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Digital games as collaborative story-writing platforms

Jackson, David (2015) Digital games as collaborative story-writing platforms. Doctoral thesis (PhD), Manchester Metropolitan University.

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Abstract

Can a game help you write a meaningful story with others? Academic discussion of collaborative story-writing games usually contains reference to Surrealist game Exquisite Corpse, known to many as Consequences. In it, a game rule prohibits players, writing in turn, from reading most of the story written before their contribution. This rule promotes a fragmented form of narrative which, although often inventive and entertaining, does not often fulfil the normal requirements of a story. Is it possible to design a writing game with different rules that instead promote the production of a cohesive and meaningful story? In order to explore the possibilities of game-based story writing, the researcher developed two web-based games that formed the online platform Storyjacker (www.storyjacker.net). These were produced via an iterative design methodology which involved cyclical phases of software development and user testing. Design was also informed by a multi-disciplinary literature review and analysis of four other online writing platforms. Following the design phase, a selection of the stories that had been produced during Storyjacker testing were then rated and commented on by an expert reading panel, made up of creative writing academics and literary industry professionals. The panel’s ratings and comments informed a final analysis of the Storyjacker games as methods for creating meaningful stories. The research found that bespoke creative writing games do produce relatively meaningful stories. Plotlines in emerging stories motivate and entertain players through a joint sense of purpose. Writing games are also effective as a collaborative framework because they allow participants to work creatively together without feeling vulnerable in front of other players. However, the research finds that there are limits to the meaningfulness of stories written through games. By aligning gameplay with linear plot development, a feature of both Storyjacker games, there is no opportunity or motivation for players to go back and redraft stories. This, ultimately, has the most negative effect on story meaningfulness as this is the normal way that writers make sense of their stories. Entertaining game features, such as turn-based writing challenges, can also negatively impact story quality by distracting the writer from the overall storytelling task. Complicating the debate on meaningfulness, the thesis also finds that texts written by games typically contain two discernable narratives: the story narrative and a description of the event of playing the game. This both enriches the text and makes it more difficult readers to decode as a meaningful story. Further practice-led research is needed to explore ways in which story games could incorporate a drafting process. This could significantly improve the meaningfulness of stories produced in this way. In the broader context of design, successful features in the Storyjacker games should be trialled in other digital interfaces to see if they help users perform other creative or subjective tasks. Finally, more research should be conducted on the effects of these collaborative games in broader educational, creative and organisational contexts.

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