Cody Mejeur

Narrative, Games, Queer Studies

Category: Games (page 1 of 2)

Posts dealing with games of some sort.

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.

Translating DH Work

As I prepped for the ImagePlot workshop in the seminar this week, I was reminded again about the difficulty DH scholars often confront in translating their work outside of (or even sometimes to!) DH circles. ImagePlot can be very bewildering the first time one encounters it, and I remember the first time I presented on it at a conference I spent most of the time fielding questions about what ImagePlot *is*, rather than what it can do or show us. I think there are several reasons for this. First, ImagePlot as a visualization tool requires a decent amount of abstraction: it’s taking a lot of images, making them small, and arranging them according to particular qualities such that a pattern emerges. Because of these things, it can be difficult to figure out exactly what it is you’re looking at, and it can take some time to explain that. Second, while ImagePlot is open source, it’s not eminently accessible: it involves a number of steps that are easy to get stuck on if you don’t know Command Line, don’t have the right settings or directories, etc. It’s even more confusing (speaking from experience) when you don’t know what the different steps you’re doing are actually doing, or why they are necessary. Finally, ImagePlot as a method is what we might call distance visualization (as opposed to distance reading), because it gets away from particular images and looks at a large collection of images in order to discern patterns. These distance approaches are themselves tricky to translate to traditional scholars, because it can be difficult at first to see what they show us that we couldn’t figure out otherwise–what it is that’s new or original about them.

Because of these realities, it’s especially important that DH scholars practice and be able to translate their work to audiences outside of DH. If no one can tell what it is that we’re doing, then what we’re doing actually isn’t worth much–it’s not helping anyone then. So we need to be able to explain what we’re doing: what our questions are, what our methods are, and, importantly, how the technology works that we’re using to accomplish these things. In my own experience, this involves a lot of trial and error in order to see what makes sense to folks, and what does not. Or perhaps rather what is recognizable, and what isn’t. For ImagePlot, this involves being able to quickly explain what the final product of the process is, and what it shows us. I don’t typically go through each step of the process–that would just be more bewildering–but I have developed quick summaries of the overall process because that helps folks understand what’s happening in it. I learn a bit more every time I translate this work to a new audience, and modify the explanation to help make it more understandable.

I think that’s crucial to improving the legibility of DH as a field, and is something that all DH scholars have to practice. It’s not easy, and it is a bit of an unfair disadvantage: we don’t get to operate under the assumption that everyone knows what we’re talking about, the way folks do when we talk about a symbol or theme in a novel. We have to both do the work and constantly explain it at the same time. But I think this can also work to the advantage of DH studies. It keeps us honest, and keeps us critical about the work we do. And, hopefully, it results in better scholarship in the end–more critical scholarship that is more able to help people.

All Space is Virtual Space

As I’ve been working on my project for the DH seminar this semester, it’s occurred to me in several of our discussions that mapping and visualization aren’t so different. Indeed, we might even say that they’re the same thing in different terms: maps are abstractions of space meant to make large quantities of space readable, along with their social and cultural attachments (towns, regions, nations, etc.). Visualizations are abstractions of data, meant to make large quantities of data, and trends within them, visible. So what I’m doing with ImagePlot–visualizing game narratives–really isn’t so different from someone doing a mapping project visualizing the *where* of a set of data.

Many DH and software studies scholars have noted how visualizations rely on these abstractions, the curious concoctions of distance, transformation, and relationship that visualizations require. Yet as we read about mapping projects, and particularly spatial humanities this week, it struck me that all spaces rely on abstraction, or perhaps mediation. It’s easy to see how maps are abstractions of space, but even as we navigate the spaces around us, the way we perceive and navigate those spaces is entirely dependent on sensory inputs that are interpreted and rendered to consciousness by the brain. In this sense, all spaces and all of our interactions with spaces are built on abstraction, even in our moment-to-moment experiences that seem to be immediate.

I think this realization is important because it deconstructs dichotomies that say some things are “real,” “actual,” or “natural,” and other things are “constructed,” “virtual,” “fake.” The history of maps demonstrates how untenable that distinction is: the abstractions of space have very real, direct consequences for our experiences of space. And I think we see something similar in contemporary gaming, and attempts to write off virtual or digital spaces as not being “real.” This argument is especially prevalant in online trolling and harassment cultures: it’s ok to treat people like garbage, because it’s all online and therefore has no consequences. The realization that all of our spaces are abstractions, that all spaces are virtual ones, helps us reject that premise that is causing a lot of harm in contemporary social spaces.

