Friday, February 4, 2011

Plato & Games

There was a public debate between two of my professors in college regarding whether or not movies were the fulfillment of Plato’s “cave.” We sit in the dark, watching images on the screen, one argued, and all of our conversations revolve around those images, waiting eagerly for the next shape to appear.

The professor who argued against movies profoundly misunderstood the ancient philosopher, I audaciously believe. Plato was complaining about fiction, about “making up” things that are not true and are thus far removed from the Form—the essence of Truth. He illustrated his objection…with a story, a fiction about people living in a cave.

Plato liked to trap his interlocutor with false dilemmas and misleading assumptions, and if we fall for those traps, we too will be left laughing at the mindless crowds who pack themselves into movie theaters with overpriced popcorn.

Instead, I think Plato wanted us to see the value of story. He uses these fictions to convey his ideas about Truth. Nathan the prophet did the same thing when approaching King David about his sin with Bathsheba. And when God became Incarnate, He spent the precious time He had with His disciples…telling stories. Parables.

I learned about the Russian Revolution as a high school English teacher teaching Animal Farm. I have never since been able to look at communism without hearing the echo of the horse’s insistent voice, “I must work harder.”

History texts are written about kings and conquerors. Stories give voice to the unnamed peasants who suffered the change…or lack of change that came with a new regime, a natural disaster, a plague.

I’m an English teacher—of course I believe that stories are important and powerful. Recently, though, I have come to see stories woven into games. As my husband and I play with our children and each other, I have noticed that we are weaving a narrative. We know from years of playing Risk, for example, that Madagascar is a fierce island off the coast of Africa that absolutely cannot be defeated, even if one brings all the power of Rome against the tiny island.

We understand from Axis and Allies the geographical reasons that America had great resources but a difficult time applying them to the problem. There is a force at work, invisible, beneath the board of Gobblet, spinning pieces round like a spider’s web trapping its prey.

There’s a living memory in shared games. We know that the yellow pieces in Risk cannot win—they are cowards and klutzes and fall on their own weapons. We know that gold fever can wreck a sailor’s ships in Seafarers.

When I was a child, I could not add 75 and 75 very quickly, but I knew six quarters were a dollar fifty. I am terrible with geography, but I know Madagascar is off the eastern coast of Africa and Irkutsk is in Russia. I can only spell ‘Mississippi’ when I let the jump rope chant run through my head.

Most of us can put information on a short term go-cart ride from the text to the test, but I believe stories help us move information from the short term go-cart track to long-term neural pathways we’ll keep with us. Historical fiction and playground rhymes are great ways to build these neural highways.

Telling the stories ourselves, though, has an even greater impact on long-term learning, understanding, and making cross-curricular connections. Games allow us to tell the stories ourselves, to interact with the decisions and disasters that faced our predecessors, whether that be a world war or making change from $500.

If Plato had lived in this century, I think he would have argued against movies….and I think he would have made his point via film.

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