Standing on the Shoulders of Giant Nerds

Notes and slides from my presentation at Develop 2012, on what video games should be stealing/learning from other, geekier sorts of game.

Who am I and what on earth do I do:

I’m Mary, and I’m a massive nerd. Mostly I design live games, mostly involving NERF guns. The biggest game I run is called, imaginatively, Zombie LARP, and it involves live action role playing and zombies.

Zombie was born when Grant, who’s drawn these slides, and Chris, who appears in them pretty frequently, started shooting each other with NERF guns in halls at uni. They invited a couple of us round to their house, and gave us NERF guns, and pretended to be zombies. My first Zombie LARP death happened in their kitchen, as I fumbled to reload a Nitefinder. It was awesome.

The games society at uni kindly let us run it at the 24-hour roleplay. Every year they take over a building at university for 24 hours and play games. Board, card, video, live, war, tabletop – all sorts. That’s where we got our start – playing at 3am with about 15 exhausted geeks hyper on Tesco’s own brand energy drinks. Now, six years later, we run huge games for 150-odd people in abandoned buildings.

But I also play and write about – and sometimes for – video games. And I see a lot of the development processes that we go through with live games and tabletop systems mirrored in what video games are trying to do. So what I want to do today is talk a little about the lessons I’ve learned from wiser geeks than me, playing older, more traditional, and frankly much more nerdy games. Starting with the geekiest of all: Dungeons and Dragons.

What Dungeons and Dragons can teach us about story in games:

The standard game of D&D is a really good model for looking at different sorts of narrative in games. There are four types. Not every game has all of them, but they all have at least one.

First up: the Told story. This is the one the Dungeon Master is actually trying to tell. She might have a whole host of carefully planned and pre-written events that culminate in a fantastic climax. Or, like a friend of mine, she might just have written “BLAM! IS ADVENTURE” on a piece of paper and be totally making it up. But she’s in control of the story, she’s giving out information and framing scenes to create something that adds up. She controls NPCs, she’s the ultimate arbiter of conflicts, she creates the narrative arc and leads the players through it.

Obviously a fair few video games aren’t really interested in this sort of story, or only in very simple versions of it. Things like “Angry Birds invade pig houses” or “Hungry monster wants hard-to-reach candy”. But for others, the story is a big part of the game – the designers want to convey a narrative through the game experience. That’s Told story.

Secondly, the Experienced story. This is essentially the narrative of the time you spend playing, not the game per se. It includes the infrastructure – the stuff around the edges of the game like phoning for pizza or people being late. Interruptions are part of this, and so are stupid out of character jokes, and those times when the conversation wanders off a long way from where the action is. As Michael Brunton-Spall pointed out on Twitter, it also includes things like critical hits and fumbles, where an unusually lucky or unlucky result on the dice leads to a different story being created. Generally this isn’t a story that ever gets told, as such – it gets experienced, and then your brain chops it up into representative chunks for you to remember.

In video games, as well as taking in interruptions and stuff going on outside the game at the same time, the experienced story includes loading screens, and glitches, and crashes, and dying. My experienced story in Mirror’s Edge, for instance, was about a girl called Faith who kept running off buildings and falling unceremoniously to her death. Assassin’s Creed is a series that copes very well with this stuff, by keeping the player in the story world even during loading and dying and other nominally out-of-game states. Rogue-likes make a virtue of the repetition.

And then, there’s the Interpreted story.

Interpreted can’t exist without Told stories. But the theory goes like this:

  • a story doesn’t exist until it’s experienced. That goes for games, films, and books, too. Otherwise it’s just an object.
  • the story is always filtered through the individual understanding of the player involved. Because they’re human, they’ll have different ideas and associations and resonances, a different understanding of what the various bits of the story might mean.
  • so the interpreted story is different for everyone. It changes in different contexts.

In D&D, that turns up most obviously as players getting the wrong end of the stick about something. Not realising the monster is actually being controlled by the supposedly friendly NPC, or deciding that *this* insignificant detail is actually the thing they should go chasing after for the next three hours. But it also covers players finding new levels of complexity in a GM’s narrative, interpreting coincidences as deeply meaningful – or things that are meant to be meaningful as coincidences.

Authors can’t control audience interpretations of their stories – intent isn’t magic – and there will always be a difference between what a creator wants to say with a story, and what people take from it. Even if only because historical and individual context changes. But it’s true for video games that meaning is collaboratively created, it arises from the joining of a storyteller and a story player, and that sometimes the interpreted story can work against the intention of the creator in unexpected ways – or can reinforce it.

Look at the reams of interpretation that’s been done on Silent Hill, or the readings of Resident Evil’s racial politics. There are elements placed there by the designers that have been drawn out by players to reveal a wider, deeper, perhaps more problematic – perhaps unintended – story. Those readings aren’t invalid just because they might not be intended.

Finally, there’s emergent story. Emergent story is my favourite kind. It’s not quite the same thing as emergent gameplay, which in D&D terms would be doing something like making a Grease wizard who only casts Grease and Fireball spells, and is very good at bringing down monsters with low Dex scores like T-Rexes.

