SXSW PanelPicker: Reality Games to Unleash DIY and Maker Cultures

Want to learn more about Reality? Want another good reason to go to Austin for SXSW 2014? If so, please head on over to the SXSW PanelPicker and vote for our Interactive Panel, “Reality Games to Unleash DIY and Maker Cultures.” The panel features members from our expanding Reality team, including Donald Brinkman of Microsoft Research, Tracy Fullerton of USC, Jason Pace of University of Washington, and me (of OCAD University).

SXSW panels are selected based in part on how many votes they receive via the PanelPicker. So please do vote for our panel — we want an excuse to come down there and see you!

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

What I’m seeing at SXSWi

I’ll be at SXSWi from Friday, March 12th until Monday, March 15th (view my conference profile here). Here’s what I’m thinking of checking out while I’m there:

Friday, March 12th

Friday seems a little light, but there are still a few interesting panels:

  • 2:30pm, Day Stage DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Learning I just like the title of this one. Moderated by Anya Kamenetz of Fast Company.
  • 3:30pm, 10AB Jacks of All Trades or Masters of One? “The web originated with generalists – webmasters designing, building, and developing. Today, a web team can have a dozen different specialist roles, each highly-focused. With that in mind, what are the strengths of specialists and generalists, and when are each put to their best use on a project or in an organization?”
  • either 5:00pm, Ballroom B Time+Social+Location. What’s Next in Mobile Experiences? Featuring Naveen Selvadurai of foursquare. “As more devices become location aware, social uses will continue to evolve beyond just who and what, to WHEN. Adding the temporal dimension creates new opportunities for social interaction. Learn about ways to leverage and use technology to add features at the intersection of temporal, social, and location.”
  • or 5:00pm 6AB With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility: The Future of Video Games “Video games are more popular than ever, and new games are delivering all kinds of social benefits, from video-game therapy for treating PTSD, to sims for train surgeons, to alternate-reality games that actually bring people together in real life. Will video games be a positive force for people and society in the future (as they arguably are today)? This panel is co-sponsored by Discover Magazine and the National Science Foundation.”

Saturday, March 13th

This is where things really heat up…lots of great stuff about locative media, physical computing, ARGs, and more.

  • 9:30am, Hilton G ActivityStrea.ms: Is It Getting Streamy In Here? Chris Messina presents. “From Facebook’s newsfeed to Twitter’s relentless real-time updates, the metaphor of the “stream” has taken social networking beyond blog posts and on to rich social activities. Learn about ActivityStrea.ms – the open format adopted by Facebook, MySpace, and Windows Live – and how it’s fundamentally changing the social web.”
  • 11:00am, 6AB ARGs and Women: Moving Beyond the Hot Brunette Presented by Andrea Phillips. “ARGs are often trotted out as a shining example of woman-friendly games. They boast unusually high rates of female developers and players, and a slew of kick-ass female leads. But if you dig a little deeper, are they just the post-Buffy version of Princess Peach, always needing to be saved?”
  • either 12:30pm, 12AB Design Fiction: Props, Prototypes, Predicaments Communicating New Ideas Presenters include Julian Bleecker, Jennifer Leonard, and Stuart Candy. “Design fiction is an approach to design that speculates about new ideas through prototyping and storytelling. The goal is to move away from the routine of lifeless scenarios-based thinking. We will share design fiction projects and discuss related techniques for design thinking, communication and exploration of near future concepts.”
  • or 12:30pm, 6AB Playing with Place: Location-Based Games and Services “Location based games and services are finally ready to go mainstream. This panel of professionals explores how to creatively craft the experiences and business models for different types of places like backyards, cities, towns, suburbs, exurbs, hiking trails, parks, and deserts.”
  • 2:00pm, Exhibit Hall 1 Opening Remarks: Privacy and Publicity I’m definitely looking forward to seeing danah boyd talk.
  • 3:30pm, Hilton F Moon 2.0: The Outer Limits of Lunar Exploration Can’t pass up a moon-oriented panel. “Space sector representatives will discuss how the use of web and mobile technologies create opportunities for participation in future exploration of the Moon. The panel focuses on how X PRIZE, NASA, commercial space companies, and others generate greater interaction and interest in Moon missions using collaborative platforms and social media.”
  • 5:00pm, Hilton D Does My Sh*t-Talking Really Help Your Brand? Panelists include Ivan Askwith and Amber Case. “We’ve heard that ”all press is good press.” But during SXSW 2009, several panels provoked heated audience debates over a new variation: is social marketing successful if people talk about it? Controversial campaigns such as Whopper Sacrifice warrant a discussion about what really makes social media successful… and what doesn’t.”
  • 6:00pm, Brush Square Park – E Dorkbot Great way to end the day. “Think of it as a science fair with free beer. Ample doses of electricity, tomfoolery, mayhem, makers and music combine to form one exquisite geek talent show. Sponsored by SXSW Interactive, the International Game Developer’s Association of Austin, Mr. Data, Ricochet Labs and the Digital Media Council. “

Sunday, March 14th

Another good day, slightly more tech-oriented.

