Back when “transmedia” was an innovative new term rather than a way to describe everything Marvel or Sony or Harry Potter does across movies, video games, and comics – in other words, about 15 years ago – there was a brief craze of “second screen” experiences to accompany TV dramas. As viewers watched the show, they’d browse a website on their laptop (smartphones didn’t exist yet) for extra bits of story, like text messages between characters, or news articles reporting on whatever had just happened on screen. The idea was essentially: why watch one screen when you can watch two for twice the entertainment?
Back in 2008, I designed one such experience for the BBC’s Spooks: Code 9 spinoff. Sadly, our Liberty News website wasn’t nearly enough to rescue a decidedly uneven drama that had been overdesigned for the “youths”. In any case, the second screen fad was quickly forgotten amid the oncoming tide of smartphones and social media apps, which were far more interesting and distracting than any transmedia made for TV shows.
The story wasn’t over, though. As soon as smartphones and tablets became ubiquitous amongst gamers, there was flurry of second screen experiences, this time to accompany video games. Anyone playing Mass Effect 3 in 2012 could install a Datapad iOS app to get messages from crewmates, read the game’s codex, and grind away on a minigame that’d help you see the game’s supposed “good ending”.
Ubisoft, always helpless before transmedia’s charms, built similar companion apps for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, and Assassin’s Creed Unity in the following two years. They were… fine. I found it handy to set waypoints on the map and get bonus items, but juggling a phone and a controller was a lot of hassle for not much benefit, especially compared to using in-game tools.
Evidently other players agreed, and game companion apps are no more. Maybe it was foolish to think they could ever work given how interactive and immersive games are meant to be. But the problem wasn’t the apps – it was that they weren’t giving players what they really wanted. What’s better than a map of where you’ve already been? A map of where’s best to go next.
I’m not too proud to admit I played long sections of Elden Ring with one eye on a tablet loaded with walkthroughs and levelling guides. And while I’m sure there are some Stardew Valley players who’ve never visited the fan wiki to find out a villager’s favourite gifts, or Animal Crossing: New Horizon players who’ve never been tempted to check out a turnip price calculator, I just don’t think there are a lot of them – the volunteer-run ACNH API, which services an entire ecosystem of Animal Crossing apps and websites, gets three million requests per day.
Walkthroughs, wikis, Reddit explainers, YouTube how-tos – they all make games more fun. I don’t think I’d have stuck with Elden Ring if I hadn’t follow a route to get an overpowered meteorite staff early, or to become overlevelled by farming runes. The game’s sheer difficulty – and lack of difficulty settings – seemingly made the community more forgiving of people doing whatever they needed to to make it easier, rather than sneering at those who couldn’t hack it. Despite the help, Elden Ring never got remotely easy for me, but it was a lot more enjoyable.
These companion apps and websites, practically all unofficial and fan-made, smooth over the bumps in games, whether that’s a boss that’s too tough, a level that’s poorly designed, or simply a player who – for whatever reason – just needs a hand for a while. They make games more approachable and accessible. They make games better. But they only exist because people are already excited; a truly dreadful or unbalanced game is unlikely to have the level of community devotion required to create great resources.
Interestingly, few people think of these companions as cheating any more. These days, people are most likely to find them by typing “how to use flasks in elden ring” into Google, as if asking a knowledgeable friend. It’s reminiscent of the “extended mind” hypothesis, which suggests that some tools, like pens and paper – and instantly-accessible online resources – can become so integrated into our thought processes that they’re basically turn into an extension of our minds.
Maybe that’s why one person’s speedrun feels like an achievement for the entire community. With the internet, we’re all playing these games collectively, learning from each other, whether or not they’re multiplayer. And that’s worth keeping two screens on at once.
My favourite weather app is WeatherPro, from Germany. It isn’t the prettiest – apps like Weathergraph have better widgets for the iPhone and Apple Watch – but in my experience it reflects the UK’s changeable weather best of all:
If I look at the icons alone, today in Edinburgh is somewhat sunny, tomorrow is a bit rainy, Saturday is like today, and Sunday is a classic mix of sun, rain, and thunder.
The forecast has been correct for today, at least: as far as I could tell, there wasn’t a drop of rain. Maybe there was rain somewhere in Edinburgh, but it was a nice and sunny day overall.
Apple thinks differently:
According to Apple’s weather icons, every day is the same: rainy. Yes, they all have different likelihoods of rain, but it gets boiled down to “rainy”. Apparently if there is just the chance of a drop of rain, Apple thinks that day is a total washout.
Maybe that’s true in Cupertino! Maybe the risk of a single drop is enough to change your behaviour for the whole day – you’ll carry an umbrella, you’ll cancel the barbecue, you won’t hang up the washing outside (lol, I know you can’t do that in the US).
But that’s not how it feels in the UK. If a day is mostly sunny with fifteen minutes of light rain in the afternoon, that’s a sunny day. It’s not a rainy day.
Today is cloudy, tomorrow is rainy, Saturday is the same as today, Sunday is sunny and thundery. Not bad, as you’d expect for a weather forecast designed for Brits! It fails to reflect the fact that today was fairly sunny, but never mind.
And to hammer the point home, Google agrees with Apple:
Rainy, rainy, rainy, and rainy.
What’s the moral of the story? It’s not just that weather patterns vary around the world, it’s that perceptions of weather also vary. A weather forecast that uses icon classifications designed by Californians is useless for anyone in the UK, and likely many other countries.
The fact it’s so bad in the year of our lord 2022 demonstrates just how little Apple and Google care about the rest of the world.
Almost all of the games I’ve made over a fifteen year career are unavailable today. Of the dozens of mobile and web-based titles I’ve been involved in designing, some of which had millions of players, only three can still be installed. Games are an astonishingly ephemeral art form.
Outside of a few devoted preservationists, most seem resigned to the permanent disappearance of all but the most successful games. When game designer Emilia Lazer-Walker recently highlighted Apple’s policy of removing “outdated” apps and games that hadn’t been updated in the last three years and weren’t being downloaded, many applauded the company for keeping the App Store clean and free of abandonware. In other words, if your game was removed, it deserved it.
