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GLS 7.0 - Gaming, World Building, and Narrative

A discussion on applying gaming principles to creative writing

Trent Hergenrader

on 22 January 2012

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Transcript of GLS 7.0 - Gaming, World Building, and Narrative

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

The result? An astonishing success.
Near-perfect attendance
100% participation, even from shy students
Collaborative teaching/learning about RPGs
Non-stop discussion on Facebook
Engaging fiction writing through vignettes
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, and Narrative:
Using Role-Playing Games
to Teach Fiction Writing

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
Iowa-Style Workshop
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"
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"
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."

-Vampire: The Masquerade Rulebook, V1
"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."

-Vampire: The Masquerade Rulebook, V3
How it works logistically...
...and for story development
ENG 236:Intro Topics in Creative Writing
Gaming, World Building, and Narrative
UW-Milwaukee, Spring 2011

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.
Character creation
Non-player characters
Politics, economies, societies
Unit operations as “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."
Flash fiction ≈ 1000 words
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.”
A writer must "shape simultaneously (in an ever expanding creative moment) his characters, plot, and setting, each inextricably connected to the others."
In most good stories it is the character’s personality that creates the action of the story. In most [workshop stories], I feel that the writer has thought up some action and then scrounged up a character to perform it. 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.
Trent Hergenrader, PhD candidate, English-Creative Writing, UW-Milwaukee
No formal admissions process
Few students seek literary publication as a goal
Unfamiliar with contemporary literary publishing
Undergraduate CW Courses
Aren't we aiming at the wrong target...
...and turning our back on other opportunities CW courses present?
collaborative writing (social)
digital production (multimedia)
published on Internet (publicly available)
decentered classroom (student involvement)
Course Objectives for ENG 236
Craft Objectives
shift emphasis away a story's meaning
fragments and vignettes (1K words or less)
focus on character and world building
Role-Playing Games
& Fiction Writing
Traditional CW Pedagogy
-Flannery O'Connor, "Mystery and Manners"
-John Gardner, "Art of Fiction"
Analyzing Narrative Units Across Media
-Ian Bogost, "Unit Operations"
ENG 236: Gaming, World Building, & Narrative

Part One: Discussing narrative units in short stories,
films, and videogames
Plot grows naturally from a unique character making decisions against a detailed fictional world
ENG 236: Gaming, World Building, & Narrative

Part Two: Wiki World Building
Based on popular Fallout wiki
25 students each made:

Collaboratively created history
Instructor placed on Google map
- 10 Items (> 250 items)
- 5 Locations (> 125 locations)
- 5 NPCs (> 125 NPCs)
Fallout 3 Location Map
Rivertown Location Map
ENG 236: Gaming, World Building, & Narrative

Part Three: 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
Students wrote 1K-word vignettes based on campaign
Last class session discussion with students:
Unanimous opinion that they wanted more RPG time
Continuing on the course after it has ended
- additional role-playing campaigns
- contributing more to the wiki
- writing and critiquing fiction
ENG 236: Gaming, World Building, & Narrative

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?
Please share any other comments, including areas needing improvement, about this course.
- 17 responses per survey, 75% participation
- over 20,000 words of responses
Open-ended Survey Questions
ENG 236: Gaming, World Building, & Narrative
Student 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.
ENG 236: Gaming, World Building, & Narrative
Instructor's Reflections
- Decentered classroom
- Students as collaborators/conspirators with instructor

- Compress other units of the course including the wiki
- Center the class explicitly around role-playing
- Have students involved in map-making
- "New" kind of collaborative narrative

- Institutional challenges to a RPG curriculum
ENG 236: Gaming, World Building, & Narrative

Part One: Videogames and embodied experience
ENG 236: Gaming, World Building, & Narrative

Part One: Character creation
Physiological responses
(Perspective: this 20-minute presentation is about 3200 words)
It's 2114 and the world lies in ruins...
Welcome to Rivertown, the shattered remnants of a great city once called Milwaukee.

First came the plague: a superflu that wiped out most of the earth's population. Society crumbled as the survivors scrambled to hold onto what they could as they world around them burned. But like a fighter lying broken on the mat, humanity finds a way to stagger through one more round. Some people organized, either to rebuild, to protect their wealth at any cost, or to finish the job the apocalypse started.

So welcome. Feel free to take a look around. Learn the lay of the land. Get to know the locals. Scrounge through the rubble and see what you might find. As you'll find, there's no right or wrong way to navigate Rivertown. Like the rest of us, you'll just have to learn how to get by the best you can.
These are their stories.
Games+Learning+Society 7.0 | Madison, WI | June 17, 2011
Trent Hergenrader
Ph.D. Candidate, Graduate Teaching Assistant
Department of English
Full transcript