Britain: this is for everyone

Last night’s Olympic opening ceremony was stunning. A glorious jumble of references and spectacles, mixing globally-popular elements with winking in-jokes for the British viewers. It spoke in enormous mile-high symbols of our history and life – not just in the bombast and belligerence of Bond and the Queen arriving by parachute, but also in the careful choice of the Brookside lesbian kiss and the Tardis noise materialising during Bohemian Rhapsody. These are huge chunks of culture, full of their own meaning and carrying their own symbolism; forging them into an event that had its own identity and was not overwhelmed by its parts is an incredible achievement. Danny Boyle should be proud.

Some critics have complained that last night’s ceremony was too political, too much like propaganda – missing the fact that by its nature every Olympic opening ceremony is political, is propaganda. The real complaint is that it was not propaganda they agreed with – and that is fine. An event as enormous as this, as powerfully charged with anticipation and with significance, couldn’t ever hope to please everyone.

But the symbols chosen for celebration were for everyone. The NHS is for everyone. The Queen, James Bond, Mr Bean, the internet, technology, suffrage, kissing, Mary Poppins, Kes, Dizzee Rascal. The opening, pastoral and construction scenes showed clear class delineations; the joyous riot of music and popular culture that grew from it showed disparate, distinct but equal individuals. There’s a vision of utopia there, and it is neither homogenous nor segregated.

It’s easy to throw around words like “vibrant” and “young” and waffle about the British sense of humour and post-Empire faded greatness. That doesn’t come close to the heart of what happened last night. It ought to be impossible to articulate a national identity so full of contradictions. But in four words, there’s a valiant attempt: this is for everyone. Inclusive, open, supportive but not prescriptive, with humility and quiet confidence, and without the belief that everyone’s necessarily going to want it. Everyone gets a turn. Oh, and with permission to be as eccentric, cynical and sarcastic as you like so long as you’re not being mean.

In the end, Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony did what politicians and sponsors couldn’t do (not even with Mitt Romney’s help). It united much of the country, even those bits of it that couldn’t care less about the sport and remain deeply cynical about the money, the sponsorship and the eventual outcome. It made people proud. It gave the Olympics a different meaning. This is why culture matters, and why storytelling is important: it makes meaning. Without it, we’re just a collection of people. With it, we get to be British.

Video games are stupid. Throw story at them.

Taylor Clark has a storming piece up on Kotaku today. He’s right: most popular video games are dumb. And that’s fine, so long as we don’t assume that’s the only thing games can do.

To accept childish dreck without protest-or worse, to defend the dreck’s obvious dreckiness just because the other parts of a game are cool-is to allow the form to languish forever.

Yes. Preach it. Preach it also to readers who love Dan Brown’s fiction in spite of the writing, and everyone who overlooks the hour-long goodbye scenes at the end of the Lord of the Rings films.

Most popular things are dumb, not just video games

Video games are not unique in being collaborative creations in which many elements are brought together to form a whole; nor are they alone in being often poorly integrated, with areas of brilliance marred by areas of dreck (or indeed whole areas of dreck occasionally elevated by moments of brilliance). All media have these problems.

But video gaming is such a small field at present. Our examples of brilliance and of dreck come from a depressingly limited pool of options, especially when we examine big-budget titles. Truly stand-out works in any field are rare. Most media plays to the majority. In video gaming, it is the mindless that has proven to sell well – so mindless most games remain.

Sturgeon’s Law (90% of everything is crap) applies not just to things being bad, but also to things being dumb, crude, silly. It’s not just video games; it’s also everything else. There shouldn’t be any shame for gamers in saying: yes, a lot of games are dumb. A lot of everything is dumb. A lot of dumb things are fun.

But Clark’s right that by saying video games can only be dumb, we’re doing the medium a great disservice. In the 18th century there was a widely held perception that novels could only be dumb, until classics began to emerge and a canon formed. Video gaming has been around for a much shorter time and has much farther to go before it reaches maturity – technology is still not stable, barriers to entry are still falling rapidly, the business model is still all over the place, and all those things impact the kinds of games that are produced and the processes by which they’re made. But video games can, and should, aspire to greatness, both mechanically and narratively – and ideally, both at once.

