Category Archives: ARG

fifth avenue apartment encoded with puzzles by architect

I was beginning to research an article about ARG genres when I came across this interesting tidbit. Without telling the client, an architect renovating an Upper East Side apartment included secret panels, puzzles, poems and artworks that – when they discovered it – led its residents on a scavenger hunt around their own home.
A frequent topic at if:book is the fetishization of the codex in its irreducibly physical qualities. This project – complete with its own fictionalized Da Vinci Code-esque book hidden in the walls of the apartment – takes this to new heights, while arguably gesturing at some of the elitism (the costliness and exclusivity of the postbit atom) implicit in this fetishization.

if:book review 1: game culture

I’ve chosen ‘game culture’ as the theme for this first review post, for all that many of these posts could just as easily be tagged another handful of ways. But games have always hovered at the fringes of debates about the future of the book.
Consideration of serious video games; repurposing of existing games to create machinima, and cultural activities arising out of machinima. Dscussion of more overtly cross-platform activities: pervasive gaming, ARGs and their multiple spawn in terms of commercialization, interactivity, resistance to ‘didactic’ co-optation and more. There’s a lot here; as per my first post on this subject, I’d welcome comments and thoughts.
In February 2005, Sol Gaitan wrote a thoughtful piece about the prevalence of video games in children’s lives, and questioned whether such games might be used more for didactic purposes. In April 2005 Ben picked up an excerpt from Stephen Johnson’s Everything Bad Is Good For You, which pointed to further reading on video games in education. In August 2005, four British secondary schools experimented with educational games; someone died after playing video games for 50 hours straight without stopping to eat; and Sol pondered whether the future of the book was in fact a video game.
Between February and May 2006 the Institute worked on providing a public space for McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory – not strictly a game, but a networked meta-discussion of game culture. Discussion of ‘serious’ games continued in an April analysis of why some games should be publicly funded. In August 2006, Sino-Japanese relations became tense in the MMORPG Fantasy Westward Journey; later the same month, Gamersutra wondered why there weren’t any highbrow video games, prompting a thoughtful piece from Ray Cha on whether ‘high’ and ‘low’ art definitions have any meaning in that context.
Machinima and its relations have appeared at intervals. In July 2005 Bob Stein was interviewed in Halo, followed later the same month by Peggy Ahwesh in Halo-based talk show This Spartan Life. Ben wrote about the new wave of machinima and its relatives in December 2005, following this up with a Grand Text Auto call for scholarly papers in January 2006, and a vitriolic denunciation of the intersection between machinima, video gaming, and the virtualization of war (May 2006). In September 2006 McKenzie Wark was interviewed about Gamer Theory in Halo. Then, in October 2007, Chris mentioned the first machinima conference to be held in Europe.
Pervasive gaming makes its first appearance in a September 2006 mention of the first Come Out And Play festival (the 2008 one just wrapped up in NY last weekend). It’s interesting to note how the field has evolved since 2006: where pervasive gaming felt relatively indie in 2006, this year ARG superstar Jane McGonigal brought The Lost Game, part of The Lost Ring, her McDonalds-sponsored Olympic Games ARG
Earlier, overlap between pervasive gaming, ARGs and hoaxes was foreshadowed by an August 2005 story about a BBC employee writing a Wikipedia obituary for a fictional pop star – and then denying that they were gaming the encyclopedia. I wrote my first post about ARGs and commercialization in January 2007, following this with another about ARGs and player interaction in March. The same month, Ben and I got excited about the launch of McGonigal’s World Without Oil, which looked to bring together themes of ‘serious’ and pervasive gaming – but turned out, as Ben and my conversation (posted May 2006) to be rather pious and lacking in narrative.
Since then, both marketing and educational breeds of ARG have spread, as attested by Penguin’s WeTellStories (trailed February, launched March 2008), and the announcement of UK public service broadcaster Channel 4 Education’s move of its £6m commissioning budget into cross-platform projects.
I’m not going to attempt a summary of the above, except to say that everything and nothing has changed: cross-platform entertainment has edged towards the mainstream, didactic games continue to plow their furrow at the margins of the vast gaming industry, and commercialization is still a contentious topic. It’s not clear whether gaming has come closer to being accepted alongside cinema as a significant art form, but its vocabularies have – as McKenzie Wark’s book suggested – increasingly bled into many aspects of contemporary culture, and will no doubt continue to do so.

