Miranda Suarez, Juniata College
Hannah Bellwoar, Juniata College
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When Hannah came to Juniata College in 2011, her first task was to develop courses for the professional writing major. Because of her ongoing passion for games, both analog and digital, the potential of play for student growth and learning, and the potential of serious games for social justice, Hannah developed a course called Interactive Media Writing. In this course, students analyze and create audio, video, and game projects as they think about the ways audiences will interact with their writing and their social justice messages in these media.
Miranda started at Juniata as a freshman in 2014 knowing she wanted to study writing and incorporate her passion for video games into her studies. After taking Hannah’s Interactive Media Writing course, she asked Hannah to become her academic advisor, and we quickly developed a great rapport with each other that soon flourished into a friendship and colleagueship.
In our years together at Juniata, Miranda has conducted research on video games in many of her classes, including those she took from Hannah. Miranda wrote a paper on video game avatars and their effects on human identity, did a project examining how religion affected virtual societies in the game Civilization V, and studied abroad for a year in Japan and New Zealand, participating in video game culture internationally. It was at the University of Otago in New Zealand where Miranda first learned to use Twine in a Digital Narratives course with Dr. David Ciccoricco.
While Miranda was abroad, Hannah continued to attend the Play and Games Studies Special Interest Group at the Conference for College Composition and Communication, teach Interactive Media Writing, and play lots of games. When she came across OneShot’s call for games, she sent it to Miranda who replied immediately that she was interested. When Miranda returned, we worked on this proposal, and embarked on what ended up being Miranda’s senior research project: creating an interactive fiction (IF) adventure focused on social justice issues.
And now, even after Miranda has graduated, the adventure continues.
The Game: Resistance in Saisei
Resistance in Saisei explores a dystopian future United States in the midst of civil war between a burgeoning yet outnumbered rebel alliance fighting against a corrupt government. The game focuses overtly on issues including immigration, ideological warfare, and maintaining humanity in a war-torn society.
Saisei features a playable gender-neutral character named Sam, who works in tandem with Jackie, a female non-playable character (NPC). The playable character is a young, impressionable mercenary, and Jackie is an older woman who has military experience and is a leader, and she serves asa common link between all of the characters in the game.
After a short training at Basecamp where the player is introduced to other NPCs and begins to form a relationship with them, the player begins the first mission. The game features three primary missions, which must be completed in order: intercepting government intelligence; reconnaissance, which turns into smuggling refugees in/out of the country; and an assassination. During each mission, the player is required to make difficult decisions that may challenge their current moral standards. As the player attempts to intercept government intelligence, they will decide whether to kill someone considered an enemy or let them go free. During the reconnaissance mission, the player will choose between helping others or helping the cause and completing the mission. Finally, during the assassination attempt, the player will have to decide whether to sacrifice their life to save their mentor or sacrifice their mentor’s life to save the world.
We used Twine, a free, open-source software program which allows users to create interactive stories, to craft our IF adventure. While what can be considered IF is contested as Montfort (2003) points out, we understand IF to be computer software that simulates environments in which players use text commands to control characters and influence their surroundings, and in which computer generated and textually mediated narrative is the main focus. Ours is a text adventure where the player makes choices and solves puzzles as with other kinds of games. According to Montfort, in IF “the puzzles… function to control the revelation of the narrative; they are part of an interactive process that generates narrative” (p. 3). Thus, in IF, the narrative is the game, and the game is the narrative.
Messages of Social Justice: Shaping Relationships and Experiences through Interaction
Phillips (2018) defines social justice as “the pursuit of fairness in the many political and social systems that structure our everyday lives.” Phillips suggests that “as a scholar trained in the interpretive humanities, my social justice scholarship on games aims both to recognize the links between real-world structures of power and their diffuse ideological forms in games and to open up new futures through alternative interpretive readings” (p. 117). There are many ways to do game studies for great justice, and one example is that game designers might incorporate mechanics to challenge oppression, as we have done with this game. Phillips urges designers to look beyond the fun and think about failure in games, games that annoy, anger, disappoint, and hurt. Social justice gaming leads with the heart to push back against dehumanization and the impossibility of objective research.
