Winter Nights in Alberta: Computer Role Playing Games and Digital Narrative in the Classroom

  1. 1. Sean Gouglas

    University of Alberta

  2. 2. Stéfan Sinclair

    McMaster University

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This paper discusses the use of computer role-playing games in the instruction of hypermedia narratives in a graduate-level multimedia course in Humanities Computing at the University of Alberta. The construction of digital narratives, through dynamic web authoring, Flash, or game module creation, for example, has provided professors, students, and creative writers with an opportunity to explore the narrative potential of a hypertext environment. From a creative writing standpoint, Carolin Guertin’s Assemblage project and Sue Thomas’s trAce online writing centre have provided significant resources for those exploring writing in a digital space. Janet Murray has, of course, provided students with significant opportunities over the years to explore new media writing, which she outlined in Hamlet on the Holodeck. Much of the efforts in this area have struggled with the increasing potential for interactivity afforded by evolving electronic mediums (many of which are examined by Espen Aarseth in his Cybertext: Perspective on Ergodic Literature). Each technological change, whether it be simply increased computing power or a revolutionary new technical interface, provides additional opportunities for increasing the interactive nature of digital narrative.

These narratives rarely change the options presented to the reader. Though the reader’s choices will alter the path of the narrative, rarely is there a systematic method for altering the path of the story based upon the reader’s physical and psychological characteristics. Computer role playing games attempt to introduce this level of complexity. In Bioware’s Neverwinter Nights (NWN), for example, the player’s avatar (or character) is endowed with a variety of characteristics that follow the character generation rules of an updated version of Dungeon & Dragons, one of the first tabletop Role Playing Games (RPG). As each avatar may possess significantly different abilities in strength or intelligence, or fundamentally different life skills, such as healing or fighting, the options presented to the character and therefore the player can be quite dramatic. For example, even if the person playing the game knows the answer to a riddle, the avatar may not be given the option to select this answer from a dialogue tree if the character’s intelligence score is not sufficiently high.

While the game itself offers an interesting diversion, the real strength of NWN stems from the constructor kit, which allows individuals to create their own immersive three-dimensional world, including an interactive plot, sound and special effect triggers, dialogue trees, and a powerful scripting language. The construction of these interactive narratives is enhanced by the playing. The reader enters a world where options and opportunities change by choices and their subsequent consequences. The ability to change camera angles and zoomed-distance to the action, an “historic event” according to Lev Manovich, allow for no correct ‘point of view’, resulting in a narrative experience can never be exactly repeated.

Although the course is principally a theoretical exploration of communication and new media studies, the construction of this computer gaming world is the third of three technical assignments that focus on the manner in which the medium changes narrative possibilities. The first two, an unedited ten-minute tracking shot (in the spirit of Hitchcock’s Rope) and a Flash presentation, provide significantly different challenges to students, principally stemming from the changing levels of interaction between the storyteller and the audience. The NWN assignment prompts students to consider the wide-ranging impact of interactivity on their attempts to construct a narrative. This paper, which outlines the initial successes and failures of this process, offers some insights into the challenges of introducing computer gaming into a graduate curriculum – a challenge generally accepted willingly by the students, but with some hesitation by teaching peers.

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Conference Info



Hosted at Göteborg University (Gothenburg)

Gothenborg, Sweden

June 11, 2004 - June 16, 2004

105 works by 152 authors indexed

Series: ACH/ICCH (24), ALLC/EADH (31), ACH/ALLC (16)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None