Saturday, 31 August 2019

RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2019: Environmental Storytelling: A Digital Frontier for Narrative Geography


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Below is the written component of the paper I presented in the Geographies of Interactive Digital Narratives session – which I also co-convened – at the Royal Geographical Society (with Institute of British Geographers) Annual International Conference on 29th August 2019. The superscript numbers in the text indicate the number of the corresponding slide you should view in the embedded Powerpoint above (you can access the slides separately as a PDF here).
I’d like to thank Scott Palmer for his efforts in convening this session with me, particularly when deciding how to frame the session, what papers to include, and what kind of format the session would take. I’m also grateful to the Digital Geographies Research Group for sponsoring Geographies of Interactive Digital Narratives, alongside an impressive number of other sessions on digital themes throughout the conference. Lastly, I want to thank my fellow presenters in this session, Duncan Speakman, Jonathan Barbara and Lissa Holloway-Attaway. As the session chair, I was delighted with the quality of the papers and how well they spoke to each other throughout the session, despite covering diverse digital narrative forms. A post giving an account of the overall session will be posted on this blog soon.        
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Today1 I’m going to talk about the ways that stories can be told using a person’s environment with interactive digital media. I’ll be drawing on the example2 of exploration-based video games, explaining how a set of design techniques known as ‘environmental storytelling’ works to produce narrative experiences for players in their fictional worlds. This is based on autoethnographic research on 12 ‘walking simulator’ games and interviews with their designers.

In particular, I want to outline why I think environmental storytelling can provide a useful concept beyond just video games3, for thinking about the ways that navigational practices are meaningfully evoked in a range of digital narrative forms. I’ll ultimately be suggesting that this concept could be a starting point for new and fruitful directions of research at the intersection of geography, narrative studies and the digital humanities, especially given the heightened importance attributed to the ‘immersive’ sector of the creative industries today.

But first, why the focus on digital ‘environments’? It’s evident4 that the ways in which we interact with digital technology are characteristically navigational; whether it’s in our use of links to move between sites on the internet, the ways mobile and locative tech guides our movements in physical space, or the rendering of 2D and 3D worlds that we traverse in video games. Consequently, one5 of the qualities that makes digital storytelling unique is how these kinds of navigational interaction with virtual space are shaped into the dramatic enactment of plots.

This process is perhaps demonstrated most clearly by the game design practices known as ‘environmental storytelling’6. In game development, this term typically refers to methods developers use to embed narrative information in the worlds they design. As this information is discovered by players7 when they move through the spaces represented onscreen, they’ll come to perceive a sequence of events that has taken place in the world – a narrative. To quote Henry Jenkins8, who first popularised the ‘environmental storytelling’ term, video games displaying these techniques are not designed as pre-authored narratives, but “spaces ripe with narrative possibility”.

Accordingly, what I’m going to focus on in this presentation9 is, firstly, how narrative information is embedded or ‘emplaced’ in video game environments; and then how players navigate these storyworlds through the information they encounter. I’ll then use these observations to discuss why I think this concept of environmental storytelling is helpful for interactive media scholarship beyond video games.

So10, as a method of narrative communication that requires navigation, we can say that environmental storytelling entails the distribution of narrative information across the realm of play. Michael Nitsche calls these pieces of information ‘evocative narrative elements’ – details11 that don’t necessarily represent recognisable narratives in themselves, but require movement and interpretive work from the player to be understood as part of a wider story. These evocative elements can take a variety of forms, from detailed written artefacts like letters, diaries or newspaper clippings to objects, signs, and music.

But what qualities do these evocative narrative elements possess that enable players to construct meaningful stories from them?

Firstly12, the diversity and distribution of these elements enables a multi-vocality of information transmission, whereby each object can have its own voice and perspective, rather than being filtered by a narrator. This means that the narratives emerging from discovered artefacts always reflect the value judgements of those doing the interpreting – in this case, the player.

In the game Gone Home13, the player-character returns from holiday to an apparently empty house, and can explore the rooms and belongings of her family members to make sense of events that unfolded since she has been away. By giving players deep access to the thoughts, motivations and personalities of a range of story characters, players can engage with an intricate exploration of family dynamics and belonging in a middle-class American household, but in a way that allows them to interpret the events for themselves.

Importantly, though, environmental storytelling relies on players to find these narrative elements in the game world by exploring their surroundings. In narratology14, the relationship between the unfolding action of a story and what’s actually observed by the recipient is known as a story’s focalization. But what Michael Nitsche argues is that video games enable ‘dynamic focalization’, through which players can choose where to point the camera, which directions to move in, and what to focus on in their surroundings.

This has some important consequences for narrative communication. The possibility15 of ignoring information means that players can choose how they want to invest in the world, but also rely on their own observational skills to discover information rather than being ‘told’ or deliberately exposed to it. The player experience deriving from the emplaced narrative elements is tailored to the player’s own affective and emotional sensibilities. Indeed16, many developers choose to actively hide impactful pieces of narrative detail in the world, knowing they’ll provide a significant emotional payoff when found by those looking for secrets.

Dynamic focalization demonstrates how the communication of visible and audible narrative information is closely entwined with the player’s haptic control of an avatar as they explore game environments. And indeed17, the emplacement of narrative elements is as multisensory as the practice of game playing itself. Shibolet’s paper on the avatar’s movement in Journey describes how the ‘story’ of the experience comes into being almost solely through the shifts in movement dynamics you embody as you move across the world, each ingrained with a kinaesthetic significance that echoes the game’s wider metaphor of the path of life.

It’s an example that reminds us that game worlds are not just a mise-en-scene, but what Andy Lavender calls a mise-en-sensibilité. The interplay between diverse player sensibilities, material hardware and aesthetic representations assembles to generate events of narrative meaning-making.

What’s notable18, then, about environmental storytelling is how the stories that derive from the evocative narrative elements emplaced in the world become personalised to the player. The affects and perceptions that players chart become closely mapped onto internal topographies of the self, providing opportunities for players to engage on their own terms with aesthetic and kinaesthetic possibilities in the world. It’s this highly personal quality of player interaction that can make game environments “a place for dwelling rather than merely a territory”.

All this said19, the evocative narrative elements in themselves aren’t narratives. It’s the player’s navigation across environments populated by these pieces of information that leads to the development of stories. But how does this navigational process work?

When speaking to developers of the games I played, it became apparent that, even in worlds that seem to let you explore more or less ‘freely’, behind the scenes there are devices encoded into the world to subtly guide the player’s navigation. In the games I played, there were three main techniques developers used. The first20 is gating, in which entry and exit points in the world are carefully coordinated to structure the flow of information the player is exposed to. The most common method is to require that the player has found a particular object or piece of information in order to advance to the next area, such as locked doors that require keys or passcodes to open. The second is signposting21, in which light and sound directs the player’s attention towards certain significant elements in their surroundings. And the final method is pacing22, in which the spacing between narrative information is carefully managed to elicit dramatic tension and mood.

