Friday, April 26, 2013

Essays for Greek and Roman Mythology MOOC

Last year I've signed up for the Greek and Roman Mythology MOOC offered by Coursera. The course was taught by Dr. Peter Struck from the University of Pennsylvania and overall it has been a great experience.

The part of the course were two writing assignments, essays about mythology, which I am going to share here. Both of them were peer-reviewed by other participants of the course. My English is not perfect, but I think I did a good job.

First essay: Analysis of the Lotus-eaters episode from Odyssey using Functionalism

The first essay analyses a small part of Homer's Odyssey, encounter with Lotus-Eaters near the African coast. It got grade 5 out of 10.


Professor Struck has analyzed parts of the Odyssey using the theory of Functionalism. In this theory, a myth serves to legitimize social values and norms (such as the practice of xenia). Choose one episode from the Odyssey that was not given a Functionalist reading in lecture, and analyze this episode through a Functionalist lens. It is up to you to decide how long or short an episode is. What social norm does this episode legitimize? Be sure to spell out your reasoning very carefully. The best answers to this question will move from the evidence to your conclusion with careful attention to detail. Avoid generalities.


In this essay I am going to analyze "The Lotus-Eaters" episode from Odyssey book 9 using the theory of Functionalism. First, let me summarize the episode: after 9 days at raging sea, Odysseus landed at the island of peaceful people who eat strange "flowery food". He sent an expedition of three men to them. They were received well and offered a "honey-sweet lotus fruit", but when they ate it, they "no longer wished to bring back word to us, or sail for home. They wanted to stay with the Lotus-eaters, eating the lotus, forgetting all thoughts of return." When Odysseus found out what happened, he dragged those men back to shore, bound them in ships and departed quickly, because he feared that others would eat the lotus as well.

There are two things to consider: the apathy and its trigger. I believe this episode is basically about drugs and their consequences. It reinforces the society consensus that drugs are bad and should be avoided, because they cause people to behave in a way that is socially undesirable. This norm still applies today; Odysseus decisive action at the island of Lotus-eaters would surely be approved both by a military officer in Ancient Greece and by today’s mother of a teenager who is so hooked on computer games that he neglects school, friends and personal hygiene. Society expects men to do great and daring things that matter, not to spent their days, quoting A.L. Tennyson, “with half-shut eyes ever to seem / falling asleep in a half-dream!”

Needless to say, things didn’t turn out well for Odysseus’s men - they were killed to the last one. We can only guess whether the ones who tasted the lotus were eaten by Cyclops shortly afterwards, or devoured by Skylla a year later, or lasted all the way to being killed by Zeus himself for eating sacred Cattle of the Sun. What is good for the society might not be always good for the individual.

Works cited:

  • Homer - The Odyssey, book 9
  • Alfred Lord Tennyson - The Lotos-Eaters poem
  • PS: there's definitely a room for improvement in this essay. For one thing, several reviewers thought that I'm implying that Odysseus's men died because they ate lotus. That's not what I meant - and I'm afraid it's not entirely clear from the text of essay. I tried to show the irony that although from society point of view, Odysseus did the right thing to force his crew to continue their journey home, from the point of view of individual sailors, they would be better off if they stayed on the island of Lotus-eaters - it would save their lives. According to me, in this episode society is basically saying to us: "Don't be idle. Do great things or die trying."

    PPS: Though to be fair, this life philosophy doesn't come just from society (although it's surely valued by society). It could be said that men in general have deep desire to do great things, "to put a dent in the universe" (Steve Jobs).

    Second essay: Analysis of the episode from Bacchae using Freudianism

    The second essay analyses the late "plot twist" in Bacchaes by Euripides. It got grade 9 (!) out of 10.

    I'm a fan of Freud's work and read several books from him including his lectures, so this psychological theories is kinda my specialty. The essay does sound crazy at times, but remember - it's Freudian analysis. As a rule of thumb, if Freudian analysis doesn't make you feel dirty, you're doing it wrong :).


    In this course, we have introduced Functionalism, Structuralism, Freudianism, and Myth and Ritual theory as tools to examine our myths. Choose one of these tools and use it to analyze one episode in the Greek tragedies or the portions of Vergil’s Aeneid or Ovid's Metamorphoses that we have read for this class. It is up to you to decide how long or short an episode is. The best answers to this question will demonstrate a thorough understanding of the theoretical tool, and will use it to reveal something new in the episode under consideration. You may NOT repeat a specific result, using one of these theoretical tools, set out in lecture. Move from the evidence to your conclusion with careful attention to detail. Avoid generalities.


    In this essay, I'm going to analyze an episode from Euripides' tragedy of Bacchae in which Pentheus spies on maenads on Kitharion. I'm going use Freudianism lens to interpret the symbolic language, which is plentiful in this part of the play, and speculate on what unconscious desires might be present here.

