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Interactive Digital Narratives (IDN) for Change: Educational Approaches and Challenges in a Project Focused on Migration

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  • HKU University of the Arts Utrecht
  • HKU University of the Arts Utrecht

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This paper shares the results of an interactive digital narrative (IDN) project, conducted at HKU University of the Arts Utrecht. We consider the potential of ‘IDN for change’, before we describe the project, the underlying design approach and the educational approaches. A particularfocus of this paper is on pedagogical considerations. We describe the educational challenges we have encountered during the project as well as the pedagogical interventions we have implemented to counter these difficulties. On this basis, we discuss a more general perspective on the state and issues in IDN-focused pedagogy.
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Interactive Digital Narratives (IDN) for Change
Educational Approaches and Challenges in a Project Focused on
Migration
Teun Dubbelman, Christian Roth, Hartmut Koenitz
HKU University of the Arts Utrecht, Professorship Interactive Narrative Design,
Nieuwekade 1, 3511 RV Utrecht, The Netherlands
{teun.dubbelman; christian.roth; hartmut.koenitz}@hku.nl
Abstract. This paper shares the results of an interactive digital narrative (IDN)
project, conducted at HKU University of the Arts Utrecht. We consider the po-
tential of ‘IDN for change’, before we describe the project, the underlying design
approach and the educational approaches. A particular focus of this paper is on
pedagogical considerations. We describe the educational challenges we have en-
countered during the project as well as the pedagogical interventions we have
implemented to counter these difficulties. On this basis, we discuss a more gen-
eral perspective on the state and issues in IDN-focused pedagogy.
Keywords: Interactive Digital Narratives (IDN) for Change · IDN Design · Ed-
ucation · Pedagogy · Migration · IDN and Society
1 Introduction
Interactive Digital Narrative (IDN) is often discussed in the context of entertainment,
yet, more serious applications, in line with serious games are equally possible and
have actually been a staple of the form at least since Glorianna Davenport’s early inter-
active documentaries on the changing cityscape of New Orleans in the 1980s [1]. In
fact, IDN in this regard holds several particular advantages over fixed narratives when
it comes to representations of complex and controversial topics, due to its procedural,
participatory and encyclopaedic nature [2]. The latter affordance allows for encyclo-
paedic depth of information that can be presented, while the former two in concert em-
power the interactor to make her own decisions and experience the consequences of
particular choices. The educational aspect of IDNs is further supported by the ability to
replay, the potential to revisit earlier decisions and explore a topic from additional per-
spectives and thus allows for insights that cannot be offered by linear and static repre-
sentations.
Migration is a complex topic that warrants such a treatment of complex representa-
tionand we might even argue that the topic requires it. This foundational understand-
ing of ‘serious IDNs’ is the basis for the migration-focused project discussed in this
paper. Indeed, a recent study finds interactive narrative to be effective in reducing prej-
udices against, and increasing support for, migrants: “participants who experienced Mi-
grate [the IDN used in the study] subsequently reported more positive affect toward
Mexicans living in the United States[3].
2 The Project: IDN With a Purpose
This paper shares the results of an IDN project, conducted by a group of students, re-
searchers and teachers from HKU University of the Arts Utrecht. Specifically, the paper
describes our overall approach towards interactive narrative design, the educational
challenges we have encountered during the project as well as the pedagogical interven-
tions we have implemented to counter these difficulties.
In this particular project, we wanted to create apurposefulinteractive digital nar-
rative; an IDN with potential societal value. We chose to focus on the critical topic of
migration. We gave a team of four students the assignment to develop an interactive
narrative that could show the complexity behind the integration and socialization of
migrants in Dutch society. The students worked fulltime on the project for one semes-
ter, and were given some freedom to choose specificities, such as target group, platform
and overall goal.
In the role of interactive narrative designers, students chose to develop an IDN ex-
perience for Dutch adolescents in the 18-25 age group, to be played on smart phones.
Its main purpose was raising awareness; by playing the IDN, the target group should
become more aware of the difficulties that migrants face when trying to integrate in
Dutch society. During the semester, the students had regular sessions with teachers and
researchers to collaboratively work on the project and overcome conceptual, designerly
and technical challenges.
This paper in particular focuses on the educational challenges we have encountered
in supervising this project, and we share relevant pedagogical interventions we have
implemented. Consequently, we will not describe in detail the design of the various
prototypes, nor the design process.
