Thursday, March 11, 2010

Virtual reality meets classical literature

A U. Connecticut professor is using online role-playing exercises to immerse students in the bardic tradition, this courtesy of an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Professor Roger Travis required students to play virtual reality games one term, and to engage with each other via Google Wave more recently, as assignments for Classics & Ancient Mediterranean Studies (CAMS) 3208, a "course about the Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides that first ran in the Fall semester of 2009."

Say what?

This blog post (on the LOTRO Reporter -- that's Lord of the Rings Online) gives a well-linked intro for those who'd like to dive in. For the rest, here's a sound-byte culled from Professor Travis's video introduction to his course: "adventure games, I realized, really did reawaken the ancient Homeric epic tradition, above all because they were participatory [...] the adventure video games allow the player to improvise his or her own course through the story in the same way that the bards, the Homeric bards, improvised their way through the stories they were telling to ancient Greek audience."

You can learn more than you might be able to digest re: Prof. Travis's practomimetic pedagogy by checking out his own blog.

I'm not optimistic about the improvised stories of university undergrads rising to levels as compelling as the tales Homer left us, but that's hardly the point. Prof. Travis is assigning exercises to predispose his students to understand an unfamiliar frame of mind, to shake loose modern sensibilities dulled by passive consumption of culture.

Travis asserts (in the CHE article): "You cannot understand Latin without understanding Roman culture. This is the best way I have ever found to actually get my students to pay attention to Roman culture."

I think this is pretty intriguing, but I have just about zero gaming experience by which to gauge Travis's claims. Any gamers out there who care to comment? Any diehard bibliophiles who want to stake a claim that technological tomfoolery can't possibly illuminate the holiest touchstones of literary culture?

P.S. Here's a propaganda break. The question of 'passive consumption of culture' gives me a great excuse to mention one of my favorite socio-political-techno discourses of all time, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander -- highly recommended reading.


  1. I was very ready to hate this, but after reading through the blog, I'm instead inclined to think that this is the most well-thought-through use of gaming in the classroom that I've seen. Too many gaming-in-the-classroom projects don't really seem to add anything to the experience (other than the frustration of trying to navigate a bad UI, depending on the game) other than the instructor's self-congratulatory assertion that they've "engaged the students". After all, students use games, their class uses games-- that means class is more like what students do, and is therefore a better class, right?

    But it sounds like Prof. Travis has specific goals to accomplish through the use of gaming, has the skills necessary to pull it off effectively (never underestimate the importance of a good game master), and is succeeding in an area of technology-meets-education where a lot of programs have fallen short.

    I still have vivid memories of evading stormtroopers and getting into lightsaber duels in the Star Wars RPG I played as a kid-- far more vivid than any of the novels I read on similar topics at the time. There's something about the risk and uncertainty that (IMHO) makes this stuff stick with you in a different way than just reading about it. In a certain way, it's much like a more involved version of the technique used at a Titanic exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry-- give everyone a card with a name and short profile at the beginning, make them wait until the end to see if they survived.

    In short, I'm unexpectedly impressed-- I've never been a huge fan of taking classes, but even I (today, not even just as an undergrad) would be willing to try out this one.

  2. The aim is to move beyond standard forms of interaction such as the keyboard and mouse which most people work with on a daily basis. This is seen as an unnatural way of working which forces people to adapt to the demands of the technology rather than the other way around.

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