Apple’s impulse to highlight the most modern games is understandable, but there’s a big difference between removing games that are still perfectly playable, and simply not promoting them in search results. The latter is a reasonable way to ensure most users are happy; the former uses download numbers as the ultimate arbiter of worthiness.
I can guarantee you that in thirty year’s time, there are obscure games, unloved today, that will be recognised as incredibly important and influential in the history of our art. Just because we can’t predict which they’ll be isn’t an excuse to treat today’s unpopular games as trash.
Apple may be the most egregious offender in its cavalier treatment of older games, but it’s not alone: most publishers and platform owners actively oppose making games better available for study by scholars, especially through emulation (they’re worried good emulators will make piracy too easily). By doing so, they rob form us the ability to learn and gain inspiration from past games, let alone the chance to document and understand the history of game design.
Despite this formidable legal opposition, digital preservationists have made incredible advances in game emulation. These efforts, largely open source and driven by volunteers, range from emulating consoles like the PS4 and Nintendo Switch on the PC, to the Internet Archive’s browser-based emulation of old Mac and PC games. The Analogue Pocket’s hardware FPGA emulation allows players to experience handheld games from a whole host of consoles.
The iPhone is an unusual case. Apple makes installing apps outside of the App Store (“sideloading”) very difficult, so once something is no longer officially distributed by Apple, it really is gone. I’m sympathetic to Apple’s belief that it’s important to lock down phones since they contain so much sensitive personal data, but there are choices they could make to keep older games around longer, such as developing compatibility layers or allowing virtualisation and emulation. In contrast, Microsoft has extended backward compatibility across four generations of Xbox, and even Sony recently created a “Game Preservation” team.
But we shouldn’t leave game preservation up to volunteers and platform owners who might one day lose interest. Instead, we should be inspired by the institutional and legal protections that exist for other media. The British system of legal deposit requires that a copy of all print publications (and now, eBooks) must be given to the British Library for archiving, and five other UK libraries are also entitled to request a copy. The British Library’s Emerging Formats project is exploring whether and how this should be extended to other formats, which could include some types of narrative games, but this needs to happen faster. Games may be “emerging” when looked at from a millennia-long perspective, but art is being lost right now.
In the meantime, the games industry should drop its bad faith argument that games preservation could harm its finances through piracy of games that it might one day re-release. It’s laughable how an industry that endlessly boasts of being bigger than Hollywood and changing lives through art is worried about the lost earnings from researchers – or indeed, anyone – being able to play games from the 80s and 90s for free. Barely any old games are ever re-released and even then their earnings are a rounding error against those from latest titles. The history of our art form is being left to moulder out of apathy and spite.
The British Film Institute has a list of “Most Wanted” British films that have been lost. Among them are Alfred Hitchcock’s 1926 movie, The Mountain Eagle, and The Last Post, a 1928 silent movie unqiue for having been created directed, written, and produced by women. Imagine what we could have learned from them. How could they have been so shortsighted?
In 2007, Penguin commissioned the company I co-founded, Six to Start, to help its authors design stories that could only be told online. Previous storytelling experiments and marketing campaigns had used the internet, but chiefly as a delivery mechanism – a book serialised through emails, for instance – rather than changing the form of the story itself. We wanted to try something new, and original.
Always with an eye on the main chance, Penguin also wanted us to promote its classics, which is why we ended up with stories such as The (Former) General in his Labyrinth, by Mohsin Hamid, Your Place and Mine, by Nicci French, and Alice in Storyland, by Naomi Alderman. These stories were wildly inventive, variously told over Google Maps, within an interactive dungeon crawl, written and read in real-time, and hidden across multiple websites.
When the campaign, called We Tell Stories, garnered hundreds of thousands of readers and won Best of Show at the South by Southwest festival the following year, I imagined it would usher in a digital storytelling renaissance. And instead of giving our work away for free, as so many digital experiments did, we’d help authors sell to this new audience.
This did not come to pass. We went on to make a ‘Young Bond’ spy game with Charlie Higson and an iPhone app with Wilbur Smith, but We Tell Stories and its descendants made approximately zero lasting impact on the bottom line of publishers. Their bread and butter was, and continues to be, selling books – mostly printed – containing 50–100,000 words of plain text each. My company turned away from the publishing industry toward the more profitable lands of smartphone apps and games.
None of this would come as a surprise to Cambridge sociologist John Thompson, whose new work Book Wars(Polity Press, 2021) provides a crisp, systematic review of how the ‘digital revolution’ has shaped the last decade of book publishing. Just as every tech company has had to sprint to keep ahead of giants like Google and Amazon, so too have book publishers had to reinvent their businesses lest they die at the hands of those very same companies.
I am always a little suspicious of accounts of ‘digital revolutions’ since it’s very easy for writers to pander to their audience, whether that’s tech industry boosters with a penchant for regurgitating press releases or committed sceptics who shudder at the thought of reading a book on anything other than paper. Thompson has deftly steered between those poles by interviewing over 180 senior executives and staff in the publishing industry, not to mention drawing on research from his previous book, Merchants of Culture(Polity Press, 2010).
Reinventing the book
An early chapter on the possibilities of reinventing the form of the book, as I tried with We Tell Stories (rather than its delivery mechanism, which Thompson terms the ‘format’ of a book), covers the many attempts to make dazzlingly interactive books on the iPad. Some of these, such as Touch Press’ iPad app The Elements, were highly profitable, generating $3 million in net revenue. But as a deluge of apps drove down the price that consumers were willing to pay, from £10 to essentially nothing at all, businesses couldn’t justify investing the hundreds of thousands of pounds required to make high-quality interactive books.
Despite being on the wrong side of this shift (at least, until Six to Start began making smartphone games), I read all of this with great satisfaction. Why? Thompson’s research was impeccable. The challenges he described, and just as importantly, the figures, all matched my own experience working with major UK publishers in the late 2000s and 2010s.
