Epic Life: A Return to Nagy (in Game Studies)

Roger Travis
Parts of this essay have appeared in serialized form on the blog Play the Past.


This essay serves three purposes: first, to review the posts of my Rules of the Text (Travis 2012a-e) series on the blog Play the Past, and to recapitulate their argument and its relation to the two examples that have dominated the series: the fantasy novelfranchise A Song of Ice and Fire aka Game of Thrones and the videogame franchise Mass Effect; second, to prepare for the next series of posts, which will take me back to the roots of my game-criticism in Homeric epic, and integrate the rules of the text argument with everything from “Bungie’s Epic Achievement” (Travis 2006) on, providing in the process what I believe is a powerful argument for the eternal value of the humanities; third, in the course of (1) and (2), to honor the work of Gregory Nagy as the inspiration for this undertaking in a field that I imagine he will find strange, yet perhaps familiar.
I call my next series “Epic Life” because in it I think I may finally be prepared to propose a way of doing humanities that puts what I call the great chain of practomime at the center not just of the disciplines of the humanities but of their claim to be essential to the good life. Rather than trying to pretend that the humanities have some unmeasurable yet transcendentand even self-evidentvalue, I’m going to propose that we demonstrate their value can be measured through evaluating their practitioners’ ability to perform iteratively within the ruleset created by their objects of study (that is, the texts that make up our cultural heritage, where “texts” is broadly defined to include all sorts of material culture)objects whose own value can likewise be demonstrated in the effects of the performances they embody, and whose rulesets give humanists the opportunity to redesign them through those performances. The value of the humanities, I will argue, can be measured in the growing skill of its practitioners, whether professional or lay, to articulate what makes play-performances more conducive to performing, and to analyzing, the values of our communities.

The Rules of the Text

I’m going to try to suggest that as Plato played the ruleset of Homeric epic in his own “mod-ed” (the gaming term for modifying a game’s ruleset to produce a different game, sometimes a radically different one) way, iteratively redesigning it as he went into his play-practice of philosophy (Travis 2010a, Travis 2010b), a view of the operation of practomime in culture can allow us to redesign the humanities, and our lives, and to help others learn to do the same.
A necessary precursor to that project is to marshal the critical forces I’ve developed over the eight parts of the Rules of the Text series. Here’s what I think I’ve demonstrated in the series:

A thorough working out of the idea that games and stories are two kinds of play performance (what I have taken to calling “practomime”) into a thick description of play practices demonstrates that 1) the narrow understanding of rulesets (e.g. in Salen and Zimmerman 2003) within which critics of games have been working is untenable (Travis 2012b). It’s untenable because 2) texts function as rulesets (Travis 2012c). If texts function as rulesets, 3) every play performance is the instantiation of a new ruleset (Travis 2012d). Conversely, 4) game design is itself a play performance (Travis 2012e) as is 5) storytelling in any form (Travis 2012e). This seamless joining of games to stories allows us to describe 6) transmedia storytelling as the development of differential rulesets and, for my purposes most importantly, all play performances as belonging to a “great chain of practomime” (Travis 2012b).

Both A Song of Ice and Fire and Mass Effect are transmedia practomimes. The former began its distinct, identifiable life as a series of fantasy novels; the latter as a series of digital role-playing games. By the phrase “distinct, identifiable life” I mean to suggest the fluidity of the boundaries of practomimetic works. A Song of Ice and Fire could be described as a re-telling of events of medieval history and of narrative elements from many other fantasy novels. Publishing conventions dictated that the first novel of A Song of Ice and Fire, A Game of Thrones was given its outward existence (that is, its existence as the thing we call a book) as a distinct performance within the ruleset of the fantasy genre, but rules-of-the-text theory lets look beyond the arbitary constraints of those conventions, and see that GRR Martin’s textual performance of that novel is no different, in its coming-into-existence as a play performance framed within the play practice of fantasy storytelling, from a Homeric bard’s performance of “The Embassy to Achilles” or a gamer’s performance of Mass Effect 3.

