Composition Games: An Interview with Dr. Alexis Lothian

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The role of games in education is a popular topic right now.  Teachers debate the extent to which gamification can motivate learning and the appropriateness of games and play for certain serious historical topics.  They contemplate the social skills that games can teach like cooperation and empathy.  A few even develop their own educational games for use in the classroom.  But what happens when we ask students to create games of their own?  Dr. Alexis Lothian has her students create Twine games as a part of her course on Gender, Race, and Digital Media at the University of Maryland, College Park.  I interviewed her about her pedagogical goals and methods, the politics of Twine, and the work of her students.


MC: What made you decide to use video games as an assignment as opposed to, say, a traditional research paper or presentation?

In teaching media and culture, I find that a traditional research paper can only go so far – doing scholarly research is a great way to learn about something in the abstract, but engaging in a more hands-on way can really shift your perspective. So I always try to have a range of assignments that will give students the chance to think in different ways and to try their hand at different things.


MC: Why did you choose Twine as your game development platform of choice?


In all honesty, because I am not skilled enough in any other game platforms to teach them. Though it isn’t necessary to use a digital platform at all to develop a game, of course – you can do a lot with pen and paper! I learned about Twine in a weeklong workshop taught by Anastasia Salter at HILT [the Humanities Intensive Learning and Teaching Institute] in 2014, and I was really excited to discover that this was a platform where the most famous creators were queer and trans people who were challenging the dominant narrative of what it meant to be a game developer in a really inclusive way. For that reason it’s a great tool to incorporate digital making into my feminist and queer classes.


MC: What are some of the coolest things you’ve seen students do with the Twine platform?


Twine’s structure of branching choices lends itself really well to explorations of the ways that our day to day choices are limited by dominant power structures. This was illustrated really well in a game my students created in class collaboratively when we were learning the platform, actually, in an upper-division class on gender, race, and digital media. The students came up with the idea of making a game that would illustrate the experience of a non-binary child going through their school day; we simulated the various challenges they would face when it would be demanded of them to pigeonhole themselves into one gender or another. This was before all the furor over HB2, but of course the site of the most anxiety and violence was the bathroom. I’ve had students do a variety of cool things with their individual projects, though, from creating illustrations using the Sims to writing queer code poetry to some complicated game scoring systems.


MC: Do you have any examples of excellent Twine games to share?


We play and discuss several great games in class including Redshift and Portalmetal by micha cardeñas, Depression Quest by Zoe Quinn, howling dogs by porpentine, and The Hunt for the Gay Planet by Anna Anthropy.


MC: What are the quintessential tips you would give to someone trying out Twine programming for the first time?


Here are the most important things to remember:

1. SAVE your work frequently (“Publish to file”)
2. DEBUG often, especially if you are using macros. If things don’t work, check for upper/lower case, closing brackets, spelling
3. Have friends or roommates TEST your game to see if your logic makes sense
4. Keep playing Twine games online for inspiration
5. Problems? Try the Twine Wiki or the many how-to-guides you can find on the web.