How to Succeed in Digital Storytelling

Stop the presses: storytelling has just entered the digital age! Every month, daring authors are creating new kinds of interactive experiences that push the boundary of what’s possible, featuring such innovations as ‘branching storylines’, ‘non-linear narratives’, and ‘illustrations’ – none of which would be possible in printed books. These authors are being aided by risk-taking, forward-thinking publishers, and together they are trailblazing paths into imaginative new territories.

You too can be part of this revolution! But it’s not enough just to write a good digital story – the true mark of success is not critical praise, popular acclaim, or financial success, but rather, it’s being covered in mass media.

That’s why I conducted an exhaustive survey of digital storytelling coverage on traditional media such as newspapers, trade publications, and general interest websites. By means of a proprietary deep learning algorithm I developed last night, I extracted the precise elements that will help – or hinder – your quest to get coverage, and assigned each one a point value. Naturally, nothing is guaranteed, but if your digital story ends up with a high point score, you can be confident you’ll be lauded by the likes of the New York Times and BBC.

Without further ado, the guide!:

+10 points if you’ve been engaged by a traditional publisher (bonus 20 points if it’s by a well-known one such as Penguin Random House or HarperCollins)

+10 if you’re an established novelist (bonus 20 if you hate apps and have never used a smartphone before)

+10 if it comes out at the same time as the traditional novel it was so clearly originally written as

-10 if your digital stories have sold more than 10,000 copies (-20 if they’ve sold more than 100,000; no-one likes that populist stuff)

-50 if anyone has ever called or compared it to ‘a game’

+20 if it’s episodic

+20 if its chapters can be read in any order

+20 if it has pretty illustrations that’ll look great in an article (bonus 20 if it has animations)

+20 if you hate Twitter, would never use it, and are prepared to write a piece saying so

+30 if you claim you have never played games or interactive fiction, yet are confident that your story is superior and more innovative

+5 if it does stupid-ass locational bullshit that means the journalist can get a day out of the office to try it out

+10 if the author is willing to say that “this kind of thing is just a bit of fun and will never replace real books”

-20 if it’s science fiction, fantasy, or romance

+10 if it’s based on Shakespeare, Dickens, or similarly out-of-copyright classic authors

+10 if it’s for kids (bonus 5 points if it’s ‘educational’)

+20 if your story involves Google, Facebook, Amazon, or Apple (bonus 10 points if it’s actually made by them)

+20 if your publisher has raised $1 million+ in VC

-20 if your publisher is profitable

-30 if your publisher has existed for more than 5 years

With thanks to Naomi Alderman, who provided essential help on the survey

A Preview of A History of The Future

Two and a half years ago, I began a Kickstarter project for A History of the Future in 100 Objects, a book that would map out the 21st century in a hundred speculative objects. I wanted to cover more than just technology; I wanted to look at the future of religion, politics, sport, food, health, architecture, transport, work, and, well, everything.

That’s quite a tall order, and of course it ended up being far harder than I anticipated; what I thought might take a year took over twice as long. Let’s just say I learned a lot (if you’re interested in hearing more about it, check out my latest Kickstarter update) about how writing a book at the same time as running a company means that you don’t get evenings or weekends any more.

Not that I’d take back the experience. I’m proud of the book. It’s not perfect by any means, but I think that among the hundred chapters that make up the book, from factual articles to newspaper reports to interviews to short stories, there are some new ideas and new expressions of old ideas that many people have never seen before. And that’s all I could ask for.

You can see a preview of A History of the Future right now on the official website, and in fact the eBook is for sale on Amazon and via Gumroad now as well. However, the ‘proper’ launch of the book will be later this month after I talk about it on Radio 4 and at the Futurefest conference, and after it’s available as a physical book — hence why I’m not making too much noise about it.

The energy I poured into the book meant that I didn’t have time to write here. I’m looking forward to coming back, though.