A Song of Ice and Fire, as a ruleset, has afforded players play performances that function as iterated rulesets, such as (a non-exhaustive list) old-fashioned silent readings by old-fashioned book readers, audiobooks, listenings to those audiobooks, an HBO series, tabletop games, videogames, player playthroughs of those videogames, videos of those player playthroughs of those videogames, several Wikis, and fan-fiction. Mass Effect, as a ruleset, has afforded players play performances that function as iterated rulesets, such as (a non-exhaustive list) novels, old-fashioned silent reading of novels by old-fashioned book readers. audiobooks, listenings to those audiobooks, tabletop games, videogames, player playthroughs of those videogames, videos of those player playthoughs of those videogames, several Wikis, and fan-fiction.
Players enact all these performances within the broad ruleset of A Song of Ice and Fire, as the Homeric bards enacted “The Embassy to Achilles” within the ruleset of “The Wrath of Achilles”that is, what we call the Iliad. Each one affords its own players the same opportunity to play, as, when I listen to Roy Dotrice read A Game of Thrones, my listening performance is related to Martin’s novel in much the same as playing a mod of a game is related to the underlying game.
Should we describe A Song of Ice and Fire and Mass Effect as epics (or even epic cycles)? as stories? as franchises? as games? I suggest that the word practomime may be useful, but the terminology is unimportant so long as we gain theoretical purchase on the dynamic working of these play-practices between ruleset and performance, wherein for example practices that maintain the boundary of the playspace (aka the “Magic Circle”) (see Huizinga 1955, 10) become an essential part of the propagation of the ruleset in the form of such play practices as debates over whether something in a particular performance is “canonical” or not, and whether performances at a certain difficulty level in a game are admissible as authentic experiences of the game’s ruleset.
I see the task of my next series, Epic Life, as demonstrating that these same dynamic processes are at the root of Western culture in Homeric epic and its affordance of history, tragedy, and philosophy. That demonstration, I hope, will let us see that playing the past is an absolutely essential part of living the present: we can’t help doing it, so perhaps there’s an argument to be made for learning to figure out how to do it wellyou know, studying the humanities.

Epic Life

The role of humanistic study, on this understanding, might be seen as enabling subjects to become aware of the way their performances are shaped by the rulesets that have come before, and the way in turn that their performances function as rulesets for performances that come after. You know, like getting up from your seat in the cave and getting a good look at what’s really going on.
All this grandiloquence about using game studies to put the humanities on a proper footing vis-à-vis the modern educational contextthat is, the way we currently transfer cultureis, to be sure, apparently insane. In that modern educational context, however, I submit that as much as humanists whine that they shouldn’t be made to show that their pursuits materially benefit their communities, it would be retrograde, reactionary, and simply foolish to reject the benefits scientific fields like educational psychology and cognitive science can bring to our ability to change the world for the better through a study of the past.
My apparent megalomania comes from an encounteran auseinandersetzung, as the teacher who started me on this journey put it many years ago as he told me to read a crazy book, my first real encounter with scholarly Germanwith Homeric epic through the critical lens of that teacher’s work, and so to honor him and to find a path forward by tracing its origins in my own earlier work, this new project begins with a connection of the criticism of Gregory Nagy to my theory of the rules of the text. (The book was Wolfgang Rösler’s Dichter und Gruppe (Rösler 1980), as auspicious a beginning for the study of the interaction of occasion (ruleset) and performance as can be imagined, I believe.)
One way to formulate my purpose in this essay, then, would be as a return to Nagy, in an attempt to establish his work as having the same foundational importance for practomimetics that Johan Huizinga’s has for game studies and, just to continue the grandiloquence, because practomimetics precede game studies as ground precedes figure, to establish Nagy as precedent of Huizinga. Sebastian Deterding has called for a return to Huizinga in order to clarify that games and fiction are both species of play (Deterding 2009); I here call for a return to Nagy in order to clarify that play-performances of every kindgames, novels, epics, paintings, audiobooks, tweets, status-updates, critical essaystake place within rulesets that those performances make legible, and that in turn instantiate new rulesets to be in turn made legible by subsequent play performances.
This way of describing the shaping of meaning and value diachronically (ruleset) and synchronically (performance) is, I believe, what Nagy himself calls for, when he follows the work of Albert Lord to a natural conclusion, and tells us, in the 1999 preface to the revised edition of The Best of the Achaeans,

