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Twine, Inform, and Designing Interactive History Texts

December 20, 2016 1 comment

(Originally published on Playthepast.org  10/3/16)
This is the first in a series of posts intended to get readers thinking more about interactive text as a tool for history and how students might be enabled to design their own researched text-based historical simulation games using the interactive fiction design tool, Twine.

Why Interactive History Texts and Why Twine?

Having students design historical simulation games has been an interest of mine as an educator for at least a decade, going back to the first elective history classes in designing pen and paper simulations games over a decade ago. As the tools to design digital games have steadily become more accessible to non-coders, I have paid attention, hoping to find software that would allow students to create digital historical simulations games. When I first encountered Inform 7, a powerful design tool that enables designers to create text-based games—often termed interactive fiction—it was clearly a legitimate solution to this problem of enabling history students to create digital historical simulation games. So, about eight years ago, after experimenting with students using Inform for design projects in my survey history classes for ninth and tenth graders, I wrote an essay advancing the use of Inform 7 for students to research and design their own text-based historical simulation games and developed some rough materials on Gaming the Past to aid in the creation of such games. Nor was I the only one who connected and the creation of interactive texts in general, to history and history education (See Shawn Graham’s Posts, Writing History with Interactive Fiction and Stranger in These Parts on PlaythePast for just a couple of examples). The essay still holds up, especially the assertion that having students research and design historical simulation games is an outstanding high order thinking assignment that exercises many critical skills of the historian, especially:

The ability to research, evaluate, and analyze evidence about the past
The ability to combine pieces of evidence into a plausible interpretation of the past
The ability to discriminate between the critical and trivial parts of a historical event or process
The ability to use these skills to develop defensible, coherent, and meaningful interpretations of the past.
Effectively researching and designing even a modestly accurate interpretation of the past in the form of a text adventure, in short, requires students to engage in high order historical thinking and doing. I encourage readers interested in the role interactive text history creation can play to read my earlier essay on Gaming the Past, and I’ll avoid re-traveling that ground any more in this post

Since then I have worked with Inform on and off for years in my history classes, mostly ninth-grade ancient world history, a bit in my Roman Republic senior elective. What I have found, overall is that Inform is an amazing tool. It really is; its relative accessibility and ease of use combined with its power and sophistication is amazing. As helpful and relatively easy to learn as it is, developing anything beyond the simplest interactions with objects and NPCs tends to require devoting time to coding beyond what most history teachers can reasonably afford in their classes. Perhaps that should change: certainly, learning coding skills is a good thing for students (for anyone who has computers in their daily life) to do and Inform naturally blends coding with texts, a staple of the humanities. As a history teacher, however, my exploration of Inform—which, to be fair was pretty intensive—left me wanting something even easier for my students so that most of their attention could be devoted to historical research and the exercise of historical imagination.

Enter Twine. I had heard of Twine a while back, I think maybe from one of my students student, and I played with it a little bit. Twine is an interactive fiction tool that focuses on the design of choose-your-own-adventure style text games. Inform games are generally (though not always) parser-based. Players are given some text to flesh out an environment they are in and then a command prompt so that they may type a command, usually consisting of a verb-noun pair (take sword; go west; open chest). If the game designer has anticipated the player’s command in the design (there is often a considerable amount of trial and error in parser-based text games) the game offers new text to indicate how the game world has changed. The following example (Figure 1) is a simple illustration of an Inform game culled from my earlier essay (note that > is the command prompt where the player can type in commands):

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Figure 1: A Parser-Based Text Adventure Designed in Inform

What is missing from the example is all the unsuccessful commands a player would probably have typed that the designer did not account for. These would be met by a response from the parser to the effect of “I’m sorry; I did not understand your command in this context.”

Twine, however, is essentially a tool that enables players to create linked hypertexts easily that publish to a single html, css, and JavaScript page, a single web page in other words. The player reads a passage of text, selects how to respond to the passage by clicking on the available hyperlinks and then is delivered a new passage of text. Twine has some powerful tools to vary text conditionally and keep track of decisions the player has made, but at its core is the creation of linked hypertexts where the player reader decides where to go and what to do from a set of pre-defined options. Figure 2 illustrates what a Twine interactive history text could look like

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Figure 2: The Start of the Twine Game using a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure System

While selecting the first option takes the player to the following passage (shown in Figure 3):

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Figure 3: Passage Revealed when the Player Selects the First Option in Figure 2

Selecting the second option in Figure 2 leads to this passage (Figure 4):

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Figure 4: Passage Revealed when the Player Selects the First Option in Figure 2

This is not the place for a serious comparison of the two interactive text development tools, but at a basic level Inform games (i.e. parser games in general) require the player to explore and experiment to find the effective actions in a text world. Twine games, on the other hand, put the very limited number effective choices starkly in front of the player, who then chooses an option and reads about the effects of that choice on the player. They are both tools that allow the creation of fantastic interactive texts, both have passionate adherents, and there are many fascinating discussions on the web comparing and analyzing both. For readers interested in an analysis of parser-based and cyoa based texts, the following posts provide some food for thought (Emily Short, a founder in the design and analysis of interactive fiction in the 21st century, wrote this post on parser-based vs CYOA interactive fiction; Carolyn Vanesel Tine wrote this post also on the tensions between the two systems).

