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.

img_0170-opt-for-web

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.

Wild play: fun and freedom in cultural institutions

Choose what you want to do … dance, talk, or be lifted up to where you can see how other people make things work. Sit out over space with a drink and tune in to what’s happening elsewhere in the city. Try starting a riot or beginning a painting – or just lie back and stare at the sky.

– Fun Palace draft design, 1961

It’s been satisfying to watch the message of play spread across museums, libraries, and other public institutions over the last few years.  It’s timely, as the entertainment industry, too, begins to explore participatory and immersive forms of engagement. Events like Fun Palaces remind us that play is a vital element of learning and exploration. Play in cultural spaces, public or private, can promote self-directed learning, creative development, or simply the joy of using your imagination.

Now I’m wondering if play could get even wilder.

Bode Miller, American slalom skier

I guess structured or programmed play is great, insofar as it reminds people working in museums, galleries, and libraries to offer more than just colouring-in when they provide kids’ activities. But what that programming mustn’t do is mistake itself for schooling. Play belongs to all ages, and institutions should avoid controlling play to such an extent that it just becomes formal education all over again.

Scott Eberle of America’s National Musuem of Play has blogged brilliantly about going beyond structured play, using the example of “riotous” champion skier Bode Miller:

Raised in rough country New Hampshire, homeschooled in a household without electricity or indoor plumbing, he’s at home in the woods alone with his rambling, original thoughts.[…] Miller’s goal, the personal objective that superseded all others, was to pursue speed and fun. Let the medals fall where they may; winning or losing were merely by-products of this unruly pursuit. Usually the strategy worked for him, but wipeouts, too, are quite beside the point for Miller. (“I was having the greatest time making mistakes, crashing,” he once said.) He has instead set out to explore human capability, gravity, and his equipment’s tolerances at the limits of performance—“to ski as fast as the natural universe will allow.”

Skiing on the brink this way, trading control for fun, he plunges downhill “right on the edge of what my skis and the snow will hold up to.” A brilliant French thinker, the play-theorist Roger Caillois, once looked for a name for this special joy, the dizzying pleasure of swings and roller-coasters and stunt-flying and steeplechase and skiing. “Vertigo” came close. But in the end he borrowed a Greek word that fit better: ilinx, “the whirlpool.”

Eberle’s piece resonates well with a blog post written last year by Anna Cutler, director of learning at London’s Tate Gallery. Cutler argues that cultural institutions like theatres, galleries, and I would add libraries, should not “replace or mimic school’s curricular aspirations, since that is, after all, the specialism of schools and the expertise of teachers.”

She goes on to write:

I have yet to meet a teacher who has said that they come to any cultural institution or event to create the same conditions as their classroom. In fact, they are in search of different and more expansive experiences for their students. I suggest that it is the responsibility of cultural institutions to offer ‘more than’ and ‘different from’ what can be achieved in school, to provide experiences and learning opportunities that can only happen outside the classroom and that support what the teachers do by taking a journey beyond the letter of the curriculum.

The wild ride Eberle describes on the ski slopes, the sense that you can have “the greatest time making mistakes, crashing”, can happen in cultural institutions too. Sport, art, and games all offer opportunities to go off the currricular piste, pursuing instead the dizzying pleasure “at the limits of performance.”

Fun Palaces showed how this feeling of playful exploration could flourish in communities of all kinds around the world, using partnerships to extend the reach and capacities of individual institutions. 2013’s zombie siege in Parkes, Australia – a pretty wild ride in itself – was a library event run together with local schools, cops, firefighters, and student volunteers from Charles Sturt University. This chimes nicely with R. David Lankes’ call for public libraries to “unleash” their communities, rather than attempting to be all things to all people.

So – can we trade control for fun in arts and culture? That might be scary: when we acknowledge that everyone has some creative contribution to make in life, we surrender the old privileges of authorship and prestige along with the old constraints. But even when budgets are tight – especially when budgets are tight – we must take opportunities to innovate, whether that’s  in publishing, universities, galleries, or museums.

What would happen if these institutions went off-piste? What lies at the limits of performance?

Beangrowers, Big Brothers, Time Travel, and Play

I’ve got a few blog posts lined up over the coming weeks. I’ve just met a number of deadlines, and the break allows me to turn some of my notes into text fit for human consumption.

Big Brother Timebomb logo

Raiding TV for inspiration

Late last year, I wrote about using action-adventure stories from TV, movies, and comics to inspire new play activities. I’m a geek for old telly: the shows of the past offer great inspiration for today. The technical constraints and different pace of television from fifty years ago means that heroes often faced perils which are easy to mimic in a setting like a library or museum.

