Microfiction competition

My copy of February’s ICON magazine finally arrived – including a selection of microfiction written by readers in response to a prompt. Here’s my entry, which you can find on p82.

She walks to town. I make maps from her iPhone’s footprints.

Her geocodes build a city for me to explore. Height. Plans. Street View. Sales. She pushes a cold nose up against hard glass, desiring. Each window is a tab.

I stride her steps at home between the hours. She sees new graffiti. I see blurred cyclists. She sees the grit and people. I see usability. She looks up.

At night I move my small hands across the vast city of her skin.

Assasin’s Creed: non-linear metanarrative

Assassin's Creed_AcreGamers now are accustomed to linear narratives, playing through a sequence of events with no choice or impact on the direction the story takes.

Most of us are getting used to branching narratives, simple option systems that open up differing dialogues, games areas and endings.

But Assassin’s Creed 2 is the first mainstream game I’ve played to make parts of the plot entirely optional and intentionally obscure.

First things first: I’m going to focus on Assassin’s Creed 2 in this post. There’s a lot to be said about narrative in the first game, but I’m the wrong person to write it because I found the cut scenes impossibly dull. So dull, in fact, that I generally went to put the kettle on while they happened. There are still plot points I’m unsure of as a result.

On the other hand, the second game cut scenes are slick, interesting and – crucially – well-voiced. Assassination scenes are limited to two or three sentences at most – sometimes still very incongruous, but much less flow-breaking and tea-inducing.

There are two congruent narratives running through the game – the story of Desmond, living in the present day, who has just escaped from the evil Templars who were forcing him to relive his ancestral memories, and is now working with the good Assassins, who are, um, asking him very nicely to relive his ancestral memories.

The second narrative is that of Ezio di Auditorre, the subject of Desmond’s memories and the main focus of the game. Desmond learns the Assassin skills he needs through living Ezio’s life, learning how to use a hidden blade and fall off incredibly tall buildings while suffering absolutely no ill effects. Oh, and some stuff about 15th-century Florentine intrigue and conspiracy.

Where things get interesting is the third narrative. The game doesn’t force you to get involved in what it neatly describes as “The Truth”. At no point does it force it on you. There are signposts but no map markers, hints but no spoilers, and not once are you hindered by choosing not to explore the hidden story.

At a fairly early point, Desmond is asked to find a weird glowing glyph on a building. If you do, you discover a password-protected encrypted file, and must solve a simple puzzle to reveal a snippet of narration and a video file.

There are 20 of these, each puzzle more difficult than the last. The videos and narration add up to reveal a vital and tantalising slice of the Assassin’s Creed backstory that provides clues to the next game and rounds out the game’s cliff-hanger ending in a very satisfying way. It leaves you with answers that lead to more questions.

But even within the puzzles there are more stories. Each puzzle takes real-world historical events, or great works of art, or scientific breakthroughs, and links them intricately to a massive web of conspiracy. Combined with Ezio’s narrative – which tallies closely with real-world events throughout – the game edges closer and closer to alternate reality territory.

And then you find the puzzles within the puzzles. Messages encrypted in Morse code within paintings within the glyphs, never acknowledged or explained. There are dozens of these, easy to miss, even easier to ignore, but each one is decipherable.

The impact of these little asides is not merely to problematise the existing story – adding vignettes and asides that most players simply are unaware of – but also to trouble the relationship between the game and the real historical events it links to. Forcing players to go beyond the fourth wall to decipher puzzles opens up the structure of the story to deeper interpretations than are possible in most games. Assassin’s Creed 2 positions itself, like Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, as part fiction, part fact, and hence blurs the lines between the two. Complex analyses are springing up, not only solving the obvious puzzles but the hidden ones too, and players are using those analyses to attempt to uncover the “true” story of the game – the history of the Assassins and Templars. In effect, gamers are creating a fictional backstory using factual history and pointers from within the game. It’s a collaboration and a fascinating puzzle – and entirely optional.

Also it’s a lot of fun to throw yourself off tall buildings.

Emergent thoughts on emergent stories

Alexander de grote, in de Hermitage tijdens Museumnacht in Amsterdam After an interesting conversation with @harryharrold and @MrRickWaghorn yesterday, I’ve been mulling a few thoughts on emergent stories and how the social side of the web could make it possible to curate and (to some extent) formalise them.

