Writing for Videogames: Professor Mike Treanor

Mike Treanor is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the American University, Washington DC and a founding member of the American University Game Lab. His research is broadly aimed at finding new approaches for interpretation and expression within videogames and computational media. He’s had work nominated for Technical Excellence at the Independent Games Festival and IndieCade and his scholarship is primarily about videogame interpretation, tools for game creation, social simulation and procedural content generation. He holds an M.F.A in Digital Art and New Media and a Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of California at Santa Cruz. At John Cabot University he teaches “Creative Writing Workshop: Writing for Video Games” as part of the Summer Institute for Creative Writing and Literary Translation.

Professor Mike Treanor

Professor Mike Treanor

What is your teaching philosophy?
Most of the courses I teach are extremely interdisciplinary. My goal is always to help technologically oriented students think critically and creatively, and also to help the humanities, arts and social science students actively engage with technology/programming (many for the first time). In my classes, a student should never say “I’m not a X person, I’m a Y person.” Philosophers can be programmers, marketers can be chemists, and so on. Project-based learning can be the most effective way to facilitate this sort of interdisciplinary learning because creative projects provide intrinsically motivating contexts for the student to engage with complex topics.

Please name a challenge you encountered in your teaching career and how you overcame it.
Students often want to give up on technical subjects like computer science and programming too quickly. I think this is because many of their classmates are able to appear to get by with ease where in reality most of them are faking it. Because I also had a difficult time learning computer science (and now hold a terminal degree in the field), I tell my students that if they just do the assigned work, go to the help sessions, they will learn the material and make it.

What does the class you teach, Writing for Videogames, entail?
Writing for Videogames is a fun class to teach, because there is so much potential material. I cover four different approaches/tools for writing for games and interactive media. While the students may not create games that look like the mainstream games they normally play, they will engage directly with the authoring challenges and methods involved in game writing.

What is the difference in writing for a videogame instead of, say, a screenplay or novel?
Writing for games is difficult because games are interactive. When a player has control over what can happen, authorship changes. Rather than writing a particular story, a writer for a videogame needs to author for a space of possible stories. The author must think both creatively and computationally.

Videogames are often considered to be “below” other narrative media, like literature or film. Why do you think there’s still such a bias towards videogames? How can it be overcome?
One response to that question is that the bias has already been overcome in academic and artistic fields. All over the world there are tons of people making creative, expressive, artful, hip, and experimental games. It is an exciting time to be a player, maker, or scholar of games!

Conversely, do you think that videogames are an art form? Why/ why not?
Yes, I do think they are, but that doesn’t mean that we have to defend the position that all games are serious “works of art.” Many games are horrible, and frankly, embarrassing. Also, whether or not something is “art” can boil down to what art curators decide to exhibit, right? Given that, we can ask, what games should we celebrate and put into galleries? Well, the people who run galleries are in conversation with a tradition of art, culture, and history. So what games hit that mark? Probably not the ones that people feel emotional about and want respect for (e.g. Final Fantasy 7). I’m not saying that Final Fantasy 7 isn’t great, and worthy of respect and love, but maybe trying to convince people that it is “art” isn’t the best way to pay homage to it. From personal experience, I can say that people who love games and want legitimacy for them are pretty much just really big fans. I love games, and think they are important, but I think that we need to get better at understanding and talking about the medium. Or we at least need important, smart, and cultured friends to put on gallery shows for us.

Please name 5 videogames (all time) that everyone should play at least once, and why.
Recently, I found The Witness to be very meaningful and definitely worth checking out. In the Writing for Videogames class, we explore two videogame related forms where a lot of experimentation with writing and interactivity takes place: hypertext fiction and interactive fiction (IF). For hypertext, I recommend checking out Howling Dogs. For IF, I recommend Photopia. In the mainstream, I thought the dialogue in The Last of Us was the best I’ve heard.

 What is your advice for a student who wants to enter the videogame industry?
Learn how to program. Learn about a lot of different things. Don’t just learn about games. Finish making games (including non-digital games). Don’t stop playing games. Learn how to be critical, get and respond to feedback, and still love the medium.

What is your impression of JCU?
I love it. What a cool place to go to college! There are places all over campus where you can set up camp and work. Good AC, good wifi, amazing views of Trastevere. An espresso machine. When I’m here, I spend as much time as I can up on the Secchia Roof Terrace.

Anything you’d like to add?
If the Writing for Videogames class happens again next summer, I encourage all that have any interest to sign up. The class assumes no technical experience, and is appropriate for anyone who is interested in making games and writing.