“It was one of the most interesting fads of the night, or at least the early part of the night.”

galaxy-april-1965
R. A. Lafferty’s crisply-written short story, “Slow Tuesday Night” (1965), envisions an oddly-familiar world of frenetic hustle where up-to-the-second “trend indicators” chart the fates of fads, fortunes, and families. A mini-masterpiece of time distortion science fiction, this classic short story (along with the rest of Lafferty’s delightful oeuvre) is not to be missed:

Freddy rented an office and had it furnished. This took one minute, negotiation, selection and installation being almost instantaneous. Then he invented the manus module; that took another minute. He then had it manufactured and marketed; in three minutes it was in the hands of key buyers.

It caught on. It was an attractive module. The flow of orders began within thirty seconds. By ten minutes after eight every important person had one of the new manus modules, and the trend had been set. The module began to sell in the millions. It was one of the most interesting fads of the night, or at least the early part of the night. (baenebooks.com)

Read the whole story at Baene Books, or download a .pdf copy here.

Reconstructing visual experiences from brain activity

Despite its length and hard-to-pin-down clunkiness, I always liked Until the End of the World, Wim Wenders’ rambling near-term sci-fi film about (among other things) the psychological impact of a technology that enables the recording and playing back of one’s dreams. In the film, the characters become addicted to the technology, recording their dreams every night and spending more and more of their waking hours reviewing the recordings until their lives are consumed by reflection.

Other movies, like Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days, explore the unsettling social implications of a technology that enables people to digitally capture and play back what their brain sees and hears and feels. More recently, Charlie Brooker’s brilliant Black Mirror (episode 3, “The Entire History of You“) presents a plausible vision of how such a technology could become ubiquitous, and the devastating effects it will have on privacy, intimate relationships, and the way we remember our lives.

And so it was somewhat disconcerting to come across this research conducted at Berkeley’s Gallant Lab. The researchers describe the project as follows:

As you move through the world or you watch a movie, a dynamic, ever-changing pattern of activity is evoked in the brain. The goal of movie reconstruction is to use the evoked activity to recreate the movie you observed. To do this, we create encoding models that describe how movies are transformed into brain activity, and then we use those models to decode brain activity and reconstruct the stimulus. (UCB Gallant Lab)

Right now, to capture these recordings, the subject needs to be positioned inside a giant fMRI machine, so we’re a little way off from the dystopias described by the narratives of Strange Days and Black Mirror. But as the researchers at the Gallant Lab write, “both the technology for measuring brain activity and the computational models are improving continuously. It is possible that decoding brain activity could have serious ethical and privacy implications downstream in, say, the 30-year time frame.”

Strange days, indeed.

Taking risks and dancing with audiences: Andrea Phillips on writing for transmedia and ARGs

I met Andrea Phillips at this year’s SXSW, where she delivered a smart, wide-ranging talk about the representation of women in ARGs. Andrea is a veteran ARG writer, designer, and player, and is the current chair of the IGDA ARG Special Interest Group. In this interview, Andrea discusses her creative process and the formal and technical limitations (and possibilities) of ARGs and other playful forms of transmedia storytelling:

You’re a self-identified science fiction writer working in a very hard-to-pin-down storytelling medium. How did you end up writing and designing ARGs?

I was one of the moderators for the Cloudmakers, back in 2001. As a writer, it was like a lightning bolt falling from heaven. I went through the experience and thought, “That. I want to do THAT.” It took a few years to go anywhere, though. Finally my fellow moderators, Dan and Adrian Hon, started talking about forming the company that would later become Mind Candy. I begged them to let me help out so relentlessly that they had no choice but hire me. I’ve been in the business ever since.

One of the things that is quickly becoming an issue with game and transmedia writing is the sometimes tenuous position of the writer in the apparatus of production. How do you think being an ARG writer differs from being, say, a TV writer or a novelist?

At its best, writing for an ARG is a performing art. When you write a novel, you work in isolation; you won’t get feedback from the bulk of your readers until it’s completed. And with a TV show, production schedules mean the writing is completed sometimes months before a show airs.

With an ARG, though, you can dance with your audience. If they take a shine to a minor character, you can boost that character’s role midstream. If they’re bored with a plot thread, you can catch it early and fix it. And that kind of feedback is addictive to a writer. It can be difficult to get that kind of feedback in other media at all. But in an ARG, you’re doing something close to watching their faces as they read along, so you know when you’re succeeding and when you’re failing.