Those in the traditional publishing industry are likely to skip straight to later chapters on the ascent of audiobooks, the eternal problem of how to increase the ‘discoverability’ of books in a crowded marketplace, and the growth of fan fiction and social media storytelling platforms like Wattpad, perhaps in the hopes of transformational tips. It is unlikely that they will find any, as most of the good case studies will be well known to anyone paying attention (like the importance of collecting readers’ email addresses for marketing newsletters), and with most of Thompson’s interviews taking place up to 2019, the strategies are inevitably becoming a little dated. The value lies more in Thompson’s synthesis of scattered details into a few big pictures.
Take the theme of disintermediation (ie cutting out middlemen), which manifests in crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Unbound but most threateningly in the hulking beast that is Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). KDP allows authors to self-publish ebooks in a fraction of the time and effort required to go through traditional publishers, and gives them access to hundreds of millions of Amazon and Kindle users.
Depending on whether you include KDP in your analysis of the book market as a whole, traditional publishers are either doing just fine or are being utterly dominated by Amazon. The problem is that the exact size and contours of KDP can only be determined through guesswork and inference, which Thompson relates through an amusingly secretive meeting in a San Francisco cafe with ‘Data Guy’, an anonymous software engineer and self-published author who has attempted to estimate the sales of KDP books compared to traditional publishers. The short answer is that as of 2016, self-published KDP authors may have accounted for a substantial proportion of all genre fiction and perhaps more than half of all romance sold by Amazon.
Some in the publishing industry may not feel especially threatened by KDP, treating it instead as an R&D facility to identify promising new writers. (Andy Weir, for instance, whose self-published smash hit novel The Martian was picked up by Crown in 2014). It remains to be seen whether Amazon will be content to leave this money on the table, or if they’ll begin to court successful KDP authors to its own publishing imprints.
Speed vs prestige
The latest version of disintermediation to hit the publishing industry, Substack, isn’t covered in the book. Launched in 2017, Substack allows writers to easily publish email newsletters. Many newsletters are entirely free to read, but some writers charge a subscription. Unlike self-publishing, which still has a whiff of the vanity press about it (and I say that as someone who has self-published), Substack has enticed well-known and well-paid authors to join its platform, like former New York Times opinion writer Charlie Warzel and former Guardian columnist Roxane Gay. The top ten publications on Substack collectively bring in more than $20 million a year, and the platform as a whole has over a million paid subscriptions to newsletters.
Writing a newsletter is seemingly complementary to writing a book, but I wonder whether the speed and direct engagement with readers it offers might compensate for the loss of the prestige of getting published. For writers with decent social media followings, or simply those who can keep up with a gruelling weekly (or semi-weekly!) schedule, newsletters can be rewarding in more ways than just making money. Writers – not their editors or publishers – can see exactly who their readers are and who’s paying. They might not get editors, but some don’t feel they need them, and those that do can pay for freelance editors directly.
Substack is notable because it has cracked the seemingly impossible problem of getting readers to pay for non-fiction words on a screen – to the tune of $5-10 a month each, which amounts to roughly £45–75 a year. Email newsletters certainly aren’t a get-rich-quick scheme, but it’s working well for a lot of authors. Just ask George Saunders, whose Story Club newsletter launched in December 2021 and already has thousands of subscribers paying around $50 a year. Publishers need to think what they can do for their authors, lest they face a supply problem as well as a demand problem. Several authors who write about technology and culture have told me how discouraging it feels to finish a book manuscript about, say, the impact of TikTok on society or the growth of remote work, and then have to wait 9 to 18 months before it’s published – at which point their analysis is not only dated but also overtaken by swifter newsletters and magazines. If this keeps up, the best writers on fast-moving subjects may abandon book publishers entirely.
Book Wars focuses largely on English language trade- publishing in the US and UK, which is understandable given that the research was a one-person job. Still, I could have done with hearing more about what’s going on in the rest of the world, and in China in particular, where digital short stories, serialised fiction and microtransactions are flourishing in a way thought impossible by English-language publishers. My father is an avid reader of Chinese historical fantasy on his iPhone, and he was astonished to learn I don’t read fiction in the same way. According to Shaohua Guo’s The Evolution of the Chinese Internet(2020), in 2017, half of the country’s online users – over 350 million people – read online literature through websites, forums, blogs and WeChat.
On the subjects Thompson does focus on, his insights are clear, refreshing and unvarnished, perhaps because he stands outside the publishing industry. He is ultimately optimistic about the future of long-form reading, audiobooks and printed books, all of which have held up remarkably well in our new age of smartphones and tablets. Book Wars is more ambivalent about the future of ebooks, which Thompson believes to be best suited for genre fiction, where books are most often read quickly and linearly, unlike, say, reference books. It seems to me that there is more room for experimentation here, including and beyond Substack, but of course this is a battlefeld littered with the corpses of companies that thought they could reinvent publishing.
Thompson has a long view of publishing, one that isn’t mired in nostalgia. He isn’t dismissive or jaded about the digital revolution, which is exactly the right attitude for any publisher hoping to navigate its turbulent future. As for authors, the new possibilities offered by self-publishing, crowdfunding and newsletters may seem daunting, but they only exist because there are countless people ready to pay good money for good writing. The future will always have a place for authors.
When I opened my Overcast podcast app to listen to the latest episode of In Our Time, BBC Radio 4’s excellent show on the history of ideas, I was presented with this:
Release dates matter. If they didn’t, the BBC would just release an entire season of In Our Time all at once, Netflix-style. Releasing them one-by-one on a schedule means you can concentrate attention and focus audience conversation. Delaying the release of key shows to third-party podcast players by four weeks attenuates audience’s attention, and therefore its influence and spread.
Of course, the BBC is hoping everyone will download its app and the audience won’t be divided. That way it can have its cake (more app engagement and captive eyeballs) and eat it. But even if BBC Sounds was as good as other third-party players, this is hard to believe. People aren’t keen on installing new apps willy-nilly, and since BBC Sounds can’t play non-BBC podcasts, you’re asking a lot of listeners to make them juggle two apps.
