Home > Twine > Playing with the past in serious ways: Twine interactive history project guide, Part 1

Playing with the past in serious ways: Twine interactive history project guide, Part 1

This is the third year I have incorporated a long-term (one quarter to one semester long) Twine interactive history project into my ninth-grade ancient world history and twelfth grade Roman Republic classes at Cincinnati Country Day School. I have written in the past about Twine, the benefits for students researching and designing Twine histories, and some of the methods I have employed (See Twine, Inform, and Designing Interactive History Texts and Creating Interactive Histories in History Class at Play the Past. Also see the YouTube video I prepared for the VALUE project). This post talks about my latest implementation-in-process this semester and some thoughts on the process and educational value of a Twine interactive history project. Included are the spec sheets and rubrics I have developed to help teachers launch their own Twine history projects.

Types of Choice-Based Interactive History Texts

Types of Twine histories

There are three fundamental approaches to choice-based interactive history texts one can design with Twine or similar tools (see: Crafting Interactive Histories: Twine and Choice-Based Interactive Historical Texts ) Every Person, Specific Agent, and Experimenting Deity. Each has a different sort of player agent that produces some differences in the research required for each and the handling of issues like counterfactual history that are inherent to most interactive histories.

  • Every Person – the player agent is fictional but authentic, a made-up person in an authentic historical role, essentially like the protagonist in most historical fiction. So a British Suffragette trying to get the vote, a Spartan lad going through the educational system, a peasant trying to farm successfully, etc. In these kinds of interactive texts, the history is counterfactual only insofar as the specific person never existed. It seems, anecdotally, that some history teachers are most comfortable with this approach because it does not require designing a game text where a known historical figure does things that go against the historical record, i.e act counter-factually (like Lincoln not releasing the Emancipation Proclamation when he did).
  • Specific Agent – the player agent is a historically documented figure, famous or obscure. So Emmeline Pankhurst rather than the unnamed suffragette, Abraham Lincoln, Julius Caesar, Sacagawea, Charlotte Corday, etc. (they don’t have to be famous, but particularly in my primary field of teaching, ancient history, they often have to be to have enough documentation; otherwise they are functionally Every Person Twines)
  • Experimenting Deity – I have not designed one of these nor had my students do so but there is real potential here. I have not really seen any of this type of text either online. The closest example is Max Kreminski’s Epitaph, which is science fiction but, with just a bit of imagination, can readily be re-imagined as a historical text. In this approach the player is detached from the world, a rule-giver and decision-maker rather than an actual historical agent. The player makes society/state/civilization level decisions, and the effects of those decisions are reported. Video games like Civilization have this kind of player agent.

Crafting Every Person interactive texts is a terrific historical exercise, and the Path of Honors project (project page here, Epoiesen article and game) I am slowly developing follows this approach. Still, I required my ninth-graders to take the Specific Agent design approach this semester. Both approaches have some terrific features as learning exercises to foster research and historical analysis.

  • The deep and meaningful research required to be able to flesh out a specific historical problem space (McCall 2012 & McCall 2012) in a way sufficient to design a short, rich choice-based historical text, including:
    • The background of the figure that led them to the specific situation;
    • The origins of the specific situation;
    • The goals the figure had in the given situation;
    • The obstacles the figure faced;
    • The actual choices and actions the figure historically made in their efforts to achieve their goal(s).
  • It is by no means an easy exercise for a student to work from narrative secondary sources on a historical figure (especially in the ancient world where details are often lacking) to the problem space elements above. Researching a historical figure for a Twine project requires a great deal more than simply reading and repackaging a narrative. It requires analytically reorganizing and re-categorizing information so that it fleshes out these elements. A fair amount of reading and note-taking are required. Even more, students must be able to distinguish between the significant and trivial in their research.

