Brief thoughts on dystopia/utopia – interactive design fiction for museums?

First a couple of minor updates before the main course (which is full of long video links . . . ).

Aaron has written up the full length version of the talk in Adelaide for the Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material National Conference last week. It covers a lot of the conceptual work around our acquisition of Planetary for the Cooper-Hewitt collection and “what it means to be a design museum” in the early 21st century. Its a good (long) read especially if you haven’t been subjected to one of Aaron’s or my recent public talks on this topic. Aaron and I will soon be in an episode of Museopunks about this too.

Anna Mikhaylova interviewed me at MuseumNext back in May for her Ideas4Museums: A Biography of Museum Computing project which speaks to technologists inside museums. She did a great job editing together something coherent from my caffeinated ramblings and it is now live. It might be of interest to those curious as to why I work with cultural heritage and it builds on a number of earlier interviews for Museum ID and Desktop Mag.

I spent an inordinate number of hours as a fifteen year old playing Wasteland on my Commodore 64 which I wrote about for The 80s Are Back exhibition when I was working at the Powerhouse Museum. And, in time for the long weekend it got a re-release as a bonus for Kickstarter backers of its long awaited sequel due in 2015. Wasteland looks nowadays like a clunky old-school role playing game and its treatment of a post-nuclear world deeply shaped by the 1980s. But the story and the way it unfolds over many many hours of grinding gameplay (I think I spent far too many hours stuck, low on ammunition and desperately outgunned in the Las Vegas sewers), still makes it one of the best computer game experiences all-round.

As games become more cinematic and cinema becomes more influenced by the structure and design of games, something strange is happening to the way we deal with our mass culture neuroses. Introducing playability into our neuroses allows them to be pushed and pulled at, alternative scenarios and endings explored, as the reader/viewer/player makes use of their (limited) agency. So reading around post-apocalytic narratives in film and gaming, I came across a recent post on the fabulous reborn Snarkmarket that sent me down a rabbithole around narrative design and interactive storytelling in the ambitious The Last of Us.

Ostensibly a triple-A high budget video game for adults, The Last of Us for the Playstation 3, is probably best described as a cinematic narrative (obviously with nods to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road etc) stitched together with first-person survival horror and puzzle game elements – the ‘stitching’ pointing to the challenge of reconciling real interactivity and strong narrative. (Watch a longplay video of it to get a sense of the game if you haven’t played it – be warned, its M17+ territory. Perhaps it is one game that works best as a ‘watching’ experience!).

James Howell’s multipart YouTube deconstruction of the internal systems and logic of the game is remarkable. The way in which Howell draws attention to the way in which the game system is an integral part of the narrative and the playability of these is critical to the player’s understanding and immersion in the narrative itself. The subtle, and not-to-subtle ways in which the game hints and nudges the player through the narrative using frequent learned prompts gives a rhythm and purpose beyond combat sequences. This is a departure from the strongly ‘challenge-oriented’ approach of games in the 80s and 90s where games only expected a very very few elite players to ‘complete’ them. Now, with narrative-based games, the very notion that average players couldn’t ‘complete’ them to the end – and get a satisfactory ending – in a reasonable (but not too short) amount of play time seems ridiculous in retrospect.

What might exhibition design learn from this sort of deeply structured interactive design?


And as far as dystopian/utopian futures of a less interactive sort goes, you can’t really go wrong with Adrian Hon’s History of the Future in 100 Objects. Initially a response to the British Museum and BBC’s History of the World, Adrian’s book is a lovely piece of near-future fiction written from the perspective of 2082 it covers the objects and services that changed the world between 2014 and 2079. In amongst the futuristic whimsy there are, as in all good science fiction, insights into the present across design, technology, sociology and politics – not to mention what it might mean for museum curators to present such a collected exhibition in 2082. The 100 short curatorial essays offer a dizzying vision of globalised future that is equally exciting and terrifying – just the way it should be. Along with many other nerds of my generation I grew up on Usborne’s 1979 World of the Future trilogy (compiled here) by Kenneth Gatland – and I’d love to see an illustrated version of Adrian’s book sometime in the future (hint hint!). I’m sometimes worried about the lack of similar titles for children these days – but that’s usually on my other irregular blog.

The print version launches in London this week for all those who don’t like longform reading on screens. Otherwise make sure you get yourself a electronic copy.


“Completion”, participation, and purpose

A couple of things circulating at the moment that perhaps interrelate.

Ed Rodley’s suggestion that art museums are paying the price of being the new “temples in our secular society” is certainly worth considering. The current wave of agitation against the notion of ‘participation’ might just be coincidence but it might also be a timely call for museums to better articulate who they really are for (or want to be for). Art museums seem to have a tougher time of this – especially with the rapidly changing demographics of the USA.

Designer Khoi Vinh makes a good critique of the latest piece of Snowfall-style rich multimedia journalism from The Guardian.

Also, there’s the fact that both “NSA Files Decoded” and “Snowfall” so clearly take the form of what I like to call “The Editor’s Prerogative.” What is The Editor’s Prerogative? It’s when you take a piece of journalism and make it huge in scale and elaborate in delivery so that it is more in line with how important an editor thinks the story is than how new audiences actually want to consume it.