Narrative and gameplay should be the same thing

Matthew Burns, who’s worked on several big-budget games, says he doubts that such a thing is possible given the current climate. There’s a rather circular argument here. The kicker quote:

it is extremely difficult— maybe impossible— to come up with a story and characters that, when placed within the context of most current video games, don’t feel inherently silly

Most current video games are inherently silly, therefore it’s impossible to put anything on top of the silliness to produce something that’s less silly. Well – yes. There’s an assumption here about the place of writing, story and characterisation in games – that it’s not an inherent part of the context of games, but rather something added on top. But if you start from the premise that your game is about hyperviolent destruction of mythical monsters, you’ve made a lot of decisions about the story and the characterisation already. Even the best writers won’t be capable of making a game deep, believable, complex or realistic if the gameplay is fighting against that narrative at every turn. See also: GTA4.

Gameplay and narrative shouldn’t simply inform each other. They should be inextricable from each other. Games that aspire to being well written can’t just plaster story on top of mechanic like wallpaper. It has to be mixed into the mortar, built into the foundations. It doesn’t matter whether you’re gunning for embedded or emergent story, froth or experiential narrative or whatever – you can’t slap it on top of gameplay like an afterthought, because gameplay mediates the entire experience.

If you’re playing a different story than the one you’re being told, then the game can’t attain that coveted, if ill-defined, goal of comprehensive intelligence. It’ll always be fractured; no matter how carefully the cracks are hidden, it won’t ring true.

Is just writing a story enough, any more?

Quote

What exactly is it that writers do, now stories can be told in so many ways? This post by @moongolfer links The Story, CERN and journalistic storytelling robots to come to the conclusion:

And writers? Well, they need to find a use for what they do, I guess. Because a story for its own sake written from a single point of view – digital or otherwise – is increasingly looking like it isn’t enough.

Journalists are facing down this problem online, now, as well as creative writers and other sorts of digital storytellers. In a way, it’s comforting to remember it’s not just written news but all sorts of writing that’s wrestling with these questions. And it’s also comforting to remember that things like Instapaper, the Long Good Read, Longreads and a vast array of others are whirring away, proving that for many people, yes, a written story is enough.

Playing Gamecamp

Yesterday was Gamecamp 4, the first one I’ve been to, and I had a properly fantastic time. Some excellent sessions, some fascinating conversations, and some surprisingly forgiving zombies made it a great day.

Here’s what I took from the day.

  • We like stories in our games, and we like games in our stories, but not all games (or stories) need both.
  • Boss fights interrupt flow, but can be used to build interesting characters. They can be frustrating (Metal Gear Solid), but when they’re done well and foreshadowed properly, they can also be hugely satisfying (Limbo).
  • Free play without structure isn’t a game.
  • Digital games suck at relationships.
  • A lot of digital games writing sucks, full stop.
  • Romance and sex in games are two very different things with different problems to be solved.
  • Some problems being tackled by digital game folks have already been solved by live game folks, and vice versa.
  • When under attack, people seem to instinctively try to get to high ground. When high ground is not available, they use tables.
  • Lemon jousting is harder than it looks.
  • Mechanically, World of Warcraft and Farmville are (depressingly?) similar.
  • We like our extrinsic motivators without coercive social marketing practices.
  • Gamification isn’t particularly interesting to people who already make games.
  • My working definition of emergent stories – stories created by players interacting with game mechanics without a designer getting in the way – is flawed, hugely flawed, but works OK for demonstration purposes.
  • Emergent stories need space to emerge. People make up stories to fill gaps.
  • Story can be constructed after experience, collaboratively.
  • Someone has already run an art heist game in a museum. I really hope they do it again. Soon.
  • Museums, like news organisations, need help making good games with few resources.
  • The Keyworth building at London South Bank Uni would be an excellent venue for a full-scale game of Zombie.
  • The unconference format just works. No bit of my day was boring or slow or non-interactive. I went to half a dozen really interesting talks, and missed about a dozen more, and that’s fine.
  • Always put zombies in the lifts.

Greenbelt and Home Sweet Home – storytelling in tiny towns

I’m off to Greenbelt Festival at the weekend, and this year I’m on the team creating a print newspaper for the festival.

I blogged last year (when I was just starting out here) about the newspaper they gave out at the festival – a 16-page freesheet called While We Were Here, made possible only at the last minute with sponsorship from Hewlett Packard. It used content that was already online, sourcing images from Flickr and text from blog posts, in a neat reversal of the print-first view you (still, sadly) often see in traditional newsrooms, and it was available for download for free online as well as handed out on-site. It was – is – a wonderful souvenir of the festival, as well as being an excellent way to convey the intangible experiences of the festival. Because it was created by people right in the thick of things, writing from-the-heart blog posts/I-pieces and not carefully detached articles of traditional journalism, it does a much better job of conveying the atmosphere of the weekend than any events listing or simple description could.

