Bandersnatch: Choosing a Future, Letting People Surprise You

Over at The Cultural Gutter, there’s a thoughtful piece about Netflix’s recent interactive film, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

The choose-your-own adventure film allowed viewers to shape the story of a young programmer trying to develop a computer game in 1984. Presented with either-or choices to make via their TV’s remote control, someone watching Bandersnatch can influence the outcome of the narrative – but as the story develops, the choices are increasingly unpalatable and the question of who is controlling whom becomes increasingly prominent.

The Cultural Gutter’s Alex Macfadyen writes:

What watching Bandersnatch felt like to me was entrapment. A choice between two terrible things is still a choice, but I often didn’t agree with any of the available options. There also seemed to be no way to avoid making some of the choices because you just got brought back to them after the other options resulted in a dead end. The writers clearly had a very specific moral direction they wanted the story to go, and the viewer is ultimately corralled into creating the narrative they want.

Part of that narrative was the construction of me, the viewer, as the person forcing the character to make bad choices and lose his mind, but the viewer also only has access to the paths that the writers dictated for them so it’s more an illusion of choice. There is no path that leads to a good outcome, but you have to follow them all to find that out. In the end, I think the only choice you could make that would resolve the ethical conflict they’ve posed would be to refuse to participate and stop watching altogether.

Playing Bandersnatch, and reading Macfadyen afterwards, reminded me of a British Library Labs event I attended a couple of years back.

Jon Ingold, who has made several great choose-your-own adventure games including the subtle and troubling World War 2 drama The Interceptspoke about the relationship between players and authors of such adventures.

Rejecting the language of “empowering players” or “co-creating game narratives together”, Ingold described adventure games as puzzles where the author attempts to lure the player into a trap of their own choosing – a trap to which the player must then find a brilliant escape. The player is never in control of the story, any more than the rat who turns left or right at a given corner is in control of the maze.

These problems of choice and control lie at the heart of the workshops I’ve been running over the past couple of years. To what extent can we allow participants in an event to surprise us?

I’ve devised participatory sessions for literary festivals, conferences, and training events; run live-action games where players must battle zombies and solve practical problems; I’ve even written a book review in the form of an online choose-your-own adventure for Australian literary magazine The Lifted Brow.

The challenge for me has always been – how can you let people surprise you?

Choose-your-own adventures, from Bandersnatch to Ingold’s more sophisticated offerings, are ultimately more like mazes which one can only choose to run or not run. (The promo art for Bandersnatch helps to make this clear).

black-mirror-bandersnatch

In activities like Library Island, I’ve been trying to devise opportunities for people to tell their own stories and genuinely shape the outcome of a collective narrative – the benchmark for this being whether the players were able to do something the author didn’t see coming.

Library Island players have brought fraud, civil unrest, and workers’ rights issues to sessions – helping us to address the most serious challenges to a community within the safer space of a playful, fictional setting. In the very first pilot for the game, a character stole a plane which they had illegally bought using government funds – something I definitely hadn’t accounted for – and an event which led on to serious discussion of scrutiny, oversight, and accountability for the use of public money.

Since then, players have only made the problem worse — delightfully worse.

Games which genuinely let people contribute to the outcome of a story also have the potential to change the way we look at the future.

Too often, when planning for the months and years to come, we see our options as constrained, like the forking but pre-written paths of Bandersnatch and its kin, railroading us towards a limited number of possible futures.

This can sap our ability to imagine a better world than the one we expect, but it can also make us vulnerable to harmful futures we didn’t see coming; financial crises, political upsets, and environmental disasters, for example.

In a turbulent era, finding ways to allow many voices to offer their story and participate in constructing plausible future scenarios help us to prepare for the world which is to come – a world which has not been pre-written by a game designer, and which therefore denies us both the safety and constraint of someone else’s narrative.

Read more about Library Island here.

Play The Lifted Brow‘s “choose-your-own adventure book review” here.

Sunday Read, Supplemental: Dancing Zombie Cops Can Only Be A Good Thing

I just saw the Running Man Challenge video recorded by police in New Zealand Aotearoa this week.

The video is part of a drive by Kiwi cops to recruit more officers, especially from Maori, Asian, Middle Eastern, Pacific Island, and Indian backgrounds.

I did a double take, because the cop who closes out the routine is Sergeant Sonny Iosefo of South Auckland.

Sonny also starred in our 2013 zombie siege at Tupu Youth Library, as an officer who came in to protect a group of teens from an invasion of the living dead.

