"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

What works

I've been sitting on this piece for a while, but since I am in the throes of final exams as I write, it seems appropriate to share it now.  You should read the post yourself, but to summarize, a college professor describes his process of switching from in-class timed essays as his final assessment to independently-written work as a more valid and accurate measure of his students' progress in his course.

I applaud this professor for his reflectivity, and the reasons he gives for changing his methodology all make excellent good sense.  His course sounds very rewarding, and I am certainly looking forward to adjusting the general-literature high school courses I teach to be more thematically unified.  He even writes so temptingly about the Margaret Atwood novel Oryx and Crake that I thought about putting it on my summer reading list, until I read the synopsis and realized it has all the irritating and tedious qualities of science fiction -- made-up words, arbitrary premises, implausible psychology and politics.  Yes, I realize that if you are going to write about humans, things will be implausible and unpredictable, which is why I prefer history, in which it is impossible to argue with the events or a play, in which you see the implausible performed in front of you -- again, it cannot be denied because it is made palpable.

Everything else just strikes me as Lewis Carroll.  But then, I am becoming impatient with just about all fiction.

But the real point I want to make is that this fellow persisted in a procedure which he knew was not just unsatisfactory, but downright counterproductive and completely worthless at producing reliable data about student achievement for 15 years.  And every semester.  He did something that didn't work 30 times before he decided to change it.

Perhaps that defines the difference between college instruction and us secondary and middle-school peons.  My first year of teaching -- before I knew anything, I looked at the numbers for the vocabulary instruction system I had inherited (the dreadful outdated Sadlier-Oxford series) and realize that the numbers had not moved at all over the year.  The students who scored high at the beginning of the year scored well at the end.  The students who struggled continued to struggle.  Was it difficult to jettison that?  When it took up at least one-fifth of my instructional time, and sometimes more?  Easiest thing in the world.  What I substituted was far more work intensive for me -- I got a list of SAT words and identified them in the assigned reading, and built exercises and quizzes from that -- but many students showed real improvement.

True, one often has to delay jettisoning a non-working portion of a course until there is an alternative that has some possibility of being more effective.  But that's what summers are for.  But knowing how awful it feels to persist with something that demonstrably doesn't work even once -- I can't imagine how you could keep going at it 30 times.  (And read the comments in the post.  The writers make some intelligent observations about learning in college -- which were made and measured scientifically in K-12 pedagogy about 25 or 30 years ago.  Next, I expect some college professor to announce the startling discovery that students learn in different ways from each other!)

I come to teaching from the performing arts, and what I love about the latter is their pure empiricism.  It's OK if nobody knows that Moby Dick was great until 30 years after Melville dies.  But a play, a film, a piece of music must work right now or it fails on its own terms.  Because the way the artist in the performing arts develops and improves is to listen to the audience.  Same with teachers.  What doesn't work with students, doesn't work, no matter what the theorists and consultants say. 

Now, back to work on my perpetual motion machine!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Shakespeare as Videogame, Part 5

The Story So Far:
Kerr, mild-mannered high-school literature teacher from another planet and his son, Rob, fearless videogame-designer are exchanging ideas about converting a Shakespeare play into a videogame in an effort to learn about Shakespeare and about videogames.  Previous entries can be read below on this blog and at Rob's blog.

Rob's most recent post is here, but here's his reply to my last set of thoughts.

Rob: I like that you brought up the language. It is really hard to get rid of the great dialogue Shakespeare has given us. I imagine that's why Baz Luhrmann refused to give it up in Romeo + Juliet, and later the same choice was made in Hamlet with Ethan Hawke, despite setting the story in contemporary California. It's definitely an argument against re-setting any Bard-game in a different time and place.

On the other hand, gamers are no strangers to 'thee's and 'thou's, so an adapting game developer probably wouldn't need to worry too much about translation to contemporary english, so you could really go either way (a more modern setting or an authentic one), and it's not an easy choice.

Et two, brute!
One great thing about using Shakespeare's actual words is that there are so many of them. Since games are a series of choices which each, ideally, have different consequences, games require more content than plays or films do (not to mention the fact that they're currently expected to last about ten times as long). For instance, Julius Caesar has a bunch of ghosts which are mentioned as portents of Caesar's death (but never shown, presumably for budgetary reasons). They might be cool to include in the game, but the play has given them no lines. Luckily there are plenty of ghostly lines from Richard III, Hamlet, and Macbeth which might be perfect.

The Tempest as an online open-world multiplayer adventure is interesting (that's what you suggested, by the way, in game industry jargon). There aren't many online multiplayer games designed for heterogeneous groups of that size. That may be because people wouldn't play it, or because it's an untapped market; I'm not certain.

