This really is a very quick note. I was mowing the lawn this morning, with my phone playing music on shuffle. During a quiet respite while I emptied the grass hopper, Dead Man’s Gun, the elegiac final song from Red Dead Redemption came on.
I suddenly felt a sense of loss, and bitterness, and tears came to my eyes. An incredible feeling of nostalgia washed over me, and I wanted to visit again the virtual world of RDR’s west.
My wife sent me a link to Historypin the other day. Historypin hopes to collect and geo-locate photos from all of us, to create a massive database linked to Google’s Streetview to record how places looked developed over time.
It’s a lovely idea, but is (on random inspection of a number of places I know) short on scanned photos. Which is to say, there are relatively recent, digital, photos, which of course are easy to upload, but few historical photos, which would require people to dig them out of albums and boxes, scan them into digital form and then upload them.
There are some older photos. I wondered if, given the number otoof recent photos, there might be some of the Olympic Cycle race on Box Hill last year. There weren’t, but I did discover my first historical image, this one uploaded by the (endangered, at the time of writing). Still searching for Olympic photos, I widened the area, and found another, this time uploaded by Dorking Museum. It turned out the area around Dorking and Box Hill is rich with historical rather than more recent photo, but interestingly mostly uploaded by institutions rather than individuals.
Now this isn’t quite in the spirit of Historypin’s founders, who are We Are What We Do, a London based not-for-profit that, according to the website, “creates ways for millions of people to do more small, good things.” Of course, I don’t know who at these two museums was responsible for uploading the photos. It could be work entirely done by volunteers. And one could argue that the publicly funded (for the time being at least) National Media Museum should make every effort to broaden the audience, but I’m intrigued to know what was the business case for devoting time to adding pictures to this data base.
I’m not saying its wrong, its great that they did so. But I know that a local National Trust place in the area, Polesden Lacey, has a good collection of historic photos, and some of them would benefit from geo-location, but I’m not sure I could make a case for people to spend time uploading and accurately locating the photos on Historypin.
Imagine though, not just photos, but other media, audio, video and text interpretation, pinned to geo-locations, that could be pulled down by a user direct to their phones. Polesden Lacey already has an audio tour that features especially recorded audio, as well as contemporary and historic photos and video. That content is currently accessed via iPods that people can borrow. As iPods don’t have GPS chips, its not properly geo-located, but each bit of content is “pinned” by a map to a specific area of the grounds. Imagine if that same content was available to every smartphone user, via something like Historypin. (Of course, the Polesden area would need a decent data carrying mobile signal, which it doesn’t have, so this is all somewhat academic.)
It’s not hard to imagine all that data being accessed from the web, in all sorts of exciting ways, or by all sorts of mobile apps so that a man interested in the history of brewing, can stand next to another interested in Edwardian gossip and a woman interested in nature walks, and all three can access the bits of data most relevant to their interests, woven into an emotionally compelling narrative (that last part is the difficult bit – but more on that another time). That is after all the whole point of the world wide web.
But the challenge is the huge variety of databases competing with one another. Historypin in competing for attention in two ways. It is competing for content, versus any number of photo servers, including Flickr and Instagram, and its competing for attention at the location with companies like Foursquare and Yelp. Of course you can argue a well made story app, will be server agnostic and seek out the best content from all the servers, but then, is that a sustainable model for anybody?
Historypin has the backing of Google, so it may be around for some time. But Google isn’t a charity, it’s there to make a profit, and has been seen to be pretty ruthless with its own services when the needed. How can the likes of the National Media Museum and Dorking Museum be confident that the time they spent uploading and locating their photos will still bare fruit in five or ten years time?
Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced cheek-sent-mə-hy-ee)’s concept of flow has had a couple of mentions in recent posts, so I thought I ought to catch up on it. Back when I was doing my MA I read a lot about it in relation to museum learning (mostly in Hooper-Greenhill’s primer The Educational Role of the Museum), but some of that was written twenty years ago, so I thought I ought to get up to date. I’m pleased to report that according to his 2009 co-authored paper the basic concepts are still intact, so here goes:
Some years ago, I had a Mac Classic, a black and white 9 inch display all in one computer. I’d bought it with money from the very first Student Loan scheme in the UK. (I’d saved up in advance of going to University and I had a job reading Tarot Cards and doing the I Ching on a premium rate telephone service, so I didn’t need the money to live on.) It’s role was chiefly to write my dissertation on, but “all work and no-play, etc” so I also bought a copy of Sid Meier’s Civilisation. I recall one evening I looked at the clock on a “school night” and saw it was 10.45, so I said to myself “fifteen minutes on Civ, then bedtime”. So I sat down to play a couple of turns, and I noticed something had gone wrong with the electric light – rather than its warm yellow glow, it was a colder blue. I turned around a saw daylight through the window. It was dawn.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is flow.
