Building a vast world with an indie board game: an interview with James Taylor

James Taylor describes his board game, The Gentlemen of the South Sandwiche Islands, as “a strange little logic puzzle with an archaic feel.” It’s a highly engaging game, with a simple set of core mechanics that give rise to some very complex and nuanced strategic gameplay. But the game is just as interesting in terms of the way it incorporates narrative, both inside the game — as an emergent property of the game’s rules and fictional frame (including the great art done by Dan Gray and Jason Pruett) — and outside the game — as a variety of transmedia artifacts. In this brief interview, I ask Jim a few questions about how his game engages players in consuming and producing story both within and beyond the boundaries of the magic circle.

Hey, how’s it going?

Heya Jeff. It’s going well, I s’pose.

Cool. So I wanted to talk to you about the role of narrative in and around your board game, The Gentlemen of the South Sandwiche Islands. One thing that really stood out to me when I played is the way the game provokes storytelling among the players. I know you’ve playtested this thing a lot — what kinds of storytelling behaviors have you noticed during your playtest sessions?

Yeah – I did pay attention to the emergent storytelling in the gameplay. Different pieces will wind up together on islands, and players will sometimes come up with little micro-narratives for these scenarios. For instance, if the two gentlemen characters wind up together, players tend to come up with some biting (British) trash talk between them. In one of the versions of the game, I had a lot of quotes from the characters in the character booklet [that comes with the game]. I spent a lot of time getting those quotes just right, but then I ditched a lot of the quotes because I felt like they were actually getting in the way of players imagining scenarios. I’ve had to stop myself from overdetermining the experience. It’s certainly the difference between designing a game and writing a short story. With a game, people have to meet you halfway with their own creativity.

Which came first, the game mechanics, or the storytelling? What were your original design intentions?

There was a story first. But it wasn’t the story of the Sandwiche Islands. It was a dream about a warped city intersection – and trying to cross crosswalks in order to strategically reorganize a group. The game was dark and it was called The Intersection. (I think I was watching a lot of The Wire at the time.) But it was just a little too dark so I set the game in another time period and I lightened up the narrative.

As for my design intentions: I can’t say I really had any. I didn’t set out saying: “I want to make a novelistic game or a literary game, or an old courtship or an educational game”….or anything like that. I just had a dream about this thing. I got out of bed and stared at a piece of construction paper for a while, then I decided to put down a couple of blocks…or spaces. Somehow, the game managed to hold my attention for an entire year.

For part of that time, you have to understand that I was going through a break up and somehow it was comforting — and a pleasant distraction — to just play out different scenarios in the game. There are hundreds of thousands of possibilities on the game board, and somehow it was soothing to play through these while my head was all disjointed from the breakup. It was a pleasant distraction.

At what point did you decide to start building a world of story around your game instead of just inside of it?

It started with one little detail that I wanted to include. But I couldn’t fit it into the character booklet. The South Sandwiche Islands are located just south of Galapagos and the story takes place about a half century before Darwin. One of the characters, Puff, has a hobby of collecting insects and he’s always mumbling on about stuff that sounds strikingly similar to the theory of evolution. But no one ever listens to him. Again, I couldn’t fit this into the character booklet, so I expanded it into a letter, and then I realized that I had a very detailed and coherent world (and history) in my head that I could include by way of these different letters.

Of course there’s also another story level of the game’s making and creation.

When I saw you the other day, you were working on writing customized “letters” to include with in each game box. You said the idea was that everyone who buys the game is going to get a unique letter written by one of the characters in the story world. You also said that this was turning out to be a lot of work. Could you talk about this a bit for people unfamiliar with this aspect of the project?

Sheesh – I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes too high. Realistically there will probably be 3 different versions of the game that each contain different sets of letters. The idea is that the different sets of letters are all different fragments of the grander historical puzzle. But, yes, even the 3 different sets of letters are becoming time consuming. I just wrote one in the voice of an 18th century weathered British ship captain and it’s hard to get the accent right – I just read a lot Moby Dick and hoped for a spillover…

Perhaps the most fun aspect of the letters is that all (or most) of them will mention someone holding another letter, or writing a letter, within it. For instance, when the ship captain sees Jules, Jules is holding two letters in his hand – and the reader might wonder if those letters will become important, or appear in someone else’s game box. This literary conceit of referring to the actual object of the letters (which later work themselves into the text) is something that you can find a bit of in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, which was published in 1740.