Emergent story is what happens when players get to futz around directly with the mechanics of a game, within a framework. It’s the little, unexpected moments that aren’t directly intended by the creator, but that can be the most memorable bits of the game: roleplaying conflicts among the party, for instance. The decision by one player to take the skill Crafts: tailoring, and then go on a quest to acquire the finest suit in all the land. A group of players deciding to jack in the monster hunting business and go be pirates. Or the moment when the characters react to the death of one of their number.

Video games are not great at this. Live games are brilliant at it, and tabletop is not far behind. At Zombie, this is the sort of stuff we thrive on. We deliberately designed the system to encourage emergent stories – to be flexible enough and simple enough for spontaneous moments of awesome, which is what we originally called it. But the flip side of doing that is that for some players, those moments never happen – and if you fail to balance that right, it can make for boring play.

The games that are doing emergent story well right now are MMOs – Eve online, in a huge way, but also WoW and others. Minecraft & the Sims manages a much more individual emergence – the action of a single player in a procedurally generated world – and perhaps the current pinnacle of emergent story in gaming is Day Z. But this is such a young area in video games. There’s so much more to do.

What Dogs in the Vineyard can teach us about ludonarrative dissonance:

Ludonarrative dissonance is a gloriously useful term that describes conflict between game system & game story. Dogs in the Vineyard is a game where you play, basically, deeply religious teenage Mormon virgin gun-toting priests in the wild West. The whole system is built around the setting, and the types of stories you can tell with it. It provides a way for storytellers to building towns that have heresies within them, and giving your players the tricky job of resolving them. It’s a game about hard moral choices, and not having the right answer, and not being sure, and risking things – gambling your reputation and the happiness, security, and lives of others on being right, when there is no “right” to be.

The system you use for conflict resolution is based around stakes, and bidding. It feels a little like poker. You might start out arguing, verbally, and you roll a pool of dice that runs off your verbal skills, and then you have an argument – you bid dice from your pool against dice from your opponent’s pool, till one of you can’t beat the other. Then your choices are to back down, or to escalate. You could move up to physical violence, or even gunfighting, which gives you a new pool of dice – but your opponent can escalate too, and then you’re risking a lot more damage when everything shakes down.

The way that plays out in practice is thematically consistent with the game story – because the game story is running off quite a limited set of themes and ideas. The stories all work off trade-offs, being unsure, raising the stakes because the option of doing nothing isn’t an option at all. There’s no dissonance – the game’s smooth, the experience is unified – because the system, the setting and the story have been developed together, organically. The textures mesh. The experience feels continuous. It’s a deeply fulfilling, immersive, gratifying game to play if you have a half-decent games master, because all the pieces work together.

There are some video games that do this beautifully – Manhunt, for instance. Project Zero. Spec Ops: the Line, interestingly. And then there are games like GTA4, LA Noir, Uncharted – games where the character you control can do things that the cut-scene character just wouldn’t consider. The character that you’re creating and inhabiting as a player is different to the one in the cut-scenes – which breaks immersion, badly, but also breaks the player’s creative, narrative play by disregarding the choices they’ve made. That stops the play experience hanging together, and can make the player feel less invested in the world – after all, if their actions mean nothing once the cinematic starts, then the imaginitive “work” they’re putting into the game isn’t being respected.

What Mage: the Ascension Mind’s Eye Theatre LARP can teach us about ownership:

Mage, as you might imagine, is a game about wizards. Mage the Ascension was about secret wizards in modern-day cities, each with their own understanding of how the world works – their own subjective interpretation of the universal system mechanics. Mage the Apocalypse was a live-action version, where the setting was in a post-apocalyptic world where mages could band together and kill a fairly ludicrous range of monsters of the week – including aliens shaped like flying hats, and vampires and so on.

So. Some people had been playing that game for more than three years by the time I joined – going four times a year or so to events, planning characters, creating costumes, writing backgrounds and events between games, scheming, plotting.

Then, in a forum post between games, the storytellers announced that we’d missed the signs of the impending Cthulhu apocalypse proper, and the unpleasant things crawling out of the sea were actually Dagon-based beasts, and we were all dead.

One very newly recruited storyteller had to deal with what happened next. A group of very invested players who loved that game and felt personally, deeply wronged by what had just happened to their characters got very angry. The problem wasn’t that the game had ended – it was the way it was done. The Etch-a-Sketch end of the world – the perceived unfairness of us having “missed” the signs, and the lack of satisfying resolution for the players and characters. We ended up persuading Jim to retcon the ending and having a massive battle with squid-beasts followed by a barbecue in my back garden, which worked out much happier for all involved – because the players got to have valiant last stands. They got to help, to save some things, to tie up loose endings. They got to make meaningful, characterful choices.

Jim could have told Bioware exactly how the ending of Mass Effect would play with the community of Shepards who experienced it, and exactly how to fix it. Gamers aren’t averse to endings – but if you build a game good enough to have players projecting themselves into your world, and then you destroy it in a narratively unsatisfying way that doesn’t respect their time, their energy and their choices – then the backlash is inevitable. In video games as well as LARP, players feel they’ve contributed to the game world – they feel entitled to a fulfilling story with fulfilling resolution. As creators it’s important to respect that.

It’s easy to forget, behind the buffers of code, PR, marketing, expos, cons and the anonymous internet, that game creators are still sitting down and telling stories round a campfire with their players.