Back in the sixties. studying the creative process, Csikszentmihalyi watched an artist at work, and noticed that when everything was going well, “the artist persisted single-mindedly, disregarding hunger, fatigue and discomfort.” He called this intrinsic motivation, and described the activity as autotelic (auto=self, telos=goal). We went on to investigate why people like rock-climbers do what they do, for no apparent (or rather extrinsic) reward. Many of the the people he worked with described feeling as though they were being carried along by the activity, and so the word flow was coined.
He set out two conditions for flow: “a sense that one is engaging challenges at a level appropriate to one’s capacities”; and, “clear proximal goals and immediate feedback about the progress that is being made.”
Let’s pause there. I recall very strongly from my MA reading back in 1999/2000 the first of those two conditions – the matching of challenge and ability. I don’t recall so well the thing about feedback. Is that a failure of my recollection, or does the museum literature I was reading stress one and downplay the other? I’ll have to go back and check. I do feel safe to say that while heritage interpretation might offer challenges to meet the level of visitors’ capacities, it may not be as good at offering proximal goals and immediate feedback, except sometimes with personal conversation, for example, in live interpretation.
Given those conditions, Csikszentmihalyi sets out what flow looks like:
Intense and focussed concentration on what one is doing at the present moment
Merging of action and awareness
Loss of awareness of oneself as a social actor
A sense that one can in principle deal with the situation because one knows how to respond to whatever happens next
Distortion of temporal experience (typically a sense that time has passed faster than normal)
Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, such that often the end goal is just an excuse for the process.
If challenge and capability don’t balance, or if neither are high enough, Csikszentmihalyi suggest a range of other emotional states occurs, and set out in this handy diagram (courtesy of Wikipedia):
Csikszentmihalyi points out that the goal and feedback structures of sports and games can make flow more likely, but any activity can create flow, which makes me think of the Buddhist term mindfulness, which can come about through as mundane an activity as raking gravel.
I think I’ll be returning to flow as I go forward. It seems to be something that games can get very right, just as Civilisation did for me twenty years ago, but based on the evidence that I’ve never popped into a heritage site for just fifteen minutes and come out six hours later, interpretation still has a lot to learn.
A quick note for my archeaology chums. My work colleagues at Petworth are very excited about the Big Dig, which will run from the 13th to the 21st July. Led by archaeologist Tom Dommett, this is a major volunteer excavation looking for evidence of the lost history of Petworth House and Park.
It’s all part of the national Festival of British Archaeology – Tom will be tweeting, hooting, Facebooking and YouTubing like mad during the week-long project.
The game (much recommended after I completed Red Dead Redemption) was less engaging than I’d hoped. I wondered if this was because of the graphics (pretty, but not as smooth as RDR), or the fantasy setting, but actually I think its because in the early stages, I was out of my comfort zone in terms of thumb twiddling skill. I was never the most dextrous videogamer, but RDR had a pretty perfect flow curve. (Flow here used in the Csikszentmihalyi sense, which is the say exactly the right level of challenge to put the gamer in an almost transcendental state).
With Skyrim, I wasn’t in flow. And that simply resulted in me not enjoying it, and thus not playing it for very long, as well as being reluctant to even start playing it again. Working against flow for me was the first person point of view. I’d been told that players could switch between first person and “over the shoulder” POVs, but sadly not in the introductory sequence.
