Mobile vs desktop: false dichotomies vs the undead

Nieman Lab, off the back of some tweets by Wolfgang Blau, asks whether in the rush to mobile, some news publishers are abandoning desktop too quickly:

It’s a tough balance: On one hand, news sites have a lot of catching up to do on mobile. On the other, desktops and laptops aren’t going away any time soon, at least for one key market segment: people who spend their work days in front of a computer.

Martin Belam picked up on the discussion from the perspective of a publisher who doesn’t rely too much on desktop lunchtime traffic, pointing out that the Mirror is now getting more traffic from mobile every hour of every day than it does from desktop. (I’d like to know what metric that uses, but that’s slightly beside the point.)

There are plenty of publishers for whom mobile is absolutely going to be the most important platform very, very soon, and plenty more for whom it is already. There are also plenty of publishers designing very well for both, creating designs that work whatever size of screen you’re using, and creating journalism that’s easy to discover and use whether you’re on a bus at midnight or at your desk at midday.

Mobile can’t be an afterthought, either editorially or commercially, for a publisher that wants to survive long-term. But it’s not the only platform that matters, just because it’s the newest and the fastest-growing. We’ve seen this sort of rhetoric before. In fact, we see it a lot.

Mobile is to social as desktop is to search. Mobile is to the article page as desktop is to the home page. Just because mobile is ascendant and likely to become dominant doesn’t mean that desktop is going to die completely. The dichotomy is false. You’ve gotta do both.

Or, to put it another way, beware of zombies.

For Science! The story of The Trial

Grant Howitt welcomes visitors to The Trial
Grant Howitt welcomes visitors to The Trial

When we heard that the Science Museum had put out a call for people interested in running live games about zombies, it seemed like a bit of a dream come true. We’ve been staging zombie games for years, and there’s little more exciting than the prospect of running around the actual Science Museum evading zombies and generally having a good time of things.

What we ended up running, though, was quite different to most of what we’ve done in the past. The Trial became a game with a very simple voting mechanic but an awful lot of deep narrative to explore. It became a peculiar kind of sociological experiment, an exploration of the ethics and morality that go along with having a zombie virus that can be cured.

Me, as Fiona, explaining how I didn't remember any of it.
Me, as Fiona, explaining how I didn’t remember any of it.

The frame of the game was fairly simple. Through text display, film and actors, we set up a story: a world where the WK-23 virus had infected significant numbers of people, causing them to exhibit zombie-like behaviour. Set in the later stages of the outbreak, as the virus was being brought under control, the Trial was ostensibly staged by the Community Jury Initiative, which brought two people accused of unpleasant acts in front of the public, and asked them to pass judgement. Fiona, a cured ex-zombie, was accused of killing a man while suffering from WK-23; Clare was accused of killing a zombie, who might one day have been cured had he survived.

At the exhibit, we had stacks of cards with statements printed on them – a total of 13 statements, deliberately stark and without nuance. Fiona is guilty of murder. Clare should be released without charge. Zombies should be killed. Every entrant into the exhibit received two of these cards, and was then asked to watch a short film showing the attack in which Clare kills a zombie, and Fiona is one of a group of zombies who kill her boyfriend. Inside the exhibit were witness statements, posters, factual information about consciousness, the mind and the law, and two actors playing Fiona and Clare (I was Fiona). At the end, we placed two ballot boxes, one marked “agree” and the other “disagree”, into which people placed their statement cards once they’d made up their minds. We counted the verdicts a couple of times each session, to keep the scoreboard online up to date.

Grant dealing with a small protest movement
Grant dealing with a small protest movement

From my vantage point as Fiona, the experience was fascinating. About a third of the visitors seemed to make their minds up fairly quickly, only perusing the information briefly, and not speaking to the actors at all. Many people read almost all the information we set out, and a few spent a very long time questioning us, poring over posters, and arguing over exactly what we thought about what we had done. One man spent more than half an hour questioning the two of us individually.

The group dynamics of the game worked best when we were fairly busy – which was a good thing, given that we had about 1,500 visitors in total between Wednesday late and the two weekend days. People are braver in groups; we often found people walking around in silence until someone got up the courage to ask an actor a question; as soon as one person engaged with us, a crowd formed and we would be fielding questions from all directions. I’m indebted to our excellent crew, who both encouraged people to get involved with us, and encouraged them to discuss their thoughts with each other.

