This year, as in previous years, some of the students in my POLI 450 (peacebuilding) course at McGill chose to write an interactive “choose your own adventure” story using Inklewriter, rather than a conventional group research paper. One of these concerned establishing and operating a refugee camp.
You can play through it here.
Much of this was built upon the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Camp Management Toolkit, as well as manuals from international agencies and initiatives such as the UNHCR, the SPHERE project and the World Health Organization. From these they extracted issues, procedures, and best practices and embedded them into a fictional story.
In their accompanying “developers’ diary” they noted:
The objective of this report is to provide an overview of the development of our interactive story, “From Settlements to Shelters: An Exercise in Refugee Camp Establishment.” This story is intended to demonstrate different aspects of the decision-making process throughout the construction of a refugee camp. This includes situations such as the reorganization of self-settled refugee groups, the selection of a site, setting up basic camp facilities, registering refugees and camp-facilitated food distribution.
The protagonist is a newly-hired member of the Norwegian Refugee Council. His first assignment is to monitor the developing refugee situation along the border of the fictional Republic of Khourafiyya and the Western Sahara. The Western Sahara, a non-self-governing territory annexed by Morocco in 1957, has erupted in violent confrontations. Long-standing tensions between armed Western-Saharan liberation groups and those willing to accept Moroccan sovereignty have come to a head. As a result, hundreds of refugees have fled over the territory’s eastern border to the Republic of Khourafiyya (Jamhouriyya Khourafiyya) and have begun setting up clusters of makeshift camps along the border.
The Khourafi government is displeased by the growing numbers of unmonitored refugees gathering at the border and fear possible overflow of the conflict into the country. The government has adopted a neutral stance to the conflict, advocating a diplomatic solution between the two warring groups. As such, they fear the overflow of refugees, many of whom are sympathetic to the liberation movement, may jeopardize its relationship with the Moroccan government. The Khourafi government signed onto the 1951 Refugee Convention, which means the refugees are protected from refoulement, or forced return to their country of origin. Therefore, a new refugee camp must be built in Jamhourriya Khourafiyya to accommodate the growing numbers of refugees. The player, as a member of the NRC and the Camp Management Agency, has to participate in the decision-making process and coordinate with the UNHCR and other camp agencies to successfully build the camp and ready it for the refugees.
They found Inklewriter fairly easy to work with, but warned of its habit of occasionally losing saved work:
On the whole, we found Inklewriter to be fairly intuitive and easy to use after working through the provided tutorials. There were some more powerful features, such as the use of counters that can gauge the quality of progress, which we decided were not necessary for the type of story we wished to tell. In general, we felt that direct value judgements can often be difficult to quantify in the murky situations that often arise during humanitarian crises, so we felt it more apt to use direct consequences for certain choices that would only be felt in later stages of the game as well as in the ending reached by the player. This felt more “true-to-life” than supplying an overall score, as on an actual humanitarian tour it is rare to actually know how much of an impact you had after you have left. Realizing this, we also chose to have the consequences of some decisions not reachable within the scope of the game. While the software itself did not pose many problems, the site on which the Inklewriter software is hosted still seems to be quite buggy and would sometimes fail when it attempted to auto-save our work. Since there is no way to save manually, there were two occasions when a significant amount of work was lost and had to be redone. We would also warn future groups doing this project that Inklewriter can behave unpredictably if the story editor is open on multiple computers or browser windows simultaneously, so to prevent problems no more than one person should have it open at any given time.
Overall, they found the assignment more time-consuming than a regular research paper, but worthwhile:
We would suggest that students considering the narrative option should be encouraged to start far in advance. In our case, we started working on the project in late January, focusing on planning and discussion. By mid-February we had completed our research and begun storyboarding, which continued until early March. After nailing down our narrative, it took a further two weeks to get everything set up in Inklewriter, followed by a week of polishing. As can be seen, completing this project required consistent work over the entirety of the semester, in comparison to an essay which could potentially be churned out over an uncomfortable week or two. Perhaps there could be a deadline to have a narrative topic and rough outline approved in order for the option to be allowed, which would require that groups start working earlier than those doing the essay. However, despite the additional work the project requires, we would still encourage other students to attempt the narrative over the essay. We were able to cover a wide range of material, while at the same time exercising our creativity. Further, where traditional essays can often feel somewhat abstract, we were instead forced to ground our thinking in reality as much as possible.
thanks: Ella Nalepka, Doron Lurie, Zoha Azhar, Anas Shakra