Powerpoints, Bullet Points, and Conferences

A couple of days ago, I sat next to a student on the train creating a Powerpoint presentation. She had started on a slide titled, “Germany’s Policy of Fulfillment” and was pulling out bullet points from a text book. Ten words per bullet, four bullets per slide, lots of slides, each on a small question. I’m not sure whether it was for homework or for a presentation.

In any case, the Powerpoint format doesn’t strike me as a very good way of thinking about the causes of World War Two. The low information density on each slide, as compared to an A4 page, and the inevitably simple structure of bullet points, makes it difficult to express complex or subtle arguments; instead, it encourages a kind of Buzzfeed-ish, “5 top reasons for WW2” listicle.

That said, I still end up writing bullet points in my conference talks about games, partly because it’s expected and partly because it’s easy. So I can’t criticise this student too much.

Part of me wants to do the cooler style of presentation, mostly skillfully performed by Lawrence Lessig, with slides composed of full-screen photos and single words or sentences. This requires much more preparation as you can’t simply read the bullet points from your slide (the worst kind of presentation); although I often worry that the images, usually pulled from Flickr or Google Image Search, are just a way to get cheap laughs (e.g. ironic photos, pictures of cats, memes, etc.)

On occasion I’ll do presentations without any slides at all, and just memorise my talk. Despite the fact that this takes just as much preparation as anything else, I get the feeling that my audience ends up dissatisfied, as if I’m not delivering value for money (or time), or making them work harder by having them just listen to me.

Ultimately, I think conference presentations are a pretty terrible form of imparting knowledge. It’s telling that we decry in-person lectures as being one of the very worst forms of education at schools and universities – non-interactive, non-personalised, and a pointless exercise in assembling 300 students into a single room – and yet we’re perfectly fine with doing the same at tech or games conferences. Is it because the presentations at tech conferences are so much better? I think not. Some are terrible; and some university lectures are wonderful.

Some information and stories are well-told as lectures; some as videos; some as podcasts; some as books; and some in other ways. My feeling is that good conferences are interesting and enjoyable not so much because of good presentations (because if I’m interested in the topic, it’s rare I learn anything genuinely new) but because of the special atmosphere generated by live experiences shared among hundreds of people in the same space, and the conversations that follow.

Things I’m doing

Over the next few months, I’m going to be doing several conferences:

There’d be three more if I weren’t going on holiday to Sudan for a couple of weeks in Oct/Nov. Plus I’m not including two workshops I’m doing with the British Museum about A History of the Future (for kids).

At the games/tech conferences, I’m going to be speaking about some of the new things we’ve been doing with mobiles and in particular, Zombies, Run! At the other conferences, I’m more interested in talking about some new thoughts I’ve had about the change shape of creative work (not terribly original, to be honest, but maybe I can give it a new spin).

So, things are very busy these days between Six to Start and all the extra-curricular stuff I’ve signed myself up to. I’m hoping to break the back of A History of the Future before the year is out (along with Balance of Powers) meaning that next year should be pretty different!

Finally, if you’re wondering why I’m not posting here as much, it’s partly down to the time I’m spending on A History of the Future (22,000 words and counting) and my blogging at the Telegraph. Sorry about that.

ARGs conference slides now online

Most of the slides from the ARGs in Charity and Education conference are now online, in a lovely Slideshare-embedded format. You name it – PowerPoint, Keynote, PDF – we’ve got it. There are also some links to good blog writeups of the conference, in case you want more commentary.

Next time, we’ll record the sessions on video and do podcasts and videocasts and whatnot, but small steps first…

ARGs in Charity and Education Conference

Despite the real and growing interest in ‘serious’ ARGs from companies and broadcasters, there hasn’t yet been a conference dedicated to the subject where people can share knowledge. There’s so much potential for what serious ARGs can do that I’ve worked with the guys at Law 37 to organise ARGs in Charity and Education, a conference being held in London on Friday 5th December.

This one-day conference will be the first in the world to explore the use of ARGs for educational purposes and to aid charities. With speakers from the BBC, Channel 4, Oil Productions, Six to Start, Leicester University, Open University and more, commissioners, developers, academics and educators will all be represented.

ARGs in Charity and Education is a great opportunity to learn about the latest serious ARGs around the world, gain behind-the-scenes insights from developers, and also find out what the two biggest commissioners of ARGs in the UK have planned for the future.

Channel 4 have kindly donated a very nice venue at their headquarters for the conference, and all profits will be going to Cancer Research UK. Tickets cost £70 (£35 for students).

‘ARGs in Charity and Education’ is run by Let’s Change the Game and Law 37.

Austin GDC talk

After becoming irritated about putting in a lot of work to prepare talks for conferences, and then for all that work to promptly vanish into the ether once my hour is up, I resolved to do something about it. I’ve bought a reasonably good microphone and have started recording the talks that I give to different people; I am also going to start posting edited transcripts.

