Now Play This


Last week, I went to Somerset House for Now Play This, a three day event of experimental games. The Guardian beat me to a write up (curse you, full time journalists!) so read that, and think of this short post as an addendum.

I took my boy (aged 12) with me and our favourite game is also the top of the Guardian’s list. Dead Pixel (above) is a simple, snake-like arcade game with up to nine players, co-operating in teams of three. Its easy to pick up, and you quickly find yourself allying with a rooting for people you  never previously met and will likely not see again. By the late afternoon of the first day though, the joysticks were showing signs of wear, I wondered how many would be working at all by Sunday. Its perfectly playable with just two, unlike the platformer pictured below, the name of which I can’t recall, which relies on loads of players co-operating to get through each level. And each level is an almost entirely different game, so it takes a lot of practice, and didn’t satisfy me in the shared environment, where you want to make sure everyone gets a turn.

In contrast, Telephone, was simple joy that took less than 10 seconds to play, and you could come back to it again and again. You can try the link in the picture, but surprisingly few players actually say anything its seems…

The ten second games room was a lot of fun, especially the Brexit version of Operation

We were disappointed that the “post-apocalyptic crazy golf” outside wasn’t running on the Friday. But apart from these and the other games written about in the Guardian article, there was a whole room dedicated to one big wordsearch, a “third person stroller” wherein you control a naked man walking around on (and in!) the gigantic body of a naked man, and a case full of computer games that didn’t exist.

 

Tom and I also enjoyed a less frenetic room, that included quieter, slower games, simple mazes and one interesting plinth with letters cut into the top, that had mirror writing on one side. That side faced a mirror, but you needed to be lower than I could get to read it, so I send the boy onto his hands and knees. The rules were thus (paraphrased) “stand together looking at and admiring the plinth, talk about it sotto voce, laughing occasionally. Then leave it and see if anyone else in the room comes to see what you were talking about. If they do, you’ve won.”

We won.

 

Mobile Location Analytics in a Heritage Site

Just a quick post today. Last week some colleagues and I visited Kensington Palace, to see the latest Princess Diana exhibition. We were on the look out for new display and interpretation techniques, and one of my colleagues proved an excellent guide because she had prepared the mounts for many of the dresses, when she had worked at Historic Royal Palaces (HRP).

But the thing that grabbed my attention was this:


I’ve drawn on it so you can see the important bit. They were offering free wifi, but not to add an interpretive layer, or enable children’s trails. I guess the public might be thankful for an opportunity to use social media from the exhibition, and yes, the marketing department of HRP will enjoy creating a social buzz around the the exhibit. But there’s another reason behind make wifi pervasive throughout the palaces, and when you log on, you can see what it is:


Each visitor who signs up for wifi gives their permission to be tracked around the site. And not just when they are using the wifi, but even when the phone is in their pocket. Every now and then the phone, even when not being used, scans for wifi networks, and when it does so, it shares its MAC address. So, during the visitor’s stay, their progress round the palace can be tracked, wherever wifi reaches. Which exhibits did they visit? Where did they linger? How long did it take them to get served in the restaurant?

It could be a powerful set of data.

I am a zombie hunter!

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Last weekend, I found myself running up and down stairs in a disused shopping mall in Reading, getting chased by, and shooting zombies. To celebrate a friend’s fiftieth (and mine, as my friends clubbed together to buy ticket as a present for my upcoming big birthday) we were participating in an immersive experience run by Zed Events.

Gathering at the appointed time around the back of the mall by an unassuming door, the ten of us met with fellow players who’d booked in smaller groups, pairs or even on their own. We were briefed by a Zed Events employee, with some very clear out-of-game rules, mostly about health and safety (don’t punch the zombies) but also reminding us that the zombies were actors and that we must not use personally offensive language (though they assured us that screaming “Fucking Die! You Zombie Bastard” is not personally offensive).