There’s a reason for this, as it turns out: after a journey on a cart, talking to the other bound prisoners that share your situation, and so hearing a little of the context of game, you are eventually asked who you are. Suddenly the camera angle reverses, and you get to decide exactly who you are. Choosing your fantasy race (human, orcish, lizardman, catperson – the “usual”), sex, build and facial features. Were my daughter old enough to play this game, she’d be playing at this stage for hours. I didn’t spend quite so long, but even so I’ve ended up with a snow-leopardy fellow, which, given the fine controls one has over length and position of nose and ears, size, colouring and position of eyes etc, I like to think must be almost unique out there among the millions (?) of Skyrim players. And this is a point in Skyrim’s favour. It hardly matters how scripted the story is from here, its my story, unique to me because its about my particular cat-person. These and subsequent choices about how I develop the character will define how I play the game – cat-people are (apparently) better at sneaking about than full frontal attacks – so the resulting story will be different to the one played by someone who chooses to play (say) a barbarian. And this is why the graphics aren’t quite as smooth as in RDR. In that game, the graphics engine only has to portray John Marston. Yes, he can wear various outfits, but the games only has to cope with a limited number of graphic choices, not the near infinite possible combinations that Skyrim gives you.
Even so, once my cat-fellow was designed, I hit the non-flow wall again. Still in first person POV, I ran around with my hands tied, like a headless chicken while a Dragon attacked. Against all logic and common sense, I didn’t die, and the attack afforded me and somebody else the chance to escape the clutches of the Imperials, who must now forever be the “bad-guys.” Here was a piece of heavily scripted story, during which my actions (no matter how inept of otherwise) had no impact on the conclusion. Did I feel emotionally involved? I did not.
So when the other guy said we should split up and I headed on my own into the world to get killed again and again by wolves, or falling off mountains, I wondered why I was wasting my time, and Skyrim sat unplayed for a couple of weeks.
Eventually, my conscience (and a boring night of television) persuaded me to try again. This time, when the other escapee said “lets split up” I stayed with him, and he introduced me into the storyline proper. About 16 hours of play later, and I’m Thrane of Whiterun, Dragonborn, and a member of the Companions’ mercenary band.
What have I learned? Well, though there is a main storyline (which I think I’m following), about the rise of the Dragons and the return of the Dragonborn, there are far more “sidequests” available than in RDR. It seems possible to ignore the main story completely for a time, and build your profession and experience with any number of allies and mentors. And I wonder if I’d have still more choices open to me if I had chosen to play a different sort of character. Indeed, the number of sidequests threatens to overwhelm the main story. I’ve already been confused by having more than one quest running at the same time, and so following the GPS style marker for the “wrong” quest.
It might have been worse though. Some of these stories are apparently generated using the Radiant Story engine. There’s an interesting article about that here, which says “the Radiant Story system helps randomize and relate the side quests to players to make the experience as dynamic and reactive as possible. Rather than inundate you with a string of unrelated and mundane tasks, it tailors missions based on who your character is, where you’re at, what you’ve done in the past, and what you’re currently doing.” The article also highlights the risk of side quests, especially randomly generated ones, overwhelming the main story, and explains that (at the time the article was published, while the game was still in development) the producers of the game were engaged in reducing the risk of Radiant stories overwhelming the scripted one.
The Radiant Story engine is available for PC using Skyrim fans to play with, as part of the developer’s Creation Kit. There’s a wiki available for users of the creation kit that explains a little bit about how it works. The key component is the Radiant Story Manager which “holds the hierarchy of conditionalized quests to start in response to Story Manager Events. Quest Aliases are the “objects” (non-player characters, props, locations) which the quest requires. What’s special about the radiant engine, is that these don’t need to be defined as the game is written. They can be defined then of course, but they don’t have to be, they can also be chosen during gameplay from a predefined list, or even selected by the game on the fly. So if the quest starts with a patron of some sort, asking the character to do something, that role could be filled by a character especially created for the task, or whoever is the most appropriate member of the local population, where ever the player-character happens to be. Packages are behaviors, actions that an alias (for example, a non-player character) will demonstrate. Most townsfolk will have a “package stack” that involves them doing their job (whatever it is), eating, sleeping etc at appropriate times of day. But if a character is called to take on the role of a patron for a quest they will be given the required packages by the story engine so that they behave in the right way (for example, crying about a missing relative).
What all this means, is that the stories seem to be more flexible than in RDR. In that game, if you killed a bad guy before he gave you a quest, you’d fail that quest (which was pretty frustrating, given that in some cases, the objective was to come back and kill the bad guy who’d sent you on the quest). It seems the Radiant Story engine, could simply assign to the roles of patron and/or bad guy to other characters on the fly.
