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January 14 2011

18:44

Harvey Smith on environmental storytelling and embedding narrative: “It has to be possible to miss some things to make finding them meaningful”

In a bit of serendipitous surfing last fall, I stumbled onto “What Happened Here?” a presentation by Harvey Smith and Matthias Worch at the 2010 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. The presentation focused on environmental storytelling and referred not only to gaming, but also to documentary photography, narrative journalism and a treatise on comic books.

It’s hard to imagine news organizations spending the kind of resources on game design that commercial developers do, but in efforts such as Nonny de la Peña’s Gone Gitmo” and Wired’s “Cutthroat Capitalism,” storytellers are already exploring how game experiences can intersect with journalism. And the Online News Association’s Interactive Narratives site includes hundreds of projects that give the audience a hand in events (though some are simply multimedia).

All of which makes Smith and Worch’s presentation to their commercial-designer audience relevant. Their distinctions between what film does and what games do, their thoughts on players’ relationship to the game environment, and their ideas on enriching interactive narrative deserve some pondering.

I decided to call Harvey Smith with some questions. What follows is a summary of the notes from their conference presentation, followed by comments from Smith related to the idea of nonfiction or reality-based games. It’s heady stuff, but worth a look for anyone thinking about how stories work in different media.

Smith and Worch contrast gaming with fictional exposition, arguing that gaming requires the player to take a role in interpreting information, building a story of “what happened here.” While a lot of stellar narrative nonfiction also leaves room for readers or viewers to interpret events, they suggest that gaming takes it to another level entirely.

Surroundings help create and reinforce the identity of the player. Signs of violence and looting may suggest to a player that future violence will happen, or that the player will be called on to perform similar behaviors. Lab-rat-type mazes will probably make the player feel, well … like a lab rat.

At root, Worch and Smith suggest that environmental storytelling involves the player making connections: “What we’re talking about here is subtext, which transforms simple scenes into something with a deeper meaning.” While all stories have subtext, Smith and Worch say that in games, subtext emerges differently. While print and film direct the audience’s gaze and focus its attention, Smith says, “In games, we explore.”

The pair illustrate their point with photos from a book by Robert Polidori. The first image is two goldfish that almost seem to float in the air, but on close examination look to be stuck to a screen door or window. Each subsequent image pulls back on the view and examines other perspectives – a muddied room with furniture topsy-turvy, a damaged house, a devastated neighborhood, and then a wide-angle overhead picture that shows a flooded, pulverized landscape. The series of photographs are taken from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and their accumulation into meaning mimics the kind of narrative experience that games offer, in which player exploration both yields and shapes a narrative. According to Smith and Worch, environmental storytelling “fundamentally integrates player perception and active problem solving, which builds investment.”

So a central question of the narrative is to create a desire in the player to find out “What happened here?” But all players may not answer the question the same way – clues left in game environments can be interpreted differently. Why is interpretation more compelling than exposition? Smith asks then answers the question:

What that really comes down to is the fact that environmental storytelling is active. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget showed that play, discovery and interaction are key to learning. This active approach to learning creates participation, which breeds investment. Students and players alike bring their own experiences, so the act of interpretation gains personal meaning.

“Active” also means that the story isn’t shoved down the player’s throat – quite the opposite, discovery is self-paced. The player is pulling the narrative. This leads to a familiar world, which is self-reinforced, more complete, and more immersive.

The concept behind this is the Law of Closure. As humans we have an innate need to categorize and fit visual elements into a larger framework. To do so, we draw conclusions. Scott McCloud applied this concept to visual storytelling in “Understanding Comics”: “What’s important is what happens between the panels.”

Smith and Worch urge developers who are creating a setting to “think about how the elements connect. A single prop can transform the scene … In good environmental storytelling the elements combine to a larger picture, but have individual significance as well.” To keep the story coherent, they suggest having environmental elements draw from the main premise and echo the larger setting. The premise generates the events of the story, and the events remind players of the premise. “Every anonymous environmental storytelling moment wastes the opportunity to say something about the game.”

Talking with Smith by phone, I asked him about challenges and ideas particular to nonfiction settings. I mentioned a few examples, including “Peacemaker,” a game that allows users to play as Israeli or Palestinian leaders, requiring them to manage an escalating crisis. Smith was not familiar with the game but said that factional setups might be ideal for generating powerful narratives: “That strikes me as a really great way to give them an implicit understanding of why the conflict exists and what the motives are. It’s sort of a stealth way of putting a player in the shoes of another faction that they normally might pass judgment on and not understand at all.”