There are several characteristics (Charsky, 2010) of serious games that make them good carriers for messages of social justice. The first characteristic is competition in the game, because the endings of serious games reflect gray area, a spectrum, and not just win or lose victory conditions, which are black and white. We have multiple end conditions to our game—both characters may live, both characters may die, one character may live and one character may die, or the player may come to a stalemate. Because competition falls on a spectrum in serious games, players are motivated to play beyond winning the game. Motivation in our game comes through developing characters and relationships, making the “moral” choice, or making the right choice to attain a desirable result subjective to the player. That leads into the second characteristic, fantasy, because players are motivated to keep playing by these story elements of the game.
The third characteristic is the challenges; in serious games, challenges are seamlessly integrated with the game, so the player cannot easily distinguish gameplay from the “learning.” The challenges in our game cannot be distinguished from the learning aspect because the player is learning as they make choices in the game. As the player acquires items and develops relationships in the game, the player can use those things to complete the challenges.
Our commitment to social justice shaped the two primary methods of interaction and decision-making—creating relationships and having experiences during gameplay. The player starts the game at Basecamp where they meet their avatar. Although there’s no physical manifestation of an avatar in the game, we create an idea of the avatar through textual description. Carruth and Hill (2105) compare the relationship between player and avatar to an autograph where the avatar is a mark or trace of the player in virtual space. Although faint, there is a connection between the player and the avatar. Through their avatar, the player interacts with the NPCs. The player asks questions, brings information, steals or borrows weapons, and trains with the NPCs. Though the identities of the player and the avatar remain distinct, their identities influence each other, as the player cannot help but bring part of their self into the virtual space.
The connections between the player and the NPCs increase the difficulty of the decisions and challenges their current moral standards. For example, in the first mission, the player must either choose to kill someone or defy their mentor, Jackie, and let him live. We present the tension between taking a human life or defying authority. The player’s relationship with their avatar may affect their decision-making. If they identify strongly with their avatar, they may decide to follow Jackie’s directions, but if they want to seek out more information for themselves, they may let him live. No matter how faint, the connection makes this a more difficult decision. These types of decisions and decision-making abilities are what define the connection between player and avatar.
Gee (2007) discusses the relationship between player and avatar (which he calls character) as a “tripartite play of identities” (p. 45) that distinguishes the forming of identities through play as different from novels or movies because it is active and reflexive. The player makes choices in games that shape their character, and then their character is developed in a way that constrains what choices the player can make moving forward. As players make these choices in games, they “relate, and reflect on, their multiple real-world identities, a virtual identity, and a projective identity” (p. 64), which is what they want their character to be in the game.
In Saisei, choices the player makes affect the relationships with the NPCs. Certain actions with certain characters earn the player points. For example, one of the NPCs, Gadot, is in charge of weapons and ammunition at Basecamp. In the first mission, the player has the option to take a compound bow or a baseball bat. However, Gadot has the compound bow and the player can’t find him right away. The player has the option to look for Gadot and ask him to borrow the bow, or just take the bow. Stealing the bow lowers the relationship with Gadot while asking him first will improve the relationship. In some cases, developing good relationships with characters will have long-term implications in the game. A good relationship with one particular character gives the option that will ultimately be the difference between surviving and perishing in the final mission. But more often, having good relationships with characters allows the player to learn more about their history, as they will be more willing to talk about themselves.
The second method we use is individuation (Bowman, 2012) and direct-bleed (White, Harviainen, & Boss, 2012) creating a psychologically or emotionally significant experience that is integrated from the virtual space into the player’s everyday life. Bowman explores Jung’s idea of individuation in relationship to Goffman’s social interactionism as applied to role-playing games. As players play as their character in games, their social roles shift within the magic circle, or the space of the game. In these roles, players may have psychologically or emotionally significant experiences, which is where individuation comes in as they reintegrate experiences gleaned from within the magic circle. “Many role-players report an increase in self-awareness, out-of-the-box thinking, social skill proficiencies, and empathy as a result of their experiences within games. I believe that the individuation process described by Jung is one of the fundamental ways that these benefits are achieved” (p. 35). Certain aspects of experiences in game become absorbed into the unconscious and are carried with the person out of game.