One thing I foresee as being problematic is the compliment of verbs. In creating a videogame, an early decision is always "What verbs can the player character do?" The verbs that some of the characters have at their disposal -- summoning fairies, invisibility, flight, hypnosis, meteorological control -- are a lot more interesting than the verbs other characters have -- gathering wood, getting drunk, stealing clothes, talking to your girlfriend's parents, etc.

If I can take your role a moment without hurting my own cause too much, I think the best strategy for adapting The Tempest would be to stick to Ariel as your one and only player character (or perhaps split her into multiple characters with the same attributes). She is empowered enough to feel fun to play, but still has a master who she fears. Her master gives her specific missions to complete, and then summons her to do more. If she does well she is promised a reward -- her freedom.

In terms of the thematic approach you mentioned, I think it's a sound one. I'd relate that idea to The Art Of Game Design's tenth lens, The Lens of Resonance. There are a few one might pick as a kernel to base a Julius Caesar videogame around. The best, I think, is loyalty. The decision to kill Caesar is mostly a conflict of loyalties. Loyalty to a friend vs. loyalty to the state is Brutus' dilemma.

If I were adapting Julius Caesar to a game today, I would spend some time establishing the camaraderie between the characters. I might include, as a level, the beautiful story Cassius tells in scene 2, line 90, of how Julius saved him from drowning, to establish the affinity of Cassius towards Caesar. Then there would be a level where you would have to mitigate some of Caesar's tyranny, perhaps by saving a servant who he would have mistreated, in order to show how he damages the republic.

Then I would give the user a choice of whether to take part in the plot against Caesar's life -- in other words, to continue the story as Brutus or Marc Antony. I think there are a lot of interesting possibilities in each of those decisions, and each are honorable men -- there are no true villains in this story, which makes it an even stronger choice, to my mind. That's just a first instinct, though.

Veering off course a bit, some people in the comments of the previous installment had the (I thought, inspired) idea of using a minor character as the player character to explore the world of Hamlet or Romeo & Juliet without influencing (much) the main storyline. I don't think it works so well with either of the plays we chose, but what do you think of that idea?

Here's another nice mess you've gotten me into!
Kerr:  To begin with the end, which is the most natural thing for easily distracted people like me, what your commenters are suggesting might be termed the Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead gambit.  (Incidentally, I have a copy of that play here with me and the ampersand is officially part of the title.)  I refer to the game-changing Tom Stoppard play in which Hamlet's two schoolmates who are co-opted by Claudius to spy on Hamlet and report on him, and who are marked for death themselves become the central figures in a Beckett-like conceit in which they are trapped in a space mostly continguous to and occasionally coincident with the space occupied by the play Hamlet, waiting like Becket's hobos for another, more important, more decisive character to either put things to rights or end their lives.  It works as a virtually literal reflection of and on Hamlet. 

I agree with you, Rob, that it's a good concept for a Shakespeare video game, especially if one is open to side excursions.  I can imagine Bernardo and Marcellus perpetually trying to get the Ghost to come back and talk to them (it speaks only to Hamlet) or Ross trying to keep from getting killed in Macbeth, as he is buffeted between the Macbeth and Malcolm camps.

But I also agree that we need to table that discussion until we have utterly abandoned both The Tempest and Julius Caesar

Let me see if I can codify the decision tree that seems to be emerging.  If The Tempest is to be our source, we should settle on a point of view character such as Ariel.  If we choose that route, then we need to pick the character and that character's goal.

If Julius Caesar is to be our source, we should consider alternate historical settings so that we do not have to contemplate a Rome in which Caesar is not assassinated and Brutus does not die at the Battle of Phillipi.  If we go down that route, we should discuss the setting.  Other than an age in which kings are in charge, the only other setting in which groups of people can murder leaders with impunity is within some sort of gang setting.

And the third major rabbit hole to fall down is the question of selecting another very driven tragedy such as Macbeth (I can't see Romeo and Juliet at all -- the stakes are too small and commonplace) or Richard III and perhaps going full Rosencrantz.  While they have similar trajectories, how a minor noble becomes and remains king through the use of sustained violence, I like Richard more than Macbeth.  It has more killings and more appalling ones, plus the wooing of Anne.  A Macbeth game is going to have to figure out how Lady Macbeth works, which is troublesome since she and Macbeth are virtually in lockstep throughout the story, at least in terms of their overt actions.

I think the time has come to fish or cut bait.  I'll let you have your say and then we should try to arrive at a consensus.  Or am I, like a poor game designer, shutting down viable and rewarding options for play prematurely?