Me as Fiona, explaining my misdeeds as a zombie
Me as Fiona, explaining my misdeeds as a zombie

The fact we were seated on chairs while the visitors were standing genuinely affected the way people spoke to us, and the power they felt they had to question and to interrogate. Only once in the whole weekend did someone crouch down to get on the same level as me – but that ended up with me as Fiona explaining events to a group of ten or fifteen adults, sitting cross-legged on the floor around me.

The strength of emotion involved genuinely surprised me, as did the level of disagreement.  Groups had heated arguments about which of us was guilty, if either. Some people flung insults at me as they walked past; others patted my shoulder and told me it was all going to be fine. Couples argued. Friends disagreed. One girl spent ten minutes trying to get me to agree that zombies were basically just like bears. A father encouraged his two sons to ask very serious questions, very carefully, before they decided together how to vote. And even though we deliberately put out no pens, a few people felt strongly enough about the ambiguity of the scenario that they found their own and wrote on the cards we gave them, so they could make their own responses.

Statement cards, defaced
“The only cure is death” – statement cards, defaced

I was very proud of the event. I owe a big thank you to Chris Farnell, who wrote an enormous amount of material for the game, Alina Sandu, who made it look gorgeous, Ellen Clegg, who played Clare and became increasingly Daily Mail as the weekend progressed, Grant Howitt, who was front of house and wrote background and script, and George Seed and Matt Barnes, who crewed the event and gave me the most appropriate and necessary coffee of my life thus far.

We got people talking – we made something serious, something big and difficult, and in the middle of a massively fun and light-hearted event we asked people to think about a complex, tricky issue. They responded wonderfully well, with nuanced thinking, complicated questioning, role-play, interest, and intelligence. And in the end, it transpired – terrifyingly – 67% of people who were asked said they’d kill another human being, if that human was a zombie at the time. I think that’s valuable to know.

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

Zombie rights

On Friday, shortly after the royal wedding, five people dressed as zombies went for a coffee together in Starbucks. They’d intended to go to a flash mob in Soho Square, but left after only a few people turned up. They were asked to leave Starbucks by police, searched under section 60 powers, and then arrested for potential breach of the peace. My friend Hannah Eiseman-Renyard has written a thorough account of what happened.

A few thoughts for the Metropolitan Police:

Firstly, people dressed up as zombies do not normally pose a threat to the general public. They are not, in fact, the living dead. Although they may shuffle past you moaning about brains, and may even fake eating each other for a bit of a giggle, the chances of them causing harm to real people are not above average. They are more likely to break into Thriller-style dances than they are to break out into a riot.

Secondly, fancy dress parties in general are, surprisingly, not illegal – even when they happen in public spaces. I know it must be tempting sometimes, especially when you see a really bad Harry Potter costume or a genuinely horrid PVC nurse outfit, but you are not supposed to act as the fashion police. Dressing up is not a crime.

Thirdly, zombies may not be fast, but they can generally shuffle under their own power. Police vans are admittedly much quicker, but arrests are not meant to be used as a way of moving peaceful people out of areas where you don’t want them to be. They’re also not meant to be used to keep London pretty and acceptable while the world’s TV cameras are pointed in our direction. Edit: Nor on people filming arrests and then talking to journalists.

Fourthly, while I understand you can keep better tabs on the living dead when you have them under lock and key, zombies have the same rights as your standard flag-waving patriot. No matter what day it is. We did not turn the law off on Friday. We did not become a dictatorship for 24 hours for the sake of a wedding. Arresting people for acting in ways that are not sanctioned by the establishment is generally not considered to be one of the hallmarks of democracy.

Fifthly, although none of the zombies were charged with any offence, the effect of arrests is to stifle dissent and to scare people into behaving themselves – much like the earlier arrests the night before. There was no violence on Friday and no aggression by this group of zombies towards either the police or the public. No potential weapons or intoxicating substances were found in their bags or on their persons. At best their arrests were disproportionate. At worst they were deliberate intimidation as a consequence of doing something that wasn’t on the official script for the day.

Finally, if sitting in a coffee shop while dressed as a zombie is an offence, I am guilty many times over. And I’ll do it again in future. I will fight for our right to look like idiots while drinking caffeinated beverages, because some things are important.

Zombies and stories

I’m still collecting my thoughts from The Story yesterday – so much to digest & absorb from some absolutely fantastic speakers in all sorts of disciplines. I’m going to blog once I’ve significantly rewired my brain to take in all that was said, but in the mean time, here are my slides and notes from the talk I made (including all the bits I skipped over because I ran out of time). I think there’s going to be an audio podcast uploaded too – I’ll add the link once it’s up.