Bowman’s research supports the idea that moral decision-making in game, though not the same as experiencing those decisions out of game, “can become psychologically powerful, offering the potential for a more balanced and self-actuated psyche” (50).In Saisei, we are trying to influence the psychological, create psychological conflict, or at the very least, introduce some doubt about the issues we explore. We want people to question themselves in their morality and weigh the options between what they think is right versus what needs to be done. The end of each mission poses a morally challenging situation. For example, there is one thread in the final mission where the player is interrogated about a crime they’ve committed. The interrogators inform the player that if they do not find the individual responsible, they will hold the entire staff accountable. In other words, if the player doesn’t confess to the crime, innocent people will be punished and separated from their families. But if the player does confess, they will likely be sentenced to death.
White, Harviainen, and Boss also explore the idea of bleed in relationship to “jeepform” gaming (a Scandinavian hybrid of live action roleplay (LARP) and tabletop role/playing) to consider what players might carry with them out of the game. In jeepform gaming, play intentionally bleeds out, that is, feeds back into a player’s psychological reality. “The point of play is to create psychologically or emotionally resonant individual experience” (p. 72). This type of gaming serves a similar purpose to that of serious games, which are games designed for purposes other than entertainment.
While games are limited as a medium in that they provide a simulated experience of an event, some serious games are designed to evoke empathy in the player as they take on the role of a person in an extreme situation. For example, This War of Mine is a game where players take on the role of a civilian experiencing the siege of Sarajevo. They must scavenge for supplies in order to survive the siege, both physically and emotionally. Of these types of games, White, Harviainen, and Boss explain that “Some games produce a kind of bleed-out called ‘direct-bleed,’ in which a player’s psychological response to the events of the game closely resemble those that could be attributed to the character” (p. 82). A game like This War of Mine does exactly that, creating a character that the player identifies with even if they have absolutely no experience with trying to survive in a besieged city. Similarly, Saisei introduces characters and experiences that the player may identify with as they work with the resistance, even if they have no personal experience with this kind of work.
White, Harviainen, and Boss also state that fiction and games are similarly immersive and share the idea of play and interaction creating a psychological or emotional response in the audience. We find this important in our design of IF, because IF is play both because of the interactive nature and the fiction of the piece. Immersion is a part of both the fiction and play in Saisei.As the player through their avatar weighs the potential risk/reward factor, bleed-out evokes empathy in the player. Our game blurs the lines between player and avatar by keeping the avatar genderless, but more importantly, it attempts to produce bleed between player and avatar through particularly difficult decisions, such as whether or not to abandon a desperate family seeking asylum across the border.
Using Game Mechanics to Support the Narrative
“Writing for digital mapping and having these game designs is like writing times 20. It’s so much harder because from a young age we’re trained to write in a linear fashion to get from point A to point B; there’s only one way that this can go. And when I’m writing for this game, I have to consider multiple options, multiple endings, you know, one decision can affect everything. It’s challenging, to put it lightly.” –Miranda, June 12 meeting
We designed the game at its core to be engaging IF. The mechanics of the game are meant to support our main goals in evoking empathy in the player and creating a space where the player must make difficult decisions that challenge their assumptions. As this is the first game that we designed, we learned a lot about how we wanted to shape the mechanics as we went. We’ve shifted from thinking about the reader to thinking about the player. We’ve often asked if the player will find this interesting or engaging. And following Ladd (2016), we’ve learned to think about designing as writing, as Miranda says, times 20.
As previously mentioned, we designed the game using Twine. Our original intention was to code using HTML and CSS, however, since Miranda was already familiar with Twine, and it allowed her to create a visual map of the narrative without the limits of paper, we started working in Twine instead.
Two of the primary functions in Twine used to make a game more interesting are conditionals and variables. Although Twine can be used with no prior coding experience, the nice thing about Twine is that it encourages the user to learn more about coding in order to make their game better. A conditional in computer science is simply an “if-then” statement that relies on boolean “true or false” algebra to achieve different outcomes, and a variable is a value in the game that can change depending on conditions. The two go hand-in-hand. For example, in Saisei, the player develops relationships with the side characters. Each relationship is designated a variable. The relationship variable changes depending on actions the player performs that either improve or hinder the relationship. If the relationship with a specific character is high enough, a conditional statement in the coding will display more options to interact with that character on a more meaningful level. However, if the relationship is not high enough, then the conditional statement will hide those options.