Sadly, BBC Sounds is not as good as other third-party players. It’s really quite bad. Here’s a list of where it falls down compared to Overcast:
No speed control (e.g. 1.2x, 1.5x playback)
No smart speed (stripping out silences)
No voice boost (enhancing the sound of voices in noisy audio)
No ability to save and share audio excerpts
No custom intro/outro skipping
List of episodes doesn’t show download status
Requires registration for use
Home screen doesn’t show recently played episodes (instead, it foregrounds stuff I have zero interest in, like music and sports)
Can’t select episode description text
Can’t download non-BBC podcasts
Spotify – perhaps a closer comparison to BBC Sounds – can’t do all these things, but it can do a lot of them (e.g. speed control, better home screen design, selectable description text, etc.).
The bottom line is that BBC Sounds is vastly inferior to other podcast players. It’s been inferior for years and does not show any sign of getting better quickly. In Our Time has been thrown on the pyre of the BBC’s digital empire-building ambitions in order to juice BBC Sounds’ engagement stats, and it’s yet another sign of how far the BBC’s digital strategy has fallen today.
Since the pandemic began, I’ve taken to walking up and down a nearby hill every lunchtime. Every day, I pass the Burns Monument, a Neo-Greek temple commemorating Robert Burns. Normally it’s closed to visitors, but during the Edinburgh Art Festival this month you can visit a sound installation by Emeka Ogboh.
Visiting is free, but I was surprised to discover that advance booking was advised. Then again, everything seems to require booking nowadays. It’s especially intense right now due to the pandemic reducing the capacity of, well, everything, but the growth in reservations began long before 2020. Reservations are accepted, and often now required, at museums, restaurants, bars, galleries, and even parks.
Since I like planning, I welcomed this development. I find it satisfying to put together itineraries for days out and holidays, and since most reservations can be made online, it goes hand-in-hand with the increased availability of transit schedule information on the web and Google Maps. No more crossing my fingers that a restaurant won’t be too busy or we can get into a popular exhibition – everything can be secured well in advance.
So you’d think the more things that can be reserved, the better for planners like me. That’s what I thought, until I went to Disneyworld a few years ago – a place where demand management has become such a well-honed science it makes even the most hardened planners blanch with fear.
Disneyworld is so busy that until very recently (more on that later) if you wanted to avoid queuing for hours at even moderately popular rides and restaurants, you had to make reservations months in advance. You couldn’t make all your bookings in one go, either; I had to repeatedly check back in case more convenient slots opened up.
Once you’re in the park, you can’t sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labour as you get extra FastPass reservations every day, best spent strategically on popular rides to fill gaps between more valuable reservations made earlier. The problem is that since the popularity of rides changes in real time, if you want to be really efficient (and hey, I’m a planner), you’ll want to refresh the Disneyworld app a few times an hour.
(You might wonder why I care about seeing everything so much. It’s partly because I’ve done consulting work for Disney Imagineering in the past, and so I was professionally interested to know what was going on in the parks; but mostly, I find these kinds of ultra-designed immersive themed environments to be endlessly fascinating. Also, hey, Disneyworld is expensive and I wanted to get my money’s-worth!)
On our trip a few years ago, we went on practically every single ride and the longest we waited was 40 minutes (Frozen). Mission accomplished – but at what cost? It was a surprising amount of work for what was meant to be a fun holiday. I suppose I could have not bothered making any reservations at all, but then we would likely have seen barely a third of the things we would have otherwise, and the rest of the time would’ve been in queues. So there wasn’t a great alternative.
The rest of the world is rapidly following Disney’s lead. Whether it’s the Avatar ride in Animal Kingdom or a fancy restaurant in Edinburgh, the goal is to fill every single seat for every single hour, as far as possible in advance, with reservations going to the most valuable (i.e. big spending or committed) customers.
So nowadays, a trip to London or even a weekend at home requires reservations days and weeks ahead. There’s the nagging feeling you’re always being rushed. Are we going to the coolest places? Did we plan too many events, or too few? We’re always checking our watches to know when we’ll need to leave for the next place.
Is this what our leisure time in cities has become? And how much worse could it get?
There’s a view that someone is a planner because of their personality. That’s kind of true, but I prefer to see planning less of a character trait and more of an act, and the act of planning requires resources:
Time and energy, to research options and make reservations – a sometimes frustrating process involving poorly-designed websites and long phone calls.
Knowledge and experience, to know that reservations are even possible and understand which things need to be reserved and when.
Freedom and security, to know your work and holiday and family schedule and budget securely enough to book time weeks or months in advance. The bigger the group, the harder to organise in advance.
Money, for deposits or full-price tickets.
Planning is an inherently privileged activity. Even if you love planning, you’re going to be stymied if you don’t have these resources. Planning is also paradoxically risky for people in precarious situations since it requires you to commit to a future course of action, one that could come with financial penalties if you have to change your mind; but also, penalties if you don’t plan, in the form of fewer options and higher prices. Yet if you’re wealthy, those penalties are a trivial price to pay, and you can even outsource the entire job to a vacation planner.
A lot of people are in the middle – not so precarious they can’t plan a holiday six months in advance, but not so rich that easily write off the loss of all their deposits if their circumstances change. So you exist in this in-between world where you’re constantly trying to decide how far ahead it’s worth planning.
On the face of it, businesses ought to benefit the most from reservations. Reservations allow them to maximise profits by charging more at peak hours and offering discounts to fill quieter periods. Confirmation emails and paid deposits also reduce the chance of no-shows. Finally, the ability to predict demand means businesses can scale staffing accordingly, though it’s easy for this to result in poor working conditions.
But I don’t get the impression that after a restaurant switches on reservations, it immediately rakes in the cash through increased efficiencies. Rather, I suspect the gains are largely realised by companies selling reservation software rather than the restaurants themselves. The software usually costs a few hundred dollars a month, and platforms like OpenTable can charge a dollar per customer (i.e. per seat) for certain bookings, which is a lot given the razor-thin margins of most restaurants.
Restaurants could always roll their own reservation systems and try to avoid the charges, but there are a couple of reasons why they don’t. Firstly, good software is very expensive to develop and maintain – well beyond the abilities of most small businesses, or even a small chain of business. Taking payments and integrating with Apple and Google Pay is no simple task, especially when the rules keep changing.