So, in summary – yes the letters are a lot of work; but I think it’s manageable; and I’m willing to do that work because letters somehow perfectly lend themselves to fragmented narratives.

Are there any particular outcomes you’re looking for here — for example, are you hoping that players will begin to communicate with one another in order to share the content of their letters?

(Totally loaded question!) Sure, breaking up the history of the game into these letters is a way, I think, to create a strong fan community. People talk about stories (like movies and books) anyway, because they create a shared cultural experience, so why not let people talk about the content and in talking about it find out more about the story itself? It’s including the socializing process of media into the content. Or the content into the process of socialization.

I was taking Henry Jenkins’ transmedia entertainment class and remember reading something about building vast worlds that are so deep that no one person could possibly collect all of the diegetic information, so fans have to exchange story information with others in order to get a better sense of the story and world.

I think that was what I was aiming for in breaking up the letters into different boxes.

What’s next for you?

I recently turned down a game deal from a small/mid level publisher. They wanted exclusive publishing rights. I wasn’t ready to make that commitment. Instead, I’ve decided that I’d like to see this game sold in bookstores. I think it has literary roots. I’m set on seeing it in bookstores.

For more info, see this post from Henry Jenkins, which includes Jim’s notes on the role of transmedia storytelling in the project. You can find out how to buy your own copy of the game here.

Content management and delivery tools for indie ARG producers

Alternate reality games and other kinds of distributed story/play projects place heavy demands on their creators’ abilities to manage and deploy content. To meet these demands, many commercial ARG developers have built proprietary software packages that streamline and automate the process of managing and delivering content (for more on this [and much else -- including many useful resources for independents] see Christy Dena’s post, “Cross-Media Management Technologies”).

A few years ago, these kinds of systems were out of reach for most DIY designers and artists. This is no longer the case. Thanks to freely-available social media, mobile technology, and web publishing tools, ARG producers with shoestring budgets can now roll their own custom ARG management and delivery systems.
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Futurity Now: Bruce Sterling on Atemporality

Bruce Sterling’s keynote from the Transmediale Festival (6 Feb 2010) delivers some brilliant and provocative ideas about the role of the creative artist in the context of an increasingly atemporal culture. In this wide-ranging speech, Sterling passionately articulates how changes in knowledge production practices and shifts in the way authority is conferred in the context of network culture have permanently altered the “organized narrative representations of history in a way that history cannot recover from.”

To set up his discussion, Sterling begins with a brief hypothetical confrontation between the “Old” Richard Feynman and his present-day counterpart, the “Atemporal” Richard Feynman. Drawing on a memorable speech by the real Mr. Feynman, Sterling outlines how “Old” Feynman viewed the process of generating knowledge as having three simple stages:

  • Write down the problem
  • Think really hard
  • Write down the solution

“Of course it’s a joke,” Sterling observes. “But it’s not merely a joke — [Feynman is] trying to just make it as simple as possible.” This simplicity is confounded by the Atemporal Feynman, for whom knowledge production is at best a much more circuitous and unstable process, and at worst, a kind of upside-down hyperbolic oxymoron:

  • Write problem in a search engine, see if somebody else has solved it already.
  • Write problem in my blog. study the commentary cross-linked to other guys.
  • Write problem in Twitter in 140 characters. see if i can get it that small. see if it gets retweeted.
  • Open source the problem. supply some instructables that can get you as far as i was able to get. see if the community takes it any farther.
  • Start a Ning social network about my problem. name the network after my problem. see if anybody accumulates around my problem.
  • Make a video of my problem. YouTube my video. see if it spreads virally. see if any media convergence accumulates around my problem.
  • Create a design fiction that pretends that my problem has already been solved. create some gadget that has some relevance to my problem and see if anybody builds it.
  • Exacerbate or intensify my problem with a work of interventionist tactical media.
  • Find some pretty illustrations from the Flickr looking into the past photo pool.

Sterling: “Old Feynman would naturally object, you know: ‘you have not solved the problem. You have not advanced scientific knowledge, there is no progress in this, you didn’t get to step three, solving the problem. Whereas the atemporal Feynman would respond, you know, it’s worse than that. I haven’t even done step 1 of defining the problem and writing it down. But I have done a lot of work about its meaning and its value and its social framing, combined with some database mining and some collaborative filtering, which is far beyond you and your pencil.”

More info: Futurity Now!