As @harryharrold pointed out, one of the big problems LARP events haven’t solved yet is how to deal with emergent stories after the fact. Unless you’re physically present at an event it’s next-to-impossible to get a coherent narrative of what actually happened, particularly if it’s a big fest event.

In my experience narratives split into two general categories after LARP events – the big picture and the little details. For some players/characters and events, the big picture is what’s important; they have enough of an impact on the overarching plot  plot and the overarching plot is reachable enough for them to be satisfied with a global grand plot update.

But for most events and most players, what’s important and relevant is the nitty-gritty of their immediate social circle. Who said and did what to whom; the “little” stories of betrayal and intrigue and death and love. And that’s incredibly hard to track.

A big part of what we do at Zombie is making sure that individual players get their stories straight before they forget anything. We have “debrief” sessions so that both the refs and the players can get a handle on the emergent stories that have happened on each run, and we do our best to encourage storytelling online after the game. But that only works because every run is self-contained; with a larger plot edifice and continuing characters such a simple system is simply impossible.

But LARP isn’t the only area to have this problem. Festivals, conferences and conventions do too; in fact any large event where multiple trajectories are possible and no individual experience is large enough to express the story of what happened.

Here’s an idea I was contemplating pitching for Greenbelt this year or next. Hand out 10 relatively smart phones to 10 people, picked as a good spread of the demographics at the event. Kit them out with Twitter feeds if they don’t already have them, photoblogging, moblogging and microblogging kit, basic video, audio and still image hardware, and make it as easy as possible for them to upload anything and everything, wherever they are. Track everything they do, geotagged and timestamped, and from that collate and curate a livecast of the event.

I’d love to see if it’s possible to combine @harryharrold’s ideas on curating LARP stories and map them onto other events too. Emergent stories are popping up all over the place and the social web is making it possible to collaborate and build interactive, explorable maps of events that previously have had linear narratives. The stable social experience is exploding and we all want to choose our own adventure. Perhaps we can apply this to more than just LARP.

Directing the shambling hordes

Zombies at the doorI’m running my first social media campaign, and so far, it’s working.

Let me explain. I’m one of the two head organisers of a live-action simulation game called Zombie LARP (we wish we’d picked a better name sometimes, but it works) in which a whole bunch of people run around in the dark pretending to be zombies and taking it in turns to shoot the zombies with NERF guns. Think Left 4 Dead in real life.

It started out as a daft idea at university. We ran the first one on a wing and a prayer. It went so well – so blisteringly, terrifyingly, incredibly well – that we’ve been running one every six months since then. We got players initially by running something no one else was doing; then, later on, we started getting them by wor of mouth.

Last autumn 57 people turned up from my home town to a game designed for about 30. Many of them were regular players but many of them were new, buzzed because they’d been told about it by their friends.

We’ve grown up a little now, and we want to take it professional, and that means moving out of university buildings and a student mindset and tapping into the wider community around live gaming, NERF/Airsoft play, and zombies.

Which means an entrepreneurial mindset, learning web design, and running a social marketing campaign that opens us up to a wider market while maintaining our relationship with the core group who got us where we are now – our regular and most loyal players, the people who make our game possible.

In late September our website went live. In November we ran our most recent event, with bookings online. It sold out. Shortly after the event – while everyone was watching for photos – we made the move from a dying and mostly inactive Facebook group to a page, which had 50 fans within 24 hours. Globally, that’s not many, but in our niche it’s fantastic. Every one of those fans is a player, or a potential player. We are reaching the people we need to reach.

And more. In November our website had more than 80,000 hits.

Our fan page is slowly filtering through to friends of friends, people who are interested in the concept, people in that slightly wider niche who might come to the next game.

We ran a short-notice one-off event that wouldn’t have been possible without the forum and Facebook page as communication tools, and we backed that up with video.

We’re starting to get attention from German groups on Twitter purely by having Youtube and Facebook accounts feeding there. And a group of people are running a spin-off game in Kansas, suddenly. We’re international.

There’s a lot more work to do. We have video processing problems to iron out, insurance to negotiate, banks to deal with, applications to fill in, alternate reality games to create and venues to find.

But the next event will be bigger, better, more widely anticipated and more fun because of the community we’re building around the game. And, if we’re lucky and we work hard and smart, it’ll be in either an abandoned shopping mall or a fort.

I think that’s a success. What do you think?

