Clandon Park

I was going to write about yesterday’s visit to the Museums and Heritage Show, but when I got home from London I’d heard the terrible news of the fire at Clandon Park.

The place is special to me for two reasons. Not only is it one of the places I work with (I was there only Monday making exciting plans for the future), but also, in 1999 before I ever dreamed of working for the National Trust, it was where I got married.

So I’m not writing with my National Trust hat on. I have not been involved with the salvage operation, and I only know as much as has been on the news. I’m writing as a punter who loves the place.

And not just the place, but the collection. So indulge me for a moment, and let me share some of my favourite objects from Clandon. I fear few of these will have been a priority for salvagers,  but I hope some of them may have survived.

Clandon was host to the Surrey Infantry Museum, guardians of collections from The Queen’s Royal Surrey Regiment, the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment and Queen’s Regiment. Amongst all the medal banners and silverware was this old modest football. At first glance you might think is a relic of on those legendary Christmas football matches, but in fact this ball was dribbled across no-mans land ahead of a charge upon the trenches of the Prussian Guard.

Clandon Park was one of the first country house hospitals opened in the first months of the First World War. The soldiers who were treated there filled a couple of autograph books with sketches during their recuperation. To commemorate the centenary, we created an installation in the room that had, at that time, become the operating theatre, and displayed those original books and reproductions of some of the sketches.

For the duration of that exhibition, the contents of the room were moved into storage. There are two items which used to be on dis play there that are possibly my very favourite pieces:

Huia, Wlliam (4th Earl) Onslow’s youngest son, was born in New Zealand in 1890, and at the bottom of this frame is a tiny picture of him as a baby, lying an a Maori feather cloak,

and this is that cloak. As I said I have no idea of their fate, but news of the loss of these two objects more than any other treasures from Clandon, will upset me the most. I’m almost welling up, just thinking about it.

Finally, an object that always made me smile:

From the Gubbay collection, a Staffordshire piece inspired by Chinese art. I hope it survives to make me smile again.

Ambient lenses

Struggling with writing up my literature review, I turn to some of the theses I have on file, to see how they have structured theirs. And of course I’m sucked into reading some part of the actual thesis, because something captures my attention. The thing that’s caught my eye this time comes from Mark Eyles‘, who I wrote about … (yikes!) just over two years ago, just before his thesis was released upon the world.

In an effort to distinguish “ambient” from merely “pervasive” Eyles describes six “lenses” (from Schell, J. (2008). The Art of Game Design) that help define what ambient means, in game terms.

  1. Persistent gameplay – Eyles cites MMORPGs, like World of Warcraft, as examples of games where things carry on happening even while you aren’t interacting with them.
  2. As an extension of the above,  player initiated game actions occur away from the player’s attention, for example, in Civilization, there are agents at work within cites, producing food and researching technology, but the play has the option of leaving them to get on with it, or zooming down to city scale to direct the work themselves.
  3. Gameplay events occurring simultaneously at different locations within the game world – Eyles says: “In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim there are many ambient background tasks occurring, hidden from the player; skills are increasing, experience points are being won and so on. However, although the world in Skyrim is large, complex and rich it is not functionally ambient, only aesthetically ambient. Events are only occurring in the immediate vicinity of the player, triggered by the player’s presence and the missions the player has started.”
  4. Modelessness (that’s Mode-less-ness) – players have the option to ignore game mechanics. The example Eyles gives is Skyrim again, wherein players don’t level-up automatically, they are told they that can level up, but can choose to ignore it until they are ready. He explains that this sort of philiosphy makes a “range of levels of engagement” available to the player.
  5. Automation – for example, in Civilization you can order an agent to, say, build roads and it will continue to build roads while you are concentrating on something else.
  6. Abstract representation – using another example from Civilization Eyles describes how icons hide deeper levels of complexity “This method of using abstract representation of systems and events not only supports complexity but can also facilitate ambiguity, since players may incorrectly interpret symbols and their implications.”

He only talks about four of these when I met him a couple of years ago, but as my own thoughts have developed away from simply locatative game mechanics and more towards a responsive environment, I only be come more convinced that these lenses (and maybe others like them) might also help me define exactly what I meant by “responsive environment.”

PS Maybe this little thought-journey has helped me with my literature review after all – I’m thinking about breaking it down thus (working titles for all these sections): Digital Storytelling; Interpretive Technologies; Narrative Structure; and, Personalisation. I’ll sleep on that and have another proper crack at it tomorrow.

