Simulating ideology in storytelling

The Story Extension Process, from Mei Yii Lim and Ruth Aylett (2007) Narrative Construction in a Mobile Tour Guide

Another great piece from Ruth Aylett, this time from 2007. Here, she and collaborator Mei Yii Lim are getting closer to what I’m aiming for, if taking a different approach. They kick off by describing Terminal Time, a system that improvises documentaries according to the user’s ideological preference, and an intelligent guide for virtual environments which take into account the distance between locations, the already told story, and the affinity between the the story element and the guide’s profile when selecting the next story element and location combination to take users to. They note that this approach could bring mobile guides “a step nearer to the creation of an ‘intelligent guide with personality'” but that it “omits user [visitor] interests”. (I can think of many of a human tour guide that does the same). They also touch on a conversation agent that deals with the same issues they are exploring.

This being a 2007 conference paper, they are of course using a PDA as their medium. Equipped with GPS and text to speech software, a server does all the heavy lifting.

“After [an ice-breaking session where the guide extracts information about the user’s name
and interests], the guide chooses attractions that match the user’s interests, and plans the shortest possible route to the destinations. The guide navigates the user to the chosen locations via directional instructions as well as via an animated directional arrow. Upon arrival, it notifies the user and starts the storytelling process. The system links electronic data to actual physical locations so that stories are relevant to what is in sight. During the interaction, the user continuously expresses his/her interest in the guide’s stories and agreement to the guide’s argument through a rating bar on the graphical user interface. The user’s inputs affect the guide’s emotional state and determine the extensiveness of stories. The system’s outputs are in the form of speech, text and an animated talking head.”

So, in contrast to my own approach, this guide is still story lead, rather than directly user led, but it decides where to take the user based on their interests. But they are striving for an emotional connection with the visitor. So their story elements (SE) are composed of “semantic memories [-] facts, including location-related information” and “emotional memories […] generated through simulation of past experiences”. Each story element has a number of properties, sematic memories for example incude: name ( a coded identifier); type; subjects; objects; effects (this is interesting its lists the story elements that are caused by this story element, with variable weight); event; concepts (this that might need a further definition when fist mentioned); personnel (who was involved); division; attributes (relationship to interest areas in the ontology); location; and, text. Emotional story elements don’t include “effects and subjects attributes because the [emotional story element] itself is the effect of a SE and the guide itself is the subject.” These emotional memories are tagged with “arousal” and “valence” tags. The arousal tags are based on Emotional Tagging, while the valence tag “denotes how favourable or unfavourable an event was to the guide. When interacting with the user, the guide is engaged in meaningful reconstruction of its own past,” hmmmmm.

So their prototype, a guide to the Los Alamos site of the Manhatten project, the guide could be either “a scientist who is interested in topics related to Science and Politics, and a member of the military who is interested in topics related to Military and Politics. Both guides also have General knowledge about the attractions.” I’m not convinced by the artifice of layering onto the interpretation two different points of view – as both such are being authored by a team who in their creation of the two points of view will, even if striving to be objective, will make editorial decisions that reveal a third, authentic PoV.

When selecting which SE to tell next, the guide filters out the ones that are not connected to the current location. Then “three scores corresponding to: previously told stories; the guide’s interests; and the user’s interests are calculated. A SE with the highest overall
score will become the starting spot for extension.” The authors present a pleasingly simple (for a non-coder like me) algorithm for working out which SE goes next. But the semantic elements are not the only story elements that get told. The guide also measures the Emotional, Ideological story elements against the user’s initial questionnaire answers and reactions to previous story elements and decides whether or not to add the guide’s “own” ideological experience on to the interpretation, a bit like a human guide might. So you might be told:

Estimates place the number of deaths caused by Little Boy in Hiroshima up to the end of 1945 at one hundred and forty thousands where the dying continued, five-year deaths related to the bombing reached two hundred thousands.

Or, if the guide’s algorithms think you’ll appreciate it’s ideological perspective, you could hear:

Estimates place the number of deaths caused by Little Boy in Hiroshima up to the end of 1945 at one hundred and forty thousands where the dying continued, five-year deaths related to the bombing reached two hundred thousands. The experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing was the opening chapter to the possible annihilation of mankind. For men to choose to kill the innocent as a means to their ends, is always murder, and murder is one of the worst of human action. In the bombing of Japanese cities it was certainly decided to kill the innocent as a means to an end.

I guess that’s the scientist personality talking, perhaps the military personality would  instead add a different ideological interpretation of the means to an end. As I mentioned before, I’m not convinced that two (or more) faux points of view are required when the whole project and every story element that the guide gets to choose from are already authored with a true point of view. But in many other aspects this paper is really useful and will get a good deal of referencing in my thesis.