The first talk is ‘We Tell Stories: A New Form of Storytelling’, which I gave on September 17th 2008 at the Austin Game Developers conference.


Unfortunately the slides didn’t quite work in this recording, but I hope to start using screencast software for recording talks in future, which will be far more interesting and useful – particularly for one like this. In fact I may end up re-recording this one. There are also things I would do with the gain and such.

This talk starts out well, and then begins to ramble a bit towards the end when I realise I’ve lost one page of my notes. The ending is also slightly uneven, although arguably the most controversial, since telling a room full of game writers that I think most of their stories are mediocre, was enough to make me think I was going to get lynched. Fortunately that didn’t happen, and while some people were unhappy, a majority of people agreed with my basic argument – that we have to do better.

Hay Festival 21

A couple of days after we’d arrived at Hay-on-Wye for the book festival, something in my brain clicked and the whole event made sense for me. The Hay Festival – 11 days of talks by authors from around the world – is a glimpse of the future, a future run by old people. I don’t say this to be facetious, or as if it were a completely negative thing, but it certainly felt like it.

Judging from their handsome website and the excited coverage it generates in the Guardian (their main sponsor), I had the impression that the festival would have quite a spread of ages; a lot of middle-aged and older people, sure, but also plenty of younger under-30s. And while my friends and I didn’t do a formal survey, we all agreed that the average age at the festival was – at least – in the mid to late 40s. Again, nothing wrong with that. But it meant that we felt very out of place at the festival, all being in our mid 20s.

For me, Hay Festival is what the world will be like when it’s mostly old people – civilized, intelligent, informed, slow, fixed in its ways, and going to bed at 11pm. More on that later, though.

Before I get started, full disclosure: I’d wanted to go to Hay Festival for a while, and this year I went with a group of friends from Friday 23rd to Sunday 25th May. In total, I went to 12 events, of which I paid for nine and got free tickets for the remaining three. Those free tickets came from the Festival organisers because Penguin told them that I was an ‘influential blogger’, and therefore qualified as Press. Indeed, when I picked up the tickets on Friday, I also received a Press badge that said ‘Adrian Hon, Blogger’. Somewhat disappointingly, only one person asked me about this, and he was the guy selling Vietnamese iced coffees. Continue reading “Hay Festival 21”

Stories, Games, and The 21 Steps

Today we launched the first short story at We Tell Stories, called The 21 Steps. It’s a thriller written by the acclaimed spy writer Charles Cumming, and it’s set within Google Maps. I’m genuinely pleased by the way in which the design of the experience meshed with Charlie’s excellent story, and so I’d really recommend you to read it.

We Tell Stories has been – and still is – an interesting challenge, because what we’re trying to do is tell stories in a way that can only be told online. We aren’t adapting stories – we’re working with authors to create entirely new stories that are native to the web. In the past few weeks, I’ve called the process ‘designing a story’, and I talked a little about it in a Gamasutra article published today:

The first story looks to use Google Maps in some way – how did you work with the author to make this happen?

What the Google Maps story does is force us to think about the reader experience. While they might not realize it, authors simply don’t have to think about this when it comes to books, since they already implicitly know the ‘design’ of books – it’s words on page, divided up into chapters, and you can flick back and forth pages to look at the ‘story history’, and bookmark pages to keep your place.

The design of books is so great that it hasn’t changed for hundreds of years, and so we just don’t think about it any more.

When we had the idea for a story based around Google Maps, we knew that it had to incorporate a lot of movement – otherwise what’s the point of having a map? So one early idea was a travelogue – a little like Around The World in 80 Days. Another was a thriller, like The 39 Steps. We ended up taking the latter option, due to its frenetic pace, and we asked Charles Cumming, an acclaimed British spy thriller author, to write a story for us.

To begin with, we simply told Charles to ‘bake movement in’ to the story. However, from early on, it became clear that this was rather trickier than any of had thought; it wasn’t enough to have the protagonist walking and driving and flying around the place, they had to do it all the time.

Early drafts of the story saw the protagonist having a very tense discussion for a couple of chapters – riveting stuff – but it was all in one room. Luckily we had a great relationship with Charles and we worked together to incorporate more movement, or references to other locations, in every chapter.

We would often give suggestions about scenes that would fit the design, and Charles was always very open to revising the story and coming up with new ideas. Ultimately, I think it was his flexibility that really made things fit together.

Something that is worth mentioning is that none of the authors we’re working with are particularly tech-savvy – some of them are the completely opposite. And while it does help, it only helps up to a point. From my point of view, I can teach an author about technology and interaction, but I can’t teach someone how to write.

