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.

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