Thursday, January 7, 2010

11th Lesson For Literary Simulations: Backstory

Attic skeleton
Location: Virtual House of Usher

Viv Trafalgar and I summed up, in 10 lessons, our thoughts about what educators need to consider when they construct literary simulations in Second Life or other virtual worlds.

Now, like my heroes in the mock-metal band Spinal Tap, I want to go to 11.

Usher would not have worked as well as it did without backstory. I first encountered the term over at the Alphaville Herald, when Urizenus Sklar, avatar for Northwestern University Philosopher Peter Ludow, described the idea of how two different types of gamers react to online spaces in Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOs):
Ludologists think that MMOs are all about play. Narratologists think that MMOs are about spinning collaborative narratives. . . . In Second Life those narratives have to evolve organically in the lore of places . . . .Good back stories have uptake -- users pick up on them, expand on them, and write them into their own narratives and game play.
I'm a Narratologist through and through, and as a long-time gamer of the dice-and-paper sort, I generally preferred to build game campaigns to playing in them. I do roll d20s as a player, of course, but it's the task of making a world--or even a character I play--seem real that makes gameplay come to life. I've had "hack and slash" gamers join our weekly "Nerd Night" sessions, but they quickly bore as our group prefers to build story-lines collaboratively.

That said, without the backstory or a game-world, it would be hard to get the uptake Ludlow describes.

So we added a lot to Usher that Poe never put into his tale, but what we added remains consonant with his story (and borrows directly from his other work). Have a look at our wiki site on the Usher project for the backstory that emerged right before and during the playtest. It is subject to revision, but what interests me most is how we did not script it completely before students began to explore the House of Usher. We had some ideas, suggested by the making of the House and its contents; much more came out as students explored the House and made suggestions.

The narrative will continue to evolve this semester and next, as more students explore Poe's doomed family and their strange home.

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