Transmedia storytelling in virtual worlds: a sense of location

EIC smallIt’s been a disruptive and disturbing couple of weeks for me at work, as my team and I get caught up once again in the eternal game of musical chairs that the university seems to play. It’s been the same in all universities I’ve worked in, as space management is problematic in dynamic and ever-changing environments like Higher Education. So we’re on the move from our lovely current space, and will end up in a set of rooms that are less whizzy, but will probably be more usable space in the long run. My team and I will have other spaces in which to do our work, but we have had good times in our current location and held some great events, like a Dr Who themed afternoon for school children in Science and Engineering Week in March. So moving is an unexpected nuisance, but hardly a problem in the grand scheme of the universe!

Imber 1 smallA couple of weeks ago my husband and I went to Imber, a deserted village on Salisbury plain, which is open to the public every now and again when the army aren’t practising urban warfare in what’s left of it. And then it struck me what dislocation really means. I’d been self-indulgently worrying about a workplace move; but the residents of Imber gave up their whole village during WW2 to enable army training. That’s real sacrifice; real dislocation. They were promised it back at the time, but that never happened. So now the remains of it stand there, next to more modern mock houses with no windows that facilitate army training.  The building in the picture here was built in the 1800’s according to the date stone, and it must have seen a lot over the years. But the church was my favourite building. Not that I’m religious at all; at least not in the Western sense. I follow the Buddha dharma.

Imber church wall painting 1The church is wonderful though. It is very old, its roots going back to the Normans in the 12th century. Restoration of the interior has revealed traces of the old medieval paintings that covered the walls in the 13th century, and it must have been lovely. Chevrons of red and yellow on the pillars, flowers climbing the walls and paintings of religious scenes for the education of the illiterate majority. I’d love to see one of these old unused churches completely restored back to how they looked in the medieval period. They must have been so colourful – an uplifting place to be. Such a shame that churches became more sombre, particularly after the Reformation.

MAEVW context gallery_014smallSo what has this to do with virtual worlds and transmedia storytelling? Well, a lot I think. It all makes me reflect on the importance of location; a sense of place. As humans, we are very affected by where we are. By our surroundings and how they make us feel. For those of us who have become immersed in virtual worlds, for whatever reason, this is a sense that we are very familiar with. It may seem strange to those who haven’t yet ventured into these environments, or who have had a quick go but found no one there and nothing going on. For me, and for my students and colleagues, the virtual world Second Life is a real place. We meet there, we work together there, we have dances and parties there, we create things together there, we meet new people there; it’s as real to us as any part of the university. And as I begin to put together ideas and find a location for the transmedia story of Watermark to develop, then the importance of a sense of location is at the forefront of my mind. Because it isn’t just the place, it’s what we experience there that engages our emotions, I think. The residents of Imber would have most mourned the loss of their community, which had become inextricably linked to the physical place itself.

So, how to build an environment in a virtual world that will help to engage the emotions of the people who visit it? What characteristics might it have? How can a place encourage socialisation and exploration? What makes us start to care? All comments and discussions welcome!

Why stand up?

wading baboon“Baboons don’t enjoy getting their feet wet. But the banquet of flowers and juicy snails is just irresistible.” David Attenborough, Nature’s Great Events, BBC1, 15th June 2013.

Walking on your two back legs isn’t that unusual in nature. Birds have evolved to do it, most likely from dinosaur ancestors that walked on their back legs. Kangaroos get about very efficiently on two legs too. But it is more common for mammals to stay on four legs, as it takes less balance and generally means you can run faster, either in the direction of prey, or away from predators. Humans are the only apes that habitually walk on two legs, although other apes, and monkeys, aren’t totally quadripedal as they do sometimes stand up and walk.

So what makes an ape start to walk on two legs? It can’t be because it would make them good hunters in the future. It can only be because it confers an advantage at the time. That’s the way natural selection works. And that’s the problem I have with the idea that we began to walk and run on two legs in order to hunt more efficiently. Sure, our large bum muscles do make us good walkers and runners now, but in the earliest days of transition from walking on all fours to walking on our back legs, we didn’t have those developed muscle groups. We were probably as slow and awkward as the baboon in the picture above. So why did we do it?

The baboon is wading through flood waters in the Okavango delta in Botswana, an inland river delta that doesn’t reach the sea. The delta is a large geological depression in the ground and the water, which comes from highlands in Angola, is evaporated in the baking heat of the desert and transpired by the plants in the delta.  Once a year this desert area receives a flood of around 11 cubic kilometres of water. And it isn’t unique in Africa. There are similar inland deltas today in Sudan and Mali.

Suppose a group of apes, some of the common ancestors of humans and chimps, were living in or near an area that was affected by geological land movement. This movement effectively cut them off from other apes of the same species when it became permanently flooded.  The stranded apes would have to wade from small island to small island. Good waders would be more likely to meet mates who were also good waders. Mums that stood up and waded wouldn’t risk drowning babies that were hanging onto their belly fur. Natural selection at work. And we’d be very likely to eat quite a bit of fish and other aquatic food sources rich in Omega 3 fatty acids. Brain food.

It’s not that fanciful, or unlikely. It is at least worthy of consideration as a possible root of bipedalism.

Transmedia storytelling in virtual worlds

dragons in the den 1In my day job as an education innovator, I do a lot of work in virtual worlds. In fact, I’m the director of a Master’s degree that runs entirely in a virtual world called Second Life. Over the past 6 years or so I’ve become fascinated by these environments. They are such powerful places for simulations and role play in almost every academic subject you could think of. That’s not to say they replace activities and experiences in the physical world. Not at all. But virtual world simulations and role plays can help students to have experiences that are dangerous, unethical or just downright impossible in the physical world, but that are valuable learning experiences for their future practice. For example, I’ve led students through very realistic accident investigations in Second Life to prepare them for undertaking such investigations when they qualify. And, we’ve built a dragon’s den where students from a range of subject disciplines can pitch ideas for their assessments. Of course, on one occasion we tutors couldn’t resist dressing up our avatars as dragons for a pitching event 🙂 .

As a writer I’m also fascinated by the potential of these environments for extended storytelling. “Transmedia” or multi-platform storytelling has been around for a while, and has come to prominence more recently with examples like The Lizzie Bennett Diaries, an updated telling of the Jane Austen classic Pride and Prejudice through the medium of video logs (vlogs) on YouTube. The audience can also leave questions for the characters and they answer them in later videos at particular points in the series. I like the idea of including an audience in a story and seeing how it evolves. And I’m captivated by the idea of creating an environment in a virtual world that enables that to happen.

Watermark book coverThere are two stories in Watermark. One takes place around 1.5 million years ago, and one in the modern day. In the book it’s the modern day story that’s developed and told to a conclusion. A conclusion. Not the only possible one. And the ancient story could also be developed in its own right. Because those characters are pre-human, there is a lot of scope for playing with ideas. Participants’ Homo ergaster avatars could roam the shores of what is now Lake Turkana in Kenya, playing out what might happen after Nimue is murdered.

I’m intent on doing this some day, hopefully not too far in the future. I have a good friend who is a great virtual worlds designer and we’re already hatching plans. We’ll have to see how they evolve.