Difficult Play: Developing Games with/in Complex Political Narratives, Threatened Environments and Challenging Histories

panel / roundtable
  1. 1. Lissa Holloway-Attaway

    University of Skövde

  2. 2. Rebecca Rouse

    Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

  3. 3. Mara Dionisio

    Madeira Interactive Technologies Institute

  4. 4. Hartmut Koenitz

    HKU, University of the Arts - Utrecht University

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In our panel, we will discuss the ways in which games (Digital, AR, and Mixed Reality) offer users and designers critical modes for research and engagement with complex socio-political narratives, threatened environments and difficult histories via digital intervention. As media forms that promote convergent, performative and hybrid modes for interaction—moving between digital and material worlds and discourses—our games offer rich opportunities to explore contemporary Digital Humanities (DH) practices focused on multiply layered human and more-than-human agencies and subjectivities within narrative structures.
Exploring principles such as performativity and citizen engagement, and analyzing transmedial storytelling and mixed reality games designed to support complex subjectivities, we argue that games are an exemplary medium for deploying DH practices where human/technical boundaries are deeply entangled. We recognize the importance of theoretical and practical models that view computational narrative systems as fluid, interpretative, and multi-dimensional, opened by/for humanist intervention, not only in their hard-coded design.
Ideally then, our games, like contemporary DH media, are performative, not mechanistic, and they are unfolded as they are iteratively encountered. (Drucker, 2011). The multimodal storytelling experiences in the game-play we design are reinforced, then, not only through technical interface affordances, but through carefully considered contexts for play where users, environments, discourses, and cultures are entangled. Such complexity is addressed in current reflections on DH increasingly focused on identifying texts/users /environments as recursive and mutually influential, not on digital media and computation as tools for recovering meaning from text-based content (Burdick et al, 2012; Gold, 2012; Hayles 2012). N Katherine Hayles, for example, in How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis offers a framework to support more interdisciplinary DH methods (including Comparative Media and Culture Studies approaches) critically informed by investigations into the changing role and function of the user of technologies and media and the human/social contexts for use. Hayles, explicitly claims that in DH humans “think, through, with, and alongside media,” and in essence, our thinking and being, our digitization and our human-ness are mutually productive and intertwined (1).
Furthermore, we argue that our games are multisensory and as such provide access to digital/physical worlds that may reorient our traditional agencies and affects, offering novel ways for understanding and engagement with socio-political issues. Such re-distribution creates new ways to encounter challenging histories and hidden environments (marginalized peoples, alternate voices, and unknown ecosystems) and they create rich contexts for DH scholars working to deepen their understanding of performative and active interventions beyond texts and tools. As such, we believe that DH designers and developers have much to learn from a rich body of games, interactive narrative and heritage research, particularly that which is focused on critical and rhetorical design for play, Mixed Reality (MR) approaches and users’ bodies as integral to narrative design (Anderson et. al, 2010; Bogost, 2010; Flanagan, 2013; Mortara et. al, 2014; Rouse et. al, 2015; Sicart, 2011).

Anderson, E. F., McLoughlin, L., Liarokapis, F., Peters, C., Petridis, P., de Freitas, S. (2010) Developing Serious Games for Cultural Heritage: A State-of-the-Art Review.
Virtual Reality 14 (4).

Bogost, I. (2010)
Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Burdick, A., Drucker, J., Lunenfeld, P., Presner, T., Schnapp, J. (2012)
Digital_Humanities. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Flanagan, M. (2013)
Critical Play: Radical Game Design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Gold, M. K. (2012)
Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Hayles, K.N. (2012)
How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis. Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press.

Mortara, M., Catalano, C.E., Bellotti, F., Fiucci, G., Houry-Panchetti, M., Panagiotis, P. (2014) Learning Cultural Heritage by Serious Games.
Journal of Cultural Heritage, vol. 15, no. 3, pp. 318-325.

Rouse, R., Engberg, M., JafariNaimi, N., Bolter, J. D., Eds. (2015) Understanding Mixed Reality.
Digital Creativity, vol. 26, issue 3-4, pp. 175-227.

Sicart, M. (2011)
The Ethics of Computer Games. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Paper 1:
AR Design for Hidden Histories: Community Engagement, Co-Design, and Interdisciplinary Collaboration

Rebecca Rouse
This paper presents a set of pedagogic and research strategies for developing co-designed AR (augmented reality) digital heritage games focused on contested and marginalized histories, based on a digital humanities community engagement course developed over the past six years with community partners including an historical society, state office of historic preservation, municipality, university archive, and museum of science and innovation. The approach in teaching and research to this topic is based on work in foundational texts such as Helguera’s “Education for Socially Engaged Art,” Sanders and Stappers’ research on CoDesign, Bennett’s discussion of the political history of display “The Exhibitionary Complex,” Dunne and Raby’s approach to critical design in “Speculative Everything,” and Rouse et al’s interdisciplinary humanistic approach to understanding mixed reality.
Documentation of projects produced will be presented, including “Below Stairs,” an AR role playing game that tells the story of an Irish immigrant working as a domestic laborer in a wealthy household in the 1850s, “The Foerster Files,” focused on the more recent history of urban renewal in the 1970s and social conflicts associated with economic development in urban centers, “Discover Cohoes,” an AR game about the major contributions of the Native American nations in the Cohoes area, and “Harriet Tubman: Guided by the Night,” an AR game and interactive planetarium experience that tells the fuller history of Tubman, through the lens of her STEM knowledge in astronomy. Best practices will be shared, along with a discussion of key challenges for developing work in this field using collaborative methods.