Together, these three techniques help to negotiate one of the key ‘perils’ of interactive storytelling – retaining drama when the interactor can determine which information they encounter and the context in which they encounter it. These techniques23 provide a basic framework that subtly shapes how players ‘join the dots’ between the world’s dispersed narrative information, preserving the intended affective qualities of the story, while still enabling the sense of thrill and intimacy that comes with encountering and interpreting this information for yourself.

Nonetheless, this balance between dramatic emplotment and player agency emerged from my interviews with developers most often in the notion of ‘believability24. The developers wanted to spin worlds that players could ‘imagine themselves into’, but recognised that achieving this aim meant purposely ‘leaving room’ for the player’s imagination. That’s why many exploration-based game design teams actively imbue depth and ambiguity into their worlds25, using juxtaposition, symbolism or even contradiction to invite players to formulate their own beliefs about what any arrangement of narrative elements ‘means’.

At the same time, designers need to reinforce the idea that each individual narrative element logically belongs to the wider fictional universe. For game environments based on real-world sites, this might entail quite extensive research – such as this26 example, where the developers used academic articles about farming practices to learn whether hay bales were wrapped in 1980s rural Shropshire. More generally, games testing27 is crucial, as developers of these games use player feedback to carefully manoeuvre the spatiotemporal attributes players interact with to achieve “positively affective” outcomes, with believability being one of these key objectives.

So by manipulating how narrative information is exposed to players as they traverse game worlds, developers create the conditions for players to draw meaningful associations between the evocative narrative elements. They calibrate player perception to ensure that dramatic agency is retained and believability is maximised, while also inviting personal interpretation to enable intimate narrative world construction by the player. The navigational process of enacting environmental storytelling isn’t a process of narrating events in sequence, but enabling dwelling in a storyworld that spills out of the screen, whose narratives are intimately tied to player dispositions, sensibilities and real-world contexts.

Everything28 I’ve said so far about environmental storytelling is based upon the findings of my research into video games. But today, particularly with the increasingly hyped ‘immersive media’ paradigm that’s shaping the future of work in the creative industries, we’re seeing an ever greater number of narrative works being produced that use locative media, 360° video, sound, AR, VR and MR technologies. Like video games, these are interactive and often involve some form of spatial navigation by the user. But to what extent can the game design techniques falling under the banner of ‘environmental storytelling’ be of relevance to these emerging media forms?

Well, the informational environments29 that users engage with in these immersive media arts often differ quite considerably from video games. Johann Huizinga famously described playful activity as something that takes place in a ‘magic circle’ – a sphere of activity separate from the spaces and times of everyday life that participants enter voluntarily. Yet for many of these emerging storytelling media, this magic circle is forced to expand in some way, whether spatially, temporally, or socially. The affordances of immersive technologies increasingly enable the blurring of fictional environments with the environments30 of everyday life.

This presents some important questions. How would a storyteller go about embedding narrative elements in changing, off-screen environments? In turn31, how would the gameplay interact with existing material processes, histories and social norms? And lastly, when the boundaries of the storyworld are less clearly defined, how can narrative designers ensure that participants continue engaging meaningfully with the narrative architecture they’ve designed?

It's evident that, if the ideas and practices associated with environmental storytelling are to be useful in these contexts, the informational ‘environment’ we engage with needs to be expanded too. In video game development32, environmental design currently refers to a very specific set of practices – such as modelling and texturing, lighting scenes, and creating concept art. Yet narrative world-building in hybrid ‘immersive’ storytelling forms often relies on a much broader ecology of human and non-human agents – intersecting with processes and phenomena we study across geography as a holistic discipline.

By adapting the environmental storytelling concept to encompass the array of materials, bodies, social norms and physical processes through which digital narratives of all types are produced, we can work towards understanding the significance of space and place in communicating stories across a range of digital media and contexts.

I also33 want to emphasise the importance of practice-based methodologies for answering these questions. From my own experiences so far in my practice-based PhD, being involved in the iterative process of game development reveals the myriad challenges and affordances that designers inevitably negotiate when working with environmental storytelling techniques, which can easily be missed after the creative process has taken place. Yet it’s often ‘interesting failures’ that offer the best opportunities for learning, and could address important questions here, such as: what kinds of story are most appropriate to tell using environmental storytelling techniques? What are the possibilities and limitations of this storytelling method in different contexts? And what implications are there for the experiences of creative practitioners involved?

All these questions would appear to suggest that there’s not only mileage in environmental storytelling as a conceptual framework through which research can be conducted, but more broadly that there are ample avenues for potential future study by those working across disciplines, and between theory and practice.

To finish34, I would argue that it’s no coincidence that scholars have observed a ‘spatial turn’ in the humanities and social sciences at the same time as a ‘digital turn’. Digital media have not only impacted the geographies of how societies operate and organise themselves, but the distinctly navigational qualities of how we interact with media generally. Both in how spaces are represented and negotiated, and how information itself is spatialized, digital media have influenced our understandings of dwelling in the world as humans.

Digital35 narrative forms such as video games are at the forefront of research into the relationship between ‘place’ and the digital because these media actively seek to create believable worlds that we can dwell in. Their storyworlds hinge on the sense of place curated by players as they encounter, associate and interpret information through navigation.

I’m contending36, therefore, that environmental storytelling can be an important frontier for future research at the intersection between digital geographies and narratology. Understanding how these storyworlds are crafted and inhabited can help to reveal and dissect the meaningful interrelationships of technologies, bodies and social norms that unfold when we engage with interactive media forms.

In particular37, I’m proposing that the environmental storytelling toolkit has mileage beyond its current limited use in games studies and game design circles. By expanding our conception of the informational ‘environment’ that participants in interactive digital narratives engage with, it can help us think about how the interaction between navigation and narrative plays out across a range of ‘immersive’ media, and not only in playful contexts38.


Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Wandering Games Conference 2019: Theorising wandering game experiences: post-phenomenology, navigation and narrative


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Below is the written component of the paper I presented at the Wandering Games Conference on the 12th July 2019. The superscript numbers in the text indicate the number of the corresponding slide you should view in the embedded Powerpoint above (you can access the slides separately as a PDF here).
I’d like to thank Melissa Kagen, Eben Muse and all the staff and student helpers at Bangor University that made such an endlessly inspiring conference happen. It was probably my favourite academic event of all time in how it brought together such a warm and passionate group of people over shared interests and loves, and I really hope Wandering Games returns for another conference next year.         
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When1 we talk about the unique qualities of games in which we wander – whether we’re traversing virtual or physical worlds – what do we refer to? We might describe the rules2 (or lack thereof) that determine how we wander; what roles we play in the world of the game. We might describe the process3 of navigating – how the ways we wander the game environments impact our relationships with them. And we might talk about the outcomes4 of playing these games – we might describe events and encounters that occurred as we wandered, and how the journey made us feel.

