Picture a nut-brown forest with an emerald creek running through it. The smell of the wilderness is pulpy and the tinkling sound of the brook gurgles and slaps where the water meets stone. Twigs crunch beneath our feet, and up ahead, small animals snacking on acorns startle and scamper away. 

A pale moon hangs quietly in the distance casting an eerie light over the trees. The pinprick stars are beginning to peek through the night sky to come out to play. They look happy in their cosmic isolation. 

We take the leaf-carpeted path, lined with tangled trees, knowing that each step takes us farther away from home. The trees suddenly part way and a deep haunting overcomes us. 

What towers over the woods and steps forward is not your usual imaginary monster, dreamt up by children. It is impossibly big with curving horns and a crusty exterior, stitched together like tattered patchwork. Its skin, loose and askew, left us to wonder what would happen if the leather thread, holding the beast together, were to unravel. It’s presence looms as it stands proudly, feet planted in the earth. An infectious, low groan, oddly resembling laughter, fills the silence from our shock. Two eyes stare down and the ferociously magical beast softly caresses the side of its harmless but loathsome face with the back of its hand. 

This is an example of how a GameMaster sets the scene for a role-playing game (RPG) on the University Libraries at Virginia Tech's new Twitch channel.

Staff, faculty, and student players co-create an imaginary world based on Alice in Wonderland during an episode of “Role of Play.

Participants in The Role of Play connect virtually from their homes.
Staff, faculty, and student players co-create an imaginary world based on Alice in Wonderland during an episode of “Role of Play.

The University Libraries is introducing a new and engaging way to experience literature like never before. Patrons can now discover and explore books through gaming along with other innovative content the library is producing. Featuring library hit shows, The Role of Play and Archival Adventures, the Twitch stream immerses people in stories and history with an emphasis on learning through play. 

After the stage is set, players decide on their character’s personality and goals, sometimes creating unique voices and catch phrases for their characters to help define when they are speaking in character or when speaking to the other players. Role-playing games allow players to embody another personality for a while in a fun way, engage in creative storytelling with others, and respond in dynamic situations that are unfolding before them. 

Jonathan Bradley, head of studios and innovative technologies; Anthony Wright de Hernandez, community collections archivist; and Alice Rogers, manager of Media Design Studios of the University Libraries, are spearheading this new endeavor along with several other people from around the library. Bradley, who holds a doctorate in English literature and has published research on the pedagogy of using role-playing games to teach literature, serves as the gamemaster of many of The Role of Play sessions, explaining and enforcing the game’s rules and serving as the primary narrator. When he is not the gamemaster, he plays in the sessions or acts as a producer for the programming on the channel. Bradley has been playing role-playing games and a gamemaster for 10 years. 

“It is unique, fun, and has a lot of potential,” said Bradley. “It also appeals to two of my long-standing personal interests, role-playing games and literature.”

Wright de Hernandez and Rogers also have similar roles in the project, which change depending on the episode. “The roles that we have for this channel are very fluid,” said Rogers. “Most of us have served in a number of roles, such as playing, producing, chat moderator, and acting as gamemaster.”

“Educational streaming is a growing tag on the platform,” said Rogers. “We are able to bring visibility to the work that the University Libraries does while also connecting with people from around the world.” 

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Twitch, an Amazon company, is the world’s leading live-streaming platform for gamers. Twitch streamers broadcast their gameplay by sharing their screen with viewers, including millions of devoted gamers. Users can watch them in real-time from anywhere around the globe and can chat, interact, and make their own entertainment together. The platform is primarily used for live-streaming games but the site has a wide range of other topics for anyone interested in lifestyle casting on topics about other subjects like science and technology, making, coding, art, music, cooking, and podcasts. 

The University Libraries at Virginia Tech is the second academic research library with a dedicated Twitch channel. “The type of programming we are doing, literary one-shots, is unique,” said Bradley. “We hope to use the platform to promote the University Libraries and the work we do by meeting students where they are — on this platform. It also widens the audience for our work. Twitch is both a popular and low-barrier platform for people to access content.”

“Libraries have generated video content for years on their own websites or on platforms like YouTube,” said Wright de Hernandez. “Twitch is different. It’s live content and allows for more direct interaction between the content creator and the audience.” 