I spoke about the subject of stories and games at Barcamp Brighton on Sunday (incidentally I wouldn’t call The 21 Steps a game, but it is an interactive experience). The Barcamp was a wonderful experience, and I’m sure to repeat it again. Rachel Clarke did a great writeup of my presentation on her blog, and I’ve also included the slides below:

Finally, Anne-Marie Deitering has written an insightful post about digital storytelling and her thoughts on what we’re trying to do with We Tell Stories.

GDC 2007, ARGFest, Google…

Updated with a link to my Google presentation.

Flying from west to east, I can recover from jetlag at about 2.5 hours per day. This means that when I come back from San Francisco, 8 hours behind GMT, I take a little over three days to return to my normal circadian rhythm. I once read that you’re supposed to recover from jetlag at about 1 hour per day, which I really find hard to believe, unless it’s based on some strange sample or is measuring some more obscure physiological parameters. Anyway, I’m pretty sure it’s not health, flying east. If I had it my way, I’d just do short hops westward, lengthening my day instead of shortening it. Preferably on some sort of dirigible.

In a true race against time, I spoke at GDC this year, in a 20 minute session. You can download a PDF of my slides; I’ve added some notes to them so they’ll make more sense. They don’t, however, reflect the tortured thought processes that went into them. When I heard that my session was going to be only 20 minutes (this was after having an abstract designed for 40 minutes accepted), I preferred not to think about the problem. How hard can it be, I thought.

As the day approached, I realised that I wasn’t all that keen on talking about ‘The New Alternate Reality Games’ and the way in which ARGs associated with physical products were the way forward. Not that I don’t think the topic is interesting, but I submitted my abstract nine months ago, and that’s a long time in the ARG world. There was a bunch of other stuff I wanted to talk about as well, such as how to reach a wider audience, and a post-mortem of Perplex City Season 1.

This is when I hit upon what I thought was a brilliant idea – I would make a ‘Choose Your Own GDC Presentation’ talk! I’d give the audience three choices of topic, and I’d talk about whichever they picked. It’s interactive, it’s topical, it’s cute – and it’s really stupid. The reason it’s stupid is because the audience would never unanimously back one topic, and so I’d probably end up disappointing a large fraction of them. And doing the vote would waste valuable time. And I really wanted to talk about all three topics!

So I bit the bullet, and just crammed all the most interesting topics of all three topics into the 20 minutes. I don’t think I’ve done a faster presentation in my life, and which I know that speaking quickly is against the Rules of presenting, I was pretty pleased with the amount of raw information density that I showed – this was no fluff talk, it told people stuff that has previously remained internal at Mind Candy, and a lot of the reasoning behind what we’re doing in Season 2 to boot.

Still, I would’ve preferred 40 minutes.

Thankfully, that’s what I got when I presented at Google last week on How to Make an Alternate Reality Game or Perplex City: A Look Behind the Scenes. There are also videos from all the ARGFest sessions online now, and if you’re interested in ARGs, I’d advise you to take a look – I found them generally very interesting and useful.

I had a great time in San Francisco – so many new ideas!…

Lost and Found

After two years, the Cube has been found, and with it comes the end of Season 1 of Perplex City. A couple of days ago, we launched a new site at perplexcity.com (we call it the Puzzle Portal); it’s still in beta, but there are going to be some good changes over the next few weeks.

We’re also hard at work preparing for Season 2. In fact, we’ve been doing that for quite a while now. I’m remaining quite tight-lipped about what’s going to be in our second season, so as not to spoil the surprise, but I will be saying a few things while I’m over in San Francisco for the Game Developers Conference (I’ll be there from 3rd to 9th March, in case you want to meet up).

My talk at GDC, The New Alternate Reality Games, is on Friday 9th at 12:20pm, and I’ll be talking about new trends in ARGs and the direction we’re heading in for Season 2. I’m also going to be giving a talk at Google on Monday, and a video will be posted on the web at some point in the future. The Google talk will focus on how you interact with ARGs.

Finally, a couple of other Perplex City things. Firstly, come along to the Perplex City Party at the Gherkin in London this Saturday! It’ll be a lot of fun. Secondly, Andy Darley’s story of how he found the Cube is well worth reading. He’s a great storyteller and we’re happy that someone like him found it.

Notes on the Futuremedia TV conference

“No-one’s watching TV any more, and even worse, all this user-generated content is killing us.” That was the cheerful attitude at the C21 Futuremedia TV conference I went to last week. The audience was composed mainly of TV executives, with a smattering of smug ‘internet people’ like myself, who alternately confirmed their worst fears and then told them that they still had something to offer (well, some of them, anyway).

Everyone seemed to be reasonably aware of the difficulties facing the TV industry, although there were many differences on how best to adapt, let alone thrive. As the conference went on and we heard more and more speakers talking about user generated content and how wonderful it was, there was definitely a sour mood among some executives. Anyway, I’ll explain all of this in time. First, to the keynote! Continue reading “Notes on the Futuremedia TV conference”