Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Life Update, July/August 2018

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a ‘Life Update’ post on this blog that told of the trials and tribulations I had undergone since the end of 2016, when I started the process of applying for funding to do a PhD. I explained how I successfully received an unconditional offer from Royal Holloway to study for an interdisciplinary PhD, supervised between Geography and Media Arts, but failed to get funding to start my PhD in September 2017.

I then talked about my next steps: how I was preparing to present my research on walking simulator video games at the Royal Geographical Society (with Institute of British Geographers) Annual International Conference, and would be looking for a job to tide me over until September 2018, when I hoped to finally start my PhD.

Let’s pick up where I Ieft off.

The RGS-IBG Conference was a very rewarding experience; and despite only being there for a pre-conference training workshop and one full day of conference sessions, I met countless interesting people, many of whom I’m still in touch with in one way or another (more on this later). So I’m pleased I took the opportunity to stay involved in the Geography research community at this interim stage of my academic career. You can see the slides and text from my presentation on walking simulator video games here.

Days later my summer was officially over, for in September I jumped on the treadmill of full-time job seeking. At some point, I uploaded my CV to a temp agency website and, sure enough, I was offered a role as a telephone interviewer in a call centre in Ashford. I ended up working there for two weeks, and it was actually quite a satisfying, at times enjoyable, position. My job was to survey the owners of small businesses in the UK about their experiences of business banking, which fed into the British Banking Insight (BBI) website that allows business owners to compare different banking providers. This meant I had lots of interesting conversations with people about their businesses and the difficulties they faced day-to-day.

To my surprise, I was also quite good at it – I managed to break the company record for the number of BBI surveys completed in a single day!

I knew this was likely to be a short-term position, however, as I had already applied and been offered interviews for another job – to work as a Visitor Welcome Ambassador in Canterbury city centre, a.k.a. ‘one of those people who walks around in a bowler hat giving people directions and information’.

To me, this sounded like an almost ideal position for this intervening period of my life. Not only was it a job I thought I could do well, having lived in the Canterbury area my whole life (with the exception of my undergraduate degree) and knowing a fair amount about the city, but as a geographer I knew it would interest me to witness the routines and inconsistencies of everyday life in the city centre, and equally be able to experience elements of city life that many citizens are unable to access.

After two very positive interviews I was offered the job, and having said goodbye to my co-workers at the call centre on the Friday, I started work in my new role on the Monday.

What you probably don’t know about the ‘bowler hat people’ is that they work on behalf of the city’s Business Improvement District (BID) as ‘ambassadors’. BIDs are not-for-profit organisations that are paid for by a levy on all businesses within a defined area, with the money raised being used to pay for a range of services that benefit local business and improve conditions for people spending time in the city centre. They work in partnership with a vast number of local organisations, including the local councils, police, community representatives and other non-governmental organisations.           

So as well as welcoming visitors to the city, my role as a BID Ambassador also consisted of visiting the businesses within my area to hear about any issues they had and discussing how the BID could help; reporting environmental issues on the street, such as waste, graffiti tagging and street cleaning problems; reporting and sharing information on crime and serious anti-social behaviour in the city centre; and helping to promote events/promotions on social media. You can read more about the role on the BID website if you’re interested.

Even as I was settling into my new employment, I was still very much thinking about my PhD plans. I spent some time considering how my project proposal could be adjusted to better reflect my interests, and to make the project more practically viable. In mid-autumn I travelled up to Royal Holloway to meet with my two proposed PhD supervisors, to discuss the direction I wanted to take and how we were going to approach the application for TECHNE – the funding body to which I wanted to apply originally in 2016, but couldn’t arrange in time.

At that meeting, I outlined my continued intention to create a participatory mixed-reality game set in Canterbury, which uses environmental storytelling to communicate the narratives that make places meaningful for people. However, rather than having to create a bespoke app or something similar, I had decided to use the existing game Geocaching as a platform. My reasoning behind this decision was mainly practical – the fact that it is already a very widely-played and well-known game, which has all the functionality I need for storytelling and public participation. It also opens up a new avenue for research, based on critiquing and expanding the existing gameplay. As much as I enjoy Geocaching, I think it’s fair to say that the potential of the GPS-enabled treasure hunt as a game format has not been fully investigated, particularly when it comes to storytelling and sharing more emotionally impactful experiences. Geocaches are rarely more innovative that a hidden Tupperware pot or film canister. Occasionally you come across very cleverly-hidden caches with unique container designs, or series of caches with a particular theme; and sometimes they provide excellent historical information about the location. But rarely, if ever, do they compose a coherent narrative that incorporates their surroundings. The gameplay’s capacity to do that is what I want to explore through my PhD research.

The bulk of the work on the funding application happened in January, and it really was a lot of work. The form I had to fill out required a fully-referenced description of my research project, training and resource needs, and why I was applying to that particular funding body; as well as personal details about my education and professional experience. A large amount of time had to be spent cutting down words to fit within the allowed limits of the form, too – a difficult task, as it entailed judging which details were safe or appropriate to omit, and how these decisions would benefit or hinder my chances of getting funding. My supervisors also had plenty to write on why they as individuals, and why their departments, were appropriate for my PhD project, and why they saw me as a good candidate to complete this research. There was a lot of back and forth between them and myself regarding edits, until eventually we had something that we were all happy with.

The most gruelling aspect of the funding application process was the length of time I had to wait before hearing anything conclusive. There were about four stages to get through in total – being put forward by the Geography department, then by a board of representatives from all Arts and Humanities departments, then by TECHNE associates at Royal Holloway, before finally receiving an offer from the TECHNE board of directors. Each stage was separated by a few weeks at least, sometimes months, and leading up to the times when decisions were being made I’d experience a swelling of anxiety revolving around my future: whether I’d have to wait at least another year to start work on this project; whether a PhD was even something I should pursue if I couldn’t get funding this time. It was particularly disconcerting to think that individuals I’d never met before – and might not ever meet – were making such significant decisions about my life behind closed doors, and there was nothing more I could do to influence the outcome.

Before the final stage in May, I was reassured by my contact in the Geography department that if the TECHNE funding was not forthcoming, I would be put forward for a studentship provided by Royal Holloway itself, of which there were a limited number available to Department of Geography PhD students.

The date for the board of directors’ decision was in mid-May, and it was another week or two before I found out that I’d been put on the ‘reserve list’ for TECHNE applicants, meaning that if an offer holder refused their offer, I and others on the list would be next in line. Later, my Geography contact found out that they were not in a position to offer me funding. I was told that, at that stage, every applicant is considered worthy of funding. It’s purely the subjective assessment of the TECHNE directors that determines who gets an offer.

And so my hopes relied on the fall-back plan of the Royal Holloway studentship competition which, mercifully, only took a week or so to complete. But finally, at the end of May – five months after my original TECHNE application had been submitted – I learned that I had been awarded a full college scholarship for all three years of my doctoral study, covering both tuition fees and maintenance at the London rate.

It was a huge relief; an outcome that at last allowed me to plan ahead for more than a few months at a time. I could finally give my employers concrete news of what I’d be doing, and I could start preparing for the academic year ahead, knowing that there would be a firm project to which I could dedicate myself, and give structure to my life for at least the next three years.