Trapped in the bunker

The debrief session after the experience. Photo taken by Adam.

Last weekend at Geek 2017, I played Sarcophagus, a Nordic LARP (Live Action Roleplay). LARP, as we know it today, grew out of the international popularity of Dungeons and Dragons and other tabletop roleplaying games. It didn’t take long, in the late seventies and early eighties, for people to start making costumes out of blankets and swords out of camping mats and gaffer tape, to take the game away from the table and into the real world. Indeed, I played in one of the first commercial LARPs, Treasure Trap at Peckforton Castle.

People still do that of course, and the weapons have become better made, safer and more “realistic” in their design (with in the spiky aesthetic of fantasy illustration). LARP is not limited to high fantasy genres either. In the nineties there was an explosion of gothic LARP in the US, with people playing communities of Vampires. Any world can be recreated in LARP form, even the real one.

The popularity of LARPing in Scandinavia, led to style/variant with its own name, Nordic Larp (note, in this form, Larp has become a word in its own right, no longer an acronym). This style has gained an international reputation for attempting something more than recreating fantasy adventures, exploring its possibilities as an art form in its own right. Similarly, the form often eschews external, procedural adventures in favour of exploring internal, emotional struggles.

Thus it was that I, and a dozen or so other players (though we’ll return to the ideas of games and players shortly), signed up to a five hour experience that would involve us being locked up in a nuclear bunker with no hope of escape. The players ranged from Larp virgins to experienced Larpers from Belarus, a Canadian musician, lecturers and students. (Three of us are doing PhDs.) We weren’t in that bunker the whole five hours though, and given that I’m writing this, you’ll understand we were let out. But this isn’t like an Escape room game, where we have limited time to solve the puzzles and find a way out, neither is any of us expected to win by becoming the king of a post-apocalyptic society. (Though, as we’ll see, my character might have thought so.) In fact its arguably not a game at all. Our facilitator, artist Adam James, kept correcting himself when he used the word game, explaining that his Larping mentor disapproved of it. So we are not players in a game, but rather players in an improvised drama, and not just the players but the audience as well. Indeed, Adam defined larp as an artform where the participants and the audience are one and the same. (Which is something Robin Laws used to say about tabletop roleplaying games, though he’s had to drop that definition as the streaming of such games on Twitch and YouTube has become more and more popular.)

The object of Sarcophagus is not to escape or win, but to explore the five stages of grief, as modeled by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying. First all though we had to work out who we were.

The preparation took a couple of hours in itself, with Adam explaining Larp, running us through some improvisation exercises and helping us create a character for ourselves. To begin with, he littered the briefing room with pictures, some large (A3) some small. Some abstract, some figurative, some photographs, some drawings. Adam encouraged us to walk among them, pick them up, and see if any of them inspired thoughts about who we might be.

I latched upon a couple, a medieval drawing of a ploughman and a dead bird which may have been trussed into some sort of totem, and imagined the pastural post-apocalyptic fantasies of my youth, things like John Christopher’s Tripods and Sword of the Spirits trilogies, the seventies BBC series Survivors, and Riddley Walker (which is set very close to where we were playing). What about a character who’d actually looked forward to the end of the world, I thought, a character who’d foolishly imagined a clearing away of everything what was wrong with the world, and a return to simpler, purer times. Of course he would be disappointed, Adam had made it clear that we’d know we wouldn’t even survive long enough to see the nuclear winter, let alone a new Garden of Eden.

Talking about it with other players, I imagined that my character might be rather reactionary, not necessarily well liked. Then Adam passed around a “hat” with little slips of paper listing the jobs we might have had before we found ourselves in the bunker. We found out we were hairdressers, waiters, sailors, stockbrokers and gym teachers. I pulled out “politician” and everything fell into place. I didn’t once mention the word UKIP once, indeed I painted myself as someone who, like Churchill, had moved between parties, but everyone knew exactly what sort of politician I had been. We also got to pick a flaw out of the hat. I ended up an alcoholic, though frankly I felt politician was enough of a flaw.

Then we split into two groups. One of people that wanted close connections with other player’s characters (for example, sisters), and a slightly smaller group who preferred thinner, looser connections. I went with the second, thinking many will have seen my politician on television, but few would know me well. We workshopped our connections, the gym teacher had taught my children, the security guard was someone I ignored on the way into the gated community to lived in, neighbour to the stockbroker, and the waiter was the rebellious son of wealthy donors to my political campaign.

