The Goblin Market is a game about Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, The Yellow Wall-paper. The genre is basically a hybrid of interactive fiction and text adventure. The Yellow Wall-paper is an extremely famous story and it has been researched, written about and re-made in other media any number of times. There is a Suspense! radio broadcast featuring Agnes Morehead  from 1957, a PBS version , an animated short , three games [5, 6, 7] and a skyrim mod  not to mention all of the times it has been reprinted and written about by scholars. My reason for adding yet another version to this list was to experiment with ways that games could allow players to interact with and construct meaning about the past. The game would need to address these fundamental criteria:
- Incorporate primary source material, both texts and objects.
- The player should participate in constructing the narrative.
- The game should be accessible to as wide an audience as possible so that it could be used for educational purposes.
- The game should help players contextualize the issues that helped shape the story: 19th century women’s issues such as suffrage, marriage, sexuality and birth control.
The basic method is this:
- Start with a powerful work of fiction that incorporates thematic or emotional elements that players can explore. In this experiment, The Goblin Market, I wanted to explore marriage, women’s rights and sexuality in the 19th century within the context of The Yellow Wall-paper. I think that using fiction from the time helps tap into an authentic voice from that time period.
- Analyze and interpret the fiction to identify the themes the game will focus on.
- Use texts and artifacts from that time period as objects in the game.
- Allow the artifacts and texts to speak for themselves. Don’t explain what they mean to the player.
- Decide on gameplay and mechanics that support the themes to be expressed.
- Decide on the audience. If it is for general education, the game play has to be accessible and difficult puzzles or challenging game play might get in the way of reaching a broader audience.
note: The Goblin Market is free for anyone to play and I am very interested in any feedback and comments as to how we can improve this particular game, or educational games for higher education and informal learning in general.
[spoiler alert- you may want to play the game before reading]
History and Narrative
The traditional way of understanding and conveying history is in the way of a narrative that is formed by experts who are part of the peer review process. This narrative then becomes the “correct” interpretation and often referred to as the voice of authority. This method leads to some confusion between history and heritage in which history, for the student, becomes a process of memorizing historic facts. There are dates, artifacts and documents that tell us what happened in the historic record, we know which sides won and lost wars, for example. These facts are unassailable and can’t be re-written but the context can change the way you think about it. History is the raw data of the past and heritage is the way we use and think about that data in the present. Currently, in museums and amongst educators and historians, there is a change going on in how we tell history and the debate centers on this idea of the single voice of authority. Many now believe that everyone ought to be involved in interpreting history, not just the experts. The idea is a little radical and difficult to implement because it means that academics have to let go of that authority. They have to put facts out there and let people figure things out for themselves, which is a little uncomfortable. You might think that, since the humanities prides itself on teaching critical thinking, this would be obvious and everyone would jump on board. Well, it is complicated and nowhere is this more painfully obvious than in history game design. Two recent journal articles very clearly illustrate this point. The first article, “Beyond the “Historical” Simulation: Using Theories of History to Inform Scholarly Game Design,”  states in its abstract:
The gamic mode of history presented in the paper maintains the constructionist epistemologies and explanatory narratives for the creation of reasonably justifiable truths found in many current text based works of scholarly history. It maintains them yet changes the mode to an interactive digital form where the reader explores the historical argument through meaningful decision making and play.
These authors state that games exist to help players understand the narratives that the experts have already decided and agreed on as “reasonably justified truths.” This is problematic as critical thinking is reduced to, on the part of the player, consuming the correct point of view as determined by those in authority. This approach is questioned by Antley  who wonders if “rather than take a simplistic, reductionist view of the interplay between history and games, it might suit both the historian and the student better to uncover the more nuanced and complex interoperability both spheres of knowledge possess.”
Letting players have agency in making meaning is a perfect fit for game design but how exactly would it work for a history game? Do players get to rewrite history? One approach that I have been interested in, involves designing games so that players function in a way similar to that of the historian. Historians dig through archives and look at primary documents. From this, they put together a narrative that explains the historical facts they have at hand. In the Goblin Market, there are a number of excerpts from important, primary texts. The idea is that these documents become part of the narrative, in combination with the fictional story, The Yellow Wall-paper and the narrative fiction created for the game. When designing this I imagined that the player would be able to reconstruct Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s broader understanding of the narrative using approaches familiar from games like Dear Esther, Gone Home and The Thirty-Nine Steps .
Interpreting the story and its themes
The thing that I find interesting about The Yellow Wall-paper is that it shows the power that environment and social rules have on the individual; in this case, the constrictive nature of society drives an otherwise normal person mad. Much has been made about the “rest cure” that the protagonist undergoes in the story. The rest cure was a method, developed by S. Wier Mitchell [12, 13], to cure female patients of hysteria and nervousness disorders by feeding them rich, fatty foods and making them rest all parts of their bodies including their brains. Charlotte Perkins Gilman did go through the rest cure herself and she claimed it exacerbated her illness. She also claimed, many years after writing the story, that she wrote The Yellow Wall-paper as propaganda against the rest cure. Was that really her motivation? Well, we may never be sure of that but Gilman was a prolific writer on women’s rights and was not too keen on marriage as an institution. In addition, the story seems to have been generally received as the horror of a marriage gone wrong  and as a tour de force in the illustration of mental breakdown. My purpose, however, is not to debate Gilman’s original motivation but to perhaps re-frame the argument within a broader context to incorporate ideas that would have been known to her and perhaps had influence. Also, I wanted to bring together primary documents to spark discussion with the classroom.
