Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Storytelling: the changing game

Posted in Online Video by Adam Westbrook on August 29, 2011

I.

Traditionally journalism, publishing, film-making, music, photography & broadcasting are one-way processes. We create some content and a mainstream platform of some kind pumps it out for the masses to consume.

They passively receive stories and information, a concept best explained by Peter Horrocks’ End of Fortress Journalism. Attempts to make all this interactive in some way have never got past the “send us your photos” or “you decide!” appeals from our TV sets.

But something extraordinary and unexpected is happening. Audiences are getting involved in our stories – but not how you’d expect. If an audience feel involved in a story, whether it’s The Wire, Mad Men, a movie, they are starting to find their own ways to dive deeper into the world of the story. They set up their own twitter accounts, or start wikis, and develop a story far beyond the control of the author.

This is very new. And journalists shouldn’t think their stories are immune either.

II.

I have, until recently, ignored this trend. I produce online video – an inherently passive medium that cannot really foster interactive engagement. On a selfish level, I don’t want anyone else to get involved in my storytelling, thank you very much. Surely the fun is producing something exceptional and then sharing it for others to enjoy?

Well, my view on this, is shifting a little bit.

A few weeks back I discovered Awkward Silence, the website of a UCLAN multimedia student, who goes by the name of Beans. He’s produced a couple of 90s style platform games (think Commander Keen or Prince of Persia) which you can play online for free.

In One Chance, you become a scientist who’s cure for cancer is threatening to wipe out every living cell on earth. Over the course of six days (15 minutes gameplay time) you must find a cure.

Yes, the graphics (and gameplay) don’t add up to much by our modern Xbox standards, but bear with me. As simple as it looks, it is a very adult game, with a sophisticated story – and it’s the story that sucks you in.  Inevitably, my less than sensible decisions made throughout the game resulted in everyone dying and me sitting alone with my daughter on a park bench, waiting for the end.

Beans also produced another game recently – except, it’s not really a game. The Body takes four minutes and you basically press and hold left in order to complete it. Beans himself describes it as:

“…short, confusing and isn’t technically fun. It’s not a game I’m not particularly proud of. Infact, The body is barely a game at all.”

But beyond the gameplay, The Body offers more. In it, you become a man trying to dispose of a body. Who is the body? How did they die? The backstory is (sort of) revealed in flashbacks – a convention more at home on TV or in the cinema. And despite it being not ‘technically fun’ I engaged with the story.

Beans hasn’t created a game – he’s told a story. And because I was participating in the story I was hooked.

III.

I recently mentioned Frank Rose’s new book on how the internet is changing storytelling. As he sees it, these new ways of telling stories are letting us get more immersed – and therefore more engaged.

“Conventional narratives – books, movies, TV shows – are emotionally engaging, but they engage us as spectators. Games are engaging in a different way. They put us at the centre of the action…Combine the emotional impact of stories with the first person involvement of games and you can create an extremely powerful experience.”

If I’m honest, I’m not sure exactly how this will change factual storytelling and multimedia journalism yet – but I’m almost certain it will. I’ve got some early ideas which I’m chewing over and if they amount to anything I will try and share them. But as content creators we have a responsibility to tell stories which grab people by the collar. All but the very best online video out there right now fails on that first test.

The idea of ‘games journalism’ has also grown in popularity in only the last year: this is very new and the ideas are still quite basic.

I’ll be talking more about connected storytelling and journalism at News:Rewired Connected Journalism on October 6th. Click here to get tickets.

12 Responses

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  1. Jon Jacob (@thoroughlygood) said, on August 29, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    I’m still interested in seeing how gameplay can help develop journalism and – more specifically – storytelling. That’s partly because it *feels* as though I’ve heard people talk about it’s potential for quite sometime. For me, it’s not believing it’s potential, it’s more trying to put my finger on why it is this particular area hasn’t taken hold and become more popular amongst *users*.

  2. Katy S Austin said, on August 29, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    On the one hand, I would disagree with Frank Rose that ‘books, books, movies, TV shows…engage us as spectators’. Books don’t; your imagination fills in the colours, the voices, the precise sensations.

