Cody Mejeur

Narrative, Games, Queer Studies

Month: March 2018

Learning with Twine: Telling Personal Stories

For this week, I’d like to share a Twine assignment that I use in my game studies classes, one that I’m also reworking for my IAH 206: Gaming Representation, Identity, and Community class this Summer. Basically in past game studies courses I’ve taught I’ve had students make their own Twine games. My original thought behind this (one that’s still valid, though things have shifted a little) was that in order to understand games, students needed to know how they’re made and the processes of game design and development. Twine is a wonderful platform for this because it allows students to engage in these processes using accessible, open-source tools that are easy to pick up even for those with little or no coding experience. At the same time, Twine is versatile and can accomplish more complex tasks for students who know more coding, or for students interested in learning more after the course ends.

The assignment I’ve used before has been a course-long project that happens in several stages. The first stage is playing other Twine games and getting a sense of what Twine is and what it can do. The second stage tasks students with starting their own game, and writing and linking several passages together. The final stage has them finish the game–at least as far as they’re taking it in the course–but writing more passages and applying several special effects (a catch-all term for things like changing fonts, colors, adding images, videos, or music, etc.). In the past I’ve made this project a very customizable one: students could choose what they wanted their game to be about, and could choose which Twine capabilities made the most sense to pursue in the course. I made the evaluation criteria flexible to accommodate this customization; for example, with the special effects students could choose to either pursue several relatively easy effects, or spend more time and pursue more difficult/complex ones.

For IAH 206 this Summer I want to preserve this flexibility, customization, and variation, because I think it gives students the space to experiment and grow as critic-creators. Yet I’m modifying the assignment slightly to task students with thinking through their own experiences in their games–in other words, using the games to reflect on and revisit something they value, a particular memory they have, or an important part of their identity. I’m being careful in the redesign to not task students with revealing anything they don’t want to, as the goal of the course isn’t to force people to perform their personal selves for others. Yet my goal is to get my students thinking critically about who they are, where they come from, and what they value, and to play with those narratives using games.

I’m attaching a copy of the overall assignment handout here: IAH Twine Major Quest. Let me know what you think, and check out Twine at a workshop I’m running next week with Howard Fooksman as part of the MSU DH workshop series! Info and registration link here.

The Limits of an Archive

As I’ve worked on my project with ImagePlot and game playthroughs in the past couple weeks, I’ve been reminded of the limitations of the archive of player experience that I’m constructing with this method. Specifically, with several games (SOMA and The Talos Principle in particular) I’ve struggled to find enough publicly accessible playthroughs to get even just the few I need to start a comparison of different players’ experiences. With a given game there may not be many playthroughs that have been posted to YouTube or other video-hosting sites, and this limits the amount of comparison that my ImagePlot method can accomplish.

Of course all archives have limitations of one sort or another, but it’s important to keep these limitations in mind as we use archives in our research. This is especially true if we use an archive to make a claim about a particular trend or meaning created in a particular culture, and how and to what extent we can back that claim up. With the playthroughs I’m using, I can start to assess variation in narrative in games, but I can’t make a claim about every player’s experience with the game in every situation everywhere. That doesn’t make the claim baseless or useless, but it does mean that that claim could change with more evidence. Or that the claim could be missing something important that the handful of playthroughs I’m using don’t represent.

It could also be easy to respond to these limitations with a call for more playthroughs and more evidence, and certainly a better sample never hurts in substantiating a claim. Yet it can also be misguided to waste valuable resources (time, money, etc.) on pursuing the perfect sample that will never exist. And this is where the balancing act of the “good enough” sample comes in. I think the archive of player experience I’m working towards here needs more to become that good enough sample, but also want to be mindful of how far I’m going in pursuit of it.

3D, VR, and the Problematics of Empathy

I’d like to take this week’s theme of 3D research and visualization to reflect on virtual reality games and simulations, which have also been used in research. Examples of this are plentiful: from virtual reality situations testing proprioceptive systems to providing meditation settings and exercises to assessing players’ navigations of ethical dilemmas. Putting people into virtual realities works so well for reserach because it provides spaces with lower stakes and risks that also draw on players’ senses to construct embodied experiences. In other words, it’s a reality that feels real, if constructed, but where many of the limitations of actual bodies can be tested and surpassed.

The games that I study are very related to virtual reality–they’re so-called “walking simulators,” first-person narrative exploration games that are very easy to turn into VR experiences. They’re already first person games, so they’re pretty natural translations to VR. Many of these games are about providing a particular affective experience for players: getting them to feel something like loss, joy, despair, etc. For example, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (which I’m presenting on at SCMS tomorrow!) is a game about dealing with ostracization, exclusion, and loss through fiction and imagination.

Games that are designed to make us feel something–and do so through an embodied experience–are often claimed (or claim themselves) to be building empathy for the experience in the player/audience. The idea being that when you encounter someone else’s experience in VR, you will then have empathy for that experience. This can be a good thing: empathy can help build understanding and spur people to act against injustice. Yet it can also be very problematic, as many scholars studying empathy have noted. What happens when fictions and games fail to inspire empathy? What does it say when we pin our hopes for justice or our definitions of humanity on empathy? In other words, what happens to those we don’t empathize with? And, perhaps most perniciously, does empathy force people to rehearse their struggles, oppressions, and losses for an audience? Does it require a certain performance in order for something or someone to be worthy of empathy?

I’m still thinking through these questions, especially given an awesome presentation by Bridget Blodgett (University of Baltimore) this morning on Dear Esther, another walking sim/first person narrative game. The genre is fascinating for how it constructs space and experience for the player, and I’m interested in what it can do and what it can tell us about contemporary culture.

© 2018 Cody Mejeur

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