3 Approaches Towards Teaching IDN Design
Janet Murray is one of the first and few scholars who has written about the pedagogy
of IDN design in 1995. In a chapter called The pedagogy of cyberfiction: teaching a
course on reading and writing interactive narrative[4], Murray describes a course she
has taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the beginning of the
1990s. Emphasizing the pioneering aspect of this course, she writes: I set out in this
course to help establish the conventions and building blocks of an art form that is only
emerging[4]. In this chapter, Murray explains her approach to training students in
what she calls the art of “cyberfiction”, more widely known as interactive literature. In
the same period, Martin Rieser gave a keynote at ISEA, titled ‘Interactive narrative:
educating the authors’ [5]. Here, Rieser highlights the need for artistic, cross-discipli-
nary IDN design education. He writes: Only through the open minded commitment of
artists, writers and programmers who are prepared to explore the full expressive poten-
tial of the medium can we even begin to see a meaningful artform emerge[5]. Rieser
sees interactive digital narrative, with Murray, as a potential new artform. This artform
can only blossom if practitioners are well-trained. To this end, several educational ob-
stacles need to be cleared. Rieser and Murray both point towards the problematic legacy
of established media and dominant, normative forms of linear narrative representation,
particularly in terms of conceptual creative thinking. Rieser describes the need for prac-
titioners to abandon the traditional notion of authorial control; unlike established media,
interactive digital narratives hand over a considerable degree of control to users/interac-
tors. Similarly, Murray advocates the importance of procedural thinking for IDN prac-
titioners, as an unconventional, multilinear way of envisioning narrative structures. Ad-
ditionally, both scholars express concern about the lack of adequate authoring tools,
acclaimed examples and established design conventions.
Unfortunately, as we will demonstrate, many of the challenges identified by Murray
and Rieser are still persistent today, as research efforts have been focused mostly on
technical and conceptual approaches and less on education. Although solutions might
exist, these are not widely known, since relatively little knowledge on IDN pedagogy
has been shared and distributed since Murray’s and Rieser’s observations [6].
Indeed, Hartmut Koenitz in 2014 identifies the lack of “attention [..] paid to the cre-
ative process of actually creating IDN experiences” [7] as one of five areas in need of
scholarly attention in the field. In the context of discussing authoring tools, he states
Educating others in the use of the tools […] was not an area of focus for most projects
and points to Spierling and Szilas’s discussion [8] in the framework of the European
research project IRIS [9] as one of the few exceptions. Koenitz’ 2015 paper [10] offers
some insights from his own teaching practice, but is focused on describing a generalized
design process and design principles in contrast to earlier case studies [11-13]. Finally,
we like to acknowledge promising educational approaches in the ongoing work of Co-
lette Daiute, [14, 15] that has not yet reached final conclusions.
Consequently, with this paper, we hope to spark new academic interest in the topic
of IDN pedagogy and take a first step in sharing useful pedagogical approaches.
4 Challenges and Approaches
Before discussing the educational challenges and pedagogical approaches, let us first
establish the project’s context. The project was part of a bachelor degree program in
Creative Media and Game Technologies, at HKU University of the Arts Utrecht. Con-
sequently, the learning experience of the students was built on established educational
practices from the transdisciplinary field of Creative Technology. Amongst others, it
included project-based learning [16], design thinking [17], learning by doing [18], 21st
century skill development [19], T-shaped education [20], flipping the classroom [21]
and blended learning [22]. Consequently, the educational challenges we have encoun-
tered in the project were partly general in nature. That is, some aspects were not specific
to IDN design education, but concerned more general problems, often encountered in
the educational practices mentioned above. These challenges included topics like poor
project planning, unforeseen team dynamics, inadequate topic research, limited access
to the target group or insufficient development capacity. For this paper, we focus solely
on those challenges that are specific to interactive narrative design and to the subject of
migration.
In this respect, the challenges we have encountered can be divided into three cate-
gories: conceptual, designerly and technical.
4.1 Conceptual challenge
As mentioned, the main goal of the project was to develop a purposeful IDN experience
for Dutch adolescents. By playing the IDN, the target group should become more aware
of the difficulties that migrants face when trying to integrate in Dutch society. For us,
it was important that the IDN did not convey the story of one particular migrant, but
embraced the possibilities of interactivity by allowing users to play around with differ-
ent perspectives, creating their own, personal story and opinion about this complex
topic and thus making use of the specific affordances of IDN for the representation of
complex topics, mentioned in the introduction of this paper.
For the students, however, this approach proved to be a considerable conceptual hur-
dle. In particular, they found it difficult to create a concept that included multiple per-
spectives, and that incorporated the real-time exploration of these perspectives, through
meaningful interactions. Instead, they kept coming back to a fixed, linear story of one
particular migrant.