The Many Meanings of The Islanders

After reading Christopher Priest’s The Islanders, I was immediately compelled to figure out exactly what was going on in the story (similar to what I tried with Iain Banks’ Transition). Of course, The Islanders is even more deliberately ambiguous and dreamlike than Transition, and so I’m acutely aware that trying to unknot the plot is perhaps not the most sensible exercise; especially when I haven’t yet read Priest’s other stories set in the same world, i.e. The Dream Archipelago and The Affirmation.

That said, I really enjoy doing it, so: please look away, SPOILERS AHEAD!

islanders
Click to enlarge

In no particular order, here are some of the questions I had, with accompanying speculations:

So, what exactly happened with Commis?

The most straightforward answer is that Kerith Sington, after having been beaten up by Commis (in non-mime garb), really did drop the pane of glass on him; and that this was made possible by Chas Kammeston loosening its bindings and leaving the door open (not to mention putting it up there in the first place, although that wasn’t entirely his fault). Continue reading “The Many Meanings of The Islanders”

Thoughts on consistency in tablet news apps

A few months ago, I finally had what I’d been dreaming of for years – digital delivery of every single magazine and newspaper I read. No more stacks of New Yorkers and Economists lingering on tables waiting to be given away (or more likely, recycled); no more hunting for all the bits of subscription forms hiding in The Atlantic. I was free and the iPad did it all. Even better, I discovered that the New Yorker made far more sense as an actual reporting magazine when you received in on time rather than one week ‘late’ in the UK.

Of course, it hasn’t all been perfect. Each magazine has a completely different method of operation and user interface that conspires to frustrate me in big ways and small. Before a recent trip abroad I dutifully opened up every single content app and synced everything, but The Atlantic proved too wily and when I tried to read the magazine while offline, it sniffily informed me that another update was required. Thanks for nothing. It turns out that because the app delivers both web content and magazine content, it’s often confusing whether you’ve actually downloaded the whole magazine or not.

I shall refrain from going too much into The Atlantic app’s failings (powered by Rarewire) as a reading experience; the fact that it delivers magazine pages as images that are just-about-but-not-quite readable without zooming in; the practically non-existent navigation; the weird text-only mode that is missing images (at least when offline). The short story is that it has very little in common with other iPad reading experiences – apart from, presumably, other Rarewire apps – which is more than enough to cause irritation.

The Atlantic 2

The Economist has been cited as one of the best magazine apps out there. I can’t disagree – it’s simple and it works well. I don’t understand why it isn’t on Newsstand yet, since auto-downloading would be nice, but otherwise I can’t complain. It’s worth noting that you have to swipe left to read the next page though, which sort-of makes sense given its two column layout but is nonetheless at odds with many other apps (other The Atlantic, which doesn’t count).

Economist

The New Yorker is an interesting one. It has the usual Conde Nast engine so the download takes forever and frequently hangs (although last week it downloaded itself automatically, which was great). Despite this, I personally think that the New Yorker has one of the best reading experiences out there. The font size and layout is very agreeable and I like the way in which you flick up and down to read through articles. There are plenty of adverts, but it’s easy to skip them and the multiple navigation options allow me to get to where I want to go quickly (i.e. skip the entire first half of the magazine). If only it were faster.

New Yorker 2

The problem with The New Yorker app, though, is that it has all sorts of weird UI quirks. Articles rarely have genuinely interactive elements, and when they do, they behave in all sorts of strange ways. I gather that red links to supplementary material require you to be online, but I wish they were downloaded at the start. I also only realised last month that you could actually tap the ‘buttons’ on the Cartoon Caption competition page to see the nominees and winners; the buttons just don’t look like buttons. I imagine that a lot of other readers have the same problem of just not knowing what the hell is going on. Continue reading “Thoughts on consistency in tablet news apps”

A History of the Future in 100 Objects

Last year, I listened to a programme on Radio 4 called A History of the World in 100 Objects. It took 25 hours, or 1500 minutes.

In the show, the BBC and the British Museum attempted to describe the entire span of human history through 100 objects – from a 2 million year-old Olduvai stone cutting tool, to the Rosetta Stone, to a credit card from the present day. Instead of treating history in a tired, abstract way, the format of the show encouraged real energy and specificity; along with four million other listeners, I was riveted.

After the show ended, I immediately thought, “What are the next 100 objects going to be?”