The Creation Kit seems to be a pretty well supported toolset for modifying Skyrim. I know somebody that is planning a game that involves interpreting a lot of Roman archeology, and I wonder if she’s planning on using this software to make it. And talking of archeology, the same person also alerted me to the Archaeogaming blog, which explores the archaeology both of and within computer games.
Today I saw a diagram that looked a bit like this:
It was in the chapter on Narrative from Tynan Sylvester’s Designing Games. He explains that with this this sort of structure, “any given player misses most of the content”. There’s another problem too – with this sort of structure, it’s incredibly difficult to pace the emotional rhythm of the narrative. Christopher Vogler, the screenwriter uses Joe Campbell’s Jungian analysis of Mythic structure to demonstrate how the emotional rhythm changes pace in the course of a story.
In his book, Sylvester draws a curve that echo’s Vogler’s model, and describes how such an emotional curve can occur even in an unscripted game:
For example, take a multi-player match of capture the flag in any shooter … As the timer runs low, the stakes increase, and with them the tension. At the end of the match, the game approaches a climax of intensity as the players try to capture their last flag and turn the game in their favor. Afterward, the players have a few moments to cool off at the score screen. The pacing curve they experienced follows the classic three-act story formula, but instead of being predefined, its generated a little differently every game.
Sylvester doesn’t acknowledge it, but the key phrase in this description is “as the timer runs low.” With multiple players choosing from variety of actions with every event, the narrative path is infinitely branching, but the time limit is a mechanic (in game terms) that forces an emotional climax. Its the same in sport, think of the emotional stress that supporters are under for the final few minutes of a game of football. Basketball is famous for introducing all sorts of timing rules to make the game more emotionally compelling to the audience. Without a mechanic like a time limit the emotional impact of a narrative would be infinitely diluted by the infinite possible endings of a branching structure.
Now, think about the how cultural heritage institutions plan their interpretation. Many follow a model like the one Judy Rand describes in Building on your ideas (in Bicknel, S. and Farmello, G., eds. 1993. Museum visitor studies in the 90s, London: Science Museum). In such a model, one starts off with the main message, or theme, which she describes as the “single most important idea you want people to leave with.” With the theme in place, and informing all the subsequent decisions, one will arrange all the other story elements or messages into three categories:
A primary message is one that we feel we must communicate to a sizeable number of our visitors (albeit to fewer than the main message)… A secondary message is one we feel we should communicate to the visitors (although we expect even fewer visitors to receive these messages… [and] a tertiary message is one we feel it might be nice to communicate to visitors (but we expect few visitors, if any, to get these)
Rand explains that this process is more than an arrangement of the relative value of the messages, it suggests a floorplan, with primary messages becoming sub-divisions of the exhibition and secondary messages indicating the contents of individual exhibits. I must admit that I go through a very similar thought process when I first look at a new interpretive challenge. But looking at Sylvester’s diagram gave me a little epiphany.
Lets look at my version again, but this time with labels from Rand’s model.
Sort of fits doesn’t it? And it makes me realise that without the challenge imposed by mechanics like an opposing team and a time limit, this structure sets us up for a narrative with a very dilute emotional climax. What it means, is that by default, musuems and other heritage sites frontload the story revealing the emotionally engaging parts of the story early in the experience, sometimes even in the introductory video. The challenge is to retain the pacing curve so that the emotional climax happens nearer the end of the experience. One solution is the Thoughtden/Splash and Ripple project for National Museums Scotland, which address the issue by adding, yes… an opposing team and a time limit:
Given that not every cultural heritage site wants to be turned into a game of Capture the Flag, how do we retain some emotional structure in the story we want to tell? Games, Sylvester tells us, use side quests and story convergence:
Side quests put a piece of content on the side of the road, which can be consumed or not, but affects little on the main path. Story convergence offers choices that branch the main storyline, but later converge back to a single line… Often though we need to combine story-ordering devices in a more nuanced was to fit the needs of the game… This hybrid structure is popular because in combines so many advantages. The designers get to script a careful introduction which introduces the story and the game mechanics. During the softly ordered central portion, the player feels free and unconstrained. Finally, the game’s climax can be carefully authored for maximum effect.
Sounds great. But how do we apply that to real world spaces?
In his book, Designing Games, Tynan Sylvester says:
If we look around, we find interactive narrative everywhere. Museums and art galleries are interactive nonlinear narratives where visitors explore a story or an art movement in a semi directed, personal way. Ancient Ruins and urban graffiti tell stories…
These interactive forms – museums, galleries, real spaces, and life – should be our first touchstones as we search for narrative tools. These older forms address our most fundamental challenge: creating a story that flexes and reshapes itself around the player’s choices, and deepens the meaning of everything the player does.