The team has produced episodes featuring the light-hearted works of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and a Winnie-the-Pooh honey heist as well as darker stories like "The Sheep Look Up" and "The Open Boat." They’ve also delved into the world of graphic novels like "The Sandman." In upcoming sessions, they will be diving into "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" and Dante’s "Inferno," as well as airing their first sequel based on "Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There."

“Tabletop role playing games encourage participants to embody and experience the important themes that come up in a story in a way that feels more personal,” said Rogers. 

An upcoming series on the channel will feature prototyping once the new University Libraries Prototyping Studio opens. The team also plans to incorporate library workshops on the platform, host live demos of various pieces of software, and showcase some library studios’ work. 

The team uses innovative technology to aid in producing their Twitch episodes to ensure fans have the best viewing experience. Much of the technology such as webcams, Blue Yeti microphones and headsets, and higher-end laptops are available through the Library’s’ Media Design Studio A. The Media Design Studios can also help with free and open source software as well as provide consultations on running live events. 

“We encourage patrons to borrow a camera, test a microphone, 3D print a model, or put on a VR headset to learn about the hardware and software we support in the Media Design Studios, and learn through the process of using it,” said Rogers.

Anthony Wright de Hernandez reviewing a handwritten note.
Anthony Wright De Hernandez

The first episode of The Role of Play aired last October. The team adapted to a remote experience and learned new technologies that facilitate remote streaming better than solutions like Zoom, which are great for meetings but provide subpar video and audio for live streaming. The team is excited for a time when they can incorporate in-person sessions as well, which will help make participating in the stream more accessible. 

“Without the pandemic, the Archival Adventures show probably wouldn’t exist,” said Wright de Hernandez. “Before the pandemic, I regularly shared archival materials as exhibits in the library or in class presentations. Over the last year, I was looking for ways to share our Special Collections & University Archives materials remotely and found a middle school librarian who was reading poetry on Twitch. Seeing her show made me reconsider what content would work on Twitch and led me to develop Archival Adventures.”

University Libraries’ Special Collections & University Archives provides a look at unique and rare items that are featured on Archival Adventures and hosted by Wright de Hernandez. “For this show, I pull materials from Special Collections & University Archives and explore them live while talking about the materials with whoever is in the chat,” said Wright de Hernandez. 

The University Libraries’ Twitch channel aims to further engage with Virginia Tech and surrounding regional communities and to bring in other professionals in library settings from around the globe. Through Twitch, the team plans to emphasize the work they do and the services they offer while also promoting literacy to get people interested in works of literature by introducing them in a new context. 

“I really enjoy live-streamed content for its ability to foster connections between people,” said Rogers. “Not only do viewers get to contact and connect with the creators they’re watching, they also get to connect with one another and those of us who are playing the game get to learn about and connect with each other as well.” 

The Twitch team is seeking collaborators. Volunteers from around the university, the community, and from other libraries can take on fun roles such as players, gamemasters, producers, and play testers. The team encourages anyone who likes gaming and literature to reach out and become involved. 

“If you aren’t sure how to play or be involved, we can teach you,” said Bradley. “We want to make the channel more diverse and explore works of literature from around the world. We need your help!” 

The team says recruiting volunteers during a pandemic has been difficult. So far graduate and undergraduate students, faculty, librarians from other universities, and a teacher from a local school system have volunteered. Collaborators from English, cinema, and theater departments would be great fits, but anyone interested in exploring stories through play is encouraged to join a game. The team wants to engage and feature more students and Virginia Tech partners from outside the library and especially wants to give space on the channel for people of color and members of the LGBTQ+ community. 

“If a member of the community has an idea for a work they want to see on The Role of Play, we’re here to help support them in making it happen,” said Wright de Hernandez. “For our programming, literature doesn’t just refer to the American and British classics. We want to include stories from all cultures that reflect the diversity of the written word.”

“Twitch, for me, has been a great way to find community and connect with people around the world,” said Wright de Hernandez. “Being able to engage with people from anywhere is a big part of why I love working on the Twitch channel. When I go live, I never know whether I’ll be engaging with a student on campus or a viewer from across the globe. It also lets me use some of my long neglected skills in theatrical production while exploring new technologies. It’s an enjoyable experience for me that fuses many of my interests together.”

For information on how you can be a part of the University Libraries Twitch channel, email roleofplay-g@vt.edu. 

Check out the Twitch channel for yourself and become involved!

Written by Elise Monsour Puckett