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Gaming, World Building, Networked Stories: A Progressive Approach to Creative Writing Pedagogy

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Trent Hergenrader

on 16 June 2014

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Transcript of Gaming, World Building, Networked Stories: A Progressive Approach to Creative Writing Pedagogy

In most good stories it is the character’s personality that creates the action of the story. In most [amateur stories], I feel that the writer has thought up some action and then scrounged up a character to perform it.
- Analyzing narrative units from:
Short stories
Traditional creative writing advice
Alternate history
"The misteaching of reading, especially in the K12 curriculum, which causes so many students to think of language as instrumental and transparent, something to be skimmed rather than read. . . . Dropping a few poets-in-the-schools into programs like a Marine strike force is hardly going to undercut the message students get continually, day after day, that language is to be mined for “information” that can be later regurgitated in test formats. It is more, even, than just the goal of developing critical thinkers, tho it is one important aspect of this. Until such time as our schools are given the resources they need in order to really address the whole child, not just managing to standardized tests, we haven’t a chance."
wouldn't a fully equipped computer classroom provide a more contemporary venue (yes, venue) for such activities, a venue more in line with the sorts of digital and networking activities that students will ultimately be doing? Doesn't the conjunction of communications technologies (synchronous, asynchronous, etc.) with the word/image/sound/archival processing presently represented by the computer provide at least the potential for a more collaborative - indeed, more - understanding of (artistic, scholastic) process and product, across genres, across media, across disciplines, and across geopolitical boundaries? Whatever the classroom technology (as it were), shouldn't any such engagement with writerly métier be facilitated (yes, facilitated) with an eye and an ear toward the various critical and theoretical concerns we've been yammering on about?

-Joe Amato and Kassia Fleischer,
Reforming Creative Writing Pedagogy
Gaming, World Building, Networked Stories
A Progressive Approach to Creative Writing Pedagogy
Trent Hergenrader, PhD Candidate | English-Creative Writing | UW-Milwaukee
A senior writer leads a discussion about a work written by a member of the class; workshop students share impressions, advice, and analysis. As Paul Engle, director of the Writers’ Workshop and founder of the International Writing Program, observed: “the students benefited greatly from hearing a variety of attitudes toward their work. It was like publishing then being reviewed.” Workshop students receive honest and immediate feedback about their writing and become better critics of their own work.

-University of Iowa website
What the workshop ideally provides is a community of people who read widely and well, who savor words, who enjoy using their minds, who take seriously what young writers wish to take seriously.

-Scott Russell Sanders, "Writer in the University" (1991)
Iowa-style workshop
Neither of these [undergraduate works] may be a great poem, but they are the best they can be, I think, and I would argue that's about all any teacher can hope to accomplish with the craft, art, or skills of our students: we can help them be as good as they can be.

-Ron McFarland, "Apologia for Creative Writing" (1994)
No formal admissions process
Minority of students seek literary publication as a goal
Unfamiliar with contemporary literary publishing
For many undergraduate CW courses
The workshop is an ideal format for select writers seeking publication, but...
Progressive approaches to CW
critical of traditional workshop
against CW as self-help/therapy or nurturing "the muse"
historical and material conditions of writing
inclusion of different media
What about electronic writing?
Digging for meaning
Ron Silliman, "Poetry Foundation Questionnaire"
collaborative writing (social)
digital production (multimedia)
published on Internet (publicly available)
decentered classroom (student involvement)
Course Objectives
Craft Objectives
shift emphasis away a story's meaning
focus on character and setting
fragments and vignettes (1K words or less)
incorporate material conditions into discussion
Special topics in creative writing
Role-playing games & fiction writing
"I have first wanted to argue that good video games build into their very designs good learning principles and that we should use these principles, with or without games, in schools, workplaces, and other learning sites. Second, I have wanted to argue that when young people are interacting with video games--and other popular cultural practices--they are learning, and learning in deep ways. Through good game design we can leverage deeper and deeper learning as a form of pleasure in people's everyday lives without any hint of school and schooling." - James Paul Gee
Games feature good learning principles
but how...?
professional writing
creative writing
- writing processes
- material conditions
- writing genres
- specific tech tools
- huh?
- electronic literature (?)
- gaming
How games enter the equation
Digital Pedagogy
Students exhibiting a tendency to read a print text searching for a fixed immutable “meaning” could be said to be examining systems operations, looking for clues that would reveal the totalizing structure that serves to inform a correct interpretation of the work.
Unit operations are “modes of meaning-making that privilege discrete, disconnected actions over deterministic, progressive systems” as opposed to system operations, which are “totalizing structures that seek to explicate a phenomenon, behavior, or state in its entirety."

