The Invisible Hand – Blast Theory

I’ve had a great first day attending The Invisible Hand a two day workshop hosted by Blast Theory, the Brighton based art collective. I met all sorts of interesting people, and I’ll write in more detail about it later.

But right now I want to process my excitement about a short presentation from Lesley Fosh. A PhD student at Nottingham University, Lesley shared an experiment wherein she worked with eight pairs of visitors to a local art gallery. She enabled one half of each couple to “gift” a personalised tour to their friend/partner. The giver chose five items, and for each chose a piece of music, a vocal instruction to do something, and a personal message, which were combined into a personal “app” that the other then used to explore the museum. Though this was an experiment intentionally limited in scope (the tours were only to be shared with the other half of the pair) a number of us were excited by the potential. For me it’s a great way of confounding the Narrative Paradox. Each was a piece of interpretation, that because I was created for a known individual seemed magically imbued with an emotional quality that turned something quite prosaic into poetry.

I was immediately imagining tagging each segment in some way, and storing it in a database that could then serve up segments in combinations that the original authors never intended. The choice of five segments that the author originally put together would be unique to that gift, and never shared in its entirety with another visitor, but segments from a number of givers could be combined in ways that might give other visitors unique, procedurally personalised, interpretations of a museum gallery.

It’s late, and I’m ready for bed, so I probably am not making as much sense as I feel. But I’m very glad I went, and I’m looking forward to day two tomorrow.

Story, Time and Place

This is the Prezi and below are my notes in preparation for a short presentation I gave to a Digital Humanities seminar group at University today. Hosted WordPress still can’t deal with embedded Prezi’s yet so click the link at the start to see the slides. And my notes below are just notes, so you’ll have to imagine me riffing off them to make an entertaining, compelling and coherent (I hope!)  presentation.

The Lindisfarne Gospels is an illuminated manuscript gospel book produced around the year 700 in a monastery off the coast of Northumberland at Lindisfarne and which is now on display in the British Library in London.


Very little structure to the text, no paragraphs etc

In the 10th century an Old English translation of the Gospels was made: a word-for-word gloss inserted between the lines of the Latin text by Aldred, Provost of Chester-le-Street.

This is the oldest extant translation of the Gospels into the English language, and a great example of a reader interacting with the text.

Laurence Stern created one of the first texts to be interacted with. Tristram shandy is epistolary novel, but it’s more than that, sampling other works of literature to bring new meanings.

He chose the format, paper, type and layout of the novel. It’s a book to be played with.

Last year’s Building Stories. Like Tristram Shandy, a story to be played with. Dan Clowes (author) suggest leave bits of it around your own building to chance upon.

Gorge Méliès, regarded as the first person to recognize the potential of narrative film. Goes beyond sequential time/movement and to imaginary places.

Voyage Dans La Lune , special effects, Jump cuts, locations etc started a century of narrative experimentation.

For example music

diegetic music (where musicians are playing in the story, or charcters are listening to the radio for example),
nondiegetic music (where as she says “an orchestra plays as coyboys chase indians upon the desert”) and
metadiegegtic music (where we hear a character “remember” a bit of music).
She also talk about themes, and what Wagner called “motifs or reminisence.”

But despite all this innovation, don’t you find some films “Same-y”?

Not every film has been a success of course. After some test screenings Walt Disney called in “script doctors” to fix The Lion King

Christopher Vogler – Joseph Cambell, Hero’s journey applied to Lion King, then book The Writer’s Journey.

