Library Island hits #nls8

My professional development roleplay Library Island visited the New Librarians Symposium at the National Library of Australia last weekend.

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Librarians old and new joined forces to explore their work with communities in new, messy, and productive ways.

Going beyond the vogue for design thinking, the safe, fictional space of “Library Island” allowed us to engage with knotty questions of office politics, limited resources, managerial edicts, and library users who are sometimes airbrushed out of “future visions” – such as homeless people or those whose behaviour might be challenging to staff. Read more

Best #FyreFestival Ever: From Melbourne to Library Island

1. #FyreFestival

So you may have been watching accounts of the Fyre Festival’s collapse on social media.

The much-hyped “luxury music retreat”, taking place on the Bahamas’ Exuma Islands, charged thousands of dollars for tickets. On arrival, festivalgoers found themselves stranded in emergency-relief tents, their luggage confiscated and dumped in a shipping container. By the end of the first day, the organisers had cancelled the event and attendees were struggling to leave the island.

One of the event producers gleefully noted that she hadn’t been made to sign a nondisclosure agreement and gave an account of what she saw as the festival’s inevitable downfall to New York magazine.

Festival organiser Billy McFarland told Rolling Stone:

The Exumas didn’t have a really great infrastructure – there wasn’t a great way to get guests in here – we were a little bit ambitious. There wasn’t water or sewage. It was almost like we tried building a city out of nothing and it took almost all of our personal resources to make this happen, and everything we had, to make this festival go on.

All of which reminds me of a wet weekend in Melbourne.

2. Chance, skill, and disaster

Over the past fifteen months, I’ve been working with health practitioners, librarians, and other professionals on ways to incorporate play and storytelling in their training and development.

As research for this, I took part in a game of Best Festival Ever at Arts House Melbourne in July last year.

Best Festival Ever, subtitled How To Manage A Disaster, is a participatory theatre presentation devised by Boho Interactive. Attendees take on the role of event producers faced with bringing a festival together at the last possible minute, dealing with sponsors, talent, merch booths, caterers, and bathrooms – as well as a party-hungry horde of festivalgoers.

By playing a series of simple games of chance or skill, the players collaboratively contribute to the success or failure of the festival as a whole – firstly as it’s being organised, and then in the latter stages of the game, improvising a response to catastrophic events.

Boho’s team originally created the game to explore environmental science through interactive theatre. The result is a lively event which examines whether our decision-making processes are well-equipped to deal with natural and man-made systems. Playing the game and attempting to run the “Best Festival Ever” forces us to confront the way we approach complex systems with more serious real-world consequences – such as the environment we live in.

If you get a chance to play this one day, you really should.

3. The Road to Library Island

It’s not hard to see how a game of Best Festival Ever – which only takes a couple of hours to play – might have sharpened the thinking of Fyre Festival’s organisers. Playing a frantic game against the clock to see if a festival’s Portaloos get cleaned is a marvellous way of focussing your attention on infrastructure. And a little time playing in the sandbox gives you the chance to prepare for the future – not just for what you hope or expect to happen, but also the catastrophic collapse of the systems you have in place.

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Libraries have proved resilient in these kinds of catastrophic scenarios, perhaps because of their strong connections to the community they serve. Whether it’s Scott Bonner’s team keeping their library open during the 2014 Ferguson riots, or Christchurch Libraries’ work during the earthquakes which struck their city in Aotearoa/New Zealand, libraries have some pretty great success stories to share from times of disaster.

So we spent last year working on a professional development session called Library Island. Our game uses this kind of play-based scenario to explore national strategies for public libraries, the problems of day-to-day library operations, and the challenges that arise when unexpected pressures are placed on the system.

Already Library Island has led to new communications and strategic approaches at the State Library of Queensland, and we’ll be taking the game to both the NLS8 and LIANZA conferences later this year. You can read more about Library Island, and this approach to professional development, in the current issue of Library Life.

In the meanwhile, why not pass some time with the Schadenfreude-heavy story of #FyreFestival on social media?

Perpetual Stage: The Value of Pretend Play

I just binge-watched a TV show; rare for me, these days. I love TV but it’s so time-consuming. Your evenings and weekends just seep away in front of the screen.

But I felt I had to watch FX’s Legion, the show about a troubled young man who may be mentally ill and may have psychic powers. It’s a gorgeously shot and well acted eight-part show from Noah Hawley, who was also responsible for Fargo.

I saw people online complain about the show being too whimsical and indulgent; I’ve seen it called pretentious and precious.

I’m not convinced. Yes, a lot of goofy stuff happens in the series – but I found it easy to forgive, because it felt like the adult version of kids playing with action figures.

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Did you do that as a kid? I couldn’t get enough of it. Transformers. Action Force. Manta Force, even. I played Star Wars, too – I didn’t even like Star Wars films much, but I loved the toys. When I went to hospital when I was about 10 years old, I found He-Man figures in the children’s ward. I’d never played He-Man before, but it didn’t stop me.

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Library Island at NLS8, Canberra

I’ll be running an interactive workshop, Library Island, at the 8th New Librarians’ Symposium in Canberra, Australia, this June.

There will be drama, there will be danger – and the freedom to reimagine librarianship in a whole new way.

Watch this space for more information nearer the time. Or sign up for the conference today.

Tabletop Superheroes Revisited

Here’s a blast from the past – the all-ages Tabletop Superheroes game devised during my Reader-in-Residence placement at Parkes Shire in New South Wales.