Some more improvisation followed, this time walking as our characters, in different situations. Then after a break, and some meditation on what the world would be like if we died today, we met up outside the Bunker for one last improvisation workshop before going into (in this case) as reconstruction of a WWII Anderson shelter. Adam asked us to find a position to start then read out a short introduction:

11:27—Radio and TV broadcasts are interrupted by breaking news. Brussels and Copenhagen have been hit by large explosions.

11:31—Unconfirmed sources report that the blasts may be nuclear explosions.

11:33—Similar explosions are reported in Paris, Stockholm and Dublin.

11:37—A black helicopter lands on the roof of the prime minister’s office in Oslo London.

11:38—Associated Press confirms that Copenhagen has been hit by a nuclear explosion.

11:40—The air alarm goes off in London. Most people haven’t heard the news and just think it is an exercise. A few run to the shelters.

11:41—TV and radio transmissions are jammed.

And we begin. I won’t go too much into what happened, every version is different. Suffice to say, my politician tried to build a power-base in within the group, before properly realising the hopelessness of the situation, and even then trying to get people to like him – I’d managed to keep my bottle of booze (creme soda) secret until, hopeless, I shared what was left to curry favour. The only scripted moments were that introduction above, the lights going out in three phases before ending in darkness, and one event that one of the players is previously given guidance on timing. Note the importance even in this mostly improvised story, of having kernels – events that happen in order, even if its only the lights failing and the (spoilers!) event.

Afterwards there was a (vital) debrief session, almost a decompression chamber. We had time to get happy again, and use to the light of day and discussed how our story developed. Adam observed that we hadn’t quite entered the depression stage when he had to bring it to its conclusion, and I thought we hadn’t quite had time. I felt my character had been bargaining to the last, and was teetering on the brink of depression when Adam came through with the torch and rounded us up. I was about to say something to that effect when Adam let slip that we were meant to spend four hours, not two in the bunker.

Due to constraints of the day, we always knew we were only going to have two hours, but I would have liked to have played the longer stint if it were possible. And of course it is! If I get to play again, it will be a totally different experience. I won’t be a politician again, maybe I’ll be a historian, or hairdresser, and the stor(ies) will be, even if the lights still go out and “the event” happens as before.

I even thought about playing it in the bunker that the National Trust owns, on Orford Ness. Now, that would be cool.

Adventures in Moominland


In the evening after I visited the V&A, I’d managed to bag the last ticket for the last entry slot that day of the exhibition at the South Bank Centre. I’m a Moomin fan, having read all the books when I was a child. I’d already seen much of what was on show at the public Library in Tampere, Finland, which is the guardian of most of the Tove (best pronounced something like “Toover”) Jansson archive. The South Bank exhibition, Adventures in Moominland, takes advantage of the Tampare collection moving to a new home there in May to borrow part of the collection for a similar presenation to last year’s very successful Wondercrump World of Roald Dahl. Just like that successful family exhibition, this one also uses the author’s work to explore the life of the author.

Tove Jansson’s life was not entirely happy, she grew up during civil war in Finland, with loving parents whom she loved and respected in return. But while she was a progressive left winger, her father sided with the Fascists. Not only that, she had a hard time coming to terms with her lesbian sexuality. These are some quite challenging concepts to share with an audience as young as might visit this show, but the curators and interpreters did a very good job of it.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this exhibition sees less actual children than last year’s. While Dahl’s popularity has endured with every generation, in the UK Moomins grabbed the imagination of a good part of my generation in the seventies, and had brief surges of popularity with a couple of later children’s television series, but it seems to me that they are best known by people of my age, and not so quickly recognised by younger generations (except, I’m willing to bet, by the children of older fans – I know I read all the books to my own children).

The group assembled for my tour were, apart from one young fan, all adult. It’s harsh of me to say its what I expected – it was after all the last tour of a workday in term-time, so even the home-schoolers will have likely gone home. (And I bet, given the lack of school in the novels, that there is a correlation between homeschooling parents and Moomin fans, but I digress.) The format followed Wondercrump’s successful formula. An introductory talk from a host who warned of scary dark experiences ahead, but reassured us that though the Moomins often had scary adventures, they always ended happily. “Apart from Moominvalley in November” I said. Then she handed over to a guide, a young woman dressed in such a style as to resonate with Jansson’s illustrations of the Mymble, Fillyjonk and Toft, etc., without actually trying to be one.

The guide led us in and as with Wondercrump, we discovered she was playing a two-hander with a disembodied voice. This time, it was Sandi Toksvig – guess Danish is a bit like Finnish. So so we progressed with these two guides, recorded and live, through spaces that evoked Sniff’s cave, Snufkin‘s tent, the woods of Moominvalley, a raft like that in Comet in Moominland, Moominpapas lighthouse island, and the Moominhouse itself. In each space the guide and exhibits focussed (mostly) on one of the books, and explained what each book had to reveal about Tove’s life. Even the youngest reader will recognise (even if they might struggle to put it into words, as I did when I was seven or nine or whatever) that the novel series (there were a couple of picture books too, but I only found those as an adult) start out as outward facing proceedural adventures but become more inward looking, dramatic, and psychological with each publication. It can put some young readers off the later books, but those who persevere have their first introduction to existentialism.