What Fear Itself can teach us about consent in play:

Fear Itself is a tabletop game. It is, when it’s played well, Horrid. There’s a splat book with monsters and other gribbly things for you to include in your games. The book’s called The Book of Unremitting Horror, and it’s got stuff in like a golem made from the remains of people killed in snuff films, and The Motherlode, a horrendous walking vagina thing that births other monsters. And a wolf that comes out of a lake and rapes things. So it’s not a pleasant game. It’s definitely horror. And playing it with a real group is – tricky, because of consent.

In live games, consent can be really quite clear-cut. In LARP, you are your avatar – whatever’s happening to your character, physically, is also happening to you. So certain things are totally off-limits – you’ll essentially agree to fade to black for certain scenes, and agree the details out of character.

In tabletop, it’s trickier. Although your body isn’t the avatar, there’s still a very strong psychological projection of yourself into your character. When they’re directing action or recalling events, People don’t say “my rogue stabbed the dragon”. They use the word “I”, and they confuse other players with characters by using the word “you” interchangeably.

So as a game master, deciding to have a horrendous storyline that puts characters at risk of sexual abuse, for instance, is something you have to talk about beforehand. Gaming groups playing horror games will often have discussions about what they’re comfortable tackling at the table; at any point, someone can say they’re uncomfortable with what’s happening and the game can be steered away or the player can remove themselves without the experience ending. The key point there is “at any time” – you can stop the game, say you’re not comfortable, and work on a compromise that everyone can enjoy.

Just as in video games, tabletop role players have two main control modes for character. On one hand there’s the doll mode, where they’re simply directing action, positioning, controlling the avatar. On the other there’s a mode in which people are acting as their characters, emoting, conversing and projecting as them. Inhabiting them. It’s this ability to become a character that makes consent so vital for games – that makes the consideration of difficult material a much deeper one – because a violation or unwanted event happening to an avatar we inhabit is crucially, psychologically different to one happening to a character we watch or read about.

But big, story-led video games at the moment are not so good at acknowledging that they’re not films, and that they have a different psychological link with their players, where consent to experience is just as important as consent to view. Rating systems for viewing aren’t quite enough to let players make informed consent about what they’re doing, and we don’t yet have a good way to warn for or cope with binary stories that force you-as-player to experience certain things vicariously via you-as-character.

This is part of the problem with the way the Tomb Raider reboot has played out so far. Players who do feel they inhabit Lara may not want to consent to experience a sexualised assault; they may feel like they’re being pushed outside of her, like they can’t inhabit her any more. Like that’s no longer a safe power fantasy – no longer fun. That’s not to say that rape can’t happen in games – in fact, tackling it well will be a sign of serious maturity for video games, when it happens. But the issue of player consent and character consent are horrendously intertwined, and doing it well is horrendously hard.

What Zombie LARP can teach us about game experience and memory:

The main thing that makes Zombie LARP different from other LARP games is our focus on immersion and simple, procedural mechanics. But what makes us different from other live events is our story focus.

The win condition in Zombie isn’t surviving. It’s my job, as the closest thing we have to an AI designer, to make sure that the procedural rules we put in place generate a game where about 2% of the player characters manage to survive the game. So most people can’t “win”. But we still want people to feel like they won.

So we very deliberately decided that winning was about getting an awesome story to tell at the end of the game. Being able to go home and tell your mates you’d shot six of them before they finally swarmed you, or that you went down singing the national anthem and saluting, or that you slit your best mate’s throat and threw him to the super-zombies as a distraction.

What we found was that there are two players in every person. There’s the experiencing player and the remembering player. This taps into work done by the psychologist Daniel Kahneman about the way people work – he says we all have an experiencing self, that’s actually experiencing what’s happening, and a remembering self that constructs narratives about it afterwards.

Zombie’s taught us that great games satisfy both. They have to be an engaging, fantastic experience while they’re happening, and the experience has to be reconstructed in memory as an enjoyable, memorable one.

In board games like Risk or tabletop games like D&D, people elide the memory of the dice rolls and the complex maths from their experiences and talk like it all happened without the rules. This is another reason why dissonance between the play and the story matters – if a system gets in the way of the story too much, remembering players will have a much harder time constructing their internal narrative. It’s also got implications for playtesting and feedback – are you getting feedback on both the experience and the memory?

At Zombie, we run the most immersive game we can manage. We aim to scare the pants off people – or to get them stressed, at least, to get them running and excited and completely involved in play. We cut down abstractions. But we also have something called froth. Froth is a LARP term, but it’s applicable across most types of games. It’s what happens after the game, where people get together and talk through what happened. Sometimes it’s about showing people your Pokemon. Sometimes it’s about telling people at length about the politics of your Maelstrom character. And sometimes it’s about how you died.

So we started running a debrief – a frothing session at the end of the game, where we invite people to tell us their stories. This grew from people just talking as they came out of games – desperate to tell us how they died, who they saved, who went down where and how. People start constructing their narratives through conversations – they tell their stories collaboratively, excitedly, afterwards – and we’ve built a process for making that better into the game system.

In my experience, it doesn’t seem to matter whether the experiencing player has fun, so long as they’re not bored or disengaged enough – immersion is crucial – and so long as the remembering one likes the narrative you’ve constructed about it afterwards. So people who are genuinely upset and frightened during a game talk about it afterwards with genuine joy and pleasure. They get their kicks from the memory of the game – it’s an endurance sport.