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Sunday Read: Beyond Secret Cinema

My belated Sunday morning read is this piece from the Guardian on London’s Secret Cinema, which blends movie screenings with theatrical experiences and themed activities:

I’m a big fan of participatory live-action storytelling and I’m fascinated by opportunities to blur the line between fiction and “real” experience, creating events where attendees shape the outcome of a story.

I went to a Secret Cinema event a few years back and was pretty disappointed – the set design and costumes were fancy, but the opportunities to get involved in the storytelling were minimal. I’d gone to see Casablanca and while it was cool to sing La Marseillaise at a bunch of actors in Nazi uniform, the rest of the “immersive experience” consisted of overpriced snacks and a “casino” barely worthy of a student union’s James Bond night. The Guardian piece captures the extent to which Secret Cinema events are now more about taking your money than letting you step into the world of a story.

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Central West Comics Fest, VALA, Parkes Writers’ Group, Sci-Fi and Squeam

Aaaand we’re……back from the long summer holidays in the sweltering Aussie heat! And straight into the whirlwind of adventure.

Saturday, February 15th 2014 is a historic date for comics fans of all ages from across the Central West region of New South Wales – marking the first comics festival for this part of rural Australia.

Australian comics creator Pat Grant, author of the acclaimed meditation on youth, migration, and coastal identity Blue, will be offering workshops to adults and older teens alongside Marcelo Baez, who has drawn for everyone from Marvel to Microsoft, National Geographic to GQ Magazine, and will be schooling us in the ways of comic-book storytelling. In addition, the lovely folk at Sydney’s Kings Comics are venturing out of the CBD to offer their wares to people from across the region – a chance to peruse and purchase the latest comics, merch, and memorabilia without making the epic voyage all the way to Sydney.

More information can be found on the Central West Comics Fest poster:

Information for the 2014 Central West Comics Fest

In related news, I was recently interviewed for Melbournian radio station Joy FM’s Sci-Fi and Squeam podcast, talking about pop culture, libraries, and, inevitably, zombies, with the smart and suave Emmet O’Cuana – you can find my segment on their podcast, from 26:50 on the Joy FM website.

There were also some kind words for Parkes Writers’ Group from 2013 Banjo Patterson Poetry Award winner Jim Cassidy (although I’m not sure how I feel about being compared to Andrew Flintoff!) – you can read them at the Parkes Champion Post website here and see the kind of strange, all-ages, continent-hopping, Barbra Streisand-themed activities we get up to at the group here.

Finally, next week sees my keynote speech to the biennial Australasian culture-and-technology conference VALA – expect Doctor Who references, current affairs, the history of librarianship, and musings on hipsterity alongside the usual celebration and championing of public libraries.

<vworp vworp!>

Zombie column, technology keynote, festive wonder

It has just been announced that I’ll be one of six keynote speakers at VALA 2014, the biennial technology conference for culture professionals in Australasia – you can see more about the event, which runs 3-7 February, on the VALA website.

My paper’s called ‘The Book of the World: Pushing Boundaries in Culture and Outreach”, and the organisers have assigned me to the conference’s publishing strand – so I expect they chose me on the basis of the recent debate about e-books, centralisation, and public libraries in Australia.

You can get a flavour of my views on technology and libraries in the latest edition of the American journal Reference and User Services Quarterly (RUSQ). My guest column, “Less Like A Lesson, and More Like An Adventure”, was written earlier this year and describes the vision behind our original 2012 zombie roleplay in the Australian town of Tullamore. Thanks to the wonders of open access, you can read a proof copy of the article for free here. You can also find the finished piece online at the RUSQ site. (To see how the zombie game developed in 2013, check out this coverage from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation).

2013 has been an incredible – and incredibly busy – year for me, ranging from Foyles’ Future of the Book consultation in London to work at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design in Manila, via library burlesque in Auckland, live-action gaming in rural Australia, and interactive storytelling at the New South Wales Writers’ Centre. I’m looking forward to the coming year, but now’s a time for rest, remembrance, and celebration.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year; see you in 2014,

Matt

A brief round-up on All Hallows’ Eve

I’m just back from Manila after flitting around Australia and the Philippines for a couple of weeks, running various events for libraries and art galleries. 7 flights in 8 days…that’s more than enough!

Zombies are people too - a survivor tries to escape the zombie hordes in Tullamore with a disguise
Zombies are people too – a survivor tries to escape the zombie hordes in Tullamore with a disguise and some pro-zombie sentiments

On the 10th and 11th of October, Parkes Shire Library ran our biggest and best zombie roleplay event to date, working in collaboration with three local schools, police, firefighters, and student volunteers from Charles Sturt University. We had two days of around 70 people taking part in a 4 1/2 hour unbroken zombie-fighting roleplay with real emergency services. You can see video from the news coverage at the ABC website. 

