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  • Writer's pictureRobin Sloan

Digital Games as a Medium for Conveying Transnational Narratives

‘Sugaropolis’ was a two-year (2015-2017) practice-based project that involved interdisciplinary co-design and stakeholder evaluation of two digital game prototypes that explored the transnational history of Scotland's sugar industry. Drawing on the diverse expertise of the research team (game design and development, human geography, and transnational narratives), we considered how digital games could be (co-)designed to communicate complex histories and geographies in which people, objects, and resources are connected through space and time. In this story I aim to provide an overview of these two games and what we learned from the process.

Prototype 1

The first prototype was developed in Unity for publication on Windows and Mac OS. Early iterations focused on developing the game as a traditional 2D platform game, but, given the emphasis on historical knowledge, further design iterations saw the game type evolve to become a 2D puzzle-platformer.

In the game, the player takes control of Campbell: a 12-year-old boy living in Greenock during World War 2. As Campbell, the player can run, jump, climb, and use strength to move obstacles. The second character is Bonnie, a West Highland Terrier. Bonnie can run and jump, but also balance on ledges that are too narrow for Campbell and distract adversaries. The game is structured as a series of scrolling levels with each level tracing movement backwards in time from 1940 to 1833 then to 1807, whilst remaining constrained to Greenock as a location.

The game can be played in either 1-player or 2-player co-operative mode, a decision that was made to appeal to social play both at home and in classroom or museum settings. In single-player mode, the player can swap between controlling Campbell and Bonnie to solve puzzles. In co-operative mode, player 1 controls Campbell while player 2 controls Bonnie. Early playtesting of the co-operative gameplay revealed opportunities for intergenerational play and learning, where a child could play alongside a parent or teacher to learn about Greenock’s sugar history together.

In recognising this opportunity, the team sought to develop level layouts and controls that would balance simplicity of control (for older players less familiar with digital games) whilst retaining puzzle challenges appropriate to older children. Our design philosophy through iterative development and testing was to create gameplay where the child player could help ‘teach’ the adult player how to solve puzzles and complete levels, whilst the adult player could recognise historical knowledge and help the child understand what was being shown or narrated.

Integrating historical knowledge into play: Class and diet

As our focus here was on history through people, we sought to represent social class distinctions through character design. We did this by including refinery owners as adversaries. A clear distinction is drawn between the player character Campbell, who is represented in each period as being from a lower / working class family, and those industry leaders who are reaping the most wealth from the sugar trade. The goal is to avoid refinery owners when trespassing in the docks and in the refineries (which can be accomplished by creating distractions using Bonnie). Being caught by a refinery owner triggers a reset to checkpoint. Within gameplay, then, we sought to draw attention to segregation of class and disparity in wealth and focus player attention on witnessing the social and economic transformation of Greenock through the eyes of a child (e.g. witnesses to- rather than agents of- history).

The emphasis on inequalities between peoples is extended through exploration of the environment, which exposes disparities in accommodation, possessions, and diet. Given our target younger audience with this game, we prototyped and then integrated collectibles as a means of exploring these class disparities within gameplay. For instance, the player(s) collect items of clothing, or sugar-based sweets and foods that were appropriate for each period and consumed by different classes and genders. Collectibles unlock text that can be read on screen during play (e.g. explaining class or gender distinctions, facts about the transnational movement of goods and people, connections to the peoples of the West Indies) or saved and then read later.

Additionally, we sought to integrate real-time narration into play through audio triggers. For many aspects of the design, it was clear in our prototyping that visual representation of people was not sufficient to communicate the more complex transnational narratives that underpinned Greenock’s sugar history – particularly so as this is a history that is not well-known by Scottish youngsters. Narration was kept purposefully short and descriptive of facts. To preserve suspension of disbelief, this narration was recorded in a regional accent.

