Monday, 13 May 2019

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

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).

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.

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