Teaching classics through digital media

A friend of mine (Hi, Mike) showed me the blog of a prof at U-Conn today. I’ve been somewhat familiar with his work (his name is Roger Travis) for some time but hadn’t visited his blog yet this term.

Basically, he is teaching Greek history through the format of an RPG. No costumes, just mechanics. It’s beyond fascinating. I really want to try this out here at U-Mich. Imagine teaching the Medea this way – such complexities of character could really be explored through individual experience. Someday when there’s an engine for it, I’d like to do this with interactive fiction, but instead of having the reader and the constructs of the narrative, having the reader, the interactor, and the author. The reader would be one student or team, the interacter another student or team, and the author likely the teacher who would construct the bounds of narrative. Inside this fictive universe (wouldnt’ it be great if CTools or Blackboard had an option to design this?), there could be mechanics for gaining points in class, whether through gear (as could be done with Homer), with charisma, sanity, currency, humor, an endless number of concepts that could be quantified and used as incentive and narrative drive in a pedagogical adventure. (Note how Travis’ students have a weapon, a mask, etc.) Both the reader and the interactor would have their own objectives for the narrative (think Jason and Medea again) but the author (the teacher) would be in charge of guiding it into an experience of how Euripides has created these characters. I get chills thinking about this, I really do.

Well, so there’s this grant program here that asks for student teams to design projects that combine academics and digital media in a way that creates new avenues of teaching and learning. Proposals are due tomorrow but teams don’t have to be finalized for another few weeks. If you are at U-Mich and would like to contribute to a project that involves concepts similar to those above and those outlined on Travis’ blog, get in touch with me!

Game-Soul for $400

One of the Massively writers gave a refreshingly honest review of Aion today. His main argument against the game was that it “has no soul”.

So Alex, Game-Soul for $400. “The substance, essence, and/or feature of a game that provides soul.” After 3 pages of comments, a few answers to that question have surfaced. (Questions to that answer?) The two biggest winners were lore and immersion.

What is … lore and immersion?

Players were pretty unanimous in the fact that there was simply no context for the game. Without a franchise history (like Warcraft, Warhammer and Lord of the Rings have), there is simply no inherent knowledge of the world in the minds of gamers before they step into the game. Quests could potentially be a great opportunity to spread lore in a game, but about 95% of Aion’s quests are kill x number of y quests. Here are a couple player comments:

“How then, can we feel we are in a living, breathing world, when we barely understand it?”

“I consider the “Soul” to be the immersion ability in to a world’s lore. Playing through Aion’s tutorial (1-10) does not really give you enough time to attune to the Lore.”

Lore certainly can be effectual in creating immersion, but it’s not the only thing. Despite the one player who stated they’d never felt more immersed in a world before, most complained about how the world did not feel alive. It didn’t have depth according to one player: “…beautiful at the surface, but extremely shallow. It’s linear. Leveling seems to be this long journey through a narrow path that introduces the world. But once you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it all.” There were also numerous complaints about the nonsensical ecology. The fields are full of mindless creatures who are simply there, with no point or even logic to their existence.

Alternatively, a couple players surprisingly (to me) stated that the characters were too customizable and they weren’t able to relate to them. In one’s words, “The characters look a little too defined I think, I cant project my own self onto my avatar so I feel like im controlling someone else with strings like a puppet. I never realized it but its the same thing that I didnt like about tabula, the characters look too real so I cant toss my own imagined ID on top of them. Weird huh?.”

So far, we’ve learned that games need a) either a history of lore or lore that is well-developed from the beginning, b) not just a pretty surface, but a deep world with multiple possibilities of experience, and c) a perfect balance in customization that gives enough options to individualize, but not too many. A nice start but it’s just the beginning.

Many people play these MMOs for the people who inhabit the worlds along with them. The community. Usually, this extends beyond the game into forums, fansites, fan fiction, blogspace, etc. For Aion, there may be community, but somehow the players aren’t feeling it yet. One said, “more PVP oriented games tend to suffer from this [lack of soul]. Once you joined a corp [in EVE] and there was a sense of structure and organization, it started to gain its unique soul.” So, cooperative play. I find it interesting he didn’t feel much community from the numerous grinding groups that get together as early as level 15. Maybe one needs interesting content to play with those people…

Then, there’s the big one we all secretly hope will one day actually be there.

