Genelle Gertz on “Gaming Paradise Lost

Please enjoy this post by Genelle Gertz, Associate Professor of English and Writing Program Director, on her experience using Ivanhoe in a course on Milton. Gertz received a DH Incentive Grant in 2014.

If you haven’t noticed lately, kids from five to twenty-five eat, breathe and sleep video games. Hoping to tap this audience, I took my first stab at merging the epic world of Paradise Lost with gaming culture. Ultimately, I plan to create a video game version of Milton’s cosmic epic, replete with angels, Paradise, the creation of Earth and the perilous seas of Chaos slamming the shores of Hell. But envisioning the world of Paradise Lost is only one part of game design: there’s also . . . the game. This I knew less about, not being a gamer. But there’s a large field of game studies with fascinating research, not only on the psychological benefits of games (Jane McGonigal’s just-published SuperBetter), but narrative theory about how games differ (or not) from fiction (Henry Jenkins; Marie-Laure Ryan). So I cleared portions of my upper-level English syllabus on Milton to make room for game studies, and my trusty DH colleague, Jeff Barry, suggested I use the newly-improved Scholar’s Lab program, Ivanhoe, to start the first version of “Gaming Paradise Lost.”

Ivanhoe, so named because the first version explored Walter Scott’s novel, analyzes plot, characterization and structure within a literary text by rendering it as a game. The program emerged in the very early stages of DH development in the 1980s, and facilitated role-playing through email exchanges about the text. The most recent version of the program works on a WordPress platform and requires students to create a role, including developing a bio and picture, and then responding within this role to a series of “moves.” Videos and sound can be uploaded to accompany any move.

I required students to post once a week to our WordPress site in their chosen roles. Jeff Barry came to the class and explained how to use the game, leaving us with helpful framing questions to influence the first set of “moves,” or “responses.” No student identities were revealed until the end of the course, so we had fun guessing who was masterminding posts by Beelzebub, Azazel-Fallen Cherub #112, William Shakespeare, Marilynne Robinson, or the seventeenth-century “contemporary” to Milton, Whom-He-Predestinate-Thrunce. Role-playing afforded the students creative license as well as the opportunity to think collaboratively, both features touted in game science as psychologically beneficial parts of gaming. In their roles, students approached the great critical questions of the text, such as whether or not Satan is heroic, God is just, and Eve is anything other than screwed.

We played Ivanhoe for the six weeks in which we read Paradise Lost, and what became apparent is that Ivanhoe encourages creativity and collaboration, but needs more structure. Other than responding from a particular role to aspects of Paradise Lost, students needed clear objectives and rules. Veteran class bloggers and textual interpreters, these students reproduced what they already do well: critique the text. Ivanhoe was to them a blog wrapped in game’s clothing. Now that I’ve been through it once, I know that I will have to set up clearer objectives and list some preliminary roles, keeping students within the world of Paradise Lost. I will give them a way of tracking progress in the game too.

Assessing gameplay, not just in terms of grading, but also in terms of promoting student reflection, poses challenges. I required final presentations on Ivanhoe that analyzed the posts/moves of assigned characters. In this way, each “role” came under scrutiny in terms of its overall meaning and contribution. Some students were more diplomatic than others when it came to leveling criticism, and some analyses were more fanciful than probing. I’d like to switch the final presentation to one in which students work collaboratively to create new games in board form. They would develop their game version for Paradise Lost, demonstrate it for the class, and explain its relevance to game studies and/or the epic. After we read several articles on game studies, it became clear that board games are a physical way of working out design of game concepts, and that we could put more planning into how to build a game as a precursor for developing a video game.

Playing Ivanhoe also raises questions about how games aid our knowledge of primary texts. One preliminary idea is that Milton’s epic denounces the classical literary values of the epic hero, elevating personal sacrifice over battle bravery. We know that video games, just like the ancient epics, frequently require violence. So how can we build a game in keeping with Milton’s text, one that fosters a different kind of heroic ethos? I’ll be working on that for “Gaming Paradise Lost 2.0,” and I hope, by then, to have more students helping me with the technical side of building a virtual, visual world of Paradise Lost.

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