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An Introduction to Writing History Through Video Games

You've played lots of games - board games, video games, card games. You've been to a living history museum and seen people dress up to play at the past. But have you ever considered what writing history via a game entails?

In this project, you will use a gaming engine called Twine to write an engaging piece of interactive historical fiction.

Things you need to know, first

  1. What is 'interactive fiction'? Graphics get in the way. When we focus on graphics, we end up concentrating on what I call the tent-peg effect: we spend so much energy on the look of the game that we forget about the experience. Interactive fiction is a genre where the power of the computer is put towards crafting powerful stories where what you do as the player is a crucial element. I want you to stop everything and play Beneath Floes. Keep a piece of paper handy, or have your partner keep notes. What surprises you? What upsets you? How does this game make you feel? Who is the protagonist? What does 'history' look like in this game?
  2. This brings me to my second point. Beneath Floes puts you in a very different space than what you are accustomed to playing, I'd wager. Many (if not most) of the AAA titles engage in a very specific kind of fantasy, where the player-protagonist has a great deal of power to effect change. Worlds hang in the balance almost every time. If we're going to write history via a video game, we need to think about what history is for. What is history supposed to do? What are the kinds of history that fit well with how I've characterized the AAA titles - and what kinds would better map onto Beneath Floes?
  3. I'd like you to read an article I wrote called 'Pulling Back the Curtain'. I still don't know how to best write history via video games, though I believe it can be done. In 'Pulling Back the Curtain' I discuss what happened in one of my classes the first time I tried this. We concluded towards the end of that class that in order to write good history via games we had to think about one of the significant differences from other kinds of writing. That is - when I write an essay, you read my words directly. But when you play my game, your experience is intercepted and interpreted by a computer refereeing your actions. What you end up 'reading/playing' is at one step remove from how I played. The lesson: you can't just 'tell' me history. You have to set things up to allow an experience to emerge. This is hard.

What we're asking you to do.

  1. I will come into your classroom and talk about those issues listed above. We will brainstorm some of the ways you could think about writing history in this way. Your teacher is interested in you writing history that intersects with some of the sections in your textbook. We will do some research together to find sources that will help you speak to these issues. I will show you some of the basics of working with Twine which is the free platform we'll be using.

  2. Then, either in small groups or on your own (depending on your particular classroom's needs) you will begin to write an historical interactive fiction / Twine game based on that discussion. You need to keep track of all of the resources you use. I would suggest that you install Zotero on your computer to do this - it allows you to bookmark any resource and to cite it properly afterwards (almost completely automagically!). Be sure to read the documentation on the Zotero page to use it properly.

  3. You should have at least one passage in your Twine game that lists all of your sources used, with a small explanation of what your game is trying to achieve. This will be the only essay-like aspect of this experience.

  4. You should aim to have at least 15 minutes worth of play-time with your game.

  5. When you are finished writing your game and you wish to submit it, make sure to hit the 'publish to file' button to get the .html file. If you have many images and so on in your game, you might need to create a zip file to put the game's .html and images all in a single place. Your teacher will have an email or digital dropbox or similar set up for you to submit your files.

  6. My graduate students in public history are building video games this year. They will play your games and will provide feedback, selecting the three that they feel best write history. Your teacher will also be grading your work.

    Now, please see the Resources page for example history games written in Twine, tutorials, and other links that will help you. I'm quite happy to answer emails as well.

    email - shawn dot graham at carleton dot ca

    twitter - at electricarchaeo


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