Back, for a while at least

Woah! It’s been over a year since I last post anything on here. I return because later today is my viva voce, wherein I “defend my thesis.” Yes, that’s why I have been silent on here, I have been hammering my thesis into a shape that I am not ashamed of, reading it, proofing it, getting others to read it and proof it (and yet, yes, there are still typos) and submitting.

For the last couple of weeks, in preparation for tomorrow, I have been re-reading the thesis, meeting (virtually) with my supervisor and recruiting an old friend and academic Jane Malcolm-Davies to read it and to give me a practice viva, last week. Reading it is hard though – after a year of writing and re-writing, the words flow through me like a purge barely touching the sides. And all I take note of are the things I might have done better. The practice viva was a very useful experience though, and so I thought I might give myself another “practice” by writing this post.

What brought me back to the blog was recognising a sentence that had survived from one of my earliest posts, though eight years of other work and re-writes and edits. This blog was a useful way of processing my reading and other research as I was going it. It wasn’t what I needed though when I was rewriting the words that might have started on this site. And as this is the last chance to read my own thesis for the viva, I thought I might process it with a blog post in a similar way, hopefully anticipating some of the questions

Who is my audience?

One question Jane asked me about the thesis was “who are you writing this for?” And it’s a good question. It gave me pause to think. But I think the answer is I writ it for myself, and for people like me, heritage professionals who want to explore what digital interventions might be like, and who don’t want to be reliant on digital suppliers to tell heritage organisations what they need.

When I started this, eight years ago, I came into it with a truly open mind. My question really was “what can I and my fellow heritage professionals learn from games about storytelling in space?” I had no agenda, no thesis I wanted to test and, importantly no real experience in computer games. I guess I saw computer games as competition for my sector. Not financially speaking really (we are no completion for that global behemoth of games production); but for share of mind or… actually share of mind. I often tell the anecdote of a colleague who came to me saying that a game had made him cry the night before. At the time our organisation were trying to improve “emotional impact”, and as someone who had spurned computer games in my teens because they didn’t engage my emotions. I was intrigued, at the time my organisation was very interested it what we called emotional impact. If computer games could make my friend and colleague cry, perhaps we could learn something from them about storytelling.

So I didn’t apply for the PhD with any sort of hypothesis in mind. This was possibly a mistake, but I genuinely wanted to work out how games (and I should say “open world games”) that let the player wonder around an environment, manipulated emotion.

How did my research change?

When I started out, if I had any defined ambition at all, it might have been to create an application that tuned a heritage visit into some sort of investigative game. And I think I was definitely imagining the mobile device as the conduit of communication between place and person. Two bits of my research changed that ambition, neither of which fit into the main narrative of the thesis but were I feel worthy of including in an appendix, if only to explain why that wasn’t a route I was following.

What was a surprise to me, was during the “reading” of the three games I played, the realisation of just how poor heritage storytelling is. Note I say storytelling here specifically. It can be argued that “heritage interpretation” isn’t “storytelling,” but such an argument is broadly incompatible with a desire to engage visitors emotionally. This became research in practice with two aims: the first to see if heritage interpretation narratives could be broken down into natoms (narrative atoms), stored and reassembled to satisfy visitor’s needs; and secondly to explore how they might be put together in an emotionally engaging way.

What would I have done differently?

With the benefit of hindsight, of course I would have concentrated on this narrative conundrum from the beginning, but even arriving at the conundrum was, for me, a damascene revelation. As a professional interpreter who has been confidently telling stories in the sector for decades, realising that I might have been telling the “wrong” stories.

But practical things I would have done differently – it was only in the latter stages that I realised what useful tool Robin Laws’s story beats and transition analysis was. I wish I had found it earlier and used it to analyse at least parts of the three computer games I read.

Speaking of things I wish I had found earlier. When I was scouting around in the early stages for a “narrative database” I could easily use, the meSch project, which is written specifically for curators and heritage professionals, was only just starting. In the end I used Scalar which is written for academics, but not for the heritage environment. But had meSch been around it would have been a perfect platform to experiment with

One other thing that might fit as an answer to this question is, had I switched to my current supervision team earlier in my research I could easily have been persuaded to drop the narrative track entirely and focus instead on music and sound – where there is simply not enough research on its use in the heritage environment.

Challenges

Focussing on the academic challenges, the subject of cultural heritage interpretation overlaps so many academic disciplines that even producing a literature review was really hard. And then, pushing the work forward, I felt all the time I was falling between two stools – science and humanities. For example, exploring affect outside of the psychology, and databases outside of computing, but at the same time wanting to write something that could be understood, and taken forward, by both museum professionals and data engineers.

Where do I take this?

In the conclusion I detail a number of potential paths for further research. The one that I am most interested in professionally if further understanding, and potentially measuring, numen. I think this concept is closer to what museums and heritage sites really mean, when they talk about emotional engagement. But defining in properly and working out ways to measure it, will take a lot of work.

I am also excited by meSch – a tool written for professionals just like me. And I would love to take it for a spin on a future project, creating adaptive, personalised stories for visitors. But not just “visitors.”

I say that because my research was based very much around making the experience of people in places better, talking about responsive environments better meeting visitors’ needs. I deliberately eschewed virtual experiences, except when I first prototyped an adaptive story for the then closed Clandon Park. But in the last few months visiting places physically has been restricted. And its made me realise that the paradigm shift in story telling that I have advised for responsive environments might just as easily be applied to virtual visits. Despite being only a prototype, the Clandon experience was more satisfying for me as a creator, for reasons I explain in chapter 4. Perhaps there is be a chance, a need even, to create new personalised adaptive event numerous stories on-line.

Well that’s all the time I have. My via starts in 30 seconds

wish me luck

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s