To me, the application of the rest cure to the nervous female in this story was done because it expressed patriarchal suppression of the female spirit and intellect, parallel to that exhibited at a societal level. Gilman saw marriage and motherhood as oppressive and so The Yellow Wall-paper paints the picture of the horror of a bad marriage. In this story we see what can happen when a bored, active mind is not given intellectual food, it is the horror of intellectual starvation. Marriage in the 19th century, and before, was an unforgiving process. Those who chose poorly, male or female, would suffer in all aspects of their life as so masterfully depicted in George Eliot’s Middlemarch .
What were the 19th century realities that would have shaped Gilman’s understanding of marriage? Obviously birth control was a problem for women [16, 17, 18], and having children was not just a financial drain but a great risk. During the 19th and early 20th centuries maternal death due to childbirth was between 4-5% (by contrast today it is about 0.01% in developed areas). And, of the women who survived, infanticide was not unknown [20, 21]. Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of marriage and love was, for women, their lack of agency in choosing a partner or of gaining the experience in order to make a sound choice. The notion that a woman’s value was tied to her sexual lack of experience, or virtue, was unrealistic and non-human as Gilman herself describes it in An Extinct Angel . For middle class and wealthy women, marriage was their only career option and some, like Gilman, could get away with things like “scribbling” or art or music. For women who were poor, it was a question of survival. During the 19th and early 20th century, married women could not continue to work at their jobs. It was for this reason also, that women were not promoted as men were understood to be supporting families.
I do not know that Gilman was thinking about these things but they were part of the fabric of 19th century life that are interesting to think about in relation to the story. My objective in designing this game was to bring together these items, in connection with The Yellow Wall-paper story, so that it might spark discussion and further exploration in players and the classroom. I do not want to deliver a single, accepted narrative, but in the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that I have certainly shaped the narrative the players will encounter. The process of selecting material for the game is one of curation. I chose things to be presented together and that process in itself will have a great impact on the material players will have available for narrative construction.
One of the things I wanted to focus on was the idea of powerlessness and lack of agency or control. I wanted to get this across to the player by literally locking them into a house from which there is no escape from an environment which eventually closes down on them. I felt this was a good fit for a horror game [22, 23]. In The Goblin Market, there are no obvious puzzles or things to do except figure out the layout of the house. This helps with accessibility – I want all levels of players to be able to get through the game. However, it also has a thematic purpose of keeping the players powerless to give them a sense of the state of 19th century women; they may control little things but, in a larger sense, they are not in control of their world.
The house is a metaphor for Gilman’s mind and so I wanted to fill it with things that she could have been thinking about or could have been a part of her life. As I mentioned earlier, I wanted to express these ideas of narrative but I also didn’t want to project my own understanding of the topic but I did curate the experience. Most of the things included in the game are real or factual but they definitely do not tell the whole story. For example, Charlotte was an activist of sorts - a feminist or proto-feminist - and her narrative and thoughts are focused, or biased, as she was concerned with changing people’s minds and the world around her. And so I dutifully included the famous quote from Hill’s manual  that is used everywhere to show that women were expected to be “Angels in the House” and there were manuals to tell them so. However, these manuals also give instruction to men. It is very clear from these guides that, although somewhat patronizing and limiting, they generally understood marriage to be a partnership with each having their sphere of authority. So, what is the whole story? What are the “reasonably justified truths”? I think most of us all agree that some of the attitudes towards voting, working, birth control and pre-marital sex are destructive both to individuals and society. But what was the role of men and husbands in the 19th century? The fact is that many men and women worked together to create meaningful and fulfilling lives within their social restrictions. Indeed, many women even found the rest cure beneficial and it was popular for some time. But I felt, to express Gilman’s story, I had to focus on elements that expressed her personal point of view. But I also wanted to at least give players a clue, that history is rarely so black and white. For that reason I also included part of Hill’s manual that gave instruction to men.
The one thing that I really struggled with for a long time was the game genre and what it should look like. I settled on a text adventure because so much of the Yellow Wall-paper is best if left to the imagination. I’ve never seen anyone able to do justice to Gilman’s vision of the wall-paper and so I didn’t even want to try. Initially, I was thinking in terms of the blank screen of a text adventure: just you, some text and your imagination but I also wanted to bring in some visual elements of ads and ephemera from the time period. I felt a framing element would also help limit the space; again, I was always looking for ways of limiting the player while trying to spur on the imagination, parallel to the Yellow Wall-paper’s protagonist. I was looking for artwork from the end of the 19th century and Aubrey Beardsley’s work just seemed right. The borders have that feel of a book illustration (well, they were book illustrations). Also, Beardsley was known for some very risqué illustrations  and I mentally liked the juxtaposition of the excesses of Beardsley with the idea of the moral Angel.
I was initially very influenced by games like Candy Box and A Dark Room [26, 27] and had originally designed a game with a number of management activities that would allow players to step into the shoes of a lower middle class young girl trying her hand at the marriage market by first working to help her family and putting herself in the path of a suitable husband. However, I decided against that because I felt that this story was emotional and that management activities would take away from the point which is that your mind has nothing to do and so you start imaging all kinds of things. I didn’t want players focused on getting jobs and updating their wardrobe. So in the end, I imagined this as a text based Gone Home  meets Dear Esther . In addition, I adapted descriptive passages from older texts to help create a vintage horror feel [30, 31].
I am not sure what historians will think of this method of conflating fiction and historic facts and the next step is to test this in classrooms and assess how it all works. I am also very interested in feedback from the game-playing public as to engagement. Was this game engaging and/or interesting? Did it make you want to learn more about the subject matter?
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