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Dear White Christians

This one is just for the white Christians. If you’re Black, I love you, but there isn’t really anything I can tell you right now that you don’t already know; much of what I have to say here I learned from Black people. If you’re not Christian, then arguing on the basis of Christian scripture isn’t going to mean much to you, and I don’t want to waste your time, so you can check out here too. I’ll catch up with you later, friends. Right now I just want to talk to the white Christians in the room.

But if you call yourself Christian and you’re white, you have some careful thinking to do right now about your position, about what you believe, and what God asks of you.

Arguably, white people who call themselves Christian are a large part of the reason that the country is in a mess right now. That sin is on us, and it’s on us to atone for it, to try to set it right.

I didn’t vote for our vile president, the one who is even now hiding in a bunker while calling for violent oppression of his own citizens’ rights to free speech and assembly. But apparently a lot of you did. Why? No, really—I want you to think long and hard about why you voted for a man who is everything Christians should strive to not be. He is boastful, deceitful, selfish, blasphemous, racist, and sexist, among other “fine” qualities. What did you see in him?

Was it because he promised to force people to say “Merry Christmas?” So much so that, bizarrely, I got an ad requesting people to celebrate his birthday in the middle of the summer that played commercial Christmas music in the background. (seriously, what the heck?) Celebrating Christian holidays does not a Christian make; many atheists, many who are arguably more Christ-like than our supposedly “Christian” president, celebrate Christmas as a purely secular holiday. Besides, scripture is clear on the value of festivals, offerings, and other religious performances absent the gifts of the Holy Spirit:

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Amos 6:21-24

No, I suspect it’s much worse than the mere performances he provided. I suspect, deep in your heart, you will find the evil that resonates when he speaks. Is it the sexism? Is it the nationalism and greed, both of which are inherently incompatible with Christianity—for did Jesus not preach that “No man can serve two masters… you cannot serve God and wealth”? (Matthew 6:24) Is it the racism? At this moment, when Black people are fighting for their very right to live, do you find your traitorous heart rejoicing in the brutality they face? Do you excuse it, calling them “thugs” and objecting to “how” they protest? Sit with those questions. Answer them honestly. Pray on it. Then ask for forgiveness. Ask for God to forge in you a new heart, one filled with grace and humility.

There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that hurry to run to evil, a lying witness who testifies falsely, and one who sows discord in a family.

Proverbs 6:16-19

White Christian hypocrisy has been made too plain this year. It was always there—it has been for centuries—but the concurrence of current events, of the pandemic and now the righteous and rightful protests against police brutality and other institutional racism has made too obvious how hypocritical so much of white Christianity is. Not all of it, of course—witness, for instance, the solidarity with Black Lives Matter protests that we’ve seen in the Mennonite, Quaker, and Amish communities, communities which are notable for their radical Christianity, including pacifism and a history of abolitionism. You might say to yourself that the Black protesters are violent, but yet how then can you understand that the pacifists have more or less universally allied themselves on their side?

But the face of white Christianity in the United States is the Evangelical movement, a movement to which much hypocrisy and evil can be attributed, and it is far past time for individual white Christians to reckon within themselves what that means. It is far past time for white Christians to, as Jesus instructed, remove the plank from their own eyes before looking to the motes in their neighbors’ eyes. It is not our Black neighbors’ jobs to hold our hands through this process of soul-searching, confession, and change. They have enough to do to protect themselves right now, in so many ways. It is our job to sit with our discomfort, to sit with our sins and confess them, praying as we have been instructed by our Savior to do, locked in our rooms where only God can hear us, until we have come out ready to defend those we have persecuted like Paul, who spent years learning under the Christians he persecuted before he was ready to preach at their side.

Look, then, to your own misplacement of God. God is not in your church buildings, which only two weeks ago you were threatening your leaders with guns to reopen because you were inconvenienced. God is standing with the Black Lives Matter protesters, waiting for you to understand that all He has ever asked of you is to look to the marginalized, to the oppressed, and help them where they are.

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats… your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

Isaiah 1:11-17

You, who have spent so much time and energy and money to oppress people who don’t show love the way you expect it to look because of one mistranslated verse in the Old Testament, have ignored so much of the law, which calls over and over to defend those whom human laws have cast out and thrown down, which calls over and over to seek justice for the oppressed.

When Cain killed Abel, his blood cried out to God from the soil. Does not the blood of George Floyd, the blood of Trayvon Martin, the blood of Philando Castile, the blood of Eric Garner, the blood of Michael Brown, the blood of Emmett Till, the blood of all these Black victims, cry out to God for justice? But you will, like Cain, answer with blood on your hands, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Yes. You are your brother’s keeper. That’s what you agreed to when you professed your faith. Jesus has made this all very clear, even if you got confused by all the law and prophets constantly reiterating that our first responsbility, the only worship that God truly cares about, is that we love our neighbors, that we seek justice and love kindness, and that we walk humbly with God. Jesus, upon being asked what the most important law was, answered simply:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Matthew 22: 37-40

Before you act in the name of God or His law, always check against those two laws. Does it serve God—or your own comfort? Does it serve your neighbor—or just the neighbors you like because they’re like you? Do not forget that when asked “Who is my neighbor,” Jesus answered with a story about a Samaritan—the people whom his audience would have considered unclean outsiders, not at all their neighbors. Jesus makes it very clear that our neighbors are the people God puts in front of us, not the people we choose to live among because they make us feel comfortable.

“But,” you say, “I don’t disagree with their message, just the way they’re doing it,” you say. Search your heart again. Did you listen when Colin Kaepernick merely knelt in protest? Or did you call him a “thug” too and dismiss him as “disrespectful”? Did you listen when they stood and chanted “Black Lives Matter” or did you dismiss them by replying “all lives matter”?

“But they’re being violent. They’re destroying property,” you say. “Jesus would never have done that!” I’m sorry, but I’m not sure which Jesus you’re referring to, because the Jesus I find in scripture certainly did. Did not our savior overturn the tables and drive out the money changers with a whip because they were swindling the poor who came to worship at the temple?

Do not forget: Jesus was not crucified by a lawless band of rioters. He was crucified by the authorities, using the law enforcement of the empire, for preaching justice and liberation for the oppressed. You who call for police authority are no better than the crowd who cried out “crucify him!” to Pontius Pilate. Again: search your heart, pray for a new one made of love and righteousness.

I will not take the time here to ennumerate the historical stain of sin that covers white Christianity; you can certainly do that work on your own, as it is well documented how white Christianity has been the engine behind racist institutions in the United States. Indeed, you should do that work. My argument today is only that scripture is very clear that our Lord asks us to be on the side of the Black community, who are only asking for justice.

