Education Opinion

Play Odyssey

By Emmet Rosenfeld — February 07, 2008 5 min read
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Remember the test of the bow near the end of The Odyssey? It was when Penelope, the wandering hero’s long-suffering wife, finally agreed to let one of the suitors marry her if he could string her hubby’s bow and shoot an arrow through twelve axe heads lined up in a row.

None of them was man enough to even bend the weapon, but luckily Odysseus himself was there, disguised as a beggar. When it was his turn he not only strung the thing, he proceeded to fire off a quiver of arrows at the bad guys (the first went through a particularly nasty suitor’s Adam’s apple). He and his once wimpy son wreaked bloody vengeance on the freeloaders that had plagued their house so energetically for the past twenty years or so.

How often do we as teachers assign end-of-unit assessments that are a little like the test of the bow? We’ve completed the arduous journey through a book and now, by Jove, we’re going to see what the fatted students have learned. We concoct a test tough enough to separate the men from the boys, and pick off points one by one as we grade it in the teacher’s lounge with a blood red pen.

We might show a little more mercy than Odysseus (after he was done with the men, he forced maid servants to clean up all the gore and then hanged the unfaithful ones from the rafters like a brace of pigeons). But isn’t the traditional barf-what-you-know kind of test fundamentally violent toward the student, at some level? I contend that from a constructivist perspective, it is.

My ninth graders finished The Odyssey recently, and I decided that the best thing to do to see what they knew was to play. So I assigned Play Odyssey, where I asked them to form groups and design a game incorporating specific elements that would show their knowledge of the story, including important themes, vocabulary and literary terms. You know, the sort of stuff you might put on a test.

This week in class, we finally played the games. It was a blast, and I think making and playing these games accomplished the same review and synthesis of material that a traditional test might have done, only better. It also had some benefits a test wouldn’t have.

First, it was fun. When Hareesh did a charade of “plundering” while playing a Cranium-inspired game that had kids act, draw, and answer questions, he and his group were 100% engaged. And I don’t mean the sort of white-knuckle silence that normally occurs during a high pressure test. We all stopped to laugh when Brandon and Nimesh had to dance for two minutes because they didn’t have a spare hecatomb with which to appease an angry Poseidon (the Greek word for the sacrifice of a hundred bulls was one of our vocab words).

Also, the activity was multimodal, allowing kids to play to their strengths a la Howard Gardener’s theory of multiple intelligences. Gaby, whose interpersonal skills sometimes get her shushed by the teacher, was completely on task while working the dvd remote to play video clips that were the clues in her chatty group’s high-tech game made on a Mac with digital editing software.

What’s more, this was individualized: each group of kids was able to design games with their own unique stamp. Steven, a computer whiz who carries around a miniature laptop at all times, created an 80s-style text-only role-playing game with his very analytically minded friend, Stephen. They planned in advance using a complicated flow chart covered with geometric shapes and branching paths.

In most games, the goal was to win, but the competition here was not the kind that pits kids against each other for coveted but scarce high marks. Instead, the games encouraged problem-solving, cooperation, and communication. Kids not only poured hours into making their games, but as they played they gave feedback to their peers to smooth out rough spots.

For example, Siddharth helped Kishore figure out how to incorporate a vocabulary word left out of his group’s head-to-head card game. Kishore’s group will now create a “deus ex machina” card that, when drawn in the heat of battle, causes the two players to switch hit points as if some god above had waved her magic wand.

A working feedback loop is another benefit of this assessment. In real life, when we want the best product—for example, a memorable commercial during the super bowl or a product design that will turn heads—the process is recursive and collaborative. A creative team offers up its work, gets a response, then heads back to the drawing board to improve the product. Here, kids have a week to tweak and resubmit for a final play session and grade.

Will’s group created an ambitious game where mini boats moved along a dotted line on a map of the Mediterranean using a formula involving a ruler and rolling a die. They also constructed a cool little bow and arrow out of balsa wood and rubber bands; at the end of the game, players were supposed to shoot through a ring and then take out some cardboard suitors. Because the game play was too complex, no one got to the challenge of the bow. For next week, Will’s group needs to trim the rules.

Ultimately, Play Odyssey reviewed and reinforced material just as well as or better than a traditional test. And guess what? Not a single student took an arrow through the throat.

Play Odyssey

Directions: Each group will create its own version of a game based on The Odyssey. Games will be played by students and evaluated based on criteria below.


Each game must include the following:
40 plot points
30 vocab words
20 characters
10 passages with cites
3 important themes

Each game must incorporate these concepts or literary terms:
in medias res
epic simile
deus ex machina


Required elements
Are they all included?
Are they correct?
Are they well integrated into the game?

Playability and design
Does it work?
Is it fun?
Does it look cool or show exceptional craftsmanship?

Knowledge of the work
Are references to text accurate and specific?
Does selection and use of elements highlight important aspects and themes?
Does the game help players understand the story or see it in a new light?

Unit intro Mon 1-14
Work days in class Tu 1-22, Thurs 1-31, Mon 1-4
Final due and game play Thurs 2-7

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