Fast forward to July, and it was time to say goodbye to the lovely team at Canterbury BID after nine months of working there. My time at the BID did end in a somewhat celebratory fashion, as I managed to time my leaving date so that I could work during Canterbury’s Medieval Pageant. This event consists of a trail of medieval-themed activities in the city centre, and a parade which tells the story of Henry II’s pilgrimage to Canterbury in 1174, when he made a public apology for ordering the murder of St. Thomas a Becket. I’d never been to the event before, so I’m glad I had the chance to see it – and help with its running – as an ambassador.                

I also had the opportunity to give training to my replacement, which allowed me to pass on all my accumulated knowledge of the people we work with, the tasks we have to do, and the challenges we face in our slice of the city. It was eye-opening to realise how much I’d learnt about Canterbury during my time in the role, and I’m glad I was able to put it to good use by sharing it with the newest recruit.

Above all, I hope that the impression I left as an ambassador was one of dedication to the role and to Canterbury as a city. It’s been especially fulfilling to have made a difference to how the city functions and people’s experiences of the city, meeting people from all walks of life, and finding ways to help them. In total, I welcomed 10,497 visitors, made 1,200 business visits and reported 1,132 issues. It was a real pleasure; an all-round rewarding experience.

So now I’ve finished full-time work, what am I doing with my life?

Well, there are two main projects that are taking up the bulk of my time.                

The first is preparing for another RGS-IBG Annual International Conference.

After last year’s superb session on Geographies of Digital Games, myself and a couple of colleagues I met there suggested organising a session in this year’s conference on ‘Landscapes of Digital Games’, to coincide with the theme of ‘landscape’ upon which RGS-IBG 2018 is based. After working together on an overview of what we wanted from session – describing what kinds of topics we were interested in discussing – we put the call out in January for people to present papers at our session.

We had a such a large response to our call for papers that we had to make some quite tough choices about who to accept for our session – though this was simultaneously a useful exercise for curating a session that had some coherent themes flowing through it. We were fortunate that there also happened to be a very complimentary double session on ‘Geographical Considerations of Digital Landscapes’ that was calling for papers, and, happily, they were able to borrow some of those who submitted papers to our session, particularly those that were less focused on games specifically. This double session will also take place directly after ours at the conference, ensuring that it will be a fascinating afternoon all round for digital geographies research.

As well as co-organising our session, I will be presenting some work on Geocaching, explaining how landscapes are imagined, represented, performed and contested through the navigational and narrativizing qualities of the gameplay. Writing and giving the presentation, taking questions from fellow geographers, and meeting more people with similar interests in the discipline will all be great preparation ahead of starting my PhD in September. For my PhD project itself, it’ll be useful to revisit my earlier research on Geocaching and psychogeography, and use material I have subsequently worked on to reframe my findings using the concepts of landscape and post-phenomenology.

This year’s conference takes place in Cardiff from August 28th to August 31st, and I’m excited to be attending every day of the conference this year, as opposed to the two days I managed in 2017. It should be a fantastic opportunity to hear about the latest strands of research within my areas of interest in Geography, and also to explore more of Cardiff, a city I have visited only twice previously. One triple session on using walking practices as research, whose middle session involves putting these methods into practice in the landscape around the conference venue, should certainly provide some novel ways of experiencing the city.

The other main project I’ll be working on this summer – and extending into autumn – is a creative venture, and one that only came about through my work for Canterbury BID.

During my time working for the BID, we saw the establishment in Canterbury of the Cathedral Quarter: a re-branding of Burgate (the cobbled street adjacent to the Cathedral) and the historic streets that branch off it. As the Cathedral Quarter was in my reporting area as an ambassador, I attended nearly all of the meetings for business owners and staff in the area, which focused on what the Cathedral Quarter could achieve, and how.

In particular, the group has been looking for new ways to draw people’s attention to the high-quality speciality shops, restaurants and bars on offer (particularly independents) only metres from the main high street. One of the main concerns that businesses in the area have is that many locals are seemingly not aware of what is there; or, for the long-term residents, have not visited the area in a long time.

Running events is a usually reliable way to generate interest, and one of the earliest ideas that was suggested was that of a treasure hunt – an activity that encourages participants to pay close attention to their surroundings, and potentially discover parts of the urban fabric they hadn’t noticed before.

After business owners in the Cathedral Quarter became aware of my PhD plans, and my existing knowledge of Geocaching, we agreed that it might be beneficial if I could get involved in organising the event somehow.

In the end, they went one step further, asking if I’d be interested in designing and coordinating the whole project.

Fast forward a few months to now, and I am currently in the process of designing a story-based digital treasure hunting game, in which players scan QR codes to learn about different locations in the Cathedral Quarter (historically and today) and get a clue as to where the next code is hidden. When participants complete the hunt, they will all earn a small reward, and also be entered into a draw to win much bigger prizes.

I won’t go into too much detail about the project here as the plot, and precisely how different elements of the storytelling will be executed, are still very much under construction. But to give a rough overview, the story is centred on a time-travelling academic called Mia Augustina, who is trapped in the past and needs the players’ help to return to the present. By scanning the QR codes scattered around the Cathedral Quarter, which each contain stories relevant to their location, players will aim to re-calibrate her time-travelling device and enable her to return to the present day.

It feels like an important milestone for me personally, as this is the first public artwork I have ever been commissioned to make, certainly for such a large potential audience. It also allows me to get some much-needed practice for my PhD, during which I’ll be crafting similar experiences – those that aim to create a platform for sharing the stories that make places meaningful to people. All in all, it was an opportunity that was too good to turn down at this moment in my life, and I hope I can repay the faith the Cathedral Quarter have shown in me by creating something memorable and invigorating; something that makes a tangible difference to those who earn their livelihoods in the area.

So even though I’ve now finished full-time work, my summer is still jam-packed between designing the treasure hunt game and preparing my presentation for the RGS-IBG Conference in Cardiff, and then eventually moving up to London for the first-year of my PhD. It’s a very exciting time for me. I’m incredibly grateful to have been given these academic and creative opportunities, and through my work I’m going to try my best to give something back to the communities into which I’ve been so warmly welcomed as a student, employee and resident.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

'Post- walking simulators': a dialogue between mechanics and narrative

What are walking simulators?

Followers of the video game industry over the last 6 years will be familiar with the surge in development of a genre of games known as ‘walking simulators’. Often avoiding many game mechanics that people typically associate with the video game medium, such as those involving skill in button-pushing, completing objectives, combat and death, walking simulator games invite players to explore rich virtual environments as an end in itself – to be immersed into the affectively and emotionally impactful scenarios that are present in game worlds.

Those of you familiar with my work will know that I have already talked and written extensively about the design of walking simulators and the experiences they provoke, particularly how they can create a sense of place in virtual environments. Here, however, I want to talk about a new trend that has been taking shape across video game development in recent years; one that has grown out of the innovations that walking simulators have brought to game design.

What are the distinguishing characteristics of a walking sim? Well, one obvious effect of the ‘walking simulator’ label is that it highlights the action of walking as a key element of the play experience. While critics of walking simulators have portrayed walking in games as a passive activity in which players supposedly lack agency, Rosa Carbó-Mascarell and myself have framed the term ‘walking simulator’ as invoking Romantic and psychogeographical conceptions of walking – as a method of mindfully immersing oneself in an environment; becoming aware of its (hi)stories and contours of emotion and feeling. By minimising the somatic, instinctive concerns of button-pushing, or the circumscribed focus of objectives and tactical gameplay, players of walking sims have the capacity to interact more consciously and deliberately with the sensible landscapes of the game worlds and their narratives.