That event was the culmination of about a month’s work creating immersive theatre and learning activities in country libraries; you can find out more under the Finding Library Futures tag at this site. As the zombie dust settled, I spent a week training librarians around the region before flying to Sydney during the bushfires, which give the city a rather unnervingly apocalyptic skyline:

Sydney skyline - image via @peteresho's Twitter account
Sydney skyline – image via @peteresho’s Twitter account

The next day, I was off to Manila’s Museum of Contemporary Art and Design to give a talk and run another day of events. This included activities like making storytelling dice with comic-book panels on each face:

Teens make comic book storytelling dice at Manila's MCAD art museum
Teens make comic book storytelling dice at Manila’s MCAD art museum

The kids were very cool but it was pretty intense work – in fact, just walking down the street was pretty intense! Tho’ I’ve been to bustling cities in Peru and Indonesia, this was another level of wild traffic, wealth disparity, and sheer volume of humanity. Five minute taxi rides generated impressions that will take a long time to process. I felt privileged to be invited to work with the talented staff at MCAD and the youth museum Museo Pambata.

On my last night in the city, I went to a gallery launch but ended up sneaking off with another artist, Leeroy New (designer of a Lady Gaga dress, not the infamous meat one), to see his exhibition Gates of Hell, which I found utterly wonderful:

Leeroy New as Buddha encased in expanding foam
Leeroy New as Buddha encased in expanding foam

Leeroy’s transgressive, playful, pop-cultural take on the sacred had an impact as soon as you entered the room, yet when you ventured beneath the carapace of oozy foam which encased many of his holy subjects, there was a serious engagement with the numinous and transcendent. Gates of Hell reminded me of one of my favourite novels, Toby Litt’s troubling, surrealist fairytale-for-adults Hospital. With its psychopomps and defiantly rebellious bodies, its unyielding but indefinable laws of magic, It’s one of those flawed yet lingering novels – see this Telegraph review for a decent skewering of the flaws – which, despite it all, I can’t recommend enough.

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I loved Leeroy’s work for recalling the grotesquerie of Bosch as much as the claymation splurge of the British 1980s cartoon Trap Door. Gates of Hell marked a perfect balance between pop culture and traditional spirituality, those two rival paths towards a world beyond the everyday. No wonder Lady Gaga had Leeroy make wearable art for her.

After escaping the Gates of Hell, I chaired an evening panel on monsters in children’s literature for the New South Wales Writers’ Centre (you can see a great write-up here from panellist Nyssa Harkness) before finally flying home (my 7th flight in 8 days)…

To recover from all that adventure, I spent a long weekend in a darkened room with too many comics and now I’m back in the game. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s big interview/discussion piece on e-books, publishing, and the future of libraries…

Update: just to round off the festivities on this ghoulish night, you can find a six-minute recording of my piece There’s No Terror In The Carelessness of Flesh online at Soundcloud. Strictly NSFW – an adult exploration of blood, bodies, desire, and dismay. Happy Hallowe’en!

City of Souls: Gaming and Augmented Reality in Auckland Libraries

Auckland Libraries has just launched its first online game, City of Souls – an interactive zombie adventure for ages 14 and over.

City of Souls game
City of Souls – click the image to play!

Written by my colleague Danielle Carter using the free Twine game design software, City of Souls takes place in the same universe as both our Tupu Youth Library zombie siege and the recent Apocalypse Z interactive theatre event in Auckland’s CBD.

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Zombies at Tupu Library, South Auckland

Auckland Libraries' Anne Dickson in zombie makeup
Auckland Libraries’ Anne Dickson led teen zombie hordes against a group of survivors in Tupu Youth Library

Last Friday in Tupu Youth Library, South Auckland, I ran an interactive live-action zombie event for teens on their school holidays.

The ‘survivors’, aged from 12 to 18, found themselves besieged in a meeting room while zombies feasted on hapless victims outside. Teens made barricades from furniture, used library resources to plan their escape from South Auckland, and faced special challenges including detecting potential zombie victims and even wrestling with a zombified police officer!

See the Tupu Zombies on New Zealand’s TV3 News and find more coverage at New Zealand’s Stuff.co.nz website.

The zombies of Tullamore: A library youth programme with a difference

As my regular readers will know, Friday 9th November saw a very special event in Tullamore, New South Wales. Australasian libraries have run a lot of innovative youth activities in recent years – but I think this was the first time that they had gone so far as to summon the living dead in the name of literacy…

A zombie lurks at the windows of Tullamore Library, New South Wales

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