You may well be surprised to hear that the way towards finally welcoming the study of videogames into the fold of digital humanities lies through Homeric epic and Platonic philosophy. I’m hoping, though, that a marvelous recomposition of the Odyssey by classicist-musician Joe Goodkin, in Schenker Hall at 4pm on Thursday, 29 September, will help me convince you. You might as well come just for the outlandishness of my proposal!
First of all, Joe’s work, of which you can find a sample here at his website, charms above all because of how honestly and straightforwardly it reawakens the bardic tradition that gave us the Odyssey (as well as the Iliad, Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days, and the Homeric hymns in which are found some of your favorite stories about the Greek gods). All the things I’ll try to suggest in the talkback Joe is kindly allowing me to inflict upon him, about how digital games provide their players with the opportunity to do what Joe does on a gamepad rather than a guitar, shouldn’t get in the way of the simple observation that Joe has done it in the same way the bards did: he learned the rules and he played the epic game the old-fashioned way, alone with a lyre in front of an audience with a right to expect to hear something relevant to their own lives.
That’s mythmaking at its finest, purest, and most moving. I don’t want digital concerns to get in the way of that act of performance any more than any practitioner of digital humanities wants to obscure the ancient, fundamental questions that only humanists can ask. Joe’s Odyssey, like the Homeric one, concerns the struggle to learn what it is to be a person. The most dramatic of returns home from war emblematizes the essential problems of identity we all face every day—how do we present ourselves on Facebook? In a department meeting? At our own homes after a long day of battling our instructors, our students, our colleagues? It’s not for nothing that Plato, trying to solve those problems another way, had a love/hate relationship with Odysseus.
To find someone like Joe recomposing the Odyssey according to his new version of the Homeric ruleset, however, seems to me too good an opportunity to pass up, to share with students and colleagues here at UConn the essential connection I’m always on about—the thing that makes the interactivity of digital games, as well as that of the many digital-rule-based practices in which we engage these days, like social media on the one hand and experimental forms of art and literature on the other, a way to use digital means to study our traditional humanistic domains.
Plato saw that the political performances of his peers in classical Athens were like meaningless contests in a cave full of shadows. Videogames and social media encode the rules of those contests in digital form: posting on Facebook is a performance within the same cave, just like killing virtual aliens. The works of the Homeric bards, the works of Joe Goodkin, our Facebook posts, and our videogame playthroughs all become susceptible to a new, digital kind of reading in which we examine them as performances within the possibility-spaces created by their rulesets. In the terms of the questions of identity I posed above, how many different ways do the rules of Facebook or World of Warcraft let us present ourselves? How does the encoded digital portion of their rulesets make the choices they present differ from the choices Plato gave his cave-dwellers?
My own current work concerns the affordances of interactive storytelling, and what we can learn about them from the way Homeric epic got transformed by the famous authors of the Athenian Golden Age—Aeschylus, Herodotus, Thucydides, Plato. My point is that they played the Homer game just as Joe Goodkin plays it now, and I’m hoping we’ll all be able to hear more about how to keep doing that, whether by analog or by digital means.
Roger Travis is an Associate Professor in the Departments of Literatures, Cultures & Languages and of Digital Media and Design in the University of Connecticut. He is a founder of and contributor to the collaborative blog Play the Past. Roger also works on developing and studying a form of game-based learning, practomimetic learning, in which learners play the curriculum as a role-playing game wrapped in an alternate-reality game. He has published on Homeric epic, Greek tragedy, Greek historiography, the 19th C. British novel, and digital role-playing games and first-person shooters including Halo, BioShock, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and World of Warcraft.