And Newsbound’s Josh Kalven comments,

This gets at a question that’s rarely talked about in journalism circles: “Did people read it?” We often talk about how many people arrived on the page and how many people shared it. But the industry doesn’t seem to care about “completion” as a metric.

My former teammate Renae Mason (About NSW, The 80s Are Back etc) recently built one of these Snowfall-style projects for Penguin before she moved to Triple J. I’m know she has a lot to say about the real cost and effort that goes into making these pieces.

(Digital teams in museums are already being badgered about “when is my exhibition mirosite/catalogue” going to look like that online, so we better figure this out soon. There’s a growing Google Doc of all these sorts of multimedia pieces if you haven’t seen many of them)

I wonder how much museums – participatory or not – really care about ‘completion’ as a metric in their exhibitions, publications or digital projects? Audience tracking studies have, for years, shown that visitors rarely take the ‘right path’ through an exhibit even when one is clearly articulated.


On ‘institutional wabi sabi’

So at Museums and the Web 2013, Sarah Hromack from The Whitney and John Stack from Tate published a lovely little photocopy zine – Institutional Strategy Digest – to go with their institutional change panel.

I have a short piece inside called ‘Institutional wabi sabi’. The phrase was one that I used at a talk a few weeks ago as part of ArtsTech with Aaron Cope where we spoke about the role of language and tone in humanising communications between institutions and their publics.

In the International Strategy Digest I write,

Wabi-sabi is a challenging concept for Westerners raised on a diet of Modernism. It celebrates impermanence, imperfection, and incompleteness. It celebrates the small and the intimate. It is the rough hewn bowl, not angular refined box.

Importantly, though, it is not an excuse for incompetence.

Consider how your museum could be ‘a bowl’, rather than ‘a box’. A tumble of objects rather than a grid.

The museum as a ‘rough hewn bowl’ should be an idea that resonates with Nina Simon’s ‘perpetual beta‘ concept for exhibit design and Ed Rodley’s ‘Making a museum from scratch’ series. Or even Shelley Berstein‘s celebration of the ‘scrappy solution’ in her technology work.

Anyway, other than a nice soundbite, I’m hoping that ‘institutional wabi sabi’ frames these issues in a new way and perhaps allows us to connect and draw upon the deeper Japanese aesthetic and philosophy of wabi sabi beneath.


Considering museum collections as 8-bit versions of history


For the past while, Aaron Cope and I have been bouncing around the notion of the acceptability of incomplete object records. We know this from our work with Cooper-Hewitt’s ‘art museum quality’ collection records, and I have many stories from my past at Powerhouse that reinforce the value and potential engagement created through the public release of even the most minimal records. And increasingly even the most staid and conservative institutions around the world are understanding the opportunities.

But we’ve been bouncing the idea around for another reason.

We want to improve our collection records. We want, and need, them to be more than just pointers to shelf locations. We want them to better express the knowledge and at least hint at the impassioned storytelling that the curators engage in when you ask them one-on-one about an object. But we also know that we simply will never have enough staff, let alone curators, to make much of a dent in the museum’s 217,000 objects. There’s just too many objects and too many years of hermetic documentation practices – problems that are common across every museum.

Collectively we’re about to try something new by considering adding a couple of new compulsory cataloguing fields to our records to try to find a middle ground. A middle ground that is achievable in terms of workload, and that exponentially increases the ‘narrative potential’ of our object records with a few simple ‘pointers’.

But there are limits.

Databases are woeful boxes in which to tell ‘stories’. We don’t yet have ‘poetic databases’. And we aren’t likely to in the near future.

We also know that this might be a fruitless exercise. Nick Poole has been good at reminding all of us that ‘metadata’ and ‘content’ are not the same, and that the ‘users’ of each are often very different and have different intentions. Much like the difference in use and experience between exhibitions that use collection objects and the collection objects themselves.

Last week Aaron pointed me to John Powers’ excellent piece titled “The Art Of 8-bit History“.

You really should read it.

The history I lay out may not have the richness of detail we find in an heavily annotated academic survey, but just as an 8-bit portrait is still a photograph, an 8-bit history is still a history. Likewise, the “truth claims” of Zero Dark Thirty, Argo, Lincoln, and even Django Unchained shouldn’t be dismissed because those films simplify complicated histories. While these films can never provide full historical resolution, they remain important looks at important moments.

I grew up on 8-bit computer games for a large part of the 1980s. There’s certainly nothing ‘lesser’ about 8-bit – and many of the best games and interactive fiction of that period are still as immersive and rewarding now as they were then. They just don’t ‘look’ that great – but your brain and imagination fills in the gaps.

Or in design-speak, there are certain affordances that 8-bit provides that are lost with greater resolution.

We shouldn’t underestimate the power of the public, or our visitors, to fill in the gaps too. We might just need to give them a little more than we currently do.


‘Constant short term nostalgia’

Suse Cairns, writing about how carrying her iPhone around with her as a (then) later adopter PhD student changed her way of seeing (and experiencing) the world,

I now see socially. I listen, not just for myself, but for what I can translate and share to my networks. I pay attention to the ideas that you, my network, is interested in, and in so doing, I encounter the world through that lens. The things I notice are not of interest to me alone. I notice those things that I think you would be interested in too, and I think of you when I am noticing them.