Online games as training tools

Second Life: Porcupine: Autism Memorial
Porcupine Autism Memorial in Second Life

Today via @jayrosen_nyu I came across a post by @brad_king arguing that journalism has a lot to learn from the history of online games when it comes to online community management.

He makes some great points about hands-off community modding, and I’m a particular fan of the idea that online news communities could benefit from something like Richard Bartle’s taxonomy of gamer types (which splits gamers into four rough categories and helps game designers cater for all types).*

But I do have to disagree with this paragraph:

MMORPGs don’t have much to offer in terms of developing the traditional journalism skills. These games can’t teach students how to vet sources, how to interview, how to copy edit, how to hit the streets and find stories.

Wait a minute. Why not?

These communities aren’t just there to be managed – they don’t just have histories that can be dissected as useful examples. They’re living and breathing today. They are audiences, readers, participants, and they could be a great training tool for new journalists.

I mentioned that Second Life – one of the biggest and most influential online environment ever created – has three online newspapers with hundreds of thousands of readers.

They cover topics ranging from issues in the real world which affect the game – server outages, technology changes, ToS issues – to in-game gossip and affairs. This sort of information is valuable, and you can get it by employing all those traditional journalism skills that King mentions.

Sure, the rules of these communities are different. They present unique and diverse challenges to reporters trying to hit the street cold and generate stories. But they’re no more unfamiliar or hard to learn than Afghanistan is to a Geordie, or a Norfolk seaside town is to a young woman from inner-city Birmingham. And surely part of the point of j-school is to train us in how to learn the community rules and structures, how to work it out for ourselves, and how to engage.

So why not include a bit of MMO training for budding reporters? Lessons in:

  • interview technique via in-game chat and email
  • fact checking and how to spot a scam or a rumour online
  • vetting sources for legitimacy
  • editing copy – perhaps by crowdsourcing folks to tell them what they did wrong
  • engaging with readers as equals
  • learning a patch – getting to know the movers and shakers and the big issues, who to talk to, where to get quotes

All that and community management too. Bargain.

* Incidentally, I’m 67% Explorer, 67% Achiever, 40% Socialiser and 27% Killer.

What if? News games

What if papers used games as a news medium?

There are a few news outlets already making moves in this direction, but I haven’t seen much in the way of commentary or ideas about taking it beyond quiz apps and into educational tools, social activities or, well, making it fun.

Here’s the thing. I reckon news – especially news online where attention is easily lost – should be entertaining. It should be interesting, engaging, thoughtprovoking and, if possible and where appropriate, fun.

Could games be a news medium? Could we use online games to tell or break stories, or to foster real engagement with and within our communities? Here are nine ideas. Let me know what you think in the comments.

Hat tip: I’m indebted to Margaret Robertson for a talk at Greenbelt 09 that pointed me towards some of these games and got me thinking about narrative crossovers between real life experience, current affairs/news and gaming.

1. Quiz

This is the easy one. Quite a few news outlets have online quizzes, little more than simple forms that grade users on how well they’ve retained the news.

NBC has gone a step further with a Facebook application called What’s Your iCue. Based on the corporation’s learning site, it quizzes users about their videos and encourages them to compare scores.

In theory, it’s simple and engaging, it spreads their brand and it drives users not only to engage on Facebook but also to watch their news.

2. Links hub

Still in the realm of what’s already been done, I present Newsblaster, MSNBC’s addictive little news. It uses a familar and easy game format – bubble blaster – and for each group of bubbles you burst, it rewards you with a headline and a gateway to a news story.

Links to stories stack up in the sidebar, and you can interrupt the game at any time to check them out. It’s a good game in its own right – it’s a casual timewaster that draws traffic to news stories by presenting a random array and letting users select what they want.

3. Giving out information

Swinefighter is never going to win any prizes for game design – or for tact. You play a doctor with a hypodermic needle, scrambling to inject flying pigs as they hover above a map of the world. It’s pretty silly.

Where things get interesting is the rest of the page. The game is embedded on a site that includes donation links to the Red Cross, as well as a simple list of ways to help prevent the spread of swine flu (taken from the US Centre for Disease Control).

The game spreads virally (forgive the pun) and the information goes along with it.

4. Exploring context

Stop Disasters is a game developed by the UN to bring attention to how to, well, stop disasters. You can play through several scenarios (hurricane, wildfire, tsunami): you’re given a town or village, a budget and a time limit, and your job is to develop the area so that as many people as possible survive.