If that makes you uncomfortable, examine more carefully your relationship with your faith—does it serve you, or do you serve God?

And when you’ve done that introspection, you might consider instead of donating to your church, divert your offerings to do the true work of the Lord more directly: freeing the prisoner, feeding the hungry, and seeking justice for the oppressed.

Here’s some threads that can help you figure out how to do that. It’s the least we can do.

And please please don’t make this about you and your virtue. Jesus was pretty clear about what He thought of people who pray on the street corner so that everyone can know how pious they are too. Here’s some guides on that too:

Important Lessons: Flexibility and Vulnerability

I was a freshman in high school, having just moved across the country to a wealthy suburb of Washington DC, where many Pentagon officers lived, when the 9/11 attacks happened. Most of my fellow students had some connection to the government or military through their parents’ jobs. Many parents at my school worked in the Pentagon; my own father had years before, when we’d lived there the first time in the same house, but now he had a different position in the Department of Defense.

The next day, in English class, Ms. Kettler tossed out our planned curriculum. I don’t remember what we were supposed to be studying at the time. It didn’t matter anymore, and she knew it. Instead, she threw together a quick lesson on the psychology of grief. She explained that we would probably need to understand something about grief, because even if we ourselves weren’t grieving, our classmates certainly were, and we needed to learn to be gentle with them.

I don’t have the heart to find really relevant illustrations for this post, so please enjoy some cats I’ve used before.
All images via StockSnap, as usual.

That lesson stuck with me. I remember that lesson. Whatever we were supposed to learn about literary devices, whatever we were supposed to learn about composition… none of that was as important or as useful as understanding grief and the many colors and shapes it can manifest in.

And now, when I know that when I get back to teaching in the fall, I will have grieving students, I’m remembering that lesson. If you are throwing out lessons you’d normally teach and replacing them with lessons more relevant to the current moment, I respect your decision. Please continue doing that.

I often advise other teachers, who worry about maintaining professional distance and a veneer of “having it together,” that the best lesson we can teach is that we, ourselves, are human, and humans need to be gentle with each other. I’ve written about this before here. Yes, we need to keep some professional distance from our students, because we simply can’t expend the emotional labor to be entwined in their lives in intimate ways, and because there are boundaries that should not be crossed. But we also, sometimes, need to let the veil slip and show that we’re truly, achingly human. When we do this, we’ll see better results.

When we are “just a teacher” to our students, we are the enemy, an authority to be outwitted into “giving” them an A. The game is to see what you can “get away with” as a student. It’s us versus them. Guard versus prisoner.

But when we show we’re human, when we let our griefs and our joys show through, we can become allies with our students. Teammates. Mentors, even. Sometimes, it’s ok to tell them “I didn’t get this done because something happened…”

And in this moment, when we’re preparing for classes (or teaching summer classes) that will necessarily involve more distance than we would normally use, perhaps we can make some deliberately vulnerable moves to make sure that the humanity isn’t lost in our classes.

I’m sure that Ms. Kettler was uncertain about her decision to change a curriculum that had probably been planned well in advance, one she’d used for years (I know for a fact she reused lessons a lot, because I had her for more classes after that, and also because she was a clever teacher who knew how to manage her workload pretty well). It was a moment of vulnerability for us and her.

But I’m also sure it was the right thing to do at that moment. And I’m sure that right now, this moment as we figure out how to move forward from an interrupted semester into possibly several semesters of planning for uncertainty and instability, the moment calls for similar actions. I’m hoping that, as a teacher in a time of crisis, I’ve been at least half as effective as Ms. Kettler was.

One strategy I used in the online half of spring semester was to send my students a weekly summary email (details in a previous post). I had several students thank me for these emails. I suspect not so much because of the “what you have done” and “what you will do” sections, although I’m sure those were helpful. In each email, I tried to include something useful for the moment: a discussion of how media literacy matters when sorting out new information about safety protocols and risk factors, a link to a face mask pattern and research about the utility of masks, an update on CDC guidelines, or something else useful. Sometimes it was just encouragement—just some kind words such as “I know you’re going through a lot. It’s ok if this class isn’t your #1 priority right now. Your safety and well-being are more important.” When I started conversations with students who requested video chats, I opened with “How are you? Are you in a safe place right now?” I’m sure I could have done more, but I am pleased that I did at least that much to let the humanity into my, well, humanities course.

How do we plan for the unexpected? How do we plan to be human?

As you plan for your upcoming classes, or teach your current online courses, make space for lessons about how to be humane to ourselves and each other. Make space for vulnerability and invite in care.

But What About At-Risk Students?

My university, like many others, has announced some modifications for fall semester, but is still trying to do mostly in-person classes. I’m not here to complain about the very difficult decisions that university leadership is making; I am actually quite thankful to be “just” a contract faculty instructor, because these decisions right now are all kinds of Not Fun. And, indeed, in general I think my university’s leadership is doing their best; I think they’re doing a pretty decent job of making informed policy.

They did, in their decisions, advise that instructors who are in at-risk groups may petition to have their courses be online-only, so that they can continue to work from home and continue with distance learning. Again, I think this is a very good idea.

My question is: what about the at-risk students? Will they also be able to take only online classes? So far I haven’t seen any official word on that yet, so I’m hoping that there will be options for students. Students should be allowed to have a choice here.

My big theme around here is student choice. I find it is essential to a good learning experience. I also find that it’s often the last thing considered in policy or pedagogy.

Plenty of research on pedagogy has found that agency matters for engagement, learning, and retention. When students feel like they have control and power over what they’re learning, they learn better. The greatest magic trick of teaching—the hardest and most difficult to master—is relinquishing control of the classroom so that students can take over. Not anarchy, not chaos, but a guided stream that students can navigate independently. I make no claims to having mastered this trick; I just say that it’s my goal because that’s where the real magic happens. That is, the goal is to confer agency to students over the run of a course.

And agency matters more than just in learning. Agency promotes good mental health. Agency fosters life skills that adults need. Agency creates a community of respect. Agency makes things meaningful.

Agency matters in health decisions as well. Agency is the entire foundation of concepts like “informed consent.” I am not an ethics expert, but as far as I know, it matters a great deal if a patient understands what they’re consenting to and what the risks are in a procedure.

University students are not children. They are adults. And this is too often forgotten or overlooked. As adults, they have a right to make informed decisions about their own health and safety. But at the same time, they are adults who are too often in relatively powerless positions, whether in reality or in their perception, having been trained by a prison-like school paradigm to be submissive to authority, and even often still being called “kids” and in other ways being treated as not-really-adults. In short, if the university or their professors tell them to do something, they’ll generally do it (as long as it doesn’t mean speaking in class, I guess).