So here am I, trying to discover what museums and cultural heritage can learn from digital game design, and I find the lens turned back on me and my cohort. Sylvester points game designers towards the heritage industry (and elsewhere) in an attempt to dissuade them from focusing on cinema as the sole source of narrative instruction. My own studies arise from wanting to look beyond linear storyforms (text, film) which exert a strong influence on interpretation designers looking to engage visitors’ emotions. Games do a great job of getting players to care about watching mathematical algorithms choose what colour each pixel on a screen is. So thanks (on behalf of my profession) for the kudos, Tynan, but I think the learning can be two-way.
So, lets look at what Sylvester calls “the basic emotional triggers.”
Emotion through learning
Not just any old learning though. “If a lesson is obvious,” he says “there’s not much buzz in finally getting it because it was always fairly clear.” Instead, he advocates a moment of insight, where everything that has come before “clicks into place and reveals the shape of the whole.”
Emotion through character arcs
This is what film can do so well, engaging the audience’s empathy with one or more characters, as they face internal conflicts, grow and change.
Emotion through challenge
And this is the emotional trigger that we most readily associate with games,testing the the player’s dexterity and pattern learning before rewarding him or her not just with a sense of accomplishment, but progression within the game. But Sylvester argues that it is not as essential to games as it might appear, and cites Dear Esther as a game that can “create powerful emotions without players struggling.”
Emotion through social interaction
There’s still a perception of gamers as solitary types with no friends, but of course most games, not just team sports, are ways of bringing two or more people together.
Emotion through acquisition
As Sylvester acknowledges, gambling games are all about acquisition, and computer games often simulate the acquisition of wealth (or simply points). Of course gambling works in two ways, and the bitter emotions of loss shouldn’t be disregarded.
Emotion through music
Ah! This is one I’ve already discovered (and it occasions a warm internal glow as I read about it, my own little “emotion through learning”), though I’ll admit its not exactly rocket science. I like how Sylvester talks about it though:
And music is wonderfully subtle – even more than most emotional triggers. Nobody ever gives it the credit it deserves because nobody consciously pays attention to it during play. But even though the conscious mind is oblivious, the unconscious is still processing the music into a continuous flow of feeling. You can tell because music is easily separable from the rest of the experience. Listen to a game soundtrack by itself, and you’ll feel much of what you felt during play. Play the game in silence, and you’ll be surprised at how hollow it feels.
Emotion through spectacle, and, Emotion through beauty
In my own mind, these two are conflated, beauty being a form of spectacle. But Sylvester separates out the beauty of “a sunset over the ocean” from the spectacle of “a slow-motion dive to dodge an incoming rocket.” He also offers a warning not to over use either.
Emotion through environment
Touching upon people’s preferences for one environment other overs (which he suggests is at least in part, culturally conditioned) Sylvester also talks about the contrast between two environments. In one game, set in the tunnels of a post-apocalyptic Moscow underground, he describes a how play moved to the ruined, frozen, surface and the powerful effect it had on him as a player.
Though most would call Metro 2033 a shooter or RPG, I wouldn’t, because I don’t think its about shooting or roleplaying. I think its about discovering how a place like that makes you feel.
Emotion through newfangled technology
“The first few games with any new graphics, animation, or physics technology get an emotional rise from certain players,” but Sylvester warns new technologies can result in a reduction in the quality of games, as the designers learn how to best use the new capabilities available to them. As an example, he cites the introduction of CD-ROMs as a method of delivery, which in turn produced games with a lot of dreadful full-motion video cut-scenes.
Emotion through sexual signals
Another emotional trigger that comes with a health warning. Though easy to use, its heavy handed, just as spectacle and beauty can be (maybe it more properly belongs in a subset of those). “For the more serious or broadly targeted games, it’s often not worth being tasteless” he concludes.
You’ll notice, that change is a common factor for a lot of the above, and indeed, Sylvester declares that “the bedrock principle behind all emotional triggers is change”.