- Ian Bogost, Unit Operations
Analyzing narrative units across media
What Videogames Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy
Fan wikis for popular videogames
The Vault, the Fallout Wiki
Fallout's "Vault Boy"
"The point of fiction as a medium is to yield a product - a story - worthy of being read. That is not a kind of storytelling that most games are good at, as a medium. Games are good in the moment. Games are anecdotal. Stories that develop over the course of gameplay are personally exciting and meaningful in a way that movies and novels aren't, but they achieve this level of personal meaning at the expense of secondhand meaning. No one but the players are included in the excitement."
Will Hindmarch
"Storytelling Games as a Creative Medium"
Tabletop role-playing games as collaborative storytelling experiences
"One of the players is the Storyteller [or GM], who creates and guides the story. The Storyteller describes what happens as a result of what the players say and [their characters] do. It is the Storyteller who decides if the characters succeed or fail, suffer or prosper, live or die."
"I'll tell [the Storyteller/GM] about [my character], about her talents and her weaknesses, and you tell me what kind of challenges she faces, what rewards or perils come her way. You plan the twists and turns the story will take, and I will tell you how [my character] navigates them...along the way, the work you put into the story gives my [character] the chance to grow and develop, and her actions breathe life in the world you have created."
How it works logistically...
...and for story development
-Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners
You will usually be more successful if you start the other way around. If you start with a real personality, a real character, then something is bound to happen; and you don’t have to know what before you begin. In fact, it may be better if you don’t know what before you begin. You ought to be able to discover something from your stories. If you don’t probably nobody else will.
The fiction writer’s chief goal is to "make up convincing human beings and create for them basic situations and actions by means of which they come to know themselves and reveal themselves to the reader."
-John Gardner, Art of Fiction
Traditional creative writing advice
A writer must "shape simultaneously (in an ever expanding creative moment) his characters, plot, and setting, each inextricably connected to the others."
ENG 236:Intro Topics in Creative Writing
Gaming, World Building, and Narrative
UW-Milwaukee, Spring 2011
Part 1 - Narrative Across Media
Part 2 - Wiki World Building
Part 3 - Tabletop Role-Playing
- Post-apocalyptic genre
- Populating a wiki with:
- Collaborative world building
- Placing wiki entries on a map
- Player-character creation
- Tabletop RPG campaigns
- Vignette-length writing
- Group critique sessions
Part 1 - Narrative across media
Paragraph 1: Pick a character (not necessarily the protagonist) and describe everything you know about him or her. Consider:
●Physical appearance: Race, age, gender, height/weight, hair color/style, athletic/clumsy, attractive/ugly, muscular/weak, etc.
●Personality traits: intelligence/foolishness, humor/seriousness, calmness/irritability, trust/suspiciousness, passiveness/aggression, etc.
●Skills and abilities: what all can this person do in the world? Do they possess technical skills (fixing cars) or people skills (persuasion)?
Motivations: what does this person want from life? What gets them out of bed in the morning? What do they want to achieve?
●Inventory: what possessions do they have? What is most valuable? What is least valuable?

Paragraph 2: Pick a location (there might be one or several) and describe everything you know about it. Consider:
●Physical surroundings: City/country, clean/dirty, new/ramshackle, safe/dangerous, rich/poor, abundant/ravaged, hot/cold, dry/wet, etc.
●Social structure: does a functioning community exist? If so, how does it work and who are its leaders? If not, what exists in its place?
●Economy: what is most valuable in this place? Money? Prestige? Weapons? Food? Other material goods? How are goods exchanged?
●Politics: what makes a person strong in this place? How are resources (food, clothing, shelter) allocated?

Paragraphs 3-4: Pick a few moments in the narrative where the character makes decisions that impact the story and write a short analysis covering:
●The specific decision and how it shaped the rest of the narrative going forward.
●The factors influencing this decision, including both personal and environmental factors.
●Alternative choices the character did not make, relevant explanations why they did not, and how it might have impacted the story.
Blog posts and comments on narrative units in stories, films, and videogame
Part 1 - Narrative across media
Character creation
Physiological responses
Embodied experiences
Part 2 - Wiki world building
Blind ballot to determine the nature of the apocalypse
25 students each assigned:
- 10 items (250)
- 5 locations (125)
- 5 non-player characters (125)
Class discussions about politics, economies, societies of this world
Site modeled after the Vault wiki
Part 2 - Wiki world building
Fallout 3 Location Map
Rivertown Location Map
Part 3 - Tabletop role-playing
2 classes dedicated to character creation
4 RPG sessions, 1 hr 15 minute each
6 groups of 4 player-characters
- Assisted by 4 student game masters
4 rooms on 3 different floors of the building
1K-word vignettes based on campaign
Critique groups both online and in person
Fiction writing & critique
Role-playing sessions
Gaming, World Building, Networked Stories
A Progressive Approach to Creative Writing Pedagogy
1. Theory
2. Practice
3. Production
Four weeks of role-playing campaigns
Near-perfect attendance
100% participation, even from shy students
Collaborative teaching/learning about RPGs
Non-stop discussion on Facebook
Engaging fiction writing through vignettes
Final course discussion with students:
Unanimous opinion - more RPG time
Intending to continue campaigns into summer
The role-playing experience
Four surveys given during the semester:
Diagonstic Survey
Media and Creative Writing
Role-Playing and Creative Writing
Overall impressions of the course
Write a few short paragraphs reflecting on your role-playing experiences (map creation, character creation, and adventuring) thus far and how they have impacted your fiction writing. Has role-playing impacted the way you approach world building and/or characterization when writing fiction?

