Sunday, November 23, 2014

#worthassigning: Laura Hudson on Twine, the Video-Game Technology for All

If you go to to learn about Twine, you get this:
Twine is an open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories. 
You don't need to write any code to create a simple story with Twine, but you can extend your stories with variables, conditional logic, images, CSS, and JavaScript when you're ready. 
Twine publishes directly to HTML, so you can post your work nearly anywhere. Anything you create with it is completely free to use any way you like, including for commercial purposes. 
Twine was originally created by Chris Klimas in 2009 and is now maintained by a whole bunch of people at several different repositories. 
That's intriguing -- its open source, don't need to write any code, simple stories possible -- but it doesn't tell a story about what Twine can do.

Happily and wonderfully, very compassionately -- yes, a compassionate look at software -- Laura Hudson offers a wonderful profile of Twine by profiling a game developer who creates emotionally powerful and compelling games, a woman named Porpentine.

Here are some excerpts from Hudson's piece, just as a sampler of what makes her writing so good.
A free program that you can learn in one sitting, Twine also allows you to instantly publish your game so that anyone with a web browser can access it. The egalitarian ease of Twine has made it particularly popular among people who have never written a line of code — people who might not even consider themselves video-game fans, let alone developers.  
Chris Klimas, the web developer who created Twine as an open-source tool in 2009, points out that games made on it “provide experiences that graphical games would struggle to portray, in the same way books can offer vastly different experiences than movies do. It’s easy to tell a personal story with words.” 
Twine games look and feel profoundly different from other games, not just because they’re made with different tools but also because they’re made by different people — including people who don’t have any calcified notions about what video games are supposed to be or how they’re supposed to work. While roughly 75 percent of developers at traditional video-game companies are male, many of the most prominent Twine developers are women, making games whose purpose is to explore personal perspectives and issues of identity, sexuality and trauma that mainstream games rarely touch on.
And on Porpentine:
One of the most prominent and critically acclaimed Twine games has been Howling Dogs, a haunting meditation about trauma and escapism produced in 2012 by a woman named Porpentine. The gameplay begins in a claustrophobic metal room bathed in fluorescent light. Although you can’t leave, you can “escape” once a day by donning a pair of virtual-­reality goggles. Each time, you’re launched into a strange and lavishly described new world where you play a different role: a doomed young empress learning the art of dying; a scribe trying to capture the beauty of a garden in words; a Joan of Arc-like figure waiting to be burned on a pyre. And each time you return to the metal room, it’s a little dirtier and a little more dilapidated — the world around you slowly decomposing as you try to disappear into a virtual one. 
“When you have trauma,” Porpentine says, “everything shrinks to this little dark room.” While the immersive glow of a digital screen can offer a temporary balm, “you can’t stay stuck on the things that help you deal with trauma when it’s happening. You have to move on. You have to leave the dark room, or you’ll stay stunted.” 
When I first met Porpentine outside a coffee shop in Oakland, Calif., she was wearing a skirt and patterned knee socks, her strawberry blond hair pulled back in a small plastic barrette. We decided to head to a nearby park, and as we walked across the grass, she pivoted on one foot — an instant, unconscious gesture — and did a quick little spin in the sunshine. When we arrived at a park bench, one of the first things we talked about was trash, because her Twine games teem with it: garbage, slime and sludge, pooling and oozing through dystopian landscapes peopled by cyborgs, insectoid empresses and deadly angels. In Howling Dogs, the trash piles up sticky and slow; in other games, like All I Want Is for All of My Friends to Become Insanely Powerful, tar floods the room suddenly from an indistinct source. Forget pretty things, valuable things: Porpentine’s games are far more interested in what society discards as worthless. 
“Trash has very positive connotations in my world,” she said, trying to smooth the wild ends of her hair as the wind off a nearby lake kept bringing them to life. “A lot of my work is reclaiming that which has been debased.” A transgender woman who has faced harassment for much of her life, Porpentine referred to herself as “trash-bodied” several times as we talked. It’s not an insult, she explained: “Me and my friends, we hide in the trash. People call us trash, but we glorify in it.” At 14, she was kicked out of her home. It’s not an unusual story — an estimated 20 to 40 percent of homeless teenagers are gay, bisexual or transgender. When I asked her what she was doing before she made Twine games, she said, “Just surviving.”