Which could be very dangerous. Are there professors who don’t take social distancing seriously enough? Absolutely. Are there even more professors who will forget, because they’re so used to easily building group work in the classroom? Absolutely.

We have seen some people arguing that universities will be safe petri dishes of the novel coronavirus, because it doesn’t seem to do as much damage to young people, which most of a university’s students are. And certainly, if we operate under the assumption that a greater percentage of faculty and staff are at risk than students (which is probably true), it makes sense to give the decisions about health and safety to faculty and staff. But that’s just big numbers. We need to remember that, in a population of, for instance, 20,000 students, if just 1% of students are “high risk”, that’s 200 students. That’s a lot of students! And I suspect those made-up numbers are really low-balling the risk here. I suspect, given how many conditions have been shown to increase risk right now, the number is closer to 20% of the student population, but I don’t know for sure. And that’s the point.

But as a faculty member, it isn’t my job nor my place to speculate which among my students might be high-risk; they don’t need to disclose to me if they have high blood pressure or asthma or chronic lung conditions, as those don’t really affect our relationship in any way. And yet I might be putting them at risk by having in-person classes just because I am not a high-risk individual, because they’re going to sign up for the classes they “need,” and my class is likely to be one of those classes. Because of the power differential between myself and a student in the university system, my choices will affect their choices directly.

In a perfect world, students would feel free to choose what is best for their unique situations. But we all know that’s not the way it will actually happen. At-risk students will take unnecessary risks because they will feel pressured so long as there are a larger number of in-person classes.

My inclination is to ask to teach all online simply because I don’t think I can bear on my conscience the knowledge that I may be putting my students at risk by asking them to come into a poorly ventilated classroom (as my classrooms usually are). But at the same time, I myself am not considered high risk right now, so I can’t completely justify it when they invite at-risk faculty only to apply for online teaching. Obviously I don’t know yet what will happen; none of us will for sure. But I will continue to advocate for simply asking the question: “What about at-risk students?”

The Value of Non-Gamers Playing Games

For Mothers Day, we gave my mom Minecraft and taught her how to play it with us on my brother’s realm. My mother probably plays video games more hours than my brother (a game designer) and myself (a games researcher) combined, but they’re all casual games like search-and-find or connect-three that most people don’t even consider “gaming.” She certainly wouldn’t call herself a gamer, although she has always enjoyed watching us play. One time when I was in high school and I went to play a Zelda game, she was folding laundry on the couch and asked “Is this another one of those Link movies? I like those.” So, that’s the kind of player I’m talking about here.

My mother working on her castle in Minecraft.

Teaching my mother Minecraft meant first teaching her WASD controls, since as I said most of her gaming experience is with casual games, not with action games. Most “gamers” take these for granted, of course; they’re industry standard, and the controls don’t change much from game to game that use them. I’m not a huge fan of WASD, as I’m quite sure there are better ways to do keyboard controls for action settings (in King’s Quest: Mask of Eternity, which allowed for a lot of customization of controls, I usually set my direction keys to ESDF instead to give me more keys to set to other actions), but it’s generally considered “intuitive” because that’s the control scheme most “gamers”—the target audience for most mainstream games—already know.

But the thing about watching someone who isn’t a “gamer” play is that you start to see the cracks under the veneer in game design. You start to see the big holes that were just patched over with tradition and genre conventions, the things gamers just accept because they are used to them. You also get to see the real structure of a game, rather than just the ornamentation.

WASD was one of those cracks, as was the distinction between left and right mouse buttons. None of that was intuitive. My mother picked up the game wonderfully fast (and is now quite obsessed with it, regularly telling me to log in so I can see what new things she’s built), but nearly a week after teaching her the controls, we still sometimes have to remind her how they work. This isn’t her fault. As we can see by how quickly she picked up the game, she’s not a slow learner by any means, nor is she unused to using a computer to play games. It simply isn’t as intuitive as tradition has taught us.

Indeed, the field of game studies owes a lot to “non-gamers” and how their experiences with games can help us understand games better, in much the same way that linguists delight in the “errors” that children and non-native speakers make when learning a language, because these errors can help expose the very structures of language itself. As I reflected on watching my mother play Minecraft, I was reminded of another parent learning to play games, a case much more familiar to most games researchers: James Paul Gee’s self-analysis in What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2003).

Gee’s book is considered instrumental in game studies becoming recognized outside of itself as a legitimate field of study, and is still my go-to recommendation for people wanting to start on either game studies or pedagogy research. But at the core of it is this: a non-gamer perspective on the experience of gaming.

I have often wondered, for instance, why, when playing Arcanum, Gee would have chosen to call his elf character “Bead Bead.” Initially, not having played Arcanum when I first read the book, I thought it might be something to do with Arcanum in particular, but when I played Arcanum and found it to be a fairly ordinary, if exceptionally deep, fantasy (steampunk) RPG, I was baffled by the choice. To someone who has been deeply steeped in the fantasy genre so much that it might be her native language, to someone who has grokked the conventions of role playing, it seemed really weird. But watching my mother customize her Minecraft avatar and then go delightedly chasing after sheep with shears, Bead Bead made a lot more sense.

Gee’s book is primarily about principles of learning, not about games themselves. The main thesis of it is that video games, when well designed, function as well-designed learning environments, and teachers should learn from game design principles in order to better design learning spaces (virtual or physical). But in order to truly see those learning principles at work, it partly requires seeing a novice navigating them.

My mother’s castle. Really impressive for someone who learned WASD less than a week ago!

We often see discussion of “gatekeeping” in gaming’s social spaces as a question of inclusivity and recognizing the diversity that has, frankly, always been present in these spaces even as certain elements try to erase it. But I think another aspect of that gatekeeping is that, by keeping people who aren’t already members of the space out of the space, we inside the space lose a lot of valuable insight from the people who don’t take things for granted because everything is new to them. This is as true for gaming as it is for education, of course, and for any other social space with a long tradition. When we let in novices and nurture them, it forces us to confront our own assumptions and structures; this is something we should do often and intentionally.

My mother always taught me “The best way to learn is to teach.” Among the many lessons she has for us in the games world, that may still be the most important.

Postmortem: The Other Godawful Semester (not too bad actually)

Fall semester was a personal horror show of overwork and cascading minor disasters. It left me exhausted, shaken, and hesitant to volunteer around the department, not so much because I felt taken advantage of (I was confident my colleagues would have done all the same things for me), but because I just needed a break. And I marched boldly into this semester with a Plan, full of resolve to Make It Better.

