Columbia students take you across the globe with interactive fiction.

How do we cultivate global empathy in the age of social distancing?

That is the question that the students in Columbia Int Fic have addressed by developing “what IF,” an online, interactive fiction series that provides a glimpse into the lives of people around the world affected by COVID-19.

The thirteen students, who hail from nine different countries and territories, came up with the idea after meeting this summer through the Global Columbia Collaboratory (GCC) program—a series of webinars that brought students together to discuss how the pandemic has impacted different parts of the world.

The organizers of GCC, which is run by the Center for Undergraduate Global Engagement (UGE), posed a challenge to the attendees: pitch a way to capture COVID-19’s international impact and potentially win funding to see that vision through.

“what IF” is the project that the students pitched to UGE, who awarded them funding to form Columbia Int Fic, develop a website (best experienced on desktop), and create a series of interactive stories.

The “Int,” in “Int Fic,” by the way, stands for both “Interactive” and “International” (and “Fic” stands for “Fiction”). The “IF” in “what IF” stands for “interactive fiction.”

But what exactly is interactive fiction?

If you have not heard of it, interactive fiction is similar to choose-your-own adventure novels and story-driven video games. It allows the reader to make choices for characters—and, depending on the story, potentially have a critical impact on the narrative.

The group considered the medium ideal for fulfilling their mission of “sharing stories of life around the globe during the COVID-19 pandemic” and “encouraging empathy across disparate cultures.” By inviting the reader to play an active part in the story, interactive fiction, they believe, elicits empathy in a fresher, more direct way than traditional storytelling.

The three stories they have published, which are hosted on their website, and a fourth which will be published tomorrow, were each inspired by the experiences of real people around the world.

The first, “A Doubled Front,” tells the story of an Asian-American healthcare worker in Brooklyn during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The second, “Sinéad & Louisa,” concerns two teenage girls who, despite bans on international travel, find a way to keep in touch.

The third, “I See You,” is about an orthopedic surgeon in Philadelphia who grapples with the pandemic’s immense impact on healthcare workers.

And the fourth, “From Bystander to Activist,” depicts a bystander in Seoul gaining social consciousness after learning about heinous digital sex crimes carried out during the pandemic.

Each story is supplemented with vivid graphic design—original photographs and GIFs, digital illustrations, and watercolor paintings line each page—and the website, which was developed in two months, is sleek and user-friendly.

For all of those who have never experienced interactive fiction, Columbia Int Fic provides a worthy introduction.

The group will be presenting tomorrow at 10:00 AM EST to the Global Columbia Collaboratory Symposium, the capstone event for the GCC. They plan on publishing their fourth story afterwards.

You can register for the event here.

The four stories in the “what IF” series are just the beginning of what Columbia Int Fic has in store for its interactive fiction library. If you would like to get involved as an artist, programmer, or writer, you can apply at this link.

La Banner via Columbia Int Fic

地图 via Columbia Int Fic

El Logo via Columbia Int Fic

Le Team via Columbia Int Fic