Since reading and enjoying While We Were Here last year, I’ve had some experience creating newspapers from scratch on my own. I made a miniature four-page newspaper as part of a performance/installation/community experiment called Home Sweet Home by theatre company Subject to Change, consisting of a tiny cardboard suburb where people from Norwich built their own mini houses, flats and businesses, using the community billboard, radio station and postman to create stories. I built a tiny Evening News newspaper office complete with tiny clay journalists and mini bundles of newspapers, and I ran a breaking news service (on a billboard made of card and matchsticks) for three days.

The paper itself was a four-hour job in InDesign using the Evening News print templates and masthead to create something faithful to the design of the paper I was representing. The stories were a more complicated proposition. Some folks volunteered bizarre tales and information themselves in letters; others created things I found fascinating, so I wrote letters asking for more information. Many stories came from the community noticeboard, which became an outlet for frustrations and campaigns as well as plenty of advertising. It was important to create a souvenir, something tangible people could take away, and to give people who hadn’t been there a flavour of the absurdity of the event – and part of that was treating very silly stories with the seriousness I would if they were real. The skills you need to gather stories in tiny cardboard towns are, it seems, the same as you need in big concrete cities – sharp eyes, a willingness and ability to engage and converse, the ability to go where people are talking and listen to what they say.

That experiment taught me a great deal about what’s important in newsgathering. I hope the weekend’s antics will teach me something new about storytelling. Greenbelt is an entirely different proposition to Home Sweet Home – many thousands more people and much less clear avenues for newsgathering, for a start, plus the fact that the newspaper is likely to be focussed once again on individual and collective experience rather than hard news. (Though if Peter Tatchell’s talk gets really controversial, that could conceivably change.) Although I haven’t yet had a detailed brief from project leader James Stewart – and I’m not expecting one till I get there – I suspect the paper this year will once again function primarily as a record of the experience of being there – and that means a different set of challenges to what I do every day. I’m looking forward to helping to make it happen.

Wikileaks, cultural discourse, and why the leaks might not make a big difference

In 1985 American literary critic Jane Tompkins published a book, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction. It was an attempt to attract critical attention to novels – often bestsellers – that had been traditionally ignored or even panned by the canon-makers who dominated literary criticism. It represented an opening up of “low” art to “high” critical modes. Among other books, it looks at Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin not just as a sentimental novel but as a persuasive political text that swayed the hearts and minds of Americans everywhere. It credits it with an important role in the Civil War – that of getting the word out and making it cool to be anti-slavery.

Tompkins talks about bestselling fiction as cultures speaking to themselves. Harry Potter and Twilight and Dan Brown’s works aren’t just bestsellers because they have a good story or they’re wonderfully written – if anything, they suceed despite that. What those books all do is take a central cultural dilemma and work it out in a safe, controllable way, helping to assuage the fears and worries of millions of readers and allowing them to reimagine the world with those conflicts resolved.*

Journalists are just as much a product of the cultures we write in and about, no matter how much we’d like to pretend otherwise sometimes. Perhaps the only exception is Wikileaks, because it’s outside national cultures; even so, its journalism work is subject to the same forces and influences as the rest of us.

Yesterday Wikileaks published, simultaneously with the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel, 92,000 logs from the war in Afghanistan that show the conflict at its most naked and basic. There are too many of the documents for the picture to be clear at this stage – there’s still a lot of work to be done – but the three news organisations have already done a great deal of work towards stitching coherent narratives together to make stories for easy consumption.

But the story resists consumption. There is no easy line through the logs that builds a narrative anyone can agree with; the documents are sticky and difficult and present problems that are simply insurmountable. As Wikileaks fouder Julian Assange said today:

The real story is that it is war, it’s one damned thing after another. It’s the continuous small events, the continuous deaths of children, insurgents, allied forces (…) This is the story of the war since 2004 and like most of the accidents that occur in the world, they are as a result of cars not buses, most of the deaths in this war are the event of the everyday squalor of war, not the big incidents.

But that’s not a comfortable story that gets us to sleep at night. It’s not our brave boys or the illegal war or Private Jessica Lynch, whichever version of the story you read. The good guys aren’t so great and the bad guys aren’t easily identifiable and everything is blurred right down to the level of individual decisions that might or might not be right, on the ground, in that time and place. That’s not a story that assuages any fears or resolves any conflicts neatly or easily.