Visualizing Plot

This week I was especially drawn to Matthew Jockers’ blog post, “A Novel Method for Detecting Plot” (Jockers). In the post, Jockers discusses how his project of tracing sentiment in 19th century fiction using sentiment analysis also lead him to visualizing the plot structures of the novels he looked at. Basically, he found that the shifting emotional valences in a novel (measured through certain words and sentiment markers) are also a proxy for the rising and falling action of the plot. Presumably the moments of positive sentiment are also the high points of the plot, and the moments of negative sentiment are the low points in the plot. There are still some questions and potential problems there––for example, aren’t the low moments also the ones with the most conflict and action?––but it’s an interesting way of visualizing how the narrative moves and varies throughout a work of fiction.

I’m very interested in the possibilities of visualizing narrative forms and structures because it allows us to see how narrative develops and grows: in other words, how it is a living process. This is one of the central goals of my ImagePlot study of narrative variation in games. If we can see how much narrative changes even within a single text (like a game), then we can get a better handle on how narrative operates and the potentials of what we can do with it. The idea that narrative has a shape is interesting as well: what does it mean that the abstract and affective qualities of narrative have specific forms? Is the shape of a narrative ever anything more than an abstraction or a metaphor? Or if it is just that, what meaning does it have? It seems like common or repeated shapes could act as a key of sorts: not in a determistic sense as unlocking every story in a particular form or archetype, but in terms of establishing a set of common meanings that relate to each other across stories.

One of the issues I see with this approach (one that I’ve encountered with my own ImagePlots) is that while these visualizations allow us to see change over time, they’re not great at capturing the fluid, variable, active elements of the experience. In other words, these visualizations present the plot, whether it be represented in rising or falling action or in images, as something static––the graph itself does not move, nor does it capture all the possibilities present in each moment of the text. It is an arresting of motion that is itself quite dead. That might be a necessary evil in order to do this type of work and analysis, but I still wonder if the tools themselves could get better at demonstrating some of the same action that they represent.

 

Jockers, Matthew. “A Novel Method for Detecting Plot,” http://www.matthewjockers.net/2014/06/05/a-novel-method-for-detecting-plot/, June 5, 2014.

Planning the Archive of Player Experience

For this week’s blog, I’d like to lay out my plans for my project this semester. My plans to start archiving player experiences and measuring narrative variance in games extend far beyond one semester’s project, but, as with so many large DH projects, that demands breaking the project up into manageable pieces.

For this semester, I’d like to start the project by plotting the playthroughs of first-person, narrative, indie, and queer games that I’m using for my dissertation. These include Gone Home, a game about exploring an empty house and piecing together the narratives of people who live there; The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, a game about a missing boy who loves to tell stories and is rejected by his family; SOMA, a game about encountering the last of humanity and post-human futures in virtual reality; and The Talos Principle, a game that draws attention to artificial intelligence, consciousness, and the construction of reality. Not all of these games are explicitly queer, or have LGBTQ characters or representations. Yet all of them draw attention in different ways to the queer ways we experience play and construct narratives of our experiences.

Plotting these games will help me assess how players have engaged with these games in different ways, and how their experiences and narratives of the games are different. Even though every player played the same game, their different experiences mean their perceptions of the game are likely quite different (though this study will help assess *how* different). One might even argue that they cognitively constructed different versions of the virtual play spaces they explored.

This project is in many ways complementary to the work I do with the LGBTQ Video Game Archive. Whereas the Archive collects records of LGBTQ representation in games in different decades and game series, my work with ImagePlot will seek to explore how players are engaging with queer games, and perhaps how queer games are or are not different from other games in their genres. Do games with LGBTQ content also tend to have different and queer forms? Or do they borrow the forms and conventions from their genres, and replace heteronormative content with LGBTQ content?

Visualizing Narrative Variance in Games

For my course project this semester, I’d like to continue and expand an ongoing project I have with visualizing playthroughs of video games using ImagePlot, developed by Lev Manovich and the Software Studies Initiative at CUNY and UCSD. Basically, ImagePlot is able to capture frames from videos as image files, and then plot those files according to different attributes (such as color, saturation, shapes, etc.). My project uses ImagePlot to plot the playthroughs of games captured in players’ Let’s Play videos on YouTube and Twitch. Each playthrough and its corresponding ImagePlot represents a player’s entire experience of playing a game, and allows us to quickly see where and how players’ experiences are different from one another.