The South Bank adventure doesn’t follow the books in order, but structures the story about Jansson coming to terms with her sexuality and acknowledging her love for her life-long partner Tuulikki. Moominland Midwinter thus becomes the climax of the exhibition’s story. In the novel young Moomintroll wakes up early from hibernation, in strange new snow-covered world, which he doesn’t like at all, until he meets Too-ticky, the girl who shows him its wonders. I admire the curators’ resistance to chronology in favour of a more satisfying emotional journey, preceding Midwinter with the loneliness of Moominpappa at Sea, which actually came eight years later.

Maybe wisely, they avoid the last novel Moominvalley in November, altogether. As a young reader, this was the most important work for me. Taking place after the Moomins have left for the lighthouse island in Moominpappa at Sea, the other inhabitants of the valley move into their house and try to recreate their life, waiting for them to return. But they never come back. Jansson’s mother had died while she was writing this final novel, and she is said to have said she “couldn’t go back and find that happy Moominvalley again.” I can’t quite explain the emptiness that fills my chest, even as as an adult, as I remember finishing the novel as a child. I am convinced it was a vital moment, maybe the very first step in my journey to being a grown-up.

So, I wrestle with some dissatisfaction that the experience didn’t feature my favourite work, while at the same time being impressed with the effectiveness of their story construction. I was also even more impressed with the “mixed media” approach of exhibit, lighting effects, audio commentary and sound and live guide. In a way its a more scripted version of what I’m trying (and currently failing, it feels) to do at Chawton.

I feel it might be a technique that other places (and yes I’m thinking of the National Trust places I work with) should experiment with.

Building the Revolution 

I finally got to the V&A today, for their exhibition You Say You Want a Revolution. I got turned away at the end of Cromwell Road last time, as the museum was being evacuated after a bomb-scare. 

I’m writing this review on my way home, using my phone (so please forgive my typos) partly because I want to recommend you go, and there is not long left to see it. 

The exhibition charts the western cultural revolution of 1966-1970, though John Peel’s record collection, plysbof course fashion and design from the V&As own collection and other items, such as an Apollo mission space suit borrowed from other institutions. 

One of the gimmicks of the show is the audio, an iteration of the same technology used at the Bowie exhibition a couple of years ago. I didn’t get to go to that one, but I had a demonstration of that tech from the makers Sennheisser, at a Museums and Heritage show. 

I wasn’t very impressed. Though these headphones, which play music or soundtrack to match whatever object or video you are looking at, were well  received by the media back then, in my experience the technology was clunky. Other friends who’d been confirmed that they changes between sound “zones” could be jarring, and that it was possible to stand in some places where music from two zones would alternate, vying for your attention. 

The experience this time was an improvement. It was by no means perfect: I found the music would stutter and pause annoyingly, especially if I enjoyed the track enough to find myself gently nodding my head. Occasionally the broadcast to everyone’s headphones would pause so everyone in a room could share a multimedia experience (of the Vietnam war for example) across all the gallery’s speakers, screens and projectors. These immersive over-rides were effective, in much the same way as those at IWM North, but when a track you were enjoying or a video that you found interesting was rudely interrupted, one couldn’t help but feel annoyed. I found myself forgiving the designers however, for this and even the stuttering sound of the headphones, because it all felt resonant with that late sixties “cut-up” technique. 

Where the technology really worked however was on two videos that topped and tailed the exhibition. In the first various icons and movers of the period were filmed in silent moving portraits of their current wrinkled and grey selves. Their reminiscences of the time appeared as typography overlaying their silent closed-mouth gaze, a little like Barbera Kruger’s work, while  over the headphones you heard their voice. The same characters appeared at the end, that s time as a mosaic of more conventional talking heads. And for the first time, the interpretation was didactic as each in turned challenged the current generation to build on their legacy. 

For me, one of the highlights was the section on festivals, which invited visitors to take off their headphones, lie back in the (astro)turf and let (another cut-up of) the famous Woodstock documentary wash over them on five giant screens. 

The other things I loved were, dotted around among the exhibits, tarot cards that, at first glance, looked like they might have been designed in the sixties. But then you notice references to things like Tim Berners Lee and the World Wide Web. You realise these are a subtle form of interpretation, telling a future of the sixties that apparently came true and for those of us from that future, creating correspondences and taxonomies that connect the events of 1966-70 with today. The V&A commissioned British artist Suzanne Treister to create the cards, based on her 2013 work, Hexen 2.0. And the very best thing about them is you can buy them (pictured above) in the shop which must be the first time copies of museum interpretation panels have been made available for purchase. 

