Cody Mejeur

Narrative, Games, Queer Studies

Category: Learning/Pedagogy

Anything related to education, teaching, and learning.

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.

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

What do we (English, the humanities) do?

The oft-cited crisis in the humanities of the past decades and the turn toward things like cognition, neuroscience, or the digital humanities generally are topics that everyone seems to have an opinion on. I realize that my ramblings here will be just another one of those opinions, but as a young, inexperienced scholar of the digital and the new (for now) I would be remiss to not deal with these topics in some way. The CFP we looked at this week seemed to be onto something when it, in true humanities fashion, wrote the following in a paragraph-long sentence of jargonese: “This will include exploring the extent to which discourses engendering neuroscience in fact do match neuroscience’s real world (social) effects; but it will also include interrogating the anatomy of the neuro-discourses themselves. . .” (it goes on at length from there). What stands out to me here is the focus on “discourses” and “interrogating”–in other words, on what is said and how it matches with what is done.

What seems to be the crux of much of these discussions is this: what do the humanities do, or what should they do? We often talk about how the humanities make the world a better, richer, more aesthetic, etc. place, but does this ever amount to more than rhetoric? To take it in another direction, I recall in my undergraduate years when one of my professor’s commented to me (this is a bit of a paraphrase), “English is always borrowing from other disciplines because it has no territory of its own”. This comment may seem a bit reductive, but it has always stuck with me because it bothered me so much. Why do we in English always need outside insight to do what we do? You’ll noticed I’ve slipped into talking about English rather than the humanities more generally–let’s take it as something of a case study close to home.

What I suggest, and here I’m drawing on (always speaking through others) Derrida’s 1984 essay “No Apocalypse, Not Now”, is that we in English do discourse and the texts of all sorts through which it operates. What this means in practice, however, is that we do not do anything save through talking about how, where, when, and why other things are done. This isn’t a knock against us English folks, that is unless the how, where, when, and why things are said and done don’t matter. And here we arrive at something invaluable about the field of English–it reminds us that these things do matter.

To bring it back to current topics with cognition, neuroscience, and the digital humanities, it seems crucial that we always ask ourselves what these things do, and how. These trends have become very popular, and as such they must bear both great potential and great discernment. We shouldn’t do these things just because they are popular, or trendy, or even because they can “save” the humanities. We should do them because they are meaningful–because they offer something new to our pursuit of discourse. In doing so, they also alter fields supposedly distince from the humanities too, including science. As Cohen writes in “Next Big Thing in English”: “The road between the two cultures — science and literature — can go both ways”. Not only can it, it must. It isn’t that science somehow legitimizes what we do in English, as though discourse generally needs science (itself a discourse) to operate. It is that we, if we are honest in our work, traffic in discourses and texts of all types. That is what we do.

Maybe Kristin Chenoweth can help a bit here. Mostly I just want to link a song from Wicked.

 

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