The experiencing self gets far more pleasure out of busywork and casual gaming than the remembering self does. Pocket Planes and Farmville are brilliant experiences for a lot of people, soothing and calming, quietly rewarding; so’s grinding, if you’re the sort of person who can sink into a reverie and simply enjoy the experience. But those are generally pretty lousy memories – trying to explain to yourself why you just lost the best part of an hour to a game about planes can be really hard to do. By contrast, there are games that don’t feel as enjoyable while they’re happening but that make much better memories. Skyrim, for me, typifies that perfectly – I have more fun talking about the play afterwards than I normally do actually playing. It’s a balance of system and story, mechanic and narrative – and done right, it makes some of the best games in the world.

Develop title slideStanding on the shoulders of giant nerds:

Video games right now are still in their infancy as a medium. The technology’s changing so fast that it obscures the way that other things are barely changing at all, especially at the top end of the market. Tabletop gaming’s got some very similar problems – where the big titles from decades ago still dominate the market today, while the internet makes it easy for small creators and designers to write stuff and sling it out into the world to sink or swim on its own merits. The big creators are struggling to innovate.

Video games need to get better at stealing things from other genres. It’s easy, when you’re making a game that’s exciting or difficult technically, to be lazy about other stuff – world building, character creation, the smoothness of immersion, the psychological and narrative frameworks of the game. Film is still the default metaphor for big titles – the extreme end of which is Final Fantasy 13, which is essentially a DVD with really complicated menu options, and barely a game at all.

But a lot of the work that video games find so hard has already been done, by LARP companies like Profound Decisions or like the Nordic work on immersive game environments. Procedural generation, emergent play, character-led story worlds – even elements as simple as how to make relationships work in gameplay. Games are starting to draw from all sorts of other disciplines – economics (see Valve), literary theory, anthropology. It would be a shame if they weren’t also drawing on other game forms too.

GameCamp 5: belated thoughts

I meant to write up GameCamp 5 the week after we went, but what with work and writing and venue hunting for Zombie one thing drives out another, as Barliman Butterbur would tell you.

It was different this time. For one thing, last time we felt fairly out of place as live game designers rather than video game designers; it wasn’t unpleasant, but there was a definite sense that we were in the minority. This time round lots of people were talking live experiences, and mixed sessions didn’t carry the same assumptions about the group. That’s a little fascinating – does it reflect a wider uptake in live gaming generally? Certainly seems so to me – there are lots of folks starting to do pervasive games and interesting live experiences, a burgeoning scene that seems to be moving towards LARP from other disciplines and landing somewhere in the middle. Critical vocabulary is missing here; lots of people (like us) are drawing on all sorts of theory and work in other fields and applying it to making games in the real world. That’s exciting.

The other big change was in the way people at GameCamp talked about stories in games. Last time around, Grant and I ran a session about emergent story, discussing the concept of procedurally and structurally generated narratives that emerge through player interaction with the game, but aren’t “told” by the game. This time I think every story-related session I went to invoked the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic stories, usually with an understanding of emergence. Again vocabulary is missing here; I heard the same (or similar) dichotomy expressed as extrinsic/intrinsic, imparted/created, creator/player, and even cutscene/gameplay. Perhaps that’s a reflection of the greater proportion of live gamers there – the split is much clearer when you’re playing with stories in that space, and it becomes impossible to ignore that the story you’re telling is not the same as the one players are experiencing. But I’m hopeful that it reflects a shift in thinking by video game creators too. Not every writer needs to engage with debates like the location of meaning and the nature of narrative – but if none do, the medium will stay shallow. GameCamp made my literary brain happy and my game brain excited.

Oh, and we made some games, too. Hostage was the most fun. I’ll try to write up the rules soon, assuming one thing doesn’t drive out another, again.

Game stories and meaningful play

A couple of weeks ago Naomi Alderman, who should quite clearly blog more because she is brilliant, left some extremely insightful comments on my post about stupidity in video games and its link to poor storytelling. I wanted to pull them out and talk about them more, because some of what she says is key to how I think about games and stories. I also need to write about Saturday’s GameCamp, because the big theme of my day was (surprise) stories and games again, but this bears on those thoughts so I’m doing it in this order. Yes! Anyway. Insight!

I can’t tell you how depressing it is to be called into a meeting about a game and told that my job is to “wrap a story around” pre-existing gameplay. The only way to do this well is to involve writers/storytellers right from the start, to give story a place at the table and to keep thinking about what you’re trying to produce until it works for *both* gamplay/level design *and* story.


I’m going to keep saying this till the cows come home: games motivate action, stories give *meaning* to that action. There’s no intrinsic problem with meaningless action: Tetris gets on fine with no meaning. But if you want people to feel genuinely emotionally invested you need to be involving a storymaker from the moment you start *thinking* about your game. Otherwise the things you’re being asked to do and the meaning of the things you’re being asked to do will always feel at odds with each other (“so I’m supposed to be this by-the-book cop, but I don’t have any problem ramming my car into lampposts, passers-by, other cars?” *cough* LA Noire *cough*).

This backs up the impressions I get when I play a lot of video games – big & small, indie & industry – as well as the impressions I get when I play bad tabletop systems. Tabletop systems are a great way to examine the interplay between rulesets and stories – because (with a few exceptions) any story you’re telling with them is going to be mediated through a GM’s imagination and through contact with the players, the rules have to work with the themes and feeling and general ambience of the rest of the game. Story is integral – you’re building a storytelling tool, after all.

