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”

Anathem and neologisms

A lot of people are criticising Neal Stephenson’s new novel, Anathem, for containing vast quantities of invented words. Instead of mobile phones, he has jeejahs; for video, he has speely; for church, he has ark; and so on.

I had been warned about these beforehand, and yet I still became irritated during the first couple of hundred pages (at which point I would be nearing the end for most novels, but for Anathem, not even up to the first act), since I regularly had to turn to the glossary to remind myself of what they all meant. It wasn’t particularly clear to me why he insisted on doing this.

However, once the words had bedded down in my mind, I realised that there was a very simple and good reason for inventing new words; they are free of the baggage and connotations that we automatically associate with ‘normal’ words. If I say Plato, or Aristotle, or Science, or Humanities to you, then a certain notion may immediately pop up in your mind. This notion, however, is probably an amalgam of various things you have read, or heard, or seen – it is probably not the product of actual considered thought on your own part. Which is not surprising since most people don’t have much reason to be thinking about these concepts.

Stephenson replaces these well-worn characters and concepts with new words, and in doing so, forces the reader to consider their meaning from first principles, which is a major point of the book. It is often painful to do this, but definitely worthwhile if you can get through it. Speaking for myself, it was one of the most engaging and dramatic philosophy primers I’ve ever read, and it’s one of those few books that makes you think there might be a better way to live your life.

None of this requires jeejahs and speelys, which (at least to me) correspond directly to things we have in our world, and frankly it seems a bit bloody-minded for Stephenson to insist on giving them new names when he still calls a train a train. What I can tell you is that there are actually very few such words, and most of the invented words have good reasons for being invented.

Ultimately, Stephenson opened himself up for unnecessary criticism with his use of jeejahs, which has allowed people to dismiss the whole book as being sophomoric, when in fact it’s just a small niggle that is merely trying to play along with the far more worthwhile invented (or rather, disguised) concepts and characters.

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.

Defending the Library of Google

In the current issue of The New York Review of Books, Robert Darnton, Director of the University Library at Harvard, writes about Google’s efforts to digitise the world’s books and create a new universal library. For the most part, the article is really very well-written and enlightening.

However, when comes around to criticising Google Book Search on eight fundamental points, he seriously missteps on at least two of them:

6. As in the case of microfilm, there is no guarantee that Google’s copies will last. Bits become degraded over time. Documents may get lost in cyberspace, owing to the obsolescence of the medium in which they are encoded. Hardware and software become extinct at a distressing rate. Unless the vexatious problem of digital preservation is solved, all texts “born digital” belong to an endangered species. The obsession with developing new media has inhibited efforts to preserve the old. We have lost 80 percent of all silent films and 50 percent of all films made before World War II. Nothing preserves texts better than ink imbedded in paper, especially paper manufactured before the nineteenth century, except texts written on parchment or engraved in stone. The best preservation system ever invented was the old-fashioned, pre-modern book.

(Adrian: Also read point 4, which is related in that it addresses the built-in obsolence electronic media in general, and companies such as Google in particular)

One of the most insightful comments I have ever read on the Internet (I’m not sure where – perhaps it was Slashdot) was that digital information does not last any longer than analog information. All digital information exists on some form of physical medium, whether it’s on a length of tape, a hard drive or a DVD. Any of those media can be damaged, and certainly we know that CDs and DVDs become degraded over mere decades or years. As Darnton points out, ink truly is one of the best preservation systems, lasting potentially for millennia, and handily beating digital media. Continue reading “Defending the Library of Google”

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’”

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.

