Making a blockbuster out of the Renaissance

Adela Talbot // Western News

Andrea Privitera, a PhD candidate in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, is using role-playing video games to teach Italian Renaissance Epic poetry.

Duels, battles, warriors and romances are topics you’ll encounter in Andrea Privitera’s Italian Renaissance class. But you’ll learn about these topics by playing video games, not just reading texts.

Privitera, a PhD candidate in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, designed a third-year Italian Renaissance Epic course, in which he teaches three long-form poems – Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato, Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Torquato Tasso’s The Liberation of Jerusalem – and asks students to select a role-playing game of their choice to supplement their literary lessons. Games on his course syllabus include Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, Fall Out 3, Dragon Age and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, among others.

“I use video games as pedagogical tools. I basically thought, ‘OK, Renaissance literature can be engaging but it can also be a bit irksome. What’s a good way of introducing my students to this material?’ And then it came to my mind: Romances in the Renaissance were pretty much pop culture,” said Privitera, who came to Western from the University of Padua in Italy.

“I thought maybe a way to engage the students would be through pop culture, but especially video games, role-playing games, because they feature some of the same narrative devices as the Renaissance romances have.”

It’s not just about pointing to parallels in narrative devices, he added. Pairing texts with games allows students to see how texts can be “every bit as good as the latest Marvel movie,” and both modes can be equally engaging and thought-provoking.

The first assignment students received was a write-up on the character they created within their game of choice, Privitera said, a lesson that brought out the topic of immersion within another context and time. Students were later asked to report on their method within the game – do they play simply following the character’s mission, without straying from the task? Or do they get lost in the world, engaging with it en route to their task? This lesson highlighted the differences between the epic mode and the romance mode in literature.

A future assignment will ask students to modify the game they are playing using downloadable content, an exercise that will bring out lessons about sequels, rewrites and fan fiction.

“They are getting very creative with this; I love how they are getting engaged,” Privitera said.

“We just finished reading Orlando Innamorato, which is mostly a romance. We are starting Orlando Furioso and it’s ambiguous whether it’s an epic or romance, but I think this introduction will allow them to understand how these poems work,” he added.

“Through role-playing video games, the player can create a different reality, where they can escape into another world and give their character a life of their own. This is similar to the chivalric stories we learn about in class, where the Este family of Ferrara during the Italian Renaissance creates an alternate reality of feudalism through the stories of Orlando Innamorato,” said Laura Schmitt, one of the students in Privitera’s class.

But much more has come out of his decision to pair Renaissance poems with video games. Students aren’t just analyzing the texts; they’re picking apart mainstream games.

“I’m noticing they are also putting a critical perspective on these games, so there is pretty much an exchange. They’re looking at two things critically and I think that’s something essential; you want students to be critical towards pop culture. The students love it; I love that this is happening,” said Privitera.

One great thing that has come out of this pedagogical exercise, he noted, is he was asked to contribute to a Modern Languages Association volume on approaches to teaching. He is also working with another professor in the United States on how to teach Dante’s Divine Comedy using video games.