We need to confront the general phenomenon of meaning in the media of oral poetics. On the basis of my own cumulative work, I have become convinced that meaning by way of reference in oral poetics needs to be seen diachronically as well as synchronically: “Each occurrence of a theme (on the level of content) or of a formula (on the level of form) in a given composition-in-performance refers not only to its immediate context but also to all other analogous contexts remembered by the performer or by any member of the audience” (Nagy 1999, xv, quoting Nagy 1996, 50).

A really thorough working out of the implications of this formulation demands that we begin to describe oral poetics as a form of play, and recognize that modern game-playersin particular players of digital gamesare creating meaning through the same constellation of play-practices, which draw resonance at the same time from the performance and from the ruleset, construed as broadly as an individual occasion has capacity to do. A player of Lego Star Wars, for example, is creating meaning based not only on her performance in the synchronic occasion, in which she is playing at building things to solve puzzles, but also in the relationship to the diachronic ruleset of the transmedia Star Wars franchise that those puzzles have: the clever Lego riffs on the Star Wars films, as for example when the player reassembles a radio which plays the imperial theme music, causing enemies to dance rather than attacking, draw their meaning from the ruleset of the franchise as a whole (diachronic) as well as from the game (synchronic).

This constellation of practices is what I will call in this series “epic life”: performance, reflection on the ruleset of performance, and iteration of ruleset through new performance. The ancients had a much wider view of “epic” (Greek ἔπος epos “word, epic, epic poetry”) than we do, and the songs that we think of as constituting a specialized genre of epic (notably the songs that make up what we now know as the Iliad and the Odyssey) were for them part of a very broad range of speech acts that had in common above all the element that I call practomimetic: they were playful, or, in Greek terms, ποιητικός poiētikos “maker-ly, poetic.”
That that basic Greek verb ποιέω poieō “I make, I do” could mean what is transparently in our terms playful performance (that is, a kind of performance understood not to have an immediate effect on material circumstances), in addition to meaning what is transparently “real,” “serious” (that is, non-playful) performance indicates that the culture Plato critiques in his dialogues, above all in Republic and Laws, was practiced ludically, from the assembly to the lawcourts to the Theatre of Dionysus, and everywhere in between. We are accustomed to thinking of this dimension of classical Greek culture as “agonistic,” of course (cf. e.g. Knox 1999), but in the context of this return to Nagy I suggest we also learn to conceive it as ludic, or perhaps simply as playful, if the barbaristic Latin/Greek melding of “ludic” rankles.
The most telling indication that the ludic is at work in Athenian culture may be Cleon’s rant in Thucydides’ rendering of the the Mytilenian debate (ἁπλῶς τε ἀκοῆς ἡδονῇ ἡσσώμενοι καὶ σοφιστῶν θεαταῖς ἐοικότες καθημένοις μᾶλλον ἢ περὶ πόλεως βουλευομένοις “you are simply overcome by pleasure of hearing and are like a seated audience of wisdom-performers [sophistōn] rather than men taking counsel about their city” [Thucydides 3.38]), but the more trenchant critique is Plato’s, in Socrates’ story of the cave, when Socrates asks whether one wouldn’t rather be the paradigmatic Achilles-according-to-Odysseus-according-to-the-Homeric-bards slave of the meanest farmer than win the contests of the cave-dwellers (Odyssey 11, as paraphrased by Socrates in Republic 7).
The return to Nagy, by which we can see poiēsis, and, with it, agonism, as essentially playful, then, has the potential to get us to an idea of our cultural lives as epic not in the sense of “grand” or “long” (or not only in that sense), but in the sense of “performative and iterative.”
The epic life is the performative and iterative life. We live it within a representation we call the “real world.” That “world,” as Plato told us, is always available to be viewed as always already virtualized, already a performance and an iteration of a ruleset (cf. e.g. Lacan 1957).
Inside that “real world” symbolic life, however, lie countless opportunities for other iterable performances. Some of these are playful: we can call them games, or stories, or art. How do we learn to iterate our performance of the “real world”? By learning to iterate these play-performances as precisely as possible. How do we learn to evaluate and refine our performances? Only one set of fields can do that: the set of fields that has studied the development and iteration of these iterable play-performances for centuries, the humanities.
The news that a player of World of Warcraft or Farmville is performing a ruleset with a distinct and traceable relationship to the “Embassy to Achilles”the news, that is, that there is a great chain of practomime of which that player is a part, along with the Homeric bards, the philosophers of the Academy, and the classicists who analyze these things, along also with every other humanist and every other player of the game of cultureis generally, if my experience is anything to go by, less welcome to that player than a well-meaning Homerist would usually suspect. Part of the trouble we have expressing the value of the humanities these days is the way humanists’ old, old elitism has driven off the players of our games from our own analytic performances. We’re going to need those players, though, going forward. We’re going to need to convince them that they’re playing the same game we are, and that together we can make it more fun for everybody. What better, then, than a return to the work of one whose career has been devoted both to minute analysis of these ludic practices at their origins in Indo-European culture and to sharing the stunningly enriching implications of that analysis for our lives in our modern one?


