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A “practomimetic” approach to game-based learning

Roger Travis

Work on the relationship of some of the most popular forms of digital game to the epic tradition and its reception especially in Plato, carried out by Roger Travis beginning in 2005, has demonstrated that the roots of game-based learning extend much further and deeper into the history of Western civilization than most of those working in the field suppose (Travis 2010, 2011a, 2011b, 2012).  A large part of Plato’s interest in mimesis, especially in Republic and Laws, concerns what might be called the version of game-based learning found in Homeric epic, Athenian tragedy, and Platonic philosophy.  A combination of Platonic insights with the best research coming out of the field of educational psychology led Travis to pioneer a game-based approach that appears very different from every other, in which play objectives and learning objectives exist in a one-to-one relationship, so that a curriculum becomes a game, and the resulting game is the curriculum.  Travis authored, with Kevin Ballestrini, a Latin curriculum called Operation LAPIS that follows this approach; this talk concerns the theory behind and practice of Operation LAPIS.

Travis calls the approach “practomimetic” because he sees the word “game” as too limiting: the continuity between oral formulaic epic and digital games suggests the need for a terminology that can describe not only what such modes of artistic performance have in common, but also the ancient cultural dynamics that give rise to the power of game-based — that is, in Travis’ terms, practomimetic — learning.  Combining praxis and mimesis, Travis believes, may capture what Plato means in his formulations both of the power and of the danger of epic.  That power and danger are perhaps most clearly seen in the allegory of the cave, which Socrates indeed introduces to his interlocutors as a story about education and the lack thereof.  Travis’ research on games and the epic tradition in relation to Plato’s concerns about the relationship of mimesis to learning, when placed alongside important educational-psychological research on situated cognition and situated learning, gives powerful support to the notion that well-designed gamespaces are the best possible learning environments: the difficulty is in figuring out how to align game-objectives with learning objectives thoroughly enough to take advantage of the inherent power of playing pretend.

In its most basic presentation to the instructor and to the student, Operation LAPIS is a role-playing game in which students are on a mission to find and decipher the inscription on the LAPIS SAECULORUM. On a day-to-day basis, students in teams control characters — young Roman men and women — from the fictional Gens Recentia in a text-based simulation of the Roman world of the first century ce.  To make their way through that simulation and to complete their mission, they must acquire the skills necessary to find and to interpret the inscription: the activities of the operation, drawn from the engaging mechanics of games like HALO and World of Warcraft, allow the student-operative to develop and to display skills by using them in progressively more-complex Roman-cultural contexts.

At the same time, the role-playing game is wrapped in an alternate-reality game in which Operation LAPIS itself is “disguised” as the curriculum in which the students are enrolled.  This wrapper allows for the kind of transfer of learning that research in situated cognition indicates makes possible the authentic acquisition of skills: instead of merely pretending to save the world by playing the game, students actually save the world by acquiring the cultural skills they need to lead rich, humanistically-inflected lives.

The workshop will showcase the basic activities of Operation LAPIS, with an emphasis on the continuous, embedded, formative assessment that the operation’s game-based online resources provide.  The presenter will walk participants through a practomimetic “immersion session,” in which students must complete both language-based and culture-based activities, ending in their discussion of and formulation of a response to the situation in which their characters find themselves.

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Homo Ludens: Teaching the Ancient World via Games

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