    According to Freudianism theory, sex is one of the strongest unconscious human desires. Sex with anything, anywhere. And that is more or less what happens on Kitharion where Pentheus spies on maenads. They dwell in a mountain valley surrounded by trees. In Freudian symbolic language of dreams, that clearly represents woman sexual organ. Pentheus cannot get a proper look, so he suggests to Dionysus that “on the hill, ascending a lofty pine, I might view properly the shameful acts of the Maenads.” This seems odd – there should be many safe vantage points on top of the valley in woods. Why would he choose, of all things, a lone tree on a hill top, where can he be easily detected (and eventually is)? Freudianism can give a satisfying answer to that - both hill and tree (especially coniferous tree) represent penis in a symbolic language of dreams, the polar opposite of v... valley.

    This vantage point seems even more suspicious when we witness how Dionysus bends the pine and Pentheus is seated down on a pine branch. What was he thinking? And why would he even follow a man that he previously put into jail and planned to execute? Surely he must have known something is not quite right when Dionysos pull down the top-most branch of the pine down to earth. In my opinion, this development of the play in larger context signifies in Freudian terms the breadown of repression barrier and freeing unconcious desires. At first, Pentheus attempts to suppress his unconciousness, as signified by his repression of Dionysus rituals, but he tries too hard. In the second part to play, he suddenly dresses as woman and goes to spy on maenads - as if someone flipped a switch on him. It seems that by not letting off steam, Pentheus tried to hard until his repression barrier couldn't take the pressure anymore and burst.

    And now he sits on the pine, dressed like a woman – he is literally “woman on top”. At the same time, he is a man spying on maenads like a lecherous satyr. Starting as a man in control, he became a man entirely controlled by his unconcious desires.

    Works cited:

  • Euripides. The Tragedies of Euripides, translated by T. A. Buckley. Bacchae. London. Henry G. Bohn. 1850. Available online in Project Perseus. Messenger recounts the actions of Pentheus on Kithairon in lines 1043-1152.

  • Penn's Greek and Roman Mythology class has just been reopened for this year and I can definitely recommend it. Give it a try!

    Wednesday, November 17, 2010

    On the Vanity of Video Game Trophies

    Sony calls them trophies, Microsoft and Steam call them achievements. They are, quoting wikipedia, "meta-goals defined outside of a game's parameters". I think that trophies are similar to chemical process that turns cocaine into crack – it takes an already strong drug and makes it even stronger. Games are supposed to be fun, but we all know they can be pretty addictive. Trophies make them more addictive and in this article I intend to explain why I think so.

    (I'm going to call these meta-goals trophies instead of achievements, simply because as a Sony fanboy I'm more used to it. But when I'm talking about trophies, I'm talking achievements too. Also it's kinda ironic to use the word trophy to describe the reward for completing artificial video game challenge, when you think about it.)

    My experience with trophies

    I knew next to nothing about video game trophies before I purchased Playstation 3 earlier this year. I liked them at first, they add something extra to the game. It feels as if you're being rewarded for playing the game when you accomplish something in it and you hear the *DING* sound and notification appears at the top right corner of the screen saying you've just got yourself a trophy.

    Later, I've noticed that trophies changed the way I approached video games. Soon after I started playing the game, I checked out the list of trophies to see what I should attempt to achieve. I spent a lot of time trying to unlock trophies, even when I didn't enjoy the game itself, I just wanted the goddamn trophy. And if there wasn't a trophy for certain bonus activity in the game, I usually didn't bother doing that or just rushed through it as soon as possible.

    At the end, I became frustrated with trophies. I might be a bit OCD, but I generally intended to finish game on 100%. In most PS3 games, that is a LOT of work. You tend to hoard lots of bronze and silver trophies quite easily, gold trophies are usually a bit more tricky to achieve, but hey, they're gold trophies. And then there's always a couple of inconspicuous itsy-bitsy bronze trophies hidden down the trophy list that require about the same amount of effort as the rest of 95% trophies!

    I usually decided that these just-before-100% trophies simply weren't worth my time. I did reach 100% in three games: Assasin's Creed II, Flower and Fl0w. ACII was okay ("In Memory of Petruccio" trophy – find 100 collectibles), maybe because it's considered as one of the easiest games to get a platinum trophy in. Flower and Flow are quite another story. These games are supposed to be relaxing. Well getting just-before-100% trophies in them ("Pure" in Flower and "Cannibalism" in Fl0w) is anything but relaxing. By the time I got to 100%, I passionately hated both of these games and would never play them again even if somebody paid me.