He repeatedly noted the difference between a “push narrative” and a “pull narrative” – both of which are embedded in a story but unfold very differently.

If you walk into a room and a character pops up and says, “Hi, I’m going to be your ally, and I’m at the edge of this ruined city, and I’ve been trading with these people. If you take this gem over to the edge of the city, I’ll give you some gold,” that’s an embedded narrative.

But you can also embed narrative not in a push way, but in a pull way. If I leave a body in a cave and put some monsters in the cave wandering around, some rocks on the ground near the body, and a  hole in the ceiling with a shaft of light coming down, and the body has prospector gear, things that you might find on a miner, the player might look at that and say, “Oh, this guy was mining, and he fell through the hole and they killed him. I might need that equipment.” That’s still embedded narrative; the designer still places those elements. But instead of the designer pushing it to you through a conversation, you pull it from the environment yourself.  You walk past it, you observe the scene, and you infer what happened. Or you might miss it. That’s the thing.

Discussing the temptation to prioritize newsworthy elements in a nonfiction game and force viewers to encounter them in a certain way, Smith noted that there’s a tradeoff. You may want to herd players through certain experiences, but it often works best if you let them get there themselves. He explains:

That’s the classic insecurity of interactivity: Things might go badly. If you set up some systems where the player can’t fail, and everything is very protected, it’s not a game anymore. It’s boring, in fact. It has to be possible to make bad decisions in order to make the good decisions meaningful. It has to be possible to miss some things to make finding them meaningful. You have to trust your players. Depending on execution, you can be successful at providing those details to the player while making it likely that they’ll find them.

Sid Meier is one of my heroes, and he says, “A game is a series of interesting decisions,” or something to that effect. I would add to that: a game is a series of interesting decisions in an emotionally meaningful context or situation. You can do a lot with a little. You don’t have to simultaneously make the most elegant artful, state-of-the-art game ever and also get your point across. The main reason for trying to adhere to some of this is that the experience is more powerful. The more it feels interactive, that the player authored it based on the outcome, the more powerful and memorable it is.

For more, see the full presentation, which includes images from games such as “Doom” and “Bioshock.” It’s not particularly graphic but might not be ideal for the tenderhearted.

January 03 2011

17:41

Nonny de la Peña on “Gone Gitmo,” Stroome and the future of interactive storytelling

I recently talked about journalism and storytelling with Nonny de la Peña, who is a senior research fellow in immersive journalism at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism, where she explores 3-D environments for news, nonfiction and documentary. She is also co-founder of Stroome.com, a community that allows online collaborative remixing of visual journalism. A graduate of Harvard University with 20 years of news experience, de la Peña is a former correspondent for Newsweek Magazine and has written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times Magazine and many other publications. Her award-winning documentary films have screened on national television and at theaters in more than 50 cities around the world.

I met de la Peña in London last summer and was particularly curious to hear her thoughts on “Gone Gitmo,” an immersive storytelling installation built as a virtual Guantanamo Bay prison. Funded by the MacArthur Foundation, “Gone Gitmo” was constructed inside Second Life and appeared in prototype at the Bay Area Video Coalition. Users who enter the project experience a virtual detention inside the prison camp, with documentary footage embedded to create spatial narrative. De la Peña and I connected again last month via Skype to discuss her work. The following are excerpts from our conversation.

You have explained that the main idea of immersive journalism “is to allow the participant, typically represented as a digital avatar, to actually enter a virtually recreated scenario representing the news story.” Immersive systems give the participant “access to the sights and sounds, and possibly feelings and emotions, that accompany the news.” How would you explain your main motivation to explore immersive journalism?

Immersive journalism really comes from understanding that there is a growing use of virtual and gaming platforms in which individuals are extremely comfortable with a virtual body. Using that as a starting point, I began to consider what that might mean for nonfiction. In the same way documentary grew in parallel with fiction film, I believe immersive journalism (which can also be considered as immersive documentary or immersive nonfiction) has an appropriate potential using new technologies. My journalistic work has often considered human rights issues, which makes it more likely such issues will be reflected in my immersive journalism work.

However, there are some very interesting questions that arise. For example, does the fact that the stories are accessed through a virtual body mean that they are necessarily subjective experiences? How do we ensure “objectivity?”

Our director of the journalism school at Annenberg, Geneva Overholser, really feels that transparency is the key here. If we can point to our sources, provide excellent research and be open to comment and criticism, immersive journalism can live up to its potential. In a sense, it’s simply about applying traditional journalistic principles to the new technologies.