Bennett, T. (1998) The Exhibitionary Complex.
new formations, No. 4, Spring, pp. 73-102.

Dunne, A., Raby, F. (2013)
Speculative Everything: Design Fiction and Social Dreaming. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Helguera, P. (2011)
Education for Socially Engaged Art: A Materials and Techniques Handbook. New York, NY: Jorge Pinto Books.

Rouse, R., Engberg, M., JafariNaimi, N., Bolter, J. D., Eds. (2015) Understanding Mixed Reality.
Digital Creativity, vol. 26, issue 3-4, pp. 175-227.

Sanders, E. B.-N., Stappers, P. J. (2014) Probes, Toolkits, and Prototypes: Three Approaches to Making in Codesigning.
CoDesign, Vol. 10, No 1., pp. 5-14.

Paper 2:
“The Story of A Fish”: Promoting Environmental Citizenship and Playing with Baltic Sea Ecologies and Ecosystems

Lissa Holloway-Attaway
In my paper, I will outline the context for development of an Environmental Humanities project focused on engaging citizens around the Baltic Sea in activities focused on the ecological and environmental threats to the sea, impacted by climate change and other human factors. Within the project, multiple disciplinary strategies, drawn from Bioscience, Ecology, Art, Literature, Performance, Games, Computer Science, Robotics, and Digital Publishing are deployed to create a diverse, intra-active set of transmedial materials to ‘tell’ the stories of the Baltic ecosystem (cultural, historical, imaginative, and artistic, and scientific). Through play and active digital/material intervention we hope to expose citizens to the biodiversity and political narratives of their region.
I will primarily focus on one specific mechanism for such storytelling, a 2D mobile platform game developed to teach citizens about some of the threats to the Baltic Sea ecosystem through a played encounter with a pregnant Cod-Fish looking for a place to lay her eggs —while evading threats to her natural habitat (oil, mustard gas, algae blooms, microplastics, for example). The game is designed as only one element in a series of other mediated encounters intentionally developed to support non-human interventions for the Age of the Anthropocene—the current geological epoch said to be defined by human impact on the Earth’s atmosphere, geology and other natural systems for evolution. As such, like many DH projects that combine complex computational intervention with scientific inquiry, critical art practice, and humanities approaches, it is intended to be a diverse system for intervention.
Our Anthropocene-oriented design strategies are reflective of many intra-disciplinary initiatives in Environmental Humanities (a close relative of DH) that seeks alternative methods for writing and reflecting beyond human-only perspectives. For example, Boes and Marshall (2014) in “Writing the Anthropocene: An Introduction,” suggest we must find “alternative narratives,” other modes of mediated composition where our “contemporary species-being expresses itself not in denotative speech acts but rather in performative interventions (64)” In this way, “humankind functions as both subject and object” of the discourse, becoming a sender and recipient, and all ways in between (64). In line with Ian Foster (2011) in

“How Computation Changes Research,” we work across disciplines, and with a focus on computational processes as only one element in a set of many (including arts and humanities perspectives) to radically alter our understanding of the worlds that engage us.


Boes, T., Marshall, K. (2014). Writing the Anthropocene: An Introduction.
The Minnesota Review 83: 60-73.

Foster, I. (2011) How Computation Changes Research. In Bartscherer, T., Coover, R. (Eds).
Switching Codes: Thinking Through Digital Technology in the Humanities and the Arts. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Paper 3:
Engaging People in Biodiversity and Natural Heritage Through Interactive Storytelling Approaches