  • 9:30am, Ballroom E Web of Things – Connecting People and Objects on the Web “WoT is a vision of a Web with more devices than people on it. We extend the Web to the real world by enabling devices to become physical Web resources that follow the founding principles of the Web architecture (REST). We will demo a physical mashup with real objects the attendance can interact with using a simple RESTful API.”
  • 11:00am, Hilton H Here Are Lions: The Cartography of the Future “A new breed of maps is revealing breakthroughs in our understanding of biology, neuroscience, ecology and the physical world. We can now map not just physical geographies, but also genomes, neural pathways, emotions, social networks and ideas. These new maps reveal how society will change over the next twenty years.”
  • 11:00am, Ballroom D Monkeys with Internet Access: Sharing, Human Nature, and Digital Data Clay Shirky’s talk.
  • 12:30pm, 5ABC The 10-Minute Transmedia Experience Presented by Maureen McHugh and Steve Peters of No Mimes Media. “Transmedia experiences ‘- stories played out across multiple platforms: on the web, through mobile and even in the audience’s environment ‘- are going more and more mainstream. Audiences are beginning to expect collaboration in the creation of the experience. What are the techniques to constructing an immersive, compelling 10-minute experience? Transmedia and Alternate Reality Game veterans Steve Peters and Maureen McHugh of No Mimes Media lead this core conversation, where participants will experience the astonishingly immersive nature of transmedia, and discuss the conceptual issues and architecture of the experience. Fans and professionals from any industry are welcome.”
  • 3:30pm, Ballroom C Revenge Of Kick-Ass Mash-Ups with Punk Rock APIs More punk DIY stuff. “Last time we wrote an API layer for a dozen different sites and services, using nothing but free online tools and client-side JavaScript. This time we’ll crack into client-side OAuth. This time actual working code WILL BE WRITTEN BY YOU. This time … it’s personal.”
  • 7:00pm, Austin Grand Ballroom 13th Annual SXSW Web Awards Ceremony “The Web Awards Ceremony is the centerpiece of evening activities at the SXSW Interactive Festival and an event not to be missed. Hosted by Doug Benson with special surprises in store for the big ‘lucky 13’!”

Monday, March 15th

Some really great panels today — unfortunately I have to leave late in the afternoon…

  • 9:30am, Hilton K Interactive Documentaries: A Multidimensional Narrative Panel features my friends from Take Action Games. “Documentaries are just not about ‘documenting’ an event – they interpret and synthesize many sources of information to explain a situation or express a specific point of view. So where does the user interact with this specific project? How can the users input influence the content and the creators? Meet interactive documentary producers to hear how they approach their medium. Learn what’s new when designing a weaving narrative and how do you make it engaging.”
  • 1:10pm, 12AB Hyperlocal Focus: Growing A Vibrant Community Media Ecosystem “Filmmakers, videobloggers, podcasters, pirate & low-power radio jocks and public access TV producers are all creating content in your local community, but they often don’t collaborate or even talk to each other, despite using the same tools and sometimes even seeking the same audiences. A 15 year-old videoblogger and a 50 year-old technical director at a local network TV affiliate may have a lot to learn from each other, but in what context would they ever meet? How can you engage local content creators and build a vibrant media community? This session is about how to create (and utilize) healthy, sustainable user-generated media scenes in local communities, using community media centers, creative salons, non-profit media arts foundations, citizen journalism organizations and grass roots organizing principals.”
  • 5:20pm, 12AB Transmedia Storytelling – Creating Stories That Work Over all Platforms Presented by James Milward of Secret Location fame. “Why and how are narrative worlds, be it traditional Film, Television, or New Media stories expanding across different media outlets and platforms? What are the emerging features of ‘Transmedia’ behavior, consumption and production? What do these new forms of storytelling, product and service design and branding tell us about future convergence of culture and technology?”

…and if I could stay until Tuesday, I definitely wouldn’t miss:

  • 9:30am, 6AB Playing with 140 Characters: Designing Games for Twitter “Twitter: a strange new platform for games. In this panel, the design collective Local No. 12 discusses how they have learned to work within the tight constraints of Twitter, while exploring new forms of gameplay and social interaction. This session will cover the state of games on Twitter, what has and hasn’t worked, and best practices for creating games for this platform.”
  • 11:00am, 6AB Pervasive Games and Playful Experiences: Rendering the Real World “The most photorealistic, networked environment you can play in is real life. Mobile internet, pervasive gaming and sensor-enriched public spaces enable new possibilities in game-play, distributed story-telling and immersive events. Building on previous SXSW events, leading practitioners will explore the ethics, design challenges and business potential of this new form. This session is supported by UK Trade & Investment and Arts Council, England.”

What have I left out? Let me know via twitter or in the comments. See you in Austin!

Adrian Hon: Turning the Whole World into Disneyland

westorriesscreen2

Adrian Hon’s company, Six to Start, won Best in Show at this week’s SXSW Web Awards for their project, Telling Stories. In an interview with Marshall Kirkpatrick, Hon talks up the nascent potential of ubicomp storytelling:

“Soon people will realize that there is no ‘mobile internet’ – there is only the Internet,” he says. “And stories are everywhere.” Hon says web content today is like the early days of TV, when all anyone could think to do was broadcast actors from the theater in the new medium. But new types of media enable fundamentally new types of content and experiences.

For example, we’re just beginning to learn how to leverage the web’s social connections, Hon says. He points to the first iteration of “urban games” as something rudimentary that won’t last: groups of people organizing online to meet in person dressed, let’s say, as Pac-man characters, running through city streets and posting videos of their adventures on YouTube. “Those games ask people to get up and do something they don’t really want to do,” Hon says.

Instead, he believes that the future of interactive story telling will be pervasive – it will be available throughout your typical day. Walking to work, even while at work.

“I have no idea what we can produce in this medium,” he said, “but I think it’s going to be like turning the whole world into Disney Land.” (readwriteweb)

Echoes of Spook Country

H/T Scott Fisher