violence in the Iliad, on both sides of the Trojan War, can be righteous, or can be atrocious or can be mundane, the Western self-fashioning in playing HALO through the player’s narrative performance can through humanistic reflection become part of that player’s ethical life.

That HALO is particularly conducive to this kind of reflection is what gives it its epic, mythic feel. More of HALO‘s ruleset comes from the epic rulesets of the past than, say, comes from those epic rulesets in a game like Super Hexagon. In broad terms, figuring out how that mythic feel comes about is exactly what a rules of the text reading can do. And while there’s certainly a certain coolness about linking HALO all the way back to the Iliad, what I’m arguing for in Epic Life is that the value of the humanities doesn’t have to be seen in such ideal terms. The interaction of the player with the ruleset of Halo to create a performance is a material thing. HALO is a performance practice which creates material artifacts in the form of videos and written records, not to mention those performances by novelists like Greg Bear that are recorded in novel form and published. A rules of the text reading suggests that these material artifacts of performance are themselves humanistic practices that we exclude from the category of “doing humanities” at our own peril. From this perspective, the role of the humanities professor is precisely to do what Plato wanted the philosopher of the cave to do–that is to break the prisoners’ chains: to break those chains so that the prisoner may stand up and see that he or she has been in prison and then, when he or she sits down again, to have a better argument than the philosopher of the cave had for why everyone should get up and become aware of themselves as performers. The role of the professor of humanities is to show the HALO-player that he or she is also playing his or her epic life. If there is a crisis in the humanities, it has come about because humanities professors, rather than striving to be chain-breakers, have instead striven to be shadow-puppeteers.

Do I want Halo players to read Sophocles? Of course – what harm could it do? But keeping the study of Greek tragedy alive (and with it the jobs of classicists), isn’t my main intention here. That is, I would be almost as happy if a HALO-player, while playing the end of HALO: Reach, thought about, say, the red wedding in A Song of Ice and Fire (spoiler warning!). In my next post, though, I’ll take as an example an anlysis of the end of HALO: Combat Evolved (aka HALO–that is, the 2001 first game in the series) as a re-working of a trope that goes back at least to the lost original version of the story of Jason and the Argonauts: the gauntlet.

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