This is probably a familiar experience for many of you.

But I also think it is one that passes – over time – and in my case has been replaced by a sense of ‘constant short term nostalgia’.

Timehop is a good example of a service that feeds this desire. It works by reminding you everyday of what you did exactly one year, two years, three years and more, ago to the day on the various social services that you’ve given it access to – your tweets, your photos, your location checkins.

There is no forward or back in the interface. Just the past, exactly to the day. It is a constraint that greatly enhances its appeal/addiction.

Much like my children who won’t, until the Great Power Outage comes, be able to forget the overly-detailed photographic renderings of their childhoods, Timehop (and the more diary-like Momento) is a constant reminder of what you were saying that you were doing, what you thought was interesting enough to photograph, and where you were.

I’m not as concerned as, say Simon Reynolds, about this, but it is uncharted territory. This is related to, but qualitatively different from, the constant warnings to young people about the ‘permanency’ of unfortunate public overshares.

Just as there is value in being able to forget, there may also be value in not ‘seeing socially’ (Goffman, anyone?) – or at least, being able to un-see.


Some thoughts at the end of 2012 and a year in NYC

I’ve been in New York for just over a year now.

And it turns out that America is an endlessly fascinating, strange, land. Being away from Australia, it is much clearer to see how well Australia has fared economically – and how comparatively high Australian wages are.

And being the end of the year and there being a pause in regular posting, here’s a brief dump for the sake of timeliness rather than completeness.


In the museum world, New York has two things going for it. Density of population (and tourism), and of capital. Context is everything, and many museums in New York rely on these two specifics – along with the sheer scale of their collections – more than any superiority or progressive-ness in ‘museum practice’. As I’ve told many people now, museums in Australia, New Zealand and even the UK are hungrier and more determined to be ‘relevant’ – out of necessity.

How can that be? Surely, New York museums are world-leading?

I’ve been thinking about this for the past little while and there seem to be some possible reasons.

The primary funding model (private philanthropists, foundations and big endowments) isn’t conducive to broad collaboration or ‘national-scale‘ efforts. Instead it entrenches institutional competition and counterproductive secrecy. A lot of wheels get reinvented unnecessarily.

The project-based nature of digital (and exhibitions) also tends to mean a much higher volume of outsourced creative work than in Australia. The heavy tilt towards outsourced digital work allows many museums over here to roll out impressive sites and apps (at unspoken high costs), but those same digital projects rarely have the chance to have significant institutional impact on the core. The ‘creative agency’ gets all the learnings from the project – and the museum acts in a ‘commissioning’ role. In some ways it shouldn’t be unexpected for art museums to operate like this as they’ve long had artist commissions, but it certainly isn’t helping them adapt rapidly to the future. The ‘cliffs’ that Diane Ragsdale wrote of recently are much closer to a reality in the USA.

If you’ve been following my team at Cooper-Hewitt’s Labs blog you’ll know that we’ve been forging ahead with some rapid change – using the time that the museum is rebuilding itself, physically – to rethink a lot of the basics, roll out a large number of ‘fail fast’ public experiments, and in the process establish some new paradigms. Aaron, Micah and Katie are forcing us to be ‘of the web‘ (not just ‘on the web‘), Pam is upturning the tables on museum publishing, and Shamus is reconsidering video in all of it – and our awesome interns and ‘residents‘ are reconstructing foundations and experimenting at the edges. (Want to be an intern or resident in 2013? Then make contact!)

It has been quite a shift moving in to a smaller museum and the race has been to establish new systems and create an environment of experimentation and rapid change – while we have the opportunity as our main campus is redesigned and rethought by Diller, Scofidio & Renfro and Local Projects. It has been a delight to have the opportunity to work alongside these firms – each with their own specialities and approaches. But the reality of inventing a new type of museum whilst also building one is exhausting – and I feel the limitations/realities of the architectures of meatspace daily.

It has also been a year where I’ve made the most of being closer to the ‘rest of the world’. I’ve joined numerous advisory committees and assessment panels, and much of the international work has continued with the second phase of Culture 24’s Lets Get Real digital engagement metrics project happening in the UK. There’s also been a steady run of keynotes and lectures and a fantastic week at Salzburg Global Seminar – the first half of 2013 is already booked up too! And plenty of trips down to Washington to the Smithsonian mothership.


2012 was the year I slimmed down my mobile gaming. In fact I can’t think of any game that has stayed on my iPhone from 2012 except for Triple Town. On the flip, though, was a reengaging with the longer form commitments required by desktop/laptop gaming. Probably the Kickstarter-mania around Double Fine Adventure and then Wasteland 2 started rekindling interest for me, and then Diablo 3 dropped (pretty disappointingly really). Notably Steam on the Mac has really started to deliver the titles that Mac users generally missed out on – so its been nice to catch up with the last five years all in one hit.

The kids went very deep into Minecraft after two years of casual play and I’m happy to say they understand and enjoy it far more than I do. That’s how it is supposed to be. I’ve enjoyed reading about the possibilities and then seeing my kids begin to enact them, and I am super happy that the Powerhouse has expanded their Minecraft workshops.