But then they opened the door and we were welcomed into the diagesis, the game-world. We were greeted by employees of Centesis, as volunteers for a flu drug trial. We signed disclaimers (real) and the official secrets act (not real), locked our personal possessions (phones, keys, coins) away and were being briefed when the alarm went off and everything went dark.

I don’t want to spoil the story for those that might want to participate, but I can share this video, from Zed Events’ site:

Did you watch it? All that running around in the semi-dark, not quite knowing what was going on? It’s exactly like that. 

I’ve mentioned players, but it’s not actually much of a game. There are always enough of you around to shoot a zombie before they catch you, none of the player characters are in any peril. You don’t even risk the temporary death and re-spawn of a video game. There are a few escape room style puzzles, but nothing as challenging as you might find in a real escape room. 

The emotional engine driving this experience is presence. It is the immersive, dark atmosphere, the limited range of vision, the pathetic torches that some of have, the feel and weight of the guns we carry, that enables our suspension of disbelief. 
The story structure is effective as well. I won’t spoil it for you, but you’ll guess it encompasses a military experiment gone wrong, and a limited time to escape before a special ops team comes to destroy the evidence, including us. But within the confines of zombie-lit, Zed Events know how to raise the tension: the group works together at first, then is split in two, each with a security guard to help us, but in the final act, we are split into even smaller groups, and forced into exploring the darkness on our own. There is a Big Bad too, an unkillable armoured Zombie called … Martin. 

The division of play/fear affect in my own emotional responses were at odds but in an intriguingly constructive way, at the same time I found my self screaming “Run! It’s Martin!” while the other half of my brain was inwardly grinning at the playful absurdity of the situation. I had great fun. 

It’s it worth the money? It’s not cheap, but if you can afford it, it’s worth doing, especially  if you are prepared to get into character.  

Sound Heritage 3

Yesterday I attended and spoke at the third of the Sound Heritage study days, at the marvellous Tatton Park, in Knutsford, near Manchester. The day started (after introductions) with a presentation from Candace Bailey, Performing Paris in Antebellum Charleston. She is currently exploring the domestic music of women across the Southern United States in the 19th century. Not just white women, but also (after the civil war and emancipation) women of colour. 

In 1821, a house was built that became known at the Aiken-Rhett house, the largest urban plantation era dwelling that survives. Like the National Trust’s Calke Abbey, as the family fortunes declined, they simply closed up rooms and retreated into fewer and fewer spaces, until, when it was sold for $1 to the Charleston Preservation Trust, only one room was occupied. One of those closed up rooms contained a number of volumes of bound music. 

Harriet Aiken, aged fourteen, had a surprising repertoire. Most of the sheet music available in Charleston, North Carolina in the 19th century was of British origin. Which is not to say there were no European composers included, but rather than the musicwas published in London. One of Harriet’s volumes contains sheet music exclusively printed in Belgium, and most of French Opera. Indeed, hers may be the largest collection of this sort of music in the world. Another volume similarly contains most French music, there is just one English piece, which looks like it was inserted after binding. Where did all this music come from?

Mrs Giraud, and Miss Bidon were regularly performing in Charleston at this time, and it seems Harriet might have been a student of Giraud. Later when Harriet got married, she went to Paris.  On her return, the decorations and a new art gallery full of European art seem to suggest that the family worked to preserve French (Huguenot) culture, which goes against the usual perception of Southern states being the last bastion of British culture in America. In fact I remember, from, I must admit, creating a character for an Old West themed tabletop RPG, that Charleston had a considerable population of French origin, and even today boasts an impressive Huguenot church. The Anglic culture of North Carolina dictated music taste though, except it seems in the Aiken house, due not just to Harriet, but later Henrietta Aiken, who never bound her sheet music, which suggest she kept playing it. About a thousand pieces, again most from France.

