Apr 11

2016

First Year Demons: The Limits of Setting and Story

Posted by: Becky Slitt | Comments (0)

This is Part 2 of a 3-part series of posts about First Year Demons. In the first part, I talked about games in education, and why ChoiceScript games can be a good method for teaching about culture. In this part, I’ll talk about how we decided on the setting and story for First Year Demons.

Choosing a Culture and Story

The people who would be playing these games to learn the information contained in them would primarily be university students in the US and Canada. Therefore, we took North American culture as our “home” culture. We decided that the contrast culture – the one being taught through the game – would be Chinese culture, because there are several easily identifiable and easily measurable differences between culture in China and North America, and because there’s a large amount of existing research on those differences.

Obviously, there are many internal variations within the cultures of North America and China alike, so even to make those choices was to engage in a certain degree of generalization. But for a preliminary project, generalization is almost inevitable.

Next, we decided that the story should be about a university student, so that the North American university students who would be playing the game would be able to identify more closely with the main character. That would facilitate the insider perspective that we were trying to achieve. Having a familiar setting would also highlight the points of difference more clearly.

To foreground our cultural factors even more, we added a supernatural element to the story: the main character’s family was part of a secret order of demon hunters who upheld the balance of the universe through their actions. That would make the cultural values of interdependence and filial piety inherent to the story: it’s much more important to respect and cooperate with your relatives if your life depends on it.

The team who originally developed the story included people who grew up in China, who have family ties to China, and whose academic research focuses on Chinese culture. But I was the lead writer – and, and as a writer, I admit to having felt a bit of apprehension. I’m not Chinese, and I’ve never even visited China. How was I supposed to help the reader feel like an insider in Chinese culture when I’m an outsider myself?

This is an issue that many authors have grappled with, and that has particularly come to the forefront in recent conversations about inclusion and diversity in science fiction and fantasy writing. Alyc Helms’s recent article on intersectionality sums it up very well, and Carolyn VanEseltine outlines her process in a similar situation here.

In this respect, my teammates were invaluable. People who did have the insider knowledge that I lacked took the lead in creating the initial story, directed me towards books and movies that would give me the information that I needed, and helped me recognize how my own culturally-ingrained perspective shaped my thoughts. I learned a great deal throughout the writing process, both about China and about the limitations of writing about any culture that I’m not a part of myself. I would never presume to think that I’m an expert, but I’ve done my absolute best to be diligent in my research. If any errors remain, I will do my best to correct them as soon as I find out.

 

Setting the Boundaries

The nature of the project meant that we had to impose certain boundaries on the story to get it to fit the requirements of good experimental design.

First, we had to make sure that every player had the same amount of time to learn the necessary information. For logistical reasons, that amount had to be a relatively short: 45 minutes or less.

Second, we needed to give every player as close to the same experience as possible. The goal of the experiment was to test the differences in learning from a first-person vs. third-person perspective, so we had to minimize all other differences besides the difference in perspective.

That meant that even though the story was interactive, the game had to have as few branches as possible, and hardly any opportunities for choices to result in a dramatically different story. This is a completely different approach from the usual method of writing a Choice of Games story. In Choice of Games stories, the choices must matter, which means that some choices must send the player onto a different path because that’s the only logical result of those choices. In the original version of First Year Demons, that couldn’t happen.

So, for instance, in the original version of First Year Demons, there was only one possible ending. There was also very little variation within the story: when the PC fought demons, the outcome of the fight was determined ahead of time, because the story couldn’t branch based on whether the PC won or lost. Similarly, each roommate’s relationship with the PC was pre-determined rather than dynamically affected by the PC’s choices.

Third, the game had to assess how well the player had learned the material that we were trying to teach them. ChoiceScript stats offered the perfect method: each of the specific cultural factors that we were teaching became a stat. When the player made a choice that conformed with that cultural principle, the stat went up. From the player’s perspective, this feedback allowed them to view their progress, see whether their character was acting in accordance with cultural expectations, and (if necessary) change their responses to future choices. From the testers’ perspective, it allowed us to see how effective the game had been at teaching the cultural factors in question.

In the next blog post, I’ll talk more specifically about how First Year Demons’s educational purpose informed its structure and choices, and how the game changed as I transformed it from an educational tool into its current form.

Supported by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) via Department of Interior, Interior Business Center, contract number D13PC00246.  The U.S. government is authorized to reproduce and distribute reprints for Governmental purposes notwithstanding any copyright annotation thereon.  Disclaimer:  The views and conclusions contained herein are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as necessarily representing the official policies or endorsements, either expressed or implied, of IARPA, DOI/IBC, or the U.S. Government.

 

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