Writing New Bodies in Digital Fiction

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“Writing New Bodies: Critical Co-design for 21st Century Digital-born Bibliotherapy” is a research project funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Grant (2018-2020). Using methods of feminist participatory action research and critical community co-design to develop an interactive digital story app (i.e., digital fiction), this project creates a tool for media-enhanced bibliotherapy to help young women-identified and gender non-conforming individuals from diverse backgrounds build resilience to body image concerns. The project is a collaboration between digital humanities scholar Dr. Astrid Ensslin (Alberta), body image psychologists Drs. Carla Rice (Guelph) and Sarah Riley (Massey, NZ), as well as award-winning feminist digital fiction writer, artist, and game developer, Christine Wilks. Follow the author on TwitterFollow the author on Instagram

A significant scholarly and popular media criticism of bodily-focused video games is that they perpetuate harmful body image (Barlett and Harris; Sarkeesian). Yet, game scholars such as Kafai, as well as significant subsets of gaming communities, have argued that the medium can act as a resistance mechanism for heteronormative, racist, and anti-queer sociopolitical influence. In a Western context, gendered notions of appearance in media work to affirm an idealized body image for women, communicating that a body that is not white, able-bodied, thin, toned, and feminine, is, in fact, inferior. When we position technological development and video game discourse as sites of political confrontation, what emerges is space to subvert normative ideas of the body (Ruberg and Shaw). In this paper, we offer an overview of emergent digital fictions that centre marginalized experiences and explore how these narrative interventions can be used to challenge the limiting and binary ways in which we become estranged from our bodies.

Locating a path towards body liberation is the sentiment behind Writing New Bodies (WNB), a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada funded project. This research is working to build a digital fiction as a form of digital-born bibliotherapy to help young women or gender non-conforming players recognize and challenge harmful body ideals. Digital fictions are experimental, critical digital-born media designed to offer innovative combinations of reading, viewing, physical interaction, and gameplay.

Using feminist participatory action research (FPAR; Gustafson, et al.) and critical co-design, WNB is working with young people to design a collective digital fiction. FPAR is an action-oriented approach to research that enables a critical understanding of women’s diverse perspectives and works toward social change. We chose to incorporate this framework because it seeks to expose researchers’ own biases and assumptions through critical reflection between researchers and participants.

Using playable, digital textuality as a reading-based form of therapy for body-based concerns is relatively novel. Working with bibliotherapy experts, WNB is seeking to understand how digital fictions can be used as a body-image intervention. The project is a collaboration between digital media scholars, gender and body theorists, critical psychologists, and a research-creation artist specializing in feminist digital fiction. A critical pillar for this research is the practice of community co-design, where players of the digital fiction are viewed as an authoritative voice in the game’s development. Through workshop collaboration, participants shape the game mechanisms and story-world in ways that they believe may help them feel at home in their bodies.

Digital Fictions and Stories at the Margins

A Digital fiction (“DF”) is a narrative “written for and read on a computer screen, that pursues its verbal, discursive, and/or conceptual complexity through the digital medium and would lose something of its aesthetic and semiotic function if it were removed from that medium” (Bell et al.). DFs can take different forms, from text-only to multimodal, 3D or VR-enabled, or even bot-generated. They embody a reflexive materiality at their core by centreing interactive, often multilinear narrativity over spectacle through a series of player choices.

The DF medium has been both forged and taken-up by subjugated communities in order to voice experiences of embodiment. Tools such as Twine, a free and open source story-building engine, allow readers/players to create digital fictions regardless of coding or game-development skill. Twine’s history as a platform intended to reduce entrance barriers for game creators of marginalized identities makes it a dynamic entry point for participants to explore the medium’s potential (Ensslin and Skains).

We turned to critically significant digital fictions as examples of counter-discourse to pressures of embodiment. WNB participants played Twine games such as Queers in Love at the End of the World where readers/players are given ten seconds to interact with their lover before the world is “wiped away,” or Known Unknowns – noted as “a bisexual high school ghost hunting romance.” Ultimately, these DFs centre experiences that are culturally and institutionally diverted to the margins, while also giving narrative agency to the reader/player through the plotting of hyperlink routes.

 Fig. 1. Screenshot of Queers in Love at the End of the World by Anna Anthropy.

Fig. 1. Screenshot of Queers in Love at the End of the World by Anna Anthropy.