I spoke after Candace, all stuff you’ve read before if you are familiar with my blog, recapping my motivation for study, my affect wheel, music in games, then taking a detour into some work I’m currently involved with at the Vyne (which I’ll write about when it’s done), then back to Kernels and Satellites, and introducing my Chawton project. I spent too long on the Vyne (actually I lie – I spent too long on supposedly “witty” asides, playing to positive reactions from the audience) so in my rush to keep to time, I forgot the most important narrative atom for this particular audience: that music in heritage interpretation is mostly used as a satellite in the narrative, but it has the power to be a kernel, if interpretive designers allow it. 

After lunch, we had a lovely recital from student at the Royal Northern College of Music (which was the neighbouring institution, when I was an art student in Manchester. My favourite piece (though I may be prejudiced by its title) was a solo, called Crazy Jane, which tells the story of a woman who, abandoned by her lover, goes mad. It was one of the most popular pieces of sheet music of its day, so nothing changes, does it, in popular music choices – “my man done done me wrong” is still a staple today. 

Listening to it though, made me think about one of the challenges of using historic music for interpretation, which especially relevant as I try to use music to make meaning at Chawton. I struggled to understand the lyrics, despite them being in perfectly accessible English, because my ear wasn’t trained to listen through the “operatic” styling of the music (and lets face it, I’m going deaf).  So the meaning of the song was lost to me, and because if changing musical semantics, not even the tune said “sad song” to a modern listener. 

Damned progress 

I haven’t written a post for some time. And I’ll be frank, it because I’m struggling with the stories at Chawton. (As well as dealing with the last couple of weeks of the school holidays, and making a run to Southampton Uni, for work, on my day off – but that’s another story.)

My struggles have made me think about the whole philosophy of heritage storytelling. And this week, I was reminded how (if you will apply a somewhat Marxist point of view) the cultural heritage “industry” is a construct of the “dominant ideology”. I had occasion at work today to quote again Pitt-Rivers who talk about creating “in such a way as at least to make men cautious how they listen to scatter-brained revolutionary suggestions.” (1891 “Typological museums, as exemplified by the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford, and his provincial museum at Farnham” Journal of the Society of Arts 40)

It seems this meme of progress through evolution has pervade heritage ever since then. Museums of the Industrial “Revolution” explain how one new technology leads to another, country houses are shown to develop over time, even museums of art – which surely celebrate artistic revolutions – resort to explain how artists are influenced by their predecessors. 

Now there’s nothing wrong with these tales of progress per se, but we know that continual progress isn’t a very emotionally engaging story. Chronologies of development, or histories of places or collections, seem to smooth out the ups and downs, the hopes and fears of the people involved.  

I’m not sure quite where I’m going with this, except to say I think I need to unpack more about the stories of the people, and use the developing place  as a mere backdrop to events. 

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.

Management, Leadership & Teamworking 

Today, or rather this evening, was the first part of the short Management, Leadership and Teamworking course I’ve joined. Organised by the University, it’s designed for early career Post-Docs, but PhD candidates like me were invited too. 

There are twenty of us on the course, from all over the world. My team of five (up the Reds!) includes people from China, Iran (via Turkey) and Spain. After our briefing, and a far better YMCA supper than I was expecting. We completed our first five challenges:

  1. Balancing four of us on a breezeblock.
  2. Walking through the woods blindfolded, looking for parts of a door and remembering in what order we discovered them,
  3. Trying to get one of our team and a “precious cargo” (a brick in a bucket) over a mined electric fence, 
  4. Building a nuclear fallout tent (with only one of us not blindfolded), and
  5. Confronting a poacher. 

Needless to say we failed at all but one. But on the way we learned a lot about each other and about how we might have better approached the challenges. 

Keeping time, for example, was something we forgot about. We had twenty minutes for each task, and of course time flew by, but none of us was actually keeping track of time at all. (Which would have helped.) But quite apart from that we learned that a pisspoor performance can be avoided through PISPAR:

Problem – understanding what is actually being asked of us. For example, we didn’t need to build the tent, just get inside it, like a bag. 

Information – we rushed into each task without gathering all the information that we might have done. 