Essentially, with wandering games we distinguish something unique in the relationships between players and their environment, which differs5 from other types of games where one’s surroundings might be seen more as a backdrop to the gameplay, or a territory upon which gameplay unfolds. Rather, the environment, and how we traverse it, is central to the meaning-making process that occurs during wandering games. In geographical terms6, we could say that we’re distinguishing between game spaces and game places.

In this presentation, I want to demonstrate the usefulness of geographical approaches for making sense of the meaning-making process that takes place in wandering games. By understanding their unfolding interrelationships of bodies, social relationships and technologies as a form of dwelling in place, we can not only better understand the ways that players play and experience wandering games, but think about their potential for enabling practices of design and play that articulate different ways of being in the world.

To do this, I’m going to draw on research involving both video games and physical location-based games. The first is a study7 of walking simulator video games, in which I carried out autoethnographic playing of 12 walking sims and interviewed their developers. The second8 is a long-term study of the GPS-based treasure-hunting game Geocaching, for which I’ve also used autoethnography, as well as analysing geocache descriptions9 and the logs other players have left after finding the hidden containers.

I’m going to talk about two key aspects of the place-making process that occurs in these games: emplacement10 – how information is positioned in the game’s world to elicit certain kinds of responses, and what kinds of information; and enaction11 – how players engage with and make sense of this information as they wander, and the situated acts and inconsistencies these forms of wandering might entail.

Together12, this discussion will point towards experiences of dwelling in the worlds of wandering games as something assembled contingently, between connections and disconnections of human and non-human agents that unfold through the navigational gameplay. I’ll finish by explaining how this way of thinking can help us get to grips with what these games do, and what they can allow us to do as designers and players.

As13 we wander through the environment of a game, our feelings and perceptions will be shaped by what we encounter and the information we glean from the world, whether it was put there intentionally or not.

In walking simulator games, developers aim to qualify these experiences through environmental storytelling – whereby the construction of a narrative relies on the player’s navigation between pieces of information purposefully embedded across the game’s environment, and the interpretations they make from these evocative narrative elements.

In Geocaching14, we might say that this informational ‘environment’ is expanded to include all the materials players can use to find a geocache: the description and hints available on the cache webpage, curated by its owner, and past activity logs. Players then determine how this information corresponds to what they encounter physically.

But what does this distribution of information across the environments of these games achieve?

Most notably15, it allows players to choose what they focus on – a function Michael Nitsche calls ‘dynamic focalization’. The meanings that players derive from the distributed information are determined by what they notice in the world; and what their inclinations and motivations are as they explore. The possibility of ignoring16 certain pieces of embedded information means that players can decide the manner in which they want to invest in the world – whether to look in one place as opposed to another; whether to spend a long time piecing together details of what they encounter, or simply find what they need and leave.

By positioning this moment of focalization right at the heart of the game space, the player experience is tailored to their own affective and emotional sensibilities. Navigating17 the world becomes a personalised event in which the significance of locations in the game environment becomes tied to the interests and urges of the individual player.

Furthermore, many developers seek to invite individual interpretation18 through the content of these narrative elements themselves, which is often deliberately ambiguous and multi-vocal.

In walking sims, this might come across in the use of symbolism, or artefacts that are written or spoken by multiple characters. While these aesthetic elements have their own voice and perspective, there’s no singular trustworthy narrator to filter what’s meaningful. Players have to decide what’s significant for themselves.

In Geocaching19, this active encouragement of interpretation is most apparent in the use of hints, which ask the player to apply their interpretation of the words to their surroundings. One of my favourite examples is a geocache I found where the hint was ‘I don’t ever want to feel like I did that day’. At first the phrase seemed to bear no relation whatsoever to my location, until it suddenly clicked that those words are the lyrics to the Red Hot Chili Peppers song ‘Under the Bridge’. Sure enough20, that’s where the cache was located. But I’m also aware of the degree of personalisation that this method provokes, because every time I walk past that particular bridge, I think about that moment of discovery, and often the song comes into my head too!        

I want to emphasise that the relationship between navigation and narrative in games where we wander can be more structured than it appears. Developers typically make their games with the aim of achieving particular emotional effects – effects that can make use of the personal focalization that wandering entails.

For walking simulators21, developers use three main methods to achieve this. The first is gating, in which entry and exit points in the world are carefully coordinated to structure the flow of information the player is exposed to. The second22 is signposting, in which light and sound directs the player’s attention towards certain significant elements in their surroundings. And the final23 method is pacing, in which the spacing between narrative information is carefully managed to elicit dramatic tension and mood.

As you can see, this level of authorship by developers often simply comes down to how players are able to move and act in the game world. Shibolet’s24 excellent paper on the avatar’s movement in Journey, which describes how the ‘story’ of the experience comes into being almost solely through the sense of trajectory you embody as you move across the world, reminds us that game worlds in which we wander are not just a mise-en-scene, but what Andy Lavender calls a mise-en-sensibilité. The emplacement of information is as multimedia as the practice of game playing itself.

Indeed, in Geocaching25, alongside the text we see on the webpage, the way geocaches are hidden is geared towards players sensually engaging with the world through touch; using embodied experience to engage with what the abstract view of GPS coordinates fails to see.

What’s notable, then, about the navigational qualities of wandering games is how the stories that derive from these experiences become personalised to the player26. The constellations of affects and perceptions that players chart become closely mapped onto internal topographies of the self as much as information represented digitally. And this is often deliberate. The designed structure of wandering games can provide opportunities for players to engage on their own terms with aesthetic and kinaesthetic possibilities in the world. They can become gatekeepers to “intimate spatial knowledge”, to quote urban explorer Bradley Garrett, turning the game space into “a place for dwelling rather than merely a territory”.

However27, understanding how this relationship between navigation and narrative plays out in practice is crucial, because games are evental media. Whether you’re loading up software in the case of video games, or heading out for a playful wander in a physical environment, the emplaced information of the game, without input from players, is just static architecture. As Alexander Galloway puts it, games only “exist when enacted”.

So what does enaction mean in the context of wandering games? How do our actions as players lead us to have meaningful experiences?

Let’s start with Geocaching28. When geocachers head out in search for a cache, they travel to the treasure’s listed coordinates on the Geocaching website. While reaching the given coordinates will bring the player within close proximity to the geocache, GPS technology itself is only accurate within a 10-metre radius, and is degraded further by factors such as tree cover.

Yet rather than fostering a detachment from the corporeal game environment, these affordances force you to look up from your device and interact sensually with your physical surroundings to find the hidden container. The limitations of the technology are what provokes this sensual engagement.

In turn29, other players have the agency to hide geocaches in creative or elaborate ways, such as the one shown here. A geocache’s coordinates are there for anyone to see; it’s by engaging sensually with the unique materialities of cache locations that geocachers can feel the sense of empowerment, excitement and intimacy that the treasure-hunting gameplay aims to provoke.