This semester, spring semester, then, was a public, national, global horror show of overwork and cascading major disasters. I don’t really need to say that, do I?

And yet—and yet! It turned out Not So Bad, and I’m not 100% sure why.

What do I mean by Not So Bad? I mean that in general, fewer students than normal failed my courses. I mean that the ones who passed almost all received As or high Bs. I did not expect this, but I hadn’t changed the grading rubric or syllabus requirements at all in the shift to online learning (although I did shift my expectations in applying those rubrics), so something worked, and it worked well. I actually had a number of students send me notes thanking me in detail for how I conducted the transition.

I’m pretty sure I’m not somehow magically good at managing a class in a pandemic, even though I tried to exude expertise as a leadership strategy by assuring my students that I’d led classes through natural disasters before (technically true), and that I’d taught the very same course online before (also true). But neither of those facts truly arms us for a freakin’ pandemic, ya know?

But I guess, now that the grades are in and the papers are graded and the forms are filed as needed, I can do a postmortem on the class, if you’ll excuse the term.

What Didn’t Work

First, what didn’t work? Well, I learned that I really did need the staggered due dates. Once that little to-do number in the Canvas mobile app ticked to 99+, all ability to focus disappeared. Any time I managed to get it under 99+, I magically could focus and be productive. I don’t get the magic, but I honor it. I was doing fine pre-online, because the staggered due dates had kept that number real and manageable, but post-online, things started stacking up as I prioritized getting materials online and keeping ahead of the class, and as my students submitted late work en masse.

The result was a very unfortunate and somewhat detrimental loss in timely feedback. I found that things that I normally might have corrected and headed off early in student work got perpetuated, because for many students, they turned in the next assignment before I’d finished with the last one. That’s exactly what I’d hoped to avoid this semester.

Another result was that students pushing back deadlines meant that they didn’t have as many revision opportunities, which didn’t significantly affect their grades, but I’m more concerned that it may have significant impact on their actual learning about writing and research.

Finally, without library support, I found that I had to abandon some aspects of the course, since the course is entirely about research practices and research in writing. For some students, the lack of library space is a major handicap. (I will never take the library for granted again!)

What Did Work

So, what worked? Honestly, I’m not sure what the magical special sauce was this semester, but I have a few hypotheses.

The first accommodation I made for the online shift was to completely erase the late policy and make all deadlines super flexible. Sure, Canvas still displayed due dates, but in every message I sent my students, I assured them that the due dates were suggestions to help them stay on track. Most students stayed within a few days of those due dates. But for the first affected assignment, due the week we went online, I had almost no assignments submitted on time; that was fine. I did, as many teachers might fear, have a small handful of students who turned everything in finals week; that was also fine. Their work showed they still learned from it, and because all the projects were deeply connected, it actually made sense for them to do them all together. Some students even used the online shift to do the projects out of order, and it turned out all right!

The second accommodation I made for the shift was to strip the class of any activity that did not directly connect to the course description. That is, I wanted to boil the course down to its skeleton. The course description specifies the assignments that remained: the annotated bibliography, the formal research paper, and the multimodal presentation of research. So those stayed. The course catalog listed the textbooks (although those are not completely standardized for the course, so the scheduled readings remained, along with their super-low-stakes quizzes, and became substitutes for any lecturing I might have done. I made discussion boards, tutorial videos, student examples, video lectures from previous iterations of the course, etc available to my students, but none of these were required.

The combined result of these two accommodations, from what I can tell, was actually a highly customizable course. Students who worked independently well thrived with the provided “as needed” materials. Students who thrived on feedback and direct instruction, however, requested extra assistance from me, which was done either over private messages or scheduled video appointments with them. These were generally students I’d normally see in my office hours or after class before the switch, and it worked out pretty well for them.

I suspect, actually, the result was “just in time” instruction, to borrow the phrase from Gee’s learning principles. That is, students accessed the instruction when they needed it, and not before or after. I actually saw very little dip in quality of work; in fact, things like formatting were significantly improved over what I normally see with classroom instruction. The video tutorials I provided to them are basically what I would have normally done in class: pop up a former student’s paper with all formatting stripped and walk through formatting it in both Word and Google Docs. But because students could access the material and pause it or rewatch it, or they had the option to open up the documents in the videos themselves and tinker, I suspect that the “just in time” nature of the instruction online resulted in better quality learning and more attention to detail. I say this in part because I had several students specifically mention tutorial videos in emails that they sent thanking me for how I handled the transition, so something must have gone right there. However, as I only have a total of 50 views on those videos (and some of them are mine) when I had 90+ students, that can’t be the only thing going on.

On top of these two accommodations, from the students’ perspective, there was one more change in the course structure: Each week I wrote them a detailed message that included three sections:

  • What you have done. This section detailed what, if they were staying on the deadlines listed on Canvas, they had done that week toward course goals. It often included a note about how the research literacy skills in that unit might be applied to the current events or more broadly.
  • What you will do. This section described the goals of the next weekly unit and how to extend the skills from the previous unit into future work.
  • Other notes. I used this section to link to useful resources, keep students up to date on university announcements and how they might affect them particularly, notes about rhetoric or research they might see in the news, updates on safety guidelines, etc. This was a place for a little more humanity and compassion as well as strictly pragmatic material.

From the students’ side, that’s what seemed to help in the transition.

Of course, there was also a third, less obvious and less immediate, accommodation, which was a shift in my own mindset. I had lower expectations as I graded. My question was no longer “Is this excellent?” but “Is it done?”. I found myself reading less for product and more for “What can I see that they learned here?” and I feel a little guilty admitting that this was a shift. It shouldn’t have been a shift; I’ve been told all my life by my mother (who is an excellent art teacher) to assess students on improvement and demonstrated learning than on product, but there was definitely a lot more joy in my grading at the end of the semester as I thought not “Why didn’t they learn this?” but rather “Look at how much they DID learn!”

Indeed, the final projects were a pure joy. I was handing out As like Halloween candy and loving it. Not because I had predetermined to do so (I had, though; I’d adjusted the last rubric to make it easier to get an A to account for the lack of hands-on instruction), but because they genuinely earned it. Lacking the advantages of library computers loaded with expensive software, lacking the advantages of being able to use the space at the Digital Writing Studio, lacking in-person office hours where they could plop their laptop in front of me and ask “how do I do this?”, still they produced infographics, videos, and podcasts that looked and sounded great. How could I not cry out and exclaim for joy?

I honestly don’t know what I did right, if anything, this semester. But I can list a whole lot of things my students did right this semester, and I am so very proud of them.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have sewing to do, because I’ve been waiting for this summer all year. I’ve earned this.

