The gamer and the herdsman

In this post I return to the roots of all my thought about classics and games, the striking and hermeneutically useful analogy between bardic recomposition in traditional oral epic, as studied above all by Milman Parry and Albert Lord, and player peformances in what I have come to call digital practomime–that is, what most people think of when they hear the term “video game.” For this post, I’ve re-worked one of my very first posts on that subject. It began as an elaboration of topics I first started exploring in a piece in The Escapist called “Bungie’s Epic Achievement,” but it evolved into the kind of thing you see me doing in my three previous posts here on Play the Past–work that has both a scholarly side and a pedagogical side, just as for example Plato’s encounter with homeric epic had both an ethical and a cultural dimension.

So as I did in the spring of 2008, so still today I want to announce that epic is alive, and that there are people creating epics like the “real” epics, the ancient ones, the Iliad and the Odyssey, and Beowulf, and many others, every day. These people are video gamers, and it’s now my life’s work (I think)  to show that their culture is actually not new, but rather as ancient as those ancient epics.

I want to announce that you can live epic, too, if you’ll only play more video games.

Imagine a gamer—let’s make him a 16-year old boy—on a couch in his family’s TV room anywhere in the world, his eyes fixed on the screen, a controller in his hands. He is attentive to a story of valiant deeds and eternal glory unfolding not just on the screen but in his mind and through the way he manipulates the action by playing the game. That story, a story he knows very well in its outline, and may know very well even in its specific detail, is unfolding in a way it never has before, because the gamer himself is helping it unfold, and he couldn’t do it the same way anyone else has done it, or even the same way he himself has done it before, if he tried.

Now imagine a young herdsman 2800 years ago, an inhabitant of Salamis,an island off the coast of Athens, or Samos, closer to Asia Minor. He’s at a feast in his lord’s house, and the banquet is nearly over. There’s a singer with a lyre (think guitar) in his hands sitting to the side of the hall, and the young man’s eyes are fixed upon him. The singer is playing and singing an old, old story, but he’s playing it in a way the young man has never heard it before. It’s a tale of valiant deeds and eternal glory, and it unfolds not just in the singer’s words, but in the young man’s mind, and in the singer’s voice and the way he strikes the strings with his plectrum (think pick), made out of bone, or even ivory.

Now imagine that the herdsman is so overwhelmed by the experience that he becomes an apprentice of the singer, and learns to sing and play the lyre himself, well enough to tell his own version of the story. Now the herdsman is able to decide how the heroes do their deeds and win their glory, but the storytelling itself remains the same, even if as he sings to his own audience he couldn’t sing it the same way his master did, or he himself has sung it, if he tried.

Through the stories the young men are transported into a world of heroic myth, where warriors fight more fearlessly than real warriors could ever fight, and quarrel with one another, and laugh sometimes, and even cry sometimes. The warriors deliberate, and make choices, and suffer and enjoy those choices’ consequences. For the young men, the gamer and the ancient herdsman, these heroes live.

You can tell that I think there are similarities to be drawn between the two young men, and you can tell what I think some of them are—especially the story about valiant deeds and eternal glory. But there’s a similarity that’s almost out of view in these two pictures that has ended up as the fundamental theme of my work since practically the moment I noticed it. The immersion of the gamer and the young herdsman in the story—their interaction with the controller and the screen, and with the singer’s voice and lyre—shapes them, even as it shapes the story. They are who they narrate themselves to be, and in the epics they experience, they learn to narrate themselves a little differently than they did when they entered the living-room or the banquet-hall.

To put that last bit another way–the way that has now led to what I call practomimetic learning–the immersion is also education. Because the similarities between the topics of homeric epic and AAA-huge-marketing-budget vidoegames (slaying enemies and the glory thence arising) are so striking, I started, and still start, there. But with the help of Plato and the way he looks to change the game (yes, seriously), we can see a role–perhaps even a much more constructive role–in this kind of learning for games that transform those topics into ethical interventions (like Bioshock) of allow us to perform on other topics (like Heavy Rain or, for that matter, Angry Birds).

So besides showing that the gamer and the herdsman-turned-singer are doing the same basic thing, I’ve also been talking about what I think that means. For the past few years I’ve been examining video games as an artistic medium, and trying to persuade people, based on that examination, that video gaming is a cultural pursuit to which it’s worth paying closer attention. I think there are still a lot of people around who need to be convinced of that, despite the fact that, unknown to most gamers, there are now professors who teach and write about video games.

I’ve been at it for long enough now that I’ve come to understand that it’s not just those who stubbornly want to keep debating whether games can be art (my own answer these days is “Can games be art? Can milk be dairy?”), who will resist the idea that video games have such ancient roots, but also the many gamers who generally just don’t care whether games are art. On the other hand, in the nearly three years since the first version of this post was written, humanistic criticism of video games has grown enormously, especially in the blogosphere, confirming, it seems to me, that the practice of gaming, like the practice of oral epic, has at least a depth that richly repays critical work. My original intent for this material was to contribute to the debate over the status of games as worthwhile objects of criticism; my intent for it now is to delineate where my own criticism stands in the now wondrously complex field of such criticism.


  1. I suppose then, that the biggest differences in the writing of epics or stories today (novels, poems, even films) are driven by the concept of innovation, exploration of experience, and contrasting larger-than-life themes with our ordinary, droll existences; while it seems the vast majority of games is focused more on developing motor skills and enhancing the logic center of our subconscious mind.

    The lyre, in your example, is the controller, while the game is the medium of song, in which the gamer/singer explores it and discovers himself as both becoming an agent of it as well as an active observer of the process.

    Ethically speaking, you can either stand on one or the other end of the spectrum: believing that content actively encourages fascination and therefore sublimation of said themes into acceptable and unsurprising forms of behavior; or believing that content is nontransferable to behavior, but rather only the mathematical patterns and dexterity of skill transfers to the individual gamer.

    However, being that most designers and producers today actively refute the existence of the former on a public stage and so refuse to acknowledge ethical standards supposedly intrinsic in art, the discussion hardly ever is lifted out of the ground.

    The other discussion to consider is Gamification Schell Argument, who postulates that the point system built into games actually might have a negative (although Schell only maintains sarcasm) impact on society as a whole, as we start to implement a result-driven society focuses less on experience and more on progress and the numbers game.

    In my own courses that I teach (hardly video game theory) I have also used a practomime approach, emphasizing skill in particular areas (similar to D&D and TES) and the growth of those skills over a semester as showing progress in a particular subject. However, recently (when I listened to Schell’s DICE lecture) I’ve begun to question whether this approach truly affords learning or if it just encourages a close-ended system in which students accomplish tasks simply to say they accomplished it, without ever considering the deeper implications of why.

  2. Author

    Thanks for the great comment, Benjamin. I think you hit the nail on the head with the contrast between the two positions. But if one turns the last bit of your comment around–really the way Plato does in Republic, with mimesis, if you read him partly ironically as I do–you notice that games are superb at teaching how to play the game. Can we change the game the way Plato did when he wrote his dialogues? My team at UConn is trying–above all by forcing our students to go back and forth between the game and the modern world, making them collaborate on the role-playing and file reports about the significance of what they’re doing in the game.

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