Furthermore, over time many geocachers30, myself included, become more adept at this practice of finding geocaches, learning to recognise signs of disturbed ground, the sensitivity of the app’s GPS compass, and common hiding techniques. Often referred to as the player’s ‘geosenses’ or ‘cacher’s eye’, navigating to geocaches for regular players becomes a process of attunement, whereby technology, gameplay and material environment combine to re-orient bodily senses, and intensify the player’s relationship with their surroundings.

We might liken this process to cognitive mapping31 – the performative act of making connections between places and meaningful information, whereby, to quote Lynch32, “nothing is experienced by itself, but always in relation to its surroundings, the sequences of events leading up to it, the memory of past experiences.” And this can be found in the gameplay of walking sims too, as we navigate the mise-en-sensibilité that developers curate.

The issue with fictional worlds, however, is that the believability of the world – which you could say is the extent to which players are able to form coherent mental maps of it – is potentially more fragile33 and subjective. Not only are digital games susceptible to technical glitches, such as the problems I discovered in Firewatch with the rendering of textures in certain areas, but also there’s a fine balance for developers to negotiate in terms of exposing information34. They want to do so in a way that elicits emotional engagement, while also leaving enough room for players to stitch together a model of the world that make sense to them.

For example, during my autoethnography of walking sims, in some games I’d question how I discovered narrative information such as diary entries and graffiti that was somehow perfectly positioned to continue a linear story. As my navigation of the world began to feel more authored, the world no longer felt believable as a place, but felt more like a game level, where my own interpretation of events was seemingly less important. At those moments, it didn’t feel like a world I could imagine myself into.

The designers of walking sims aim to manage some of this inconsistency through testing. While many of the technical problems have technical solutions, for walking sims testing also exists to find inconsistencies in how people engage with the world subjectively35. For example, The Chinese Room re-made the world of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture from scratch four or five times, simply because testing revealed that it didn’t ‘feel’ right to people as a Shropshire village. As James Ash observes36, testing is a process that enables developers to “render contingency visible” with the aim that these relationships between technologies, bodies and represented worlds can be re-attuned towards more “positively affective” outcomes.

We’re beginning to see that the relationship between navigation and narrative that develops when we wander in games, which I’m calling a place-making practice, is closely connected to personal embodied37 responses and their social and cultural associations. Only last week, I ran a workshop introducing academics to walking simulators, and some of the people in the room had never even picked up a games console controller before. It was a stark reminder that experiences of playing these games always intersect with age, disability, gender, ethnicity and many other facets of society and culture, whether this is in the playing of the game, or even being able to access and participate in the activity in the first place.

In Geocaching38, we’ve seen this intersection with social and cultural norms play out quite prominently on a larger scale in the public eye, where the gameplay has prompted legal action and security alerts, for example. And though I didn’t experience any barriers to playing the game based on embodied factors alone, as a white, able-bodied male, my participation at times has been restricted in other ways.                          

In the nerve-wracking39 example pictured here, I wasn’t willing to climb to the top of this tree to grab the geocache hidden there as the weather was windy, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to make three points of contact on trunk, contravening the social standards of climbing safety I once learnt. By abandoning my retrieval of the cache, my experience was characterised by situated articulations of material conditions, social norms and bodily capacities which weren’t simply playful or serendipitous, but actively restrictive.

These examples remind us that practices of place-making40, and the links we develop between navigation and narrative, aren’t ideologically neutral. As geographer Tim Cresswell has noted in his seminal work In Place / Out of Place, the link between place and ‘belonging’ is central to many relationships of power in societies, particularly when we label certain acts or bodies as being ‘out of place’. Place becomes not just a domain of community or attunement, but also of ‘geographical deviance’ and disconnection.

By recognising the potential of ‘geographical deviance’, however, I want to finish by highlighting how acts of wandering also provide opportunities for transgression. It’s a fairly tame example41 that I came across during my research, but in the game Gone Home, which allows players to pick up objects and place them wherever they want, some players decided to collect all the items you can pick up in the game and put them in one room; while others curated shrines to the individual characters, rather than leaving the items as they were found. It’s just a small example of the potential of navigation as a transgressive act in wandering games, which can re-write stories of engagement with game places that disrupt established norms and make some of these underlying rules newly visible.

As digital technology42 has come to influence the ways we encounter and make sense of the worlds we inhabit, critical thinkers across the arts and humanities have sought to chart the factors that shape our place in the world as humans.

As a distinctly interactive medium, with associated concepts of agency and immersion, for example, games are a particularly useful area of study for getting to grips with our being in the world, and how interrelationships of human and non-human components influence this.

The conception of place43 I’ve been using today is born out of post-phenomenological approaches in Geography, which understand our experiences of being in the world as less about ‘being there’, but more about ‘being with’ – being part of an unfolding ecology of human and non-human agents that assemble contingently and in situ; not solely centred in the human mind.

What I hope to have demonstrated today is that, in the unique ways that wandering in games develops meaningful relationships between individuals and environments, we are talking about practices of place-making. And by understanding44 what we mean when we talk about dwelling in place – as something highly personal, sensual, contingent, performative, and potentially transgressive – we can better recognise both the opportunities and limitations that arise from these articulations of bodies, technologies, materials and social norms.

I’m arguing that if we’re going to make games in which the kinds of experiences we want players to have result from developing meaningful relationships with the environment, we need to consider what we mean when we say things like we want to create ‘believable’ or ‘emotionally-engaging’ worlds with a ‘sense of place’.

As a final touchstone45 for my presentation, I want to highlight the work of people in games such as Kate Edwards, a high-profile member of the games industry who is employed specifically as a geographical consultant by games companies to critique and help develop their world-building. If you listen to her talks, you’ll find that she has lots of anecdotes about games companies that have wanted to effectively re-write geopolitical history to appeal to certain market, and how she has had to negotiate the impacts and ethics of these kinds of decisions.

As a way of thinking about experience that is highly attuned to materialities, the body, society, culture, geopolitics, and increasingly digital technology, it’s evidence that geographical approaches are well-placed for thinking about the interconnected factors that shape how our experiences of game environments are enacted46.


Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Walking Simulators: An Introductory Workshop


Earlier this month at the Digital Geographies Research Group Annual Symposium, whose theme this year was ‘Geographies of Gaming and VR’, I ran a workshop introducing those attending the event to the group of video games known as ‘walking simulators’. This was an opportunity for the academics to try a type of game that they were less likely to be familiar with, making use of six PCs/consoles in the room with the games Dear Esther, Gone Home, The Stanley Parable, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Firewatch and What Remains of Edith Finch installed. The workshop then prompted participants to think about what significance walking simulators might have when we think about the geographies of video games and digital media more broadly.

Overall, I was pleased with how those who attended engaged with the material I’d provided. It was my first experience running a workshop of this kind, and I’m now more conscious of the kinds of considerations I’d need to make when running a similar event in the future.