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Huizinga, J. 1955. “Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture.” Boston.
Knox, B. 1999. “Always To Be Best: The Competitive Spirit in Ancient Greek Culture.” The Professor John C. Rouman Lecture Series. http://www.helleniccomserve.com/images/Knox%20Lecture.pdf. Accessed 7/25/2012.
Lacan, J. 1957. “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious, or Reason Since Freud.” Écrits: a Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock, 1977. 146-178.
Nagy, G. 1996. Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
Nagy. 1999. The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry. Revised Ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP.
Rösler, W. 1980. Dichter und Gruppe: eine Untersuchung zu Bedingunger und zur historischen Funktion fruher griechischer Lyrik am Beispiel Alkaios. Munich.
Salen, Katie and Eric Zimmerman. 2003. Rules of Play. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Travis, R. 2006. “Bungie’s Epic Achievement.” The Escapist. 10 October 2006.
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Travis, R. 2011b. “Practomimetic Learning.” New England Classical Journal. 25-40.
Travis, R. 2012a. “A modest proposal for viewing literary texts as rulesets, and for making game studies beneficial to the publick (rules of the text 1).” PlaythePast.org. http://www.playthepast.org/?p=2417. Accessed 7/25/2012.
Travis, R. 2012b. “A galactic ruleset under siege: the Mass Effect 3 controversy (rules of the text 5).” PlaythePast.org. http://www.playthepast.org/?p=2681. Accessed 7/25/2012.
Travis, R. 2012c. “Performances and operations (rules of the text 4).” PlaythePast.org. http://www.playthepast.org/?p=2647. Accessed 7/25/2012.
Travis, R. 2012d. “The rules of song and the rules of myth: playing with dragons and other mythohistorical archetypes (rules of the text 2).” PlaythePast.org. http://www.playthepast.org/?p=2522. Accessed 7/25/2012.
Travis, R. 2012e. “Transmedia and tabletops (rules of the text 3).” PlaythePast.org. http://www.playthepast.org/?p=2574. Accessed 7/25/2012.