DIY video games inspired by English lit

Humanities

- Stephanie Harrington

Fukushima and Fralick test out the campus-based game, Somapo, on their mobile phones. Credit: Stephanie Harrington.

Forget zombies or vampires—instead, University of Victoria English students turned to literature for inspiration to create two indie video games for their graduate class.

“Open the Arcade,” hosted Dec. 8 in the new Digital Scholarship Commons in the Mearns Centre for Learning – McPherson Library showcased two student-produced video games, Somapo and Adventures of a Sticky Leaf-Dweller.

Jentery Sayers, an associate professor in the Department of English, asked students in his fifth-year digital literary studies, ENGL 508, to engage in the do-it-yourself culture they were studying around indie games, even though they had little to no coding experience.

“With indie cultures, you see games function as jokes, letters, gifts, performances and even activism,” Sayers says. “They don’t need to be packaged AAA games from large studios producing content for popular audiences.”

Challenging our view of campus

Master’s students Kailey Fukushima, Kaitlyn Fralick and Talia Greene turned the UVic campus into a game with their app, Somapo, using mapping software created by Vancouver studio Motive.io to guide students around familiar locations such as the quad.

They drew on the creative techniques of Oulipo, a term coined in the 1960s by a group of French writers and mathematicians who imposed constraints on their work. Somapo asks players to use an app on their phone while wandering around UVic’s campus. In the process, players pick up “constraints,” which prompt them to act in certain ways, such as smiling, sitting or walking backwards.

“We welcomed the opportunity to challenge our classmates’ perceptions of their daily routines through a personalized video game that centred around the willing adoption of rules and constraints,” Fukushima says.

Throwing the goal of gaming into question

Absurdism, meanwhile, inspired students who created the 2-D game Adventures of a Sticky Leaf-Dweller, which Donny Kimber, Ashley Howard, Jodi Litvin and Mairi Richter described as anti-capitalist and anti-accumulative (i.e., not involving the accumulation of points or items).

Players guide the character, Twiggy, as they collect and throw fallen leaves in the air. The focus is on playing for fun, rather than competing.

“It corresponds with the myth of Sisyphus, which interested [20th-century writers] Samuel Beckett and Albert Camus. When you play as Twiggy, tasks can’t be completed and actions aren’t heroic. The trick is to find some humour when you can’t find explanations—to not be too earnest or purposeful about games.” –Jentery Sayers, associate professor on his fifth-year literary studies course

Fukushima says she found the process of creating Somapo difficult but rewarding, and hopes the group will keep developing the game.

“I was drawn to this course because it offered a unique hands-on approach to studying digital media and literature that I hadn’t encountered before,” she says.

Find out more

People interested in playing Somapo can send an email to for more details.

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Keywords: video games, graduate research, programming, computers, gaming, student life

People: Jentery Sayers, Kailey Fukushima, Kaitlyn Fralick, Talia Greene


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