Blog Post

On Twine and the Digital Humanities

As someone who has made the leap from English studies to a more digital humanities oriented focus in the past few years, there are a few consistent frustrations I've noticed myself and my peers grapple with in the classroom. In many ways, it feels much like you're learning a new language - you're so used to what you can do with your mother tongue that the lexical and grammatical limitations of a new language are overwhelming. In some cases, I would say that these limitations are even disheartening.

For example, Dr. Marcel O'Gorman established the Critical Media Lab a few years ago and started the Experimental Digital Media (XDM) MA program. A fundamental part of his XDM classes is that students must create some form of media artefact as part of their final project. For his Necromedia class, students were required to make a game (inspired by course readings) that explores the relationship between death and technology. It was a fantastic challenge, and students absolutely rose to meet it. There was still a great deal of trepidation - very few students had the necessary technical skills to fully execute on their initial "blue sky" designs. But still, every group had a game that was at least roughly playable. It's a lot to take on in 4 months, especially since students are also taking other courses and also wrapping their heads around some pretty intense theory.

This, I would suggest, is where Twine could be an indispensible tool. It's a free hypertext/interactive fiction development tool developed by Chris Klimas. I suppose I should also disclaim that I don't know Chris Klimas and nobody will financially benefit from the next section of this blog post, since I'm basically going to morph into the Billy Mays of Twine for a little bit.

- Twine is free to download for the full toolset. There's no paywall. There's no DRM.

- Twine has a small footprint, which means it can run off a thumb drive and doesn't require super-powerful hardware to run.

- Twine has depth. The GUI interface is great for a bird's-eye view of the game's structure, but it also comes bundled with a more robust and complex command line version. Furthermore, Twine supports JavaScript and CSS, which opens the door for a quick lesson on web design if you want.

- Twine is exceedingly easy to use, and developers need no prior programming experience to use it. Even using Twine's very basic language for linking passages together and altering variables is a quick and easy case study for getting students to think procedurally.

- Twine iterates quickly. In seconds, students can change something and immediately hop into their game and test it.

- Images and video are reasonably easy to embed in the game.

- The final result is an HTML file, so hosting Twine is as easy as sharing it in a dropbox, or a whole class could put their final games on a thumb drive, source code included. Furthermore, there's a free Twine hosting service that integrates with Twitter.

Perhaps most importantly, Twine also has an extremely supportive and inclusive community. Which means there are thousands of fascinating game examples that are freely available on the internet. This means that what the class creates won't get lost in a vacuum or left off in some insular ivory tower. It gives students a chance to bring what they've learned into a welcoming community and create something cool that instantiates and interfaces with extant DH theory.

I know that previous section makes me sound like a bit of an evangelist for it. Twine does have its limitations - which, in my opinion, is even more beneficial, as it allows us to address the elephant in the room, which is that programming languages sometimes have a sort of mystical cache for the uninitiated. I think where the appeal lies is that Twine very much feels like a gateway tool for students that are already way more comfortable with written language than they are with coding and learning how to handle 3d environments and rendering. (Not to say that Twine doesn't require spatial thought - many of the most successful Twine games are highly spatial.)

Don't believe me? Download Twine from the link above and check out Anna Anthropy's crash-course on Twine.

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