Secondly, the most popular reservation systems like OpenTable and Resy have grown beyond simply selling software for restaurants to use on their own websites into destinations in their own rights where people discover restaurants as well as booking them. In other words, when people think “I want to go to an Italian restaurant tonight”, they don’t go to the website of a restaurant they saw in the local paper, they just visit OpenTable and click on “Italian”. Booking platforms offer something that simple software doesn’t – the ability to reach a wider audience.
The shift of OpenTable into a platform has seen it sell marketing opportunities to restaurants like bonus points promotions (from $4/cover) and boost campaigns ($3-5/cover) that increase their visibility to customers. This is happening on a broader scale with Google Maps and Tripadvisor, both of which encourage visitors to make reservations directly (i.e. without going to the restaurant website, or even OpenTable/Resy). And those platforms also sell marketing opportunities for businesses to promote themselves.
So it isn’t clear that businesses, especially small ones, are adopting reservations because it’s profitable or empowering. Instead, it may be something they’re forced to do because these platforms have become the new mode of discovery, and not offering one-click reservations harms them versus the competition. And the simple availability of reservations contributes into the pressure for customers to make reservations.
Who’s profiting? The small businesses? Maybe.
The customers? Maybe.
The platforms? Definitely.
The end result of this movement is that our access to real world experiences is experiencing a kind of digital enclosure. The experiences are still there, but increasingly the way in which you discover and access them is through just a few giant companies. That said, our access was never quite free before – it was just gated in different ways, sometimes more explicitly by class or race.
Is there a way out? Well, you could opt-out of real world experiences entirely and just do everything at home, with all your entertaining delivered to you on-demand (and your food and drink, why not). A lot of people already do this, whether by choice or by force of circumstance. The problem is that home entertainment and food delivery are even more digitally-mediated than real world experiences, with entire forms of media dominated by a handful of conglomerates. So while you don’t have to do much planning at home, your options are being constrained in different, albeit more subtle, ways.
Assuming you still want to go outside, you could stop going to popular places: if you go to an average restaurant or bar or museum rather than the highest-rated on Google Maps or Tripadvisor, you probably won’t need to book ahead. This would freeing in some ways, but it’d sharply limit your experience of the world – not everything popular is good, but a lot of good stuff is popular. Sure, some people could manage this, but there are plenty of forces pushing you towards places requiring reservations:
Ranking systems and algorithms mean that average places are increasingly invisible in maps and lists, a phenomenon exacerbated by social media.
The discovery of real world experiences is increasingly happening through sites that promote and earn money from reservations (including Facebook).
If your job doesn’t give you much holiday, no wonder you’ll want to secure the “best” experiences for the little time you have; Disneyworld made a lot more sense to me when I realised Americans have no holiday.
At least some of your friends and family will still like going to popular places.
So there isn’t much you can do as an individual. What can we do as a society?
We could build more stuff! More restaurants, more bars, more attractions, more museums, increasing overall capacity. This might mean less profit for owners, of course, which is a real problem given we live in a capitalist economy. Another problem? It costs a lot of money to build physical experiences, so either you need to raise lots of money somehow (usually from investors who want profits) or reduce costs (possible, but really hard for cultural, technological, and political reasons).
We could also try reducing the gap in popularity between physical experiences, to spread demand more evenly. That would probably require greater redistribution of profits to prevent concentration of market power, and changes to how places are discovered, algorithmically or otherwise.
Reservations are, of course, a hidden way to increase prices, since you can often pay to skip the queue. Usually this is artfully hidden to prevent normal customers from becoming too annoyed (e.g. separate or hidden VIP lines at theme parks), but not so hidden that customers don’t realise the benefits of paying more.
You can tell how desperate a business is for cash by how obvious the “skip the queue” option is. Museums, usually quite coy about how their members can walk into booked-out exhibitions ahead of the general public, have lately been aggressively promoting memberships everywhere. But the best barometer has been Disney’s theme parks, which exist at the leading edge of technology, customer experience, and capitalism.
Historically, Disney has offered plenty of ways to skip queues and reserve attractions more easily. For example:
Full-price theme park tickets could reserve rides further in advance than other ticket holders
People staying at pricy resort hotels could get into the parks earlier than everyone else and stay later
VIP guides, costing thousands of dollars a day, allowed groups to skip most lines
Still, Disney tried not to draw too much attention to these techniques (especially the VIP guides) and even the cheapest tickets still had some access to the same FastPass lines as higher-spending visitors.
One result of this complicated arrangement was that a lot of people (including me) felt they had to spend a lot of time making reservations weeks or months in advance, a ritual that spawned a mini-industry of planning websites and guides. When some of my friends heard about this gauntlet, they were put off visiting Disney entirely.
I saw Disney’s first moves in solving this problem when I visited Disneyland Shanghai in 2018. Unlike other parks, no advance ride booking was possible, and visitors only got a meagre one or two FastPasses per day. If you wanted more, you could buy “Premier Access” FastPasses to skip the line, either for a bundle a rides, or for individual rides. During my visit, the bundle had already sold out by the time I made it into the park, so we had to buy Premier Access Fastpasses for individual rides at about $15 each – not cheap at all for China.
The lack of advance booking meant I was spared the distraction and stress of planning before our visit, which in any case was a last-minute decision (so, in a way, I was advantaged). That stress would have manifested inside the park if it weren’t for the fact that I was willing to spend more money to make it go away, not to mention that I knew how to make the app work. The inequity of paying to jump the queue was not lost on other visitors; I can’t speak a word of Mandarin but I can tell when someone is deeply unhappy seeing rich people waltz past the scary uniformed security guards posted at every FastPass entrance.
This year, Disneyland Paris introduced Premier Access at a cost of €8-15 per ride each time, swiftly followed by huge changes at Disneyworld and Disneyland involving a new “Disney Genie” app. This app sells access to a new Genie+ option costing $15-20 per day that lets you skip the line on rides a few times a day, something you used to get for free via FastPasses. But if you want to skip the line on the most popular rides, you’ll have to pay again, for some undisclosed price – I’m guessing another $15-30 per ride.