Video games are also storytelling tools, quite literally. There’s different types of story in video games: the story that the player tells themselves in order to make sense of their experiences of play, and the story the game imparts. The story the game tells isn’t just told by the cutscenes or the narration or whatever – it’s also told through the gameplay and the interaction between player and game.

This is what I mean when I talk about story mediating & being mediated by gameplay. The player’s experience of the game mechanics is filtered through and affected by their interpretation of the story it tells; the player’s experience of the story is filtered through and affected by their interaction with the game mechanics.

In later comments, Naomi goes on to talk about character, values and causation as all being important elements of meaning within game stories – important elements to do well in order to create meaningful experiences for players. Choices that feel important, relationships that feel genuine, a story that evokes emotional investment – all elements I recognise as being present in most of the games I keep going back to replay, and mostly absent in the games I set aside. But these are basic storyteller’s tools, drawn from the same workbox as not just other sorts of games but also literature, film, television, radio, theatre. In many ways, when gamers call for these elements, we’re just calling for good writing; there’s no need to reinvent that particular wheel.

I’m thinking a lot at the moment about how Barthes’s Death of the Author applies to video games. It’s long been a staple of literary criticism that there’s no such thing as one interpretation of a story; cultural & critical readings of all sorts abound. In art there’s a running debate about whether meaning resides in the object of art itself, in the web of allusions, connections and contextual & biographical threads that allow the art object to be produced, or in the viewer’s mind, or in the web of similar threads within which the viewer exists. Authorial intent is pretty unimportant when it comes to creating meaning; the text is what matters, not the thinking behind it. So if a video game creator means to make Nathan Drake a loveable charmer but the “text” of the game makes him a genocidal fuckhead, then… the game wins. Canonically, he’s a mass murderer. And the story breaks.

Pasties, horses and duck houses: the power of symbolic objects

The world famous GreggsWhen is a pasty not just a pasty? When it’s a metaphor for class divide, of course.

In literature, symbolic objects transcend their physical limits to embody themes or carry metaphors. Pandora’s Box, to take a very obvious one, is not only a functional, fundamental element of the story but also a powerful metaphor for the confusion and chaos released by curiosity. It’s an integral element of the myth but it also carries meaning beyond its origin story.

As news stories run and run, twisting and turning often in far more fanciful ways than any fiction, sometimes these sorts of symbolic objects turn up. My favourite for a long time now has been the duck house, made famous during the MPs’ expenses scandal. More so than any of the other ludicrous things paid for by MPS out of their expenses, the duck house came to symbolise the lavishness, the detachment from reality and the sheer unadulterated silliness of the whole affair. It’s hard to sum up all of that with a news story, or even with a pithy quote, but a symbolic object can do the heavy lifting that no amount of text can quite manage. The duck house even manages to subtly imply a bunch of waddling, quacking MPs into the bargain. It’s a gift that keeps on giving.

Then a couple of weeks ago we had the horse. Phone hacking as a news story has gotten so convoluted and complex that it’s impossible for anyone but the most dedicated news junkie to follow in full. There’s a (necessarily) slow-moving inquiry that hasn’t yet brought politicians into the picture, and there’s an ongoing feeling that the cosy relationships between principle actors in the drama are not going to be publicly revealed.

Hence, the horse: a wonderful symbolic proxy for power, passed back and forth between the police, the Brooks family and Cameron himself. Horsegate played out in microcosm the larger drama, with denials, memory lapses and an eventual, half-hearted confession after which precisely nothing changed. It was a gift for cartoonists, too, especially in its connotations of servility – and a physical reminder of the closeness of Cameron in class and in pastimes to the Chipping Norton set, and the vast chasm between that and most of the rest of the country.

So today, to the pasty. It’s not a sausage roll tax or a hot food tax; it’s a pasty tax. A regional delicacy beloved of workers and students, both of whom have been walloped pretty hard since the coalition came to power. It’s a working lunch, a travelling lunch, a cheap, hot lunch eaten on the go by busy, normal people. It’s sustenance for hard days. In its Cornish origins it has subtle echoes of resistance, of regional pride; it’s determinedly non-London, as is Greggs, which has its origins in Newcastle. Greggs is on every high street; it’s well loved for what it does; and it’s almost impossible to imagine Cameron or Osborne there.

It is no coincidence that these symbolic objects are all about class. British national discourse is fairly bad at talking about class, thinking about class, examining unspoken opinions or getting a good sense of the realities of social stratification. The definition of “middle” class has vastly expanded and encompasses everyone not wearing a tiara or a hoody. But the duck house is so far out of everyday experience that it can’t be packaged as anything other than a symbol of wealth. Horse riding is a pricy pastime that carries Victorian, upper-class connotations. And the humble pasty is something an awful lot of people have eaten in the last few years – the sort of people who’ve been hit badly by the economics of austerity. The sort of people who aren’t Cameron.

These things surface an undercurrent, a class divide that doesn’t often get publicly debated outside of riots-based moralising. That we latch onto these symbols shows how hard it is to talk about class, equality and social mobility in the UK without resorting to stereotype or self-delusion, especially at present, when the optimistic view is that we are all headed for difficulty. Almost everyone is braced for the worst, counting pennies, fearing redundancy or more price rises. We are all so terribly nervous about what happens next. We have to have a pasty to focus on instead.