[Update: A full transcript of this talk is available here.]

Version 2010 Chicago: Sustainable tactics and strategies for communities, resources, and networks

Chicago’s Version 2010 (April 22 to May 2, 2010) is “now seeking proposals and presentations about tactics and strategies that help sustain our communities, find better uses of our resources, and maintain and expand our networks.”

For eleven days and nights, we will explore the best practices and boldest failures in interventionist, participatory, and collective social, political, and cultural practices. This year’s theme is presented in order to bring together groups and individuals seeking additional methods for connecting our networks and creating solid foundations for the practice of art, education and social activism well into the next decade. We want to use this opening during the current economic and political crisis to expand and amplify our shared ideals, values and strategies for survival and expansion. (Version 10 CFP)

Submissions are programmed under themed “platforms.”

  • Free University
  • Live Musical Performances
  • The Chicago Art Parade
  • Performance/ Interventions/ Mobile Projects
  • A Catalog of Strategies
  • the NFO XPO
  • Version Group Exhibition
  • Curatorial Projects
  • Underground Multiplex (Film/Video)
  • Printervention
  • Web Selections
  • The Other

Submission form here. See also the related call for papers from Proximity Magazine: “A Catalog of Strategies.”

Via @glowlab

The amateur operators: notes on early adopters

There are real risks in reading the present moment into historical accounts, but I couldn’t help doing just that as I read “The Amateur Operators” by Susan Douglas.

For those who haven’t read the piece, the gist of it is that the period of 1906-1912 saw an explosion in amateur wireless telegraphy, with boys and young men across an increasingly urbanized America “[reclaiming] a sense of mastery, indeed masculinity itself, through the control of technology.” (191) Wireless kits and how-to guides (some published by the “founder of science fiction” himself, Hugo Gernsback) sold like hotcakes, and in just a few years there were several hundred thousand amateur wireless operators spread out across the country.

This hobbyist culture, at once intensely social — as it inherently involved communication — and potentially isolating — as it required technical skills that could only be acquired outside of the flow of ordinary life — bears a striking resemblence to the tinkering subcultures that have attended the rise of home computing, network culture, and social media. Like the initial “boy wonder” practitioners of homebrew wireless telegraphy, early adopters of computational and network technology have been characterized in the popular discourse as heroes of the arcane, the possessors of secret knowledge, and even potential messiahs. But, as was the case with amateur radio operators, the culture has a tendency to swing in the opposite direction as the technologies and practices in question become more widely embraced and therefore subject to greater scrutiny (and acts of mischief). In many cases this scrutiny has led to calls — rightly or wrongly — for regulation founded on anxieties about safety, morality, and legality (compare, for example, the heirarchically-minded US Navy’s half-pragmatic, half self-righteous outrage at the “leveling effect” of amateurs sharing the airwaves with professionals to academia’s worries over the loss of control over canon or the RIAA’s efforts to distinguish “professional” content from amateur production via vehicles such as tonight’s awkward and remarkably irrelevant Grammy awards ceremony).

Inspired by Douglas, I looked up the 1907 New York Times article that she references in her text, and found in it many parallels to early descriptions of Internet enthusiasts (among many other possible analogies — for example, such fascinated exaltations of the “boy-inventor” now can be found in press coverage of Augmented Reality designers, physical computing tinkerers, Y Combinator whiz kids or certain social networking platform CEOs). Have a look for yourself — the article is here. Then have a look at this gem from the Canadian Broadcasting Company, circa 1993:

Young Peter Mansbridge’s awkward yet strangely fascinating decision to not use the word “the” in front of “Internet” notwithstanding, a final parallel with wireless telegraphy occurs to me as I write these notes. According to Douglas’ account, the wireless boom peaked quickly and came to an end as the airwaves became so crowded as to be unusable. The US Navy, among others, fought and won a battle with the amateurs, despite the latter’s claims that “the ether was neither the rightful province of the military nor a resource a private firm could appropriate and monopolize,” and that “their enthusiasm and technical spadework entitled them to a sizable portion of the territory.” (214) In the end, none of these objections mattered: the airwaves were either militarized or sold off to corporate interests, and amateur radio was relegated to shortwave only (a limitation that caused an estimated 88% drop in the number of hobbyists in the United States). In light of this, could we consider the emergence of “boy inventor” and techno-messiah characters in popular culture as harbingers of public resource conflicts to come?