Mid-year I ended up talking on a panel at MOMA on art and videogames. I was probably the least interesting person there as I’m quite wedded to the idea of non-art games, and I do enjoy a FPS and old-school arcade shooter a little more than most art people (or parents!) are willing to admit. Whilst I’m impressed with MOMA’s recent acquisitions – games as examples of interaction design – I do find the art/not-art distinctions that others often raise as very dubious.


I knew I was going to be downscaling my musical activities upon moving to NYC. That’s been true in terms of performing and going to gigs but if anything, 2012 has been a bumper year for listening.

My profile continues to track what I listen to in almost precise detail and 2012 was a busy year for revisiting a lot of music that I’m now physically located far way from.

(click to pop up larger version)
(click to pop up larger version)

And, after being prompted each week to log my ‘tune of the moment’, ThisIsMyJam captured a good snapshot of some of the tunes I had on ‘high rotation’ each week. Even better, ThisIsMyJam partnered with EchoNest to auto-generate ‘2012 jams’ for its users and here’s mine [see/listen!].

After seeing what is possible with EchoNest the idea of’s Art Genome is even more seductive. Can you imagine a ThisIsMyJam-style mashup of the objects you’ve loved in all your museum visits throughout the year? MONA v2?

Although I’m probably the right in the crosshairs of Spotify’s ‘premium customer’, their service didn’t really click for me. I’m already so drowning in music, thanks to two decades of being on DJ promotional lists, and generally feeding a hardcore music habit – that Spotify’s sizeable jukebox doesn’t have a deep appeal especially for the niches in which I like to inhabit the most. (But I was never the one to listen to DJ mixes either though.)

On the other hand, Bandcamp has proven to be an occasional wallet-opener (alongside Boomkat, Bleep and the rest) as more friends start to make available their back catalogues there, and I’m gently nudged towards emerging bands by those younger than me.

I expect that there’s some lessons in that for museum content locked up in old publications and catalogues.

Happy new year, and maybe I’ll see you at one of my upcoming talks.

Conceptual Digital storytelling Interactive Media Interviews

On storyworlds, immersive media, narrative and museums – an interview with Mike Jones

Back when I was working at the Powerhouse Museum, Mike Jones worked in the SoundHouse VectorLab (now called Thinkspace) teaching young people and adults, alike, how to tell stories with digital media. After a few years, Mike left to pursue a role at the Australian Film TV and Radio School (AFTRS), and a deep study of video games.

As I’ve been thinking about cross-media storytelling and the ways in which museum experiences and exhibitions are becoming more ‘theatrical’, I thought it made sense to get Mike’s thoughts on the matter.

F&N – You’ve worked in a museum for a while so you know the scene. It must be of interest, and perhaps mirth, that museums seem to have cottoned on the idea that ‘story’ matters. But it is obviously more complicated than that. What have you been doing since?

Since leaving the museum world I’ve been a bit of a multi-headed hydra working in lots of different ways on different things, and yet at the same time very focused and consistent in what I bring to all these projects. In simple terms, I’ve been writing for Screen-Based Media – screenplays for feature and TV projects, novels, multi-platform and interactive forms. Sometimes they are my own projects, more often it’s script editing, developing or contributing to other peoples’ babies. At the same time I’ve been teaching as a lecturer in Screen Studies at the Australian Film TV and Radio School and this is a particularly vibrant and interesting gig as I teach across all disciplines – screenwriters, directors, cinematographers, designers and so on. And with my colleague Karen Pearlman I’m teaching creative development processes for forms and formats outside of the scope of the traditional ‘film school’ – WebTV and Webseries, Online Documentary, Multi-Platform and Transmedia, Interactive Experiences. Its given me a great sort of vantage point to see the lay of the land – to be researching while I’m teaching and applying those discoveries back into my own work.

I’m now working with a newly formed company in the UK called Portal Entertainment that produces Immersive and Interactive Thriller and Horror experiences for touch-screen and mobile devices. Think Interactive Horror Movie on your iPad! My role with them is as Head of story and in effect this means my job is to ensure that the projects we produce have intrinsically strong narratives – engaging, dramatic, transformative, compelling. And we do this in a kind of platform and technology agnostic way.

The stories are not driven by the technology, the technologies are selected and constructed to best serve that story and the role we want to the audience play in that storyworld.

But I confess I get very frustrated with the word ‘story’ as its become the hot buzzword of recent years. On one hand we hold the word up like it’s some holy relic and sacred cow that must be revered, and yet at the same time (and perhaps because of this word-status) we often fail to really interrogate the word and understand what it means. We simply declare that ‘story is king’ without defining what that means or in particular, what it means in the particular context you want to ‘tell a story’.

In my work with Portal – which functions much like a TV series Writers-Table where a number of writers bring ideas forward that are workshopped, discussed, and brutalised into shape as a group – one of the first things we did was attempt to define not just what makes a ‘good story’ for an interactive touch-screen Horror/Thriller experience but also ‘how do we identify a story that is suitable to that format and environment’?

Not all stories should be interactive, not all stories can be cross-platform, so you need a kind of framework to be able to sort out the right stories from the wrong as much as you do the good from the bad.

So we focus on things like ‘Can the story be told in the First-person or Present-tense?’ and ‘Is there an Active, Meaningful and Motivated role for the audience to play in that story?’. If the story idea possesses these kind of qualities, or naturally lends itself to them, then they are the ideas we pursue and develop further.