But for a long time, Inform came out as the winner in my comparisons because it does such a good job allowing players to create text-based worlds populated with objects and characters that players almost feel like they are actually interacting with and manipulating, thanks to the parser approach that allows so many different types of actions to theoretically be performed by the player—theoretically, it should be noted, because only command combinations anticipated by the designer will work in the game, a limited set of all possible commands to be sure!

What has drawn me back to Twine as an educator is the simple fact that one can create a functioning interactive text with essentially no overhead in terms of coding knowledge, which is not the case for Inform. The basics of a Twine game are passages with links to passages. Passages are entered into the Twine Editor as straight text and links use a simple syntax in Twine 2 Harlowe:

[[Text of Link Player Sees->Name of passage link goes to]]

The following screen shot (Figure 5) shows the design screen in Twine that produced

Twine Passage Editor

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Figure 5: The Passage Editing Screen in Twine 2.0

Twine offers interactive text designers a great deal of power and functionality beyond this basic passage/link combo: variables can be created to store, track, and display information, conditional statements allow variety in the text displayed and the passages visited, and thus variety in players’ journeys and outcomes, and there are many ways to format and link text to create a variety of effects. But this basic power of passage creation and linking is enough to underpin an entire student project designing interactive text histories.

Twine Story Editor

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Figure 6: The Passage Layout Screen in Twine 2

So, after exploring a bit with Twine in my ninth grade Ancient World History classes and my senior elective on the Roman Republic last year, I decided to double down this year and devote more work time to the kids designing interactive historical texts. I also decided to make my own Twine interactive history text so that I can lead from the front, as it were, and share design successes, failures, strategies, and ideas with my students as a fellow designer. My interactive history is tentatively called Cursus Honorum and it will, ideally, allow a player to explore the political and military life of a Roman aristocrat in the Republic as he moves through the different offices and posts of a successful political career, making meaningful (I hope) choices and seeing the effects of those choices. I chose the topic both because it is closely linked to my area of expertise as a historian and it would be, at least I think, a useful tool to have in both my ancient world history and Roman Republic class.

I will release drafts of it when there is something worth exploring for interested readers and post here at PlayThePast both a sort of developer’s diary and a teacher’s diary, the one on my design decisions and experiences as a Twine designer and the other on my design decisions and experiences as an educator managing classes in their use of Twine as a history tool. Hopefully it will be of interest.

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ISACS Presentation 11/4/16

November 4, 2016 Leave a comment

Presented a workshop, Crafting Simulated Worlds of Interactive Text: The Basics of Twine for History, English, and Language Teachers, for the Annual Conference of the Independent School Association of the Central States today. Here’s the pdf of the presentation.  isacs-twine

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Finding Older Historical Games from GOG.com

September 30, 2016 Leave a comment

originally posted on playthepast.org, April 2016

For a history educator, trying to find suitable simulation games to use in class can be a significant obstacle to using the medium. I have made some lists of potentially viable historical games in Gaming the Past (2011) and my website gamingthepast.net. Hard as it is for me to believe, both are five years old now and new games continue to be available.

Often times, however, the newest games are not the best choices for an educator wishing to use historical games. The newest games need more powerful computers to run them and tend to be significantly more expensive than older games.

Just a few years ago there was little chance to use games from ten or fifteen years ago, games that were no longer actively produced, in the classroom. GOG.com (Good Old Games) has changed all this. Over the past few years, GOG.com has revived all manner of games that were designed in the past 20 years or so. They take old game code and update it so that the games will run on new versions of Windows (and some Macs). Prices tend to be very reasonable and the games are available by digital download.

Since the processing power needed by older games for graphics etc. is generally less than that needed by today’s games, GOG games are an extremely good option for educators using hardware that is not cutting-edge. Don’t be fooled by the lower quality graphics. Generally speaking, students will not be disappointed by the graphics an effective game, comparing it what is available in the top current titles. My experience suggests rather that the game will be compared to other modes of instruction/learning in the classroom and fare well for that (though of course, I believe my caveat still holds that not all students will find historical games an appealing route to learning about the past)

I’ve been meaning to post this for some time. Maybe someday I’ll be able to comment about some of the games here. In the meantime, the list itself might be useful. Here is a reasonably current list. GOG adds new titles frequently.