    (I should also add that I got all these hard trophies by cheating – I hunted collectibles in ACII by map downloaded from internet, downgraded Fl0w to early version so I could get most of difficult trophies without any work, watched videos and tips about achieving the infamous Pure trophy in Flower. If I didn't cheat, it would take me at least twice as long to get to 100%. But even with cheating it took a long time and it was a lot of work – yes, work, not fun. By then I started to realize there's something wrong with trophies in general.)

    Ironically, lots of these just-before-100% trophies are not even a challenge, it's just a dumb grind (for example: trophy for 75% game completion in Just Cause 2). As I said, I turned back to these heroic deeds, but I imagine that after completing such an epic task PS3 says to you after the *DING* sound: "So, hey, here's a bronze trophy for being complete dumbass and wasting significant portion of your life completing absolutely meaningless task which is no challenge and fun whatsoever. But seriously, get a life."

    Designed to be addictive

    I wouldn't mind if trophies offered fair challenge and an excuse to explore the game, But instead, they tend to offer endless frustration and meaningless grind. But why? Aren't games supposed to be fun?

    One possible explanation is that I'm a OCD psycho and this is entirely my problem. But if you look around the internet, you'll find out that I'm not the only one who likes to hoard trophies. In fact, my trophy collection is pretty pathetic compared to serious trophy hunters. The extremes are Stallion83 and CRU x360a on Xbox 360, Hakoom on PS3. I doubt that these people would play as many games if they didn't contain trophies or achievements.

    So let's assume that I'm not the OCD psycho (feel free to question that statement in the comments section below :)) and trophies are not just my problem. Another explanation is that game companies know that trophies might actually ruin the game experience, but they add them to the game nevertheless. And I'm quite sure that game companies are aware of the effect that trophies have on games – all major games nowadays go through extensive Q&A testing and surely trophies are part of that. And if you make console games, I'd guess that console maker also steps into the process with its own requirements.

    Why would game producers make the games intentionally less fun? Let's assume they're not sadists :). There has to be some benefit in it and the profit must outweigh the loss - for game companies, not necessarily for gamers.

    Many MMORPGs also have trophies and in this case the reason is very obvious - to keep players busy. MMORPGs earn most income from monthly subscriptions, so it's in their interest that players have always something to do in their virtual world. It costs virtually nothing to add trophies and thus provide additional activities for players. It's much easier than developing new content altogether and you can always think up some bizarre artificial challenge for players (e.g. tickle 50 orcs with pitchfork while wearing dwarven miniskirt). You can even throw in some digital trinkets as rewards. In LOTRO, which is the only MMORPG I've played for a while, you get special title for your avatar when you complete an achievement, for example after slaying 100 spiders you can call yourself “spider-bane” or something.

    But getting back to console games, why game companies want players to spend more time with their game just to get a trophy, even if they wouldn't enjoy the gaming itself that much? The obvious reason I can think of is DLC. Game producers want players to keep the game for a long time so they have a chance to buy additional content for it. If a game didn't have any trophies, you might finish it once and then sell it. If a game has trophies, you tend to play the game longer to unlock them all. And if a game has some hard-to-get just-before-100% trophies, you tend to play it even longer and eventually you might even become frustrated and give up, but by that time all planned DLC will be out and you will have a chance to purchase them – mission accomplished.

    And remember that DLC became a big part of gaming business in last few years. It's a convenient response to pre-owned market – you might buy a pre-owned game with discount, but you still have to pay full price for DLC sold directly by game producer. It's also a convenient way to pull more money from customers' wallets. Consider Mafia II – practically half of the game is distributed as DLC, though that didn't stop publishers to sell the basic bare game for a full price. In this case, you practically pay for the game twice. Still, in order to profit from DLC, game publishers need players to keep the game for some time. It's no problem for some games, like Call of Duty series where multiplayer can last easily for a year, but for others there are trophies as a convenient way to prevent some players from getting rid of the game too early.

    Now let's look at trophies from the perspective of company that makes game consoles, be it Sony or Microsoft. According to business expert Mr. Obvious, they want as many games as possible to be sold for their platform. Trophy collectors have to play more games in order to get more trophies and because one can never get enough trophies, they generally buy or rent more games than people who play them just for fun. They play even bad and boring games. It is beneficial for console producer if players are hooked on trophies.

    I think that here lies the answer to the purpose of frustrating last-before-100% trophies. In order to be hooked on trophies, one should see them as something important, something that matters, something to be proud of. It makes no sense to hoard trophies that are easy to get, in fact gamers regularly make fun of such trophies (10 easiest achievements ever). If something is easy to get, you don't treat it seriously, you don't value it much. On the other hand, one tend to value things that are difficult to get.