And for that reason, I agree with @jayrosen_nyu. He says:

I’ve been trying to write about this observation for a while, but haven’t found the means to express it. So I am just going to state it, in what I admit is speculative form. Here’s what I said on Twitter Sunday: “We tend to think: big revelations mean big reactions. But if the story is too big and crashes too many illusions, the exact opposite occurs.” My fear is that this will happen with the Afghanistan logs. Reaction will be unbearably lighter than we have a right to expect— not because the story isn’t sensational or troubling enough, but because it’s too troubling, a mess we cannot fix and therefore prefer to forget.

Journalism, like literature, is a culture speaking to itself, defining itself, creating and reinventing itself. Whether fiction or non-fiction, a good story has to be in the right place at the right time in order to make real change within a culture. Yesterday’s Afghanistan log disclosures aren’t safe, or pretty, or easily understood. They don’t tell a story that anyone can nod along to. They don’t lend themselves to easy summation or even a coherent narrative. They remind us that the situation is far more complicated than we normally imagine. And I don’t think that’s a story we want to tell ourselves right now.

* Because those are all relatively recent works, it’s hard to pinpoint precisely which conflicts they’re resolving and how. If I had to: Harry Potter is dealing with anti-technology backlash, fear of rapid change, desire for an underlying order in a world without metanarratives, and the fact that the good and the bad guys all look the same these days; Dan Brown is dealing with surveillance and secrecy fears as well as the terror of the destruction of metanarratives and the worry that there might actually be no underlying purpose for anything; and Twilight is tackling changing and confusing rules and mores in male and female sexuality and transposing them into a “safe” traditional narrative where everyone knows the rules. But it’ll take a good few years yet before the picture is as crystal clear as, say, the way Peyton Place’s popularity came from how it dealt with fears and growing understanding of human sexuality in the wake of the Kinsey Report.

It’s Alive! Fostering emergent stories in Zombie

For those who don’t know, on Saturday I and a team of others ran the seventh Zombie LARP game. We’re hoping the next major event will be a big leap up in size, in ambition and in attendance. But before that happens I want to note down a few of our important principles – and important problems we need to solve.

What on earth is Zombie?

First, though, an explanation. Zombie is a live-action simulation game where people take it in turns to try to survive in an industrial complex overrun by the living dead. We run several scenarios over the course of the game, with a different group of people “surviving” in each one. When players aren’t trying to get out alive, they’re pretending to be zombies so that someone else can have a turn.

The game is a sort-of bastard child of traditional live-action roleplay (LARP) systems, fast-paced video games like Left for Dead, and the kinds of cowboys and Indians/summer water pistol games you played when you were a kid. The combat resolution system is based on Nerf guns (players shoot zombies) and a low-contact mechanic (zombies touch players on upper arms to represent biting, mauling etc.)

If you’ve read this and you still have no idea what we do, please leave a comment to tell me. I’m trying to improve my ability to explain the game to people who have never played a LARP or a video game before, so the experience would be useful.

How are we telling stories in Zombie?

Video games almost always have plot. Sometimes that plot is stretched over 50 or more insanely complex hours; sometimes it’s over in minutes so you can get on with killing things. Sometimes the storytelling is so deeply entrenched in the game that it’s inseperable from it; sometimes it’s abstracted from it so that the gameplay and the overarcing story are essentially separate entities. And sometimes the plot is about football.

Almost all LARPs are plot oriented. Some big games have top-down storytelling systems where world-changing events are affected by the big players in the game, while others have grass-roots player-oriented plot systems that allow even the most minor player characters to affect the universe.

In Zombie, plot takes a back seat to gameplay. Players might have twenty minutes at most to survive, and most of them won’t. That time seems a lot longer than it really is thanks to the game pacing and the adrenalin (much like the experience of riding a rollercoaster) but long-term character development is not an option, and neither is sticking around to watch the game world evolve. Zombie does have a wider plot system and the players can and do affect what happens, but when you’re running screaming down a corridor pursued by the undead trying to eat you, it’s impossible to take that in.

As refs and storytellers, we do several things to try and work with the game elements to make the game story rewarding. Most of these were worked out through trial and error and getting it badly wrong before we worked out how to get it right.