Write a few short paragraphs reflecting on role-playing compared with your previous experiences in creative writing courses. Do you see any advantages or drawbacks to role-playing versus other approaches to teaching creative writing concepts, such as world building and characterization?

Write a few paragraphs reflecting on the course as a whole. What parts of the course did you especially like or dislike? How did it compare with your previous experiences with creative writing?

Write a few paragraphs reflecting on how using different media, role-playing, and gaming impacted your fiction writing. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages to this approach? Do you feel you learned more or less about creative writing concepts, such as world building and characterization, and why?
Anonymous course surveys
Open-ended survey questions:
The collaborative world building and storytelling aspects was one of my favorite parts of the class. Letting other people's work influence my own writing is something I never before considered, and I found it to be quite enlightening.
ENG 236: Gaming, World Building, & Narrative
Student survey responses
On developing a fictional character:
Role-playing, I think, has changed entirely how I looked at my writing. To make the decisions I needed in game, I had to step into my characters head and actually think like it. And if I wasn't doing the things I thought my character would do, I felt like I was weakening the session.
I think the role playing aspect of the class has helped me with the fiction writing in that when I made up a character and made up a background for the character, I was able to form more insight into the characters head. By already having a background and then writing a story about that character in another situation it was easy to write in that character's perspective and have an idea of how they would react, given their background.
Role-playing has shown me that it's okay to change a character after writing about them for a while. Nothing has to be set in stone. Not only do people change and mature, but over time, you also find out deeper motives the more you get to know someone (your character).
I have really been able to get inside the head of the character I created. As far as characters go, I have not had to worry about developing anyone else except the one I created. This aspect has given me a lot of time to truly think about what makes this character tick, what pleases this character, how he speaks, etc.
Learning about your character by acting him/her out is a very enlightening experience. At first, I wasn't certain if my character would have actually made the choices that I did, but as I progressed through the sessions, I could understand better what, and why, he would make a choice. This allowed me to write better stories though his perspective.
On wiki world-building:
The collaborative wiki setup was great. The rich world that the class as a whole developed gives us such a large well of material to draw on, that it is very tempting to continue on in this world after the semester is over.
Building our world from the bottom, filling it with items, non player characters, and places, opened my eyes to a different way to approach creative writing. I had always started with a character and a story in mind rather than items and places
I love the amount of usable content that came out of this class, and the crowd-sourced nature of our world means that there will always be surprises as long as the world keeps evolving.
Since we all took a big part in creating our world, I feel very connected to it. I feel like I had just as big of an impact on this course as the rest of the students. It is a very welcoming feeling, and I would like to think the rest of the students in this class feel the same way.
It was so helpful and interesting to collaboratively create a world. This allowed for the character to explore unfamiliar places (as a real person might) with fresh eyes, because other people created locations that I never would have thought of.
The wiki is SUCH a cool idea, it worked out so well, I just have to keep throwing stuff up there.
On social aspects of the class:
Role-playing was something to look forward to and something to get excited about. Other classes may lack that enthusiasm.
I enjoyed working with a variety of students with different levels of experience in gaming, literature, and role-playing.
This class was a whole new take on things: the students were in charge of the world (for the most part), we all took it seriously and enjoyed what we were doing.
I think the small group mentality is amped up in this class compared to others, and that helps both the writing and the community part of the class.
Because the students had similar interests, we connected more as a whole group, rather than just feeling like an individual student in a weird environment.
It was a very social atmosphere which differs so greatly from my other writing class right now - nobody talked to each other, and everyone thought they were so much more talented than all the others. This format of the class really put everyone on an even footing, and the success or failure of the project depended on everyone's equal input and participation. I thought that was so valuable in contributing to a collectively driven mindset.
Role-playing has helped this class form some pretty awesome relationships, which might be something that other classes lack.
The most enjoyable part was watching other students who were slightly unfamiliar with gaming and writing as a whole, develop their own style of writing.
It was the only class in my college career where I made friends, and those friends are people I'd like to continue knowing. I don't want this class to end, and my group and I have talked about continuing our role-playing and stories through the summer.
On collaborative storytelling through role-playing:
The main actions are determined partially by the world,partially by the GM and partially by the choices of the character or the group. This provides an interesting setting in which to write the character's personal experience of the action - it is really a road map for the character's personal development.