Of course, the aren’t the only form of interpretation. About from the soundtrack, there are more traditional text panels, labels and booklets around the exhibition. But the cards show how cleverly the layering of meaning and interpretation has been created. Many visitors will have passed them by unnoticed, given them a cursory glance or chosen to ignore them, and will have had an entirely satisfactory experience. But for those that paused to study them in more detail a whole new layer of meaning opened up. 

I visited with a sense of duty, to try out a responsive digital technology. But I found so much more to enjoy. This is a brilliantly curatored exhibition. So much better than the didactic, even dumbed down permanent gallery of the new Design Museum which I visited before Christmas. I urge you to go, if you haven’t seen it yet. It’s only on for another month. 

A colleague who had visited the exhibition before told me how depressed it had made him: the optimism of that period seems to have been dashed upon the reactionary rocks of 2016, Brexit and Trump. But I came out with a very different mood. 

One of the early messages of the exhibition is the period as a search for utopia. The final tracks you hear as you walk out (after the video challenge issued by the old heads of the sixties) are Lennon’s 1971 single Imagine and then, brilliantly, Jerusalem

No, of course they didn’t find the Utopia they were looking for in the sixties, but we could build it…

Interactive story beats

In my exploration of interactive storytelling I’ve concentrated on computer games, because I’m exploring the digital delivery of story. But I’ve already decided that for my experiment at Chawton next year, I’m going to “wizard of Oz” it – use actual people instead of trying to write a computer program to deliver the interactive narrative.

I’ve been thinking about the issues around that. People are natural storytellers, though some are better than others, so I have a double edge problem. As I recruit and train people to be my “wizards of Oz”, I need to train the poor story-tellers to be better, and weirdly, I need to train the great storytellers to be worse! My reasoning is this, I want to prototype what a computer might do, there’s little or no experimental value in simply enhancing a great storyteller’s natural ability with some environmental bells and whistles. So part of what I’m trying to learn is about how to systematize (is that a word? It’ll do) story.

I’ll explain about Kernels and Satellites of course, but I need (I think) some sort of simple system of identifying how different story elements might fit into the emotional journey the visitor is going to take.

So, I’m reading Robin D. LawsHamlet’s Hit Points. Laws is a game designer but mostly of tabletop, or “pen and paper” role-playing games (though he has written for some computer games too). This book attempts to systematize (I think it is a word) story, with an audience of role-playing gamers in mind. I think it may be useful for me, because it attempts to train the Game Master of such games (the “referee” who, together with the players, makes the story) to be aware of the emotional impact of each scene or action (which he calls, using a screen-writing term, “beats”) on the players, and better choose which element to serve up next to keep everyone emotionally engaged. Tabletop Roleplaying Games must be the most interactive, responsive, stories ever created. In a way, my “wizards of Oz” will be like a Game Master, not telling a story they prepared earlier, but working with their visitors to create a story on the fly, but keep it emotionally engaging.

In a handy short opening chapter called “How To Pretend You’ve Read This Book” Laws explains “With its system of beat analysis, you can track a narrative’s moment-to-moment shifts in emotional momentum. Beat analysis builds itself around the following very basic fact:

Stories engage our attention by constantly modulating our emotional responses.”

Sadly though, I can’t get away with reading just this chapter. It’s only later that he actually shares the classification of beats that he uses in his analysis.

Hamlet’s Hit Points Icons and Arrows by Gameplaywright LLP and Craig S. Grant is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

He begins with two types that he says will make up the majority of beats in any story, Procedural and Dramatic beats. Procedural beats move the protagonist towards (forfilling the audience’s hopes) or away from (realizing the audience’s fears), his practical, external goal. Dramatic beats do the same for the protagonist’s inner goals. “We hope that the beat moves him closer to a positive inner transformation and fear that it might move him towards a negative transformation.”

Laws talks a lot about hope and fear. In fact he simplifies the audience’s emotional response to every beat (which he describes as its resolution) as being a movement towards one of these poles. I’ve got fear on my nascent emotional affect and affordances diagram, its one of Panksepp’s primal emotions, but I’m not yet sure where hope sits – I wonder, is it in care?

In both types of beat, Laws describes two parties, the petitioner, who wants the thing, and the granter, who must be negotiated with. Dramatic beats are mostly actual verbal negotiations, procedural beats might also be fights, tricks, races or other challenges.