‘Post- walking simulators’

With the innovations that walking simulators have brought to video games, many developers – particularly small indie studios – have sought to replicate the success of the iconic early games in this genre, which generated significant intrigue and cult status amongst gamers, despite being made almost exclusively by indie developers. Search around and you’ll find many examples of formulaic story-based exploration games, but with poorly-executed environmental storytelling or voice acting, and worlds that struggle to feel believable.

All the successful games that fall under the walking simulator label offer something new for players to experience, even if some of the methods of engendering these experiences are similar. And it is innovation in producing meaningful emotional experiences that has led to the development of what I’m calling ‘post- walking simulators’.

If one of the key tenets of walking simulators is a reduction in opportunities for mechanical interaction with the game world, then post- walking simulators are bringing them back – but in ways that aid storytelling and emotional attunement rather than stifling it.

It’s not that game developers have had to choose between mechanics and story. Indeed, even before walking simulators rose to prominence, both were important elements to most games. Of course, effectively all games have at least a core fictional context that provides a rationale for the play. However, for a long time, games with stories that have plots (series of narrative events) had struggled to break the mould of the three-act restorative structure, in which the ‘fun’ parts of the game – the interactive activities that you participate in through mechanical controls – are carefully threaded together with non-interactive cutscenes (typically small pieces of film or non-interactive animation) that deliver the narrative in segments. In this model, the 'beginning' of the story or story event (1st act), key plot points in the middle (2nd act) and the resolution (3rd act) are often all delivered via cutscenes, meaning that the key narrative events which frame the game experience are, in fact, not interactive. (Some notable pre-2012 exceptions include Myst [1993], the System Shock series [1994 and 1999], the Bioshock series [2007 and 2010] and Portal [2007]).

What post- walking simulators are showing is that the story and its emotional beats can be experienced by the player through game mechanics themselves, rather than separating the story from the gameplay using cutscenes, or simply removing most mechanics altogether as the earlier walking simulators did.

Let’s consider some examples.

Case studies

One of the earliest games I can think of that fits this model is Life is Strange. Set in the fictional town of Arcadia Bay on the Oregon coastline, you play as Max, a college student who discovers that she can rewind time. The story centres on Max’s investigations of mysterious and troubling events taking place in Arcadia Bay, the hometown to which she has recently returned to study photography, which include a missing student and unusual natural phenomena.

The principal mechanic in Life is Strange is the decision-making system, largely based on Telltale’s The Walking Dead game series. Throughout each episode of the five-part series, the player is presented with choices that will subsequently determine the outcome of their scenarios, including how the non-player characters respond to you, and the occurrence of events that take place (or not) later in the game.                              

Although this may seem to share little resemblance to walking sims on face value, the game is still largely predicated on exploring your surroundings to discover details that have relevance to Max’s world, its stories and the decisions she must make. By pointing and clicking on different details in the virtual environment, you can inspect them to hear comments from Max’s character (interpretations which can then be viewed retrospectively in her journal) and interact with them in ways that can be menial, but occasionally in ways that have significant consequences for the story. This is particularly the case in instances when you must use your time reversal ability to get past obstacles.

In certain situations – particularly where there is something notable or unusual to find – you are able to take photographs of what you see, which are also recorded in Max’s journal. There are only a limited number of photograph opportunities in each episode, meaning that players are encouraged to look for them all and subsequently build up a more intimate connection with the game world.

This connection is nurtured most effectively, however, by (in my opinion) the game’s most original and innovative mechanic – giving you the option in certain locations to simply ‘sit’ and take in your surroundings; dwelling on the unfolding events, the choices you’ve made, and their significance in the wider context of the story. When you click ‘sit’, a light acoustic score gently fades in, as the camera moves between different third-person views of Max. Her character makes a few comments to guide your thoughts, and then you are simply left to ponder as long as you see fit.

In an industry that tends to prize speed of reaction and tactical judgement as desirable qualities in players, this feels almost revolutionary – a mechanic that deliberately and explicitly encourages players to take their time and reflect on what the characters and events occurring in the game world mean to them, personally.

Alongside the decision-making and time reversal capabilities – which organise the player’s actions that have clear consequences for the game world – the observational mechanics of inspecting, photographing, and simply ‘sitting’ ensure that players are emotionally invested in the fate of the characters, events, and the town in which the game is set; helping the developers to communicate experiences that delve into themes of loss, nostalgia, responsibility and the butterfly effect – how even the smallest incidents can have significant consequences in the future.

Another critically-acclaimed game that goes beyond the ‘walking simulator’ label is Oxenfree. Set on an island off the north-west coast of the US, you play as Alex, a teenage girl who has brought her step-brother Jonas to an abandoned former military island for an overnight party with a group of friends. Unwittingly, you disturb paranormal forces associated with the island’s mysterious past, which you – together with your group of friends – must grapple with and attempt to stop.

Oxenfree uses an inventive branching dialogue system in which players can choose how to respond in a conversation from two or more options, and the other characters will react accordingly. Not clicking an option results in silence from your character, while clicking early can cause you to interrupt the dialogue, both of which can have their own unique social implications. Over time, as the player-character negotiates a range of challenging and delicate scenarios, these dialogue decisions affect relationships between the teenage friends and, ultimately, the fate of these characters on the island and in the wider context of the game world.

This dialogue mechanic is clever in many ways. Your character says nothing at all before the first dialogue decision, meaning that it is almost solely through your choices of how to express yourself, and the other characters’ impressions of you, that your identity as a player-character is forged. Like Life is Strange, your dialogue decisions also have tangible consequences for the game world and its people, intensifying your emotional investment with the world and your ability to empathise with the characters and the situations in which they find themselves.                      

The other significant mechanic in Oxenfree is the use of an old analogue radio to communicate with the paranormal forces that haunt the island. In various points throughout the island, the player-character must tune the radio until it aligns with the paranormal signal. Though it is a simple idea, it's a smart mechanic that is far more powerful than simply spreading audio logs throughout the world, for a few reasons: a) it is in keeping with the fictional context of the game world; b) it enables the player to be an active participant in learning the narrative information, which bolsters their sense of presence within the game world; and c) it reinforces key narrative themes exploring the influence that past events have on present environments, invoking the Surrealist conception that there are extraordinary layers of meaning just beyond the boundaries of the sensible world, which can still be detected using certain tactics and which still impact events in the present.

Ultimately, it is an experience that powerfully mirrors the social and emotional strains teenagers are faced with when plunged into an adult world filled with uncertainty and forces beyond your control. In your attempts to make sense of the confusing and frightening situations you are presented with, the mechanics emulate the character-moulding quality of this process of adaptation to the wild world beyond the safety of home, and the societal relics of previous generations.

Similar ideas are explored, albeit in a quite different setting, in the 2D adventure game Night in the Woods. In this game you play as Mae, a college dropout who returns home to the former mining town of Possum Springs to move back in with her parents. It soon becomes clear, however, that things don’t feel the same as before – her friends have changed and a series of disturbing events have been happening around town, including a former friend going missing and the discovery of an arm that has been detached from a human body.