As in Shanghai, I don’t think you can reserve rides weeks in advance any more. In fact, you can only really reserve rides when you arrive at the park (or at 7am, if you’re staying in a hotel resort). This is in keeping with another newish demand management idea from Disney called virtual queues, which lets you wait in line for super-popular rides without having to physically stand in line (so you can go on other rides and buy more stuff); crucially, you can only join a virtual queue when you are inside the park. But again, this just shifts the stress of planning from the weeks before park entry to the moment after, whereupon visitors desperately hammer their Disney apps for five minutes to enrol in all the virtual queues they can, and soon, book all their Genie+ reservations.
What of the visitors who can’t afford Genie+? The Disney Genie app is the final piece in this puzzle – it creates personalised itineraries that respond to real-time demand, perhaps suggesting nearby rides with shorter queues. This is… good, I guess? It could level the playing field between app-savvy ultra-planners and more casual visitors, at least.
Disney has described this whole Premier Access/Genie venture as a way to “distribute demand much more effectively through [our] ecosystem.” Ecosystem is an interesting way to put it. I suppose since they own the entire park, they can call it whatever they want, and given the parks’ popularity it’s understandable and arguably necessary that they do something like this.
Where I get uncomfortable is when that ecosystem expands beyond the walls of a private theme park and encompasses entire cities and countries, as the tech giants would surely like to do. When companies like Google and Apple and Tripadvisor seek to own the entire “stack” of discovering, booking, and paying for real world experiences, it’s a short leap for them to create their own Genie that plans everything for you.
Unlike Disney’s Genie, which will only know what you tell it, these tech giant Genies already know what food you like and what brands you buy. They already know how busy a location is and how long it’ll take you to walk there. They’ll construct an itinerary for you, taking bids from businesses for your custom, just as they do online. You won’t even know what you’re missing, because their Genies will gently steer you away from places that you can’t afford. Of course, if you can afford it, you’ll always be able to skip the queue and reveal more options.
All of us will finally be able to explore the world without a care, guided not by own our whims but by algorithms claiming to work on our behalf. Not flaneurs, but fauxneurs.
What’s your favourite museum and what does it look like?
For me, it’s hard to choose between the V&A Museum in London, with its beautiful, endless art and design galleries and its stylish special exhibitions; and the Exploratorium in San Francisco, which does the best job of explaining science and technology I’ve ever seen; and of course, the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, home to an entire 64-gun warship.
But I have no memory of the Vasa Museum looks like from the outside. For all I know, it’s a huge featureless box, just like the Exploratorium. And while I do remember the V&A’s red brickwork, it blurs together with other Victorian buildings across the UK. I couldn’t care less what my favourite museums look like, because what I love about them sits inside their walls.
The new V&A Dundee museum is the polar opposite. With its angular slate-grey profile set against the River Tay, it’s unforgettable. Like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, you’ll see it in every Dundee tourist guide for decades to come.
It just has one problem: there’s barely anything inside. It’s not a museum, it’s an £80 million public sculpture.
A Living Room for the City
I was genuinely excited to see the V&A Dundee when it opened in 2018. I grew up in Dundee, and I hoped the new museum might be just as good as its parent in London, if understandably smaller.
But even before I set foot inside, I could tell something was wrong:
How tall do you think that building is? 3, 4, maybe even 5 storeys of public space?
Nope. There are just two floors the public can enter:
That seems a bit small for a major new museum, but still, it’s a wide building. Maybe two floors is fine if they’re both filled with galleries and exhibition space?
Let’s take a look at what’s on the ground floor:
So, there’s a shop, a cafe, an info desk, and a lobby. But that’s just a plan, right? Surely they added something else?
No, it really is just a shop, a cafe, an info desk, and a lobby. Well, there’s a bit more of the shop out of view to the right, plus some toilets and lockers, but that’s it. Kind of a strange way to greet visitors to what’s meant to be, you know, a museum.
OK, but maybe they’re saved everything for the second floor? Let’s find out:
The Temporary Exhibition Galleries at the top and the Restaurant at the bottom both require visitors to pay, so the two areas the general public can access for free are the Scottish Design Galleries and the foyer, which includes the Michelin Design Gallery.
Here’s the Michelin Design Gallery:
These kinds of temporary open exhibition spaces are often quite small so it’s easy to change them up. You won’t spend a lot of time here.
And here is part of the Scottish Design Gallery, the only permanent gallery in the whole museum:
It’s pretty good! There are lots of fun examples of Scottish design, from video games like Lemmings to sculptures by Eduardo Paolozzi. There’s even an entire room from one of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s tearooms. If you took your time, you could spend a good hour wandering through the gallery’s 550m² of space.
And then you might be done with your visit, because that’s literally everything you can see for free.
You could stump up £12 to see a temporary exhibition, but I didn’t because I’d already seen Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the V&A London. If you did pay, however, you’d get access to Scotland’s largest museum-grade exhibition space, spanning 1100m². And you might really enjoy it! But the V&A Dundee is unusual among UK museums in having only a third of its gallery space free to enter. The Science Museum and the National Museum of Scotland and the British Museum all have big paid exhibition spaces, but they’re dwarfed in size by their free galleries and exhibitions.
Perhaps if the V&A Dundee’s paid exhibitions were particularly good or unique, that would justify their command of the building, but its first two originated from the V&A London (Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt and Ocean Liners) and the third, Night Fever: Designing Club Culture, originated from the Vitra Design Museum. Its first fully-homegrown exhibition, Tartan, only comes in 2023 and is being curated by Jonathan Faiers, a professor of fashion at the University of… Southampton.
Try as I might, I cannot comprehend the decisions that went into building an £80 million museum with barely any space for free galleries, few original major exhibitions, and the entire first floor given over to a cafe and a shop. The V&A Dundee calls itself a “living room for the city“, but that only makes sense if there’s nothing to do in your living room, and you need to pay to turn on the TV.
