Library Island Is Here!

Welcome to Library Island!

This interactive training activity helps participants to explore strategy, innovation, and the messy business of working with communities. We’ve spent the last two years perfecting Library Island with university staff, health workers, museum professionals, students, and, yes, librarians.

The free CC-licensed print-and-play kit is now available for download in PDF format. Feel free to adopt it, adapt it, and make your own visit to Library Island.

Read more about Library Island, and what it has done for professionals all over the world, here.

Traditional games, digital spaces: USQ + Queensland Museum Network

In 2017, I spent six months developing special community engagement projects for the University of Southern Queensland (USQ).

I had a wide remit to find new ways to connect with the local community, pilot external partnerships, and encourage innovation in line with a new service model being rolled out across the university’s Scholarly and Information Services division (SILS).

During that time, among other projects, Dr. Kate Davis and I won & delivered the division’s first external tender; SILS partnered with the university’s radio school to pilot podcasts bringing together academic experts, artists, and professionals from across Australia; and we joined forces with Ann Arbor District Library in the US to offer coaching & professional development.

This week saw the announcement of another project coming to fruition: a partnership between staff on the university’s Toowoomba campus and Cobb+Co Museum, the local site of the Queensland Museum Network.

Cobb+Co’s Learning Officer Tony Coonan worked with SILS’ Zoe Lynch and Shane Gadsby to develop a browser-based version of Burguu Matya, a traditional game attributed to the Wiradjuri people.

The game had been available to play in physical form at Cobb+Co’s Binangar Gallery, dedicated to Aborginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Zoe and her team of media designers, invited to explore external partnerships, proposed developing an online version which could be played on devices both within the museum and statewide.

The successful small-scale pilot tested the SILS in-house media design team’s capacity for work with external clients,¬† strengthened relationships between the university and its local community, and explored the opportunities for USQ to enrich the cultural and learning offer for both the people of¬†Toowoomba and users of the wider Queensland Museum Network. The future relationship between the university and the museum will be structured and enhanced by a memo of understanding.

You can read more about the project at the USQ website.

[Re]Imagining The Public Library: Gaming & Makerspaces

Next month, I’ll be joining European library luminaries like Spain’s Ana Ord√°s, the Netherlands’ Jeroen de Boer, and representatives of Denmark’s Dokk1,¬†to help reimagine the future of Portugal’s public libraries.

The municipalities of Albergaria-a-Velha and Ilhavo are hosting an international event focussed on games & makerspaces in the public library, with a range of workshops, presentations, round tables, and lectures to stimulate curiosity and help librarians to start building the public library service of the future.

Join us in Portugal for two days of library adventure on 28th and 29th March; you can sign up for the event via this Google Form.

The In Between:¬†Audrey Huggett on Interactive Storytelling in Libraries

Murder. Mayhem. Family strife. Gateways to other worlds. Stories that the audience shapes, and that might run for months or even years.

In a corner of Michigan, one library worker and her colleagues are bringing all these things to life.

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I first met Audrey Huggett in 2017, while working with Ann Arbor District Library on the Wondrous Strange event.  Library technician Audrey has led a series of projects where members of the public participate in live-action storytelling, ranging from murder mystery to an epic fantasy with cosmic stakes.

Audrey joined me to talk about her work in interactive storytelling in January 2019, just as she was completing preparations for the upcoming “In Between: Quest for the Keystone”. Read more

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 Intercept, spoke 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).

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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.

All Things Good and Strange

I love TV, and I don’t think I watch enough of it.

I’d watch more but it’s so slow*.¬† You can spend weeks of your life trying to hammer through season after season of just one show.¬† In Douglas Coupland’s 1993 novel¬†Microserfs, characters “blitz” movies by watching videos on fast-forward with subtitles switched on.**¬†My friend Katie, equally impatient, listens to audiobooks on chipmunk speed, but I don’t think I could sustain either approach for a full season of TV.

I watch television to get ideas for work.¬†TV shows and community experiences like the ones I design¬†have a lot in common. You need a central conceit which draws people in, and on which you can hang a series of recurring episodes.¬†Action-adventure, problem solving, and play are closely entwined. This year’s non-speaking, musical keynote was inspired by¬†dialogue-free sequences in the TV show¬†Legion.

The teams I work with are pretty explicit about this link between TV and the events we run. The working title for¬†Ann Arbor’s¬†Wondrous Strange¬†event¬†was ‘Weirder Things’.

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Stranger Things¬†is a difficult one for me because I’m not super into it, and that makes me feel bad. It’s so popular, I feel like I’m missing something. Like I’m out of touch. It’s doubly bad because I grew up immersed in – and totally in love with – the late 80s/early 90s world of Stephen King novels and pirate horror movies on VHS.

Read more

The Fall of Box City: Havoc, chaos, and sheer delight with @ChaniTheunissen

A special guest joins us on the blog today. Chantel Theunissen, Children and Teens Librarian, Koraunui Stokes Valley Community Hub, and editor of New Zealand’s Library Life,¬†tells us how she orchestrated havoc, chaos, and sheer delight to commemorate the closure of a temporary library in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Let me start off by saying all of my favourite things I’ve done at work (and in life really) haven’t been planned. Read more

Wondrous Strange at Ann Arbor District Libraries

I’m just back from a week delivering training and community engagement for Ann Arbor District Libraries, an acclaimed public library service in Michigan, USA.

The micro-residency culminated in an all-ages half-day event called “Wondrous Strange”, blending play, history, prophecy, technology, art, craft, science fiction, time travel, and storytelling.

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Wondrous Strange was an opportunity for the Ann Arbor community to venture into an imagined world blending fact and fiction, and to create their own shared stories and experiences stretching from recorded history into the distant future.

More on my Michigan visit soon, but for now here’s a short video from last Sunday’s session.

#NotEnoughScifi: John M. Ford & the Funny Business / Part 3

I started reading obscure author John M. Ford’s Star Trek¬†books recently and I was blown away by how good they are.

I mentioned this online and other Ford fans started coming out of the woodwork:

Then I picked up a rulebook for a roleplaying game –¬†GURPS Infinite Worlds – to research a time-travel-themed event I’m working on with a client.

Of course, whose name did I find among the co-authors?

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Ford wasn’t just a novelist or poet – he also worked on role-playing games, devising scenarios and background material that other people could use to play out their own stories.

The past couple of years I’ve been working on ways to use such games for professional development, so I was pretty excited to have Ford come back into my life so soon.

Not only did he work on Infinite Worlds Рa time-travel/parallel universe setting which, as the title suggests, can encompass almost any other scenario or genre Рbut he created an award-winning caper for the game Paranoia, and a manual for people who wanted to play as the traditionally villainous Klingons in the Star Trek game.

And here’s where we come back round to Ford’s novels, and to the making of fun and brilliant things in the cracks and spaces of big-money enterprises.

Here is where we talk about The Final Reflection.

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Read more

Battle for Library Island @ALIAnls workshop notes

The team behind this year’s NLS8 conference have released notes from my¬†Battle for Library Island workshop in PDF, PPT, and Keynote formats.

You can see some of the activities we used as warm-ups for this creative approach to organisational strategy and vision, plus enjoy video from the raucous, dramatic session itself.

Visit NLS8’s Figshare account to download materials from Canberra’s¬†Battle for Library Island¬†or read more about the game, and the philosophy behind it, here.

There’ll be more¬†Library Island at LIANZA 17 in Christchurch, New Zealand, this September.