Auf der Trauminsel der Bibliotheken: Bibliothekskongress Leipzig

I’ll be at next month’s Bibliothekskongress in Leipzig, a gathering of German-speaking librarians and information professionals. If you’re attending, come say hello and talk Library Island – or catch me online.

Ändern sich Bibliotheken zu schnell oder nicht schnell genug?

Was bieten wir einer Welt, die sich schnell und radikal zu verändern scheint?

Wie sieht gute Führung in der Bibliothek des 21. Jahrhunderts aus?

Wie können wir für Zeiten der Veränderung planen?

Um antworten zu finden, besuchen Sie Library Island.

Library Island simuliert fünf Jahre im Leben von Bibliotheken in einem kleinen Land. Die Spieler übernehmen die Rolle von Bibliothekaren, Regierungs- und Gemeindemitgliedern.

Die Spieler verhandeln politische Konflikte und soziale Herausforderungen (oder sogar Naturkatastrophen!) und passen das Spiel dann an ihre eigenen lokalen Probleme.

Es ist ein einfaches Spiel, das nur mit Papier und Stiften gespielt wird, aber es ermöglicht den Spielern, komplexe Szenarien und unbequeme Themen zu besprechen.

Ich habe Library Island entwickelt, um Organisationen zu unterstützen, ihre Vision und Mission für die Zukunft zu definieren und umzusetzen. Library Island schafft Raum für die Erkundung einer ungewissen oder schwierigen Zukunft und hilft Mitarbeitern, Führungskräften und Trägern einen strategischen Standpunkt zu entwickeln.

Man kann Library Island als eigenständigen Workshop oder als Teil eines umfassenderen strategischen Prozesses nutzen. Es ist spielerisch, belebend, zum Nachdenken anregend und macht sogar Spaß!

Learn more about Library Island here.

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).

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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.

What exactly is Library Island anyway?

I’ve spent a fair chunk of the last two years working on something called “Library Island”. You might have seen photos, videos, or social media posts appearing online as university staff, health workers, museum professionals, students, and, yes, librarians take part in this interactive training activity.

Later this year, a free CC-licensed print-and-play kit for Library Island will be released, so that people anywhere can take this activity and use it with their institutions, companies, and communities.

But what exactly is Library Island? Read on to find out… Read more

Always get feedback…

Always get feedback…from the workshops and activities that you run.

There’s always something to learn from your participants, something to surprise you, or something to make you smile.

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(That “bit cold” line is about the air conditioning in the venue, not my icy demeanour…I hope!).

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

#NotEnoughSciFi – Hope and Holodecks Revisited

This week in Michigan, I’m leading a series of talks, workshops, and pilot sessions on immersive play and live-action experiences in libraries and other community settings.

To tie in with these sessions, I’ve written a little piece about Hope and Holodecks – incorporating Blade Runner, Star Trek, Captain America….and Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.

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Look, I think one day we’ll get holodecks.

That was what Star Trek: The Next Generation called the interactive, fully immersive spaces where crew members could conjure ultrarealistic, AI-driven virtual experiences of play, sport, storytelling, historical research, or even technical experimentation.

I think one day they’ll arrive.

I think that whatever the library becomes or is replaced by in the future will look a lot like the holodeck. Instead of summoning information in containers like books or web pages, it will feel like an immersive, flowing sensory and social experience.

It won’t be libraries or other knowledge institutions that develop them, though – it costs too much money.

What’s interesting about how Star Trek imagines that experience is not the pseudoscientific technology behind it. It’s how fluent all the characters are in its use.

They walk into that magic space, summon a story or game or simulation, and tailor it to their requirements. Read more

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?

Library Island: The Professional Benefit of Play

What is the professional benefit of play? When is it better to impose an objective, and when should we learn through experimentation and happy accident? How can we “fail better” without wasting valuable resources?

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In this month’s Library Life magazine, I explore these questions through an account of the Library Island project I’ve been developing during my time at the State Library of Queensland.

Could it be that our next innovation challenge is to break down the walls between fact and fiction? Could story-based, open-ended play be as valuable for professionals as for children? Could it be physical, low-tech, and improvisational as well as digital?

You can read Library Life April 2017 here as a PDF download – my piece starts on page 12.

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.

Read more