this is a game. no really, it is

looking for headless
This morning, I received an envelope through the post. It contained two chapters of a pulp murder mystery, along with an invitation to a private gathering with the same title as the booklets: Looking For Headless. The gathering will take place in an anonymous City of London complex of rooms for hire by the hour.
It feels like the rabbit hole for a promising ARG. The accompanying letter describes how Georges Bataille formed a secret society, Acéphale, in 1938. Now, in 2008, two Swedish artists have discovered a Bahamas-based offshore company named Headless, which they have been investigating for the last year. At the meeting, I presume, I and the other invitees (whoever they are) will learn more.
A key characteristic of an ARG is the convention ‘This Is Not A Game’. Puppetmasters work to sustain the illusion that the game’s elements are part of the ‘real’ world – that’s a real person who emailed you, this is a real corporate website. Though players know the game is a game, there’s stil a thrill at the edges: should I phone that company, is it in-game, will I just get some confused receptionist? What’s real, who is complicit? But here the program is running backwards. Headless is, in fact, real. Owned by the Sovereign Trust Gibraltar. Little other information is available. Goldin+Senneby, the artist duo behind the project, state that they are interested in business as fiction, and in acts of withdrawal perpetrated through corporate structures.
ARG-like, the edge is ambiguous. The art-world jargon the artists use to discuss the project feels – perhaps deliberately – like yet another act of withdrawal. The two chapters of ‘Looking for Headless’ I received contain real transcripts of real detective reports, use the real names of real people, are authored by a real person – John Barlow . Though he has never met the people who commissioned him to work on this project, Barlow has scripted himself into the story. But parts of it are pure fiction. Reading the first two chapters of Looking for Headless is unnerving: which parts of this happened, and which did Barlow invent? In a story about the shadowy realm of offshore tax management, it is hard to be certain. Have the meeting’s invitees, as – it is implied – the reincarnation of Acéphale – Headless – been incorporated into a game, an art project, a work of fiction, or something altogether more sinister?
Today, Barlow left for Nassau, Bahamas to continue his investigation of Headless. He’ll be blogging his experiences here. It is not clear whether he will be blogging factual accounts, or embroidered ones. Or if, caught between pervasive, digitally-mediated self-narration and an emerging sphere of digital storytelling whose core insistence is that a game is not a game, we have lost the ability to tell the difference.

first of penguin’s interactive fictions up

Ben posted a few weeks back about an intriguing new interactive project in the pipeline from Penguin. WeTellStories, produced for Penguin by ARG studio SixToStart is now out in the open. Comprising six stories based on Penguin Classics, released one a week for the next six weeks, WeTellStories aims to create born-digital riffs on classic books.
I played through (‘read’ doesn’t quite describe it) the first of these earlier today: The 21 Steps by Charles Cumming, based on Buchan’s classic thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps. The 21 Steps is told through narrative bubbles that pop up as the story picks its way across a Google Earth-like satellite map, and describes the experience of a man suddenly caught up in sinister events that he can’t seem to escape.
Penguin WeTellStories screengrab
Overall the experience works. The writing is spare enough to keep the pacing high, vital when the other umpteen billion pages I could possibly be surfing are all clamoring for my attention. The dot moving across the map creates a sense of movement forward (as well as some frustration as it crawls between narrative points), and the Google Earth styling is familiar enough as a reading environment for me to focus on enjoying the story rather than diverting too much energy to decoding peripheral material. The interface is simple and tactile in ways that advance the story without distracting from its development, either by offering diverging routes through it or overloading the central ‘chase’ narrative with multimedia clutter. And the satnav pictures add a pleasurable feeling of recognition (‘Look! There’s my house!’) to offset an essentially far-fetched story.
For a single-visit online story experience, it was nearly too long: I found myself checking how many instalments I still had to get through. The ending was somewhat anticlimactic. And though WeTellStories has been rumored to have ARG elements, and is produced by an ARG studio, I did a hunt around for potential ARG-style ‘further reading’ rabbit holes and found nothing. So either it’s too subtle for a journeywoman ARG fan like me, or the overarching ‘game’ element really is just the invitation to follow all six stories and then answer some questions to win a prize.
If so, I’ll be disappointed. But it’s early days still, and there may be more up SixToStart’s sleeve than I’ve seen so far. It’s encouraging to see ‘traditional’ publishers exploring inventive ways of riffing on their swollen backlists’ cachet and immeasurably rich narrative wealth. And The 21 Steps comes closer than most ‘authored’ digital fictions I’ve encountered to achieving some harmony between narrative and delivery mechanism. So though I’m being nitpicky, the project so far hints at the possiblity that we’re beginning to see online creative work that’s finding ways of marrying the Web’s fragmented, kinetic megalomania with the discipline needed for a gripping story.

