The _______ Cassandra

An interactive Jane Austen writing game, designed to encourage teenage writers to relate to Austen’s creative spirit and social context, as well as improving their own craft and confidence. 

Jane Austen’s House, an independent museum in the UK, received a National Lottery Heritage Fund Emergency Grant to safeguard our viability during the CoVID pandemic. We saw this as an opportunity to reinterpret an important part of Jane Austen’s life and to reach out to new, previously-inaccessible audiences (both at home and overseas) using a combination of simple web technologies and innovative creative design.

The result of this is the Teen To Teen Project (https://janeaustens.house/teenage-writings/), which aims to introduce teenagers to Jane Austen’s own teenage writings, using modern technologies and cultural touchstones to help them understand the relevance of her life and work to their own. A major element of the Project is an online game – combining text, collage and animation – which allows players to explore elements from Austen’s teenage stories, and customise them through their own interactions.

Using one of Austen’s own early works (‘The Beautifull Cassandra’) as a structural skeleton, the player takes on the role of one of Austen’s friends, helping her to write the story.  Driven by the player’s choices, the titular Cassandra fights her way through 18th century society, navigating shipwrecks, wars and a particularly deadly society ball. As the story unfolds, the player sees firsthand something of Austen’s creative process, as she played with genre conventions to critique and lampoon the society in which she lived. The player even has an opportunity to write some of the story themself, when Austen is struck by writer’s block!  At the end of the experience, the player’s version of Austen’s story is critiqued by her family, and the player is able to share the finished work on social media or save a version for themselves.

The game is thus designed to provide the player with a fast-paced, humorous and dramatic insight into the young Austen’s mind and creative process, addressing their preconceptions and prejudices as well as giving them the confidence themselves to write, through gentle encouragement and interactive prompts.

By both our own standards and the criteria of the GLAMi Awards, we feel that the project has been a great success:

Innovation: Using Twine, the free open-source interactive fiction tool (http://twinery.org), we produced something that was a complete departure from our previous educational offerings; one that allowed us to reach much larger audiences during the CoVID pandemic, and which also placed storytelling, creativity and interaction at the heart of the learning experience.

Content: The game is visually sumptuous, with subtle animations and a collaged punk aesthetic – a stark contrast to much Austen interpretation, and much more attractive and appealing to our target audience. We were also extremely pleased with how well the original words of Austen’s story could be adapted and modified by the player’s choices; creating a version of the story that, in the words of leading Austen scholar Professor Kathryn Sutherland (who served as advisor on this project) will always seem like something the young Austen could have written herself!

UX: Taking a narrative, character-led approach, and led by simple animation that unfolds on the screen like paper, we feel that the user experience of the game is smooth, encouraging and compelling. The game can be used on the audience’s choice of device, with a responsive design that adapts to multiple use cases and play contexts. The game takes around 10-15 minutes to play, and encourages further engagement both through the subtle (and optional) creative writing component, as well as the built-in sharing functionality once the game has finished. The game is also situated on the Museum’s Teen To Teen Project webpage, which provides players with other resources to fully contextualise their experience.

Impact: While we are still in the process of evaluating and publicising the game (see below), we feel that a game-led approach, accessible through player’s own devices and incorporating their own creative responses into gameplay, will demonstrate great success in engaging teenagers both inside and outside the classroom. The focus on Austen’s teenage writings (rather than her adult work), and the emphasis on commonalities between her and today’s teenagers, was also a creative decision that will bear more fruit than traditional methods. The web-based nature of the game will also help to increase the range of our outreach work.

Accessibility: The game is designed in accordance with W3C Web Accessibility Guidelines, is free to play and does not require special software or hardware to access (beyond an internet connection): this greatly increases the diversity of players that can play and enjoy the game.