It’s full of information – helpful facts, advice, statistics – and it’s fun to play. Without you really noticing, it teaches you the background and the context that’s so often missing from news stories, and it humanises disaster victims by making players care about what happens to them.

5. Experiencing context

Similar in style though not content, the McDonald’s game invites players to manage the empire. It’s biased to make a point – it’s impossible to run a corporation like McD’s without making some dubious moral choices.

The player must oversee the whole operation and decide what choices to make. It teaches you about the whole process of running the chain, from the field in Brazil to the slaughterhouse to the boardroom to the restaurant. It forces you to take a much more holistic view than the normal consumer – and introduces you to some unexpected truths.

Imagine a game like this one based on managing the NHS. Or the US healthcare industry. Or the international banking system.

6. Augmented reality

The Hidden Park is a kid’s game for the iPhone. You download it and then head out to your local park, where the game uses the phon’s built-in GPS to lead you around, asking you to take photos of various things in order to find magical – imaginary – creatures which appear on the iPhone screen rather than in real life.

There are a host of other applications using this technology, ranging from apps to tell you the fastest route to the nearest Tube station to apps that project social media information next to the image of a real person standing next to you.

Using this, papers could offer even more exciting interactive maps – immersive applications showing you all the data of Everyblock projected onto the world around you, for instance. Events listings, classifieds, food reviews; crime stories, council stories, controversies.

If money, time and skills were no object, how about an app that projected what planned controversial developments like the Rackheath eco-town and Norfolk Hub could look like, with links to background info?

7. Alternate reality

Alternate reality games (ARGs) use multiple platforms and encourage people to work together to solve puzzles, operating online via social networks and in meatspace, using multiple media.

The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle has teamed up with some local technology graduates to create Picture the Impossible, its own interactive ARG. Participants – there are more than 1,000 registered, and 830 on Facebook alone – are split into three teams, which will compete over the next six weeks playing online and offline creative games based around the city and the newspaper, to earn money for three charities.

Traci Bauer, managing editor for multimedia and innovation at the D&C, hits the nail on the head:

If this works as a way to engage an audience, then it becomes more than a game, it becomes a new set of tools that we can use for daily journalism.”

8. Virtual news

The internet is creating new communities everywhere, niche networks with very specific concerns, some of which revolve around gaming and virtual reality. Newspapers reporting on the concerns of these communities – or even reporting on meatspace issues via these platforms – can be successful.

Second Life is an immensely popular and immersive virtual world/massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG). The community boasts three newspapers – the Metaverse Messenger, Alphaville Herald, and the Second Life Newspaper – which blur the lines between real-world and virtual events, reporting on both equally. They cover social and technological issues around the game environment as well as goings-on within the virtual world.

300,000 people regularly read the Metaverse Messenger, and in May the Alphaville Herald celebrated its 50,000th reader comment. CNN has a large community-based presence there; Reuters moved out in February.

Is this – or are other MMORPGs and virtual environments such as Gaia – a potential market for mainstream media?

9. Anything you can imagine

If you don’t already know about Superstruct, take a look. It’s an amazingly innovative interactive game that ran for six weeks last Autumn.

Thousands of people worldwide got together to tackle six problems that could bring the world to its knees in ten years time, working together to devise ways of avoiding the self-destruction of humanity.

The content they produced is full of original ideas, re-imagining social, economic and technological systems for new purposes. The game is a lasting testament to what’s possible when people with imagination have conversations, and it’s proof that user generated content can mean far more than an inflammatory comment.

What if papers offered this sort of platform?

Data visualisations

Information Is Beautiful by David McCandlessQuick hit for the weekend: if you’re bored, I’d recommend checking out Smashing Magazine’s modern approaches to data visualisation.

They’re useful, quirky, fascinating, often beautiful, always unique, and seeing all these incredible projects together in one place is very exciting. And colourful. Definitely colourful.

If you’re still bored, take a look at Infosthetics. I guarantee you’ll be there for weeks.

The economy of not linking

Chain linkSo the New York Post printed a story without crediting the blogger who originally broke it – and the journalist whose byline is on the Post piece claimed it was an editorial policy not to credit blogs for scoops.

There’s been some controversy over this, with Zachary M. Seward at Nieman Journalism Lab saying “It’s hard, of course, to defend this rule on journalistic grounds”.