Which 100 objects would future historians in 2100 use to sum up our century? A vat-grown steak? A Chinese flag from Mars? The first driverless car? Smart drugs that change the way we think? And beyond the science and technology, how would the next century change the way in which we live and work? What will families, countries, companies, religions, and nations look like, decades from now?

I couldn’t stop thinking about it – it was the perfect mix of speculation grounded in science fact and science fiction. So I’m creating a new blog called A History of the Future in 100 Objects. I’m going to try and answer those questions through a series of 100 posts, one for each object. Along the way, I want to create a podcast and a newspaper ‘from the future’, and when I’ve finished, I’ll put it all together as a book.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/adrian/a-history-of-the-future-in-100-objects/widget/video.html

Before I begin, though, I’m raising money to help pay for the podcast and printing the newspapers and books, and I need your help.

If you visit my Kickstarter page, you can pledge money towards the project in return for all sorts of goodies, including getting copies of the newspaper and books.

(Kickstarter is a very neat way of funding projects through individual pledges. A creator – like me – sets up a project and a target amount, and only if the target is reached does any money get paid. So there’s no risk – if I don’t make the target, then you won’t get charged! Plus they take payments on credit cards from around the world, which is handy and much easier than messing about with PayPal).

I’m really excited about this project – it’s going to be the first book-length piece of writing I’ll have done, and it’s going to combine a lot of my experience from writing about science and technology and thinking about the future. It also touches on a big interest of mine, which is new modes of publishing: I toyed around with pitching the idea to a publisher first, but I want to see how far I can get with the community’s help (that’s you!).

So, if you’re interested in the project, please check out the Kickstarter page and support it – even just a single dollar is really helpful! And if you know anyone who might be interested, please pass the word on.