Transnational narratives: Linking Greenock to the triangular trade

We iteratively designed and prototyped in-play historical knowledge with an ambition of engaging fully with game design as a medium for exploring transnational narratives. Yet we found it more challenging to integrate the links to the West Indies and the slave trade directly into level design within our chosen genre and gameplay. In this sense, we encountered limitations in how digital games can truly allow players to act within a model of a historical period that involves subjugation and enslavement of peoples. We did work this in through descriptive facts relating to the triangular trade and the other global locations linked to Greenock through sugar, using the collectibles system. However, to delve more deeply into the brutality of the slave trade, of plantations, and of the harsh realities that translated into increased wealth and changes in diet in Scotland, we saw the need to use an alternative device. After concepting different ideas, we settled on a narratological device.

The aim with our cinematics was to educate players on the more sensitive topics – particularly the slave trade – in a manner that suspended player agency momentarily. Design concepting that considered integrating these narratives into level design demonstrated problems, both in terms of the potential trivialization of sensitive topics around race, class and the brutality of early capitalism, and the potential for players to skip over these facts to continue play. As noted earlier, it is problematic when history games avoid the realities of slavery or genocide, or otherwise allow players to engage actively in these events. In our approach, we regarded cinematics as the most balanced design decision. To ensure that the cinematics did not feel detached from play, we designed the cinematics to communicate the regression back in time to each new level, setting up the historical context of each new scene. But simultaneously, we used narration within the cinematics to provide the wider context of Greenock and Scotland’s role within the triangular trade, to highlight the political and social debates happening in Scotland in each period, and ultimately to expose how Scotland’s growth as a centre for industry was built upon human injustices across the globe.

Prototype 2

The second prototype was developed in Unreal Engine 4 for publication on Windows. With this project, our early design research focused on paper prototyping of the walking sim genre within a museum setting. Given the single-player and narrative-focus nature of the genre, our main design challenge concerned translation of what is typically a lengthy immersive story experience into a concise yet meaningful museum experience. Consideration of existing museum-based games indicated short play lengths (~1-5 minutes), which presented the most immediate design problem for a single-player game in our selected genre (where most games have stories that are told over 2-4 hours of gameplay).

To address this, we quickly recognised the need to include neither a story arc nor progressive levels in our game, and instead focus on developing a first-person, narrative-driven experience comprised of individual scenes that could be experienced in any order (or not at all). These scenes are accessed from a hub scene: a sweet shop in Greenock (a scene that presents young people with the most familiar legacy of Greenock’s sugar: the establishment of sugar-based consumer food products in Scotland). Unlike the first prototype, our approach to this prototype was to move players through space rather than time and focus on objects rather than people. Game scenes include industrial and domestic environments in Greenock, the West Indies, and aboard slave and cargo ships. While each scene takes place within a given period (all in the 19th century), we designed scenes with the intention of drawing more attention to the diverse spaces connected to Greenock’s sugar industry, contrasting Scotland with the West Indies, commerce with industry, and power and wealth with subjugation and class.

In the game, the player assumes the role of several different characters dependent upon the scene that is selected (for instance, playing as Edward Lyle II, founder of Edward Lyle & Sons which later became the more familiar ‘Tate & Lyle’, within the overseer’s office scene - see screenshot above). All scenes are small and enclosed, constraining the ‘walking’ aspect of the genre and instead focusing gameplay upon exploration of the player’s immediate surroundings. In each scene, the player is given freedom to move around and interact with all the objects presented to them. The player can leave a scene whenever they want: they do not need to complete all the objectives or collect all the objects from a scene before they are permitted to move to the next scene (this was a key design decision when prototyping for museum settings and audiences). Players can, however, explore each scene fully to collect and unlock information, with all information tied directly to objects (rather than narration or NPCs). Upon completion of a scene, players are presented with a short quiz about the transnational stories of the scene’s objects: a design decision made based on feedback from educational stakeholders.

Integrating historical knowledge into play: Living history

Our overall approach to this prototype was to take inspiration from the living history method of historical education with emphasis on the reproduction of historical spaces. Our design goal was to produce well-researched spaces that fully immerse players and generate a sense of authenticity.