So, how does that list look to us in the the cultural heritage industry? Emotion through spectacle/beauty is something that my own organisation recognises. The full corporate name of the National Trust does after all continue with “for places of […] natural beauty.” Respondents to the Trust’s most beautiful places, like Ightham Mote do record a higher emotional impact than elsewhere. But does the National Trust as an organisation rely on beauty too much, as Sylvester accuses some games designers of doing? Good museums know how to use spectacle too, by creating “wow” moments often at the threshold of galleries. These can involve impressive exhibits, multimedia “shows”, interpretive “set design” or even the design of the spaces itself, such as the Great Court at the British Museum.
The Great Court being a free to enter space, is often used as a place to meet friends, and cultural heritage attractions are fully aware of their role as places for social interaction. Just like games, a heritage visit can be some you do alone, but the majority visit with others, partly to use the place as a backdrop, or springboard, for their own interactions.
Interpretation professionals are all about learning too. But are we too keen to reveal the whole story? Do we sometimes make it so easy to learn that our audience miss the thrill of discovering something for themselves?
Not every site has the sort of character that can take a narrative arc, but of course there are loads of sites that are associated with famous personalities, or where the lives of the less famous can be uncovered. Fictional, or archaeologically inferred characters, can be created with very clear character arcs. Real people’s lives are often messier, but internal conflict and change are often part of of what makes people famous, so emotionally engaging narratives can be woven from the threads of their lives. When the Imperial War Museum’s Cabinet War Rooms became the Churchill War Rooms, the emotional pull of one character was recognised. However, his life was full, and the part of the exhibition focussing on Winston Churchill describes so many character arcs that the emotional power of the story is diluted.
These triggers then: spectacle; beauty; social interaction; learning and character arcs, cultural heritage sites should be reasonably confident in delivering. There are also though some from Sylvester’s list which cultural heritage interpretation uses less confidently.
Challenge and acquisition are interpretive tools mostly confined to “children’s” or “family” trails and activities. At their most basic, such a trail will present a young visitor with a number of items to spot and check off against a list, a very simple game mechanic in which the child acquires sights (and possibly a small reward such as a badge, if they managed to fill every checkbox). More sophisticated activities, including interactives which are often short computer games, may present more challenges and of course at some sites there can be playful physical challenges.
Many cultural heritage sites are, by their very nature interesting environments. But, again because of their nature, it can be difficult to manipulate the environment to trigger emotional responses. Historic sites can’t be altered easily, and many sites are composed of just one environment type so its difficult to play with the contrast of two or more environments. Where the opportunity does exist though, the impact of transition between two environments can be increased with careful routing.
Visitor attractions prefer tried and tested technology to cutting edge newfangled technology. Technology needs to be robust and reliable to suffer the attentions of hundreds, or thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of visitors with varying degrees of manual dexterity. Technology in museums also tends to have a longer shelf-life than faddish games, so interpreters don’t want invest heavily in something that will turn out to be “sooo last year”.
Generally too, cultural heritage strives to appeal to as wide a cross section of the public as possible, so using sexual signals to manipulate emotion isn’t common. That said after an appropriate warning at the start, the sexual content of the British Museum’s Life and Death at Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibit had me grinning.
And, as I’ve discussed before, music is not well used at most cultural heritage sites.
Sylvester points out the challenge of working with emotions, because its so difficult to understand how emotional triggers work. He cites a number of experiments which demonstrate that, when asked to describe an emotional response, or the reasons for that response, people find it hard to say why they feels something. One famous example, by Dutton and Aron in 1974, seemed to show that young men thought they were attracted to a female researcher when in fact their pounding heart was due to being on a scary rope bridge.
Of course, as Sylvester goes on to say, this emotional misattribution makes music a great tool with which to manipulate how people feel. He describes what he calls “the Leonard Cohen Gravitas Moment” in TV drama:
It comes at the start of the third act of the show, when things are bad and it looks like all hope is lost. The dialogue stops, and a soulful or catchy song—often something Leonard Cohen-like—swells as the camera slides through a montage and a voiceover discusses the theme of the show. Viewers feel refreshed and contemplative. But they misattribute these feelings to the story when they actually come from the song.