As expected for any workshop involving computer equipment, there were some technical hitches involving the hardware provided by the university hosting the symposium. In particular, I became aware just how important functioning sound equipment is for the experience of playing walking sims – e.g. listening to voice acting for communicating character, ambient sound for its atmospheric, transportative qualities, and music for emotion / mood / thematic cues. Earphones were provided by the university (admittedly not high-quality) but on a couple of the machines we were unable to get the sound to work properly at all.

Technical issues aside, however, I was happy with how the workshop gave participants an understanding of what these games are, how they are different from the AAA titles we so often see advertised and discussed publicly, what their evolution has meant for the video games medium, and why they offer some interesting vantage points for geographers thinking about games using geographical concepts, including (sense of) place, landscape, interfaces, post-phenomenology, and more.

Below is my presentation material. It starts with an 8-minute clip from a play-through of the game Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, alongside the text and slides from my introduction to the workshop. This is followed by links to a list of popular walking simulator games and brief reading list that were provided as handouts on the day.

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Walking simulators could be described as video games in which the gameplay is based on purposefully exploring the environments represented onscreen to experience their affective power, rather than their landscapes being backdrops to the gameplay. Often avoiding many mechanics typically associated with the video game medium, such as those involving skill in button-pushing, win and loss conditions, combat systems and player 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 their worlds.


One of the immediate questions you might have, though, is ‘why are they called walking simulators’? Well, the term has actually been quite a controversial one. It began in online video gaming communities as a derogatory term, signalling that these types of games offered limited possibilities for player interaction, compared to games with complex mechanics that might require skill, dexterity or effort to master. The only mechanical input from the player seemed to involve moving between different points of interest in the environment and exploring what’s there, rather than having any observable agency in shaping the game world. Because of this, some have questioned whether walking sims can even really be considered ‘games’ at all.


Despite its negative connotations, however, the ‘walking simulator’ term has largely been reclaimed by those who make, support and enjoy these kinds of games. On Steam, the leading platform for PC gaming, you can browse games tagged as ‘walking simulators’ alongside those tagged as ‘action’, ‘adventure’, ‘horror’ and so on. As they’ve become easier to find, buy, discuss and share, whole communities of people have been built around games in the walking simulator ‘genre’. Even for those who dislike the label, use of the term has become so pervasive that it’s become almost universal in the games community.


Indeed, some would actually argue that the ‘walking simulator’ term is an appropriate one for understanding the kinds of experiences these games enable players to have. Games scholar Rosa Carbó-Mascarell, for example, has argued that walking simulators represent a digitisation of earlier Romantic and psychogeographical traditions of exploration, in which walking is said to induce a mindful connection with the spirit or sense of a place.


In drawing together the series of events you encounter as you slowly navigate through the world, the gameplay of walking simulators would also appear to enact well-established conceptions of walking as a narrativizing practice that draws situated events into sequences.   


It’s important to remember, though, that in nearly all cases these games involve more than just walking, particularly when you consider how players encounter information in the game world. In a paper published online earlier this year, Melissa Kagen describes the mechanic of ‘archival adventuring’ that’s used in many walking simulators, in which players piece together a version of events by navigating between carefully arranged materials in the game world, and forming their own interpretations of them. An archival perspective recognises how the player’s experience will necessarily be conditioned by how the information is organised by the game’s developers, the gaps that are intentionally left by designers for players to fill, and the game’s user interface, and not just how the player ‘walks’.


Before I finish, I want to briefly address the influence these games have had in both the games industry and wider sector of interactive digital media. What’s especially interesting is that the vast majority of these games have been made by indie games developers. Without the same costs as most AAA games in terms of animation, voice acting, and complex UI systems, it turns out that the types of game that often fall under the ‘walking simulator’ label can be relatively inexpensive to create. However, they’re still able to reach a wide audience through popular platforms such as the Steam store that sell content made by a broad range of developers.


Yet despite the limitations their developers have to work with, games tagged as walking simulators have been winning some of the biggest prizes in gaming. The wider industry has been forced to take note. Particularly for AAA titles that aspire to tell some kind of story, the bar’s been raised, as walking simulators have showed it’s possible to tell stories in a highly emotionally engaging way without resorting to cutscenes or series of objectives, which distance the player from the actual storytelling process.


As a result, in recent years relationships between mechanics and narrative have been at the forefront of game design thinking and discussion, and this has led to some highly innovative examples of interactive storytelling that work with the affordances of digital technology in newly compelling and meaningful ways.


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Brief reading list introducing walking simulators and their possibilities/controversies.

List of suggested games labelled as 'walking simulators'.


Tuesday, 4 June 2019

Landscape Surgery: GeoHumanities Creative Commissions 2018

This post was originally published on the Landscape Surgery blog of the Social, Cultural and Historical Geography Research Group in the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. Landscape Surgery is a fortnightly seminar series that the SCHG hosts during term-time. Sessions are typically organised around a theme for which speakers (including external invitees) talk about their research, followed by questions/general discussion on the topic; though it can also include workshops and research training sessions. I attend the sessions as part of my PhD activities, and am one of four editors of the Landscape Surgery blog.

The session discussed in this post featured the Royal Holloway Centre for the GeoHumanities Creative Commissions from 2018. I co-wrote and edited this piece with Alice Reynolds, another PhD student in the Department of Geography at RHUL.

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For the penultimate Landscape Surgery of the academic year, we were delighted to be joined by two guest speakers. Jol Thomson (PhD student at the University of Westminster) and Dr. Julian Brigstocke (Lecturer in Human Geography in the School of Geography and Planning at Cardiff University) joined us to discuss their work as part of Royal Holloway’s Centre for the GeoHumanities Creative Commissions, funded by the Leverhulme Trust and AHRC, and last year organised around the theme of ‘Creating Earth Futures’. Five works were selected for the 2018 programme, three of which we were introduced to in the session. Full details about all of the selected works are available on the Centre for the GeoHumanities’ blog.

First up to present was Jol Thomson discussing ‘In the Future Perfect’, the commissioned work he developed alongside Julian Weaver, an artist at Finetuned Ltd. Jol and Julian’s project seeks to interrogate the imaginaries and implications of scientific work operating in the realm of pataphysics: that which examines imaginary phenomena existing in a world beyond metaphysics; outside the basic principles of existence. In this regard, their work explores the discourses and materialities of nuclear fusion and its implications for energy provision and climate change.

Jol explained that the cultural imaginary around this branch of scientific experimentation and technological development has so far only existed in the future perfect, with fusion consistently projected over the past century to be ‘30 years away’ from being a viable power source. Decades of fusion experiments have faced continued difficulties in containing the reaction in a manner requiring less energy than the amount that can be extracted.

