Twine makes game development more accessible, but to whom?

Twine, the browser-based tool for creating interactive fiction, is celebrated for its democratizing influence on game development. It is free and open-source, and requires no programming knowledge; if you can write a story and some basic HTML, you can tell that story in Twine. That low barrier to entry has allowed new voices to come into the game development scene, according to a panel about Twine at Games for Change yesterday. But as the panelists explained, that progress doesn’t mean there isn’t still a long way to go.

Naomi Clark (above center), a game designer and game design teacher, began the half-hour session by describing Twine as “a way of letting people make games and communicate with each other.” Twine has gained a reputation for producing a genre known as “empathy games” — a phrase that references its capacity to put players into the mind of a game’s creator and have them experience something personal. In particular, Twine has become popular in the queer games scene. Its marginalized voices have been able to express themselves through emotional, introspective Twine games.

Twine doesn’t just engender empathy, said Clark; it can also “facilitate communication between people who actually have similar experiences.” Merritt Kopas (above right), a game developer and editor of the recently released Videogames for Humans, an anthology of Twine games, expressed the same sentiments. Kopas noted that it’s important for Twine to continue facilitating growth in the diversity of game makers, because as a player, it’s “crucial to see people like you making games.” By democratizing game development, Twine has “blurred that consumer-producer dichotomy a little bit,” Kopas added.

Here, Clark argued that Twine’s reputation as a “revolutionary tool for accessibility” in game development is the “easy narrative.” Twine is indeed a vital tool for would-be creators of interactive fiction who can’t afford, let alone use, more complex game engines. But that line of thinking overlooks Twine’s very real deficiencies. For instance, Kopas pointed out that the overwhelming majority of Twine games are in English; what about developers who speak other languages?

Twine can be limiting even for those who do speak English, according to Austin Walker (above left), a game critic and graduate student. There are people of color making Twine games, said Walker, but stories in that space usually “come from, are informed by, a historically white sense of what good writing looks like.” Notably, Walker continued, white people generally have better access than minorities do to educational systems in which they learn how to express themselves in writing.

“Inside of the field of Twine, there are standards of what good prose looks like,” said Walker, adding that he recognizes that his own access to a good education gave him the skills of prose writing — and that Twine works for him because he has that background.

Walker brought up the rise in recent decades of the “urban fantasy” genre — including “books that are coming out of impoverished communities, black communities, brown communities,” and are often written “for audiences that are black and brown and poor” — and said he hopes to see a similar change in Twine games. Clark added that many of her minority students come from backgrounds without good English composition experience.

“We don’t get to say, ‘Oh, this isn’t what a game should look like,'” said Kopas, arguing for players to support and appreciate games and game makers from diverse backgrounds. “We have to be open to the fact that things are going to look different.”

Clark closed the panel with a simple plea: “Let’s stop being gatekeepers of game creation.”