A Televangelist Meets God

In heaven, God walks with a recently arrived man. In life, he had been a wildly popular and successful evangelical preacher. The preacher finally asks his burning question: 

“Lord, I prayed that you would keep us safe from the virus, but it killed me. I was so scared and in so much pain. It was horrific. Lord, why didn’t you answer my prayers? Why didn’t you save me? I trusted you.” 

Photo by the author

God answers, “My child, I sent you doctors and nurses, and all manner of scientists, but you dismissed them.” 

“I was right to dismiss them, Lord. Not one of them was strong enough to save me. If you sent them, why then were they powerless in the end? So I trusted you, not them, because in the end they could not save me. So why did you abandon me?” 

“Child, I sent you also the CDC and the WHO, and through them I spoke truly what would be needed to save lives. Through them, I instructed you to be still and to love your neighbor, but instead you led my lambs away from my word in them.” 

“Lord, they did not use your name, so I could not recognize them as being your messengers.” 

“So I sent also many clergy and other faithful disciples who translated their work in my name, so that you might recognize my hand in it, and so that you could love me and your neighbors, but you also did not listen to them. Still, you are here with me now, my child, through all eternity.” 

“Yes, Lord, because I was a good and faithful servant. I preached your word every day.” 

“No, you preached your own word every day. My voice was seldom heard in your halls or on your lips.” 

“But, Lord, you sent me riches. You rewarded me with wealth and fame. That is how I knew that I had your favor!” 

“What you received was the world’s rewards for the world’s work. It was not a heavenly reward at all. Many who do evil have received worldly favor. Indeed, your being here is no reward, for it is only by my saving grace, by my desire that not one little lamb be lost, for which reason my one true Lamb was given for your sake.” 

“I understand, Lord. Then surely I am here beside you because I saved thousands of souls with my preaching.”
“Still you have not heard me, child. You did not save a single soul, nor could you have. Indeed, you were a stumbling block for many of my little ones. But they, too, are safe in my bosom, by grace alone.” 

“But, Lord, I have done so much good in your name!” the preacher protested. “What of my reward in heaven, which you promised me, for all the healing and preaching I have done?” 

“Child, you have lead many astray with your preaching, and you have hurt many with your healing. Even now, many of your flock suffer. You acted for your own glory, not mine, and did not listen to my spirit in you, nor use the gifts given you for my works. I despised your festivals and offerings, for they served only to feed your own glory, not mine. But still my grace covers you. I will bring you to meet the souls that you lost, and the faithful that you failed to lead while you abused my name. And you will fall before them and confess your wrongdoing before me. And they will forgive you, of course, as will I, though you deserve niether, for that is the nature of grace. Grace is not earned, but I give it freely from my hand, to cover every iniquity, for not even you are so wicked that my hand cannot save you.” 

Photo by the author

Notes: I don’t mean this to represent anyone in particular. Nor do I claim that I have any special insight into the nature of heaven. It’s just a conversation I imagined as a variant on the old joke about the man in the flood who prays to God for help but refuses every chance to be saved and asks God about it in heaven afterward.

The Most Important Lesson Your Students Can Learn From You

Notice I said “can learn from you” not “that you can teach” in the title. That’s because this lesson is not one you explicitly teach. It’s not on tests. I’m not even sure how you’d assess it.

But it’s important.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood

The most important lesson your students can learn from you is this:


Grace is a gentleness that costs you very little. It’s a flexibility. It’s assuming the best of your students without demanding anything.

But the only way your students will learn it from you is if you live it. So, how do you live grace as a teacher?

There’s two main kinds of grace you can exhibit as a teacher: structural grace and interpersonal grace. (please note I’m just making these terms up)

Structural Grace

Structural grace is what you build into your course, absent a student in front of you. This is the grace you exhibit by design. This is located in the syllabus, in your assignments and policies.

Do you have a late policy? Is it generous enough to allow for students in emergency situations without having to bend it? That’s structural grace.

Do you require documentation for absences? For K-12 teachers, requiring documentation for absences may be a matter of bureaucratic necessity, and it may even be a kind of grace, because it makes sure that the students are in safe situations. But for post-secondary education, not requiring documentation is a kind of grace. Those students are adults, and treating them with trust is a kind of grace. It teaches them that they’re worthy of being trusted, and encourages them to become the kind of people who are worthy of being trusted.

Do you have a revision policy? As well as a good learning experience, revision policies can be a location of structural grace, allowing for second chances and redemption.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from StockSnap

Interpersonal Grace

This grace is a pattern of how you react to your students as they stand before you. This happens in the day-to-day decisions you make as a teacher.

This is how you respond when, for instance, a student asks for an extension. Certainly there are times you can’t offer one—when, for instance, you are up against an unforgiving grade submission deadline. But in many cases, there’s no real cost to you to offer an extension when asked. That’s grace.

This is how you respond when, for instance, you notice that a student seems to be hiding something from you that might be impacting their work. You can express concern about their work, but grace also means not pressing for more details than you need to be kind. And the fact is that you don’t need a lot of details to be kind. The rest of the details? You can fill those in for yourself. You can imagine a hundred scenarios.

For instance, if a student says “I’m sorry my work is late. I’ve been having a hard time. Can I still turn it in?”

You don’t need to interrogate them about the hard time. You can invite them to share, of course, but don’t press. Grace is assuming that they have a good reason for it—perhaps the student was assaulted or stalked, and doesn’t know how to talk about it, or perhaps the student is dealing with a yet-undiagnosed medical condition, so they don’t even have words to talk about it. You don’t know, nor do you need to know. You just need to know that they had the maturity to ask for help. That alone should be sufficient.

Imagine, for instance, you find a plagiarism problem in student work. You could assume that they’re trying to gain an unfair advantage, and seek to punish them. Or, you could enter the situation assuming that the student misunderstood the assignment or the rhetorical situation, or assuming that the student panicked for some reason perhaps unrelated to your course. The second set of assumptions is more conducive to gracious behavior. It’s also more likely to make you like your students, honestly.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from StockSnap

What Will Students Learn From Grace?

Much of this advice flies in the face of standard wisdom about education. Most people seem to believe that education must be rigid, rigorous, and authoritative. But this sets up a students vs teachers mentality, in which students are trying to outsmart their teachers, who are trying to keep them in perfectly uniform order.

Here’s the thing: I don’t remember the teachers who enforced rules rigidly much. They were there, but they’ve faded into a blur to me. There are, in general, two kinds of teachers that I remember. There’s the really awful ones, the ones who seemed to pride themselves in being cruel or callous. Teaching was their power trip, or a means to an end for them. Some of them have tenure! I remember them clearly—I have them filed in my brain as “Do not be like these people.” I have made numerous career decisions specifically in the pursuit of not becoming these people. You do not want to be on this list.

