Teaching ARG Design to teenagers

The vision: Eager teens, listening quietly and attentively as I led a discussion about alternate reality games.

The reality: Thirty seconds into my prepared spiel, there were four hands waving in the air and the kids at the back were already talking. “Oh boy,” I thought, hoping to make a quantum leap out of here, but it didn’t happen.

Three exhausting hours later, and what might be the world’s first ARG Design Workshop for teenagers was over. I was pretty happy – but even happier that there had been four other people there to help.

Before I get into any details of the workshop, I should provide some personal background. I’ve always enjoyed explaining things, whether it’s through educational websites or in person at conferences. I’ve never done anything aimed solely at teenagers – and I don’t think I have the energy or temperament to be a teacher – but I have occasionally worked with some really interesting and smart teens before, and I’ve long thought that it would be fun to expand and formalise that.

A few months ago, in the course of some work with Channel 4, Six to Start got talking with Roundhouse Studios. Roundhouse is an organisation in north London that gives teenagers the resources to make music, film videos and design computer games, all using some very respectable facilities and equipment. They wanted more multimedia and game design classes, we wanted to talk to some teenagers – it was meant to be.


When Claire (also from STS) and I sat down to plan the workshop, we had two big problems: we had no idea how many teens would be in the workshop (other than ‘definitely more than two’), and even worse, we didn’t know how old they would be. Our listing in the Roundhouse brochure was for teenagers aged from 13 to 18 – that’s wide as it is, but we knew that kids as young as 11 might turn up. No doubt they’d all be smart and at least somewhat engaged, but there’s a world of difference between 11 and 18.

From this tricky position, we came up with the following structure. We were well aware that it wouldn’t fully survive contact with reality and that we’d have to improvise, but it looked something like this: Continue reading “Teaching ARG Design to teenagers”

Creating ‘The (Former) General’

I love all the stories in We Tell Stories, but I do have favourites. Back when we were planning the six week schedule for the stories, we decided to structure it like an album – start with a bang, and end with a bang.

The first story was The 21 Steps by Charles Cumming. It was the most visually striking of all six stories, using the Google Maps engine, and we knew that it would generate quite a bit of buzz among the tech crowd, so it seemed like a natural choice to open with. It certainly paid off – The 21 Steps has now been read over 150,000 times, which is more than all of Charles Cumming’s book sales put together. I believe he told BBC Radio Scotland that he was now better known for The 21 Steps than his books, which I don’t think is an overstatement.

I had the idea to create a story in Google Maps some time ago, long before we got in touch with Penguin, and I feel that it’s a rather obvious idea. I’m happy that we made it, of course, but I don’t think it’s the most mind-blowingly original thing that I’ve come up with. We excelled more in implementation and interface design rather than in ‘story architecture’*. When it comes to originality though, I am most proud of the design we made for the final story, Mohsin Hamid’s The (Former) General In His Labyrinth.

* This is a term suggested by Nina Rastogi, who mentioned it when I was struggling to describe exactly what it was that I did for this project. The stories aren’t games, so I didn’t do game design, but they aren’t ‘just’ stories either; they each have a unique design. Or architecture. It works for now, anyway.

Right at the start of development for We Tell Stories, Jeremy (from Penguin) expressed a strong interest in doing a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA)-style story. On the one hand, I can completely see why – it’s a fun style and it certainly fits the web, what with hyperlinks and so on.

On the other hand, it really doesn’t fit the web. People have made CYOAs on the web for a long, long time, and they are uniformly irritating to read. Whereas CYOAs in book format work, since you can keep your finger stuck in all of the branching points that you know you’ll have to backtrack to later, the traditional navigational metaphor of web browsers – back and forward – is just too basic. Coupled with the fact that pages on the web are free-floating rather than in a specific physical order, CYOAs on the web just don’t make much sense. Continue reading “Creating ‘The (Former) General’”

Consuming Passions, Part One

Consuming Passions by Judith Flanders has to be one of the most information-dense books I have ever read. I’m used to blasting through novels in a few hours, but despite finding Consuming Passions extremely interesting, I’ve barely been able to get halfway through its 500 pages after at least a dozen hours.

The book tells the simple yet incredibly intricate story of how the Industrial Revolution changed the consumption habits of British people; from newspapers to holidays to museums to clothing. A lesser (but perhaps more commercially-savvy) author could easily have split this book into five novels; a writer for the New Yorker probably could have spun off several years’ worth of articles. I began putting in bookmarks for particularly interesting pieces of information, and eventually gave up when I realised I’d ruin it that way.

It’s essentially impossible to summarise the book, but there are a few interesting bits and pieces that I’ve pulled out:


Sophie von la Roche, in 1786, wrote to her family in Germany describing the contents of the daily papers (which she numbered in London at twenty-one). The proportion of news to advertisements and announcements was fairly standard:

“The notices in to-day’s paper run: . . .