Narrative theorists and game studies scholars have long noted that narratives are interactive and changeable in games, but we rarely (or never) dig deeper into the evidence for those basic insights. Yes, narratives vary in games, but to what extent? The overall goal of the project is to discover new measures and insights on narrative variance, and to get a clearer picture of how it functions in the play spaces of games: what parts of the narrative change in different players’ playthroughs? How do they change, and how much? Answering these questions helps us tease out the limits of play in narrative, and provides a framework for assessing players’ engagement with games that goes beyond simply acknowledging that different players have different narratives and experiences. The results of this project will be of interest to narrative theorists, game studies and new media scholars, literary scholars interested in reader response, and digital humanities scholars interested in visualization and user experience. I’m hoping to move the current complete draft of early project results toward a publishable state for the upcoming PMLA Digital Humanities issue.

In the future, I’d like to expand this project into a digital collection of playthrough ImagePlots––an archive of player experiences. Such an archive could be used to study many aspects of game narrative and player experience, such as genre conventions, different groups of players, games made by the same developers or using similar mechanics, etc. I’d also like to link the project up with my work for the LGBTQ Video Game Archive, and perhaps visualize playthroughs of games with LGBTQ content. How are players engaging with queer games and queer experiences? Does anything change noticeably between a queer game and a similar game with no apparent queer content or forms? In any case, I think we’re only just beginning to see the possibilities of this sort of analysis.

Supporting Inclusive, Interdisciplinary Game Studies

It’s no secret that gaming cultures and communities—including game studies—have longstanding issues with inclusion, especially inclusion of marginalized and underrepresented peoples. The most apparent example of this is #GamerGate, the thinly veiled, ongoing harassment campaign against game critics, scholars, and developers who are women, people of color, or LGBTQ folk. Game studies has fared somewhat better in this regard, in that many game studies conferences and publications include some scholars from marginalized communities, and to some extent encourage academic criticism of games and gaming cultures. Yet even in game studies, the study of race, gender, sexuality, and other identity categories remains cordoned off from the rest of the field: they’re things that scholars of these topics engage in, but others can ignore. In other words, they’re viewed as specializations or special issues, but optional ones at that.

Yet if we as gamers and game scholars truly hope to create inclusive gaming communities and game studies, or to seize on the potential for games to “make us better” or “change the world” in Jane McGonigal’s words, then we have to stop compartmentalizing discussions of identity, community, and intersectionality. There is no sitting on the sidelines when it comes to race in games. There is no part of gaming or game studies where it is not an issue, so there is no place where it is possible to ignore it without doing harm. The same is true for gender, sexuality, disability, or class. To pretend they are separate issues is to perpetuate exclusion and marginalization by refusing to confront them. We can’t marginalize the discussion of marginalization and expect anything to change. If we want to change our culture and realize the potential of games, then we all have to actively cultivate practices of inclusion.

That sounds like a tall order, because it is. Creating inclusive communities requires a lot of listening to each other, educating ourselves, and respecting and navigating difference. But the good news is that none of us has to do this work alone. We can do it together, and together we can build the communities and programs that can sustain and empower us all. For example, the Inclusive Game Development Collaborative, hosted by Michigan State University and founded by Dr. Elizabeth LaPensée, is a cross-institutional program dedicated to supporting diversity of all forms in game development (http://gamedev.msu.edu/inclusive/). It provides a forum for sharing and discussing issues of representation and inclusion in games, and further organizes events at MSU that focus on topics such as concept art and representing cultures or indigenous game design. The Collaborative exemplifies how to bring people together from different backgrounds and experiences, and to especially support developers and scholars who have been marginalized or excluded in gaming culture.

As part of the Collaborative, I’ve had the honor this fall of working with Jonah Magar at MSU Libraries to develop the Game Studies Guild, a group of scholars, students, and gamers interested in games and game studies that reads current game studies texts, plays games together, and engages in critical discussion of them. There are so many amazing faculty and students doing work with games at MSU, but unfortunately they rarely get the opportunity to work together across programs, departments, or colleges. Even when they get to, the work they do rarely makes its way out to communities beyond the university. The main goals of the Game Studies Guild are to address this by fostering community and discussion across disciplines, supporting use of the Library’s developing gaming resources, and hosting critical gaming events that are open to the public and streamed on Twitch.tv (a popular platform for streaming gameplay). The group’s interdisciplinary and open nature is a reminder of another form of inclusion: the inclusion of different perspectives and forms of knowledge.