But the Specific Person approach with its hard counterfactualism (i.e. having a known historical figure act differently) fascinates me because:

  • Before tackling counterfactual choices a figure might have made, students must master what the figure actually did, why, and within what circumstances. That is challenging.
  • It is, I suspect, cognitively less demanding to think of the plausible options an Every Person might have than it is to think of the plausible options a Specific Figure had: we get locked into what they actually did so much that we lose appreciation that they were an agent making choices in the face of complexity and uncertainty. So, for example, deciding what a field nurse in the Crimea might do in a set of circumstances is often less daunting than determining what Florence Nightingale might have done differently from what we know she did. I want students to engage in that challenge, perhaps because it speaks to me about the importance of choices and free will, the hope that history is not just “one damned thing after another” as Toynbee characterized the view. Thinking about what a known agent could have done differently crystallizes the motives for the choices they actually did make and the significance of those choices on historical outcomes.

Pre-Design Work: Research, Writing, and Plotting

Designing good research questions is a lifelong goal for most academics, and not a task to be assigned to students without care. The nature of the final project, an interactive Twine text, in this case, dictates the kinds of research questions students need to pursue. The structure makes the type of relevant notes more clearly articulated. In the past couple years I have been less satisfied with the outcomes of student research for these projects. This year I provided a digital note-taking sheet with specific questions and found the amount and quality of their relevant research increased significantly. It was also quite easy to check and grade students’ research and assess if they were on track before tackling writing the essay itself.

The research essay, then, is the formal structuring of the research, the work-through in static text of the historical agent’s historical problem space. Before completing the first formal draft of the research essay, however, I assigned an choice-outlining exercise. In the previous years, I assumed that the research essay would provide students with most of what they needed to design the actual Twine. In practice, this was not the case: their research and essays were not detailed and structured enough to actually break down the historical figure’s choices and the effects of those choices.  This time, I assigned a short outline exercise where students had to break down and list the actual choices and actions the historical figure made. For these purposes, I proposed to students that if a figure actually did something without coercion, they chose to do that thing. Here’s the format:

  • Simple description of starting situation;
    • First historical choice
  • Historical outcome of first choice and updated situation;
    • Second historical choice
  • Historical outcome of second choice and updated situation;
    • Third historical choice
  • Historical outcome of third choice and updated situation;
    • Final historical choice
  • Historical outcome

At this stage, rather than journeying into counterfactuals, students stayed focused on the historical choices of their agent and the historical outcomes for two reasons. First, the Twine they eventually design must allow the player to make historical choices, if they wish,  and get historical outcomes. Second, students will not be well-placed to consider counterfactual possibilities until they have firmly researched and established what the figure historically did, why, and with what effect.

In an upcoming post, I’ll run through the steps from the completion of the research essay and choice outline to designing the prototype Twine. For now, let me just note that these projects are highly scalable. One could readily have a shorter-length Twine project where students read one assigned text, watched a video, listened to a lecture, etc. and broke it down into the components shown on the Research Notes page above. Then, with a less formal essay on the historical problem space, they could jump into the Twine design. A shortened version like this might be researched and prepped in a few classes.



  1. October 9, 2018 at 1:14 pm

    Hi Jeremiah,

    I’m really pleased to have come across this work. Your structuring of the task for your students looks good – I like how you’ve refined it over time.

    I’ll certainly be reading more here. I’m currently writing a teacher’s handbook for using choice-based-fiction in schools – focused largely at UK primary – but what you’ve got done here with Twine really gets me thinking. So far that’s been something I would have liked to talk about, but your work shows how much progress has already been made.

    • October 9, 2018 at 1:53 pm

      Thanks Martin! Glad you’re finding this useful. Twine is a terrific medium for interactive history — my seniors are currently finishing their research papers for their Roman Republic Twines. If you’d like to discuss or work through anything as you write, drop me a note, jmc.hst@gmail.com

  1. February 19, 2018 at 4:40 am
  2. February 25, 2018 at 9:30 pm
  3. March 5, 2018 at 1:51 am

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