To develop their creative research, Jol and Julian sought to gain access to The Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, the UK’s national nuclear fusion research laboratory located in Oxfordshire, as well as visiting the ITER Centre in Marseille, an internationally-recognised experimental site for nuclear fusion. One of the most significant observations the pair have made during their research at both sites is the scale of infrastructure needed to make fusion reactions possible. Jol illustrated using maps and photographs how the UK’s Culham Centre is situated close to both a power station and solar field, and also draws on sources of energy from further afield to function. Meanwhile, it was explained by Jol that for fusion to be viable as a source of energy, research has shown that humans would need to mine off-world to recover the minerals needed to create adequate conditions for fusion to occur, which are rare to find on earth.

Even aside from these very practical limitations to the fusion process, Jol hypothesised what would happen if humans could harness the unlimited, self-sustaining energy that nuclear fusion promises. It has been projected that population levels could eventually become so high that our impacts as humans would become devastating to the earth’s ecosystem and ultimately be unsustainable, undermining the ‘green’ credentials of fusion as a method of energy production. In considering what the legacy of fusion energy could look like millennia into the future, Jol and Julian have been inspired by the film Into Eternity, which explores ideas about how a nuclear waste site in Finland could be marked as hazardous for future inhabitants of Earth, who are unlikely to communicate using the same languages we do today.

Both film and sound recording have been employed by the pair to interrogate the atmospheres and energies that permeate today’s nuclear fusion testing sites. In the session, Jol played sound files that audibly represented what takes place inside a tokamak test reactor, where a magnetic field confines the heated plasma used in nuclear fusion experiments, suggesting that him and Julian could eventually score this sonic output for a choir as a performative piece. Through the process of transforming these scientific operations into visual and sonic outputs, their work demonstrates both the elusive and ethereal qualities of current fusion experiments, and the level of imagination necessary to make nuclear fusion as a power source a tangible reality.

Following Jol, Dr. Julian Brigstocke gave a presentation titled ‘Thinking in Suspension: The Geoaesthetics of Sand’. His presentation introduced his collaborative project ‘Harena’, which he works on alongside Victoria Jones, an installation artist exploring the ways humans use their senses to connect with and create a sense of place. Their creative collaboration investigates the contemporary politics of sand mining through a series of experiments with the material properties and cultural experiences of sand.

For Julian, sand is both a vital substance and display of power. It connects the elemental to the global; marks time, decay and death; and as the primary component of concrete, cement, glass, fibreglass, asphalt, microchips and more, is the most important constituent material of our urban landscapes. Despite being a finite natural resource which takes centuries to form, it is the world’s most consumed resource after air and water, and humans are using it at accelerating rates, particularly in construction (Morrow, 2018). In 2014, the UN Environmental Program declared that sand mining was causing “unequivocal” environmental problems (ibid).

In this regard, Julian made particular reference to Hong Kong, where sand extracted from seabeds has provided the material for land reclamation, at the cost of catastrophic damage to marine ecosystems. While land reclamation projects appear to promise a quick fix to endemic housing shortages in one of the world’s most densely populated urban areas, political debates rage around how far these projects go towards reducing Hong Kong’s vast inequalities in wealth; where the sand itself comes from; why existing brownfield sites are not used instead; and government collusion with private property owners and developers.

As well as carrying out fieldwork in Hong Kong and visiting sand mines in the UK, Julian and Victoria’s work has delved into the sensual and material properties of sand through a series of ‘experiments’ that explore its qualities of suspension. Julian recounted his unsettling experience of a sensory deprivation tank, where participants lie face up on a pool of water warmed to body temperature and containing a high proportion of salt in suspension, enabling them to lose all sense of the body’s external boundaries. Elsewhere, him and Victoria visited an anechoic chamber, which prevents users from hearing anything inside it, as an exploration of the silence that suspension in air entails; while indoor skydiving allowed them to perceive how tiny adjustments in bodily weight can cause significant directional movements when bodies are suspended in air. In thinking about these processes of attunement with various environmental and atmospheric conditions – of drifting, disorientation and movement across earth, water and air – Julian was reminded of a quotation from Michel Serres (1982: 83): “nothing distinguishes me ontologically from a crystal”.

Julian ended his presentation with a provocation central to the joint political and cultural territory of his and Victoria’s project. He asked: how might the granular thinking necessary to understand the properties of sand pollute the contemporary noisy landscapes of consumerism, for example in the concrete, glass and asphalt landscapes of Hong Kong?

To conclude the session, we were presented with a film by Matterlurgy (Helena Hunter and Mark Peter Wright) made in collaboration with filmmaker Daniel Beck, entitled ‘Rehearsals for Uncertain Futures’. Featuring Royal Holloway’s Department of Geology’s Sea Ice Simulator (SIS), used in climate science to predict and model the impact of black carbon on ice reflectivity, the film emphasises the create commission project’s broader emphasis on noticing (Tsing, 2015). Focusing on the polyphonic dimensions of environmental processes and methods of observing them, “[s]uch an inquiry finds its roots through interleaved theories of listening […] and the practices of performance and fictioning. It considers the vibratory, affective and speculative forms of agency bound within the technologies and practices produced by GEC [Global Environmental Change]” (Hall, 2018).

Heavily featuring the work and daily practices of Professor Martin King (Professor in Environmental Geoscience in the Department of Earth Sciences at RHUL), the film never once features Professor King’s full body or face, but instead focuses on the materiality of the shipping containers situated in the woodland where the SIS is stored, the bird song in the background and the diverse sounds produced by the SIS machinery.

“The film focuses on the interconnections between the lab and field amplifying physical and material production practices behind climate simulation and predictive data modelling. How does data become data, where exactly is the field, what practices of maintenance and care does simulation require?” (Helena Hunter, no date).

The film is just one part of a broader project which seeks to produce a series of artworks which “challenge and re-imagine how GEC is both sensed and non sensed, signalled and signed, heard and unheard” (Hall, 2018).

We would like to extend our thanks to Jol and Julian for joining us in the session, and to Helena and Mark for allowing us to view their film. We look forward to seeing how the projects develop.


Bibiography

Hall, L. (2018) Matterlurgy selected for the Creating Earth Futures Commissions. Available at: https://www.crisap.org/2018/01/22/matterlurgy-creating-earth-futures-commissions-2018/ (Accessed: 14 May 2019)

Hunter, H. (no date) Rehearsals for Uncertain Futures. Available at: http://www.helenahunter.net/rehearsals-for-uncertain-futures (Accessed: 27 May 2019)

Morrow, S. (2018) 20 Things You Didn’t Know About… Sand. Available at: http://discovermagazine.com/2018/jun/20-things-you-didnt-know-about–sand (Accessed: 27 May 2019)

Serres, M. (1982) Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy. Baltimore, MD: The John Hopkins University Press.