It’s a brave new world out there – let’s see what’s going to happen…

Yakuza 3: A Serious Game

I fell in love with Yakuza 3 at five different moments. Let me count them:
(It goes without saying that there are spoilers below – but only for the early/mid game)
1. Nakahara’s Pride
Kiryuu Kazuma, the hero of Yakuza 3, spends much of his time cooking dinner and solving petty disputes about pocket money at his orphanage in Okinawa. Still, Kiryuu is a former Yakuza – the Fourth Chairman of the mighty Tojo Clan, in fact – and he does spend the first hour of the game beating up various people in Tokyo (punks, old friends, etc.), but once he’s put everything back in order, he quickly heads home. Unlike other recent videogame heroes, Kiryuu is not bent on revenge, he’s not an amoral soldier looking to make a quick buck, he’s not interested in the least by adventure – he just wants to keep his head down, cook some curries, and take care of his kids.
An eviction notice predictably shakes things up, and Kiryuu (that’s me) heads into town to track down two punks who’ve been spying on the orphanage. A swift beatdown later, and the young men – Rikiya and Mikio – are persuaded to lead me to Nakahara, the boss of their local Ryudo family. I keep expecting to be ambushed by a mob of Ryudo heavies, but instead I walk into Nakahara’s office flanked by two deep and very genuine bows from Rikiya and Mikio – not the reaction I’d imagined, given the humiliation they’d suffered earlier, and it gave me my first inkling that Yakuza 3 might be a little different to other action games.
Inside, Nakahara, an old and heavyset man, explains that he’s owned the orphanage’s land for quite some time, and now he wants to sell it to people planning a huge holiday resort. He doesn’t care much for the resort, but he doesn’t want to stand in the way of progress either, and clearly it’ll bring money and jobs to Okinawa. Even more reasonably, Nakahara offers to pay a decent sum of money for the orphanage – more than he needs to offer, he thinks.
I’ll let Kiryuu speak for himself: “What you say makes sense. But it’s nothing more than selfish yakuza logic. I used to be in the business myself. I’d make up the same of excuse. I always had a good reason for ruining someone else’s life. But I’ve changed. Do you ever think about the innocent children whose lives you ruin? I won’t let the kids at my orphanage meet that sort of fate as long as I’m around. We’re done here.” – but he now sees that as a poor excuse for selfish acts, that in this case will harm the lives of innocent orphaned kids. So Kiryuu stands up, turn his back on Nakahara, and takes his leave.
At this point, I lean forward with my controller. Everything that’s happened in the last hour has been building up to this moment – the suspicious men watching the orphanage, the worried neighbours talking about the eviction notice, my fight with Rikiya, the Lieutenant of the Ryudo family. It’s clear that I’m going to have to fight Nakahara to save my orphanage.
Nakahara doesn’t disappoint me. “I may have spent sixty years of my life here in Okinawa,” he says, snatching up a sword, “but I’m not so old that I’d let a punk from the mainland talk to me like that!”. He swiftly unsheathes the sword, and takes up a fighting stance.
What a setup for a fight, I think: Nakahara’s a big man with a wicked-looking sword, but he’s out of shape. Then there’s me – Kiryuu – not so young myself anymore, but fast and full of energy. This should be interesting.
It is interesting, but not in the way I’m expecting. Kiryuu, very calmly, turns around to face Nakahara and says, “Is this really what you want?” He walks closer to the tip of the blade, as Nakahara looks puzzled. “Do you want to kill me, and put all my kids out on the street? Will that make you happy? If you really love Okinawa, you should be worrying about other things, not wasting your time trying to evict us.”
Nakahara stands motionless, conflicted, as Kiryuu strides away. Pausing before the door, with his back to Nakahara – and his sword – Kiryuu says, “If you want to fight, I’d be happy to oblige. But I won’t hold back.” Nakahara’s shoulders slump, and Kiryuu walks out. End of chapter.
In any other game, here’s what would have happened: I’d have beaten up Nakahara, then beaten up his underlings, and then trashed the headquarters. I’d have made some powerful enemies, and spent the next few chapters dealing with them. Instead, Yakuza 3 has Kiryuu – who we know is fully capable of taking on Nakahara, sword or not – reason with him, and ultimately win him over. I was
, rendered as a computer-generated movie (like all other such story scenes in the game ) complete with impeccable camera work, direction, and voice acting. I’m impressed.
2. Ballistic Missile Defence
Since WW2, the US has maintained over 20,000 troops in in Okinawa, sitting on over 10% of the total land area. They’re deeply unpopular among locals, and so during his election campaign late last year, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama pledged to move them away from Okinawa, or even off Japan entirely. Eight months later, he resigned, principally because he hadn’t been able to make the move work.
Rather presciently, Yakuza 3 makes a big deal about this through a fictional news story. We learn that Defence Minister Ryuzo Tamiya wants to expand the US military base in order to test a new Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system, capable of intercepting nuclear missiles from ‘hostile Asian countries’ (read as: North Korea). The Minister of Land, Yoshinobu Suzuki, opposes the BMD system, instead promoting the massive holiday resort. It soon emerges that the two Ministers have made a deal to let each go ahead, in return for one person being given a clear path to become Prime Minister. And naturally, the Yakuza are all tied up with this scheme.
The news story is impeccably detailed, with the perfect balance of person-on-the-street interviews, shots of protests, and politicians trying to avoid reporters. But what impressed me most was its grown-up nature – this story wasn’t fantasy, it was directly relevant to people in Japan. The equivalent might be a game about immigration or financial reform in the US, or (if it were fifteen years ago) Northern Ireland in the UK.
No-one has the stones to tackle really serious issues in Western games, but to me, Yakuza 3 demonstrates that it can be done, and that it can be successful.
3. Good Bad Guys
Yakuza 3 has a fine range of bad guys, who – as tradition dictates – must be taken down one by one before revealing the true bad guy(s) behind them all. Some of the bad guys are disgusting idiots, but even these caricatures are given a level of style and malevolence that outshines the bumbling clowns of Grand Theft Auto et al. You really hate these guys – you hate them for what they’ve done, and you take real pleasure in taken them down.
I would’ve been happy if the game left it there, but your real antagonist in Yakuza 3 (whose identity is pretty obvious fairly early on) is not the type you’d see in a typical game or movie. He’s drawn with a real sense of sympathy and honour, and his character development arc over the course of the game is a pleasure to watch. Fittingly, you don’t take much joy in taking him down at the end.
4. Emotion and Melodrama
Let’s not get carried away here – Yakuza 3 is still a Japanese RPG, and it has its fair share of melodrama. The discovery of a lost dog is treated with rather more emotion than it really deserves, but I suppose the writers can get away with it because the orphanage kids are so central to the story.
5. Wisdom
I feel confused about the state of storytelling in games. It’s no secret that I think it’s mostly dire. What confuses me is that many gamers – and reviewers – think it’s actually improving. I spent a while thinking about this while wincing my way through such ham-tastic bestsellers like Grand Theft Auto 4, Mass Effect 2, Fallout 3, Modern Warfare 2, and Assassin’s Creed 2, and have come to a startling conclusion: gamers think that cynicism, sarcasm, and irony equals a good, complex and deep story.
Let me explain. It used to be that your average adventure or action game would follow the standard hero’s journey of hearing the call to adventure, teaming up with some allies, bashing some enemies, learning some stuff, overcoming some personal weakness, and then winning.