At the same time, I get very frustrated with a lot of the baby-out-with-the-bathwater thinking that goes with technology and story thinking; that somehow it’s a ‘Whole New Form of Storytelling’, or that Storytelling on new technologies is somehow ‘All Different, all New’, that the rules don’t apply.

I think what we have to recognise is that technology has never actually changed what a story is. No story-telling technology is near so huge in impact as Radio was to a previously Theatrical and Literary culture. And yet a Radio Play conforms to all the same principles of character, tension, action, catharsis and transformation as a book, play or movie for that matter.

The technology changed what mechanics you had at your disposal to tell that story but it didn’t change what a story was or why people wanted them, what engaged and satisfied them. Just as there’s no precedent for any new media deleting an ‘old’ media (we still have TV, movies and plays in the age of video games and the internet), so to should we avoid gross assumptions of what technology does to the idea of a story. In simple terms, I work across new and old media everyday – from a feature films script to a WebSeries to online and touch-screen interactive, and the skill-set I bring to all of them as a writer and shaper of story experiences is the same – just the canvas changes.

Having said all that, not everything is a ‘story’. That’s the bit that really gets up my nose. A corporate brand logo and their social media adverts are not a bloody ‘story’!

Nor is every museum gallery or exhibition a ‘Story’.’ A story is not just a collection of things or a sequence of events. In this I think breaking down some distinctions between Story, Plot and Narration is very useful.

The framework I like to use, borrowed form numerous scholars in the field over centuries, is that Plot is a sequence of Events, Narration is how those events are Told and Story is what the Viewer experiences through the combination of the Plot being Told in a certain way… or in other words Plot + Narration = a Story Experience in the mind of the Audience.

Once we engage with this idea we can get away from the vacuous notion that ‘everything is a story’ and actually focus on bringing to bear the mechanics and craft to generate an engaging story experience – dramatic questions, a cause and effect chain, a distinct voice in the ‘telling’ of the story, clear point-of-view, characters who are flawed and have desires and obstacles – a story that’s worth experiencing.

This is where I wonder about museums and the idea of story telling.

In factual and documentary storytelling (which is obviously analogous to storytelling in the museum context), the topic or subject is never what the story is actually ‘about’. Stories are not about their subjects – subjects are metaphor, subjects are the means to explore bigger ideas.

So, for example, if a museum does an exhibition on fashion, there is a fundamental story-telling problem if the curator believes the exhibition is actually about fashion. If such an exhibition is going to embrace storytelling then it will no longer be about fashion – fashion will simply be a metaphor for something else and the curators and design team better have a very clear understanding of what that ‘something’ is if they want to create an effective story experience.

This obviously isn’t rocket science and I imagine many curators would agree, yet I see very few museum exhibitions that enact this idea – I see a lot of exhibitions that seem to hint at the idea of storytelling, yet ultimately the exhibition is only about the subject. This is the equivalent of a movie that is all plot and no subtext, all dialogue and no transformation of character.

In this context perhaps we might argue that storytelling is only suitable for ‘some’ exhibitions but not all? What do you think? Is story intrinsic to the museum exhibition? or is it a tool that some exhibitions might use? Is it being used well? Is it being used poorly?

F&N – A number of us in museums have been thinking about exhibition design as ‘storytelling with physical space’. At the same time we know that people in the screen industries are attempting storytelling across both multiple screens and other media. Perhaps there is a potential intersection here? What are some of the key lessons from screen-based media’s attempts to ‘branch out’ that have been learned recently? Certainly with all their experience with audio tours and mobile tours, museums might have some good ‘second screen’ ideas to contribute?

I think the idea of Spatial Narrative is a really important idea and also a vibrant one with lots of good precedents. The obvious connection is with 3D video gaming and ideas by scholar Norman Klein whose book ‘From the Vatican to Vegas: A History of Special Effects‘ deals specifically with the idea of narrative architecture.

My particular take on this is the idea of Player (or in the case of the museum, the Visitor) as Cinematographer; how can the space itself coerce, prompt, dictate or shape the movement and experience of the camera/visitor through the space. Klein calls this ‘gentle repression posing as free-will’. Shopping centres have been doing this to us for decades.

I wrote an article and a video essay specifically on this idea of ‘Player as Cinematographer‘ and I think the implications for the museum space are very acutely connected.

But that does bring us back to where we started with the notion of what a story ‘really’ is – Plot + Narration, point-of-view, dramatic questions, character transformation, catharsis and metaphor. Without these things the spatial coercion and construction may well be shaping your visit but it wont necessarily be the Spatial Narrator of a Story.

F&N – When I wrote about Punchdrunk’s digital efforts I emphasised their idea of a ‘parallel story’ that they were trying with Sleep No More deploying online interactivity to select performances. Parallel in the sense that the online audience experienced an entirely different narrative but using the same set and temporal space as the ‘in theatre’ audience’ with some crossover moments. Is this happening elsewhere?

Parallel and Multi-stranded narratives are an vital part of conceiving and developing multi-platform projects. The idea that an audience on one platform may experience a different set of events, point of view, narration or catharsis to an audience on a different platform, but that all those parallels – be they 2, 3 or more variations – are unified. This brings us to the idea of a ‘Storyworld’ an idea that, like ‘Transmedia’, is a bit of a buzzword, but one which is also a very useful as a conceptual and development tool.