As you resume Mae’s earlier aimless routines, you’ll find that, despite being in a 2D environment, there’s lots to discover. There are multiple platforms, hidden entrances and other tidbits you can find and interact with in each level; things are there one day and not the next; areas become accessible later that weren’t previously. In fact, it is impossible to find all the narrative material in a single play-through of the game, as your choices about which characters to hang out with mean that some storylines will trigger while others won’t. All the time sharpening your attention to detail; making you aware of the intricate relationships and unique characters that give the small town its personality.               

The scenarios in which Mae finds herself, as she wanders through her home town, are populated by numerous mini-games including a Guitar Hero -esque bass guitar simulator; smashing fluorescent bulbs with a baseball bat; squirting unsuspecting passersby with water from a fountain; using a telescope to search for dusk stars with your former science teacher; and two shoplifting simulators. These all serve a distinct narrative purpose of reinforcing your character’s propensity for recklessness and fun, while recreating the laid-back, comforting experience of hanging out with friends; simultaneously making memories that you look back on as milestones in these relationships. By the end, I found myself getting nostalgic about the time I stupidly stole a belt buckle I didn’t even want from a shopping mall with my best friend Bea; and the time I went stargazing with Angus.    

Like Oxenfree, Night in the Woods also uses a decision-based dialogue system, which changes how characters respond to you depending on the option you select. Though these decisions do not affect the outcome of the narrative as much as Oxenfree, they still help to define your experiences of the world – which mini-games you play (or not), and what you learn about the characters of Possum Springs throughout the game.

Taken altogether, the different practices through which players can entwine themselves within the everyday life of Mae’s hometown enable them to empathise with the realities of being a young adult in small-town America – of making your own fun and finding meaningful experiences in the face of limited opportunities, both socially and in terms of careers; but also the mental hardships that arise from this kind of deprivation. Without the ability to actively participate in the social life of Possum Springs – being able to choose who you talk to and how you spend your time, and then actually taking part in the chosen activities yourself – Night in the Woods would have told its story in a much less believable way.

Perhaps my favourite ‘post- walking simulator’ is this year’s winner of the BAFTA Best Game award, What Remains of Edith Finch. In this game, the player-character returns as an adult to the house that has been the family home for multiple generations, to learn about the stories of family members who have since died.

However, unlike many walking simulators, there is no extensive reading of letters or diaries required to uncover information that progresses the story. Rather, you’re able to inhabit the very characters whose spaces and belongings you move through, which include a child trying to go full-circle on a swing set; a girl who dreamed she was a cat, a hawk, and a man-eating eel; a young man hallucinating while working in a fish cannery; a baby playing with toys in a bathtub; and a boy flying a kite in a thunderstorm.                             

There is still environmental storytelling in the form of the exceptionally well-crafted rooms of each Finch family member, which intricately and believably portray their interests and personality, without resorting conveniently-placed tape recordings or diary entries. Rather, in their use of the ‘mini-games’ to convey what happened to the characters, the developers are deliberately avoiding the relatively non-interactive action of reading text and listening to narration; instead utilising interactive tools to enable players to understand the experiences of the characters in a more immersive way. This is what mechanical interaction (no matter how simple) does very well compared to watching cutscenes, reading notes or listening to audio logs - because the player controls the action taking place, it enables them to feel present in the game world.

Embodying the deceased Finch family members, as well as moving through spaces you can palpably sense that they once inhabited, gives players opportunities to very viscerally contemplate what home and family really mean as we live our lives in the present; and most evocatively, as the title suggests, what remains when people depart from the places in which they lived their lives.

An innovative trend

When I use the prefix ‘post-’ before ‘walking simulator’, I use it very deliberately. Firstly, it doesn’t signal a total departure from the walking sim genre. If that were the case, I would call them something totally different. Rather, it recognises that there is a trend in video game design that has developed through, and now beyond, walking sims. I would argue, in fact, that walking sims were a necessary step to get to this stage.

Before the advent of walking simulators (and, it must be added, other experimental narrative games including visual novels and interactive films) it had typically been considered that the mechanics of play should be the priority of a video game’s design and, consequently, the players’ attention. Walking simulators flipped this logic on its head. Their developers worked on the basis that the story – the emotional experience that a game’s developers want its players to have – should be the end-goal and centrepiece of the project; and the mechanics, however limited they may be, should only exist to serve this experience.

With their experimentation and effective use of the environmental storytelling technique, walking simulators demonstrated that there were other, often more affectively/emotionally impactful means of forging empathy between players, characters and game environments; while demonstrating the immersion-breaking limitations of cutscenes in achieving this, with the storytelling and mechanical interaction separated so starkly.

Thomas Grip from Frictional Games, the developers who made the Amnesia series and SOMA, writes very well about the lack of innovation that video game mechanics have seen since the earliest commercial titles. He explains how the mechanics of some of the original video games were so inherently engaging that they have been repeated continually by generations of developers, which has stifled innovation in the medium itself. Even now (as I can testify from playing on a NES for hours at a party last year) aging games are so fun that you could still sit there engrossed in them for a very long time. As a result, there has been very little incentive for game developers to expand much further on these already very effective, and thus lucrative, game mechanics. Indeed, many of the most recognisable developments the games industry has witnessed over the last few decades have come from the side of technology (processing power, graphics, etc.) rather than game design.

It has taken innovative leaps to get to the point we are at in the video game industry today, where we are seeing greater diversity in the types of games available and mechanics they employ, as well as storylines and characters, to deliver a range of engaging experiences.

For walking simulators, we’ve had the likes of Dan Pinchbeck of The Chinese Room, who, rather than study for a PhD on first-person shooters through the lens of already-existing design concepts, asked a question that productively challenged the status quo: what kind of experience would be created if you took the gameplay out of FPS games? The answer to that question was Dear Esther, widely regarded as the iconic walking simulator that helped spark the genre. Meanwhile, Steve Gaynor of Fullbright took his love of environmental storytelling while working as a developer at Irrational Games (developers of the Bioshock and System Shock series) to create a game whose gameplay involved just that – no combat, objectives or death; just a story told through the objects in the game environment. That game was Gone Home, another early walking sim that made waves within the games industry.

It’s important to note that the whole family of (post-)walking sims aren’t just being appreciated within the indie gaming scene. These innovations are being recognised on the biggest stages of the industry, and in the gaming community at large. Indeed, many of the games I have mentioned in this piece have received overwhelming critical acclaim. Life Is Strange, Night in the Woods and What Remains of Edith Finch have all won BAFTA Awards; the latter scooping the prestigious ‘Best Game’ prize in this year’s event when competing against huge titles such as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Horizon Zero Dawn.

Perhaps it’s more relevant to talk about this trend in game design – demonstrated here in the progression from walking simulators to ‘post- walking simulators’ – as a set of ideas about how stories can be told effectively in games. And hopefully, one that finally puts to bed the old debate within game studies between the ludologists and narratologists – the former, who believe that games have a radically different communicative structure to other media and should be understood and analysed as systems in their own right; and the latter who believe that games should be studied using theories of narrative, incorporating wider social and cultural influences that are considered when analysing other ‘conventional’ media.

It is now abundantly clear that both mechanics and narrative are fundamental to video game design, and more than that, they are mutually dependent; dialogical. Yes, video games tell stories that both affect and are affected by wider social and cultural meaning-making, and – crucially – game mechanics provide the systems through which these stories are told evocatively using the affordances of an interactive medium.