But doesn’t everyone like the V&A Dundee? Most art critics gave it high marks. Will Gompertz at the BBC called the museum “world class”, going on at length about its architecture. Duncan Macmillan at The Scotsman gushed over the Scottish Design Galleries, saying “it is a delight for us, but it also fulfils the V&A’s duty to reach out beyond the English metropolis which is its home.” Rowan Moore at The Guardian had a rare dissent, complaining the museum’s “oddly distributed space is not actually congenial to the uses advertised.”
(I have never quite understood art critics’ obsession with architecture. One wonders how they would review Sir John Soane’s Museum or the Pitt Rivers Museum, neither of which look special from the outside – or even the inside – but have utterly fascinating collections, easily worthy of repeat visits.)
Visitors were much more faster to identify the museum’s flaws in their reviews. On Google Maps, the most common keyword is “waste”:
Some of those reviews include:
Beautiful building but underwhelming exhibitions. So much waste of space at the entrance and stairway. Only free exhibitions on at the moment… – 3/5 stars, Elizabeth Moser
Visited today, very disappointing, both in the architectural features and the total waste of spaces within the building… – 3/5 stars, Janice Learmonth
Take some photos of the exterior and don’t waste your time inside, was in for about 25 minutes and had been round what was there… – 1/5 stars, Alan Urquhart
Tripadvisor is even less generous, with Dolly Dimples saying, “The building is nice but there’s hardly anything in it. Could be so much better,”, Matthew L saying, “The V&A building itself is a marvel … it is the content (or lack of) inside which left me so very disappointed,” and lbj17 adding, “There is much open space and we were unfortunately somewhat underwhelmed by the internal content.”
To be fair, there was some criticism of the V&A Dundee published in mainstream media by The Herald, but only long after the opening. Lorn Macneal, a conservation architect, was quoted saying, “Externally it is a striking piece of architecture,” but, “the inside … disappointed me. In many museums you enter, such as the Kelvingrove, you immediately see the exhibits, which create a sense of invitation to see and learn more. It has failed in my mind in its principle areas. It is a tourism hub, a cafeteria and a shop.”
Nicola Walls, director of arts and culture at Page Park architects, was more damning: “…When you walk in, the café and coffee shop on the ground floor is more affordable and the more expensive restaurant is upstairs. We talk a lot about these buildings being democratic, but is there a subconscious separation going on?”
So much for a living room for the city.
Finland’s 100th Birthday Present to Itself
At the end of 2018, just three months after the V&A Dundee, a vast new civic building opened in Finland: the Helsinki Central Library Oodi, commonly known as Oodi.
The Oodi is a £88 million box. A box with flowing facades made of lovely materials, but a box nonetheless. It’s a functional shape, allowing each of its three floors to maximise its useable space.
The top floor is the library proper, holding 100,000 books, magazines, board games and video games:
The second floor has a recording studio, synth studio, DJ and karaoke studio, photograph and video studio, digitizing studio, group kitchen, maker space, group rooms, game rooms, among other things. Most can be used for free:
And the ground floor has more space for books, plus a cinema, events hall, gallery, exhibition area, and cafe:
In total, Oodi has 17,250m² of space, the vast majority of which can be used for free.
Oodi opened on Finland’s 100th anniversary of independence, which is why it’s been described as its 100th birthday present to itself: a lavish, more extravagant version of something it’s always wanted, open to everyone. A bit like a fancy museum, you might say.
There are more parallels between Oodi and the V&A Dundee: they both cost £80-90 million and their countries both have a population of 5.5 million. But that’s where the similarities end. Oodi has had almost three times as many visitors as the V&A Dundee, and even though you’d think a library is much less of a tourist attraction than a museum, it boasts far higher ratings on Google Maps and Tripadvisor:
I’ve included Glasgow’s Riverside Museum of Transport in this comparison because it shows it’s possible to build a visually-striking museum with a reasonably-sized exhibition area for under £80 million. Not only was it designed by Zaha Hadid, but it has the same visitor ratings as Oodi!
Some Imaginary Questions and Answers
Q: Why does Helsinki need another big library? It already has plenty! So isn’t the Oodi even more of a waste of money than the V&A Dundee?
A: Not only does Oodi has more and different facilities than other Helsinki libraries, but each of those other libraries hit record numbers of visitorsafter Oodi opened in 2019. What’s more, Dundee already had a very good art gallery and museum, The McManus, which has <checks notes> a rating of 4.6 on Google Maps and and 4.5 on Tripadvisor.
Q: It’s not fair to compare a library’s visitor numbers with a museum’s! Most people will only go to a museum once, but they’ll go to a library lots of times.
A: And that’s a bad thing? Sounds like they’re getting a lot of value out of it.
Q: What’s wrong with making a civic building look nice?
A: There’s nothing wrong with interesting architecture, but not at the expense of its core purpose. The V&A Dundee’s is meant to be a museum – a place to see and learn from a curated selection of important objects. If the architecture of the building means that barely any of its space is available to display those objects, then it is bad architecture.
Q: Maybe the V&A Dundee’s true purpose is to attract tourists.
A: There are cheaper and better ways to do that than spend £80 million on a building that ranks 56th of out 118 “things to do” in Dundee.
Q: Who cares? It’s built now. We might as well appreciate it.
A: We should all care how £80 million of public money is spent. In Helsinki, it was enough to build a library that’s become the envy of the world. In Dundee, it was wasted on a bauble with such a miserly amount of useful public space it barely deserves to be called a museum.
Can It Be Saved?
In July 2020, Leonie Bell was announced as the new director of the V&A Dundee. Bell told The Courier, “I accept the criticism we have had about space,” and noted that during the pandemic, the museum converted its ground floor cafe into an exhibition. She added, “This is not about looking back and thinking that what happened wasn’t right. We are only two years old and have been closed for part of that time. We are still learning and we always will be learning. Buildings are always places of change.”
Some buildings can change enormously. MIT’s famous Building 20, the “plywood palace”, was ugly and cheap, but it had many different uses over its 55 year lifespan because its box-like structure made it easy to modify the interior. The V&A Dundee is no Building 20 – just look at its plans. Its striking architecture makes major changes incredibly difficult.