But the other category of teachers I truly remember are the ones who showed grace, and I remember them more often and more fondly, of course. These are the ones who treated me as someone who had agency in my own education. The ones who treated me as an intelligent, feeling human being. The ones who made me feel noticed and listened to.

From these teachers, I learned how to be a teacher. From these teachers, I learned that deadlines are important, but that people are more important. From these teachers, I learned that kindness matters, and that it even gets things done. I learned from these teachers that kindness is not weakness, but rather strength.

And, perhaps most importantly, I learned that my teachers were humans too. And that made me a better student.

It’s not complicated, but it does take practice. So, practice grace. There’s no better time for it than now, as many of us are in finals season in what’s probably the most remarkable and tumultuous term we have ever seen.

What Happens When You Die In A Dream?

We’ve all heard the legend that if you die in a dream, you die in real life. Usually when you’re in a life-threatening scenario in a dream, you wake up before you actually die. Usually.

I’m not a sleep scientist or a psychologist or any of that, so I can’t tell you what science says on the topic. But what I do have is experience. My friends, I have died in dreams. Multiple times, in fact. I’m kind of used to it by now.

Photo by Krista Mangulsone from StockSnap

Let me step back and clarify a few things about me and sleep. I have a very, um, difficult relationship with sleep. I always have. As a child, I had nightmares regularly that many of my earliest memories are nightmares and trying to manage them. My parents tried very hard to limit my exposure to things that we knew might induce nightmares for me, but it wasn’t terribly effective. Those nightmares never really went away; they just changed to more complex, mature themes. Every time I conquered a fear by facing it down, my unconscious mind found some new way to terrorize me. More recently, my brain has decided that I don’t even need a scary scenario to have a nightmare; I’ll have a perfectly ordinary dream and wake up terrified for no apparent reason.

My current sleep routine has me waking up 3-4 times in a typical night, including the ones where I’m only “in bed” for 4-6 hours. I have a vivid dream for each waking episode. So, yeah, 3-4 dreams per night. It’s a lot of data to work with if you want to know what you can and cannot do in dreams.

My unconscious is also really anti-authoritarian. If you tell it it can’t do something, it will find a way to do it. I once read an article that claimed you can’t read in your dreams. Ever since that day, I’ve done a lot of reading in my dreams, ranging from street signs to entire books. Tell me something can’t happen in a dream, and it’s at least a 60% chance it’ll happen in a dream for me within a month.

And that brings us to the “If you die in your dream, you die in real life” canard. The most obvious problem with this concept is that there’s no way to measure it—we can’t exactly ask people who die in their sleep what they were dreaming about. But we can ask living people if they have died in a dream. I have. In my experience, if you die in your dream, one of two things happens. I’ll call these possibilities “nothing” and “game mechanics.”

Photo by Andrew E Weber from StockSnap

Nothing. This is, from what I’ve heard from other people who have said they experienced death in a dream, probably the more common option. You die. You lie dead, a corpse. You are still in your body, but your body has no senses, no control. You’re dead. It’s not quite like sleep paralysis, where you know you are awake and you can hear and feel but not move a muscle and that fact is frightening. But with dying in a dream, you are still in a dream, and you might even know it, but you’re just…dead. You just lie there, not able to move, not able to see or hear. It’s just… nothing. It’s terribly boring and slightly terrifying all at the same time. But mostly boring, actually. You think “If this is a dream, why am I not awake yet?” And then, eventually, you do wake up and you’re not dead. Honestly, though, as annoying and boring as this is, I prefer it. If I have to die in a dream, this is what I want to happen. Unfortunately, it’s not what usually happens to me. And that brings me to…

Game mechanics. In many games where death is a possibility, you have some number of lives (or infinite lives) and you are allowed to return to the moment right before you die and try again. Anyone who has played such games knows that as much of a relief as this might be, it’s also super annoying if you don’t know what you’re supposed to do or if you’re not skilled enough to do it! Unhappily, this is usually what happens to me when I die in a dream these days. I hate it.

Detail from a screenshot from Phantasmagoria (1995)

This started happening when I was working on my master’s thesis, studying Phantasmagoria (Sierra On-Line, 1995). I started having recurring Phantasmagoria-themed nightmares (I mean, the game’s tagline was “pray it’s only a nightmare”). These generally focused on highly gendered domestic abuse scenarios, and it is my contention that Phantasmagoria really is about domestic abuse. To clarify, I am not and have not been a domestic abuse victim, so it wasn’t recalling some buried trauma. It was purely from the research I was doing. But the dreams were deeply disturbing, even to the people I told them to. And I often died in them.

But each time I died, I’d be dropped right back into the same scenario, right before the moment of death, having to rewatch the scene over and over again until I solved the puzzle to escape or finally woke up. Just like in so many video games.

And like in video games, it’s frustrating. It’s also deeply terrifying. As much as I hate experiencing the “nothing” version, I’d prefer “nothing” over “game mechanics” death any day. Nothing dream death is merely boring. Game mechanics dream death is terrifying.

Building Plot: The Power of Yes

When I had been writing fiction in earnest for about two or three years, I was doing some revision when I noticed a pattern: my characters said “no” a lot in dialogue. It ranged from quiet “no”s to big, dramatic, Luke-finding-out-who-his-father-is “NOOOOooooo”s. I mean, I was a middle schooler at the time, and my writing looked about like you’d expect from a middle schooler, with lots of exclamation points as a hamfisted attempt to fill the plot holes. And all those “no”s. And that was when I wondered: “What would happen if my characters started saying yes instead?”

What if the light turned green?
Photo by Hermes Rivera from StockSnap

Using “no” makes sense at first glance. Plots live on tension. No is a word of denial, so it should create tension. After all, plot exists when characters disagree, so they should say “no” to each other a lot, right? Let’s imagine a simple hero-and-villain fantasy plot and walk through all those “no”s:

Our heroine (for the sake of clearer pronouns, let’s do female heroine and masculine villain) has some great innate power that the villain needs to complete his plan. It doesn’t matter what that power is; we’ve all seen this basic plot. And of course at this point, the heroine knows the villain is evil and has every reason to hate him.

“Join me,” the villain says to the heroine.

“No,” she says.

“Then you must die!”


Now, maybe they fight. Heroine wins. End of story.

As plots go, it doesn’t have much interest. There’s no coveted twists, and it’s perfectly predictable. It doesn’t really explore our heroine or villain as characters, either. As an author, you don’t have to figure out why the heroine says no—he’s the villain, he wants evil things, she doesn’t want to participate because she’s good.