What is… originality?

Oh, the secret ingredient. Everyone tries. Everyone fails. (at least these days) So does Aion according to these folks:

“It’s a generic and derivative MMO in every way.”

“I so desperately want an MMO that exceeds the experience and fun that WoW delivers.”

“The basic game (play) is quite traditional and doesn’t push into any new directions (except the pretty direction).”

Are we really that banal and uncreative? Have we run out of designer berry juice? Where’s the inspiration, the zing, the lightning-bolt idea at 2am that moves this genre somewhere that’s more than just glistening and beautiful? Perhaps we don’t have to find it, since another states:

“And personally, I don’t want a new-new-super-unique game. I want something that’s familiar and fun. And a lot of other people seem to want that as well.”

Or hey, who needs immersion? “I don’t want to simply live in a world, I play games to get away from living.”

Well, that might make us all feel better for a little while, but we’re still left wondering whether our game has soul and if not, why not? Do we not have enough of our own love into it? Aion didn’t seem to communicate that love to some people like this one, for example:

“When I play Guild Wars, Lord of the Rings, and even WoW (at least the vanilla WoW) you can almost FEEL the affection the developers have for the game. It is hard to describe, but it is almost as if they themselves wanted to live in the world and make you want to as well.”

For me, one of the players summed it all up. “It sounds odd, I guess, but in MMOs as in a good novel, I have to care about my character, my actions, the world, the overarching story, and the quests to some degree or else it just seems mechanical and pointless, however, polished it may be.”

You can have pretty, you can have story quests, you can have a vibrant world where wolves eat squirrels, but without the guiding presence of a visual narrative that your character (who doesn’t look too real) can experience, the game will have no soul. What is….Narrative?

Where art thou?

For the last couple of weeks, aside from legal issues IRL (broken families are fail) and the academic term starting, I’ve also been busy searching for someone at my University who has interests even remotely related to gaming studies. It’s been an epic journey.

First, I contacted the head of the Simulation and Gaming Studies Certificate Program. Sounds promising, right? No. He told me that the program is getting changed to something more to do with applications and is only still on the books because of people who’ve gotten it in the past. Also, he’s not the head anymore. There isn’t one.

Next, the Communications department. They are supposedly the haven of new media studies. Rumor it remains, at least so far as gaming is concerned. The professor I contacted who reportedly works on games told me he could do nothing to help with humanities and qualitative research because he is a social scientist. Helpful! Interdisciplinary! Modern. You go, sir.

Next, American Culture program. No response. They are all mostly interested in gender and performance still according to their faculty pages. Important things, to be sure, just not what I want. Still waiting though. Email is hard for some people. Not a good sign when you’re looking for someone who works on games. (Or maybe I’m the only one who always has my email open and checks it incessantly…)

I then thought, hm, perhaps the Institute for the Humanities may know of some humanities-minded person who is interested in games. How naive of me. The Institute appears to just be the lovely donor of rather mysterious special grants. I doubt they have a clue about the things they give money toward, but whatever. They might come in handy later.

Most luckily, I got a big email package of announcements from my fellowship director. Buried at the bottom was the invitation to a new student group – Digital Media Studies Group. Finally, people who sound like they may know what I’m talking about at the very least! All grad students as far as I know, but inspiration to be had if not mentorship.

Last, but not least, Sheila Murphy. Thankfully, a different CompLit seminar yesterday was incredibly helpful. We talked about visual culture, visual narrative, intertextuality of visual experience, etc. From that talk, I decided to do some searching for other people who work in visual narrative and I found Professor Murphy. She holds a degree in Visual Culture Studies and works on games. I just started reading one of her articles which starts with personal narrative of a Tony Hawk experience. (Article is “Live in Your World, Play in Ours” Journal of Visual Culture 2004). Film department it is.

So the moral of this delightful story? Even though I may be at one of the top research institutions in America, it’s very likely I am the only one here doing what I do. Exciting and a little scary.