Save the Cat! Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet – Almost an algorithm for scripting film. 110 pages

Opening Image – page 1 A visual that represents the struggle & tone of the story. Set-up – ten pages Expand on the “before” snapshot. Present the normal world. Including: Theme Stated page 5 – say it “with great power comes great responsibility. Catalyst page 12 – the world turns upside down. Emotional shock. Debate for thirteen pages – Dare our heroes actually explore the new world? Break Into Act Two page 25– The main character makes a choice and the journey begins. B Story begins on page 30— This is when there’s a discussion about the Theme – Timon and Pumba in the Lion King. Fun and games twenty five pages— the action, the roller coaster ride the caper. Midpoint p55 — Success!’ But Bad Guys Close In for twenty pages.bAll is Lost page75 – The opposite of Success. And emotional Nadir.
Dark Night of the Soul for ten pages – woe is me. Hit rock bottom. Break Into Three (page 85) – the B story provides the solution to the A-story. Finale twentyfive pages – This time around, the main character incorporates the Theme – the nugget of truth that now makes sense to them – into their fight for the goal because they have experience from the A Story and context from the B Story. Act Three is about Synthesis! Final Image page 110 – ride into the sunset, a changed character.

Of course the audience have to see each frame of the film in the order in which it is presented. Only the director gets to play with chronology.

Games give back the power to explore the narrative

Procedural narratives versus authored narratives.

Describe RDR, starts off interactive, but delivers fewer and fewer choices towards an inevitable end. Authored, nor procedural. Are procedural stories only in need to great endings?

Pervasive AR

Last week I visited Dapdune Wharf, the Guildford  nerve-centre of the River Wey Navigations, to meet with my NT colleague Sarah, Dr Caroline Scarles of Surrey University and  Dr Matthew Casey of Pervasive Intelligence. Matthew is the brains behind a prototype Augmented Reality (AR) application for cultural heritage:

What’s particularly interesting about this work isn’t the image recognition (though that appears to be pretty robust), or even the wi-fi localisation (the technology underlying Apple’s iBeacon is available on most major brands and platforms and is likely to be cheaper for cultural heritage to implement than wifi) but the potential business model. Matthew explained that the App itself would be holder for downloadable content packs created by cultural institutions. Sarah tells me that after the prototype phase, Matthew’s plan is to offer the technology for free to cultural heritage, which means that they can offer the content for free to their users. The value is in the tracking data that the app will collect as its users explore the museum. And its this that will make the technology financially sustainable.

Given the number of companies competing for contracts with cultural heritage, and space on users’ devices, this is the first business model that I think might possibly survive the inevitable rationalisation of this nascent industry.

Questions for tech SMEs and cultural heritage institutions on working together

I’ve been putting it off for weeks even months, finding distraction activities rather than tackling the challenge that appears so simple, but feels incredibly complex. Even now, I’m wrestling the impulse to go and see if the chickens have laid eggs that need collecting, 0r to try one of the new games that I’ve downloaded.

But my task is to plan the structure for the interviews that I need to conduct with technology SMEs (small and medium enterprises) that have worked with heritage organisations, and cultural heritage personnel who have worked with tech SMEs.

My intellectual paralysis is due to the fact that while I’m sure the interview structure will change as I conduct more interviews and discover what makes my interviews open up and offer real insights, I don’t want my initial interviews to be “just practice.” I want to be reasonably confident that I’ll get something worthwhile from these first ones, and not wish, twenty interviews down the line, that “I wish I’d asked that question!”

My opening  is easy:

“I’d like to ask you about one particular project where you’ve (been commissioned by a heritage organisation/commissioned a digital technology provider). I’d like to keep that one project in mind as well talk, though of course please feel free to refer to other projects to illustrate particular points of alternative ways of working. If you have a number of projects to choose from, I’d like to to select one that is relatively recent, and ideally one that you think might have gone better if you (and/or of course your client/supplier) had handled things differently. Of course, if every project has been a perfect (or alternatively, and absolute disaster) feel free to select one of those. All the details of the project(s) will be anonymised, and these notes will be secure and confidential, so I hope you to feel able to speak freely about even difficult issues.”

But then I have a muddle of questions, and a huge amount of doubts over order. So I thought I might share where I am so far, the hope that writing this post will help me, or force me, to make some sense of it all. Of course any comments will be thansfully received.