In our experience, many students, also in the courses we teach, have a tendency to
tell relatively static stories, that is, students find it extremely difficult to approach nar-
rative from a different angle than the dominant model of linear storytelling. Even stu-
dents with training in game design succumb to the authorial reflex of telling stories
(versus offering opportunities for interaction within a narrative space) when asked to
design an interactive narrative. Instead of the usual prototyping and playtesting, they
start making scripts, storyboards and world-building bibles. User-interaction is inte-
grated at some point, later in the design process, becoming a nice add-on at best, but
not the experiential core it should be. The challenge for us as teachers is therefore to
help these students with rethinking their concept of what a narrative could be, and show
them that many of the tools and methods they have learned for building interactive
experiences (mainly games) are also applicable to interactive narrative design.
The best way to do this is to help them rethink their role as author. Many scholars
have searched for alternative terms to describe the IDN practitioner. For example, Mark
Stephen Meadows proposes to think of the IDN designer as an architect:
In most cases, it should be considered that the goal of an interactive narrative is
not to author the narrative, but to provide a context and an environment in which
the narrative can be discovered or built by the readers of the story. In this way,
designers and authors of interactive narrative are far more like architects than they
are like writers [23].
Echoing the words of Meadows, Henry Jenkins prefers the term narrative architect
when describing designers of narrative games: it makes sense to think of game design-
ers less as storytellers than as narrative architects [24]. According to Jenkins, game
designers do not tell stories, but design spaces ripe with narrative possibility [24].
Following Jenkins, Michael Nitsche elaborates on the notion of narrative architects by
including the user, since (s)he can be allowed to construct parts of the narrative [25]. In
a similar fashion, Murray [2] emphasizes the need for a “cyberbard” or “cyberdrama-
tist”a Homer or Shakespeare of the post-print age to create narrative systems, al-
lowing interactors to perform a role, and in doing so, to actively create belief. Koenitz
explicitly positions the cyberbard as a “system designer” emphasizing the difference to
traditional authorship with the motto: I will sit back and watch with amazement what
the audience will do with it [10]. Koenitz et al [26] further define this argument by
foregrounding the systemic aspects of IDN creation. They described the IDN creator as
having the ability to design an IDN system in such a way that meaningful narratives
emerge in the imagination of users when they interact with the system [26]. Following
cognitive narratologists such as Ryan [27], Bordwell [28] and Herman [29], narratives
are understood here as being mental constructs, triggered in response to the user’s in-
teraction with the system, which is seen as the equivalent of the narratological category
oftext.
It is important to confront students with these different understandings of the IDN
practitioner, and the implication it has for the practice of IDN design. On a pragmatic
level, however, telling the students is not enough. We experienced that the best way to
help them unlearnthe notion of conventional storytelling is to deprive them of the
time to envision a story in any detail, and invite them early on in the project to imagine
user interactions instead. In one of the first weeks of the project, we organized a work-
shop, in which students presented some of their initial concepts. These concepts were
tested and elaborated upon by making and playing several physical prototypes. Because
physical prototypes foreground user interactions (i.e. they need to be playable) students
were forced early on in the process to think and act as designers of user interactions,
instead of storytellers.
This does not mean that the authored stories they came up with were useless. On the
contrary, they contained interesting themes and directions. We helped the students with
deconstructing their stories into essential components (characters, character actions,
character motives, setting, etc.). Then, we explored if and how these components could
be translated into the components of an interactive system (users, user actions, user
goals, user spaces, etc.). For example, we asked whether the actions of the main char-
acter could be turned into interesting narrative game mechanics [30]. Does the story
setting afford interesting user actions? Can we change the events in the story so that
their order of appearance becomes more flexible or even irrelevant?
We have noticed that doing this exercise with students helps them in changing their
conceptual model; their way of looking at the practice of interactive narrative design
and their role as interactive narrative designer.
4.2 Designerly challenge
The students in the project were given a complex design assignment. We asked them
to design an interactive narrative, for migrants, using new technologies, with the pur-
pose of creating societal impact. After the first student presentation, in which they
shared their initial ideas, it became clear to us that this assignment was particularly
difficult for them.
The first idea was called ‘perspective puzzler’, a game in the spirit of games like
Super Paper Mario [31] or Perspective [32]. The player would solve spatial puzzles by
changing the game camera’s perspective, for example between 2D and 3D. The game
would demonstrate, in an abstract manner, the value of switching perspectives when
trying to understand and solve societal issues.
The second idea was called ‘metal migrant’, a 3D robot brawler, similar to a game
like Transformers: Devastation [33]. The player would control a robot in a foreign land,
fighting off waves of enemies. In the beginning, the player-character was not accepted
by the country’s inhabitants, but as (s)he slayed more enemies, acceptance grew. The
idea was to communicate the message of migrants only find acceptance when they
work hard.