Why I'd Assign This Piece as a Course Reading

What makes Hudson's piece compelling to read, and useful for thinking about as a teacher of writing, is that it accomplishes three distinct things, all signaled in her opening lines:
Perhaps the most surprising thing about “GamerGate,” the culture war that continues to rage within the world of video games, is the game that touched it off. Depression Quest, created by the developers Zoe Quinn, Patrick Lindsey and Isaac Schankler, isn’t what most people think of as a video game at all. For starters, it isn’t very fun. Its real value is as an educational tool, or an exercise in empathy.
Her piece touches on GamerGate, uses it as a reference and reminder. So that's the first thing it does, offers a commentary on the issues surrounding GamerGate. And she gets at that not by focusing on GamerGate per se, but on the platform and games women are writing. And it's that -- focusing the story on women writing games unique to gaming, where women make up 50% of gamers -- which comments on GamerGate. So the second accomplishment of her work is providing a deft understanding of Twine as a gaming platform. Why it's easy to use, how the ease-of-use opened up gaming to non-computer code trained developers. She doesn't write a tech manual on using Twine, but her descriptions of the games she's played, including many detailed scenes from Porpentine's games, illustrate how compelling and powerful Twine can be in creative hands. And third, her piece is about women who make games, and the kinds of games they are making, brought to life by her portrait of Porpentine.

Teasing out with writers how she structures her piece to reach these goals would be fun, but not necessary. Hudson's piece is an exercise in empathy, and for that alone it's worth assigning.

But it's also, in its way, a piece about the power of story. The games Hudson highlights, her portrait of Porpentine, reminded me of two works I love about the power of story. After reading about Porpentine, I couldn't help but think of this line from Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony: “I will tell you something about stories . . . They aren't just entertainment. Don't be fooled. They are all we have, you see, all we have to fight off illness and death.”

Hudson's description of Porpentine's games, and Porpentine's own words, also put me in mind of Adrienne Rich's "Diving into the Wreck," which to me has always been about the point where words end and feeling/sensing begins, words carrying one to the point of immersion and deeper knowing. So the developers Hudson writes, "explore personal perspectives and issues of identity, sexuality and trauma." And the diver in Rich's poem explores as well:
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.

Writing in Twine

Hudson's piece is a great read -- lots to think about in English and writing classes, technology and culture courses, and can stand as course reading. But Twine is also a writing space, Hudson explains, "Twine games, they’re essentially nothing but words and hyperlinks; imagine a digital “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, with a dash of retro text adventures like Zork."

And so her piece is also an invitation to writing in Twine, an encouragement, even if never explicitly made.

Twine would be a great platform for having students write in.

I just came from a session at NCTE where the panelists spoke of the transitions teachers make from being students in teaching programs to being teachers. They spoke of the fear and anxiety new teachers face, the doubts, the challenges. One speaker, Audrey Lensmire, described group she formed, a kind of teacher support group for 6 women in her program who were out teaching. It began because the women would appear at her office, shut the door, and share. The teacher ed program lacked a course or space where teachers could talk about the mental and emotional strains of teaching. Many of the women in Audrey's group also carried the burden of mental health issues they recognized in themselves or were being treated for. But until they got in the group and could talk about this, they carried that burden alone.

I am also thinking of Twine and Lensmire's work with the work Margaret Price did in her book, Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life,  The book, to quote from a review by Stephanie Kerschbaum,  "reveals how individuals with what she terms mental disabilities—which she defines broadly to include not only intellectual and developmental disabilities, but also autism, learning disabilities, and psychosocial disabilities and mental illnesses—are persistently excluded, ignored, and targeted in higher education."

Playing Twine games composed by artists such as Porpentine can be a powerful empathetic experience, just as hearing Audrey Lensmire and her colleagues today was powerful. Or just as reading Margaret Price, Melanie Yergeau, Adrienne Rich, Leslie Marmon Silko, and today, Laura Hudson, is powerful.

I wonder: what would a game in Twine about teaching look like, if Audrey Lensmire's group were to write one, and how would the writing of the game change their view of  themselves as teachers? What would Melanie Yergeau, who does great work in digital media and disability studies, who writes compellingly and unflinchingly about autism, compose?

It's not that these people -- Melanie Yergeau, the women in Audrey Lensmire's group, Margaret Price -- need to nor have to use Twine. But their work looks at the kinds of issues that many Twine game developers explore, and so I cannot help wonder what composing in Twine might bring to those whom their work supports. They are all women scholars who, while they ground their work in theory and the relevant literature, give voice to what's often unsaid, through the personal stories that also permeate their work.

And it's not that the Twine pieces we ask students to write, or maybe write ourselves, have to explore the inner emotional and cognitive worlds Margaret, Audrey, and Melanie share explore and share. Twine simply looks to be an intriguing platform for digital composition, where many courses use games or explore their creation. Twine can be a tool where different writing assignments, different writers, will bring to it their own purposes, their own maps.

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