  • What was the objective of the project? (I’d hope that is is understood the same way by clients and suppliers?)
  • What organisational strategic aims did the project realize? (For suppliers this might be: What was your perception of your client’s strategic aims?)
  • What were the specific outputs of the commission? (talking here about the specific outputs of the client/supplier contract/partnership)
  • Roughly what was the budget or contract price for the work?
  • Did the outputs change over the course of the commission?
  • What was the contracted timescale of the commission?
  • Did the timescale/milestones change during the commission?
  • Tell the about the project management regime?
  • What were your measures of success?
  • How is the project now? or What were the results?
  • What were the real successes of working with this (supplier/client)?
  • What difficulties did you overcome?
  • What persistent difficulties were there?
  • What (or who!) was the greatest barrier to progress?
  • How did you attempt to overcome these difficulties?
  • How did you feel about the difficulties?
  • Why did the difficulties persist? (if any did)
  • What actions did you try to solve these problems?
  • Why do you think the solutions (being the actions in the question above) didn’t work?
  • What frustrated you most about these?
  • What other options were there?
  • Would you work with that (supplier/client) again?
  • What advice would you give somebody planning to work with that (supplier/client)?
  • If attempting a similar project again, what would you do differently?
  • If you had no constraints on time. money, power, etc what else might you have done?
  • What was the final cost of the work?
  • What comparable projects have you seen?
  • What do think your project did better than those?
  • What did you learn from those comparable projects?

Putting them all down here, and re-arranging some of them as I did so, makes me think how similar they are to the sort of questions one gets taught on coaching/leadership or managing people courses. I guess that’s no surprise as I’ve tried to write them to be open and not leading. If fact I’ve just pulled out an old manual from a managing people course I did (woah!) ten years ago, and there, the questions are similar in style but actually quite different, as its about coaching somebody through a dilemma, rather than reviewing a working relationship around a project that is likely (though I guess possibly not) to be completed. However there is one question which I’ve just nicked and added to the list.

Can you tell which it is?

A literary view of gaming

What I should be doing today is creating the structured interview questions for my research on Cultural Institutions and Tech SMEs. But I’m distracted by this series of articles on gaming from playwright Lucy Prebble. Lucy is most famous for her play ENRON about the stocks and shares scandal surrounding the eponymous US energy company. More recently, her The Effect has had positive reviews. But she is also a gamer, and writes  a monthly column on games for the Observer.

Her column tends towards narratively driven “authored”  games, such as Gone Home, which as she is a professional narrativist shouldn’t be surprising, though she also discusses and appreciates more procedural games like The Sims and Farming Simulator. In her conversation with Bioshock’s Ken Levine, they discuss a possible future project which he is considering, which has all the procedural narrative of games like the Sims or Rimworld, but “this would still be authored, it would still tell a story. It would end. And actually, that makes it more true to life, not less.” which reminds me how powerful “the end” is to to storytelling, and why Red Dead Redemption is more emotionally involving for me than unending Skyrim.

Her most recent article praises Device 6 (enough to make me download it after considering it for months) and the Novelist among others, while making the claim that charity shops are starting to turn away books, unable to sell them because “Everyone has Kindles”. I’m not convinced that she, or rather the charity shop workers she spoke to are correct to prophesise the death of the book yet – the second-hand bookshops at National Trust places seem to be thriving and turning over stock at a reasonable pace. But she does make the point that adventurous writers are looking to games as a when to tell stories differently. And the truly adventurous are playing with the conventions of what a game is too:

Depression Quest is a simple interactive fiction game that guides you through the experience of someone with depression. Its creator, Zoe Quinn, reveals a powerful understanding of how to affect through gameplay. Some options are visible, eg “Open up a little, hoping she’ll understand” but you are unable to select them. This basic but intelligent design expresses so much about a mental reality where the sufferer knows what they “should” do but is literally unable to. Your own frustration with the choice is mirrored by the protagonist’s and eventually a peek into self-loathing and stagnation is achieved, as well as a glimpse into how to move forward.

