I’ve been meaning to write about a technological experiment I’ve just finished running in an intro. civilization course, and Yurie’s posting of the brilliant Aeneid facebook page reminds me to do it.  The second half of the course focuses on Neronian Rome, and students read Suetonius’ Life of Nero as we’re getting started.  For years they’ve come into class and asked why everyone let Nero get away with such outrageous behavior: why wasn’t he removed from power?  We’ve (normally I team-teach this course with a colleague) tried various ways to get them to understand the force of the office, and the factors gravitating against a coup.

Finally we decided we needed to run some sort of simulation to let them try to “assassinate Nero.”  But it seemed problematic to do this in reality; so we turned to the virtual world.  Carleton is in the process of developing a Facebook-style interface for alums and current students and faculty (it’s called CarlTown).   Our terrific and supportive ITS staff built us our very own copy, which we called Neropolis.  The front page looked like this:

Neropolis (if you're Nero)

Neropolis (if you're Nero)

ITS made us 35 username from names I took out of Tacitus’ account of the Pisonian Conspiracy (you can see some of them above).  Then I designated 6 of these “conspirators” whose goal was to assassinate Ner0; 5 were “spies” whose goal was to sniff out information and pass it along to the emperor; 5 were “protectors” whose job was to guard the emperor. Everyone else’s goal was to “maximize their social status” — in other words, to get as close as possible to the centers of power and status.  I then assigned all the identities to students at random, and told them not to tell anyone in the class their Roman names.

While the interface was not exactly like Facebook, it shared some features — notably the “wall” on everyone’s profile.  So the mechanism for the assassination was to be that four people had to write “Death to Nero” on his wall within 5 minutes of each other; if a guard caught them doing it and arrested anyone before all four were posted then the conspiracy had failed and they all had to kill themselves.  At the same time, Nero would (sometimes randomly) post either “hat-tips” or “finger-wags” to individual’s walls.  If you got two finger-wags you had to commit suicide, but you could remove a finger-wag by giving information against two other people.  Everyone could see everyone else’s walls, but messages could be sent from one user to another in private, so it was possible to communicate both publicly and secretly.

We ran Neropolis for a week or so.  Right before it was going to finish, there was indeed a failed assassination attempt (by Scaevinus!); it was betrayed because one of the conspirators turned out to be a spy.   There was less ratting out of friends and family than I had anticipated, although the students afterwards said that if we had run it longer that would have happened.

The gratifying thing was the discussion we had afterwards, in which the students admitted how terrified they had been by Nero’s power over them, and the realization that they didn’t know who was working for him and who wasn’t.  But they were also posting reflections on the experience to a class forum, and there they did some interesting discussion of their own Facebook experience — the way in which “friends” on FB are often not really friends, and status sometimes is determined by virtual activity or its lack.

There were some technical glitches that we’ll fix before we run it next year, but it was definitely a keeper — score one for fancy technology enhancing learning!