Is just writing a story enough, any more?

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.

People are all made of stories

The Story program in chocolate
The Story program in chocolate, by Liz Henry

I promised myself I wouldn’t eat The Story until I was done digesting it.

I’m not sure that’s happened yet, but I’m getting there, and I think it’s time to start eating Meg Pickard. Maybe by the time I get to Danny O’Brien I’ll be finished putting all the pieces into place in my head. Maybe not. But I will at least be full of chocolate.

Last year I didn’t have the sort of perspective on The Story that I do this year. For one thing, I was speaking at it, which made it harder to think sensibly about the day, and brought me too close to one bit of it.

This time I got to relax and enjoy one of the best events I’ve ever been to. I tweeted – a lot – and I’ve pulled together a chronological run-through of the day in tweets on Storify. I suspect it may not mean enough for people who weren’t there to be able to decode the day; it was a busy day with a lot of astonishing ideas and people in it.

There are stories we tell ourselves, and stories we tell other people about ourselves. Often, it seems, they’re the same story.’s model of frictionless sharing lets people build identity by doing stuff – the way we would before the internet, before fast fashion and the Kindle, with clothes, class and consumption habits the most available elements of our outward-facing selves.

On the other hand, Ellie Harrison‘s early work quantifying her habits and activities seems to almost reverse that process – aiming to learn more about precisely who you are by meticulously chronicling everything you do. (Though she did also build a vending machine that vends crisps every time the BBC website mentions news about the recession. I’m not sure that quite fits this particular thesis. But the Bring Back British Rail T-shirt definitely does.) The End‘s series of philosophical questions about death also lets you build up an identity around your actions – crystallising things you might not otherwise think about, then plotting you on a grid that includes your friends and major thinkers.

Tom Watson and Emily Bell discussing phone hacking was illuminating, and my most anticipated talk of the day (for obvious reasons). Another big theme that ran through many of the talks was the collision of reality and story – a junction where everyone in news media works, and where the phone hacking discussion and Liz Henry’s talk about fake lesbians provided strong, cautionary tales about what happens when the story takes over. Henry made an incredibly strong point that when someone’s fake identity takes over, people’s real struggles get lost; by attempting to speak for others, we drown their voices.

But  Scott Burnham provided a strong counterpoint, with a glorious tale about an art project in which dozens of people laid out hundreds of thousands of pennies to spell ‘Obsessions make my life worse and my work better’ on an Amsterdam pavement. As time passed people began to play with it, making new words out of the pennies, turning them over. And then the police cleared it up to stop it being stolen. His final point was that the things we do will always disappear, but the stories we create will always remain.

The more I think on it, the more I come back to Karen‘s talk as being the heart of the event, though I didn’t see it at the time. She talked about making something she was interested in, a story just for her – a whole magazine of it, in fact. But the magazine is also an extension of her self, a story she’s telling the world about who she is and how she operates. An externally constructed identity as well as a document of interest – like Matt Sheret‘s playlists, or (on a group level) Scott Burnham’s penny art, or The End’s philosophical mindmaps, or Amina‘s blog. Jeremy Deller tried to heal the wounds of a whole community by recreating events that changed its identity forever, by putting on costumes and playing with being something we’re not, something we used to be. Fiona Raby told stories about a collective future where not just our identities but our bodies were changed. Danny O’Brien talked about – well, about everything, frankly, very fast and with huge energy and expansiveness, but also about delusion and identity and what happens when group identities collide.

And Matthew Herbert made an album out of a pig, in an act which says something about the artist as well as the pig. He talked about the process of art, the investigation and discovery involved in making sound this way, finding out that pig labour is quiet and that tractors are natural bass tones. He talked about recording the sound of towers falling on 9/11, and being sent a recording of someone in Palestine being shot against a wall, and the ethics of making those things, those lives and deaths, into stories in sound.

We are all made of stories. Some of them are our own creations, some we own, some we tell inadvertently through action and through accretion, and some belong to other people, a long way outside our control.

Story in games: lean forward, lean back, meet in the middle

100 Cupcakes GameMost stories in video games are pretty rubbish. Yes, there are exceptions, but that’s why I said most. I mean, most of everything is rubbish, but stories in games tend to be particularly bad. Even Kingdoms of Amalur, which has Proper Named Writers on the cover and everything, has pretty bad stories, in part because the stories aren’t well woven into the game. (Also because the poetry is doggerel and the accents sound like everyone’s been punched in the throat, but I digress.) They’re poorly conveyed in conversation segments that break the flow of the game and are Not Fun. Much like Assassin’s Creed cut scenes and Final Fantasy cut scenes and all the other cut scenes pretty much ever – a story that isn’t embedded in the game itself feels like a pretty bad story, even if it’d be a pretty awesome story in a film or TV series or book.

There’s an inherent conflict in videogames between lean-back and lean-forward interaction. Generally the game itself is lean-forward. We’re doing something interesting with our hands (or whole bodies) that’s affecting what’s on the screen. We’re physically invested in making a thing happen. But story is more of a lean-back affair – it’s something we want to absorb and be entertained by. Modern video games spend a lot of time trying to integrate the two. Bioshock had partial success with this – make story something you come across as part of the scenery – and some failures too (scattered diary pages are not a good storytelling technique, even if the pages are audio recordings for some reason). Not many video games have much success, and most have a lot of fail.

