Get to Know a Teacher - Jentery Sayers

Jentery Sayers

Associate Professor of English Jentery Sayers had students in his graduate ENGL 508 Digital Literary Studies seminar create indie video games that drew on literary history. Two groups of students presented their final projects in December at Open the Arcade, an event hosted in the Digital Scholarship Commons of McPherson Library. Sayers talks to Stephanie Harrington about the process of getting students with little to no coding experience to design the games Somapo and Adventures of a Sticky Leaf-Dweller.

Teaching with technologies and comparative media studies are among your areas of expertise. The link between English literature and technology wouldn’t be obvious to many people. Why did you have English students design video games for their final project?

We were studying the histories, theories, and practices of indie games, which are premised on learning through prototyping or, if you prefer, DIY practice. Consider zines, for instance. (Artist and writer, Anna Anthropy, does this in Rise of the Videogame Zinesters.) With indie cultures, you see games function as jokes, love letters, gifts, performances, ephemera, confessions, and even activism. They don’t need to be packaged AAA games from large studios producing content for popular audiences. I wanted to follow traditions in literary and cultural criticism and encourage students to become familiar with games as not only objects of inquiry but also ways or processes of thinking and doing—in this case, thinking about interaction, negotiation, and their material components.

For instance, code feels a lot less abstract when you learn to write and use it. In this regard, it is very much like a “natural” (as opposed to “artificial”) language, and some humanities students gravitate toward programming. Another benefit of prototyping video games is learning about all the labour involved: if students design and develop something for others to play—something they can share with each other—then they can recognize (in a palpable way) the limits of consumption-based models of critique, and they can assess issues such as audience reception and feedback with more granularity. They can also gather a strong sense of how digital stuff isn’t fast and easy; it’s layered, buggy, messy, and highly dependent on context, including the contexts of use and play as well as design, labour, and development. Sure, students in an English course may not make polished products, and they will not “master” software such as Unity in a single seminar; however, a polished product wasn’t the aim of English 508.

The aim was to approach design and prototyping as inquiry (like making your way through an archive)—the sort of inquiry that feeds back into theories, histories, and scholarly interpretations of art, literature, and media. Here, I’m indebted to the work of Alexandrina Agloro, Cheryl Ball, Beth Coleman, Kari Kraus, Elizabeth LaPensée, Allison Parrish, Tara Rodgers, Daniela Rosner, and Jacqueline Wernimont, in particular. From my perspective, media-based inquiry is far more nuanced if it’s familiar with matters of composition and aesthetic practices. Then literary and cultural movements such as Absurdism, Existentialism, and Oulipo don’t seem all that distant from games like Limbo, Stardew Valley, Undertale, LIM, or Everything Is Going to Be Ok.  

The students created two video games, Somapo and Adventures of a Sticky Leaf-Dweller, which they presented at the event Open the Arcade. What did you think about their projects?

I thought both Somapo and Adventures of a Sticky Leaf-Dweller were compelling prototypes. (Somapo was created by Kaitlyn Fralick, Kailey Fukushima, and Talia Greene, and Sticky Leaf-Dweller by Ashley Howard, Donny Kimber, Jodi Litvin, and Mairi Richter.) The presentations in the Digital Scholarship Commons were grounded in the particulars of design and close reading. Neither group approached their games as vague ideas or abstract concepts. Instead they linked interesting challenges to issues of development and historical precedent. For instance, Twiggy (the playable character in Sticky Leaf-Dweller) corresponds with the myth of Sisyphus, which interested writers such as Samuel Beckett and Albert Camus.

Meanwhile, Somapo encourages a sort of unscripted, networked performance in a shared space. You’re invited to use your mobile phone to follow instructions that may brush against the grain of your own habits. The game prompts you to smile, or to sit down for a bit, or to walk in zig-zags. In this way, it aligns with histories of “generative constraints,” where individual or romantic genius is less interesting than rituals or procedures.

Both prototypes inspired the syllabus for next year’s iteration of English 508 (Fall 2018), which will focus on prototyping tabletop games. As I watched Somapo and Adventures of a Sticky Leaf-Dweller unfold over time in the seminar, I grew interested in the social elements of indie game design, including the importance of place and time to play and negotiation. I feel as if a seminar on tabletop games will highlight these social elements, with fewer hours spent staring at screens. Plus, we’ll get time to play games such as Pandemic and Azul, which I’ve been “studying” as of late. 

What do you hope the students will do now that they have these skills?

I hope they continue to integrate prototyping (broadly understood) into their writing and research, and to interpret “objects” of research as processes that congeal over time. I love the question, “How did this become that?” It refuses to take what’s at hand as a given. A video game, novel, poem, or film, for instance, is not only a process; it’s something that could have been something else. And it probably was. Decisions were made. Something was cut or lost. Something else was added or found. Versions emerged. And will continue to emerge. (Today, think of fan fiction and mods, for example.)

I also hope that students from this seminar will continue to interpret technologies as culture (as opposed to things or stuff). This position underscores the fact that design and content can always change. Video games don’t have to be awful. They can prompt social action, and they can intervene in or experiment with norms. They can also blend aesthetics with politics in very provocative ways. I suppose, then, that I hope (perhaps above else) that students will continue to consider how arguments happen through various modes and forms, including scholarly essays and monographs but also media such as games. The mechanics, interfaces, narratives, and social dynamics of games all make assertions in some way, even if they don’t feel assertive. As you prototype, you start to observe these assertions, and you can assess their motivations and effects (both technical and cultural). More important, you can determine what else is possible or preferable, and work on putting it out there in the world, like a zine for others to read, remember, and repurpose.