The designs of Christine Wilks, the DF creator for our project, centres marginal stories by weaving autobiographical undercurrents of pressurized normative femininity with repressive body ideals enforced both culturally and through the family. Wilks’ Flash fiction Underbelly (2010) is influenced by the sociohistorical landscape of northern England. The work brings together themes from the unsettling industrial past of a former coal mine with Wilks’ sister and her identity as a stone-carving artist. Auditory and textual experiences of 19th century female coal miners are layered with those of a contemporary woman sculptor. Entering into the world of Underbelly, the reader/player descends into an underworld of gendered anatomy where you might crawl through a uterus shaft or spin a wheel of pregnancy fate. A system message calls on you to “Choose! Choose!” as “Time is running out.” In the end both subjectivities of the sculptor and the miner succumb to a similar, compulsory interrogation on fertility and childbirth, suggesting to the reader/player that, although the existential situation for women may be improved, they remain confronted by stigmas attached to both motherhood and remaining childless.

Fig. 2. A wheel of pregnancy fate from Underbelly.

Fig. 2. A wheel of pregnancy fate from Underbelly.

Digital fictions, although often textually-based, can employ a visual experience to evoke complexity in experience. This is particularly salient for DFs that focus on the body as a central theme. In a collaboration with digital artist Andy Campbell, Wilks developed the Unity-based, immersive 3D fiction Inkubus (2014) for Mac and PC. Playing as a mostly unseen—save for a brief image on a reflective surface—teenage girl, “you” navigate the landscape of a childhood bedroom before plunging into a disorientating space of fleshy, bodily burrows. In your quest through these canals, you must “shoot” down fragments of cyber-bullying text with balls of light. The feminine ideal becomes personified in the anonymous identity of the cyberbully who manipulates your behavior and prevents your escape. Inkubus questions what it means to be a girl coming-of-age in digital culture—a sentiment that underscored the participant research design of WNB.

Fig. 3. “Your” teenage bedroom in Inkubus.

Fig. 3. “Your” teenage bedroom in Inkubus.

Writing New Bodies: The Project

The intention of WNB is to question how a target population of young women and gender non-conforming individuals can meaningfully contribute to the design and development of a new DF for body image bibliotherapy. We want to explore how young people can contribute to a design process that can act as a space of possibility for collective imagining of a world where we feel at home in our bodies. In spring 2019, we held four workshops with 21 co-designer participants ages 18-25. The two-day workshops were held in Guelph, Toronto, and Edmonton and facilitated by a team of feminist social scientists who specialize in body-image from the Universities of Alberta, Guelph, and Wilfrid Laurier with input from critical psychologists and bibliotherapy experts from the Universities of Laurentian, Massey, and Trinity College. We recruited diverse participants who experience some form of body image concern. Although we achieved meaningful intersectional representation including some diversity in ethnicity, body-size, ability, sexuality, and gender identity, our experience unfortunately reflected the dominance of privileged subjectivities at the institutional level. This is a problem we are continuing to reflect on in a future methodological paper (Bailey et al.) by centreing a critical review of research team makeup, community connection, and institutional dynamics.

Workshop activities included presentations on the DF medium, Wilks’ method of game design, and body-themed topics. These topics included discussion on the power of looking and how the gaze may occupy various vantage points in popular culture, including the male gaze, the colonial gaze, or the medical gaze. We used free writing prompts such as “first memories of having a body” where we encouraged participants to write their stories in the third-person to maintain narrative distance and to identify collective experiences. Through a meditation exercise, we asked participants to imagine and reflect on a space where they feel at home in their bodies. The second day focused on direct game design tasks including Twine creations, character brainstorming, and narrative themes. As participants explored the rhizomatic multiplicity of these DFs, accompanied with a Twine tutorial, we challenged them to begin thinking about how they might write their own body-themed stories using hypertext literature.

Reflection on Bodily Themes

Through qualitative analysis of workshop transcripts, Twine creations, and written narratives in MAXQDA, 50 distinct body image themes developed (see Fig. 4). The themes were further categorized into six categories: affect-orientated, health, identity, technologies, embodiment, and narrative ideas. Notions of “the gaze” and “adolescence” are highly represented, yet this was expected based on the discussion stemming from our presentation topics and writing prompts (one writing prompt was “first memories of having a body,” for example). Contextually, it became evident that the participant stories needed to be engaged in their entirety rather than as a series of fragmented parts which “fit” a theme seamlessly. For example, one participant shared a narrative recalling her summer working on her grandparent’s farm, her almost naked body covered with earth as she cleared away old tires and truck parts in the sun. Bonding with her body, which she came to see as connected to her mother’s, resembled a rebirth for her. This story was later coded using eleven themes such as “the body,” “nature setting,” and “the mother.”

