Sunday, July 5, 2020

Choose your own nightmare

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on the work of Cait S. Kirby, a doctoral student in biology who has created simulations of a day in the life of a college student and a faculty member required to be on campus in Fall 2020. The simulations are a bit like Choose Your Own Adventure, or Nightmare.

What Kirby hopes someone working through the simulations will conclude: “Wow, being on campus in the fall is probably not going to be good for anyone.”

Simulations of the day in the life of a grad student and a contingent faculty member are to come.


An aside: Kirby’s simulation assumes a student in possession of a face mask. That’s good. But I learned just recently that my university’s plan for an on-campus fall semester includes the distribution of one cloth mask per student. One. How long before a student loses it? Or lends it to someone else? Or fails to wash it before reusing? Or has to run to the library for research materials while that mask is drying? Granted, a student might be bringing multiple masks to campus. But the distribution of single masks, meant to last a semester, seems ludicrous.

And I can’t help wondering if these masks will bear the school colors.

A related post
College, anyone?

comments: 2

Matthew Schmeer said...

I teach an introductory Digital Narratives course for community college freshman who want to work in the video game industry, and we do a lot of work with non-linear narrative design using Twine. Simply put, neither of Kirby's "simulations" are good; both are extremely linear with limited binary choices, and every choice leads the reader to the same eventual conclusion. There is never a "right" answer in her "simulations": all choices eventually lead to infection. This is a blatantly false supposition. She's not simulating anything; she presumes an outcome and works backward to fill it. My students write more complex branching narratives in the second month of class.

It is easy to download her "simulations" and view her source code/structure. Follow the links in the Chronicle story to her two "simulations", click anywhere on the page, and select to save each web page as a single HTML file. Then go to, click on "use online" and import the two HTML files you just saved, one at a time. Click on one of the imported files, and her structure will be displayed.

Here's the issue: Kirby started with the conclusion that there is no way to avoid catching COVID-19 in both of her "simulations." She never offers choices that might lead a student/professor to leave campus, to go home, to take online/hybrid courses, to report anything to authorities. She simply makes a few (very few) binary choices. In fact, in her source code for the professor "simulation," you can clearly see remnants of how she edited the student "simulation" to become the professor "simulation"; there are unused, unconnected boxes off to the side (which in itself is sloppy coding). While the point-of-view has changed, the two "simulations" have the exact same narrative structure.

These are not "simulations" but weak non-linear narratives with limited binary choices. This is horrible non-linear narrative design.
Kirby claims to be a scientist on her web page; scientists don't start with a conclusion and find ways to make their conclusion a reality. They start with a hypothesis and look at ways the hypothesis is supported or unsupported, and why these suppositions failed. She's running a science-based statistically-sound, simulation model here, but crafting a narrative to fulfill her end goal. This is not only bad science, it is didactic fiction, which is often the worst kind of fiction an amateur (or beginning/advanced beginning) writer can produce.

Any ChooseCo "Choose Your Own Adventure" book has more narrative depth due to the branching narrative paths you can choose to explore, going off on alternative storylines that lead to unexpected choices and alternate endings. Kirby's "simulations" are narratively flat. They merely offer false choices that lead to a predetermined end.

Her heart & head are in the right places, but these are not good examples of non-linear narrative design.

For comparison, go play Depression Quest:

Michael Leddy said...

I saw the positive tests and the absence of meaningful choices (choices that would make a difference) as making Kirby’s point: that an on-campus semester is not a good idea, whether you’re a student, a tenure-track faculty member, or the holder of an endowed chair. So yes, she’s showing bad outcomes. I’m reminded of the scenarios describing a day in the life of an adjunct teaching at several schools: You drive to X and race to find a parking space so that you can grade three late papers before class, and so on. Many real days will go differently, absolutely. But I think her scenarios are a useful counter to the utterly unrealistic descriptions of students living and taking classes and socializing in family-like units of ten in separate dorm hallways. I’d rather not see the real-life experiments necessary to find out how an on-campus semester will go.

I wondered about the lack of choices —after the first few pages, the only thing to do is click through — and decided that that must be her point. Maybe I’m being too generous. I think the final pages — “You wanted to take all your classes online” and “You wanted to teach all your classes online” — make the point that the student and faculty member in these simulations don’t have many real choices, except to leave (an unpaid leave, if you’re the faculty member). I think those are the pages that point to alternative narratives with online classes, disallowed by the administrators in each scenario.

I tried an October 1 (faculty) page with Twinery and I see what you mean: the student story is off to the side. Yes, that’s sloppy. If Kirby had known that her work was going to get so much attention, I bet she’d have been more careful. :)