This year’s events are further dedicated to issues of representation and diversity in games, and our fall events focused on these issues in Scott Cawthon’s Five Nights At Freddy’s and Blizzard’s Overwatch. We would love to have you participate in person or via our live stream, and you can find out more at our website (https://libguides.lib.msu.edu/gsg). All are welcome, regardless of experience or knowledge with games.

There are so many ways to get involved with this work where you are: including readings and discussions of intersectionality and inclusion in your courses, forming a reading or working group dedicated to these topics, attending and supporting existing events related to them, starting a program at your institution that promotes them, or even just making them a topic of conversation in the gaming groups and communities you’re a part of. Whichever way you choose to get involved, the crucial thing is that you do.

HASTAC 2017, Twine, and Empowering Student Voices

*Copied from Cultural Heritage Informatics Fellowship blog*

The HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) 2017 conference is already starting to feel like a distant memory, but as always it was a fantastic opportunity to meet with many brilliant scholars, teachers, and activists who are committed to transforming pedagogy to meet the challenges of today’s digital world. If you weren’t able to attend, definitely take some time to look over the program: there were many fantastic panels and workshops, such as “Building a Feminist Future” (Savonick, Meade, Bosch, Sperrazza, Esten, Tran, & Woods), “Multi Lobes, Multi Modes: Fostering Student Engagement and Learning Through Multimodality” (Garrett Colón, MSU), and “The Half-Real Humanities: Hard Problems in Humanities Games” (Dewinter, Dombrowski, Fanfarelli, & Mcdaniel).

My own panel with Dan Cox, Kristopher Purzycki, and Howard Fooksman was titled “[[Enter Twine’d]]: Linking Teaching and Learning through Hypertext,” and focused on using Twine, a platform for authoring interactive fiction and games, in the classroom. When I first started using Twine in my courses, I had two goals: first, I thought Twine could be a great way to introduce students to game design and development, and second, I thought Twine could help teach narrative concepts and theories by showing them in action. To test these possibilities, I built Twine into “Games as Art, Narrative, and Culture,” my course at MSU that is part of the Integrative Studies in Arts and Humanities general education requirements for undergraduates.

As part of the course, I had students build their own Twine games as one of their major projects. I introduced students to Twine by having them play Twine games such as anna anthropy’s Queers in Love at the End of the World, Zoë Quinn’s Depression Quest, and Squinky’s Quing’s Quest VII: The Death of Videogames!. In addition to playing the games, we discussed Twine’s capabilities and how each game uses different mechanics to capture a different experience. Next students came up with their own game ideas, designing each idea around a particular experience they wanted to create for players. Finally, students put their ideas into action, and created basic games that used special effects and meaningful choices to deliver on their vision.

Beyond student projects, I also created Narrare (“to narrate” in Latin), a Twine game meant to teach narrative theory in games. The game draws attention to concepts such as branching narrative, limited choices, character types and roles, and narrative voice. The game is still an ongoing project, but the current version is available on my website/portfolio at cmejeur.com.

While I expected Twine would be helpful for meeting course objectives, I was surprised by how much students were excited and engaged by it. At first many students, particularly those with no coding experience or interest, found making their own game intimidating. However once they got into the design process, many of them reported becoming so immersed in their projects that they had to set limits for themselves to remember to work on other coursework.

I suspect that this happened because making Twine games gave my students the opportunity to engage in a type of creative authoring that they unfortunately don’t often get to do in higher education. It allowed students to use their own experiences, perspectives, and voices to make something that was truly their own, and then to share that with their classmates. My students used this opportunity to tell their stories, especially those that they don’t often get to tell. For example, one student created a Twine game that captured the experience of culture shock that came with studying in the United States as an international student. Another told a story of a childhood event that has always stuck with them as a strange and meaningful experience, but that they hadn’t ever shared or represented before.

What excites me so much about this is that Twine can do even more than teach introductory game design or narrative concepts and theories. It can provide a platform for telling stories that don’t get told, and for helping our students develop their own voices. Along the way they have to confront their own experiences, perspectives, and positions, and then think about how to share these things in meaningful ways. My hope is that this process will help students realize that their voices matter, and that they can use them in whatever education or career they pursue. Playing and designing with Twine reveals how the meaning we make with games reaches far beyond the ludic realm. I look forward to using these insights in my course design, and continuing to find better ways to support my students’ learning processes.

Some valuable Twine resources for interested persons:

Twine 2.0
Twine Tutorial videos by Dan Cox
“Games in the Classroom with The Twine Cookbook” by Anastasia Salter

Twine resources

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