It makes you think long and hard about the choices that you've made and the choices that were made for you and how your character reacted to them, both overtly and introspectively.
Role-playing also forces you to get to know characters you may not have thought of using in writing before, and because the GM has a huge impact on the delivery of events, your character may be forced to make some epic decisions.
One of the main advantages of using role playing for creative writing is that you don't spend as much time thinking deeply on each movement and action of each character, usually you are making decisions in the heat of the moment like the characters which makes it more believable.
Staying within these parameters, and not needing to think so much about the plot, allows me to devote my thoughts to the way the character experiences these situations. I am able to think more about relationships, character development, sensory description, and other items that I wouldn't normally be able to focus on in a first draft. I am able to think more about my character and her personal growth than laboring over what is going to happen next.
Compared to the traditional workshop method:
This has been my favorite creative writing course I've taken in my entire collegiate career. I will be graduating this semester and I am saddened to finally see such a creative and relevant approach to writing fiction appear only at the end of my scholastic career.
This class was far more exciting and fun than all of the creative writing classes I've taken previously. That is not to say they were bad by any means, but after awhile, the normal creative writing class settles into a formula that is monotonous throughout most of the other creative writing classes that are offered.
This was the most engaging in a creative writing course I have ever been, which is a lot due to this being my major.
I so enjoyed the collaborative experience and the opportunity to learn about my character through that medium - it was far and away the most inspiring portion of a writing class that I have ever experienced.
I do not understand why we continue the same creative writing process over and over. It is always the case where we would have to read old literature and somehow relate to that style of writing and then come up with your own way of writing. No wonder there is rarely any inspiration in students' writings. The role playing eventually, even if you do not like playing, involves you more into your writing.
This class has single handidly restored my faith in English classes
I feel I learned more from this class than many of my other ones. I was forced to work through my character and understand her thousand fold better than I could have otherwise. I was given the privilege to walk in my characters shoes in a way that would never otherwise be possible. It was magnificent.
I haven't taken many creative writing courses but I have taken many english classes and I have to say that it always feels repetitive and outdated. The emphasis is always on the classics and never anything recent and never incorporated media or role playing. This class included all of these things, shorts stories, movies, video games, and role playing. I really liked how all these sources served as inspiration to our fiction writing. It is very refreshing to feel that I can actually relate to my fiction than before where I felt I was imitating classical scenarios.
General comments & suggestions:
This class was beautiful.
Longer than a 16-week course, please!
The biggest change I'd recommend is to have more time spent gaming. I found the longer I was able to game, the better I understood my character. I'd imaging longer gaming sessions would lead to better, more focused writing.
I thoroughly enjoyed the role-playing sessions, and I suggest that they are included more if this course is taught again. I would suggest you jump into the role-playing sooner and you continue it for longer than just four weeks. Regardless, the four weeks of it was wonderful. But, I was left wanting more, much more.
The course seemed rushed at the end but that was probably due to the desire of most of the students to continue their campaigns.
More roleplaying and actual fiction writing.
I would have to say that, although I thoroughly enjoyed all sections of the course, my favorite thing we did was the role-playing and fiction writing. It really was different than anything I've ever done in any other creative writing course.
For the actual role-playing sessions, my only complaint is that I wish there were more of them
I was absolutely fascinated to see how the role-playing affected my writing: it provided me with plot elements (my eternal struggle) as well as giving me a very intricate personal knowledge of my character, and how she makes decisions.
The role-playing, in general, was definitely the most helpful. I had never written from the perspective of solely the character that I created.
Instructor reflections
- Decentered classroom
- Students as collaborators/conspirators with instructor
Benefits of gaming and play
- Compress other units of the course including the wiki
- Center the class explicitly around role-playing
- Involve students in the map-making process
- Better organization of collaborative narrative

- Time
- Space
- Logistics
Course modifications
Institutional challenges
Theory. Practice. Production.
High level of "replayability"
Flexible RPG systems &
significant body of media and critical works
Other forms of creative production
Electronic literature & digital arts
Found/altered/canceled texts
"A Humument" - Tom Phillips
Intro to Creative Writing students samples
Concluding remarks
Creative writing in the 21st century
Exciting time to be in creative writing

Complement workshop with experimental practice

Make use of networked and digital tools

Multimedia/transmedia storytelling

Learn alongside our students
Full transcript