But watch what happens if we replace every “no” with “yes” in this scene:

“Join me,” says the villain to the heroine.

“Yes,” the heroine says quietly. “I’ll do that.”

“Then you must d—wait, you said yes?” the villain asks, a little surprised.

“Yes, I did,” the heroine says, tears in her eyes. “It’s what I have to do.”

Now, as a writer, you have to figure out why the heroine said yes, even though she clearly wanted to say no. And that is a much more interesting question. Perhaps the heroine believes that by joining the villain, she can take him down from the inside. Perhaps she believes he can be reformed, and she’s the one to do it, even if she doesn’t want to. Perhaps the villain is holding her home town hostage, and she thinks that betraying what she believes in is the only way she’ll ever see her family again. Any of these explanations could produce a more interesting plot than our “no” scene before.

What direction does “yes” take your story in?
Photo by Matthias Zomer from StockSnap

Every “yes” or “no” is a decision point. No closes options off and shuts down the discussion. “No” says the character doesn’t want that, no need for further explanation. “No” is a stop sign, but generally we want plots to go, not stop. Of course, a well-placed no can be very powerful, as, for instance, in the case of the villain’s henchman finally saying “no” at the climax when the hero has no other chances, giving the hero that one last opportunity to win and turning the tide. But that example depends on the henchman having established a pattern of “yes” already, so the “no” is only important because of the change it represents.

“Yes,” however, opens options up. When characters say “yes” to each other, it forces the author to think of possibilities, and it invites characters to work together, even if they don’t want to. “Yes” is a word of beginnings. The buddy cop story starts with a detective agreeing to take on the rookie for a partner, even though they show no promise; but perhaps that’s because it’s the detective’s last chance to prove himself. The quest starts with the farmboy saying “Yes, I’ll go,” even though it means leaving everything behind. The romance starts with the lovers saying “yes” even though all reason says they should say “no.”

Replacing some “no”s with “yes” forces you, as the author, to explore complexity in your characters and plot. It allows you to measure motivations against each other: what is a reason powerful enough that this character will say “yes” to something that they really shouldn’t? It continues conversations and moves stories forward.

So, try it out. Take a scene in your work in progress, or a scene from an existing story with a lot of “no”s and rewrite the “no”s to “yes.” See where it takes you.

Stairs in Stair Quest Ranked

Stair Quest is a parody game that pays homage to all those memorable climbs in old Sierra games. It’s by No More For Today and if you haven’t played it, I really do recommend that you do. If you have any memory of Sierra games, you probably also have memory of at least one staircase (or beanstalk!). Stair Quest is a pretty quick game that you can play through in one sitting, and that’s part of its appeal. It’s also just plain fun. (get it here)

The first thing I did, of course, when playing this game was look at the manual. The manual is a beautiful execution of the genre of 1980s adventure game manuals (especially those in the fantasy genre). It’s beautiful—and fun to read—but ultimately not terribly useful for playing the game because the game’s mechanic is just so simple. Still, check out the manual first.

So, below I will evaluate each stair in Stair Quest in order. There’s a lot of spoilers ahead, so if you haven’t played yet and care about spoilers, go play it first (it’s short; I’ll wait). I’m going to rate each stair on two qualities, which plenty of research in game studies has shown to be related but not correlational variables: Fun and Difficulty. (For a good quick read on why we enjoy difficult things, I recommend Jesper Juul’s The Art of Failure). I’ve also got some commentary on each staircase.

1. Volcano

This is the first room the player encounters after choosing whether to play as a knight or a princess in a character selection screen reminiscent of Quest for Glory with avatar options reminiscent of Mixed of Mother Goose (I’m using the knight for my screenshots, because I forgot to get screenshots on my first playthrough with the princess).

My first thought, because the Sierra series I know best is King’s Quest, was naturally the mountain in King’s Quest III: To Heir Is Human, but I don’t think that was the right association in retrospect. These stairs are pretty easy, and the menacing mountain landscape communicates the mechanic of the game immediately (climb the stairs, go through the door, try not to fall off the stairs because that is death). It sets the AGI style excellently, too. But it’s not terribly memorable beyond being the first staircase.

Fun: Medium
Difficulty: Easy

2. The Plaque

I love the art in this staircase! It’s just a very pleasing balance with the two sweeping curved staircases in a nice, organic helix, and a striking color scheme. And the staircases generally point to the most entertaining part of this stage: the plaque. If you weren’t sure before that this game was an homage, the plaque makes it clear, with Space Quest like literalism and humor, and overt reference to the Williamses. As far as difficulty, this is another slow ball, which lets you just enjoy the nostalgia and art.

Fun: Medium high
Difficulty: Easy

3. Red Cave

This staircase is the bane of my existence. It’s reminiscent of the many gem-filled caves you’ll find in Sierra games, which the “Look” response will make very clear. The graphics here are a bit more SCI than AGI. But the nostalgia alone wasn’t enough to make up for the frustration these stairs embody. It has some beanstalk-like issues, where it’s hard to tell where exactly the priority map lines up with the visible lines, but it’s not quite that bad (for one thing, it’s only one room, as opposed to the multi-roomed ordeal of the beanstalk).

Fun: Low
Difficulty: Hard

4. Mountain (Llewdor?)

I know I tend to compare everything to King’s Quest (it’s a running gag for me to say “Wasn’t this in a King’s Quest game?” about just about everything in my daily life). But this one REALLY feels like King’s Quest III with a nice surprise Space Quest twist (I’ll let you discover that one). I almost wish it had come right after the first screen; sure, in difficulty and mechanic, it’s in the right order, but the continuity from the first screen would have felt a lot like that darn mountain in Llewdor. Anyway, the color scheme and room design is perfectly Llewdorian (complete with the view of the sea), and the difficulty hits a nice sweet spot so that it’s fun while still feeling like the same kind of challenge as that notorious mountain, with spots where your avatar is entirely obscured, and so on. One almost expects Mannanan to appear with “the dreaded finger.”

Fun: Medium high
Difficulty: Medium

5. The Black Cauldron

The Black Cauldron was a Disney tie-in game by Sierra for a movie that Disney would really rather you forgot they made (probably because they haven’t been able to get exclusive rights to Lloyd Alexander’s books in order to control the whole franchise, but that’s just speculation on my part). It’s one of the less-often discussed Sierra games (although certainly not the most obscure). The game, though, was really innovative in some ways and actually quite fun. I am probably in the minority, but I really liked the hunger and thirst mechanics in it, and I loved how you could retrieve your water flask if you lost it (at certain places) by tracing it downstream.