more compelling than choice

The first two major ARGs to play out, The Beast and ilovebees, surprised their creators: the collective intelligence of thousands of players was taking down in hours puzzles that the puppetmasters had expected the community to wrestle with for days. And in order for the game not to go stale, new challenges – sometimes created on the fly – had to keep coming. If the content fizzled out, or the puzzles were too easy, the players would become restless and lose interest.
I was reminded of this by the recent discussion on this blog about hypertext. ‘Boring’ is such a loaded word; and yet so much of the Web feels, to me, deeply boring. Even the interesting stuff. Internet addiction is all about clicking across link after link, page after page of content, unable to tear oneself away but still strangely bored. Faced with infinite places to go, all content becomes undifferentiated; lacking in narrative; boring. Much like the paralysis consumers face when confronted with 15 near-identical types of pesto, choice of content made as easy as a click here or there reduces it all to a blur.
I found myself pondering easy choice, supermarket paralysis and internet addiction in the context of the exciting promise and strange underwhelmingness of much hyperfiction. Then, yesterday, interactive game creator and SixToStart ARG writer James Wallis said something that flipped the light on. “Writing for interactive is different to print writing,” he said. But this isn’t in the way someone habituated to storytelling on paper might expect. For such, ‘interactive’ might suggest an exciting opportunity to cast off the formal shackles of one-page-after-the-next. (Certainly, when I first came across HTTP, that’s what it seemed to promise me). “When you think of interactive, you think of the Garden of Forking Paths, non-linear narrative and so on. But if you want people to stay interested, that doesn’t work at all.”
Instead, he says, writing for interactive takes a more or less linear narrative, and makes the reader/user/player work it. In an ARG, a crucial piece of information might be hidden behind a login that needs to be hacked; the story’s progression might depend on a puzzle being solved to reveal a code. The payoff of interactivity, the thing that gives the story a hook that it couldn’t get otherwise, is less about ‘choice’ or a pleasure of diverging from linear narrative, than a sense of active contribution to the progression of that narrative. Of course, because an ARG plays out in real time, players may solve things ‘too’ quickly or take the story in a new direction – then, to avoid shattering the ‘This Is Not A Game’ illusion the puppetmasters must create new content to reflect that divergence.
Earlier, in a comment on the hypertext discussion, I found myself pondering emotional involvement – as measured by whether a story can move you to tears – in the context of interactive narrative. Games that eschew development of ‘characters’ in favor of making you, the central protagonist, the ‘character’ that develops. Tearjerking moments in 1983 text-based adventure games. How does a character or situation creep up on us so that we care enough to be sad when they’re gone?
Perhaps it’s easier to let this happen when you’re being swept along by a movie, or barely noticing as you turn page after page. I can’t prove this, but it feels as though having to make empty, consequence-free choices about where a narrative goes next pulls me back from imaginative involvement to a more meta-level, strategic, structural kind of thinking, that’s inimical to emotional absorption. It’s a bit like something pulling me back from an exciting moment in my book and inviting me to contemplate the paper. Forcing me to choose between narrative possibilities, when that choice has (as in the supermarket, faced with the rows of pesto choices) no consequences, and implying too – as the supermarket does – that choice were in itself a positive addition to my experience, in fact undermines my ability to relax into that experience. Compare that to a hidden group of puppetmasters evolving a narrative on the fly to fit around an amorphous, self-organizing group of players, going to extraordinary lengths to avoid rupturing the story’s consistency, and you can see that here are radically different kinds of ‘interactive’.
Making you work for the next chunk of story, or making you the central protagonist. If these are two narrative tools that demonstrably help make stories work in a digital space, are there more? And are they perceived as markers for quality interactive fiction? Or are game-like narratives still considered somehow a ‘lower’ art form, nerdy and plebeian, unsuitable for ‘serious’ writing or consideration as powerful narrative? I would welcome any evidence to the contrary.

