Playing the World, with Mythology as a Guide: A Profile of Roger Travis (2011)

Shoulder to shoulder with my comrades, I stare down the entity that could very well be the cause of my death. A flood of enemies rushes towards us and I grip my weapon in anticipation for the inevitable slaughter, whether it be us or them. The only question left now is: who am I?

This is exactly one of the questions Professor and gamer Roger Travis wants you to consider. In that situation, I could just as easily have been an ancient Greek warrior rubbing elbows with Achilles as a video game character brandishing a shotgun at aliens. In reality, I’m just a girl on a sofa, as Travis puts it in his blog Living Epic. But, “being there on the sofa,” he says, is “like sitting in a bard’s audience…through them [the heroes of the particular story,] we become integrally involved in deeds we could not possibly realize in our own lives, but which we must acknowledge our longing, and perhaps our duty, to attempt.” The idea is a profoundly engaging one, literally. Travis makes the case that video games’ interactivity with the actions of larger-than-life characters is far from a new concept, but rather is almost exactly the same as it was thousands of years ago, minus the joysticks.

Dr. Roger Travis knew from a young age that when he “grew up, ” he wanted to be involved in a profession that dealt with the ancient world. He had read many books of mythology that made a big impact on him, starting with D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths, a classic anthology of Greek mythology by Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire. It was around this same time that he was first introduced to world of video games too, when he “played Pong at a friend’s house at the age of 11.” However, it wasn’t until later that he realized the two could be reconciled perfectly.

Later he became interested in a wider variety of literature such as the epic Lord of the Rings series and the futuristic Foundation Trilogy; stories with mythology all their own. High school introduced him to Shakespeare and the Greek tragedies, plus taking Latin only strengthened his interest in the field. This interest manifested itself in the form of a Classics degree from Harvard College. Consider it a testament to his Latin that when Travis told me about his degree, he said “an A.B in Classics,” referring to the latin Artium Baccalaureatus, and not the English-grammar-corrupted B.A., or Bachelor of Arts. After receiving his aptly named undergraduate degree, he went straight to grad school for his PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley, where he taught as a post-doc for a year. In 1997 he started teaching at the University of Connecticut, where he is now the Associate Professor of Classics.

He’d been through a several-year video game hiatus until he heard about a new game called Halo 2 on a 2004 NPR news story. “It was only then that I put together my classics training with the new things video games were able to do,” Travis told me, “it was obvious to me that video games had reached a point where they were starting to tell great stories. It was also obvious that not many people realized it, and so I had a kind of mission ready for me.”

That mission is what led to many new parts of his life, one of which was using video games to exemplify themes explored in the classroom. This was the first one that I had myself experienced: Dr. Travis used Halo’s epic story and form to illustrate certain mythic themes we discussed in his Classical Mythology class at UConn. For me, the experience wasn’t too good to be true; it just got better. Like Travis, I already had a long-standing interest in mythology, so I couldn’t have been more excited when he used Halo as an example. I hadn’t started playing Halo yet, but just the fact that a university professor confirmed my long-held belief that video games are not worthless pursuits was enough to get me hooked.

Clearly, Travis understood his audience well. Instead of carving a clear line between educational material and leisure activities, he showed his students (and, indeed, the rest of the academic community) that the two fields can have a harmonious interrelationship. “Mythology is the way we understand our world in art,” Travis said. “If we don’t study it, we won’t understand why or how we play the games, watch the films, and read the books we play, watch, and read.” Putting video games and books in the same category, and moreover, classifying them as art, may qualify as academic blasphemy to some, but Travis has made more than a small impact on many others.

His latest project in this vein of work is yet another unorthodox academic experiment. “Together with a wonderful team of like-minded classicists, educational psychologists, and a coder or two, we’ll be launching what we believe is the first-ever practomimetic (game-based) introductory language course.” It’s called “Operation Lapis: First year Latin as an RPG inside an ARG.” In layman’s terms: a Role Playing Game (in which the students assume another identity of sorts) inside an Alternate Reality Game (the ancient world in which Latin was the preeminent language). Aided by CARDs, or Classical Attunement Reward Devices, students carry out missions for Operation LAPIS while learning Latin vocabulary and grammar, just like a regular language course. The course had its first test run last in the Fall 2010 semester at UConn, Storrs Campus, and the Norwich Free Academy in Norwich, CT. For more information, see Travis’ August 15th 2010 post on his blog at livingepic.blogspot.com

Travis’ blog, Living Epic, was another step toward expanding people’s awareness and respect for the ancient traditions that are still very much with us, and the ways in which they are manifested in our modern culture. The banner at the top of the page is an immediate attention grabber, placing the words “Living Epic: Video Games in the Ancient World” squarely between some ancient-looking warriors on the left and a couple of the semi-robotic super-marines called “Spartans” that the players of Halo command. Below this subtle timeline is the tagline: Roger Travis, Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Connecticut, Explains How Games and Gamer Culture are Much Older and Better Things than Most People Think.” To opponents it’s a challenge, but to believers it’s a siren song to keep reading.

The next step for Travis was getting other crusaders of this philosophy together in a community where they could share their thoughts on the matter. “I decided to try to bring together the people who were interested in a basically humanistic take on video games,” Travis explained, “people who aren’t part of the field known as game studies, but who have valuable things to say about video games anyway.” Consequentially there came to be the Video Games and Human Values Initiative. Their mission was to raise money and give it to “interesting people” who were making a statement in the field. Unfortunately, much like Travis’ original idea to turn Living Epic’s early material into a book, there wasn’t a market for such a thing [yet]. But “the initiative lives on,” Travis said, “as a bunch of people with something to say.” Their only hope is that someday there will be enough people listening to make a difference. “We also play video games on Thursday nights,” Travis added.

 

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