Future of Books article in Sunday Times

Naomi Alderman, Perplex City lead writer, author of Disobedience, etc, wrote an article in the Sunday Times about the future of books. I’ve talked to Naomi often about eBooks and was quoted in the article:

Imagine, for example, a novel designed to take advantage of the features of the new must-have geek hipster accessory: the iPhone. When you download a new novel to your iPhone, the calendar might automatically remind you it’s the birthday of one of the characters in a few days’ time, or you might get access to the appointments schedule of the missing journalist in your thriller. The weather-forecast widget could give you the option to view the weather in London in 1880, the setting for your historical romance. Or your purchase of one of those classic Harry Potters could add The Daily Prophet to your automatic newspaper subscriptions. Stories could become pervasive: when you’re lost in a good book, your whole online world could blend seamlessly with it. The technology to do all this doesn’t exist yet, but it’s far from impossible.

Of course, all that additional content will have to be written. Therein lies one of the problems. As Adrian Hon, chief creative of the online games company Six to Start, says: “Authors don’t need to be great artists or programmers right now. They ‘just’ need to write. To make anything more advanced than a normal story, though, you need more skills.” Most authors aren’t also computer programmers, and most programmers aren’t novelists. As Hon says: “Web people come up with cool ideas, such as telling stories by web 2.0 series, wikis or e-mails. Twitter, but it fails because they can’t write a good story for it.” This needn’t be an insuperable hurdle. We may see a new partnership added to the traditional artist-and-writer combination for illustrated books, or musician-and-writer team for songs. Writers could work with programmers in this new form of storytelling.

Obviously my position is a bit more nuanced than this, but the quote gets the point across. While a lot of ‘stories on the web’ today involve some interesting technology, unfortunately, they’re just not very interesting stories. This leads a lot of people to conclude that the format of a book is superior. Of course, I disagree; we need to put a lot more thought into designing stories for the web, and that needs to be a collaborative process between not just writers and programmers, but also people who design interactive experiences on the web, who we might as well just call game or ARG designers.

The article also has a few tidbits about what we’re doing with Penguin (then again, you’ll find out much more early next week), and a review of the Amazon Kindle. The reviewer, a novelist called Stephen Amidon, has a rather plaintive lament about what eBooks and, I imagine, technology in general, holds for the future of his vocation. Continue reading “Future of Books article in Sunday Times”

False Endpoints

In the highly interesting New York Times Magazine article about play (of which I’m sure I’ll write more on later), there was a fascinating section about ‘false endpoints’:

Through play, an individual avoids what he called the lure of ‘‘false endpoints,’’ a problem-solving style more typical of harried adults than of playful youngsters. False endpoints are avoided through play, Bateson wrote, because players are having so much fun that they keep noodling away at a problem and might well arrive at something better than the first, good-enough solution.

If it’s not clear from the quote above, here’s what a false endpoint is: imagine you need to come up with a new advertising slogan for a chocolate bar. There’s no urgent deadline to it, and so you might work on it for a long time. However, if you’re a bit stressed out and the process of brainstorming the slogan isn’t fun, as soon as you come up with a slogan that’s just ‘good enough’ then you might call it a day and stop working. That’s a false endpoint; you could’ve come up with a much better slogan if the process was more fun – like play – and you’d kept working away on it.

I’ve never heard of false endpoints before, and I can’t find anything about the term on Google. I find it hard to believe that no-one has ever thought of the concept before, but perhaps no-one’s given it a name until now. In any case, it ought to be more widely studied.

In highly creative fields like storytelling and game design, where you have to work to deadlines and commercial demands mean that coming up with ideas aren’t that fun, there’s a real danger that you can fall into false endpoints – simply settling on a ‘good enough’ idea because you just want to move on. I’ve seen and experienced it myself. That’s why there are so many games are stories that are pretty good, but are lacking in certain very obvious ways.

I wonder whether incorporating play into the development process (not necessarily production, although I’m sure it would help to a degree there as well) of highly creative fields would demonstrably prevent or reduce false endpoints. The notion of introduction ‘fun’ into the workplace is not new, and deservedly groan-worthy, but perhaps making creative development not simply fun but interesting in a way that encourages this ‘noodling away at a problem’ is smarter way to approach it.