The idea of a Storyworld is not particular to digital multi-platform and is absolutely applicable in traditional television series. It’s the idea of articulating the holistic world in which the stories are set – not just What, Where and When but also defining the Rules and Pressures of that world, the forces in conflict and opposition, the social frameworks and contexts that make that world not just unique but definitively pressurised with narrative potential.

The principle I use is the mantra ‘World First, Then Plot’.

I recently was involved in judging an international Storyworld Writing competition for the Immersive Writing Lab project in the UK and this is what we were looking for in the submissions – a Storyworld that had strong potential to spawn numerous plots rather than a discreetly defined plot. Thus it’s the defining and shaping of the Storyworld that must come first before the articulation of a discreet plot. Increasingly writers working in screen media, both traditional and new, are starting to view their central creative IP as not ‘a’ Plot or ‘a’ Character but rather as the Storyworld from which numerous plots and characters across numerous media may spawn.

I wonder if this idea of defining the parameters of a Museum exhibtions’ Storyworld as a set of oppositional forces, rules and pressures, contexts, settings, characters and themes is a useful developing system for museum exhibitions?

F&N – Now, audience. Early ‘transmedia’ stuff seemed to have really low participation rates and reached only the hardcore fans. Has anything changed? Does the ‘second screen’ stuff broaden this or is it a bit like ‘casual games’ vs ‘hardcore games’?

Its certainly true that for all the cool stuff thats been developed for interactive transmedia multi-platform projects, the audiences are small and moreover, the awareness of the work is very low.

Audiences are growing and these experiences are being normalised as mainstream entertainment rather than a fringe for the hardcore ‘early adopters’. But at the same time creators of these kinds of forms are maturing and realising they don’t need everything and the kitchen sink – that the story isn’t ‘better’ just because they’ve got a Facebook page and buttons you can click.

The best projects I’m seeing are those that are very focused, very specific, not offering platforms for platforms sake, but a clearly defined experience. And in this way genre is crucially important. genre speaks to how the audience expects to ‘feel’, and they engage to satisfy those expectations. In a maelstrom of new media scattered-ness and inconsistency and variation, Genre gives you a really solid narrative handle for the audience to hold on to.

What role is there for Genre in the Museum and Gallery space? Do museums have recognisable genres? can they employ or engage with traditional literary or cinematic genres? I might be more inclined to engage with an exhibition if I knew what feeling-state it was going to satisfy before I stepped inside.

F&N – Obviously sandbox video games are the Storyworlds that a lot of us are familiar with. These environments accrete immersion over time – and it strikes me that although museums might wish to emulate these worlds, the ‘average visit length’ (<1 hr) isn't conducive to it happening. Even when I go to Disneyland or a theme-park it is a day long commitment - and perhaps that's why Tasmania's MONA is so successful - the tourist really commits to a multi-hour journey through it. When I left Sydney I'd been thinking about how to turn museum experiences into 'lifelong' journeys. I'd been considering how Days of Our Lives and those daytime soap operas work. They don't require sequential viewing and you can not 'visit' their worlds for years but then immediately feel 'at home' inside them when you do reconnect. How do you think serialised entertainment can contribute to how museums consider their own 'experiences'? Do you think that immersion in Storyworlds can be achieved in the short period of time of an average museum visit?

Time is obviously a big factor in immersion but there is a different ways of thinking about time. It might mean a long duration of a single immersion (ie. in the gallery for a long period of time) or, it might mean short periods of immersion but numerous of them for a cumulative effect. And this speaks to the importance of episodic narrative and the way we are cognitively engaged by episodic structures. Episodic stories have a long history in print and on screen – from Chaucer and Dickens to The Wire and Mad Men. And also on to sandbox video games which are, by nature, ‘episodic’ narrative experiences. They are not designed or intended (or even practical) to experience in one sitting, instead levels, spaces, missions, the natural rise and fall of tension and release through completion of stages makes for a distinctly episodic experience.

What’s important to recognise about the very rich legacy of episodic storytelling is that its not the duration of a single viewing (or visit) that is as important as the cumulative effect of both ‘returnability’ (what compels us to come back) and the gaps between ‘sessions’ that are the conscious and subconscious processing of the relationships we form with events, ideas and characters. In other words immersion happens as much between sessions, viewings and visits as it does in them.

So, to answer the question of can immersion be achieved in a short period of time, I think the answer lies in thinking of time in terms of episodes and episodic patterns. How do episodes link, how can we be compelled from one episode to another and how does the space and time between episodes build the immersion. One way to understand or inform how this is constructed in TV and games, which might applicable to museum spaces, is consider the idea of Closure as a pattern of dramatic questions. An episode poses one or more dramatic questions that the viewer is compelled to find the answer to. In this it’s important to understand that a Dramatic Question is not just any question, rather its a question with something at stake, something at risk, a question that has an ‘or else’. It’s this element that motivates us within an ‘episode’. Dramatic questions become an episodic pattern through closure; when the question is answered, the episode is ended but a new question or extended question, drives the audience forward into the next episode.

