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Scholar illuminates classical literature with contemporary video games

by Scott Brinckerhoff - April 16, 2007

To draw parallels between Virgil’s Aeneid and the video game Halo might seem at first blush like heresy, but Roger Travis does it all the time.

He even brings a Microsoft Xbox to class to illustrate his points.

Virgil’s epic poem from 19 BC chronicling the fall of Troy and adventures of its hero Aeneas, as he makes his way toward a new beginning in Italy, has been studied and recited for millennia, but Travis, an associate professor of modern and classical languages, may well be the first scholar to use video games to help bring the tale to life for students.

“My students like hearing that there’s some sort of redeeming social value to video games,” he says. “I try to show that the games do have artistic merit, and share traditions that date back to the ancient storytellers.”

Travis ties video games and the classics together in two ways.

One is to use the games to look at the Aeneid from an unconventional perspective.

The other is to compare the oral improvisatory nature of Homeric epics with the way video games engage players.

The Iliad and the Odyssey are Homeric epics that predate the Aeneid – a written work – by centuries.

They began as oral works, performed before large groups by bards who often improvised as they went along, perhaps to cater to a particular audience.

Travis suggests that the bards’ audiences were interactive with epic poems in much the same way that today’s video gamer interacts with a software-generated adventure tale.

“Like today’s gamers, the bards’ audiences didn’t know what was going to happen next, so they were immersed in the story and were interactive with it in a very real way,” Travis says.

“The popular notion that video games are unique in their interactivity overlooks a tradition well over 2,000 years old.”

Travis transports students back to ancient times and describes how a bard unfolded a story like the Odyssey before a live audience.

Students who view Virgil or Homer through Travis’s prism of adventure video games are apt never again to see the games or the classic poems in quite the same way.

In his classroom, the games are not lighthearted diversions, but useful devices for removing some of the fog from ancient texts.

Travis finds many analogies between a game like Halo and the Aeneid. Halo’s hero is the Master Chief, a semi-robotic super-marine who battles religious fanatic aliens called the Covenant in an outer space ring-world called Halo.

At stake is nothing less than human-kind’s existence, and the galaxy itself.

Aeneas, the Trojan hero of the Aeneid, travels through its 12 books, battling adversaries and enduring all manner of treachery at the hands of both gods and men, before arriving in Italy and paving the way for his ancestor, Romulus, to found Rome many generations later.

“Both Halo and the Aeneid tell a story about a more-than-human hero defeating enemies who would be too much for ordinary people like us – enemies who nevertheless bear an important resemblance to the ones we and the Romans face in our respective presents,” Travis says.

Roger  Travis
Roger Travis, an associate professor of modern and classical languages, uses video games in his classes on classical literature.
Photo by Jordan Bender

The audiences of both Halo and the Aeneid are predisposed to identify with the strong martial heroes, as they roll over all who would impede their effort to make the world safe for civilization, he adds.

The similarities extend well beyond the story line, into the method of telling the story, he adds.

Both tales toss their readers – or players – into the middle of the story and demand a certain interaction from them.

For the ancient bard, the interactive aspect comes from the audience being immersed in the tale and anticipating what will happen next.

For the gamer, the interactivity includes not just joystick manipulation; the player can also elect to slip into the role of any of several characters or to play one section of the game versus another.

Travis, who says he is “just old enough” to have caught the video game bug, first heard about Halo2 in a National Public Radio story in 2004.

Intrigued by the game’s premise, he invested in it, and an Xbox.

Since he knew that many of his students played video games, he realized Halo could be a useful teaching tool and spark discussion.

In a paper on the subject, Travis argues that video games “bring back to life an essential part of the sort of storytelling to be found in the epic tradition of the Homeric bards.”

He says it’s wrong to dismiss video games as “a culturally worthless pursuit,” but agrees that they are certainly fair game for criticism.

“Through critique we may help them tell better stories, and tell stories better,” he says.

Of the frequent criticism that video games are too violent, he says the same could be argued of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

He notes that Henry Jenkins, an MIT professor, has debunked eight of the most persistent “myths” about the evils of video games.

Jenkins’s conclusions are available on the http://www.pbs.org website.

Travis may have elevated video games to a classroom tool, but as a parent, he knows they can also have a negative influence on players.

“No one could deny that video games are easier to get sucked into, and easier to lose much more time to, than ancient epic. Time spent video gaming is, in the realest possible sense, time lost to Homer and baseball.”

He also notes a peril the audiences of 2,500 years ago didn’t have to contend with: a visiting bard might only appear once in a great while to tell his story, but the Master Chief is always there, ready for another mission.

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