Instead of arguing about the importance of mechanics versus narrative, there is a more significant question we should be asking, for video games and interactive media more generally: how can the mechanics of interaction in video games be wielded effectively to engender particular types of emotional experience?

The characteristic that distinguishes video games from other artforms is their capacity for interaction – for the actions that you take in the game world to have very tangible and significant consequences for that world, which can then be tangibly experienced by the player as they continue playing. In this way, through their mechanics, video games can empower players not just to play within landscapes, but to actively create them – moulding the virtual world they experience through play by making their own decisions in, and interpretations of, the situations they encounter in game worlds.

Increasingly, those in the games industry, academics and the general public are becoming aware of what a powerful tool this is for learning, for empathy, and for immersion in compelling emotional experiences.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

The Lighthouse in a Concrete Sea: Remembering Jonny Walker

On Wednesday 14th March at 11.13am, Jonny Walker died peacefully at Leeds General Infirmary, surrounded by family, aged just 37. Jonny was a professional busker, performing regularly in city streets across the UK. He was a passionate campaigner and founder of the Keep Streets Live Campaign, advocating for freedom of creative expression in public spaces and challenging attempts to regulate busking and criminalise the homeless. He was religious but unfailingly open-minded, holding more carefully thought-through, nuanced philosophical viewpoints on how human beings relate to each other than anyone I’ve ever met. He was someone I looked up to, cherished and respected deeply. He was my friend.

I was on the train home from a long day at work, casually scrolling through Facebook on my phone, when the news appeared so unassumingly on the screen. Only the weekend before, he had been performing one of his regular Leeds night-time busks, streaming live on Facebook. Then, suddenly, gone. It was his last performance.

Hearing these facts while commuting, the most routine of everyday activities, everything seemingly the same as normal – they were difficult to comprehend; didn’t feel real.

In the days since his death, the outpouring of memories and tributes to Jonny has, in many ways, intensified this feeling that he is still present. Particularly videos from his live performances, but also his recorded music, photographs, and more. Our relationship already existed predominantly online, and living in opposite ends of the country I was never faced with the physical reality that Jonny simply isn’t breathing anymore. It was unimaginable.


Like most people whose lives Jonny touched, I can’t say that we knew each other especially well, on a personal level. In total, we only met in person a handful of times. So it can only be a testament to his warmth, and his ability to captivate audiences through his music and dedicated, articulate activism, that I can say I have lost an individual who inspired me more than almost any other in my adult life, since we first met in 2014.

Telling the story of how Jonny and I came to know each other is perhaps the best way I can describe what he meant to me, and how he changed my life.

I was in the second year of my undergraduate degree at Cambridge, and like all Geography students, I had to decide on a topic for my dissertation. I’d been looking online to find any interesting current news topics with geographical themes, and on social media I came across a story that a group called Keep Streets Live was campaigning against Camden Council’s plans to licence busking in what is, famously, one of London’s most creative and culturally diverse boroughs.

As a long-time appreciator of buskers and public art, and with a keen interest in politics, I soon decided that this was the topic I needed to study. More than this, I felt I could get involved in something truly important. Not just for Camden, but for how we make sense of what public space – and our freedom to express ourselves within it – means in our society.
For my research, I needed to interview the full range of stakeholders, including buskers, local councillors, Camden residents, and activists. As both a professional busker who enchanted audiences nationwide, and leader of the Keep Streets Live Campaign opposing Camden Council’s proposed licensing scheme, Jonny was top of my list to interview. But having never approached a single person for a formal academic interview before, let alone conducted one, I didn’t really know what kind of response to expect.

So it’s fair to say I was apprehensive when I first messaged Jonny on Facebook in July 2014.

I needn’t have been, because I couldn’t have wished for a warmer response. He apologised for the (short) delay in replying and told me that he was very happy to help in any way he could. Even with everything that he had achieved as a campaigner and musician, he showed an almost unwarranted level of respect for the research I was doing.

A couple of emails later, I’d agreed to meet him in St. Albans on a Saturday in early August, where he was busking that weekend.

On the day, my train arrived a couple of hours before we were due to meet, so I wandered around the town to get my bearings.
As I strolled down towards the clocktower, the faint, echoing sounds of a guitar reverberated softly through the narrow streets. Then the voice I recognised from internet videos began as I emerged onto the square where he played, his melodies somehow enhanced by the ambience of the street, buoyant on the tides of chatter and traffic that filled the air. In front of the tower are a couple of long, curved wooden benches creating a sort of street-level amphitheatre, which were almost completely occupied by Jonny’s audience when I arrived. I found a spot to sit, and listened to Jonny for the next hour and a half.

Jonny was a ‘professional’ busker – even if that sounds like an oxymoron – because he was just so good (charismatic, skilful, charming are a few adjectives that come to mind) that he could earn a decent living through his performances.  Wherever and whenever he busked, he seemed to emit this welcoming aura that passersby would latch onto and want to stay with; often for much longer than they anticipated. And Jonny would talk to them; embracing everyone and hearing their stories, helping them if they needed help, offering signed CDs, and ultimately treating everyone he met with the same level of respect. This is how Jonny made so many friends, and why thousands of people would tune in when he broadcasted his busking sessions on Facebook Live.

He had perfected his style to include a blend of classics, original songs, and other interesting covers. His repertoire was enormous (though of course he had favourites), and he could handle the vast majority of requests that came his way.

In this St. Albans performance in particular, the song that sticks in my mind is a cover he played of The Postal Service’s Such Great Heights. For those who don’t know, it’s an electronic song with a pretty fast tempo – in other words, not exactly the kind of music that Jonny tended to play. But on his guitar, Jonny’s version was slow and gentle, almost a lullaby, and the lyrics took on whole new interpretations in my head. Even as someone who greatly admired the original, Jonny made it something more – and I told him as much when we spoke later on.

After Jonny had finished his performance, we started chatting properly and agreed to eat a meal together. Jonny, as always, had about twenty tons of equipment with him, so we ferried his things a short distance to the neighbouring Zizzi where we sat outside. Jonny went inside to get some menus, and when he returned, told me to order anything I wanted. The manager of the restaurant was so enamoured by his performance – and the customers who’d stopped there to listen – that he’d offered both Jonny and I our meals completely free of charge.

One of the largest high-street Italian restaurant chains, offering both a busker and a mere spectator anything we wanted, no payment necessary. It was pure magic.

Even before the interview had started, I’d received the best possible lesson about what busking means to the communities in which it takes place; its power to transform the atmosphere in public spaces and create the conditions for positive social relations.


The interview itself was extensive and in-depth, going on for a full hour and 45 minutes – and would have gone on longer if I didn’t have to rush off to catch the last train back to Kent. We talked about many subjects, including what constitutes a healthy busking ecology, the state of local democracy, using voluntary codes of conduct for buskers, the regulation of public space, and maintaining cultural freedoms.

When preparing for the interview, I managed to find the legendary deputation that Jonny made at Camden Council before their vote on whether or not to introduce a licensing scheme for buskers.

In his powerful speech, the phrase that has always stuck with me is his evocative depiction of buskers as ‘civic lighthouses’:

“Buskers act as civic lighthouses. We give directions, we break up fights, we call the police when we spot trouble. We talk to the lonely. We create moments of enjoyment between strangers, and contribute to the social and cultural enrichment of shared urban spaces. We are an integral part of the ecology of the street. We care deeply about the well-being of the places where we perform.”

