USING TWITTER AND STORIFY AS LEARNING TOOLS
In the Spring semester of 2014, I was a TA for an introduction to Literature course called “Literature in Videogames,” taught by Professor Jim Brown. The purpose of the course was to explore how narrative and videogames intersect. The main question driving the course was: how do certain objects—be they games with narrative elements, electronic literature, or interactive fiction—challenge our definitions of these two categories? We also explored the broader cultural significance of games—their status as legitimate objects of intellectual inquiry, how they perpetuate or challenge gender and racial stereotypes, and their ability to address ethical concerns.
Some of the topics we explored included narratology, ludology, interactivity, simulation, immersion, hypertext fiction, and freedom vs. constraint in digital environments. We read novels about videogames, including D. B. Weiss’s Lucky Wander Boy, a wry and very witty look at videogame obsession, and Ernest Cline’s dystopic Ready Player One, a story of total immersion, and a virtual smorgasbord of 80s pop culture. We read some challenging essays on videogame theory from a engrossing collection called First Person. We also got some experience writing code by building our own hypertext videogames using Twine, a very user-friendly platform, and one that has really helped marginal groups enter the exclusionary realm of videogame design. Plus, we had some fascinating guest lectures from game designers Porpentine (maker of the Twine game Cyberqueen) and Matt Haselton (designer and ”problem solver” from Filament Games).
And of course, we played videogames, from classic games like Pac Man, Donkey Kong, Joust, and Galaga to newer games like Braid, Gone Home, and Unmanned. Since lecture was held in the college library computer lab, each student had their own computer, which enabled us to play games in class. One of my favorite class sessions was when we ended lecture about fifteen minutes early so that students could play a classic videogame of their choice (dozens of which are emulated online). Prof. Brown had all one hundred students turn up the volume on their computers to max level, and suddenly we were in a time warp—we had transformed the entire computer lab in College Library into a video arcade from 1983. It was a veritable symphony of videogame sounds, from the squishy, relentless munching of Pac Man, to the rapid-fire shots of Asteroids and Space Invaders, to the chiming hops of the Frogger avatar; all of which was colored by the various sonic accents that sporadically emerged through this exuberant cacophony— Galaga’s dive-bombing insects, Donkey Kong honking and stomping the platforms, and Pac Man’s ghost swallowing. The only thing missing was the sound of quarters plopping into arcade machines. In retrospect, we should’ve played Rush’s Moving Pictures through the overhead speakers, just to enhance the verisimilitude of the scene.
So what does all of this stuff have to do with hyper-attention and twitter? Well, professor Brown was experimenting with what N. Katherine Hayles calls “hyper-attention,” in which attention is dispersed to a number of different objects simultaneously (as opposed to “deep attention,” which is a focused, analytical attention to a single object, like a novel). During Jim’s lectures, each student had to tweet five times about the lecture using our course hashtag, #eng177. The tweets took a few different forms. Some students used their tweets as a note-taking tool so they could remember important concepts or arguments (e.g., “ludology is the study of games”). Others offered their own insights or questions about the lecture, inviting other students to respond. As this happened, attention was being distributed to several different objects simultaneously—to Jim’s lecture, to composing tweets, to reading and responding to other students’ tweets, to the images that were on the monitor, to the actual book or essay that was being discussed.
But the lecture tweeting wasn’t an end unto itself. What really made tweeting a great learning tool was that students had to write short multimodal essays using Storify, which would draw a large part of its content from the tweets. Storify is a great program that allows users to create their own stories using content from social media services such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Storify is a very useful tool for making coherent sense of the information overload usually experienced with social media. Our storify essays compiled tweets, images, relevant links, youtube videos, and the student’s own writing, which would frame a all of this digital media around a more focused idea. Students would combine their own descriptions with various digital media and weave together an analysis of some important concept or argument, like ludology, or the exploitation of code in Ready Player One, or the manipulation of time in Braid, or whether or not Gone Home was actually a game (a very contentious debate among gamers since its 2013 release).
Another great thing about tweeting is that it can invite some interesting surprises from the outside cyberworld. In a lecture about imitation, Professor Brown was discussing “The Squalid Grace of Flappy Bird,” an article by video game theorist Ian Bogost. Ian Bogost caught wind of this and decided to join our tweet stream. Students got quite a thrill out of this unexpected visit from the author whose work we were discussing. (It was like a cyber version of Annie Hall, when Marshall McLuhan magically appears to weigh in on a discussion of his own work—except Professor Bogost a lot more generous about the comments we were making). Here’s an excellent storify by one of our students, Lawrence McCaigue, about the surprise Bogost visit.
It was really gratifying to see how well conceived and creative these Storifys could be, so I’ve included a couple more that I thought were done particularly well. Here’s a very insightful storify written by Tom Scheinoha about D. B. Weiss’s Lucky Wander Boy, in which Tom explores the idea of life-as-videogame, discussing the protagonist’s refusal to see his life as anything but a videogame, causing his psychological decline and his objectification of women as videogame plot points.
For the class’s final project, we paired students and had them write a collaborative storify on the games Braid and Gone Home. Here’s one written by Kailee Andrews and Arslan Amhad on the controversial game Gone Home. Arslan and Kailee examined this game as an example of interactive, environmental storytelling in which physical objects function as clues to reveal both an embedded narrative and layered horror tropes. Their analysis also notes how Gone Home‘s traditional horror tropes mirror the psychological horrors of ‘coming out’ as a gay, suburban teenager.
My co-TA, Becca Tarsa, wrote an article for the Digital Rhetoric Collaborative about Storify and Twitter, in which she asked me a few questions about using Twitter and Storify in the classroom. So instead of continuing here, I might as well give you a link to Becca’s article.
Thanks to all the students in English 177, who wrote some great Storify essays, and whose enthusiasm about this experimental lecture format made this a successful class, and special thanks to Tom Scheinoha, Kailee Andrews, Arslan Amhad, and Lawrence McCaigue for allowing me to show their exemplary work.