From the way Laws describes them, I’d expect that most kernels in a story are likely to be one of these two types of beat. And the other types are more likely to be satellites. He lists:

Commentary – “in which the protagonist’s movement towards or away from his goal is momentarily suspended while the author underlines the story’s thematic elements.” Laws uses Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech in Romeo and Juliet as an example.

Anticipation – which “create[s] an expectation of coming procedural success, which we look forward to with pleasure.” The example here is “Popeye has eaten his spinach. (any given episode of Popeye)”

Gratification – “a positive emotional moment that floats free from the main narrative. They often appear as rest breaks between major sequences. A musical interlude often acts as a gratification beat (unless it also advances the story, as it frequently does in musical genre).”

Bringdown – the opposite of gratification. “Jerry Lundergaard’s car alone in a desolate parking lot, is completely iced over after his father-in-law bars him from a promising business deal. (Fargo)”

Then Laws offers us three “informational beats”:

Pipe – “A beat that surreptitiously provides us with information we’ll need later, without tipping the audience to its importance.”

Question – “introduces a point of curiosity we want to see satisfied […] a question usually resolves as a down beat.”

Reveal – “provides the information we were made to desire in a previous question beat, or surprises us with new information. In the latter case it might come out of the blue, or have been set up with one or more pipe beats laying the groundwork for the surprise.” The example he uses is the Revelation that Bruce Willis’ character in The Sixth Sense is dead. “We tend to be more engaged by exposition when it has been teased to us by a prior question, or can clearly see its impact on our hopes and fears.”

(Laws explains that literary fiction makes much use of question/reveal cycles to manipulate emotion, rather than the procedural / dramatic beats that fill genre fiction and thrillers.)

Laws goes on to analyse three scripted narratives in full, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and the films Dr No and Casablanca, but that’s not what I’m discussing now, though having recently rewatched Casablanca as part of my children’s continuing cinema education, I was  interested to read his analysis of that. It is worth pointing out, however, that the “curve” of a story like Casablanca is inexorably downward. Laws compares the maps his analysis creates with “the classic chart you may recall from secondary school literature classes” (which I’ve touched on before) and notes that the lines his analysis creates are “flatter overall. It tends to resemble a stock tracker measuring the progress over time of a slowly deflating security […] Even stories that end happily […] tend to move downward over time.” He explains that narratives build up fear with numerous incremental steps, before sudden uplifting moments of hope. So in most stories, there are simply more down beats than up beats, given that the up beats are more intense. I think there is also a point that Laws misses, in many of those narrative curves the absolute value of emotional intensity is being measured, with no thought as to whether the emotion is hopeful or fearful.

So, is all this useful to me? Well I think at the very least I think I can get my “wizards of Oz” to think about up beats and down beats, and make sure not to pile on too many down beats in a row without the occasional up beat. Whether or not heritage interpretation lends itself to procedural and dramatic beats, there is definitely room for question/reveal beats, and it could be argued that too much interpretation goes straight for the revelations without asking the questions or laying the pipes first. So I think it is something that may prove useful.

Storyplaces

Last Sunday I helped out with a trial of Storyplaces, a research project exploring the poetics of location based storytelling. The exploration has two big questions behind it: How do writers change what they do to write locatative text? and, How does experiencing text “on location” affect the reader?

My job for most of the day was to follow and observe readers as they used the stories (which are available as an HTML5 web-app, when you are next in Southampton), to ask them a few qualitative questions and record their answers. But before any volunteer test subjects arrived I got to give a story a go myself.

I chose The Titanic Criminal in Southampton, which took me on a walk from the Tudor House where we were based to the area known as Chapel, where my story started on the site of a working man’s house on Chapel Street. Even before the story started, I was in “storyspace” on the way to the start point. I’m not that familiar with Southampton (apart from the docks) so as I walked I was exploring new spaces. Was it novelty or the idea that a story was about to begin that made everything seem so magical? Or was it the eerily beautiful liturgy sung through the doors of the Greek Orthodox church I passed?


That sound stopped me in my tracks, and I loitered until the verse was finished, but it set up expectations that were ultimately disappointed. I was ready to be blown away by the poetics of space and story, and when I got to the start point, just other other side of a level crossing, even the run-down post industrial scene that greeted me had a certain ephemeral quality as I read the story of the houses that used to stand on this spot.

Then my phone directed me to the next location, The Grapes, a pub on Southampton’s Oxford Street. Storyplaces does not suggest a route, it just shows you the location(s) on a map from OpenStreetMap. So I followed parallel to the railway line a little way, then crossed it over a foot bridge, feeling very much as though I was on a little adventure. The Grapes has a wrought-iron sign dating from the early twentieth century, which the text of the story pointed out. But at this point I came to realise that this particular story sat uncomfortably half-way between an imaginative narrative based on fact and a guided tour of Southampton. My professional interest began to impinge on my enjoyment of the story, and I couldn’t immerse myself any more in the narrative.