channel 4 goes cross-platform

On the subject of major traditional media entities and cross-platform experimentation. Over in London last night Chris and I went to the launch event for Bow Street Runner, an online game launched by UK TV broadcaster Channel 4 to coincide with a major historical TV drama. Players explore 1754 London as one of the city’s first police officers, solving crimes and – it is hoped – picking up some historical brownie points along the way.
It’s interesting because Bow Street Runner is the first game to be launched by the channel, and represents a significant change in strategic direction. Channel 4’s public service obligations were hitherto tackled with the production of ‘educational’ (daytime) TV aimed at 14-19-year-olds and very occasionally, it seems, recorded by teachers for use in classrooms. Having realised that this approach was generating little interest, the channel’s Head of Education, Janey Walker, decided last year to shift the entire commissioning budget for educational material into cross-platform offerings.
Along with showing trailers for the game and introducing us to its creators, commissioning editor Matt Locke described how the channel’s new approach will in many cases reverse the typical 360-degree media approach – create some TV content, then tack on an ARG – opting instead to create cross-platform offerings with TV outputs as one element only. A number of ARGs and other offerings are scheduled for release later in the year.
Though it’s hardly the first time an ARG has been deployed by a major ‘traditional’ media company – after all, the first ARG to have any impact was intended as a trailer for the film AI – this entry into the space by a major TV channel promises to raise the profile (not to mention some much-needed financial backing) for the still very young world of cross-platform entertainment.
It’s early days yet, and Locke was frank about the experimental nature of this new approach. But it hints at a sea-change in mainstream recognition of the relative significances of online and other media – and, maybe, the potential for a wave of new, profoundly net-native entertainment.

penguin of forking paths

Following on last year’s wiki novel, Penguin will soon launch another digital fiction experiment, this time focused on nonlinear storytelling. From Jeremy Ettinghausen on the Penguin blog:

…in a few weeks Penguin will be embarking on an experiment in storytelling (yes, another one, I hear you sigh). We’ve teamed up with some interesting folk and challenged some of our top authors to write brand new stories that take full advantage of the functionalities that the internet has to offer – this will be great writing, but writing in a form that would not have been possible 200, 20 or even 2 years ago. If you want to be alerted when this project launches sign up here – all will be revealed in March.

The “interesting folk” link goes to Unfiction, the main forum for the alternative reality gaming community. Intriguing…

welcome, sebastian mary! (it’s official)

We are very happy to welcome Sebastian Mary Harrington onto the “official” Institute masthead. This is long overdue, and merely formalizes what is already without question one of our most important and well established partnerships. But formalized it is. And we’re damn pleased.
It all started two Octobers ago with a casual comment on a post about iPods and reading. An email exchange ensued and before we knew it sMary was blogging away, quickly carving out her place as what you might call our “new online literary forms correspondent.” For over a year now she’s been writing some of the best coverage to be found anywhere on alternative reality games (ARGs), as well as brilliant speculative essays on the future shape of authorship, copyright and the economics of publishing. (She’s also become a dear friend.) I wonder if it’s happened before: a random blog comment leading to a paid writing gig? It’s a good story in itself, and sort of captures why blogging is such an important part of our work.
Here’s little sampler of her if:book portfolio (running newest to oldest):