American Conquest + Fight Back

Anno 1404; Anno 1503; Anno 1602; Anno 1701

Caesar 3

Capitalism II

Capitalism Plus

Castles 1+2

Celtic Kings: Rage of War

“Children of the Nile, Complete”

“Colonization, Sid Meier?s”

Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord

Conquest of the New World

Cossacks Anthology

Crusader Kings Complete

Darkest Hour: a Hearts of Iron Game

Democracy 3

Europa Universalis 2

Europa Universalis III

Europa Universalis Rome Gold

Expeditions Conquistador

Grand Ages Medieval

Great Battles Collector?s Edition

Guild 2 The Renaissance

Hearts of Iron 2 Complete

Hearts of Iron 3

Imperial Glory

Imperialism

Imperialism II

Lords of the Realm: Royal Edition

“Men of War, Men of War: Red Tide”

Panzer General II

“Patrician 1, 2, 3”

Pharaoh and Cleopatra

“Port Royale, Port Royale 2”

Sengoku

SimCity 2000

Simcity 4

Stronghold Crusader HD

Stronghold Crusader II

Stronghold HD

SuperPower 2

The Guild Gold Edition

Tropico 3 Gold Edition

Tropico 4

Tropico Reloaded

Ultimate General Gettysburg

Zeus and Poseidon

 

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New article out

J.McCall (2016) “Teaching History With Digital Historical Games: An Introduction to the Field and Best Practices.” Simulation and Gaming (the abstract is at http://sag.sagepub.com/content/early/recent)

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Teacher Design Notes: Using Civilization IV to Learn about Agrarian Societies

May 30, 2014 1 comment

(Originally posted on PlaythePast.org   5/21/14 http://www.playthepast.org/?p=4737)

Before I begin, a short preface. I have made it something of a personal mission, both as a researcher and writer on historical simulation games and as a classroom teacher, to crack the Civilization IV code. In other words, to find ways to make its educational value commensurate with the significant amount of time and effort it takes for my students to learn to play and become really familiar with the game. Over the years I have made progress here and there building on what I have learned in each implementation. This coming year, I plan to take a big step forward in using Civ in my 9th grade ancient world history class. In the hopes that my process of reasoning, planning, and implementing may prove useful, or at least interesting. I am going to “work out loud”, so to speak, posting blog entries of the work I’m doing reconceptualizing the use of Civ 4 in my classroom. It may well be that some readers will find me to be stating what is obvious to them or confirming ideas and practices they have already adopted in their own classes. I am hopeful, though, that enough readers will find something of interest. Don’t hesitate to let me know whether you find this useful or mundane.

For some time now I have been struck by the parallels between the world systems that Civilization IV presents and the world systems of agrarian civilizations presented by Big Historian David Christian in his excellent, Maps of Time. And it occurs to me that, so long as one believes comparative work and big-picture trends are important components of an ancient world history course, Civilization IV might well be an outstanding tool for examining those trends. So that’s what I’m going to do with Civilization IV in my next course in Ancient World History, use it explicitly to illustrate the core features of agrarian societies and the major trends in ancient world history. I have certainly done bits of this in the past, like using Civ to illustrate Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel hypothesis, but I have never systematically approached the year-long play and investigation of Civ in this way.
Read more…

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IPad and History Games

I’ve stayed pretty quiet about IPads. It’s clearly becoming increasingly important that people who are making a decision whether to go with an IPad or with a Windows/Mac option for games and learning in history or any field know this important detail. At this point, going with IPad effectively shuts one out of playing most (80-90% ?) of the commercial history games and all of the free Flash-based games (which are essentially 99% of web games)  (please correct me  if IPad now runs flash programs (not just the movies)).

I was doing a bit of foraging today for some friends on the IPad and came up with a few games that are excellent options for gaming in the history class and are all on IPad (they do require purchase). I wanted to share these for those who need IPad assistance. Please feel free to post more — there are thousands of apps to browse through, and a lot of dross around the gems.

One of the really promising areas is historical board games that have been ported to IPad.
Catan — I love board Catan with my kids and the computer version is not bad.
Agricola – 17th century peasant agriculture but fun, and applicable to any subsistence society. In some ways it is perfect for IPad: you don’t have to mess with all the fiddly bits of the board game, and there is a fair amount of management/upkeep that the Pad does for you.
 
Other games
Civilization Revolution – not nearly as good as Civ IV , much simpler model, but definitely workable
Sid Meier’s Pirates
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New article on Ed-Tech and Games by Mercedes Bell

Mercedes Bell, Reevaluating Ed-Tech Tools and Learning Games, at OnlineUniversities.com

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