What about smaller changes? Well, even if some or all of its ground floor cafe and shop were to be permanently converted into an exhibition, it would be a small exhibition sitting in a space manifestly not designed for exhibitions. It’d also interfere with the private events that presumably subsidise the museum, like filming Succession. A daring and admirable move would be to convert the 1100m² temporary gallery into a free or permanent gallery, instantly tripling the amount of space open to the public, but it’d be expensive and I can’t imagine the V&A would be happy about the loss of a venue for its London exhibitions.
I appreciate Bell’s sentiment, but her optimism is mistaken and her reluctance to look back risks the same mistakes being repeated elsewhere. At some point, you do have to look back. Now that we can say the museum was badly designed, poor value for money, and a disappointment to visitors and tourists compared to other Dundee attractions, we can ask: why did this happen?
The current staff aren’t to blame, and I’m sure they’ll do the best with what they were given. The fault lies with its original designers. All of the problems of the V&A Dundee’s design were foreseeable, which means they either didn’t consult outside experts, or they didn’t listen to them. If Scottish journalists ever rouse themselves to investigate, I hope those decision-makers are held accountable.
What they did was civic malpractice and one day it will become a textbook example of how not to build a museum.
I live in Edinburgh, and I’m CEO of Six to Start. I’ve consulted for The British Museum and the V&A Museum on digital culture and games.
I was lead designer of We Tell Stories, an online storytelling project included in the MOMA’s Talk to Me exhibition in 2011, along with Zombies, Run!, nominated for the Design Museum’s “Design of the Year” Award in 2013. My book, A History of the Future in 100 Objects, was the subject of an exhibition at The Shanghai Project, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist in 2016-17.
Last week, I delivered the first draft of “Untitled Gamification Book” to my editor. I think it’s going to be a good book! It should have something new for even the most familiar with gamification, but it’s accessible for people who’ve never heard the word at all. I hope it will delight and annoy everyone in equal measure. But this is not the time for self-promotion, with the publication date still unannounced.
It’s not the first time I’ve written a book, but waiting to hear the verdict feels very different this time. My other book, A History of the Future in 100 Objects, had a publisher, but it since it was funded on Kickstarter I didn’t feel beholden to any specific person while writing it. I deliberately chose a more traditional route with my new book, with all the good and ill that it entails.
Toward the end of my draft, I struggled a lot with the knowledge that the book would become dated as soon as I stopped writing. Of course, this is an inevitable consequence of writing any book about technology or current affairs, but the protracted book publishing process doesn’t help when compared to newspapers or magazines, let alone websites or newsletters.
But hey, I knew this going in, and it’s a trade I willingly made. Newsletters are good for some things and books are good for other things. Plus there’s a lot in the book that deals with very recent developments in gamification, but there’s much more that looks back years and decades and even centuries, so I’ve made my peace with it. Mostly.
Anyway, now that the first draft is done, I have found myself strangely free of the need to write 500 words a day for the first time in almost a year. Yes, there will be a second draft and a third draft, but I’m hopeful they won’t involve the same kind of existential dread that greets me when I begin a new chapter and wrangle hundreds of vaguely-connected ideas and references into a barely-coherent outline.
I also just finished a whole bunch of commitments I foolishly signed up to at the same time (giving various talks, reviewing a book proposal, etc.), plus the sale of my company, Six to Start, has closed. So I’m doubly clear. Feels weird. But good.
So, what’s next?
I have a few projects I’m eager to start, including an event series for people in Edinburgh involved in everything immersive (theatre, games, escape rooms, museums, VR, etc.), but realistically that’ll have to wait until next year. And I have a long piece I want to write that has absolutely nothing to do about gamification, on the disappointment that is the V&A Dundee museum, but I figured I should take more and just a few days off from serious writing to clear my head. Hence this not-so-serious newsletter!
Games-wise, I’m finally playing Control now that it has actual difficulty settings. The story isn’t quite as mindblowing as I’d been led to believe – chalk that up to spending far too long reaching the SCP wiki – and there’s way too much repetition in combat and environments, but it’s still a fun ride. Especially if you make yourself invulnerable.
I’ve been working my way through Ursula Le Guin’s entire opus. I began with The Lathe of Heaven because it was added to my library’s eBook catalog, then zoomed through The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, and the first four Earthsea books.
I’ve been told to read Le Guin for years; she’s influenced so many of my favourite including Iain Banks, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Naomi Alderman. But when I tried to read The Left Hand of Darkness many years ago, I just bounced off it. Which is fine! There is a time and a place for every book. This time, I’ve loved every word of hers’ I’ve read. In fact, it’d be hard to overstate how influential and radicalising her writing has been on my thinking, especially during the pandemic, and especially as workers have begun to exert their power.
Reading Le Guin feels like I’m discovering one of my favourite writers as if for the first time. There’s a strange sense of familiarity and consonance, but not so much that I don’t feel challenged. And I think of all the authors I’ve read from the 60s and 70s and 80s, her ideas feel the freshest, sci-fi or not.
Another book highlight this year has been George Saunder’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, which combines classic Russian short stories with a masterclass in fiction writing. Turns out the great Russian writers were pretty good – who knew?! I took a lot of comfort from Saunders’ advice, which has a lot of specifics but ultimately boils down to “find out what you’re good at, and stop trying to be a ‘great’ writer”.
On TV, we watched all five seasons of The Bureau, a French spy show that’s been doing the rounds of media hipsters and podcasters. It’s the best multi-season show I’ve seen since Halt and Catch Fire and incidentally features some very fine examples of storytelling-by-computer-screen. I remain beguiled by desktop simulator and phone simulator games and stories and I wish we had more.
We also watched a lot of movies – you can see them all on my Letterboxd! Highlights include The Conversation, Kajillionaire, Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love, After Life, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, pretty much all of Ozu’s movies, and surprisingly, Luca. If you want an uncomplicated, sunny coming-of-age story with a delightful score by the guy who Beasts of the Southern Wild (Dan Romer), this is the movie for you.
I’m about to check out a new Disney+ show, The Mysterious Benedict Society, which I can legitimately claim is research for work (but not for Disney), keep reading through Le Guin, and start outlining my V&A Dundee thing.