    But the interactive ‘games’ approach to perhaps adds weight to the argument that consuming media does not have to be a passive, dumbing-down experience but can now stimulate people to explore, providing them with fresh channels for independent thought like never before. In Beans’ ‘games’ for example, the user has to solve a mystery.

    Perhaps it’s because we’re used to being passive TV-watchers, Jon, and having information laid out quickly and concisely (which is less creative and involves little suspense). Maybe people are not yet *used* to the additional challenge of participation. And a year is really not a long time for something to ‘take hold’.
    I’m not sure if it will either though.

  3. Jessica Binsch (@j_nb) said, on August 29, 2011 at 2:13 pm

    This “gamification” is really interesting. I think it helps bring viewers into complex stories. I’m not sure how it can be applied to daily news coverage – or whether it should be. But large, complex issues, that would be a loooong, potentially dull text can be turned into powerful interactive games. Here are my current favorites:
    Spent – Could you survive for one month with minimal income? Like in the game you describe, your choices can have big impacts and are not easy. http://www.playspent.org/
    Can you solve the global crisis of climate change, as a scientists, and aid worker or a soldier? http://global-warning.org/main/wargame/ (disclosure: this is part of a project I worked on)
    Why the census matters to you (maybe not really a game with an objective, but a fun way to make the stodgy census more interactive) http://spotlight.abs.gov.au/ via FlowingData.

  4. Adam Westbrook said, on August 30, 2011 at 9:19 am

    Really interesting ideas, thanks.

    @Jon I think there is evidence that users will interact with a story if the story is good enough. Right now that’s mostly in fiction – with fan fiction, or people collaborating to solve the mystery of Lost etc. In a way you could argue that when someone goes to a specific website, or a wikipedia entry about an issue after reading an article about it they are exploring the story on their own…maybe it’s already happening!

    @Katy I think you hit the nail on the head with the way journalists structure their stories at the moment. It’s about explaining something as easily as possible, and doesn’t require much engagement from the audience. I’d love to experiment with new ways of doing this.

    @Jessica thanks for these links – I really like the Climate Change project. I think games are an interesting way to engage audiences, but I’m more interested in how we can apply that games concept to other media, and specifically video storytelling. Can we design a narrative for a documentary that immerses people like a game does?

  5. T (@TMnY) said, on August 30, 2011 at 11:27 am

    As a researcher, I find that we face the additional task of not just getting out our information and having people engage with it, but also taking the next step and using that information for advocacy and/or policy making. Ideally, investigative journalism has this element as well; to engage people so much that they move from passive responses like commenting or tweeting it, to active responses like writing in to policymakers, newspapers, trying to influence others etc. How would this tie in with your analogy?

    • Adam Westbrook said, on August 31, 2011 at 7:27 am

      I agree that compelling people to action is something that most storytelling (especially factual) fails to do a large percent of the the time. Journalists have been trying to get people engaged on an emotional level for a long time – sometimes with success, sometimes not – but I wonder if we can get people engaged without making them cry. You can’t get someone emotionally engaged in a documentary about the recession for example, so how else can you?

  6. james crawford said, on August 30, 2011 at 6:26 pm

    I think gamification is evident already in journalism, but exactly how far it will go I don’t know. People already score imaginary points on who spots a story first and tweets it and no one really wants to tweet the story that everyone has shared.

    How far the concept can be taken is open to debate.

    • Adam Westbrook said, on August 31, 2011 at 7:28 am

      Good point James – even tweeting, collecting followers has a games element to it. So maybe it means people gamify things anyway?

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  10. Jackie @Auburn Meadow Farm said, on October 20, 2011 at 10:16 am

    I’m really enjoying your blog and the trail you’re blazing…

    I find the same to be true in sales and marketing as well – people don’t want to be told anymore, they want to be the teller. Creating information they want to tell other people about is a new way of thinking for marketers, but when you hit it just right, it works like crazy… when you don’t it lies pretty flat… : )


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