A Twine Journey to Mecca: Digital Storytelling in the Classroom

Building off James Harry Morris’s post on Historical Storytelling with Twine in 2019 in which he presented his experience of using Twine in the classroom, I wanted to share my experience using the program as well. Over the course of the past few years, I have put together an educational historical simulation of the early modern pilgrimage to Mecca using Twine entitled The Hajj Trail

This Twine project aims to expand the reach of my own research on the early modern hajj  by helping students and teachers to have an easy-to-deploy tool to de-center European colonial empires in their understanding and presentation of global history and the early modern world. This digital story was compiled from my own research on the early modern hajj, utilizing dozens of pilgrimage narratives and itineraries to best encapsulate the myriad experiences that travelers to Mecca in the Ottoman Empire encountered. In total, my co-creator Russ Gasdia and I put together a Twine story that amounts to over 750 pages of single-spaced text, 327 unique locations, 400+ historical quotes, 350+ images, 100+ special events, and 100+ merchant items in the simulation. Russ, with his background in coding, put together some of the core mechanics of the project, e.g., the water decay system, the event randomizer, the leaflet map, and the website. My contribution to the project was the content, images, narrative, and other mechanics, including the point system, special events, and the caravan companions. In its entirety, the project was put together through hundreds of hours of work and was all volunteer-based. However, the labor invested in the project was well worth the effort, as it has become an important educational tool in my own classrooms.

Figure 1: Screenshot of a section of The Hajj Trail as represented in Twine

When I utilize The Hajj Trail in my courses, I usually devote one week to the activity in the class with an accompanying lecture introducing the students to the history of the hajj and the early modern Ottoman Empire. In general, I utilize this as a tool in both my survey world history courses and in more focused topics courses on the history of the Ottoman Empire. As the students play through the simulation, I ask them to keep a journal, as their character, of everything that happens to them in the digital journey. They are then asked to write a short reflection on what the simulation taught them about the social and cultural history of the Ottoman world. According to our surveys, most students take 3 to 4 hours to play through The Hajj Trail and respond positively to the immersive experience. Throughout the student playthroughs they are introduced to many different themes including the Ottoman court system, petitioning, charity, pious endowments, trade networks, artwork, banditry, and the stories of Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi. All of these serve to provide a window into the structures of early modern Ottoman society.


Description automatically generated
Figure 2: Screenshot of the full route map options currently available in The Hajj Trail

The concept for The Hajj Trail project is that an interactive simulation is a more effective medium in which to introduce the stories of early modern travelers to students than direct readings. Through each student’s unique playthrough of the simulation they effectively experience a Frankenstein version of an early modern pilgrimage narrative. As almost every event, location, and experience represented in the simulation is based on dozens of historical accounts meant to represent the multifaceted journeys to Mecca. Through this lens, students encounter quotes and moments from historical narratives in the simulation which highlight different aspects of early modern life and travel in the Ottoman Empire. Similarly, the experience of the simulation helps students to better understand the difficulties and challenges of the early modern pilgrimage to Mecca. If I assign students a seventeenth-century pilgrimage account to read for class, they may spend several minutes reading that account’s entire journey through the Arabian desert in which the pilgrim discusses the difficulty of finding water. While some students may understand the emotional toll and climatic tribulations which the desert crossing from Damascus to Medina placed upon early modern travelers, others may struggle to recognize that aspect of the primary source. Through the digital interactive medium of a simulation, a student will have already invested perhaps 1 to 2 hours reaching Damascus from Istanbul and then suddenly realize the increasing climatic demands and scarcity of water as they push through the desert caravan route. This investment of time, albeit significantly less than the original experience of pilgrims, helps to emphasize the challenges that faced historical pilgrims in a more personalized and impactful way through a simulation when compared to presenting the same information through a text to students. This is because a digital simulation not only provides the students with more of an investment in the story due to the influence of choice in the narrative, but also through the ways in which simulations can play with time in a way that text readings cannot, due to the limitations of its medium.

A picture containing website

Description automatically generated
Figure 3: Screenshot of a location landing page in The Hajj Trail

While The Hajj Trail is an expansive project, Twine as a platform provides a useful tool to write simpler digital historical stories. In my classes, I often have students build their own choice-based Twine stories based on historical sources. In these assignments, I only require that students get familiar with some simple coding for Twine and produce a historical story with several key choices throughout. In this way, students must identify key moments in a primary source text and reproduce both the recorded historical outcome and create an alternative path, which helps them conceptualize different historical trajectories. For instance, I am currently having students in one of my courses create a Twine story based on Menocchio and his interactions with the Italian inquisition from the famous microhistory The Cheese and the Worms by Carlo Ginzburg. Twine is a wonderful open-source platform in which scholars can create their own educational tools suited for their own courses and as a tool in which students can build their own simulations in which to engage with historical questions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s