Get ready for Karen #KarenIsMyLifeCoach

Yesterday I finished playtesting Blast Theory’s soon to be released app, Karen. I don’t want to say too much about it, because I don’t want to spoil any surprises for you, and it’ll shortly (hopefully next week, pending approval, and assuming is ran as well for other playtesters as it did on my device) be free to download for iOS from the App Store. So you’ll be able to try it for youself, Android users will also get their turn, but not quite as soon. Its a culmination of the work on profiling that Blast Theory have been exploring over the last couple of years.

Its a great piece of interactive art. I’ll go so far as to say the best interactive story I’ve played. If only because it manages to create a sublime sense of real interaction. I’m not making decisions for an avatar, like John Martsen in Red Dead Redemption, but for myself. I’m telling Karen about me, not about what, for example, Marcus in Blood and Laurels, might do. I can tell the truth or I can lie (in fact I shuffled uneasily between the two) but that choice is mine.

Do I change Karen’s story through my decisions? To be honest, I don’t know, I’ve only had time to play through once. But the illusion of true interaction was surprisingly effective.

I especially like the use of Lickert sliders to answer some questions, which allowed me to be more “true to myself” than the multiple choice answers available for the other questions. Karen’s in a nuanced story, and sometimes I wanted, but was unable, to give a nuanced reply.

It’s great fun, get it. Its free after all. Maybe don’t play it in front of the kids, Karen can turn the conversation on a dime to subjects you might not want them to listen to. And decide now what you are going to tell your significant other about playing it, because Karen will be asking about them too…

Oh and my name is in the credits, look:


I made this! (Or rather, I bunged them a tenner on Kickstarter a while back). Oh, and hey, they are in the news already!

Bletchley Park review

A label from the reconstruction, sadly not of a German disco, but a wartime observation post.
A label from the reconstruction, sadly not of a German disco, but a wartime observation post.

This Easter I finally managed to visit Bletchley Park. And left wanting to return. It’s a hodge-podge of experiences, a legacy of the site’s struggle for recognition, and then funding. Many individuals and organisations have worked to preserve, open and support the site, and one gets the feeling that some don’t work brilliantly with others. So the National Museum of Computing for example, rents space from the Bletchley Park Trust, but operates as a separate entity, with a separate fee (we didn’t go in). Even within the Trust’s own pay-perimeter, modern, minimalist museum quality reconstructions and interactives jostled for space alongside enthusiasts’ collections of (for example) carrier pigeon memorabilia.

We were one of the last cars allowed into the car park, before thy closed the gates and directed people instead to the nearby railway station for park. We had to queue for some time, to pay our admission, though I have to say, the staff were very efficient at processing the crowd, and we were taken to the shop’s till to buy our tickets, while other families in our (large) party were dealt with at the normal admissions points.

The initial reception building was bustling with people, and with aged relatives in tow, we took respite from the crowds with a grab-and-do drink and sandwich lunch and a sit down in the Block C cafe. We didn’t spend much time looking around the exhibitions in Block C but sought out instead the narrative heart of the story: the codebreaking Huts 3, 6, 8 and 11. (An aside – a family friend, Val Knight, worked at Bletchley during the war in Hut 7, which sadly seems to no longer exist.) It quite gratifying to walk into Hut 8, and the first thing you see is a panel explaining that Alan Turing’s office is though the next door. There were some great interactives in Hut 8 too. I was particularly impressed with four tables, that explained probability, with more and more variables, from flipping a coin, through rolling dice to drawing Scrabble letters. These interactives came into their own on this busy day, each one was short enough for users to get the point very quickly and move on. The only difficulty I observed was a tendency of users to replicate the finger pointing habits of modern smart-phone users, when the system required users to use their whole hand to make their choices.

From that point on though, the interactives had to explain more difficult concepts, and I observed users sightly impatiently “helping” each other, while others were struggling to get their head around the activities. In hut 11 I found myself stumped by a couple of interactives (one of which, I realized later, was  actually out of order) and with the press of people politely waiting behind me to have a go, I had to leave “the Bombe” un-configured (and likely lost the whole second world war). Cryptography is a complex business especially if, like me, you aren’t a particularly brilliant mathematician, and I left the place, a) slightly frustrated that I hadn’t understood as much as I wanted; and b) determined to go back for a quieter mid-week, non-school-holiday visit.