Your work, as you say, is interrogating the phenomenology of narrative journalism. It seems to me that 3-D animation still presents a barrier to verisimilar storytelling in a way that “live action” or photographic realism does not…

I am not sure that is true. I think that “experience” can have value, especially given stories that are inaccessible. For example, Gitmo is off limits to most citizens and press, so we’ve made it accessible. You can read all you want to about the carbon markets, but when you literally follow the money, does that make the story better understood? And yet, the video released in the Baha Mousa case is extraordinarily disturbing, but when we built our piece in Mel Slater’s lab, that video had not yet been released. I would suggest we did a pretty good job considering that the information came from International Red Cross data and interrogation logs.

Now, what is the role of realism?  If the graphics get better, will the experiences become more comparable to the realism of video now? Mel’s work has shown that the video graphics don’t have to be great to work. Still, the last piece I saw in his lab on understanding violence used extremely good audio and dialogue (as well as very good voice actors). In terms of current technology, one thing I can say: If the audio is bad, forget it.

Yet that exact same premise holds true in documentary filmmaking. If you have bad lighting but good audio, the drama can still be pronounced. Without good audio, even the best sequences can fail.

So orality and sound still play a major role in storytelling…

Yes.

Are you concerned by the possible ethical implications? The proximity with video games, even serious games, the connotations of 3-D animation…

I am always concerned about ethical implications. I think the history of the use of propaganda makes it clear that we have to be ever vigilant.

I’m thinking of the widespread discourse of the first-person shooter for instance, in video games. Will people want to be in the place of the perpetrators? How would a journalist go about that, how to control the script?

I have gotten a lot of pushback on the Gitmo piece that we did not tell the story of the soldiers there. But as studies like the Stanford Prison Experiment make clear, giving people the role of the soldier can create some pretty intense scenarios. We decided it wasn’t appropriate for this project although we would be absolutely happy to have their experiences recounted in some way on the site. I would agree that the first-person shooter has to be considered carefully and ethically, but it would be a knee-jerk reaction to just shut down this avenue of storytelling based on that issue. For example, check out what happened with the Columbine game at Slamdance.

Would you say that in these exercises of immersive journalism or storytelling, the user, though he or she experiences situations physically, retains a level of passivity?

Very good question. The fact the user can move through the story raises a lot of issues. I have an earlier paper, when I was just starting to sort out the ideas about immersive journalism, which discusses such passive moments as the “embodied edit.” In “Gitmo,” that would be when we move the user along the “story” by teleporting them from place to place within the build. However, there are many moments when the user makes the decision where to go; still, they are within the context of the “news report” that is clearly consistent with reading about a story or watching it on TV.

A key aspect of your immersive journalism project is the blurring of boundaries between different fields, and one of the main elements in immersive experiences may be what you called the embodied edit. And Stroome allows users to remix, which is a form of editing…

Yes, considering how stories can be told differently in this new wave of technology. I consider immersive journalism still under development, but Stroome is about trying to give users a way to start telling stories today, collaboratively, journalistically and from different perspectives. For example, rather than write a letter to an editor or call up a TV station to dispute veracity, the audience member could just remix the story, telling it the way they see it.

Do you think that’s where journalism is headed, to giving users/readers the tools to re-tell the stories?

Once again, I quote Geneva (although I understand she borrowed it as well): The group formerly known as the audience, they are participants. Whether as sophisticated producers of content, or if they commit an “act of journalism” by capturing key footage on cell phones, Stroome supports both approaches.

How receptive do you think the major players in journalism are to this new form of storytelling, one open to empowering “the group formerly known as the audience”?

I think they are finding it very difficult. Even J-schools. I heard one major dean complain: “We are training professional journalists, not citizen journalists!” So they still aren’t recognizing how much this has all blurred. However, as Julian Assange explains in the “Wiki Rebels” documentary, at first he turned all of the data loose hoping that it would get vetted by the public, but ended up having to turn to journalists to analyze and distill and present to the public. However, what we are offering at Stroome offers really nice pillars of ways to collaborate and support. It is designed to consider how content is discoverable and not overwhelming.

And it is curated by a community and enabled by a specific platform…

Yes.

So, what you are suggesting is an important redefinition of the role of the nonfiction storyteller and therefore of the press…

Yes. In some ways both ends of the spectrum achieving the same goal. In one, similar editorial control present with news orgs now comes with having to design and build a 3-D immersive space. In the other, Stroome opens the landscape to all. Yet both focus on user participation with journalism that is unique to our technological present.