  1. Broad brushstrokes.We talk in bold black-and-white hyperbole. Every run is all-or-nothing, do-or-die. Players are given missions that affect the fate of the wider game world, so their actions carry weight and the game retains a sense of urgency.
  2. Metaplot and wider world. Zombie has an overarching plot framework that makes it possible to slot game events into place. There are several organisations in the game’s world – a shady scientific corporation, an armed resistance unit – and the real-time games take place within a framework created by the actions of those organisations.
  3. Sandboxing. Runs in Zombie are set up to be sandboxes where the players can take many different routes to the goal. We have set pieces for players to encounter – a room full of injured survivors, or a super-powerful zombie intent on taking them down – but those are never static events that play out in a pre-defined way. They are elements of the game world that add authenticity to the run without scripting players’ actions or requiring them to act in accordance with anything.
  4. Emergent stories.This is a common concept in video game design but in my experience is used much less outside specialist gaming environments. It refers to narratives that are uncovered or revealed during gameplay, and which require input from players to understand and piece together. For Zombie, I commonly use the term to describe stories about moments in the game that are unpredictable and unpredicted, that form unique and structured narratives, and that are the result of player interaction with their environment.

    And this is the important one. We try and make sure that after the chaos of the run, players have their own, personal stories to tell. We give them space beforehand to construct back story for themselves – encouraging team action – and we give them briefing time and attention afterwards to help them construct individual and group narratives about what happened. We try to give them tools and communities in which to tell those stories, we respond to them and retell them and incorporate them into the structure of the game.

Some stories filter out and fall. Others become local legends – the tale of the player who leapt six feet over a group of zombies only to later be mauled to death in a dead end, or the player who hid from the zombies successfully for twenty minutes before his mobile phone went off, alerting them to his presence (he died shouting “Now is not a good time!”). Last night one player managed to obliterate about 40 zombies with a heroic show of power – that story too will be permanently recorded in the mythology and mythos of the game. We give people awards for creating brilliant stories – often those awards are nothing but a shout out, a retelling of their story and a biscuit or a sticker, but they carry value and people strive to obtain them.

What’s so good about emergent stories?

Zombie is an activity that, at heart, is very difficult to share. It’s designed and conceived as a completely immersive experience while you’re playing, making it very hard to film video or take pictures. Backchannel chat, feedback and social sharing in real time are impossible. Very few images or films survive from our early events (though a couple of Youtube videos do get a steady stream of views and bring in occasional new interest three years later).

But even in the first game, our players found a way to share their experiences. They told stories to each other and to their friends, passing on their favourite experiences orally. Almost everything we’ve done with our storytelling framework since then has focussed on creating the brilliant moments that make those stories, and encouraging people to tell them.

In planning meetings we make lists of “moments of awesome” that will be memorable if they work right, things that will stick in the mind. We put single zombies in weird situations just in case a player stumbles across them. We make tableaux, design interesting characters for players to meet and memorable situations for them to meander into.

We try not to dictate the stories. More often than not they happen organically. We can’t make the player team split up and get lost; we can’t force someone to go to incredible lengths to avoid in-character death; we can’t ever guarantee that what we do will be the focus of player attention. More often than not our efforts simply go to create a better atmosphere for these experiences to occur. We make it easier, but it’s the players who make it work.

And we can’t dictate how the players ought to tell stories. We try to give them as many routes as possible online, both by creating our own community area and by using Facebook (and Twitter to a lesser extent) to curate and collect and encourage. Stories like this are ephemeral, and while we want people to tell them and we want a long-lasting record, we know we can’t rely on ever having one.

Many non-gaming events rely on video and images for a record. Increasingly, conventions and similar (relatively passive) events are relying on backchannel chat and the wider analysis of that conversation to provide useful data and a lasting record of what occurred. For us, the record lies in memory and in oral channels that are hard to replicate online – because of the immersive nature of the experience along with various technical issues, it’s impossible to get an idea of “what it’s like to be at Zombie” from any one medium. But when our players tell their emergent stories, that has immense value for us. It’s the best marketing possible because it comes with a direct endorsement and genuine enthusiasm. It’s an elusive currency but it’s vital to our survival and it’s been integral to our growth.

There are four main areas of uncertainty for me that arise from our approach, with questions that I don’t yet know how to answer. They are:

  1. How do we continue to foster personal, individual experiences and therefore stories while scaling our game upwards? If there are 180 players instead of 60, how does that affect our model?
  2. How can we encourage people to create and share content online that resonates with their emergent stories without sacrificing our immersive in-game experience? We already have teams going in with cameramen to film them, but the footage is necessarily low-quality and shaky and never reflects the full experience. How can we depict the game in ways that encourage emotional response and act as anchors for emergent stories in the same way that text can?
  3. How can this model apply to other events? How does it fit with (un)conferences and industry events? Networking events? Rallies? Fetes and carnivals? Riots and demonstrations? Is this another way of looking at and describing oral history? Or does this work to foster, encourage, document and curate emergent stories have journalistic potential?

If you have any suggestions for answers, or any more questions, please share them in the comments.