1. Nakahara’s Pride

Kazuma Kiryu spends most of his time solving pocket money disputes and cooking dinner at his orphanage in Okinawa. It’s not what you’d expect from the hero of Yakuza 3, but Kiryu is a former Yakuza – the Fourth Chairman of the mighty Tojo Clan, in fact – and despite his cuddly nature, he does spend the first hour of the game beating up various punks, enemies, and old friends while visiting Tokyo.

But let’s not be mistaken – once Kiryu’s put everything back in order, he quickly heads home to the orphanage. Unlike other videogame heroes, he’s not bent on revenge; or an amoral soldier looking to make a quick buck; or saving the world from an existential threat; or interested in the least by adventure. The old ‘Dragon of Dojima’ just wants to keep his head down, cook some curries, and take care of his kids.

yakuza-3-ss-8

Which he does, for all of a few minutes, until an eviction notice shakes things up. Shortly afterwards, two punks are spotted spying on the orphanage, and Kiryu (that’s now me) promptly follows them into town. A swift beatdown later, and the young men – Rikiya and Mikio – lead me to Nakahara, the boss of the local Ryudo Yakuza family.

On the way, I keep expecting to be ambushed by a mob of Ryudo heavies summoned by Rikiya and Mikio, but instead I walk into Nakahara’s office, preceded by two deep and very genuine bows from the aforementioned punks. It’s the complete opposite to what I’d imagined given the humiliation I’d dealt them earlier, and it gave me my first inkling that Yakuza 3 might be a little different to other action games.

yakuza_3-ps3screenshots19012bow_down_bmp

Inside, Nakahara, an old and heavyset man, explains that he’s owned the orphanage’s land for quite some time, and now he wants to sell it to developers planning a huge holiday resort. He doesn’t care much for the resort, but he also doesn’t want to stand in the way of progress either; and at least it’ll bring money and jobs to Okinawa, which it certainly needs. Even more reasonably, Nakahara offers to pay a decent sum of money for the orphanage..

I’ll let Kiryu speak for himself:

What you say makes sense – but it’s nothing more than selfish Yakuza logic. I used to be in the business myself, and I’d make up the same kind of excuse. I always had a good reason for ruining someone else’s life. But I’ve changed. Do you ever think about the innocent children whose lives you ruin? I won’t let the kids at my orphanage meet that sort of fate as long as I’m around. We’re done here.

Kiryu stands up, turn his back on Nakahara, and takes his leave.

At this point, I lean forward with my controller, ready for action. Everything that’s happened in the last hour has been building up to this moment – the suspicious men watching the orphanage, the worried neighbours talking about the eviction notice, my fight with Rikiya, the Lieutenant of the Ryudo family. It’s clear that I’m going to have to fight Nakahara to save my orphanage.

Nakahara doesn’t disappoint me. “I may have spent sixty years of my life here in Okinawa,” he says, snatching up a sword, “but I’m not so old that I’d let a punk from the mainland talk to me like that!” He swiftly unsheathes the sword, and takes up a fighting stance.