During the interview, I prompted him to expand on this image of busking which had captured my imagination so intensely:

“We are all responsible to each other – we are all our brother’s keepers. I’ve done a lot of evening busking in the past, and the streets at night can be quite a forbidding place – for women on their own, or where there’s groups of marauding drunks around. Buskers change the nature of that space. Their interaction with that space is to create an atmosphere where there’s a human presence. An alleyway with another person there is a safer alley than an empty alley. It’s a disincentive; a sense of community. Would we rather be in a place where people are singing and dancing than fighting, for instance?
In my experience, busking is all about relationality and exchange. You can’t be successful at busking without some degree of being able to relate to people and being able to interact with them in a positive way.”

What struck me most about this vision was how it valued busking way beyond the individual act itself. While for many people busking would just be defined as ‘playing music in the street for money’, for Jonny and Keep Streets Live it was a whole network of relationships formed by interaction and shared presence in public spaces.

But more than this – in fighting for the rights of buskers to perform unregulated, Jonny upheld these positive, pro-social effects that busking can have as conditions to be actively promoted in public spaces everywhere; as the guiding principles of a healthy ecology of the street.
“If spontaneity and informality is preserved as a sort of universal principle, then it would create an ecology, a nexus of cities across the country following the Liverpool [voluntary guidance for buskers] model, which would truly be light-touch regulation because it’s involving the buskers, it’s putting things in place. Then it would remove bottlenecks, it will allow intermingling, it will allow for flourishing. Where busking hasn’t happened before, it might allow the culture to emerge. It has the potential to transform the civic landscape. It’s so important.”

In my favourite quote, which came from the end of the interview, Jonny made the case that it is the responsibility of everyone who currently enjoys these freedoms to protect and extend them, and looked towards the role Keep Streets Live would play in facing up to this challenge worldwide, in the future. I love reading and re-reading these words because, for me, they represent the very best of Jonny’s personality: passionate, intelligent, principled, and hopeful. Overflowing with moral fibre.
“I love this country, actually, and I love the tradition that I think we’ve got – civic freedoms and political freedoms that have been really hard-fought. And we’re incumbent on people who have inherited those freedoms; we’ve been born into a privileged culture. Bearers of privilege have a moral duty to not only defend rights that have been hard-won, but for the traditions of common law freedoms. We have a duty to extend that – to hold our institutions, to hold our corporations, to hold our government to account, and also to hold them to account in the way that they treat other people. And to try and see that this level of freedom is extended to other people, and is not allowed to be eroded. And that’s going to be a constant battle, but I think it’s one that’s really, really, really, really important.
That’s my way of saying that I recognise that buskers are not necessarily the persecuted minority, in the way that people all over the world are facing genuine persecution. But that’s not a reason not to protect what we’ve got now, and to extend it, and then to try and extend it to our brothers in places where you can be killed for public music, or where it’s completely unauthorised. We’re a nation of minstrels and choristers and great, let’s take it to the world. I personally think that Keep Streets Live – once we’ve got a beachhead in the UK that’s proper…there’s all sorts of stuff going on all over the world, and I think some minstrels from the Keep Streets Live Campaign could have some fun! Travelling and building networks…it’s not just about England; not just about the United Kingdom.”

This first research interview demonstrated to me that the events in Camden were just one flashpoint in a much larger battle to keep public spaces open to spontaneous and informal street culture, amidst increasing attempts by officials to regulate any behaviours that could be deemed problematic. Keep Streets Live wasn’t simply reactionary; a Change.org petition that would declare victory or defeat, and then move on. It was a set of philosophical ideals premised on a fundamentally hopeful view of human relations that, when granted the freedom to be creative, to interact freely in public spaces, to embrace the diversity of human characters and behaviours, our streets and the interpersonal relationships that take place in them could truly flourish.


The next time I saw Jonny was in November of the same year. Camden’s busking licence had officially come into force, so Jonny had arranged a protest busk in Camden Town as part of the ‘Church of the Holy Kazoo’.

The story behind this noble faith bears all the hallmarks of the principled, persistent yet light-hearted campaigning that Jonny lived and breathed. It started with the Citizens’ Kazoo Orchestra, which Jonny formed alongside Mark Thomas, Billy Bragg and John Gomm before Camden’s busking policy had been implemented, to ridicule the fact that their proposals singled out wind instruments as worthy of heightened regulation – which would include those as unthreatening as a small, plastic kazoo. Since Camden’s busking policy had come into effect, however, Jonny found another element of the regulations to subvert: an exemption which meant that performances forming part of a religious event did not need a licence from the council to go ahead. So Jonny reasoned that there was room for a new religion in our society, whose only belief was that busking is a sacred act, and whose hymn book consists of every piece of music ever written. And so the Church of the Holy Kazoo was founded.

Church of the Holy Kazoo was Jonny all over. Yes, it was humorous stunt, but Jonny knew it would bring the headlines and big names that the campaign needed to draw attention to what was happening in Camden. And underneath the witty façade, it always asserted the fundamental right to express yourself in public space, and harnessed the interpersonal and even spiritual relationships that busking cultivates in the environments in which it takes place.
Although by this point I was well and truly a signed-up member of Keep Streets Live, attending the protest was still technically ‘research’, so I had a research diary with me and took plenty of photographs I could use as visual data in my dissertation.

During the protest, we encountered a couple of PCSOs and, later, police officers. It was during the first interaction that I captured this photograph of Jonny. As well as forming the front cover of my dissertation, it later appeared in Josie Appleton’s book Officious: Rise of the Busybody State.

It remains one of my favourite photographs I have ever taken, based on how purely it portrays Jonny’s character, both as an entertainer and an activist. In the face of attempts to curtail his freedom, Jonny towering above the uniformed PCSO, turning away and continuing to face his audience, guitar in hand; calm in the face of authority as he asserted his right to play. The light shining on his face endowed an almost angelic quality to his appearance, as he lit up the pavement by Camden Town tube station where he performed.

At the time, Jonny explained to the PSCO in the photograph, in his composed and articulate manner, that his performance was not only exempt from Camden’s licence on religious grounds, but also that he had written confirmation that busking as part of a political protest would be allowed under the licence’s exemption for a ‘protest march or similar event’. Unable to deny Jonny’s reasoning and knowledge of the legal situation, the PCSOs soon wandered off.

The second encounter with officials arose from a rather different situation.
Enter DJ Grandpa, a bizarre act involving a man standing in a Perspex box blasting out piped dance music, pretending to be a disc jockey, while wearing a latex ‘old man’ mask. On the pavement around his box, DJ Grandpa would draw a circle out of chalk and label it the ‘dance floor’.

Exemplifying the absurdity of Camden Council’s licensing scheme, he had been granted one of their special licences for performers using amplifiers. Empowered by his ‘official’ status, he had been seen nearly every afternoon and evening in the same spot by Camden Town tube station since the summer of that year, to the derision of Camden’s busking community. He monopolised the pitch and annoyed pretty much everyone else in the process.

Within minutes of DJ Grandpa setting up, drawing his circle metres away from where Jonny was performing, Jonny moved his equipment and played right in the centre of the ‘dance floor’, to the cheers of the crowd of spectators that had started to gather in numbers.

