Gene Editing, Twine, and Counterfactual Games (#LearningatPlay)

Learning at Play was a one-day symposium on games for learning and social change held at Vanderbilt University on November 8, 2019. The idea for this event was something I had been considering for a couple of years, and it was incredibly exciting to see so many people from Vanderbilt and beyond show up and talk about serious games! Thanks to my fellow organizers and game players, Helen Shin and Derek Price, for their insight, connections, and hard work pulling together this event, and thanks to our co-sponsors (the Center for Teaching, the Curb Center, the Center for Digital Humanities, and the Comparative Media Analysis and Practice program) for making the event possible. Here on the blog, I’m sharing a few highlights from the day.

“That’s Not What Happened!”: Designing for Truth in Counterfactual Games

Mark Sample, associate professor and chair of digital studies, Davidson College

When Helen, Derek, and I started planning Learning at Play last summer, I knew I wanted an outside keynote speaker and I knew that Mark Sample was at the top of my list. Luckily, everything fell into place, and Mark was able to join us for the event! Mark Sample is an associate professor and chair of digital studies at Davidson College, as well as a literary scholar whose teaching and research has “evolved to include software studies, video games, and other forms of algorithmic culture,” according to his Davidson bio. I’ve followed Sample’s work in the digital humanities for years, mainly through his always informative and usually provocative blogging and tweeting, but I had never met him in person. I was very excited to do so, and to share his work with the Vanderbilt campus.

Sample used the talk as an opportunity to share a work-in-progress, a documentary game he’s developing about the early 20th century eugenics movement and the early 21st century science of gene editing. He noted that just as a documentary film can help a view understand and think critically about history and culture, so too can a documentary game. Sample described some of the ways documentary games can work, drawing from Newsgames (MIT Press, 2010) by Ian Bogost, Simon Ferrari, and Bobby Schweizer. Documentary games can recreate spatial reality, such as a game that lets players walk around in a digital version of some ancient city. Some recreate operational reality, such as a game that lets players interact with the events of, say, the Kennedy assassination. And some recreate procedural reality, helping players experience what it’s like to be someone else. Examples of this latter category that Sample mentioned include Killing Me Softly, about microagressions, and Will Not Let Me Go, about dementia.

To this schema, Sample proposed another kind of reality a documentary game can create, an ideological reality. These games help players understand and think critically about ideas. And he argued that one way to do this is through what he calls a counterfactual game. “What about a documentary game that’s trying to present a version of the past that didn’t happen?” Sample asked.

I like the term counterfactual quite a lot. I think I first heard it from Rob MacDougall (@robotnik on Twitter), associate professor of history at the University of Western Ontario. I recall him posing counterfactual questions to his military history students along the lines: Who would win in a fight, a Viking or a samurai? To the best of our knowledge, such a fight never happened, so there’s not a factual answer to this question. But the question itself is interesting, and debating the question in class encourages students to draw on what they know about the military tactics and resources of each culture.

Before describing the counterfactual game he’s developing, Sample talked about the platform he’s using to design the game, Twine. I first heard about Twine from my Vanderbilt colleague Kylie Korsnack as a tool students might use to create “Choose Your Own Adventure” style narratives. I had no idea how powerful the platform could be, however, until seeing some of the Twine stories Sample shared in his talk! Apparently Twine was popularized, in part, by Anna Anthropy’s Rise of the Videogame Zinesters (Seven Stories Press, 2012). It’s the platform used by the two procedural documentary games mentioned above, Killing Me Softly and Will Not Let Me Go. Twine allows for robust branching narratives that are far more complex than my old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. Twine stories can use advanced state tracking, so the choices players make can be remembered and can affect the story as it unfolds. And Twine can use some randomness to the outcomes of the choices players make.

My tweeted response to what Sample shared about this platform: “Man, I’ve got to try creating something in Twine.”

Sample’s counterfactual Twine game imagines what the eugenics movement of the 1920s and 1930s might have done with modern gene editing technology, like CRISPR. I’m not going to try to summarize the historical research about the eugenics movement that Sample shared in his talk. Short version: He’s done a lot of homework for his game. Sample showed us his game-in-progress, which reminded me of a cross between Zork and The Man in the High Castle and a library’s special collection. The game is built out of all kinds of archival material and it feels a bit like a piece of speculative fiction, but it’s also a game, one that asks players to explore a world and make choices that shape their in-game character. It’s not finished, but I can see how the immersive and interactive aspects of the game will help players explore a set of troubling ideas that have both historic relevance and modern currency.

Sample noted a number of narrative challenges he’s facing as he designs the game: perspective, tone, player agency, counterfactual license, operationalizing archival content, and more. It was all seriously fascinating, and all in the service of something he wants people to play. “Games,” Sample said, “are meant to be played.” I’m certainly looking forward to playing his game when it’s finished.

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