    So to conclude my paranoid theory, console makers make sure that getting 100% trophies for any game is a difficult and time-consuming task, because that in turn makes players appreciate them and value them. Console makers have to approve all games before they are released for the console and my guess is that there are guidelines for trophies that every game has to pass. And it is stated in these guidelines that 100% trophies should be very hard to get. The predominant mechanism to make this happen is to have some throwaway trophies to get player started and hooked, then moderately difficult trophies to keep them busy and finally, a couple of just-before-100% trophies that can make you fling your gamepad out of the window to keep the game in player's collection for a long time. At this time, he's already collected most of the trophies for the game and he/she just doesn't want to give up right before the finish line. And even if he's frustrated with the hard-to-get trophies or gives up eventually, they reinforce his notion that trophies in general are valuable.

    I might be paranoid, but that doesn't mean there isn't a team of behavioral psychologists on Microsoft's payroll behind this scheme. (I mention Microsoft because that's where game achievements have been invented.) Why else would be the structure of trophies difficulty basically common for all games, the way I described above? Why aren't there any games with only easy trophies or games with only hard trophies? (My guess is because console producer approves trophies for games and makes sure that they are "balanced".) Why else would relaxing games like Flower or Fl0w have hard trophies that are totally against the overall feel of the game?

    The cure for trophies

    Game companies want players to perceive trophies as valuable. Herein lies the big illusion of trophies and game achievements in general. They subtly pretend to be something they're not. Games and trophies are basically fun, a pastime activity. In terms of achieving something, they mean next to nothing for most people, somewhere on the level of watching TV (achievement unlocked: I'm Lost – watched the first season of Lost).

    In the first paragraph I compared games with trophies to crack cocaine. I have no direct experience with crack cocaine, but I read about its effects: for a while, it makes you feel like if you've just won the million in lottery, finish first at marathon and made sweet love to the world's sexiest actress at the same time. Then this feeling passes and you realize it was all just an illusion and you're in the same s**t as always. You want that special feeling back – and at that moment lots of people get hooked on the drug.

    I realize this is an extreme analogy, but let's compare the effects of crack cocaine to the effects of games enriched with trophies. What happens if you finish a game or unlock a difficult trophy? A rush of excitement. A sense of achievement. You did it, you just make something happen. Then you realize you just wasted all night getting that trophy, which is essentially meaningless. The not-so-pleasant reality starts to kick in, troubles in work/school/family, all the obligations and chores you don't want to do. But then there's a sweet escape of virtual world, more games to play, more trophies to get.

    Of course, The damage games with trophies can do is nowhere as serious as the damage caused by crack cocaine. But I wouldn't say it's negligible either. Were it not for video games, lots of people would find some other way to waste their time, but some people could achieve something that really matters.

    The good news is that compared to crack cocaine the cure for obsessive gaming is relatively simple. The only thing one has to do is to see things as they really are. If you're too OCD about trophies, just realize that you're not achieving anything by getting a trophy, you're just a loser cheering over some meaningless illusion. If you know what is really happening, you don't feel the dopamine rush, you just feel stupid.

    Closing thoughts

    That is all I wanted to say. I hope you didn't expect a sad story about how games and trophies ruined my life (they didn't). Honestly, I think that even if they're a drug – and they are, but then again, almost anything can become a drug for someone - it's still your fault if you don't resist it. All throughout the history people took advantage of another people, overt and subtle manipulation is our daily bread, and if game companies want to make us play games all day using some shady psychological tricks, then we have to deal with it. As for me, I became tired of chasing trophies, sold the PS3 and now I'm trying to get me some real achievements for a change.

    Suggested reading

    Overachiever For a Day

    Achievement Chore: She Plays For Gamerscore, Whether It's Fun Or Not

    5 Creepy Ways Video Games Are Trying to Get You Addicted

    Sunday, November 7, 2010

    The blog it is a-changin'

    I haven't written on this blog for a long time. Last post is more than a year old. But that's gonna change, I hope.

    Problem with this blog is that it lacks focus on one thing. I'm dealing with game reviews, book reviews, programming tips and random ramblings at the same time. However, I don't want focus on only one thing, because that way I might end up with 10 blogs with each having one entry per year. Instead I want to narrow the scope of blog. So from today on, I'll put all IT and programming-related blog posts to a separate blog, which I'm going to write from scratch in Ruby.

    Also, I'll stop writing game reviews. I'm not gonna stop writing about games in general though, at least not for a while. Recently I started thinking about game addiction and the overall vanity of excessive gaming in general - some essays on these topics are coming soon.

    Other than that, I want to keep reviewing books, if for no other reason than to keep track of books I've read. Some music reviews and band profiles might come up as well, if my inner hipster decides to come out of his closet :).