And then the story broke. The text offered a link to a video on the BBC website, which failed to play, but succeeded in emptying my browser’s cache, meaning I couldn’t get back to my place in the story. I went back to base to carry on with volunteering.

I was lucky enough to we assigned to observe the writer of one of the stories as she tried out the app for the first time. We talked a little about her process of writing, and translating her imagined experience into the the rules that  the StoryPlaces software uses to deliver the narrative (a process which, we discovered, hadn’t quite done what she had intended). The conversation made me want to give it a go, and to write a least a first draft in situ, as I explore the places that later readers will be lead to by the narrative.

I shall have to ask the David and Charlie, if I can be one of the writers for a future iteration of the project. In fact, I’ve just decided I will write them an email straight away.

 

 

And now for something completely different

After a number of posts related to either Opposites Attract or Chawton, its time to write about something else. On Tuesday, for work I took a number of Visitor Experience managers to the South Bank Centre to explore The Wondercrump World of Roald Dahl. No photos were allowed so I can’t share any, you will have to visit the website. Well, you will have to visit, because the website can’t do it justice.

It’s an experience designed for families and children aged seven to twelve, so our guide did well to deal with seven heritage professionals and two other adults. We promised to be on our best behavior, to do as we were told, to stay close and not to run off, and then the red velvet curtain was drawn back and we were invited into Roald Dahl’s world. As we loved from space to space we were drawn into immersive environments, from a room filled with boxed memories of Great Missenden, into a boarding school classroom, the North African desert, deep dark woods, and progressively more surreal spaces.

As we went we were accompanied by an enthusiastic guide, and the mysterious, ominous and occasionally very silly disembodied Narrator. Between them they gave us a potted biography of Dahl, illustrated by just enough reproductions and original objects from the collection of The Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre. It was a masterclass in storytelling, not cluttering the visitors’ perception with too much stuff, but drawing attention to key moments, and creating a mythic significance on how these turned a gangly boy into an extraordinary writer.

I said we weren’t allowed to take photos, but I remember that in fact they did say we were allowed to take them in the last room, a space where visitors could get creative. But when we got there we were having too much fun – personally I spent all my time with the wall of self-inflating whoopie cushions. Then a short trip in a (not) Great, (not) Glass elevator brought us back to the real world.

It runs until the 3rd of July. Its definitely worth a visit if you have kids who’ve read the books, or even National Trust staff to take on a development day!

The Community, telling the tale

I said I’d return to the subject of text. Over the weekend, I’ve been wrestling with the words that we should use in our app. The challenges are threefold:

  1. We want the text to be an adventure story, that motivates the user to want to discover more through completing the game
  2. We want the text to be minimal – our tutors are not going to want to read a thesis, and it has to fit on a mobile screen
  3. We want the text to be accessible, and that includes not being a barrier to play. All sorts of things might prove to be a barrier, for example the tribal metaphor that I was worried about using when first brainstorming our idea.

So, instead of building a tribe, I’ve to exploring an inhabited island. (Yes, it is still rather colonial, but lots of communities around the world have reached new lands by sea.) Thus, rather than gathering the tribe on the first level, we’re getting to know the crew, and building our ship.

How about this:

Title screen

The Adventurers!

Welcome Captain! Are you ready to gather your crew, build your ship, explore the seven seas and built a new settlement, your Community of Practice?

Time is short and there’s so much to do.

Start screen

Your backers have hired you a crew, and given you money enough to build a ship. But time is tight, you must discover land and build your community before the rations run out.

Name your ship (course name):

Count the crew (total number of students)

When you set sail (course starts)?

When must you finish?

Alternatively, we could have a plain English input screen, and then translate the input data into something like this:

Your backers have hired you a crew of <total number of students>, and given you money enough to build a ship. But time is tight, the good ship <course name> must set sail on <course starts> and the rations will run out buy <course end>.

Check the [ship’s papers: link to task list screen] to see which tasks you must complete before you can properly start exploring.

VARK screen

You need to get the measure of your crew. Do you have people who can be look-outs, depth sounders, navigators, riggers and jacks? Get them to work out their [preferences: link to VARK questionnaire] and share their preferences. Tally the numbers of each here:

Look-outs (visual)[]

Depth-sounders (auditory)[]

Navigators (Read/write)[]

Riggers (kinaesthetic)[]

Jacks (multimodal)[]

(if total <(numbers of students)) Have you got the measure of ALL your crew?

(if total =(numbers of students)) Task finished! Your crew manifest is complete. Now its time to plot your voyage.