Solutions – we didn’t take time to share and evaluate possible different ways to tackle the task. 

Planning – when we’d decided what to do, we didn’t for example, allocate tasks very well, or plan our time (see above) 

Action – we did plenty of this, without much of the prep. 

Reflecting  – well we all had time to reflect afterwards of course. But we might occasionally have paused to reflect on the progress of each challenge, while we still had time to do something about it. 

We weren’t total failures though. We (I) quickly worked out that the “poacher” we discovered was actually the gamekeeper, which our facilitator said very few teams manage. And the final activity was a “ski race” which we didn’t just win, we won by a country mile! (Go Reds!)

The Boleyns and the Bechdel Test

A great piece about how live interpretation can get under the skin of history. It maybe shows how much as changed since twenty years ago when, working for the same company, I was asked by a client to provide”more buxom” female interpreters in “less authentic, shapeless” medieval gowns. I refused, we lost the contract, and (I’m pleased to report) that client later went bust.

history riot

boleyns

Lucy Charles and Rosanna Heverin, costumed heritage interpreters, Tudor historians and women’s history advocates, discuss the day their interpretation of the Boleyn women passed the Bechdel Test at Hampton Court Palace, and argue for the inclusion of intelligent females in heritage interpretation every day, not just International Women’s Day.

For nearly 500 years, Anne Boleyn has been interpreted by popes, princes, ambassadors, historians, actors, writers and, for the last 20 odd years, historical interpreters. She has been the revered mother of the English Reformation, a romantic heroine, a naïve tragic victim of Henry VIII’s tyranny, and an ambitious ‘heretic.’ Anne has appeared as a named character in 41 television and film productions; her portrayal unique to her socio-political environment. Intertwined with interpretations of Anne are varied interpretations of Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford – Anne’s sister-in-law. A darling of Henry VIII’s court before Anne came into the King’s view, Lady Rochford has been…

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Sound Heritage at Chawton House Library

Today, I’m at the second of the University or Southampton and University of York’s Sound Heritage study days. We’re only halfway through the day, but I had to take myself away to write up the story that Dr Matthew Stephens, of Sydney Living Museums, told us this morning.

He told us about one object, the Dowling Songbook, which is the earliest book of music that he knows of that was bound in Australia, rather than imported already bound from Europe. He explained a little of the story that they uncovered while researching its provenance.

It starts with Lilias Dickson, the daughter of the man who brough the first steam engine to Australia. As a teenager she was apparently kidnapped by (or maybe absconded with) a conman by the name of John Dow. Rescued a short time later, she was back with her father when his own financial behaviour was questioned, and he had the urgent suddenly need to make his way North of the equator. He left his native born children in good standing though, and Lilias Dickson stood to inherit a comfortable living.

At which point, John Dow reappeared to claim that he had in fact, married they young girl, and that marriage having been consummated, he was her husband and thus had claim upon her inheritance. The case went to court, and was heard by Judge James Dowling. He found in favour of Lilias, but tough her fortune was saved, her reputation was not. The judge himself thought her of very low virtue.

Imagine his discomfort then, when, three months later, the Judge’s own nephew declared his intention to marry the sixteen year old. The young couple seemed to have a happy marriage however, and among their acquisitions was this songbook.

I loved this story and found myself thinking about how it might work in a responsive environment, with music form the songbook matched to the ups and downs of the story around a historic environment.

Which isn’t to say the other speaker this morning wasn’t just as fascinating. Ben Marks, Keeper of the Benton Fletcher collection of keyboard instruments at the National Trust’s own Fenton House. Gave a very entertaining exploration of the conflicts comprises involved in both conserving and playing historic instruments. His overriding message was that if an instrument is restored to be played, it should be played, and more importantly, maintained, in a playable condition. He gave us an insight into the sort of conservation and monitoring regime involved in looking after such instruments, and those which might be too fragile to be played.

I write this while the others visit the nearby Jane Austin Museum. This afternoon, the work starts. (And later a performance, of course.)

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!