Cut scenes are the best example of this – they literally make you stop playing in order to absorb the story. Some cut scenes are so lean-back that they make you leave the room to make a cup of tea while the game gets on with talking to itself, so you can come back and do the fun bits. It’s a jarring, completely bizarre experience to go from a big boss battle where you’re really engaged in pushing buttons and seeing Stuff Happen as a direct result, to a scene where you’re expected to just sit there and absorb as control is taken away from you completely.

But story matters. Without a story of some kind, events are just events. Luckily, humans are hard-wired to make stories out of pretty much everything we experience. Pong is fun not just because of its mechanics but also because you can make up a story about playing tennis on your computer. Pacman is fun in part because of the story you tell in your head about getting the power pill and eating the ghosts. But neither of those things are stories told by the game; they’re stories that emerge from the game as you play it – from the intersection of player with technology/rule systems. Emergent stories are my favourite kind of story, because they’re the ones that games sustain really well. (Not just video games either. Live, card, tabletop and more. Board games have been doing emergent story well since Go was invented.)

Emergent stories can be far more engaging than the stories designers try to put into games. Beating your mates at Soul Calibur is a better story than the Soul Calibur story mode (not hard, I know). But emergent stories don’t actually have storytellers while they’re happening. Game designers can’t actually design the emergent stories they want players to have, because those are born from context and from the physical places and ways people are playing and stuff designers just can’t control. You can build a really good framework for generating stories, but you can’t force the stories to happen. Often emergent stories don’t actually get told, in any real sense, until after the events of the game; they’re reconstructed from divergent events in retrospect, not in real time. That’d make the player the storyteller.

What I think I’m getting at here is that story, like all meaning, is not contained within the cultural artefact itself but instead is created anew at every reading at the nexus between the artefact, the viewer and the contextual forces that surround both. The problem with a lot of video game stories is that story is fundamentally separated from gameplay, and often gameplay actively works against story or makes story unbelievable (LA Noire, Uncharted, GTAIV, to name a few). In tabletop gaming one of the marks of a bad session is that the players feel railroaded into taking certain pathways or choices because of the GM’s conception of how things should go. But that’s exactly what most video games do – even those with pretty branching endings and multiple pathways and meaningful choices that affect the game world.

I’m not a ludologist. I like my games chock-full of story, but I want story that’s meaningful in the context of gameplay and delivered in a way that isn’t head-snappingly oblique to the rest of the play experience. I just don’t know if that’s actually something video games can do.

This post is part of an ongoing conversation with Si Lumb and Mark Sorrell, and is written at some speed, because my thinking is slippery and if I stop to think about it for too long I’ll start disagreeing with myself.

A simple point and click interface: zombies at London IA

Demons at ZombieYesterday I gave a short talk at London IA, about one of my side projects: zombies, LARP, morris dancers, demons, creativity, delight, verbs, NERF guns and (ostensibly at least) user experience design. Slides – expertly drawn by @gshowitt – are here, and my notes are below the fold.

Continue reading A simple point and click interface: zombies at London IA

Stealing the story: the death of the News of the World

The News of the World is dead, Rebekah Brooks has so far survived, Andy Coulson has been arrested and the British media is in overdrive, hunting down the next revelation about phone and voicemail hacking, covert surveillance, police bribery and political corruption. That’s the story that’s been obsessing me since it began to break on Monday night, with the Guardian revelation that murder victim Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked by News of the World journalists.

Today the final edition of the 168-year-old News of the World hit the stands, and 200 people woke up without jobs, thanks to the decision by News International on Thursday to close the paper.

Killing the News of the World, along with its many other possible benefits for Rupert Murdoch, is an attempt to grab control of the story back – or at least to dilute it. Suddenly, instead of dissecting past issues of the paper to look for more evidence of illegal (or at least immoral) behaviour, journalists are dissecting the final issue. Instead of the possible guilt of former editors, the result is to introduce a discussion about the relative innocence of Colin Myler and his current staff. [Edit: see also Roy Greenslade’s look at the final edition.]

The gesture also attempts to make martyrs of the newspaper and of its existing journalists.  Suddenly it’s almost churlish to write furious diatribes about the past, when 200 forlorn journalist faces are staring out at you from the last ever newsroom photograph. The urge now is to eulogise, to sum up the 168-year life of the paper – and that means the narrative turns from exposing the illegal and immoral activities that have taken place over the years to a gentler summation of the paper’s life – lauding the good as well as discussing the bad.

It’s a hugely expensive and risky smokescreen to throw in front of a hungry set of journalists, but the result is still to change the terms of the narrative. The focus has shifted.

The political implications of this scandal are immensely complicated and far-reaching, but what I find most fascinating is the idea that the Murdoch empire had an interest in keeping politicians corrupt. If your power rests in part on your ability to unmask corruption – in selectively dishing dirt on those politicians who don’t do what you want – then in fact you have an incentive to ensure that there is a skeleton in everyone’s closet, and that you have the ability to expose it. You have a vested interest in building up the careers of celebrities whose secrets you can use to sell papers. The more corrupt the people at the top – the more dirty secrets you have on the most powerful politicians and policemen – the more control and power you wield.