Where do you see written journalism going in this landscape?

We will always need good analysis.

Perhaps as ancillary material for the immersive or audiovisual experiences?

Yes, I agree. And sometimes the immersive component will be ancillary to the text.

—–

[Ernesto Priego is researching comics and narrative as a Ph.D. candidate in information studies in the U.K. at University College London. He has written previously for Nieman Storyboard on the death of Harvey Pekar, manga memoir and on comics as narrative journalism.]

June 16 2010

18:30

Announcing the 2010 Knight News Challenge winners: Visuals are hot, and businesses are big winners

They started out last year as a crowded field of hopefuls from around the world, each dreaming of a chance to perform under the big lights. Over months, their numbers dwindled as the level of competition rose; each successive round brought new disappointment to those eliminated and new hope to those left in the running. And now, whittled down to an elite few, they’re ready for the global stage.

Okay, I’m giving myself a yellow card: So maybe the World Cup isn’t the perfect metaphor for the Knight News Challenge. But the News Challenge is the closest thing the future-of-news space has to a World Cup, and while this year’s 12 winners — just announced at MIT — won’t be forced to battle each other for global supremacy, they do represent the top of a sizable pyramid of applicants — nearly 2,500 in all. You can judge for yourself which ones are Brazil and Germany and which are New Zealand and North Korea.

I’ve got information on all the winners below, but first a few observations:

Visuals seem to be this year’s theme: lots of projects about things like mapping, data visualization, video editing, and games inspired by editorial cartoons. Just one winner focuses on the business-model end of the equation (Windy Citizen’s real-time ads).

— This year’s new grants total $2.74 million. That’s up from last year’s total of $1.96 million, but still down substantially from the really big checks Knight was writing in the first two years of the News Challenge ($11.7 million in 2007, $5.5 million in 2008). The number of grantees is also up a bit from 2009 but well below earlier years (26 in 2007, 16 in 2008, 9 in 2009, 12 this year).

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Knight’s overall commitment has decreased over time. Many of its grants are distributed over multiple years, so some of those early commitments are still being in force.

— Despite extending this cycle’s application deadline in part to encourage more international applicants, the winners are quite domestic — 11 American winners out of 12. In 2008, there were six international winners, and last year there were two projects that, while technically based in the U.S., were internationally focused — Ushahidi and Mobile Media Toolkit. (You could argue that this year’s One-Eight should count as international, since it’s about covering Afghanistan, but through collaboration with the U.S. military. And while Tilemapping will focus on Washington, D.C., a version of its software was used after the Haiti earthquake.)

That said, the deadline extension was also about reaching out for other kinds of diversity, and that happened in at least one way: Knight reports that nearly half of this year’s winners are private companies, up from 15 percent in 2009. That’s despite Knight’s elimination of a separate category for commercial applicants last cycle.

Below are all the winners — congratulations to one and all, and my sympathies to the thousands eliminated along the way. In the coming days, we’ll have profiles of all of the winners and their projects. In the meantime, for context, you can also read all we wrote about last year’s News Challenge and what we’ve written so far about this cycle.

CityTracking

The winner: Eric Rodenbeck of Stamen Design

The amount: $400,000

The pitch: “To make municipal data easy to understand, CityTracking will allow users to create embeddable data visualizations that are appealing enough to spread virally and that are as easy to share as photos and videos. The dynamic interfaces will be appropriate to each data type, starting with crime and working through 311 calls for service, among others. The creators will use high design standards, making the visuals beautiful as well as useful.”

The Cartoonist

The winner: Ian Bogost of Georgia Tech and Michael Mateas of UC Santa Cruz

The amount: $378,000

The pitch: “To engage readers in the news, this project will create a free tool that produces cartoon-like current event games — the game equivalent of editorial cartoons. The simplified tools will be created with busy journalists and editors in mind, people who have the pulse of their community but don’t have a background in game development. By answering a series of questions about the major actors in a news event and making value judgments about their actions, The Cartoonist will automatically propose game rules and images. The games aim to help the sites draw readers and inspire them to explore the news.”

Local Wiki

The winner: Philip Neustrom and Mike Ivanov of DavisWiki.org

The amount: $350,000

The pitch: “Based on the successful DavisWiki.org in Davis, Calif., this project will create enhanced tools for local wikis, a new form of media that makes it easy for people to learn and share their own unique community knowledge. Members will be able to post articles about anything they like, edit others and upload photos and files. This grant will help create the specialized open-source software that makes the wiki possible and help communities develop, launch and sustain local wiki projects.”