There’s a clear and obvious line between nicking someone’s words and rewriting their story – and individuals and organisations who fall on the wrong side of that line tend to get publicly and appropriately told off.

But news organisations routinely borrow or steal story ideas from each other. Newspaper ideas go back and forth, nationals write up local stories, local BBC newsrooms interview people in the evenings who were in that morning’s paper. It might not be nice, but it’s the way the traditional media world seems to work. It’s even happened to me.

Should it be the case online? Print journalists sometimes get very upset when online news outlets summarise their stories even with links – for example, see Ian Shapira‘s response to Gawker’s write-up of his Washington Post article.

Most papers, though, nick stuff and don’t bother to attribute it. Like the New York Post, they take an idea from somewhere and run with it, usually without crediting where that idea came from.

Sometimes it’s to get individual credit, sometimes to avoid looking slow, sometimes editorial policy, and sometimes – believe it or not – it’s because the journalist in question doesn’t know how to put links on their online stories.

At the moment, where I work, we can’t add inline links within stories. We can only add boxed links, which makes it very difficult to link specific content – I couldn’t link to more than two or three sources without confusing the issue. There’s no way of separating links by category or by subject, so internal and external links are lumped together.

This week at work I trained two people to add links to web stories using our current content management system. Before that, if they had found a story on the web they couldn’t have credited it in the way bloggers expect – they lacked the skills to do so. It takes up to three minutes to add a link – time that some people don’t have.

It’s hard to believe in a time when linking is considered potentially vital to paper’s survival, but for some papers and journalists technology and training – and the financial issues involved in acquiring them – are preventing them from following good web etiquette.

Journalists and bloggers can agree (not that they always do) that online sources ought to be clear and obvious, that raw data should be available wherever possible and that linksharing is both important and necessary.

But when the technology isn’t available, sometimes we fall down before we’ve even started.

Greenbelt: print power online

Greenbelt 2009 Friday

Last weekend I went to Greenbelt, Britain’s least-known and friendliest festival, where I have had a wonderful time being very, very relaxed, and engaging with social media as a consumer.

Rather than blogging my personal festival highlights, let’s talk about the innovations that allowed me to pick up on Monday a 16-page newspaper that went to press on Sunday night, two days after the festival opened, aimed at getting me to engage with Greenbelt’s online content.

Sponsored by Hewlitt Packard, the paper itself is a lovely object. It’s called “While We Were Here” and it’s entirely composed of blog posts, images and links that already exist on the web. In theory, the 4,000 free copies are designed to direct traffic to the web, not the other way round.

I don’t know if it’s working universally. I do know that when I got home on Tuesday I logged on and looked at a fair few blogs – I visited many of the ones printed in the paper and bookmarked or followed the profiles and groups signposted from its pages.

And I can say it worked for me. I don’t know if this business model is sustainable anywhere outside a four-day charity festival using volunteers willing to spend every waking hour (and several that should be sleeping ones) making it work. But I do believe it has legs and it could be immensely succesful to clone online content for web as a way of driving the link economy of an event.

Short is sexy

16/06/2009 - Magnetic poetry wall at the Cambridge Arts FestivalI’m a fairly recent Twitter convert, and at the moment there are two main reasons I’m sticking with it. First, it’s short, and second, it’s art.

I’ve failed to enjoy Facebook or work well with it for several years, preferring to do my moaning on my blog and my events management by email. Yes, I know, I should do better. That’s why I joined Twitter.

The interface is easy, keeping up with people you find intriguing or blogs you want to keep tabs on is suddenly very simple, and you can engage as much or as little as you fancy.

All of which is lovely, but it’s not why I like it so much – it’s not why it works. The best and most innovative thing Twitter has done is forced us to condense communication into short bursts – to crystallise. To be brief.

Twitter’s 140-character limit forces poetry from mundanity. It’s possible to build a tweet around a single thought, a concept, without over-egging it or forcing it. It rewards neatness. Even “pointless babble” becomes a crystal of meaning, complete in itself.

And people are using the microblogging format for all sorts of textual art, from condensing words down to fit within the strict limits to haiku to artistic political satire, such as William Shatner’s Tonight Show recital of Sarah Palin’s Twitter feed. The medium even spawned the world’s first interactive poetry competition.

Mashable laid out the reasons for loving the character limit very neatly and persuasively, but didn’t mention the possibility of poetry.

Twitter is forcing us to distill our words, and words distilled can make art.