As a licensee, DJ Grandpa wasn’t happy and rang the police, who he assumed would take the side of the ‘official’ busker.
When they came, Jonny was once again forced to justify his actions in front of officials. But this time I remembered I’d printed out a copy of Camden’s Street Entertainment Policy, circling the relevant passages, which I handed to Jonny as the officers talked to him, surrounded suddenly by an expectant crowd who sensed the significance of what was unfolding. Some of their responses threatened to descend into anti-police sentiment, but Jonny – with his impeccable crowd management skills –  explained that the police are just doing their job by responding to the call. It was the policymakers at Camden Council who were at fault for creating the conditions for such a pointless dispute in the first place.

Seeing then that there was no lawful reason why Jonny should have to move, the police left, and DJ Grandpa soon followed, his tail between his legs.

Before I left that evening, Jonny thanked me heartily and, with one hand on my shoulder, produced a Keep Streets Live badge, which he pinned on my coat. “You’ve definitely earned one of these today,” he beamed. It was a triumphant day.

Jonny and the other musicians in attendance played on into the fading autumn night, his portable gas lamp aglow as waves of commuters lapped up and lingered on the pavement outside Camden Town tube station, singing along, dancing. Even in a place with some of the most punitive restrictions on busking in the UK, in one day Jonny had brought joy, laughter, and hope for the future of street culture back to its spiritual home in Camden.


My connection with Jonny, and most other people in my life, went dark for the next 7 months as I spent my days completing my dissertation and eventually my degree in summer 2015.

However that summer, temporarily freed from the shackles of academic work, I was keen to get more actively involved in what Jonny was doing, and contribute more meaningfully towards the goals of Keep Streets Live.

The first opportunity came when Jonny organised a Keep Streets Live ‘Activist Forum’ event in Leeds, which was billed as chance to build community and ask questions about how we can protect street culture, amidst the climate of ever more stifling regulation. I was desperate to go, but living in rural Kent and eating through the remains of my dwindling student loan, I asked Jonny if he could recommend anywhere cheap to stay in Leeds.

Jonny went one better – he offered me his home’s spare room.

I got the coach to Leeds and met him at around 10pm, as he was setting up in his usual pitch on Albion Street that evening. For the first time, I was to experience one of the famed Jonny Walker night-time busks first-hand, serenading the streets of revellers, concert-goers, and passersby into the early hours.

It became clear to me that night-time busking demands a different kind of performance style and awareness, and Jonny was an expert. Sound carries much further at night, so Jonny knew that even if the street in front of you was empty, people would still hear, and often slowly make their way towards the music. At one point, when big crowds of people started walking in our direction, he remembered the artist who was performing at the First Direct Arena that night and sang some of their songs, which immediately led to more dropped coins and notes.

And perhaps most significantly, he showed extraordinary patience with the heavily inebriated, who typically wanted to shout down the microphone, or stumble up to him and start a conversation mid-song.

And, of course, make the timeless request:
“Play Wonderwalllllllllllllllllllllll”

To his eternal credit, he managed to play it two or three times before he told people to think of something else. He certainly knew how to keep a crowd happy.

Being tall helped, but it was his composure, his peace-making demeanour, that meant things never got out of hand. Thinking back to the ‘civic lighthouses’ metaphor, it made me wonder how many potentially dangerous, uncomfortable or upsetting situations have been avoided because Jonny’s presence was there when needed. How many good or even bad nights had turned into memorable ones thanks to his desire to share music, stories and smiles with strangers on the street.
Jonny insisted that he could take me back any time that night if I was tired, as he played on into the early hours, but I stayed out for the whole performance. It was a privilege to watch him at work; making momentary connections in the night, watching people getting pulled magnetically towards Jonny’s voice, changing their nights unexpectedly and always for the better. In the end, we drove back to his house together at about 4.30am, I believe.

Jonny and I got about 3 hours of sleep that night.

We woke up at about 7.30 so we could help prepare for the Activist Forum at the Wharf Chambers in the centre of Leeds. It was that morning I met his wife and two young children, boundlessly energetic and endearing as kids that age are, even so early in the day. Jonny offered me breakfast and I was treated to a big, warm bowl of porridge, insisting that I was welcome to stay any time. I was in awe of their generosity despite the circumstances, with Jonny and I rocking up clumsily at stupid o’clock in the morning.

When we arrived at the venue for the event, we set up about 30 chairs in a large circle, which were quickly filled up by a mixture of buskers, non-busking artists, activists, academics, and those simply interested in maintaining spaces for public art. The session was led by a professional workshop leader who did a fantastic job at giving everyone a chance to speak, and it was informative to hear people’s stories of how they came to know about Keep Streets Live, and why busking and freedom of creativity in public spaces was important to them. It was a lively dialogue during which important and, at times, provocative views were aired regarding the work of Keep Streets Live, which only served to emphasise the value of open discussion for both sharing and critiquing different ideas and opinions.

In the afternoon, the attendees split off into smaller groups to discuss the various issues affecting street culture and its regulation, and Jonny chose me to lead a group talking about public space, being the subject I’d studied extensively within Geography. It felt hugely rewarding to be using the knowledge I’d gained through my research in a setting where it felt like it could make a difference, and with people who may not have spent much time considering what we mean when we call a space ‘public’, and why its regulation matters so much. Jonny understood that establishing an effective opposition would benefit from drawing on a wide range of expertise, including musical, political, legal, academic, and technical, and the forum was a valuable opportunity to pool together the knowledge and experience of all who are passionate about creative public expression, to help achieve the aims of Keep Streets Live.

It wasn’t long after the Leeds event – less than a week, in fact – that Jonny and I joined forces again, this time in my home city of Canterbury. I’d recently been shocked to learn that the city council were briefly considering using a PSPO (Public Space Protection Order) to regulate busking in the city centre.

Jonny had already made contact with staff from Canterbury City Council, and arranged a meeting to discuss the subject, to be attended by councillors and licensing officials from Canterbury City Council, a representative of the Canterbury busking community, Canterbury Connected Business Improvement District, the East/South-East Regional Officer of the Musicians’ Union, and Jonny and I from Keep Streets Live.

I met Jonny outside the council offices, and the other stakeholders in the reception area where we walked into the meeting room together. Within minutes, it was clear that everyone in attendance was on the same page. Jonny, who’d already launched a petition gathering over 2000 supporters, set up a Keep Streets Live in Canterbury page, and met with members of the local busking community, had already won the argument. After a few queries and discussion of finer points that affect Canterbury’s specific busking ecology, it was decided that Canterbury City Council were to adopt the same voluntary guidance for busking that Jonny had campaigned for in Liverpool, York, Chester, and Birmingham, with minimal changes.

The beauty of the Guide to Busking approach Jonny established is that it always encourages dialogue between the stakeholders involved in an issue around busking, rather than creating unnecessarily heavy-handed and resource-intensive legal restrictions on buskers, enforced by officials. It says that whenever there is an issue involving a busker, the people affected should always, in the first instance, talk to the busker to explain what the problem is, and attempt to find a solution together without resorting to any kind of enforcement. The guidance recognises that, in the vast majority of cases, problems can be resolved by a simple conversation – which could, for example, lead to a small adjustment of volume or position. If a busker does not engage with the affected stakeholder at this point, the local busking community will get involved to try and address the problem. Only if a busker continually refuses to engage with anyone, while continuing to cause a genuine nuisance, will there be action by the appropriate authorities – by which point the busker’s behaviour is, by definition, antisocial. Ultimately, Jonny had masterminded a code of conduct in which the response always ends up being proportionate to the issue at hand.