In the larger realm of production and transmedia, though, I think this causes some logistical problems. A great transmedia experience requires an agility that traditional means of production just don’t have, and the writer can be placed in a difficult position, trying to maintain the integrity of the experience while working within the framework of your production schedule.

In a recent post on this issue on your blog, you wrote that sometimes “there are so many writers working on a project that it’s hard to know whose hand [is] guiding the wheel. But these are solveable problems, and solving them would benefit us all.” What kinds of first steps do you think need to be taken to advance the cause?

The first step would be looking at the kinds of roles game writers and transmedia writers fall into right now, to see if we can find common structures. In games, there’s a lot of support for the title ‘narrative designer’ right now. That’s the person who comes up with the spine of the story, whether or not they ever write a word of player-facing copy. Maybe we need to go in that direction, and separate the narrative designer from the world designer.

And given the performative element of an ARG, maybe we need to be crediting writers alongside actors. ‘The character of Alice Liddell was performed by Ada Lovelace, and written by Marshall Thurgood.’

Shifting gears a bit, I’m curious about how you tackle the complex demands of ARG writing and design. After meeting with a client, where do you begin? What comes first for you, the formal constraints (ie, the kinds of interactions you want to produce) or the story material?

Everything I do begins with a big idea. Sometimes that’s mine, and it springs into existence fully-formed — “What if everyone wrote about waking up with superpowers?” Sometimes it’s the assignment given to me by a client. “We have XYZ requirements and assets. What do you have for us?”

From there, I do a little research and a little bit of what looks from the outside like nothing at all. Going to the gym, walking to school, cooking. The important thing is that I leave my brain unoccupied so it’s free to come up with stuff, like particles popping into existence in a vacuum. As the idea simmers in the back of my head, everything about what the project should look like becomes obvious to me. It feels very much like discovering something that was already there.

Specific story elements come last for me. Tension and pacing and structure are the first things that come to mind, and the specific plot and story elements flow out of that. It’s the opposite of the way I did things a few years ago. I used to think of story and plot detail first! I’m not sure why it’s changed, but I’m helpless to do it any other way, now.

Historically, most ARGs have been event-driven time-released stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. One of the nice things about this narrative structure is that it allows writers to plan (and re-plan, as conditions on the ground shift) their stories in much the same way that they do in more traditional forms: that is, via character arcs, acts, orchestrated patterns of conflict, and so on. However, these kinds of ARGs are usually not replayable, and many people — for many reasons — feel that this is an area where the form could stand to experiment a little bit. What are your thoughts on this?

I agree that we need to experiment more. But the good news is that the experimenting is going on now.

Not to toot my own horn, but one of the things my project Routes did was creating a weekly webisode from the events in the ARG, so you could interact with the live experience while it played out, but there is also an artifact of the experience that gives the project a long tail it wouldn’t have otherwise. In the metaphor of the ARG as a live concert, that’s creating a recording you can listen to at any time. You won’t be able to do all of the same things — you won’t be able to throw your underwear up on stage or smell the guy in front of you — but you’ll get some sense of what it was like to have been there. I think this technique could definitely move into wider use.

And there are a number of entirely replayable experiences, too: Smokescreen, the Cathy’s Book series, etc. The downside of this is that you lose some wonder, some discovery, a ton of reactivity, and the camaraderie of a single community playing along together. It transforms into a different kind of experience.

So can a system for storytelling — that is, a set of story-world parameters and rules of engagement — be considered a kind of fiction? If so, how does this change our understanding of what a writer is?

Oh, it absolutely can. I’d consider My Super First Day to be a set of very loose story-world parameters that I’ve set, and I consider it a work of fiction. It doesn’t make me a writer, though; I only get to be a writer if I also participate. But I’m indisputably the creator.

You may also be familiar with Ghyll and The Song of the Sorcelator, both arguably just frameworks for writer-participants to play around with. This is one of the things I keep playing around with in my personal work, actually; where is the line between a creator and a participant, and how can you blur it in a way that will be rewarding to everybody?

As time goes on, I think the boundary will become ever more nebulous. We’re already seeing major entertainment franchises take a kinder, gentler stand on fanfiction and fanart. That’s the first step in building collaborative culture. The secret, of course, is that once you’ve given your audience official permission to collaborate with you in any meaningful sense, they’re yours forever, hook, line, and sinker.