What a setup for a fight, I think: Nakahara’s a big man with a wicked-looking sword, but he’s out of shape. Then there’s me – Kiryu – not so young myself anymore, but fast and full of energy. This should be interesting.

And then Kiryu, very calmly, turns around to face Nakahara and says, “Is this really what you want?” He walks closer to the tip of the blade, as Nakahara looks puzzled. “Do you want to kill me, and put all my kids out on the street? Will that make you happy? If you really love Okinawa, you should be worrying about other things, not wasting your time trying to evict us.”

Nakahara stands motionless, conflicted, as Kiryu strides away. Pausing before the door, with his back to Nakahara – and his sword – Kiryuu says, “If you want to fight, I’d be happy to oblige.” He shoots Nakahara a determined look, “But I won’t hold back.” Nakahara’s shoulders slump, and Kiryuu walks out. End of chapter.

In any other game, here’s the script: I’d beat up Nakahara, then beat up his underlings, and then trashed the headquarters. I’d make some powerful enemies, and spent the next few chapters dealing with them. Instead, Yakuza 3 has Kiryuu – who we know is fully capable of taking on Nakahara, sword or not – reason with him, and ultimately win him over. You don’t end up fighting Nakahara at all.

What delighted me about this (mostly computer-generated movie) sequence was not its impeccable camera work, direction, and voice acting. It was how it confounded my expectations of violence being the best – and the only – way of resolving this conflict; expectations that are reinforced with each and every game that seeks to paint the world in only black and white. Continue reading “Yakuza 3: A Serious Game”

Civilization and Storytelling

I’ve only ever written fan fiction twice in my life, and both times it’s been for Sid Meier games.

Nurturing a civilization from a band of illiterate settlers to an empire that’s trading goods and blows across the world tends to make you feel rather attached to your people, and it’s hard not to be personally offended when the sanctimonious Americans team up with the Zulus and backstab by landing an army of knights and cavalry on your home shores. From there, it’s only a small step for you to start imagining the newspaper headlines flying out across your nation and the whispers of rebellion in your threatened, remote outposts.

The freedom that Civilization affords players is not unusual when compared to other sandbox games, most notably Will Wright’s SimCity and The Sims, and there’s no shortage of fanfic for those. But I think there’s something special about the structure and complexity of Civilization makes writing fanfic irresistible.

Civilization has quite a bit of structure – it has a fixed beginning and end, with a set of basically linear paths that players must proceed down in order to win (or at least have an interesting game) such as researching technologies, founding new cities, etc., and these paths map pretty well onto what people are taught about history and politics in school. The game’s broad span of time – from 4000BC to 2050AD – also gives it a far greater scope than strategy games like Europa Universalis or Anno 1404, which concentrate on much narrower historical periods. There’s nothing wrong with that, but chances are that you’ll find something in those 6000 years that will spark your imagination, whereas if you’re not into WW2 or Renaissance sea trading, it’s that much harder to conjure up stories, let alone write any fanfic.

It was precisely the fact that games of Civilization go on for thousands of years that I wrote my first bit of fanfic, called ‘Ad Astra Per Aspera: Three Generations of the English Union’, based on an epic game of Civilization 2 that I’d been immersed in. I can’t read it now without wincing at the heavy-handed data-dumping, but what still surprises me is the effort I went in to making the story sync up with the actual gameplay. For example, here’s an excerpt from the first chapter:

Andrew laughed out loud, shaking his head. England had been negotiating with France for as long as he could remember about the ever-shifting border agreements. As England’s western borders extended inexorably outwards, eating up the territory once held by the French cities of New Salamanca and Tlacopan, French troop incursions had increased constantly. It wasn’t too surprising; France had pretty much neglected the cities they’d taken back in 1715 during the Second Aztec War, allowing to remain as backwater provinces.

England, on the other hand, had promoted the expansion and improvement of the city infrastructures of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco and Xochicalco, known as the ‘New Territories.’ These were three of the new cities on England’s western border that had been liberated during the two Aztec wars. Today, they were thriving metropolises with over a million citizens apiece and intensively irrigated and mined land. France’s nearby cities could only offer less than a fifth of that population, and far less satifisying cultural attractions.