There are five main mechanics that the player uses to engage in the game: clicking hypertext links, entering text commands, entering codes, increasing and decreasing relationships, and collecting and using inventory items. Hypertext links are the primary mechanic the player uses to interact with the game. Actions are indicated in parentheses, while dialogue options are indicated in plain text. Most pages of the game have two or more links that allow the player to explore different spaces, interact with NPCs using different dialogue options, or choose different ways to fight. We chose hypertext instead of a parser-based interface because Miranda and Hannah’s other students who have read interactive fiction prefer to click a link rather than enter commands into a parser. Students prefer to click a link because when using a textbox, the player’s answer must be identical to the coding or the player will get stuck. Clickable links are more accessible to both the game developer and the player as they are more familiar to students.
However, we do have two mechanics that require the player to enter commands. The first is text commands for dialogue. Entering text commands adds some flavor to the game and contributes to the narrative. The second is entering a series of numbers into a textbox. This is intended to represent opening safes and password-protected files. Entering the text rather than a hyperlink adds some engagement to the game and requires the player to use memory as part of the mechanics of solving puzzles.
The final two mechanics involve obtaining things that are represented in the sidebar. The first is fostering relationships with NPCs that allow the player to better understand the characters and their motives. Certain relationship choices give the player additional options in the game, as outlined above in the discussion of conditionals and variables. The player can click on “View Relationships” in the sidebar at any time to see the numerical value for their relationships. The last mechanic is collecting things to add to the player’s inventory. The player can click on “View Inventory” in the sidebar to see what they’ve collected and if anything is missing. Some of these items are useful to the player in future missions.
We settled on mechanics in the game that worked for us and we didn’t really stray from that. We were limited by the text-based mechanics of IF, and we shaped the narrative to be engaging around those limitations. Although the initial idea was to simultaneously shape the narrative as well as the mechanics of the game to present moral decisions, we quickly found that due to limited player choices–choosing between A or B–we were actually forced to shape the narrative around the mechanics. For example, the first decision that the player makes in the game is to either raise their hand or stay silent. Given less restriction from Twine’s mechanics, the player could have potentially had more dialogue options that would have created a wider berth of narrative possibility.
As we designed these mechanics, we followed Nelson’s (1995) advice to worry “about how the player is getting along” (p. 2). We have been thinking about engagement at every step of the way. In our weekly meetings, Hannah has often asked Miranda to think about how the player will feel about a certain path or outcome, and then Miranda has revised to try to make that part more engaging to the player.
In 1987, Mary Ann Buckles wrote what is now considered the first doctoral dissertation on video games titled Interactive Fiction: The Computer Storygame Adventure. Zurawel (2017), writing about Buckles, stated, “Adventure [IF] became a touchstone of computer culture and for many years defined what video games were.” We believe that a story is a central part of a video game. It’s what remains with the player after the game is over. IF is the zenith of digital narratives that today create the games we know and love.
For Miranda, this project has really challenged her to think differently about the way she writes. Writing interactive fiction isn’t just about crafting a story, it’s about creating a story to pair with a game—a story that allows the player options to choose different story-paths that affect the outcome. In video games, writers are not just writing one linear story; they’re writing four, or eight, or sixteen stories. For Hannah, writing with Miranda has really challenged her to think differently about the way she teaches. As students craft IF, they have the opportunity to see the potential for games to open up and transform the ways that their audience can interact with their writing.
We both realize how important it is to write serious games that place players into situations they normally wouldn’t find themselves in—situations that force them to reflect on the gravity of the fictional issues we depict and encourage them to make connections to the problems for which we are trying to raise awareness.
The process of creating Saisei
has provided no shortage of challenge; though it’s far from over, we hope, at
the very least, that it reflects our passion for social justice, and our desire
to create interactions that raise awareness and evoke empathy.
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