A few weeks back, I visited the Langley Academy. This new-build school opened in Slough in 2008, as part of the original academy programme, before every other Tom, Dick and Johnny-come-lately school saw the writing on the wall and moved to become academies too. Its a science specialist school, but with a twist – inspired by the New York City Museum School, the Langley Academy is built around museum learning. As their vision statement explains:
Museums are gateways to real things, real stories and real people; museum collections make learning meaningful for students. With museum learning in our DNA, we will further our aims in the school, our local community and our national partners though … a learning model based on curiosity, exploration and discovery; using the built environment and collections to aid learning; [and] a two way process of sharing teaching expertise and ideas with museum professionals to create good practice inside and outside the classroom.
To that end, the school curates its own museum, based in the central atrium/panopticon, and works with both local and national museums.
I was there to participate in a mini-conference, which was the culmination of an Arts Council funded evaluation by the University of Reading. We discussed whether museum-learning and learning were different things (we decided not), heard about partnerships with the V&A and the River and Rowing Museum and heard from a number of students about their experience. I must say, I was very impressed with the confidence and maturity with which each young person spoke. I don’t think I could have done as well at their age. The University of Reading team shared a summary of their evaluation work.
The Langley Academy team were celebrating their many successes, but they were not resting on their laurels. This conference was just one more early step in their long museum journey.
I note that one of the most popular searches driving traffic to this blog is “narratology vs ludology.” I must admit, I’m not entirely sure why. I’ve written only one post addressing that debate, and over all, I guess I’m taking quite a narratological point of view. This post however may begin to address the balance, as this is where I begin to get all “ludological.”
When I wrote my funding proposal, I predicted that I’d struggle to find much literature around narrative in games. I haven’t found much so far. I suppose I should not be surprised, all the people who know about games are rightly making games rather than writing about how to make games.
However, a couple of days back, just as I was packing up for the evening, and shutting down Tweetdeck,I glimpsed an interesting looking item:
I followed the link and had a quick look at the article, which was intriguing, but I had plans for the evening. So I retweeted it in lieu of making a note and shut down my computer.
When I came back to it the next day, I read the article. The author Tynan Sylvester had worked on Bioshock, which was interesting because I’d recently read a paper on the use of music in that game, and also had my niece’s boyfriend recommend it as a “must play”. The article is about simulation and emergent story, and Sylvester related how the stories in Bioshock had been intended to come out of a complex simulated ecology, however:
While BioShock retained some valuable vestiges of its simulation-heavy beginnings, the game as released was really a heavily-scripted authored story. There was no systemic ecology at all. It worked fantastically as a game – but it wasn’t a deep simulation.
Attempts to create realistic models in games are misguided, he says, because:
What we really want is not a system that is complex, but a system that is story–rich. […] Interestingly, real life and most fictional worlds are not story-rich! Most days for most people on Earth or in Middle Earth are quite mundane. It’s only very rarely that someone has to drop the Ring into Mount Doom. Follow a random hobbit in Hobbiton, and you’ll be bored soon.
He goes on to point out that whatever the model in the computer program, “The whole value of a game is in the mental model of itself it projects into the player’s mind” [his emphasis]. He calls this the Player Model Principle. He goes on to talk about apophenia, the human mind’s tendency to project human patterns and behaviors onto non-sentient objects (and in this case, computer animations). Using an example from the Sims, he shows how a story of love, jealousy and murder can be imagined out of a couple of variables in computer code interacting. He discusses how to encourage apophenia in the player, and concludes that modelling can create successful and compelling narratives as long as the designer remembers to “Choose the minimum representation that supports the kinds of stories you want to generate.” Which is to say, keep the complexity of the model as simple as you can get away with, adding complexity for the sake of realism only creates noise.
Which is all very interesting, even if its relevance to those in my field, cultural heritage interpretation, is mostly a useful reminder not to over complicate things. Sylvester writes well, and explains complex ideas in very understandable ways. So I was particularly interested to see that he’s recently published a book called Designing Games, a Guide to Engineering Experiences. Could this be, I wondered, the elusive literature on designing narrative in games that I’d been looking for?
YES IT BLOODY CAN!
I downloaded a preview, and the first page set out Sylvester’s thesis, in the bold title of the first part (and then the first chapter) of the book “Engines of Experience.”
These are the droids you’re looking for.
I devoured that preview and wasn’t disappointed. I bought the full e-book (direct from the publishers). This is exactly the sort of book I envisaged finding when I wrote that funding proposal last year – not a guide to 3D modelling or programming games, but rather a games designer explaining (as he says) “the trade-offs in every design decision.”