Once again, we’re delighted sMary will be officially working with us for part of every month, continuing to deliver her sharp insights and humor here on if:book, and taking part in some of our emerging activities on the London scene.
This is also probably a good time to say a bit more about sMary’s other endeavors. In addition to her work with the Institute, she’s co-founder of the UK web startup School of Everything (chosen by Seedcamp as one of Europe’s hottest startups of 2007) and co-founder and creative director of the cult London art event ARTHOUSEPARTY. You can find out a bit more on our staff page.
Another warm welcome to sMary. You’ll no doubt be hearing more from her soon.

books and the man, part III: the new patronage

In the first ‘Books and the man’ post I took the example of Alexander Pope to argue that the idea of ‘high’ literature is inseparable from economic conditions that enable a writer to turn himself into a brand and sell copyrighted material to his readership. In this post I want to look at what happens to creative work in a medium whose very nature militates against copyright.
The internet encourages artists to give stuff away for free, and to capitalise (somehow) on abundance and reproducibility. Ben’s recent roundup of copyright-related readings quotes Jeff Jarvis to this effect: “It has taken 13 years of internet history for media companies to learn that, to give up the idea that they control something scarce they can charge consumers for.” So the answer, says Jay Rosen, is advertising: “Advertising tied to search means open gates for all users”. But while this works just fine for regularly-updated information-type content, how are works of imagination to be funded? As media professor Tim Jackson pointed out some years ago in Towards A New Media Aesthetic, the infinite reproducibility of content on the web threatens the livelihood of artists and writers to a degree that critics such as Keen believe will bring about the collapse of civilization as we know it.
Keen’s wrong. There were artists before there was copyright, and there will be afterwards. Leaving aside my speculations about experiments such as Meta-Markets, cultural forms are starting to emerge online that make use of the internet’s mutability, endlessness, unreliability and infinitely-reproducible nature. But they’re not ‘high art’, in the sense that Pope pioneered. Rather, they hark back to an earlier period of literature when aristocratic patronage was the norm, and there was little distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art except in the sense of being calibrated to the tastes of the target audience.
I’ve written here previously about the ways in which alternate reality gaming is the first genuinely net-native storytelling form. I complained that this exciting form was emerging and was already being colonised by the advertising industry, through sponsorship and similar. Where and how, I wondered, would the ‘independent’ ARGs emerge?
I’d like to eat my words. Calling for ‘independent’ ARGs invoked the perspective of those cultural assumptions of ‘independence’ that both created and were created by the scarcity business model of copyright. In doing so, I ignored the fact that the internet doesn’t use a scarcity model – and hence that the concept of ‘independence’ doesn’t work in the same way. And internet users don’t seem to care that much about it.
I asked Perplex City creator Dan Hon whether he thought there was a bias, or any qualitative difference, between ‘independent’ and sponsored ARGs. He told me that ARG enthusiasts don’t reall care: “It’s normally the execution of the game that will have the most impact.”
So for enthusiasts of the internet’s first native storytelling form, the issue of whether corporate sponsorship is acceptable (an idea which would beanathema to anyone raised in the modernist tradition of authorship) is completely meaningless. If anything, Dan reckons ‘independence’ counts against you: “There absolutely isn’t any value-laden bias towards indie-ARGs – in fact, if anything there’s a negative bias against them. Many players […] are quite happy to give warnings that the indie args are liable to spontaneously implode just because the people behind them are “too indie”. A quick nose around the ‘ARGs with Potential’ section on the Unfiction boards turns up enough ‘This looks like a dodgy indie affair’ style remarks to back up this statement.
So while the arts world “was divided between shock and hilarity” when Fay Weldon got jewellers Bulgari to pay an undisclosed amount for frequent mentions in a 2001 novel, there are no anxieties in the ARG community about seeing advertising converge with the arts. Perhaps one could argue that ARGers are typically computer gaming enthusiasts too, and if they can cope with expensive Playstation games they can cope with Playstation-sponsored stories.
But. Take a look at Where Are The Joneses?, a collaboratively-written, professionally-filmed and Creative Commons-licenced online sitcom devised by former Channel 4 new media schemer David Bausola. Not an ARG; but a near-perfect instance of bottom-up culture. Written by its community, quality-checked by the production team, funny, absorbing, released on open licence – and an advert for Ford Motors.
If you catch him in an expansive mood, David will tell you that the marketing industry will survive only if it stops trying to influence culture and just starts making it. The flip side of that is that vested interests will, increasingly, explicitly find their way into creative works produced online. And, in my view, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
A glance at some of the scions of the pre-eighteenth-century canon gives a hint at the role that aristocratic patronage played in the arts. To hear some of the anti-internet rearguard speak, one might think that To Penshurst was written independently of the relation between Sir Robert Sidney and Ben Jonson; one might think that the arts has always been unsullied by power; that the encroachment of the the latter (in the form of commerce) on the former is a sign of our imminent cultural disintegration.
But contrary to Keen’s assertion that the mechanisms of copyright are indispensable to cultural dynamism, the English cultural renaissance that gave us Shakespeare, Bacon, Sidney, Donne, Marvell et al was largely driven by aristocratic patronage. Copyright hadn’t been invented yet. And if the world of art and culture is to survive in a post-copyright environment, it may be time to look furthe back in the past than the eighteenth century, and re-examine previous models. Which means looking again at patronage, which in turn, today, makes a strong case for embracing the advert. With the distinctions between brand patronage and creative culture already collapsing, it may be time for artists to wake up to the power they could wield by embracing and negotiating with the vested interests of corporate sponsors. If they do, the result may yet be a digital Renaissance.