Thanks to its 2.7m circulation and an estimated readership of about 8m, the News of the World was a kingmaker and a kingbreaker. But those readers won’t just disappear into the ether. The media landscape in the UK is undergoing seismic change not just because of the newspaper closure and the potential damage to other News International titles, but also because we don’t know where those loyal tabloid readers will end up. Presumably a Sunday edition of the Sun would snap them up immediately – so long as it wasn’t dead in the water from the News of the World fallout. But it will be very interesting to see whether the other Sunday papers see a circulation bump in the wake of the death of the Screws – or where the paper’s online readers will migrate to other mainstream titles, or disappear off to celebrity blogs or fragmented new media.

If the mass audience fragments, that could permanently reshape the hierarchy of power in this country in ways that are impossible to predict. We have already seen the power of the network in driving the story forwards. We have already seen a massive shift in power, with politicians openly attacking Rupert Murdoch, a man who seemed untouchable this time last week.

What happens next is anyone’s guess.


Somewhere in the middle of all this, I start at the Guardian tomorrow as SEO Subeditor. I don’t know what next week holds but I’m immensely excited to be part of it – sad to leave Citywire, hugely so, but so excited.

Birthers, death and conspiracy

As news of Osama bin Laden’s death circulates and the circumstances become more widely known, we can expect a myriad new conspiracy theories to spring up in its wake. But why? What is it that makes people tell themselves stories of secrecy, cover-up, hidden controlling powers and forbidden knowledge? And what is it that makes those stories resonate across American culture in particular?

Peter Knight, in his book Conspiracy Theories in American History, calls conspiracy theories “part of the lingua franca of everyday American life and entertainment”. He traces their history as far back as the first settlers on the continent, and argues that the country’s diversity combined with American exceptionalism to form a particularly fertile ground for certain types of conspiracy theory.

Popular conspiracies, like best-selling novels, solve problems; cultures talk to themselves, telling themselves soothing tales that may or may not accurately reflect reality. Where off-beat narratives like Roswell or the Illuminati flourish, they do so because they resolve some conflict within society that causes anxiety.

In 1964 Richard Hofstadter wrote a seminal essay diagnosing a paranoid style in American politics. At that time it was easy to characterise conspiratorial viewpoints as being held only by the fringe elements of society; since then conspiracy theories have hit the mainstream again. JFK’s assassination, international banking, the moon landings, alien abductions, 9/11, the birther movement – all these have captured the imaginations of large segments of the American public.

Conspiracies have tended to fall into roughly one of two groups. Some conspiracies involve attacks by outside groups on America – for instance, communists, Jews, Masons, Catholics or, going back before the Civil War, slaves and abolitionists. Others involve attacks or systematic deceptions perpetrated on the American people by its government or by those in positions of power over it – examples include the belief that the moon landings were faked, the various theories that the US government knew about 9/11 before it happened, fluoride in the water, CIA drug experiments, and so on.

If there is one man who combines these two strands of fear almost perfectly, it is Barack Obama. Simultaneously the most powerful government official in the US, he is also perceived as an imposter, an outsider, in large part due to the colour of his skin.

And, for all that the paranoid style seems designed to increase rather than decrease fear and anxiety, its success comes from the fact that it resolves underlying conflicts in a way that renders them understandable to the man on the street, and less threatening. Hofstadter in 1964 ran down a list of reasons why the American right wing felt dispossessed, and had latched on to conspiracy as a way of regaining control; today, the Tea Party and the current cornucopia of conspiracy represent an even stronger expression of a stronger sense of unease and lack of control.

The birther movement is an elegant synthesis of the two prevailing concerns of American conspiracy theories into one hypothesis: if Obama was not born in the US, then his very existence is both an external attack on America and a mass deception perpetrated by those in power on the American people. Obama represents the threat of both in one body; perhaps this is why the theory has proven so attractive to so many people, even to potential presidential candidates like Donald Trump, to the extent that earlier this week Obama produced his long form birth certificate as proof.

(It won’t work, of course. Conspiracy theories interpret inconvenient facts as damage and route around them in much the same way that the internet does.)

And if there was another man who reconciles and combines these threats, it was Osama bin Laden. He was a vanishingly rare example of the conspiracy theory made flesh, a living, breathing individual who was demonstrably guilty of those terrible crimes that conspiracy theorists ascribe to their enemies. To borrow from Hofstadter again:

[He] is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way.

Bin Laden, while living, was the perfect pantomime villain in this theatre of conspiracy. He already embodied the threat against America from outside groups, and his actions were incorporated into anti-government conspiracy theories as people sought to make sense of the senseless horror and brutality of the events of 9/11.

His death will not lay conspiracies to rest, because his death does not solve the problems that those conspiracies do. His death will not resolve the insecurities that divide America, the fears that have driven the paranoid style to such great heights and made it a prevailing feature of US politics. And the circumstances surrounding the death – a highly-secretive government mission that has left no body to be examined – leave it wide open for reinterpretation.

Perhaps that’s a wise move from Obama. If Bin Laden becomes the bad guy, perhaps Obama can finally lay to rest some of the conspiracy theories surrounding his own existence. Or perhaps that would be one conspiracy too far.