Mara Dionisio
The decrease of biodiversity is a shared concern among several scientists. According to Miller (2005), “conservationists have failed to convey the importance, wonder and relevance of biodiversity to the general public, preaching to the choir rather than reaching the unconverted.” He suggests that more effort should be put in making the natural world fundamental to people’s lives as there is evidence showing that people who have personal connections with natural areas are more highly motivated to protect such environments (Williams and Cary, 2002). This is aligned with what Novacek (2008) suggests, “to engage people in biodiversity and other environmental issues, one must provide the opportunity for enhanced understanding that empowers individuals to make choices and take action based on sound science and reliable recommendations.” Novacek suggests a strategic use of the Internet to reach new and expanded audiences.
In the past two decades, continuous improvements and uptake of mobile smart device's capabilities, provided a ground for the flourishing of experiences that connect and educate audiences/players regarding local cultures and history (Farman, 2013). Such approaches showcase the potential of new technologies; in particular, location-aware technologies allied with the power of storytelling, as they have been successful approaches in allowing participants in immersing themselves in the locations while supporting meaningful engagement and involvement.
In our paper, we propose to discuss a transmedia entertainment education experience we have developed and share insights and reflections on how interactive storytelling can be used to drive interventions that require people to ponder the benefits of local natural heritage and its underlying ecosystem services. The experience is shaped by the Madeiran context in particular and by Madeira’s natural heritage - the Laurisilva Forest, which holds ‘great importance for its biodiversity conservation’ (Lairisilva, 2014). Many tourists overlook the value of this environment, a very unique ecosystem in Europe. The experience we designed is mediated through a mobile application that uses location-aware sensing to guide the audience in the discovery of different parts of the story. At the end of each plot point, a teaser video interview with local scientists and inhabitants is offered to put the audience in touch with real events and facts about Madeira. The complete version of these interviews can be viewed on the web-platform.

Farman J. (2013)
The Mobile Story: Narrative Practices with Locative Technologies. New York and London: Routledge. 

Laurisilva of Madeira World Heritage Centre (2014)
World Heritage Centre Periodic Report - Section II.

Miller, J. R. (2005). Biodiversity conservation and the extinction of experience.
Trends in ecology & evolution, 20(8), 430-434.

Novacek, M. J. (2008). Engaging the public in biodiversity issues.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(Supplement 1), 11571-11578.

Williams, K.J.H. and Cary, J. (2002) Landscape preferences, ecological quality, and biodiversity protection.
Environmental Behavior 34, 257–274

Paper 4:
Interactive Narrative Design for Complexity – the case of the Multiple Lives of Walter B.

Hartmut Koenitz
Interactive Digital Narratives (IDN) provide a particular opportunity to represent complex historical and contemporary topics by means of multiple competing narrative strands, choices and resulting consequences and replay. In this paper I will present a specific model for IDN (Koenitz 2015) inspired by complex representations in the sciences and report on a historical project applying this model. (Koenitz 2017) 

IDN builds on the affordances of the digital medium: procedural (ability to execute software independently), participatory (ability to react to actions by the audience), spatial (ability to present work for spatial traversal) and encyclopedic (ability to hold vast amounts of information) (Murray 1997). In interactive digital narratives, Murray reminds us, the audience has agency, the ability to make meaningful choices and in the process, experiences a transformation not only of the virtual world, but also one on a personal level through the awareness of alternative paths and perspectives. 

An artwork realized as a physical installation, "The Multiple Lives of Walter B." invites participants to explore how a number of interrelated decisions change a character’s biography. The participants engage with the piece by physically interacting with objects and locations, thus creating a sensory experience. Inspired by motives from the life of media theorist and philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), the work is simultaneously an exploration of history, through the lens of an individual character. 

Benjamin’s multifaceted life provides ample motives for an interactive treatment. Simultaneously, the many junctures in his biography open up a space for speculation – what would have become of him, if he had taken a different turn? At different points in time, he could have stayed in Sweden, in Ibiza or in Moscow. And what would have happened as a consequence? If he would have chosen Moscow, would he have returned to Germany as a Communist party functionary and ended his life as Minister for Culture? If he would have stayed in Ibiza, would he have been known as the first Hippie and a symbol of counterculture later? It is this kind of questions the project asks its audience to ponder.

The project has been realized as a physical installation and shown in Seoul 2015 as well as Copenhagen 2015 and Porto 2017. It features a number of small objects, a suitcase, a map drawn on the floor, and a projector. The objects represent significant aspects of Benjamin’s life, for example a Communist party membership card or a love letter. The significance of specific objects as well as the locations are purposefully opaque to invite speculation and playful exploration. The tactile and spatial experience of handling objects and moving the suitcase across the map creates an intimate and immersive relationship with the intangible character Walter B. and give the interactor the feeling of agency in the creation of the biography. Simultaneously, the interactor is aware of their recreation of a historical life, one that has already passed and thus becomes an explorer of history.

Koenitz, H. (2015). Towards a specific theory of Interactive Digital Narrative. In H. Koenitz, M. Haahr, D. Sezen, & T. Sezen (Eds.), 
Interactive Digital Narrative: History, Theory and Practice (Chapter 6). New York: Routledge.

Koenitz, H. (2017) The Multiple Lives of Walter B. A Biographical Exploration. Digital Installation based on motifs from Walter Benjamin’s life.
ELO: Electronic Literature Organization 2017 Art Exhibition, Porto, Portugal.

Murray, J. H. (2016)
Hamlet on the Holodeck: the future of narrative in cyberspace, 2
Ed. New York: The Free Press.

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