The third idea was called ‘employment agency simulator’, a game in the spirit of
The Sims [34]. In this game, the user would play a migrant, trying to get a job. The
simulation game should confront the user with the prejudices and difficulties that mi-
grants face when applying for job vacancies.
Although these ideas contain some interesting directions, they all suffer from the
same problemthey take their gameplay ideas from existing games. In our experience,
students with a background in game development often have the tendencies to blindly
copy the gameplay from existing games when developing applied (serious) narrative
games. They only change the narrative context in order to include the game’s societal
purpose. Indeed, this tendency is not confined to students, but it is a well-known phe-
nomenon in the development of applied games in general. This phenomenon is com-
monly named chocolate covered broccoli. Games with this issue fail to align the
learning outcomes with the game mechanics, instead forcing learning into a game, or
game mechanics into a learning activity” [35]. An often mentioned example is the game
Food Force [36], an educational game published by the United Nations World Food
Program (WFP). The game tries to educate players on famine. In certain levels, the
player controls a helicopter, dropping food packages. The gameplay is highly reminis-
cent of games like Urban Strike [37]. Although the player drops packages instead of
explosives, the gameplay of Food Force still revolves around precision aiming and
spatial navigation, and essentially fails to educate on the topic of food scarcity.
By borrowing mechanics of existing games, the student’s initial ideas all ran the risk
of becoming chocolate covered broccoli. By copying proven mechanics, these narrative
games might have been fun to play, but it was unclear how the mechanics could create
the desired awareness. The intended migrant narratives were put on top of the game-
play, rather forcefully (and were also relatively static, pre-authored). Ideally, the
mechanics themselves express the desired narratives, showing the complexity behind
integrating in Dutch society.
To alleviate this issue, we focused our energy on helping the students find mechanics
that aligned with the narrative context. In other words, we searched for fitting narrative
game mechanics, understood here as follows:narrative game mechanics invite agents,
including the player, to perform actions that support the construction of engaging sto-
ries and fictional worlds in the embodied mind of the player[30]. We did this first by
showing the students example games that successfully integrated gameplay and narra-
tive, amongst others, Karen [38], Bury me, my Love [39] and Florence [40]. We dis-
cussed together in length how these interactive narratives used interaction to convey
their message. Secondly, we organized several paper prototyping and play testing ses-
sions. By inviting students to build interesting, novel interactions, and testing if these
interactions conveyed the intended narratives, the team succeeded in the end in devel-
oping a promising design.
Although it is not our intention to discuss the final design in full detail, we do want
to share some of its core design elements. The final prototype, named RSVP, revolves
around the idea of planning an intercultural party with friends and colleagues, and the
challenges that this task presents from the perspective of a Muslim migrant in the Neth-
erlands.
Fig. 1. Screenshots of the chat simulation in RSVP, chat selection (left) and interaction options
with a chat partner (right).
This interactive narrative offers the player meaningful interaction possibilities on
two levels: chat interface and environment of the apartment. Within a simulated smart
phone chat function (figure 1), the player discusses the party preparation with friends,
family, colleagues and a work supervisor each having his or her own preferences,
requirements and demands, and different and potentially clashing cultural backgrounds.
The player then has to find a balance between adapting to the culture and associated
expectations of the friends and colleagues, who are used to the consumption of alco-
holic beverages and pork meat products during festive activities, and the culture of re-
ligious friends, who are most likely offended by these. Other areas of conflict are the
party’s theme, music and dress code.
Given the player’s knowledge of the guests’ cultural sensitivities (gained during
chat conversations), the player weighs options and makes decisions. Now, it is time to
put decisions into action by placing party props, decoration, food and drinks into the
virtual apartment (figure 2). The player is able to see the decorated apartment by tilt-
ing his or her phone, which tells the app to switch from the simulated chat to the in-
side of the virtual AR apartment. Once back in the apartment environment, the player
can look around by moving their physical smartphone.
Fig. 2. Screenshot of the apartment in RSVP, objects can be placed here.
Once everything is prepared, the party starts and plays out based on the reactions of
the guests. After the party, the player finds out how the guests liked the party by seeing
their comments in the chat. Comments and reactions vary from being happy, grateful,
blaming the player for a ruined evening or, in some instances, being so upset that they
block the player.
4.3 Technical challenge
The main technical challenge was in a lack of flexible, tailored authoring tools that
would allow for the implementation of AR features (looking around in the apartment
by moving the smartphone, switching to the chat interface by lowering the device). This
required the design and building of a custom made tool, which translated into a large
amount of time and energy. Students built their own tool that enabled the integration of
a branching narrative created with Twine into Unity. This concept makes IDN design
more accessible: using the simple interface of Twine, even non-programmers can easily
make editorial changes to the text of the chat conversations, thus improving the writing
and flow.