Tsing, A. (2015) The mushroom at the end of the world: On the possibility of life in capitalist ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


Monday, 13 May 2019

RGS-IBG Postgraduate Forum Midterm Conference 2019: Creating Digital Narrative Artworks: An Expanding Geographical Field


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Below is the written version of the paper I presented in the 'Innovative Research Methods' session at the RGS-IBG Postgraduate Forum Midterm Conference on 25th April 2019. Each paragraph in the text corresponds to one slide in the embedded Powerpoint above (you can view the slides separately as a PDF here).
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Today I’m going to discuss the potential of creative and practice-based approaches to researching digital media in cultural geography, specifically how they’re used for storytelling purposes in games and locative media.

I’m going to propose that, through the constantly evolving, problem-solving process of game development, creating a digital narrative as a researcher gives you a clearer understanding of the affordances of the medium’s technologies, discourses and relationships as they come together in practice. In turn, being involved in this design process from the early stages gives you access to aspects of digital media production that are often invisible from widely-used ethnographic methods of observation, participation and interviewing. As I’ll indicate, however, there are still questions about possible barriers to participation for researchers aiming to engage practically with digital media, as well as how to effectively record and manage the ‘data’ produced from this kind of methodology.

So in cultural geography, we’ve seen in the past couple of decades increasing value being attributed to practice-based methodologies as an approach that can ‘get closer’ to the affective, material and embodied qualities of experience, eroding a perceived division between thought and practice. When it comes to the study of media arts, the concern amongst cultural geographers at the turn of the millennium was that the methods of analysis employed by researchers remained largely detached from the processes through which different media are produced and consumed in everyday life.

But to what extent have creative and practice-based approaches been applied to digital media? It’s now widely understood that geographers can practice film-making, photography, and creative writing in response to research questions; yet the idea of a geographer making a game, for instance, would appear to be unusual and much less common. There are many possible reasons for this, which I don’t have time to go through in depth today. But from my experience, I’d suggest that they could include a lack of training opportunities in creative digital skills; a lack of time, resources or funding to learn and use appropriate technologies; perceived barriers to entry, such as the need to know programming languages, which for some projects might actually be necessary; and finally, wider social and cultural attitudes towards digital artforms. For example, many scholars would still dispute the idea of video games being a form of ‘art’, or even worthy of study.

Nonetheless, it’s evident that digital media increasingly provide the platforms through which we not only communicate existing narrative works, such as e-books for text and video streaming websites for film, but also find whole new ways of telling stories. Of these digital narrative forms, video games are by far the most prolific and popular, and their relative cultural, economic and social importance really can’t be understated. 2.3 billion players now spend a total of $137.9 billion US dollars on games globally, which not only eclipses spending on music, film and TV, but is worth double music and film combined.

Cultural geographers have already begun to research video games as a medium with particular spatial characteristics. By attending to the sites at which digital narratives experiences are produced, the study of interfaces and methods of visualisation by the likes of James Ash and Gillian Rose has proved influential in making sense of how their constituent material, bodily and social processes interact.

Nonetheless, there’s a lack of practice-based study in geography of the creative process behind digital artforms, even though this is where many of the relationships that produce distinct narrative experiences are formed – from the development of initial ideas, to testing these ideas, and then onto the final production and feedback. Even where geographers have gained access to earlier stages of video game development such as testing, this has mainly focused on the relationships between game mechanics and physical bodily responses, as opposed to narrative development.

My PhD project is essentially trying to bridge this gap – to find out what geographers can learn from the whole creative process of making a digital narrative game. I’m going to be making a locative treasure-hunting game in my home city of Canterbury, that aims to create a playful platform through which people can both share and discover the stories that make locations in the area meaningful.

As part of this project, I’m having to create some prototypes of initial design ideas I’ve had for my final game. However, the first stage of this process came about much earlier than expected, through an opportunity that fell into my lap before my PhD had even started. I was commissioned by a group of small, independent businesses in Canterbury’s historic Cathedral Quarter to make a digital treasure-hunting game as a one-day event, with aim of drawing people away from the chain stores of the high street into the unique historic environment of the Cathedral Quarter, showcasing what makes it special as a place to visit. In this presentation, I’m going to talk about what I’ve learnt from this prototyping process about the practice-based methods I’m employing for my PhD project, talking through the production of The Timekeeper’s Return from the initial design, to testing, and finally to the eventual release.

From the earliest stages of the design process, making a digital game involves navigating affordances – in other words, understanding what the medium you’re using allows you to do, and working with these ‘limitations’.

No matter what kind of creative project you work on, there will always be limitations in terms of the capacities of the technologies being used, the cultural demands and expectations of the medium, and the resources and skills available to you. The design process is characterised by how you resolve to work within these affordances to produce something that achieves the project’s aims. For researchers, this can teach you a great deal about the kinds of negotiations artists have to make when using a particular medium, and how these relationships can influence the eventual experience people have of a creative work.

For The Timekeeper’s Return, my limitations were that I had to make a treasure-hunting game that was suitable for all ages, drawing attention to what is interesting and unique about the Cathedral Quarter, but also using digital technology in an innovative way. Oh, and this also needed to be affordable!

My solution to this unique set of challenges was twofold. First, I opted to use QR codes as the mediating technology for the event. Not only is this technology affordable to work with and widely accessible, with most smartphones having QR code readers pre-installed or freely available, but it was also novel enough to gain attention as an event. There was something that captured the imagination about the act of decoding – the idea that by engaging with the environment in a critical way we can obtain secret and intimate knowledge about the events that have shaped our enveloping landscapes.

The second design solution was to make the event story-based and immersive, with the treasure-hunting activity based on the premise that participants were helping a time-travelling researcher called Mia Augustina. Using her time machine, the astrolabe, Mia had studied what different sites within the Cathedral Quarter were like in the past, and recorded research diary entries that appeared as QR codes you could scan in the relevant present-day locations. However, the machine had malfunctioned, trapping her in the past, and only by scanning these codes could the machine calibrate itself in time and space, and Mia could return.

As these design ideas progressed, however, I was soon faced with a different kind of limitation – that imposed on me by the independent businesses who commissioned the work, who were keen to see some tangible and material benefit from the event. What really put a spanner in the works was their desire to see participants actually enter their businesses, rather than just engaging with the Cathedral Quarter on a surface level. Suddenly, as a designer I was faced with the task of simultaneously telling a story that engaged with the historic fabric of the city, while also encouraging people to see what the local businesses had to offer.

In this case, my solution was to alter the overarching narrative of the event to make the action of entering the businesses more immersive. Mia Augustina was now a Canterbury local who frequented the businesses in the area, only sharing the knowledge of the places she was travelling to with her friends who work in these businesses. Only by entering them and speaking to their staff could participants get the information they needed to find the QR codes and help Mia return to the present.

This solution turned out to be very effective, as the process of gathering the narrative information from both the ‘historic’ QR code sources, as well as people embedded in the everyday life of the Cathedral Quarter, entwined together the stories of past and present in a way that mirrored the palimpsest of different time periods in the material environment today. Participants indicated that they were provoked by the game to care about previously unknown personal stories that have made the place meaningful over time. But it was only by having to negotiate these different affordances as a designer that I was able to appreciate how different mechanical devices and narrative devices can influence how diverse publics interact with the storied fabric of the city.