The game is Creative Commons licensed and adapted from the work of Cory Doctorow – so please feel free to remix it as per the terms of a CC BY-SA 4.0 licence.

Our version needs dice, Lego bricks, and a tape measure – plus our print-and-cut-out paper figures and somewhere to play the game (back in Parkes, we took it down the pub).

The paper figures and rules for the Tabletop Superheroes game can be downloaded as a PDF here.

Losing control in digital space: Liberact 2016

Last month I spoke at the Liberact conference of digital interactive experiences.

My paper was ‘Play, Chance, and Comics: Losing Control In Digital Space’.

Annotated whiteboard at a Brisbane gym

We explored comics, creativity…and what digital designers could learn from the noticeboard at a gym.

You can see an annotated PDF download of my presentation here.

International Harvester: The Ozofarm Game

Today sees the official release of the Ozofarm game and game development competition for Queensland’s public libraries.

As I discovered on my visit out to the cotton fields of the Darling Downs, digital technology is changing the way we farm. Cows are milked in robotic dairies. Drones are herding and surveying cattle from the skies. Self-driving machines are steering across Queensland’s fields, tending crops and baling cotton.

I worked with Eva Ruggiero and Tammy Morley of the State Library’s Regional and Public Libraries Team to devise a game which explored robotics in agriculture.

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Read more

Fun Palaces Countdown: Role-playing games with Andy Horton

As the 2015 Fun Palaces launch on Saturday 3rd October approaches, Lambeth Libraries are gearing up for their borough-wide, simultaneous 11-venue celebration of arts and sciences.

In the countdown to Fun Palaces, I’m showcasing some of the special guests who are partnering with Lambeth Libraries this weekend.

Last year, at Australia’s first Fun Palace in Parkes, we created a tabletop role-playing game derived from the work of Cory Doctorow.

Tabletop Superheroes was quick to learn and difficult to master, an all-ages Dungeons and Dragons-style game which tied in with the School for Supervillains theme we’d taken from guest author Louie Stowell. You can download it now from Parkes Shire Library.

This year in South London, roleplaying game expert Andy Horton – a librarian at Regent’s University – will be hosting a special Fun Palaces game event at Upper Norwood Library.

Andy and friends will be giving Fun Palaceers the chance to try their hand at a range of role-playing and board games, and there also be a specially-written Dungeons and Dragons scenario for people brave enough to take on a Fun-Palatial quest.

Like Stephann Makri and the #Citylis zinemakers, Andy’s another academic who is partnering with public libraries this October in the name of play, learning, and outreach. Fun Palaces salute you, Dungeon Master!

Upper Norwood Library is a special case among those taking part in Lambeth’s Fun Palaces this year. Jointly funded by Croydon and Lambeth for 100 years, it’s a public library which provides a model for local government co-operation in providing cultural and information services to a local community.

Find out more at the Upper Norwood Library Campaign website. You can also find out more about Fun Palaces at Upper Norwood Library.

Download Tabletop Superheroes from Parkes Shire Library.

Read Cory Doctorow’s latest Fun Palaces article over at BoingBoing.

Dulwich Picture Gallery at Bermondsey Street Festival 2015

This Saturday saw teens from volunteer scheme NCS The Challenge join me and staff from Dulwich Picture Gallery at the Bermondsey Street Festival.

We spent four hours on the streets of South London, playing Comic Book Dice, getting people to dress up as figures from historic paintings, and sharing strange facts about art from the Dulwich collection – like The Takeaway Rembrandt, the second most stolen painting in the world…

The NCS teen volunteers will be running their own, completely self-directed art event, PROJECT SCREAM, in Ruskin Park on Saturday 26th September.

I’ll be back at Dulwich in December for my event Your Mind Is The Scene of the Crime, an activity which invites you to explore what lies in others’ hearts, delve into the dark side of the gallery, take secrets and lies and make them into art.

Your Mind Is The Scene of the Crime is part of Dulwich Picture Gallery’s Escher season. More news soon!

Holes in maps look through to nowhere: Games as criticism

Australian arts journal The Lifted Brow has just published my review of Nick Sousanis’ doctoral-thesis-as-comic-book, Unflattening.

Unflattening by Nick Sousanis

The review is a little different – it’s an online choose your own adventure, which sees the reader trapped in a mysterious library, trying to locate Nick’s book and escape in one piece.

I built the adventure using Twine, the same piece of free software which we used at Auckland Libraries to create our online zombie game City of Souls.

The game marks the culmination of a long period I’ve spent exploring what it means to write criticism of other people’s work.

In recent months, I’ve reviewed comics for academic journal The Comics Grid and New York art paper Brooklyn Rail; I’ve written about Hasbro’s Transformers for The Cultural Gutter, a Canadian site devoted to “disreputable art in all its forms”, and I’ve explored the world of fan criticism together with James David Patrick from The James Bond Social Media Project. 

The Lifted Brow piece is something special to me, though. It comes from being persuaded of Nick Sousanis’ case, in Unflattening, that the traditional priority of words over illustrations is wrong: words and images cannot be explored separately from one another.

Reading the book, it becomes difficult to feel satisfied with comics criticism that deals in words alone. Alternatives like Terry Elliot’s experiments with digital annotation of Unflattening look increasingly appealing; therefore I decided to create my response to Unflattening in the form of a game: a set of sequential incidents which the reader can navigate at will – rather like the panels of a comic book.

See my review of Unflattening over at the Lifted Brow website.