I wasn’t sure that our aged relatives would make it as far as the mansion but we managed to have a look at the costumes and props from the recent Bletchley/Turing film The Imitation Game, before heading back down the hill to what felt like an older set of museum galleries in Block B. The exhibitions here, were wordy but professionally produced, somewhere between the sublime minimalism of the Codebreaking Huts and the enthusiasts’ collections.

Here though was where the importance of the enthusiasts in the development of Bletchley as a visitor attraction was most evident: a working rebuild of a Bombe, was being operated and interpreted by experts the like of which no organisation can just go out and hire. And they had the biggest crowd of the day gathered around them. Again, I’d like to visit on a quieter day to better hear and see what they were explaining.

What impressed me most about the site as a whole is that we took a large group of diverse interest, male and female, geek and casual, from 10 to 87 years old, and everybody, but everybody found plenty to enjoy.

Plot, Character and Genre

I am across an interesting article the other day which, I fear, has little to do with my thesis, but I was captivated and intrigued by it. It recorded and experiment exploring storytelling genres, run by sociologists.

So, why are sociologists looking at story? Well, I’ll let them explain:

Preachers, advertising executives and politicians have long attested to the power of a good story to change people’s minds. Communication scholars recently have shown why. People cognitively process stories differently than they process other kinds of messages… people process stories by immersing themselves in the story, striving to experience vicariously the events and emotions that the protagonists do.

I can’t argue with that, its one of the reasons why story is such a powerful interpretive tool, when done well.The authors (Francesca Polletta, Monica Trigoso, Britni Adams and Amanda Ebner) argue that the reader’s interpretation of a story will change depending on the ideology dominant at the time the story is being read.

Two hundred years ago, a story about a woman whose quiet forbearance allowed her to suffer the indignities of poverty, abuse and injustice without complaint might have been heard as a story of heroism. Today, ‘Patient Griselda’ is likely to be interpreted as a story of abject and pathetic victimhood. This suggests that stories are interpreted in terms of contemporary beliefs.

But they also argue that readers also bring their understanding of the genre into their interpretation of the narrative.

It suggests that we can hear stories in line, not with contemporary ideological beliefs, but with expectations that are intrinsic to the genre.

Thus, as readers, when we’ve twigged what sort of genre the story, we expect the characters to behave in certain ways.

In particular, the moral evaluation that audiences make of the story’s main characters will depend less on characters’‘objective’ behavior than on audiences’ genre-based expectations. Audiences will fill in missing causal links in the story in line with what usually happens in stories of this genre. For example, in a tragic story, the main character’s assertiveness may be blamed for her downfall. The same assertiveness will be appreciated and endorsed when it appears in a heroic story. Indeed, that assertiveness may be cited by audiences as the reason for liking or identifying with the character.

Dealing with the sensitive issue of acquaintance or “date”-rape, and narratives intended to encourage victims to report incidents, the authors were interested in whether genre would trump dominant ideology or vice versa:

Books, articles and other materials that are aimed at preventing rape, encouraging women to report their rape and helping victims to recover from their rape routinely include victims’ stories of their experiences. But do these stories do what they are supposed to do?

Their analysis of stories used in existing rape counselling literature, showed two genres being used. The first is “gothic” stories, “in which an innocent woman is destroyed by an evil man”, which they say is often criticized by feminists because victims struggle to identify with the woman in the story. The alternative that has appeared in response is what the authors call a “classic tragedy” in which “the protagonist is in a sense responsible for his or her fate.”

In their experiment, they presented the same plot  in four different genres, tragic and gothic, as per the existing counselling literature, and two alternatives: “heroic” and “rebirth.” Then, in a series of both closed and open questions and also in focus groups, asked readers “how they judged the protagonist of the story; whether and why they identified with the protagonist of the story and whether and why they could imagine being friends with her; whether they believed that the story was credible; and, what they would do after they left the rapist’s room if they were the woman in the story.”

I won’t do into depth on their results here, but this quote summarizes the dilemma they uncovered:

Tell a story of a young woman who is sheltered, shy and insecure – unlike the tragic protagonist, blameless – and an audience of college women will like the woman in the story and identify with her but will find it hard to imagine her reporting her rape. Tell a story of a woman who is confident and assertive and the audience will imagine her reporting her rape to police but will not identify with or like her. As researchers have shown that identifying with characters is essential to stories’ achieving their behavioral effects, this presents a real problem.

So their are no easy answers, and not much learning for me, in my research, but I was intrigued by their approach.