dhQuest: An Academic Game, Pt. 1

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Retro Projects Retrospective

So this will be the first of probably many retrospective looks at (somewhat, but never quite) completed projects of mine, from the not-so-distant past.  There’s a lot of history to cover, and I didn’t take a lot of notes about the process of the work that went into most of it.  Let’s get started on fixing that.

dhQuest: Planning for the Digital Humanities

So today I’m talking about a game that I helped design (design as in, “how it works”) a month or so back, in consultation with my two co-directors at Hamilton’s DHi, Angel Nieves and Janet Simons.  Long story short, Angel and Janet were running a course at DHSI 2015 on implementing new digital humanities programs, and wanted to try to “game-ify” their content, hoping that it might help people take on a more vivid perspective of what that experience entails.  That might be their own experience (when people choose starting scenarios similar to their own real-life circumstances), or entirely fictional (when you randomly generate a character to guide through this experience).

To skip right to the outcome for a moment, the game was ready (just barely) in time for this same year’s DHSI — as in, made entirely in about 2-3 weeks, from first concept to playable prototype — and we were lucky enough to have an extremely helpful bunch of guinea pig game testers in their class.  (And, to any of you who might read this, thanks again, hugely, for all of the time, feedback, and extremely helpful bug-hunting and feature suggestions.)

This was a bit of a new one for me, too.  Sometimes (well, okay, most of the time), I like to work in my own little vacuum, sitting here at the corner desk of a dark apartment, somewhere in the midnight hours of my own little insomnia vortex. This project, however, was one of the living examples, for me, of how gratifying it can be to work in concert with people as you hastily develop a project practically in front of its audience’s eyes.  “Release early, release often,” they sometimes say in software.  Well, this was definitely that.

The Concept

So I’ll dive into the proper “how it was made” in my next post(s), but to set the stage, the core concept/goals of this particular game/project were:

  1. We wanted to make a game that made the experience of brainstorming–and ultimately building— a digital humanities program to feel “real” and, more importantly, immediate.  So, while some elaborate fantasy metaphor was tempting, and might have been fun, we wanted this to feel direct and as honest as a game might allow.
  2. But on that topic of fantasy, this is a game we’re talking about, and therefore thaumaturgy.  So, we need to have at least a bit of fun with it, if only to spare our audience’s attention spans as they navigate through a game that essentially just bureaucracy at its core.To that end, we went right back to our nerdy routes and decided to choose Dungeons & Dragons as our inspiration.  In the earliest concepts for dhQuest, the idea was to have small groups (3-5) of players form what are essentially questing parties, deciding as a group how best to approach their tasks.  In the final tyranny of time and deadlines, this part fell away for the first year, but the idea of being the adventurer (complete with stats-crowded Character Sheets) remained.
  3. The game needed to be accessible to people of any level of familiarity with games, or the sorts of game tropes I ended up choosing for this game’s mechanics.  So, less about “winning” and more about either “experimenting,” or, for the hardcore gamers, “maximizing.”  Anyone could theoretically “win” this game with enough time invested, but the experience of either improving in a second session, or pulling off an impressive outcome on your first try — this would be the temptation and challenge of the game.
  4. Lastly (and this would be the big one), this game needed to travel.  So, while the idea of a purely pen-and-paper tabletop experience was grand, we’d have needed to have this game done at least a week earlier to print and travel with it, and then we’d be carrying an extra backpack full of heavy paper and cardstock, which probably wasn’t happening.Thus, the “digital version” was born, and eventually ended up becoming almost exclusively the way to play this game, for now.This required a great many additional things — things like a database that would house all of the game’s quests and rewards, along with a web application that knew how to read and enforce rules, and how to reward players at each step.  And, unsurprisingly, this project also ended up requiring a lot of graphic and web design work.  (Like, a lot, a lot.)

So, with all of the goals decided, I had my marching orders, and it became time to sit down and start designing and developing the thing.  (More starting in the next post.)