of babies and bathwater

The open-sided, many-voiced nature of the Web lends itself easily to talk of free, collaborative, open-source, open-access. Suddenly a brave new world of open knowledge seems just around the corner. But understandings of how to make this world work practically for imaginative work – I mean written stories – are still in their infancy. It’s tempting to see a clash of paradigms – open-source versus proprietary content – that is threatening the fundamental terms within which all writers are encouraged to think of themselves – not to mention the established business model for survival as such.
The idea that ‘high art’ requires a business model at all has been obscured for some time (in literature at least) by a rhetoric of cultural value. This is the argument offered by many within the print publishing industry to justify its continued existence. Good work is vital to culture; it’s always the creation of a single organising consciousness; and it deserves remuneration. But the Web undermines this: if every word online is infinitely reproducible and editable, putting words in a particular order and expecting to make your living by charging access to them is considerably less effective than it was in a print universe as a model for making a living.
But while the Web erodes the opportunities to make a living as an artist producing patented content, it’s not yet clear how it proposes to feed writers who don’t copyright their work. A few are experimenting with new balances between royalty sales and other kinds of income: Cory Doctorow gives away his books online for free, and makes money of the sale of print copies. Nonfiction writers such as Chris Anderson often treat the book as a trailer for their idea, and make their actual money from consultancy and public speaking. But it’s far from clear how this could work in a widespread way for net-native content, and particularly for imaginative work.
This quality of the networked space also has implications for ideas of what constitutes ‘good work’. Ultimately, when people talk of ‘cultural value’, they usually mean the role that narratives play in shaping our sense of who and what we are. Arguably this is independent of delivery mechanisms, theories of authorship, and the practical economics of survival as an artist: it’s a function of human culture to tell stories about ourselves. And even if they end up writing chick-lit or porn to pay the bills, most writers start out recognising this and wanting to change the world through stories. But how is one to pursue this in the networked environment, where you can’t patent your words, and where collaboration is indispensable to others’ engagement with your work? What if you don’t want anyone else interfering in your story? What if others’ contributions are rubbish?
Because the truth is that some kinds of participation really don’t produce shining work. The terms on which open-source technology is beginning to make inroads into the mainstream – ie that it works – don’t hold so well for open-source writing to date. The World Without Oil ARG in some ways illustrates this problem. When I heard about the game I wrote enthusiastically about the potential I saw in it for and imaginative engagement with huge issues through a kind of distributed creativity. But Ben and I were discussing this earlier, and concluded that it’s just not working. For all I know it’s having a powerful impact on its players; but to my mind the power of stories lies in their ability to distil and heighten our sense of what’s real into an imaginative shorthand. And on that level I’ve been underwhelmed by WWO. The mass-writing experiment going on there tends less towards distillation into memorable chunks of meme and more towards a kind of issues-driven proliferation of micro-stories that’s all but abandoned the drive of narrative in favour of a rather heavy didactic exercise.
So open-sourcing your fictional world can create quality issues. Abandoning the idea of a single author can likewise leave your story a little flat. Ficlets is another experiment that foregrounds collaboration at the expense of quality. The site allows anyone to write a story of no more than (for some reason) 1,024 characters, and publish it through the site. Users can then write a prequel or sequel, and those visiting the site can rate the stories as they develop. It’s a sweetly egalitarian concept, and I’m intrigued by the idea of using Web2 ‘Hot Or Not?’ technology to drive good writing up the chart. But – perhaps because there’s not a vast amount of traffic – I find it hard to spend more than a few minutes at a time there browsing what on the whole feels like a game of Consequences, just without the joyful silliness.