  1. Plays produced at the Haymarket theatre; names of actors and actresses… following by the prices of the seats…
  2. Plays at the small Sadler’s Wells theatre, where to-day’s programme offers a satire on magnetism and somnambulism in particular, and where tumblers and tight-rope walkers may be seen…
  3. At the Royal Bush, Mr Astley’s amphitheatre; men, boys and girls in trick-riding; fireworks; short comedies and ballets…
  4. Bermondsey Spa, a place where firework displays are held, announces that the scaffolding has been well and strongly made.
  5. The royal Circus; adults and children in trick-riding, children in comedy and pantomime; Italians in dancing and buffoonery.
  6. Two fine large green tortoises for sale.
  7. A notice against some piratical printer.
  8. Discovery of new pills.
  9. Notice of maritime matters…”

This excerpt brought home a few things to me. Firstly, that people in 1786 were really very sophisticated; I’d certainly be interested in seeing a satire on magnetism and somnambulism! I’d always had this bizarre notion that people in the past were somehow slower and less intelligent than we are today; perhaps it’s because we’re trained to view the past through the perfect hindsight-enabling prism of history textbooks. I never really got a feeling of what day to day life was like in my history lessons.

Secondly, I felt vaguely sad that we know so little about life only two hundred years ago. We don’t have many sources for what newspapers were like back then, so we have to resort to summaries like this one.


Early on in the book, there’s a wonderful section describing how retailers, in the space of a few years, effectively invented all of the sales techniques we take for granted today; money-back guarantees, branded produce, paid advertisements, attack ads, puff pieces, and inertia selling.

Inertia selling caught my eye, not merely because it sounds cool and scientific, but because it’s so audacious:

[Wedgwood] pioneered inertia selling, by sending parcels of his goods – some worth as much as £70 – to aristocratic families across Europe, spending £20,000 (altogether the equivalent of several million today), and following up each parcel with a request for payment or the return of the goods. Within a couple of years he had received payment from all but three families.

Wedgwood was evidently the very master of sales, and Flanders provides this brilliant 1770 letter from him to a colleague, describing a whole host of major new selling techniques (marked in bold by Flanders, paragraph breaks by me):

Wo’d you advertise the next season as the silk mercers in Pell mell do,

– Or deliver cards at the hosues of the Nobility & Gentry, & in the City,

– Get leave to make a shew of his Majesty’s Service for a month, & ornament in the Dessert with Ornamental Ewers, flower baskets & Vases

– Or have an Auction at Cobbs room of Statues, Bassreliefs, Pictures, Tripods, Candelabrias, Lamps, Potpouris, Superb Ewers, Cisterns, Tablets Etruscan, Porphirys & other Articles not yet expos’d to sale. Make a great route of advertising this Auction, & at the same time mention our rooms in Newport St

– & have another Auction in the full season at Bath of such things as we now have on hand, just sprinkled over with a few new articles to give them an air of novelty to any of our customers who may see them there,

– Or will you trust to a new disposition of the Rooms with the new articles we shall have to put into them & a few modest puffs in the Papers from some of our friends such as I am told there has been one lately in Lloyd’s Chronicle.

Damn, this guy was sharp. No wonder we still know his name now.

Tip of the Tongue

A phenomenon well-known by psychologists, and pretty much everyone else, is called ‘tip of the tongue’, and it’s described in this American Scientist article:

When we have something to say, we first retrieve the correct words from memory, then execute the steps for producing the word. When these cognitive processes don’t mesh smoothly, conversation stops.

Suppose you meet someone at a party. A coworker walks up, you turn to introduce your new acquaintance and suddenly you can’t remember your colleague’s name! My hunch is that almost all readers are nodding their heads, remembering a time that a similar event happened to them. These experiences are called tip-of-the-tongue (or TOT) states. A TOT state is a word-finding problem, a temporary and often frustrating inability to retrieve a known word at a given moment. TOT states are universal, occurring in many languages and at all ages.

The article goes on to explain that tip-of-the-tongue may be caused by weak connections between words and their phonology (their sound) in our brain; the weaker they are, the more likely it is that you will know a word, but you just can’t recall how to say it.

There’s also a general theory of memory, that we retrieve memories through their connections to other memories – the stronger the connections, the easier the recall. You can imagine a cascading chain of memories of a moment years ago, set off by a particular smell or piece of music from that day; or revising for a exam for months and months, baking those connections in.

What’s interesting is that these connections are now being externalised from our brain, and supplemented by computers and the internet. Here’s what I mean: earlier today, I needed to recall the name of someone who’d won a prize. I couldn’t remember what the prize was, what it was for, or even when this happened. I did, however, know that it would be in an email, and the email would contain the word ‘Jeremy’. So I did a search in my mail for ‘Jeremy’, and a quick scan of the search results later revealed the email.

I don’t relate this to show that I am some sort of search ace; far from it. Plenty of people use searches in their mail, their RSS feeds, their computers, or even the entire web, to supplement things that they already know but just can’t retrieve. These days, the searches are fast enough, and the information kept in databases broad enough, that this practice of laying down virtual connections is accelerating.

I expect that as we store increasing amounts of important information on computers, and we continually improve the speed and accessibility of searches (through, say, silent messaging), we will find it ever more difficult to see where our memory and recall processes end, and where those of our computers begin. We’ll be able to remember far more, far faster – and if we’re ever disconnected from our computers, it’ll be even more painful.