What do you think Nashwa? Should I continue in this way?

 

Scalar

Today, I’ve been thinking about a story-telling tool to help me “break” the stories of a site for the experiment I’ve been rethinking. I think I’m looking for something that meets the following criteria:

  • Collaborative – more than one author
  • Handles all sorts of media types
  • Includes tags
  • Allows the author(s) to see and manipulate the links between “Natoms” in networks
  • Ability to turn some tags into narrative order (to create my “kernels”)
  • Works with ontologies (eg OWL)
  • Complies with data standards (eg RDF)

(There may be more criteria – can anyone suggest any?).

So, first of all, I thought Twine, which can do the Network thing, and the Kernel order thing, and I’ve even “broken” a story with it. But its not collaborative (well, it may be in version two) and doesn’t handle different media easily – I did get it to handle music (just about), but its not easy.

So then I got into the sort of software academics use to build their data networks. But the learning curve on most of them looks pretty steep. Then I remembered hearing about Scalar. Scalar looks quite interesting. It’s built to make interactive e-book multimedia dissertations really, but it might do the job I need. It works with OWL and RDF, uses, tags, makes narrative paths and does some very pretty network visualisations. Its definitely collaborative and handles lots of media types.

What I haven’t worked out is whether I can make the paths conditional (which I think I need) and wehther it can publish to a stand alone file, or whether it requires a web-connection. If it does require a web connection, then I can’t use it during the experiment, because I’m not likely to have we access anywhere where the experiment takes place.

Anyway its worth a deeper look, and maybe a play-around with.

What PhD supervisors are for

I had a great chat with my supervisor on Thursday, after helping out with a Masters seminar. As regular readers may have worked out, I’ve been having a great deal of trouble trying to get a coherent testable design to test out of my half-formed ideas and lofty ideals.

The problem was trying to think of a cheap way to test some of the theory I’ve come up with. I’d got hung up on trying to think of a way to track visitors round a site and test their reactions to that. Until I solved that I was handwaving the issues of breaking the story into natoms, and balancing the conflicting needs of multiple visits in the same space. Those two problems both felt more within my comfort zone. The problem is that I’m not a technologist, that bit is so far out of my comfort zone that I’d need to enlist (or pay for) one. On top of that, the tech itself isn’t that cheap – getting a wifi network into some of the heritage places I know, with their thick stone walls and sheer scale, isn’t about buying just one wifi router.

I’d mentioned the other problems (particularly in the one of negotiating conflicting needs) in the seminar. (The students had been reading about a variety of museum interpretation experiments for their “homework” and we discussed the common issue that many of the experiments focussed on the issue of a visitor in isolation, and hadn’t thought enough about multiple users in the same space). Afterwards I spent twenty minutes with Graeme, my supervisor, in his office. I felt he’d finally got what I’d been trying to say about a “responsive” environment, and his interest was particularly focused on the two issues I’d handwaved. We talked about low-tech ways or exploring both of those, and of course THAT’S what I should be doing, not worrying about the tech. These are both things I can do (I think!) rather than something I can’t .

So by the end of our chat, when Graeme had to return to his students we’d worked out the rudiments of a simple experiment.

  • What I need is a relatively small heritage site, but the possibility of lots of choices about routes, lots of intersections between spaces. What Hiller calls a low depth configuration (that last link is to a fancy new on-line edition of the book, by the way. It’s worth a read).
  • I need to work with the experts/curators of that site to “break” the stories. Break is a script-writing term, but it feels particularly appropriate when thinking about cutting the stories up into the smallest possible narrative atoms. (Although maybe “natomise” is better!)
  • Then I need to set up the site to simulate some of responsiveness that a more complex system might offer. Concealed Bluetooth speakers for example, or  switches like these that can be controlled by Bluetooth.
  • Finally, rather than try and create the digital system that tracks visitors and serves them ephemeral natoms, I can do a limited experiment with two or more humans following visitors around and remotely throwing the switches that might light particular areas of the room, play sounds or what ever other interventions we can come up with. The humans take the place of the server, and when they come together, negotiate which of their visitors gets the priority. Graeme suggested a system of tokens that the human followers could show each other – but the beauty of this concept is that the methods of negotiating could become part of the results of the experiment! The key thing is to explain to the participants that the person following them around isn’t giving them a guided tour, they can ask questions of him/her, but s/he isn’t going to lead their experience.

So, now I have a a thing that it is possible to do, with minimal help and with a minimal budget. And its a thing that I can clearly see has aims that come of the research I’ve done, and results that inform platonic ideal responsive environment I have in my head. If it works, it will hopefully inspire someone else to think about automating it.

That’s what supervisors are for!