Epiphanies in the Myst
April 12, 2007
Tuesday’s class was probably one of the more stimulating I’ve had since I’ve been involved with GMU, but not because I felt like I did well. After more than half a semester of HI 697 I still feel like I’m a half-step behind the rest of the class, and tonight was no exception. I spent the majority of the preceding week working on my Design assignment, and wrote a lengthy blog entry about what I did and why. As it turned out, the discussion topic was Myst. I didn’t think we would really get to that for another two weeks (at least that’s what the syllabus says). However, I had loaded the game and spent enough time playing it to get the gist of what the discussion was about. In fact, about 30 minutes into the class, I had an honest-to goodness epiphany. Someone made the observation that the game is like a primary document. You spend a lot of time on things that may not be important, and sometimes you miss what’s right in front of you. Other times, the game mechanics can aid or even distract you from the game context. But when you immerse yourself in a game with an unfamiliar context, it’s like you are suddenly dropped into a research project on a subject you know nothing about. You have no prior experience or preconceptions – all you have are your basic, generic research skills. We aren’t reviewing games themselves as potential teaching tools, we are looking inside them to find out what makes them so compelling and trying to see if we can harness whatever attributes those are and use them to communicate history. In other words, it’s not about the game. It seems we could have been told that up before we started beating our heads against the wall playing Myst, but I guess the epiphany wouldn’t have had as much impact if it had been fed to us.
I stand by my earlier opinion that HI 697 is the hardest class I’ve had since I started at GMU. We’ve had to learn computer coding, graphical design and information architecture in one semester, and any one of these subjects is complicated enough to justify its own class. I came in without some crucial foundational elements and have been playing catch-up ever since. My self-esteem takes a beating just about every week, but I will say this – I’ve learned more “new stuff” in 697 and been challenged more than in any class since I left the Navy. This class demands full-time student attention and a lot of communal work with fellow students, neither of which I’m in a position to do. But on the other hand, I can’t deny that I’ve learned something. The difference between my first CSS assignment and my Design assignment is considerable. It’s been painful and I’m not going to lead the class in grades, but I guess a painfully learned lesson stays with you longer. Like the epiphany about Myst, I guess it’s not about the grade.