Another way to think of this is the ‘But, So…’ sequence;

“X had to do Y but when they did, they realised Z…
So then they had to A before B,
But when they did, they encountered C.
So…. etc etc.”

This opening and closing of dramatic questions is an episodic pattern and it is the heart of long-form and immersive storytelling. And it works not only for hour long TV episodes or 3 hour gaming sessions but also for short form WebTV series as well.

F&N – Extending that idea a bit … now that a lot of people ‘binge watch’ a series on download or DVD/BluRay – doing an entire season in a single sitting, what does this do to sequential narratives? The viewer’s desire to have deep immersion over a binge session trumps a longer spaced out viewing cycle which might have been how the narrative was originally constructed. Does this suggest that we might be finding that media consumers might be tending towards more one-off deep consumption?

The ‘binge-viewing’ is an interesting phenomena. And there are certainly some writers of long-form series that are adamant that this is not the ‘best’ or ‘right’ way to view the series – that the immersion requires the ‘gap’ between episodes.

I don’t really have a hard answer on this other than to refer to what I mentioned earlier; that immersion can come either in duration or episodic pattern (or both). A viewer can become immersed by spending a huge amount of time in a single stretch (bingeing) or they can become immersed through an episodic experience. Both work. And yet there’s nothing new about binging. Pride and Prejudice is a long episodic book but Im sure there are many people who’ve read it almost in one sitting and we wouldn’t say they were less immersed than those who read a chapter a night or even that they had a lesser experience.

In terms of long-form TV series the increasingly normalised mainstream way to consume is actually not so much binge viewing as it is 1-2 episodes per night each night. Which is a step away from the episode per week broadcast mode and obviously facilitated by on-demand technologies, but is still very much in line with the ‘gap time’ between episodes that fulfils the cognitive processing that immersion relies upon.

What I think is important to engage with in the ideas of episodic narrative experiences is that the principles apply not just within mediums but across mediums. So the same thing that compels me to come back for a new episode might also be the same thing that compels me across platforms (or from a gallery space to an online experience). The idea that the gallery represents one ‘episode’ that poses certain dramatic questions which are answered by exhibition’s end but which trigger new dramatic questions, the answers to which I have ‘get’ on a different platform.

This is an idea I would suggests drives many good multi-platform and transmedia projects – recognising that Transmedia Storytelling is Episodic Storytelling – questions posed on one platform compel us to answers on a different platform.

In this way we can actively motivate the audience between platforms rather than simply expect them to go there of their own volition. I think the mistake many multi-platform projects make (and many museum projects too) is to assume the audience are motivated, assume they are already interested and so they neglect to light a fire under their arse, they forget to give the audience really good, motivated, compelling reasons to engage.

Catch up with Mike on Twitter (@mikejonestv) or read his copious articles at


An exhibition is a mixtape

The best mixtape is made with love and care.
The best mixtape requires deep knowledge and skill to make.
The messages contained in a mixtape are simultaneously opaque and clear.
A mixtape is an invitation.
A mixtape is not a compilation.

I’ve been thinking a lot about exhibitions recently. They are expensive beasts and tend to still be produced with the same models of high risk cultural production as cinema.

As the museum educator has risen in prominence and institutional power over the last three decades, exhibitions have been challenged by the ‘event-driven museum’. So much that exhibitions, themselves, have become ‘events’ – in the most contentious and problematic form of ‘blockbusters’.

At the same time we’ve seen the spread of the verb ‘curate’, and the noun ‘curator’. Some people even want appropriate credit for their online ‘curatorial’ skills.

Researching and then assembling a narrative told by music selections to communicate messages of love, hate, ambivalence, or just to assert your superior (sub)cultural capital – that’s what making a mixtape was all about. Exhibitions, in their most primal form, are not that different.

The mixtape is dead.
The mixtape died with MP3.
The mixtape died with iTunes.
The mixtape died when it became an ‘unconstrained’ playlist.

So where is the new model for exhibitions in a world where mixtapes have been replaced by iTunes and now Spotify?

Conceptual User experience

On Sleep No More, magic and immersive storytelling

If you’ve run into me in New York City since I moved here six months ago I’ve probably badgered you about Sleep No More.

It was something I saw in my first weeks after moving here after two aborted attempts on previous trips to New York. Best described as an immersive theatrical experience, it has deeply affected the way I think about theatre, theme parks, exhibitions and museum experiences in general. And, coupled with my experiences at the Museum of Old & New Art before I left Australia, it has challenged my thinking around ‘participation’ and ‘openness’.

Loosely based on Macbeth, inspired by film noir, and transforming 100,000 square feet of a 5 storey warehouse in Chelsea, Sleep No More is about immersive exploration rather than a linear narrative. Everything is touchable, openable, operable. It is a world of cinematic detail – shelves, drawers and cabinets are full of papers and objects that are purposefully selected and layered with information from and about the story world – and sound and smell are turned up to 11. With the audience masked, silent, and anonymised, the experience becomes highly individualised and for three hours you explore, following performers if they take your fancy, or chancing upon happenings and scenes.

Apart from the choreography of the performers themselves, there is a sense of the audience being choreographed as they spread out and move loosely through the space, yet always managed to be ‘nudged’ subtly to climactic moments in the larger congregational spaces. Friends have remarked how game-like it is in the way it does this nudging – and on my first viewing I made connections to the ways in which good 3D sandbox games manage to maintain a core narrative whilst encouraging players to ‘freely explore’.