Her story, as with all the participant’s narratives, is phenomenological and therefore its lived experience is challenging to capture through single-word themes. However, we chose single-word thematic analysis because it allowed us to connect different narrative moments through their affective tones. For example, by housing the term “shame” we were able to trace a continuum of this emotion in first body memories of participants. Yet, once we analyzed the big picture we then returned to the details of experience. Single-word themes were not an end point but a starting point to then explore thematic nuance in more holistic ways.

Fig. 4. Select Body Image Themes.

Fig. 4. Select Body Image Themes.

The body image themes emerging from the data were multifaceted and unique to each participant; however, we mapped the ways in which experiences thematically converged. In recalling adolescence, there were critical moments of first noticing one’s body as being different from others. There was reflection on the initial moment of bodily awareness as a shameful encounter when adults, typically a parent, commented on the body’s appearance. Meaningful discussion arose around issues of sexual assault, bullying, heteronormative supremacy, queer romantic desire, dress-codes, and the violent space of the school institution. Similarly we noted nuance in how the relationship with the “The Father” and the “The Mother” harmed participants’ bodily perceptions in unique ways. Negative stories about “The Mother” tended to depict rejecting her likeness where “The Father” was about internalizing his opinion. One participant shared the trauma she experienced when she sees her reflection as she noticed her resemblance to her mother with whom she had a turbulent relationship. Another participant discussed how she dismissed negative judgments her mother made about her body, yet internalized her father’s opinion.

We turned to the participants to identify direct themes that informed the story-world of the DF. Participants believed it was important for the DF to portray the inconsistencies of body-related emotions and difficulties resisting binary thought. The mirror surfaced as a symbol embodying all external and internal pressure and judgement. Further, there was an acknowledgement of complex or nuanced experiences in two distinct ways. First, as nonlinear experience of narrative, participants recognized a theme of looping or a cycle in which they could not escape. Second, there was reflection on the inability to name certain experiences as either bad or good. Participants discussed their desire to be content with moments that drew internalized, conflicting responses. Finally, the participants revealed a longing to embrace the transformative potential of “the gaze” through finding pleasure in being looked at, or locating space for the non-binary gaze.

As the project moves into the DF development phase, we are re-engaging with participants to receive their feedback through beta-testing early prototypes. We are adapting the DF to meet the participants’ preference for transformative, accessible, and intuitive technology through a mobile platform. Informed by our consultations with bibliotherapists, we are testing the DF’s potential as a treatment tool in a therapeutic setting. Other uses being considered are in schools, for parents, youth organizations like the Girl Guides, and private use.

Ultimately our co-designer participants shared a desire for an intervention that could rupture the usual restrictive, binary ways in which we come to understand our bodies. They envision a game that will open up novel pathways and unlock positive choices they were unaware they had. Although we chose the project name Writing New Bodies to draw Hélène Cixous’ “écriture feminine” into the digital realm of the 21st century, we have come to recognize that this project is about writing new worlds, about writing spaces into existence where we feel at home in our bodies.

Work Cited

Barlett, Christopher P., and Richard J. Harris. “The Impact of Body Emphasizing Video Games on Body Image Concerns in Men and Women.” Sex Roles, vol. 59, no. 7-8, 2008, pp. 586-601.

Bayley, Aly, Astrid Ensslin, and Megan Perram. “Writing New Bodies at the Intersections of Gender? Challenges of Community Co-Design as Feminist Participatory Action Research.” From Working the Intersections of Gender (WIG) Conference, 3 Oct. 2019, University of Alberta, Edmonton.

Bell, Alice., Astrid Ensslin, David Ciccoricco, Hans. K. Rustad, Jessica Laccetti, and Jessica Pressman. A [S]creed for Digital Fiction. Electronic Book Review, 2010. http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/electropoetics/DFINative (accessed 06 October 2017).

Cixous, Hélène. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 1, no. 4, 1976, pp. 875-893.

Ensslin, Astrid, and Lyle Skains. “Hypertext: Storyspace to Twine.” Bloomsbury Handbook of Electronic Literature, edited by Joseph Tabbi, 2017, pp. 1-22.

Gustafson, Diana L., et al. “Writing to Transgress: Knowledge Production in Feminist Participatory Action Research.” Forum: Qualitative Social Research, vol. 20, no. 2, 2019, pp. 1-25.

Kafai, Yasmin B., et al., editors. Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming. MIT Press, 2008.

Ruberg, Bonnie, and Adrienne Shaw, editors. Queer Game Studies. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.