After forming the initial designs for a digital narrative project, the next stage of development is iterative testing. This involves judging the viability of your ideas for a full-scale experience, and adapting how they’re implemented according to observations and feedback. From a geographical perspective, testing’s especially important because this is typically the first time that the designs are implemented in their appropriate spatial context. Whether this is a physical location in the case of locative games, or a screened representational world such as a video game, testing allows you to understand how both the game’s mechanics and the content of the narrative change how participants interact with their mediated environment.

During the development of The Timekeeper’s Return, after researching the Cathedral Quarter’s local history extensively, and scouting the area for hiding locations for the QR codes, it was during testing when I got to see how the story I’d written could actually play out in physical space. At first, this simply involved walking the route of the treasure hunt myself, and reading the research diary entries at their appropriate locations. One example was a street called Butchery Lane, where it occurred to me during this initial testing that when you stand in the middle of the street, all the buildings on one side were rebuilt after WW2 bombing, while on the other side everything had survived the war and was hundreds of years old. I realised how powerful this ‘two halves’ visualisation of the street was, and in the eventual text, the character Mia directs participants to do the same thing, visualising in their immediate surroundings how WW2 changed the physical surface of the city. This was a moment that participants told me was particularly eye-opening in changing their perceptions of the area, making the events of the story and the real-life history they represented became that much more tangible.

However, the most important part of the testing process is getting members of the public who have no prior knowledge of the project to take part in early versions. Outside testers help to reveal the inherent biases and blind spots that come with being the creative force behind the project. In one example, my testers had particular trouble with a QR code on Sun Street, which was stuck on a bollard underneath a historic hotel. I was worried that it might be too obvious, but the difficulty players had was that the details they had to notice were quite far from eye level, and also faced the opposite way to the direction they’d arrived from. Of course, there was a balance to be struck too, because it was a treasure hunt – I didn’t want the sticker to be too easy to find, otherwise it would defeat the object of paying close attention to your surroundings. In this case, all that was required was to move the sticker higher up. It seemed like a really small change, but further testing showed that once people spotted the historic hotel, they almost immediately then noticed the sticker, which was no longer so close to the ground.

The other blindspot my testers revealed was just how bad the mobile internet signal is in that part of Canterbury. While the network on my phone was mostly usable in the area, my testers couldn’t connect at all in some locations. But because I’d identified the extent of the problem early enough through testing, I was able to visit many of the local businesses, asking if they’d be willing to open their Wi-Fi for the day, so players could read the QR code texts. This meant that even in the worst mobile internet blackspots, people on the day were still able to continue playing the game.

Ultimately, testing can often teach you more than the final release, as it highlights both the points of attunement and inconsistency in the spatial relationships that are developed through different iterations of the game’s design. It allows you to observe how these relationships manifest physically to change people’s behaviours and experiences, and gather data through feedback questionnaires and interviews.

The final stage of digital narrative development is when the project goes live. From my experience, this is the point when all the challenges that were previously conceptual become logistical. The project typically has to be publicised and marketed, the physical and virtual infrastructure needs to be in place, and people need to be on-hand if and when problems occur.

I found that the process of preparing for my live event taught me a great deal about the materialities involved in running a full-scale locative game. Not only was I responsible for printing the QR code stickers, but I had to decide things like whether to pay extra for waterproof stickers, and how many spare sets of stickers I’d need to carry on the day.

This is also where collaborating with an outside group can really make a difference, as they were able to fund the costs for printing and marketing, and also timed the launch of their new website to coincide with The Timekeeper’s Return. The website ended up providing the virtual infrastructure to host the QR code texts, while also helping to promote the event. I essentially became aware of exactly how all the different components of the event had to fall into place.

But no matter how well you prepare, the live-ness of interactive artforms will always throw up unexpected occurrences, whether the narrative experience takes place in a living physical environment, or an app you’re releasing to the world. This is because the scale of people engaging with the thing you’ve made increases significantly. In The Timekeeper’s Return, we had one unsavoury incident where a group of people were drinking alcohol and swearing loudly in front of children playing the game. When one of my assistants asked them if they could stop, they physically threatened her; and in the end, I had to improvise by taking over her role for 20 minutes while she took a time out. However, serendipity can work the other way too. Even though it wasn’t planned, we discovered that the opening day of a city-wide arts festival happened to be taking place on the same date, which gave us a much bigger audience for our own event. We were also lucky that the weather was stunning on the day, which meant the non-waterproof stickers were fine, and we ended up with over 200 participants in what turned into a very successful event.

What these examples indicate is that being practically involved in running a live digital work gives you access to a wealth of insights into how these kinds of cultural experiences are mediated, because every action you take goes towards trying to make sure the story is told in as smooth and immersive a way as possible. It’s like a duck swimming on water, where you don’t notice how hard their legs are paddling under the surface. But it also shows that if you’re a researcher that only observes the project as a player, or interviews those involved afterwards, then you’ll undoubtedly learn less about the material and social relationships that produce the kinds of experiences you’re studying, however tacit and circumstantial they might be.

So to summarise, what did I learn from The Timekeeper’s Return about practice-based methods for studying digital narratives?

Well, I gained insights into the processes of conceptualisation, negotiation and logistics that go into both designing a digital narrative game, and making it physically happen. Furthermore, this prototype demonstrated that practice-based methods have the potential to advance disciplinary conventions by involving scholars in processes of cultural production that are often invisible to scholars on the receiving end of these works.

I also found that this creative method was effective for engaging wider publics with geographical concepts of place. Not only did the project reach a broader audience than if I’d given a talk on the history of the Cathedral Quarter, for example, but feedback from the testing and final release indicated that participants became newly appreciative of the events and people that have shaped what the city is today.

And lastly, I learnt how the dynamics of collaboration shape the storytelling opportunities you can pursue with a work like this. While they impose limitations on the material and aesthetic qualities of the project, the process of negotiation and compromise was ultimately productive for the game itself, making the experience more engaging by asking players to talk to people who work in the Cathedral Quarter today. Working with partners was also valuable from a research perspective, in terms of understanding the kinds of decisions that shape the way a digital narrative is designed, and providing data that’s recorded in emails and minutes from meetings, for example.

So I’ll finish by briefing explaining what’s next for my research. I’m currently working on the design for my much larger Canterbury-based project that’s comprising the bulk of the PhD, and this currently means making more prototypes to test out my ideas! At the moment I’m putting together a smaller project in the local area, using the autobiographical writing of a local author to encourage people to make their own ‘archives’ of place, using the locative game Geocaching. I’ll then use the feedback from this prototype to inform what I decide to do going forward, and hopefully be in a position to share even more insights about practice-based methodologies in future conferences.