Yet still France complained at the result of each of the border discussion conferences, even though they grudgingly accepted the outcomes. Lately though, in a show of defiance, they had begun to conduct military exercises close to, and sometimes within, England’s borders on the hills and mountains that straddled them. Despite the overwhelming superiority of the English armed forces, if not numerically then technologically, the English were quite worried. And it appeared that, as Andrew listened to the show with interest, the President had decided to do something about it.

Gripping stuff, no? But this excerpt demonstrates a couple of interesting things. Firstly, I’d clearly checked over the dates and places quite carefully to make sure I had my story straight, which was quite a bit of effort. Second, it shows the rather odd way in which I’d been playing this particular game. Continue reading “Civilization and Storytelling”

Writing Frankenstein

When Mount Tambora erupted in 1815, Europe experienced a ‘Year Without a Summer’.

At the time, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (aged 18), and her lover (and later husband) Percy Bysshe Shelley, visited Lord Byron in Switzerland. With outdoor activities being unappealing due to the poor weather, they spent a lot of time indoors. It was during this summer that Frankenstein was written.

Airport Plume Map

It’s too soon to tell how long the Icelandic volcano will continue to spew ashes into the atmosphere, and what effect it’ll have on travel and the weather. But even here at Campus Party EU – a gathering of 800 young technologists, hackers, and artists in Madrid – you can see some interesting behaviour. More than half of the attendees come from countries other than Spain, and all of them are distracted and stressed out by the challenges of getting home.

Someone suggested to me that the Campuseros could use their time stranded in Madrid to make new creative works, like Frankenstein, but perhaps as games or movies or websites. Looking around the hall right now, I see people watching Lost, playing Starcraft and Battlefield Heroes, reading Twitter, and constantly refreshing BBC News; not much creativity.

So you could easily say that the ubiquitous presence of laptops, electricity, and connectivity has more or less eliminated any chance of Mary Shelley’s enforced isolation occurring, at least for these city-dwelling geeks. Not even a volcano that covers the entire continent with ash can stop them from wasting time.

But there a few intrepid people who have used the time productively; one team here is making an interesting social Flash game about – you guessed it – flying planes across Europe, between clouds of ash. While this game could have been made without the internet, they’re certainly benefitting from online resources, development environments, and the ability to test APIs with Twitter; and when they’re done later today, they’ll be able to publish the site to the world, instantly. That’s no bad thing.

Regardless of technology, human nature – and the focus required for good, productive, creative work – remain the same. We remember Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – we don’t remember all the people who spent the Year Without a Summer indoors, doing whatever people did in 1816 to waste time. Perhaps someone will produce a creative work that people still talk about in 2210 – and they won’t care about all the time wasted on Twitter and YouTube.

The Long Decline of Reading

“It doesn’t matter how good or bad the product is, the fact is that people don’t read anymore. Forty percent of the people in the U.S. read one book or less last year. The whole conception is flawed at the top because people don’t read anymore.”

– Steve Jobs on eBook readers and the Amazon Kindle

Steve Jobs frequently makes disparaging remarks about markets that Apple later enters (MP3 players, mobile phones, games, etc), so there’s little reason to believe that we won’t all have ‘iBooks’ in three years time. Still, the numbers don’t lie – 40% of people in the US (and 34% in the UK) do not read books any more. They may surf the web, or the read the occasional newspaper, but they do not read more than one book (fiction or non-fiction) in a year.

The closer you look at the statistics, the more depressing it gets. In the US, only 47% of adults read a work of literature – and I don’t mean Shakespeare, I mean any novel, short story, play or poem – in 2006. If that doesn’t sound too bad, consider that it’s declined by 7% in only ten years. It doesn’t matter whether you look at men or women, kids, teenagers, young adults or the middle-aged; everyone is reading less literature, and fewer books.*

When I share this ray of sunshine, I encounter three different reactions, the first being acceptance: “Oh well, that’s too bad! What’s for dinner?” But it’s not just bad, it’s awful. Reading skills for all levels of educational attainment are declining, up to and including people with Masters and PhDs. Reading is strongly correlated with all sorts of good things, such as voting, volunteering, civic responsibility, and even exercise. Furthermore, reading skill at a young age is a very good predictor of future educational success and earnings. Correlation is not causation, but it’s a fact that employers are demanding people with better reading and writing skills.