Smart organic windows: MIT CROMA

MIT’s CROMA group brings together researchers from media arts, architecture, and chemical engineering. The group “aims at developing technologies and use case scenarios for building responsive, programmable, and energy-smart architectural components.” Their “smart organic window” project proposes the use of electrochromic organic polymers to enable touch- and motion-sensitive brise-soleil techniques.

A basic premise of this work is that a programmable and responsive façade element can not only be aesthetically provocative and improve energy-efficiency of architecture, but also has the potential to alter the ways we relate to buildings and surfaces, opening exciting avenues for new kinds of interaction and experience, and requiring new skills and competencies in the fields of design, architecture, and engineering. (CROMA)

I’m curious to see what kinds of game design and storytelling projects will emerge out of CROMA’s research. A variable-opacity responsive window is pretty amazing, but the radical step is using such a window to articulate a ruleset or open up new vectors for communication…


I met Eric Gradman at a meeting of the recently-formed Transmedia LA group; his enthusiasm and sense of humor are as infectious in person as they are in his work. Gradman’s “uncomfortably augmented reality” project, CLOUD MIRROR, is currently on show at the Sundance festival.

The CLOUD MIRROR is an interactive augmented reality art installation… Live video captured by a camera and is re-projected on the wall behind the camera, functioning like a “magic mirror.” But the CLOUD MIRROR software alters the images on the way to the screen. It runs an algorithm that tracks faces from frame to frame and also examines each frame for 2D barcodes printed on attendee badges. By pairing each face with a badge, and each badge id with a database row, the CLOUD MIRROR can identify by name whoever is standing in front of the installation.

The CLOUD MIRROR then augments each frame, adding a thought bubble to each face in the image. The contents of that thought bubble are selected from a set of “tags” associated with that person. Tags come from various sources, including Facebook, Twitter, and SMS data.

When registering for the event, attendees were asked to optionally provide their Twitter name, Facebook profile ID, and to answer the question “Where is your favorite place in LA?” In the weeks leading up to the event, the CLOUD MIRROR software sent a friend request to any attendee that provided that information. The poor trusting souls who accepted this request had their personal profile gently data-mined. Specifically, the information captured was “Facebook updates,” “Twitter updates,” and “Facebook relationship status.”

CLOUD MIRROR also capitalized on peoples’ innate desire to embarrass their friends by allowing anyone to anonymously “graffiti” in a thought bubble by sending an SMS message to a special number containing the target’s unique badge ID. (monkeys and robots)

Update: Eric’s documentation from Sundance and his reflections on some of the privacy implications of the project.

Ambient storytelling resources

This post contains starting points for researching and developing “ambient” storytelling and interaction systems (i.e., stories or games that take place in the background, rather than traditional attention-focusing media artifacts such as movies or console video games). These trailheads and links are particularly useful for anyone interested in designing activities that engage with the existing flows in player-participants’ lives.

Precedents and origins

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Fandom: An Autoethnography

This paper visualizes a sample of my own fan practices by placing them on a simple x/y grid. Based on this visualization, I draw a variety of provisional conclusions regarding a) the role of fandom in my life in general; and, b) its relationship to my artistic practice in particular. Finally, I conclude with a brief commentary on the future of fandom in the context of network culture.

The Grid

This is a blank version of the grid I created for this exercise (larger view). The horizonal axis represents the degree to which a particular practice is participatory, with the rightmost end of the axis representing a maximally-participatory level of engagement. Individual practices are positioned on this axis based on how I answer questions such as:

  • Did my fandom lead me into actively engaging with an intellectual property’s (IP’s) broader fan community?
  • Did my enthusiasm for a media franchise or category result in me attending conferences, connecting with others online, and participating in other events, or did I let such opportunities pass me by?
  • Did I engage with the world of the IP to the point where I began to produce my own extensions to that world?
  • And finally, did my fandom lead me closer to an “active” community of practice, or did I remain within the confines of a more “passive” community of spectatorship?

The vertical axis of the grid maps the degree to which a particular fan practice is “comprehensive,” and addresses the following kinds of questions:

  • Did my commitment to the IP or category make me want to accumulate everything that I could get my hands on related to that franchise or practice?
  • Did I become an obsessive collector of related information and media, or was I content to merely sample smaller portions of the world of the IP?
  • Did I gravitate toward an “expert” level of knowledge? Or was I happy to remain on the surface in terms of my apprehension of the totality of the world of the IP?

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