And what gets me, is that I didn’t find it in a literature search, slogging away on Google, library catalogues or trawling though endnotes. It came to me on Twitter. I don’t know Thomas Grip, who posted that original tweet. I can’t even recall why I started following him. But thank you, Thomas, for posting that link.
And what if I had turned off five minutes earlier? Or ignored that tweet in my hurry to shut down? Would I have found this brilliant, helpful book at all? I hope so, but this has been a massive shortcut. I can see why my supervisors were so keen when I started my studies that I should up my Social game. Twitter is truly your friend.
But so is Google, and so for all those to find their way to this blog searching for ludology vs. narratology, let me quote Sylvester’s take on that debate.
This fiction-mechanics conflict is why some see a great debate between mechanics and fiction. The ludologists (from the Latin ludus, for “play”) argue that games draw their most important properties from mechanical systems and interactions. The narratologists argue that the mechanics are just a framework on which to hang the fictional elements players actually care about. This debate is the game designer’s nature versus nurture, our plot versus character, our individualism versus collectivism. But like all such debates, the conflict exists only on the surface. The pinnacle of game design is combining perfect mechanics and compelling fiction into one seamless system of meaning. Fiction and mechanics need not fight (though they easily can), and neither one need be given primacy (though one often is). Used together, they can enhance and extend each other in ways that each can not do alone.
Sylvester, T. Designing Games, O’Reilly Media, 2013-01-03. ePub.
I’ve got a suspicion you’ll be seeing a few more posts from me about this book.
Or rather I’ve read up to somewhere between pages twelve and eighteen, but its been a fun adventure so far. It’s somehow ironic that a book with the ambition of recording the development of digital media semantics is shackled to such an old medium as the printed and bound book. There’s a copy available from the Winchester School of Art Library, but it always seems to be out and I haven’t had the heart to recall it. I can’t say if one person has held onto it for months, or somebody just checked it out moments before I looked on the web catalogue. And having experienced how it feels to bring a book home from the library, and the next day get a recall notice, and have to post it back, wouldn’t want to put another student through that. I was hoping there would be a e-edition available from the library, a couple of books I’ve wanted to look at have been available that way. But, again somehow ironically, it’s dead tree or nothing.
Or so I thought, but when I checked Amazon I discovered they do have a Kindle edition. Yes, it is more expensive than the paper version bought at another online store, but it does mean I can download a preview onto my iPad.
Reading that preview it’s apparent that Manovich is fully aware of the irony inherent in writing a book about new media. The numbered pages are preceded by a prologue, which Manovich titles Vertov’s Dataset. He explains:
The avant-garde masterpiece Man with a Movie Camera, completed by Russian director Dziga Vertov in 1929, will serve as our guide to the language of new media. This prologue consists of a number of stills from the film. Each still is accompanied by a quote from the text summarising a particular principle of new media. The number in brackets indicates the page from which the quote is taken. The prologue thus acts as a visual index to some of the book’s major ideas.
It’s Manovich’s attempt to create an analogue hypertext user interface, or front-end, for the book. It would have been good if the Kindle edition’s page numbers in brackets were links to the pages themselves, as the numbers in the Contents table are, but if I want to use the prologue as intended, I shall have to acquire a paper version of the book.
The prologue is enticing though. A glimpse of page 158 says:
Borders between worlds do not have to be erased; different spaces do not have to be matched in perspective, scale and lighting; individual layers can retain their separate identities rather than being merged into a single space; different worlds can clash semantically rather than form a single universe.
He asks (on page 317) “can the loop be a new narrative form appropriate for the computer age?” And on page 322 argues:
Spatial montage represents an alternative to traditional cinematic temporal montage, replacing its traditional sequential mode with a spatial one. Fords assembly line relied on the separation of the production process into sets of simple, repetitive and sequential activities. The same principle made computer programming possible: A computer program breaks a task into a series of elemental operations to be executed one at a time. Cinema followed this logic of industrial production as well. It replaced all other modes of narration with a sequential narrative, an assembly line of shots that appear on the screen one at a time. This type of narrative turned out to be particularly incompatible with the spatial narrative that had played a prominent role in European visual culture for centuries.
This prologue (and the more conventional introduction that made up the rest of the preview) have got me hooked. I’ve ordered a copy, not from Amazon though and not a Kindle edition. The paper version is available more cheaply, and postage free, from the Book Depository – which itself is, oh irony of ironies, owned by Amazon).