Another challenge lies in the lack of support for art work from the self-made text-
based authoring tool. The team had no visual artist, which affected the creation of a
convincing representation of an apartment more than the representation of the chat
module. Consequently, character images are simple placeholders in the current proto-
type. The lack of a dedicated visual artist was compensated by the decision to go for a
more simplistic, comical 2D look. Instead of rendering a 3D environment for the apart-
ment that would require 3D models of every object, the team implemented a 360 view
of a panoramic 2D image. While our student team overcame this limitation by deciding
for a simpler art style, future teams need to be more balanced, including a dedicated
visual artist and writer.
5 Discussion
Our intention for the current project was the creation of a ‘serious IDN’, focused on the
topic of migration with the potential to positively affect attitudes towards this subject.
Irrespective of considerable obstacles, the resulting prototype supports this goal in two
ways and can thus be considered a success. Parrot and Carpentier identify the adoption
of another person’s role as a first step towards a changed understanding: “the sheer
action of digitally adopting another person’s perspective in an interactive narrative may
itself nurture positive attitudes concerning the character and issues related to the char-
acter[3]. This aspect is covered by the final prototype as it puts the interactor in the
role of a migrant encountering the difficult task of organizing a multicultural party that
attending guests would enjoy.
In addition, we see potential for the use of this interactive narrative experience as a
discussion-starter for workshops on the topic of migration, especially in the context of
the challenging relationship between diversity and integration. Living in an alien cul-
ture, deprived from familiarity, can lead to a culture shock and a crisis of personality or
identity. This potential crisis is often intensified by the pressure for cultural adaption
and integration [41]. Our project can help raise awareness of this issue, especially in
the target group of Dutch youths.
In continuing the project, we will take the lessons learned in the first iteration on
board. In particular, we will focus even more on the aspect of ‘unlearning’ the dominant
model of linear storytelling and instead facilitate a perspective on narrative game me-
chanics as a concrete practice of IDN design. In addition, we see a need for stronger
guidance and therefore will not conduct the project again as student-led, but re-organize
it as a virtual game studio with teachers in leading positions: studio head, narrative lead,
programming lead, sound lead, user research lead etc.
Finally, we will apply Phoebe Senger’s method of “Reflective design” [42] to inte-
grate migrants themselves in the design process. This method provides the means to
turn project clients into contributors, which we feel is an essential aspect of our under-
taking.
6 Conclusion
Our project applies the potential of serious applications for interactive narratives, as
‘IDNs for change,’ in an educational setting. The resulting prototype RSVP uses the
activity of planning an intercultural party as a metaphor for challenges that arise when
humans coming from different cultural backgrounds aim to find common ground be-
tween diverse habits and belief systems. Experiencing perspective change is a crucial
ingredient for better understanding and communication between migrants and locals.
In order to further improve this aspect, future iterations of the project will emphasize
the inclusion of all target-groups during the design phase to create an authentic, mean-
ingful and, in the best case, positively transformative experience.
From a research perspective, the project exposes a lack of accessible pedagogical
resources to teach IDN design in the struggle to keep the participating students from
falling into the trap of linear storytelling methods on the one hand and simple game
mechanics with a thin layer of ‘narrative sugar coating’ on the other side. We are still
in the situation where successful narrative game design/IDN design depends too much
on the expertise of a particular teacher/mentor. The creation of accessible pedagogical
resources for IDN design is therefore a challenge that the community needs to address
with increased research and sharing of existing resources. That this need was already
identified by Murray and Rieser in the 1990s should make clear that it is high time to
finally do something about it.
Acknowledgements. We would like to thank the following students and teachers for
participating in the project: Timothy Schelhaas, Ruben Bimmel, Davey Verhoef, Ermis
Chalkiadakis, Sytze Schalk, Roger Lenoir, Ruben Abels and Valentijn Muijrers.
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... Koenitz et al. 2015). Consequently, we acknowledge additional forms, for instance, interactive documentaries (Aston et al. 2017), interactive film (Hales 2015), non-game forms of VR and AR experiences (Bucher 2017, Fisher 2021), interactive art and museum installations (Oh & Shi 2012, Vayanou et al. 2014, educational approaches (Dubbelman et al. 2018, Sylla & Gil 2020, as well as journalistic interactives (Usher 2016;Jones 2017). Our curriculum reflects this view by also bringing students in contact with these additional varieties and their design practice. ...
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