Where do you see all this going in the next five years? And what’s next for you?

Five years is an incredibly long time. Five years ago, there was no such thing as Facebook or Twitter, and when you walked into a digital agency and said ‘interactive’ they thought you were talking about banner ads and SEO. I think in five years, the entire entertainment landscape is going to look so profoundly different that anything I have to say on it is worthless.

As for me, I have a couple of things cooking right now. I try to do enough professional projects to keep the rent paid, and enough personal projects that I feel I’m always pushing my own limits. But my personal projects are largely microscopic in scale and experimental to the point of self-indulgence. I’m thinking about trying to do a bigger, more ambitious experimental personal project toward the end of the year, and possibly funding through Kickstarter or some such thing. I’m not sure what it would look like, but I feel like it would be a shame not to try. The creative life is all about taking risks.

Thanks, Andrea!

UPDATE: get your own copy of “How to Win at Anything” (pictured above) here

Hypothetical worlds: A better future

The following is an excerpt from my paper, “Alternate Reality Games and Pre-Splash Knowledge Studies: Hypothetical Worlds; A Better future.” This tongue-in-cheek science-fictional paper didn’t work out exactly the way I wished it would, but it’s funny in parts, so I’m posting it here for posterity…

Introduction

For some, the very notion of “pre-Splash Knowledge Studies” (PSKS) is an oxymoron. The academic institutions of the time were notorious for being wasteful where they should have been stingy, and stingy where there was need. Worse, restrictive copyright laws and archaic credentialing rituals sealed off important participation vectors and created an atmosphere of distrust and resentment.

Significantly, one doesn’t require the remove of time and circumstance to make this bleak assessment of the period. Thought leaders clearly understood that crucial components of the academic ideal, such as the free and universal access to knowledge, were “compromised by the current intellectual property regime,” and that the so-called ‘new media’ initiatives put forth by most institutions were “about disciplining the flow of knowledge rather than facilitating it” (link) And yet while this frustration was shared by many within the Humanities, few seemed to know what to do.

Part of the reason for this desperate state of affairs was a lack of examples of alternative knowledge production systems that could point the way. As one scholar noted:

[Reimagining the Academy will] involve developing projects which span disciplines, which link several classes together and [require] students to build on each other’s work, and which may straddle multiple universities dispersed in space. All of this is easier said than done, of course, but we should be experimenting with how to achieve this goal since at this point it is even hard to point to many real world examples of what this would look like. (Confessions of an Aca/Fan, October 2008)

Indeed, despite the incredible advances in network technology and ubiquitous computing that had taken place during the early 2000s, the inherently conservative nature of degree-granting academic institutions meant that official scholarship continued to treat “digitally (re)produced research…as if it were more or less a prosthetic extension and enhancement of print.” Worse, in many cases, knowledge produced in online spaces – particularly collaboratively-produced knowledge – was often rejected altogether. So high was the anxiety about the future that many turned to denial, attempting to wish the unfolding changes out of existence by clinging to the past; in so doing, these actors did their part to set the stage for the cataclysms that accompanied the Splash. Such was the tenor of the time.

On the other hand, it has become something of a Crosbyism to simply equate all pre-Splash knowledge production practices with corporatism, neofeudalism, and rampant careerism. As broadly accurate as these clichés might be, the reality is, of course, much more nuanced. Our research has revealed numerous progressive models for the production of knowledge that were actively explored in various sectors during the decade leading up to the Splash. One such practice, namely that of “Alternate Reality Gaming”, a cross-platform recreational knowledge production activity whose popularity exploded in underground “alpha geek” culture in the years immediately preceding the Splash, has captured the imagination and enthusiasm of our node to such an extent that we have decided to dedicate our centennial activity almost exclusively to its study. By exposing this little-known genre of story and play to a wider audience, we hope to spark fresh discussion about popular conceptions of life and learning in the first decade of the 21st century. Further, by revealing how the ARG community (among others) enacted many of the very practices that would have enabled the Humanities Academy of the time to break free of its self-imposed chains, we intend to make a larger point about the all-too-human tendency to miss the solutions to one’s problems even when they’re sitting right in front of one’s nose.

Full paper: watson-hypothetical-worlds.pdf