With the job done, we ate lunch together in my favourite Chinese restaurant, and then hit the streets. Town was bustling with the usual summer crowds, and within five minutes of walking up the High Street, Jonny had already managed to give money to two different buskers, strike up three conversations within people he’d never met, and have an argument with a fundamentalist Christian preacher.

With his guitar and amp in tow, Jonny found a pitch in the shade by Whitefriars Shopping Centre and started performing a range of gentle, earnest songs for the ambling shoppers. I decided to stay with him for the rest of the afternoon to watch him play (though, of course, this meant I was officially responsible for looking after his equipment when he made trips to the toilet, and to get him some much-needed coffees after his early-morning drive down from Leeds).

As his acoustics sailed on the warm breeze, there was one of those beautiful moments that Jonny specialised in fashioning. Halfway through his set, he dedicated his next song to me.

It was Such Great Heights by The Postal Service.

Over a year without mentioning the song at all, and he remembered.

That is the measure of the kind of man Jonny was. Even for someone who opened his heart to so many, he still found room in that remarkable brain of his to remember something so seemingly insignificant, solely for the purpose of making a friend happy.


I was planning on getting the train home that day but, in typical fashion, Jonny insisted he’d drive me back, right to my front door.

It was a bright, clear evening in late summer, sun sauntering toward the horizon, turning everything golden. We talked about a number of things on that journey home, which appear like amber in my memory – glowing, precious moments yet somehow inaccessible. But the one part that sticks in my mind is when I asked him what plans he had for making more of his own music. He confided that one of the most difficult sacrifices he’d made to pursue his relentless campaigning had been finding time to work on his own material, a project which had largely been put on hold.

I only saw Jonny once more in person, for a brief afternoon busk in Canterbury, before he had to head up to Covent Garden that same evening.

We’d been communicating earlier in the year, however, when for the first time Camden Council had brought charges against unlicensed buskers in Camden. The defendants had been sent a 73-page prosecution dossier consisting of ‘evidence’ being brought against them, including CCTV images and spurious complaints from well-known anti-busking residents. Jonny and I messaged about it, and together we agreed that I’d write a response to the dossier that framed these events within a wider argument about how democracy is being subverted in Camden. I stayed up late that night to finish it in time for the beatboxers’ court appearance the next day, and with a few edits from Jonny he posted it on his Facebook page and the page for Keep Streets Live in Camden the next day. The outrage and disbelief at Camden Council’s attitude towards buskers only grew.
The events that were to transpire over the coming months were even more testing for Jonny: the EU Referendum (for which Jonny had fought wholeheartedly for Remain), the election of Donald Trump, alongside the ever-increasing number of councils proposing to use PSPOs to target buskers and the homeless. Both in the form of physical protest and online activism, Jonny was a tireless campaigner, and spent a huge amount of effort engaging in debate with both acquaintances and strangers on topics he cared about, which were many. Particularly with the snowballing effect of online commenting, it was difficult at times to watch someone who wears their heart on their sleeve, like Jonny did, being harangued by faceless people on the internet who had no idea what kind of person he was. Yet still he persevered, firm in his convictions and willing to engage with conflicting viewpoints and personas to ensure his arguments were heard.

You wouldn’t find anyone in the world who shares exactly the same views that Jonny did – there would always be something you disagree on, and being partial to a debate Jonny was quite good at finding it – but it would never be personal. On this point, I recently rediscovered an interview Jonny did with the Church Times, in which he said “When I’m not angry or wound-up – which I am too often – I have a great love for people.” And it was his compassion for others that was the very attitude driving his movement of bringing different stakeholders together to agree on guidance for buskers.

“I want to live in a culture where if someone’s got a problem, they’re encouraged to engage and relate to each other, and to become involved. Because once people get to know each other – once people see the other person as a person with interests, concerns, with feelings just like theirs, then it makes conflict less likely. So much conflict, so many disagreements, so many arguments are caused by people who don’t see the other person as a person with interests, with needs. It’s dehumanising. When actually you break down that barrier and see a person with vulnerabilities – a human being who’s got needs, wants, desires … I think the more barriers you break down, the more you can see that it’s in people’s common interests to work together.” Jonny Walker, research interview with Jack Lowe

Of late, however, it seemed that he had taken a step back from the front line of activism. It was especially heartening nonetheless to see more social media posts about memorable times spent with his family, particularly his two young children. In light of the circumstances now, that fact seems especially profound.

He had also started a Patreon project, of which I was a patron, to support his work and the production of a new album of original songs.

In my final message to Jonny last July, I was responding to a talk he’d given that evening on his journey to becoming a professional busker and founder of Keep Streets Live, which he’d streamed live on Facebook. I told him how fantastic it was for spreading the word in a relatable and engaging way, and said that I’d love to get more involved in these kinds of events, and Keep Streets Live in general. I also shared with him a piece I’d recently written for the Manifesto Club on busking and the regulation of public space, which in part talks about the work of Keep Streets Live in opposing such measures. I was really proud of it. He didn’t reply, so I never knew if he got around to reading it, but I’d like to think that he’d approve.

As I reflect on the situation now, I can’t help but think of all the loose ends. Half-written songs; activist and community projects never undertaken; performances he had yet to deliver. For me, that’s what hurts the most about Jonny’s passing – how much more he had to give. To those who knew and loved him for the music he made, the movements he led and the inspiring man he was; to the unyielding love he gave his family and friends; and perhaps, most of all, to the strangers he hadn’t met yet. Knowing first-hand how his energy filled up the lives of those who had the pleasure of meeting him, it’s heart-breaking to think of those anonymous others who otherwise would have experienced this warmth, but now cannot.
It was exactly these rare qualities – the ones that could build a whole community around one single person – that made you want to be like him. His passion for everything he cared about, musically and in his campaigns, was infectious. This is how Jonny saved lives, literally in some cases: he radiated an irresistible enthusiasm that inspired people to care.

Now, at least, it will be the ambition of I, and the many others whose lives he touched, to be more like Jonny – to let his example grow within us, to make us who we are, to guide what we do.

Jonny’s light hasn’t gone out – it’s ours to keep burning. And all the time we continue to carry the torch for the causes he championed; his vision of a compassionate, creative, inclusive and, above all, free community in public spaces, the streets will always be (a)live.


If you’ve been moved by this piece, please consider donating towards this fundraiser, which will help to support the causes Jonny was passionate about, including Keep Streets Live, as well as helping to cover funeral costs and other expenses incurred by his family.

Here is a comprehensive and well-written obituary in The Times that gives a deeper insight into his life, and recognises the contribution he made in protecting the rights of street performers.

Read this excellent short piece by the Manifesto Club, remembering Jonny’s tireless efforts in campaigning for civil liberties. It’s much more concise than mine!

A heartfelt and honest account by Nick Broad, co-founder of The Busking Project, of memories shared with Jonny and work they did together.

Jonny’s friend and fellow performer Steven Heath organised this fantastic live-streamed gig in memory of Jonny shortly after he died.

Visit Jonny’s Facebook fan page to find more ways that his life is being remembered.