* I suppose there is one piece of good news, in that those aged over 75 are reading slightly more than they used to…

The second is denial: “Are you really sure these statistics are accurate? And even if they are, most people never read books in the first place.” The statistics are as accurate as any that can be found. Most of the numbers quoted here are from the 2007 National Endowment for the Arts report To Read or Not To Read, which conducted its own surveys and collated others from the US government and universities; and all with large sample sizes. I’ve quoted from sections of the report here, but the whole thing is well worth reading.

In case the non-Americans think that none of this applies to them, and that they can stop reading now, they wouldn’t be alone in their countries. Where America goes culturally and technologically, the rest of the world tends to follow. I haven’t been able to find as good statistics for the UK (and I have looked), although those at the Literacy Trust are not cause for celebration.

I am not talking about basic literacy here, which has been steadily rising for the last few centuries and effectively reaching 100% in most developed countries and many others besides. Basic literacy does not show any signs of slipping, but we are in dire straits if that’s the best we can do. It is true that book reading has never been anywhere close to universal, but it is also true that book reading, and the reading of literature, is gradually declining across all age ranges.

Finally, the third is defensive: “So what? People are reading more than ever on the web!” I am not aware of any research showing how much people – young people in particular – read on the web; it’s notoriously hard to measure, since the nature of the technology changes very quickly. In any case, I suspect that the total volume of words that people read on the web is really quite high, perhaps higher than what they would have otherwise read in books.

If we were only worried about the number of words people read, then we could take heart from a couple of game designers I met at a reading event. One said that his mobile phone game had 30,000 words in it. The other informed the audience that his quiz game not only required reading because the questions were written out – rather than spoken – but it actually had a traditional three-act structure (just like real literature) because it had a beginning, middle, and end. I could go on, but I think you get the idea: reading is not only about quantity, it is about quality and complexity. Reading 100 tabloid articles is not the same as reading ten essays or a single book.

The situation is undeniably bad. What’s going to happen next? Continue reading “The Long Decline of Reading”

The Shadow War: Getting Boys to Read

How do you get boys to read? One way is to write entertaining and dramatic books, preferably including some violence. This is what Charlie Higson did for his Young Bond series of books, and judging by the fact that they have sold close to a million copies, it’s a pretty good strategy.

Of course, in this new era of digital TV, YouTube and videogames, it can be difficult to attract boys to books, but that’s exactly what we’re attempting with Young Bond: The Shadow War, a web-based point-and-click adventure that’s fused with a book.

Working with book publishers

Being an ARG designer has put me in contact with a variety of semi-famous film, TV and game producers, but I’ve particularly enjoyed working with book publishers.

The publishers I’ve met have all had a very healthy regard for authors. Given that it’s authors who write the books that they sell, this may seem perfectly normal, but in other industries, these people are not called authors – they are ‘creatives’. ‘Creatives’, who include everyone from designers to writers to artists – in fact, everyone who actually makes stuff – are treated as a black box, into which any number of woolly and contradictory notes can be placed, with predictably unhappy results.

(NB: I recently interviewed an actor for an upcoming project, and unwittingly used the word ‘creative’. The fact that she failed to stifle a giggle confirms to me that I have fallen so very far from grace…)

Six to Start‘s first project with a publisher was We Tell Stories, in which we created six online-only stories for Penguin Books. We worked with six different authors, and Penguin placed a refreshing amount of trust in us and our work, which allowed us to get on with the matter at hand – making some really fantastic stories. 1700 blog posts later, along with features in Newsweek, Wired, the Guardian and BBC News, this trust was borne out.

This experience meant that we jumped at the chance to work on a game to promote the final book in the Young Bond series, By Royal Command. Sure, it wasn’t for the movies, but it was still James Bond. And the books were very good. Continue reading “The Shadow War: Getting Boys to Read”