There’s no shame in plundering the past, either. Present-day TV producers do it all the time. Robert Thirkell’s excellent book on reality TV, C.O.N.F.L.I.C.T., tells us how Jane Root, an executive producer with a stellar career at Discovery Network and the BBC, drew on her own nostalgia to create compelling new formats:

You know how we came up with I Love The 1980s[?…We rewatched] The Rock and Roll Years. David Mortimer and I got Rock and Roll Years out of the BBC archive because I’d remembered it from when I was a child. A lot of the younger BBC team had never seen it and I showed it to them in my office and said, “What could we do that could bring this show back?” I Love The 1980s, the hit the team went on to create, turned out to be even bigger in America, where it ran on VH1 for years.

Get Real

I’m also a sucker for reality TV, although these days I find I’m usually too busy to keep up with it. Big Brother, with its cast of housemates trying to complete challenges, avoid eviction, and not go bonkers over ten weeks, was always one of my student favourites. I still remember characters like the drama queen Makosi from BB6 or the kilted rebel Sandy from BB3, a personal shopper who managed to escape from the house over a wall.

People get sniffy about reality TV, but it’s really no different to drama or comedy: you create a format which offers exciting situations, and then set it loose like a shark in the sea, moving forward, consuming new contestants, new scenarios. Great formats like Doctor Who, Family Feud (Family Fortunes in the UK), or Big Brother, run and run.

What’s more, reality puts people who aren’t entertainment professionals in front of the camera. For all that we might deride reality show participants as wannabes, and for all that they’re at the mercy of production teams, those contestants are also an example of the barrier breaking down between audiences and artists.

Bean Brother

When I was an infant school teacher, I worked with a class of thirty kids, most of whom didn’t speak English at home. One term, we had to grow a bean from a seed on a wad of damp cotton wool in a plastic cup. I remember doing the same when I was a pupil. It’s one of those rites of passage every British kid goes through, the foundation of natural science: infants starting to practice taking measurements and observing living things carefully.

I wanted my class’ bean experiment to be lively and fun, so we reimagined our science project as “Bean Brother”. Each day, we’d play Paul Oakenfold’s iconic Big Brother theme tune before bringing our plants out before the class.

My long-suffering teaching assistant would put on a Geordie accent to mimic Marcus Bentley, the famed narrator of UK Big Brother. Our kids would use a video camera to report on their bean’s growth in a “televised update from the Bean Brother house” before drawing, writing observations, and completing their other science tasks. They were engaging with elements of the pop culture that surrounded us, doing serious learning about science, using audiovisual equipment to record their own stories, and best of all, they were playing while they did it. Bean Brother made the daily routine exciting, incorporated modern media both as something to consume and create…and each anonymous bean took on its own life as a contestant for our class to cheer on.

This year’s UK Big Brother is called “Timebomb.” You can see the trailer here:

I’m excited, looking at the iconography lifted from Doctor Who, steampunk, and the Transformers movies. Earlier this year, Celebrity Big Brother drew on the imagery of dark fairytales, but this new series is even closer to my heart. Russell T. Davies’ superlative run on Who already featured a Big Brother episode and now I’ve started to think of the Big Brother house as a TARDIS control room.

I’m curious to see how the Big Brother production team apply the concept of “time distortion” to a reality show. It’s harder to mess with causality in a live production than a scripted, pre-recorded series. Whatever they get up to, and however well it works, I think that anyone who is interested in play, cultural programming, and community outreach should take a good look at what Big Brother producers Endemol are up to this year.

Read more about the new UK Big Brother at Digital Spy, and to see what a time travel themed play activity in a public institution might look like, go check out Auckland’s citywide 2013 heritage programme, TimeQuest.

“You ate my battleship???” – Pub librarianship and tabletop games

Last night, the team at Parkes Library headed to the Railway Hotel for an evening of drinks, dining, and tabletop games.

After chatting with ABC Central West about the project, we invited residents from across the region to drop in and try their hand at some of the games we’ve been developing this year. People could take on the challenge of the Tabletop Superheroes adventure we devised for Fun Palaces 2014:

Library users Jake and Kellie brought in their own home-made game for people to try – it was beautifully made and fiendishly difficult.

There was also a new game, Battle Pizzas, which set pub patrons against one another in a game of wits. The prize? Dinner itself.

You can read more about Battle Pizzas, and download instructions, at the Parkes Dog-Eared website. You can also download the Tabletop Superheroes adventure, which can be remixed under a Creative Commons licence. We played the games in the pub but they’re designed for all ages; we think they’d work just as well in schools, libraries, or the comfort of your own home. Give them a go. Have fun!