In a similar vein, I’ve been involved in a collaborative writing experiment with OpenDemocracy in the last few weeks, in which a set of writers were given a theme and invited to contribute one paragraph each, in turn, to a story with a common them. It’s been interesting, but the result is sorely missing the attentions of at the very least a patient and despotic editor.
This is visible in a more extreme form in the wiki-novel experiment A Million Penguins. Ben’s already said plenty about this, so I won’t elaborate; but the attempt, in a blank wiki, to invite ‘collective intelligence’ to write a novel failed so spectacularly to create an intelligible story that there are no doubt many for whom it proves the unviability of collaborative creativity in general and, by extension, the necessity of protecting existing notions of authorship simply for the sake of culture.
So if the Web invites us to explore other methods of creating and sharing memetic code, it hasn’t figured out the right practice for creating really absorbing stuff yet. It’s likely there’s no one magic recipe; my hunch is that there’s a meta-code of social structures around collaborative writing that are emerging gradually, but that haven’t formalised yet because the space is still so young. But while a million (Linux) penguins haven’t yet written the works of Shakespeare, it’s too early to declare that participative creativity can only happen at the expense of quality .
As is doubtless plain, I’m squarely on the side of open-source, both in technological terms and in terms of memetic or cultural code. Enclosure of cultural code (archetypes, story forms, characters etc) ultimately impoverishes the creative culture as much as enclosure of software code hampers technological development. But that comes with reservations. I don’t want to see open-source creativity becoming a sweatshop for writers who can’t get published elsewhere than online, but can’t make a living from their work. Nor do I look forward with relish to a culture composed entirely of the top links on Fark, lolcats and tedious self-published doggerel, and devoid of big, powerful stories we can get our teeth into.
But though the way forwards may be a vision of the writer not as single creating consciousness but something more like a curator or editor, I haven’t yet seen anything successful emerge in this form, unless you count H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos – which was first created pre-internet. And while the open-source technology movement has evolved practices for navigating the tricky space around individual development and collective ownership, the Million Penguins debacle shows that there are far fewer practices for negotiating the relationship between individual and collective authorship of stories. They don’t teach collaborative imaginative writing in school.
Should they? The popularity of fanfic demonstrates that even if most of the fanfic fictional universes are created by one person before they are reappropriated, yet there is a demand for code that can be played with, added to, mutated and redeployed in this way. The fanfic universe is also beginning to develop interesting practices for peer-to-peer quality control. And the Web encourages this kind of activity. So how might we open-source the whole process? Is there anything that could be learned from OS coding about how to do stories in ways that acknowledge the networked, collaborative, open-sided and mutable nature of the Web?
Maybe memetic code is too different from the technical sort to let me stretch the metaphor that far. To put it another way: what social structures do writing collaborations need in order to produce great work in a way that’s both rigorous and open-sided? I think a mixture of lessons from bards, storytellers, improv theatre troupes, scriptwriting teams, open-source hacker practices, game development, Web2 business models and wiki etiquette may yet succeed in routing round the false dichotomy between proprietary quality and open-source memetic dross. And perhaps a practice developed in this way will figure out a way of enabling imaginative work (and its creators) to emerge through the Web without throwing the baby of cultural value out with the bathwater of proprietary content.