WindyCitizen’s Real Time Ads

The winner: Brad Flora of WindyCitizen.com

The amount: $250,000

The pitch: “As a way to help online startups become sustainable, this project will develop an improved software interface to help sites create and sell what are known as real-time ads. These ads are designed to be engaging as they constantly change showing the latest message or post from the advertisers Twitter account, Facebook page or blog. Challenge winner Brad Flora helped pioneer the idea on his Chicago news site, WindyCitizen.com.”

GoMap Riga

The winner: Marcis Rubenis and Kristofs Blaus

The amount: $250,000

The pitch: “To inspire people to get involved in their community, this project will create a live, online map with local news and activities. GoMap Riga will pull some content from the Web and place it automatically on the map. Residents will be able to add their own news, pictures and videos while discussing what is happening around them. GoMap Riga will be integrated with the major existing social networks and allow civic participation through mobile technology. The project will be tested in Riga, Latvia, and ultimately be applicable in other cities.”

Order in the Court 2.0

The winner: John Davidow of WBUR

The amount: $250,000

The pitch: “To foster greater access to the judicial process, this project will create a laboratory in a Boston courtroom to help establish best practices for digital coverage that can be replicated and adopted throughout the nation. While the legislative and executive branches have incorporated new technologies and social media, the courts still operate under the video and audio recording standards established in the 1970s and ’80s. The courtroom will have a designated area for live blogging via a Wi-Fi network and the ability to live-stream court proceedings to the public. Working in conjunction with the Massachusetts court system, the project will publish the daily docket on the Web and build a knowledge wiki for the public with common legal terms.”

Porch Forum

The winner: Michael Wood-Lewis of Front Porch Forum

The amount: $220,000

The pitch: “To help residents connect with others and their community, this grant will help rebuild and enhance a successful community news site, expand it to more towns and release the software so other organizations, anywhere can use it. The Front Porch Forum, a virtual town hall space, helps residents share and discuss local news, build community and increase engagement. The site, currently serving 25 Vermont towns, will expand to 250.”

One-Eight

The winner: Teru Kuwayama

The amount: $202,000

The pitch: “Broadening the perspectives that surround U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, this project will chronicle a battalion by combining reporting from embedded journalists with user-generated content from the Marines themselves. The troops, recently authorized to use social media while deployed, and their families will be key audiences for the online journal steering, challenging and augmenting the coverage with their feedback. The approach will directly serve the stakeholders and inform the wider public by bringing in on-the-ground views on military issues and the execution of U.S. foreign policy.”

Stroome

The winner: USC Annenberg’s Nonny de la Peña and Tom Grasty

The amount: $200,000

The pitch: “To simplify the production of news video, Stroome will create a virtual video-editing studio. There, correspondents, editors and producers will be able to upload and share content, edit and remix with friends and colleagues — all without using expensive satellite truck technology. The site will launch as eyewitness video — often captured by mobile phones or webcams — is becoming a key component of news coverage, generating demand for supporting tools.”

CitySeed

The winner: Arizona State’s Retha Hill and Cody Shotwell

The amount: $90,000

The pitch: “To inform and engage communities, CitySeed will be a mobile application that allows users to plant the ’seed’ of an idea and share it with others. For example, a person might come across a great spot for a community garden. At that moment, the person can use the CitySeed app to geotag the idea, which links it to an exact location. Others can look at the place-based ideas, debate and hopefully act on them. The project aims to increase the number of people informed about and engaged with their communities by breaking down community issues into bite-size settings.”

StoryMarket

The winner: Jake Shapiro of PRX

The amount: $75,000

The pitch: “Building on the software created by 2008 challenge winner Spot.us, this project will allow anyone to pitch and help pay to produce a story for a local public radio station. When the amount is raised (in small contributions), the station will hire a professional journalist to do the report. The project provides a new way for public radio stations to raise money, produce more local content and engage listeners.”

Tilemapping

The winner: Eric Gundersen of Development Seed

The amount: $74,000

The pitch: “To inspire residents to learn about local issues, Tilemapping will help local media create hyper-local, data-filled maps for their websites and blogs. Journalists will be able to tell more textured stories, while residents will be able to draw connections to their physical communities in new ways. The tools will be tested in Washington, D.C. Ushahidi, a 2009 Knight News Challenge winner, used a prototype after the earthquake in Haiti to create maps used to crowdsource reports on places needing aid.”

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