However, with this, we distinguished between authenticity as perceived by the player (which we term suspension of disbelief, and which can incorporate counterfactual histories), and authenticity as accurate and faithful reproduction. While we did not embrace the genre of alternative history, we did see value in allowing scope for creative interpretation of past spaces in order to generate scenes that would a) simplify historical knowledge to aid player comprehension, in line with our research questions, and b) be of a scale, composition, and layout that would facilitate integration into museum settings (e.g. reducing time needed to explore game scenes, and drawing connections to other artefacts in the physical exhibition space)

Extending this, we would argue that the scenes in Prototype 2 are not only reflective of historical knowledge pertinent to Greenock’s sugar industry, but also aesthetic experiences that encourage player engagement and interaction. These are scenes filled with furnishings, notes, records, and other materials. Our design process drew upon the archival materials, texts, and stakeholder input made available to us, with a view towards integrating these as historical knowledge, but also restorative nostalgia. This approach of utilising a nostalgic inclination towards the past has the benefit of encouraging intrinsic player motivations to explore spaces. In this sense, then, our design process revealed a need to balance accurate historical knowledge (selection of appropriate props, integration of accurate records and texts, accurate descriptions of objects and their uses) with immersion within restored spaces that acknowledge the value of designing a nostalgic atmosphere through a system of historical objects.

Transnational narratives: Following the object

In our interdisciplinary research collaboration, our wider research borrows or otherwise utilises a range of methods. One of the approaches we are concerned with is the ‘follow the thing’ ethnographic method, which stresses the value of tracking the movement and biographies of commodities. In this project, that commodity is sugar. But we can extend this to following other commodities (including money).

We sought to take inspiration from this ethnographic method by embedding knowledge of the transnational narratives of Greenock’s sugar industry into individual objects found in game scenes. Here, we connect the spaces (and peoples) of the game via the stories of objects: where they came from, what they were used for, what value and meaning they held for different people. Our design concept here was to 1) present players with virtual objects that contain discrete stories pertinent to individuals, and, more importantly 2) use objects as a means of connecting spaces and engaging players with transnational narratives: to show what a particular object meant in the hands of a refinery owner, a merchant, a factory worker, a plantation owner, or a slave toiling in a plantation in the West Indies.

In a digital game, we found the approach of following the thing could bring benefits to heritage settings. After all, museum exhibits typically utilise objects as storytelling devices. But a digital game allows players to follow an object from space to space (and time to time): to see and understand an object in the various contexts in which it was used. Further, as museum objects cannot typically be handled and manipulated, the digital game allows players a deeper level of interrogation: picking up, rotating, and zooming in to objects to understand their properties more fully. We integrated these mechanics into our prototype (see screenshot above).


We set out to address three research problems: how the game design process can reconcile complex historical interactions whilst maintaining player comprehension; how to integrate the darker aspects of history into an interactive medium where player agency may raise ethical concerns; and how to design digital games that will retain functionality and player comprehension when played in museum and educational settings. Our findings demonstrate the challenges that exist with the above, particularly around integrating complex narratives into gameplay, but also highlight some potential design and curation solutions.

One of the main interventions we made was to constrain gameplay genre prior to the start of the design process. This in turn enabled us to compare how typologies of digital play afford different strengths and weaknesses in communicating complex histories and geographies, and in integrating darker aspects of the past into play. Genre and single-versus-multiplayer design also allowed us to consider how these design decisions impact on the success of a game as a site-based medium.

Based on our findings and discussion with stakeholders, we have also identified other opportunities. First, we have identified a need to further develop our integration of archival and design research. Second, we aim to more closely align design research with consideration of school curricula, developing digital game content that can be better integrated into classrooms. And lastly, a need to explore technological aspects of game design. With many stakeholders and industry partners expressing interest in the potential of VR, AR, and MR game design for application in the heritage sector, our next phase of research will explore how immersive technologies can offer alternative approaches to game design for the examination of Greenock’s sugar industry.

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