A game she has persuaded me to buy and try is Gone Home, which describes as though it is a near-perfect cultural heritage interpretation experience.

You piece together a sense of who everyone is and what happened through seemingly disconnected items and evidence hidden around the house. And those connections are intentionally weak. It allows the plot and conclusions to take place in the mind of the player and not in the action of the game… By withholding its story so fully and wisely, Gone Home insists we join the dots ourselves. It takes the gaming element away from the screen, and into your head.

Prebble is very interested in games and emotion, and makes and important point about how words alone fail can fail to trigger an emotional response:

As a playwright, I have long been disappointed by the weakness of words. An audience is rarely moved by words themselves, but by the gaps between words. In theatre sometimes we reference irritation with actors who act “off the line”, meaning they put in breaths and little sounds around what’s written, slowing pace and drawing attention. But that’s because they know the writing is just a scaffold… I think games have an unrealised potential to be even more emotionally involving than other forms, because they can make room for the player/audience directly. And because they are alive to flexibility of choice and narrative. I believe the more you nail down a plot point or a line, the more it dies. When you catch words like butterflies and pin them behind glass, it feels like an achievement, but something seals as you press down the pane. And so, now more than ever, we need games like Gone Home that withhold and reinvent and leave space for thought and feeling.

Of course this can be incendiary stuff, for gamers and non-gamers alike. Ludologiest would argue (as one commenter did) “The problem with Gone Home is that people refer to it as a game, which ultimately it isn’t. Any piece of entertainment software that focuses solely on story is by definition not a game,” while traditionalists will say that a game narrative can not possibly be compared with the emotional resonance of a half-decent novel. But Prebble isn’t looked only at what either games or storytelling are, but what they might be…

I’ll finish this piece with a quote within a quote from Prebble’s most recent article, which illustrates the reactionary fears expressed when new technology encroaches on something we love:

Maybe it’s best to close with this warning from an 1815 publication bemoaning the demise of the chalkboard in schools: “Students today depend on paper too much. They don’t know how to write on slate without getting chalk dust all over themselves. They can’t clean a slate properly. What will they do when they run out of paper?” (fromRethinking Education in the Age of Technology by Allan Collins and Richard Halverson)

I suppose we’re finding out.

Location gaming

We had a great meeting yesterday for our funding application, though everyone has so many great ideas that the biggest challenge is going to be scoping those ideas into something achievable. Barring a couple of extra questions, everybody seems reasonably happy with the survey I drafted, so all we’re waiting for now is the green light from ERGO, the university’s ethics monitoring system.

My team mate Mark showed me a game I hadn’t seen before, Ingress, from Google and currently only available on Android phones. At it’s heart is a reasonably simple geocaching mechanic based on public artworks, but around that is a territory capture mechanic that smacks of Feng Shui RPG and the Invisibles and on top of it all, what appears to be a captivating story line. On top of that players are playing the game in a way that I don’t think was intentional, using the mechanics to create virtual two-colour artworks across the maps. All in all it’s something I want to play, but I only have an iOS phone 😦

Other location based games came up in the conversation around the survey too. SCVNGER is a very commercial game, looking to more obviously monetise Foursquare’s behaviors. Chromarama looks more fun, like Ingress, a game of territory capture, and it looks a lot of fun for Londoners or commuters with a bit of time on their hands.

Another game for Londoners is Magic in Modern London, an iPhone app produced by our old friends at the Wellcome Trust (an institution which also gave us High Tea). This is a scavenger hunt of a different sort, based upon an exhibition put on at the Welcome Collection back in 2011. This isn’t something that came up in yesterday’s conversation, but instead brought to my attention by an article in today’s Guardian. Which also tells us that its not just Londoners getting all the fun. One of the brains behind that game is currently working on one for Oxford museums, called Box of Delights. I’m looking forward to giving it a try.

These are the challenges. And looking at them it feel quite daunting. Can our project manage to produce a similar (or dare I say it, an even better) experience using only extant platforms?