Despite this subtle nudging your experience will be different to mine. Couples are advised to purposefully split up for the duration of the adventure to have a more individualised experience (and a lot more to talk about afterwards).

If you haven’t been and you are visiting New York in the next little while, then I do urge you to go. And try not to read to much about it beforehand.

So tonight at Storycode – a periodic transmedia & storytelling meetup – I was excited to hear Pete Higgin and Colin Nightingale from Punchdrunk talk about the development of Sleep No More in its current incarnation and their approach to storytelling. (You can watch the video of the whole talk on Livestream).

Punchdrunk have been working with MIT Media Lab to explore ways in which a complementary experience of the environment could work online. Last week, in some trials, several audience members were selected to wear special masks with sensors and cameras and joined their fellow patrons in the regular Sleep No More performance. Connected to them were selected online participants who experienced a version of the performance through an interface that recalled the classic text adventure, but with ambient sound and some intermittent vision.

The selected audience members were drawn to specific parts of the set where a communications portal between the online and onsite opened so that they could communicate with each other – mediated by actors in a control room. This is going on in realtime in the same physical environment as the regular performance – so it is a strange kind of ‘third story’ in the same world. These ‘portals’ were subtly disguised in the fabric of the set so as to be unnoticeable by others.

Obviously there were some issues – the additional layers of the 3rd story secret world were not obvious – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. And the locational technology (Bluetooth) and content delivery/transmission over wifi didn;t always work satisfactorily. There’s a New York Times piece on the experiment from the point of view of an participant that is worth a read.

What really impressed me was the deep consideration that had gone into making the online experience for the remote participant as immersive as possible by using sound and the limitations of text descriptors rather than relying on inadequate video or worse, the uncanny valley of 3D simulations.

The online experience wasn’t meant to be a ‘replica’ of the Sleep No More experience, but a parallel to it.

This parallelism is something I’d love to see museums do more with. Online/digital as a parallel experience. This is what so much discussion in the museum (Rodley) blogosphere (Cairns) has recently been about.

Take a look at Punchdrunk’s recent outreach and literacy program ‘Under The Eiderdown’.

Hit play. Watch the seven minutes. Then come back. It is worth it.


Towards the close of their talk Pete Higgin had a nice line – “explanation is the killer of wonderment”.

It reminded me of a recent article from Salon on the effect of YouTube on the traditions and social practices of magicians.

“The biggest problem with DVD and YouTube exposure is that it has damaged the skill of learning through asking, and it has created the mistaken assumption, perhaps, that all knowledge and all wisdom is available to buy,” [magician Jamy Ian Swiss] said. “And there’s so much difference between those two acts, because asking involves a human experience, while buying is just sitting in your couch and passively absorbing countless secrets that you think constitute magic.”

Magic, like theatre, isn’t about the technicalities of the tricks – it is about performance and the moment.

Higgin told an anecdote about a run-in with a overzealous ‘fan’ who had created an article deconstructing the timings of scenes in Sleep No More – under the strange assumption that by giving the ‘factual information’ would actually be useful. It is a tension that plays out in all media now – the plot summaries and spoilers that are immediately posted to Wikipedia for popular TV series after an episode airs – but for immersive, purposefully opaque narrative experiences the stakes might just be higher.

Museums, especially those of the scientific and historical persuasion, have been hesitant to embrace theatricality – “there be charlatans”, or worse “there be theme parks” – yet all good storytelling is all about performance. (Something public librarians at Reading Time know all too well).

Yet consider the mass popularity of the early commercial museums in the late 19th century when scientific phenomena were akin to magic and Coney Island had premature babies in cribs showing the ‘miracles of modern medicine’ and freak shows, and electricity! Wonderment!

These are not things we generally think of as desirable in a modern museum – however there may still be much to learn about their appeal that still applies today.

What if we designed exhibitions to have the same ‘dense, cinematic detail’ that Punch Drunk’s productions have? (And trusted visitors to respect and engage with them appropriately through scaffolding the entry experience?)

What if we designed our exhibitions to hold things back from some visitors? And to purposefully make some elements of an exhibition ‘in-accessible’ to all? (The Studio Ghibli Museum in Tokyo is wonderfully designed with some spaces and passages that are only accessible by small children that lead to experiences that only children can have separate from their parents.)

What if we made ‘wonderment’ our Key Performance Indicator?


Museums and making the ‘digital shift’

I’m mid-way through writing a number of articles that explore the challenges for museums in pulling ‘digital’ into their core operations. As a result I’ve started to formulate this idea –

museums will not be able to properly understand and integrate ‘digital’ into their organisational DNA until they have substantial born-digital collections.

Libraries have had a significant head start, I’m beginning to think, because of their ever increasing digital holdings. Not to mention the acceleration of their shift to being ‘service-oriented’ which had its seeds in the 1980s.


(Regular readers will know that I’ve discussed digital experiences, augmenting physical objects, visitor engagement etc, as well as the organisational change aspects at length before. This idea is additive to those pre-existing conversations. If you are new to this then have a read of my summative post from Web Directions a few months ago).