But this staircase is not the Black Cauldron. It just makes you think it is! And the “look” response will make that quite clear. Bonus points for the beautiful layout of the room (again, aesthetically excellent). That second staircase, though, is a doozy after getting up your confidence with a pretty easy first flight.

Fun: Medium
Difficulty: Medium

6. CATS!

This is, paws down, my favorite staircase in Stair Quest. I cackled like a demon when I first saw this screen. I love everything about it! The music for this staircase is my absolute favorite in the whole game. I love the way all the cats have a little animation and the way the eyes on the door move (a little like the eye on the magic shop in Quest for Glory I). I could hang out on this staircase all day, even if all these cats won’t let me pet them (not even that unicorn, which the narrator is sure is just some kind of exotic cat)

There are a few technical problems in the staircase. I’m sure that the mechanic of “don’t touch a cat, because it’ll push you off the stairs” is inspired by Mannanan’s cat in King’s Quest III, but not one of the black cats on these stairs has yellow eyes like Mannanan’s cat does.

Finally, there’s some odd priority mapping in this level. It doesn’t affect gameplay in any way, but I found that you can get between the cats on the railings and the railings. Which winds up looking pretty weird, but doesn’t actually interfere with stair climbing, since most players probably won’t even go to the sides once at the top of the staircase.

Fun: MEOW! (very high. most high)
Difficulty: challenging!

7. The Snake

This one is one of the most interesting staircases, as it has you going down and up in the same screen. It’s also the least stairy of the available stairs. It’s got a fun sci-fi feel with friendly (or so I hope) creatures popping up out of the sand/water/whatever below. It looks really hard, but it’s actually pretty direct in gameplay.

Fun: Medium high
Difficulty: Medium high

8. The Eternal Giant

This is one of the most interesting stairs. It’s got a bit of world-building lore, something the game is a little light on (it’s not really meant to be a deeply developed world, and that’s ok). The stairs are pretty easy, but the weather effect makes the whole milieu simply fascinating and pleasant. Definite bonus points for art in this level.

Fun: High
Difficulty: Easy

9. Llama

Despite the text suggesting it might be an alpaca, I’m pretty sure it’s a llama. This is a fun realm that’s pleasant to climb through. The whimsy of the llama is perfect. There’s just one thing that really frustrated me: there’s clearly a hole in that triangular wall before the upper door, but I couldn’t seem to get it to do anything fun. I was really hoping for a King’s Quest II plug for Space Quest style Easter egg—or a Space Quest style death scene!

Fun: Medium high
Difficulty: Medium

10. Obligatory Escher Sequence

What would a stair game be without the obligatory M.C. Escher style funhouse sequence? This is pretty much de rigueur for the genre, right? The pleasure of this one is actually how easy it is to navigate; you expect something really annoying, but it turns out to be one of the most straightforward staircases in the game. A word of warning: they aren’t quite perfectly diagonal, so while your diagonal directional keys on the numberpad are useful, they won’t get you out of this one perfectly.

Fun: High
Difficulty: Easy

11. Yeti

If you hate ice levels (as my brother does), you will hate this level. If you love ice levels, as I do, you will still hate this level. That darn yeti!

The sliding is a fun mechanic (for me, who loves ice levels). The yeti, of course, is necessary. Yeti appear in many Sierra games, so it’s a terrifying but nostalgic twist on what is already a difficult stair climb.

If you’re stuck on this level, don’t feel bad. It was actually my partner, watching me growl at the computer, who figured out the solution (adventure games are best played by the whole family!). The key to this level is to use the sliding mechanic to go faster. Once you get it down, it’s a bit like doing a waltz box step on the screen. A very, very fatal box step.

Fun: Medium/Frustrating
Difficulty: AAARGH!

12. Orb

This one is a fun homage to the four-color games. Oddly, my brain associates this color scheme more with Commander Keen than with Sierra games (despite having played Mickey Mouse’s Space Adventure a lot as a child). Still, it’s an iconic look that packs a powerful nostalgia punch. The stairs themselves are pretty straightforward (if a bit delicate), made easier by a backstop to the top of the screen.

Fun: Medium
Difficulty: Medium

Final notes

Despite appearances, Stair Quest is actually not using the AGI or SCI engines, and it becomes pretty apparent because there are some elements of the game that are simply not possible in the old engines. I’m not sure why No More For Today didn’t use these engines, but they did a good job of replicating them to the casual observer, and Stair Quest definitely achieves its goals in the nostalgia and mechanics departments.

There are, at a technical level, however, simply too many colors in the game. It goes outside the 16 color scheme it tries to emulate. There are too many shades of brown in the ego avatars alone, for instance, not to mention too many shades of purple in the Escher stairs. I’m not sure anything is really gained from these extra colors. In fact, the most critical part of me is a little disappointed, because using extra colors to achieve more natural skin tones in the avatars results in reinforcing a really toxic stereotype about old games. There is an old argument, in some of the earlier criticism of historical games, that they tended to avoid playable characters of color because the limited color palette wouldn’t allow it. However, in the original 16 color palette used in the AGI engine, there was no suitable Caucasian skin tone, resulting in your options being jaundice yellow (Graham) or sunburn pink (Valanice); however, because of the general usefulness of a medium brown, dark yellow was replaced with a pleasant brown that was much closer to a natural skin color, and was frequently used in the more realistic games, such as Police Quest (and even Mixed Up Mother Goose), to represent people of color. Yes, there’s only one brown available, but it’s a good brown because it was actually tweaked at the engine level to be a suitable all-purpose brown.

By cheating on the color scheme, Stair Quest inadvertently reinforces the myth that early games didn’t feature people of color because of the color palette. It falls into the trap that a lot of retro games do, of using an arbitrarily limited color scheme for aesthetics. However, knowing what I know about the creators of Stair Quest, I find it hard to believe that No More For Today didn’t consider the problem of color and simply choose, for the sake of fun, to ignore it to a certain degree. Still, I find myself wishing that the close-up shots of the two possible avatar character were detailed portraits the way that old Sierra games would do for cut scenes, rather than expanded versions of the small avatars. Perhaps there will be a Stair Quest II with enhanced consideration of color and historical pixel art practices.

None of these issues with pixel art practices or color palettes actually detracts from the enjoyment of the game, and they’re the kind of thing that generally you only notice if you’re stepping back and paying attention to craft in a way that most players do not. For the purposes of having a laugh at all those frustrating stairs of the past, the game more than meets expectations.

If you haven’t played Stair Quest yet, I really do recommend it. It’s a fun nostalgia blast and a nice quick game you can get through in one evening, and since it’s free, there’s not really any reason not to play it.