Thank you Forward Slash Story

A few weeks ago, Lance and I sent an announcement to our Forward Slash Alumni. Here is part of the message to everyone:

From Christy: Before Kenya, I reached out to Lance and said that after much reflection I have decided to not continue with Forward Slash Story. I love Forward Slash Story, and it is one of my proudest achievements. I have worked hard to iterate and design an unusual experience for creatives. But as the years have gone by, I have begun to value even more the process of creation too. Lance and I value different things regarding the creative process and so I realised it was time for a change. I said I will be doing Kenya (of course), and I’d like to end with an all-alumni event in 2019.

From Lance: At first I thought I would continue with Forward Slash Story (with Christy’s blessing), but decided that it didn’t make sense for a variety of reasons. My workload at Columbia, outside of the University and personally is taking more of my time these days.

The all-alumni event in 2019 unfortunately isn’t going to happen now, as the financial assistance Lance received from Columbia over a 5 year period has come to an end.

We’ve loved the opportunity to travel the world with you and greatly appreciate everyone sharing their times and talents. Over a five year period we visited 4 amazing locations, challenged each other to make great works and developed friendships that will last a lifetime. We will continue to communicate via email and social media however our trip off the coast of Kenya will stand as our final organising of a Forward Slash Story physical gathering. We look forward to hearing what you’re all working on, finding ways to collaborate in the future and to sharing the journey of making things at the edge.

I have been wanting to follow up with a longer blog post about F/S, it’s design, and the all wonderful participants, team, and venue hosts. The goal of putting together a comprehensive post has delayed any message from me, and so instead I’ll share what I want to offer as a parting gift.

F/S is one of the projects that I am most proud of. It started as an idea I had while mentoring at a lab years ago in 2009 or 2010 I think it was. I said to Lance, “what about a lab for mentors?”. That is how it began, in the context of being a mentor at labs where people who are in the fringes or in a “new” area of exploration are always in a position of explaining what they see to others. It felt one-sided, one-way. I was yearning for a reciprocal environment, where everyone there is nurtured.

A few years later, Lance contacted me and said “let’s do it”. I was super excited. Lance secured some small funds from Columbia University’s through the Digital Storytelling Lab he co-runs. And suddenly it was alive!!

Rather than a lab that focused on projects, the focus is on the people. Develop the artist and you affect all their projects. Build a community, and you affect all their projects.

We put out a call, had a huge response, and selected from there. It has been like that every year: lots of wonderful people around the world to choose from, and many wonderful people not able to come because of our 20 people cap. We sometimes had less because people had to withdraw at the last minute, and there wasn’t time for new people to step in. We invited people to reapply, and a few got in on the second application.

The curation policy I’m guided by includes aiming for Female- and Non-binary identifying participants as well as male-identifying; from different countries; employing different artforms; a range of experience (from veterans to early career folk); people from the locations we were holding the lab; at least one wildcard (which means someone we’re not sure where they fit)…and so on.

Moving the locations to different parts of the globe was important, to help with access. We didn’t have enough budget to offer flights to people, so having the location vary so it is closer and further away is helpful (we held the labs in Hamptons, USA; Costa Rica twice; Indonesia; and Kenya). Some participants, in Scotland and Australia, were able to secure industry travel grants for the lab, which was great.

The Design

I won’t be talking about all aspects of design. I’ll just mention some key elements here. The design began as more top-down, with lots of activities at the beginning, social activities, and play. But one bit of feedback from Gabe I think it was, informed my next iteration. He said he wanted to find out more about the other participants (beyond the social activities), like a showcase etc.

So in the second iteration, I included (among other changes) talks about their practice. No matter what the prompt though, some of the talks veered into showreel pitches rather than peer shares. So something dramatic was needed.

One year, when Grant mentioned he wanted to make things with everyone, I introduced a collective sequential pervasive game. Everyone was divided into teams, and each had to make a pervasive (live game experience) that connected to the team before and/or after. 20 people had to play it, in 5-10mins. So we all went through and played an continuous 60 minute game connecting each others as we went. That was fun!

But then I also turned the talks on the their head and introduced instead “The Acorn Artist”. This was to encourage participants generating interactive experiences that give us into an insight into their practice, through the experience of making together. The instructions are below:

“The Acorn Artist”

Just you and the core of something you want to pass on that others may grow from. You can take us through a hands-on workshop on a creative process you use, get us to experience the way you make, or a project-making exercise. But remember, there is only a short amount of time, and you’re not using a digital projection.

  • 20 minutes
  • No projector or screening
  • Minimal space
  • Paper, pens
  • Other small props you may bring
  • It can involve moving to another location (to be decided when at the venue, not before)
  • It may change according to the context you find yourself in
An Acorn Activity at Lamu, Kenya

There are so many activities that all the participants did over the years, and all the other ones I haven’t mentioned that were designed. But my desire to be comprehensive stops this post from living, so I must let it go.

A final activity I designed that I’d like to share is the one that opened every F/S. With this ritual, I wanted everyone to connect, to have consensual reciprocal vulnerability at the beginning, with objects, gifts, as a revealing prompt, and group shared experience. There is a magical connection that happens when the stranger stories connect.

“Stranger Gifts”

Bring something small of yours that has a story to it you can tell, to pass on to someone — whether it be a stranger on the street, a fellow participant, or even yourself.

Here how it is run:

  1. Everyone secretly passes their gift (wrapped or unwrapped, it doesn’t matter), to the facilitator who places it in a bag. [Note: when people are travelling to a location, it is important the gift is small so it fits in luggage easily.]
  2. Everyone comes to together in a circle. (Only those that bring a gift can participate. If they forgot, then before-hand they can make something, or choose something from their belongings to offer).
  3. The facilitator walks through the centre and places the gifts, spreading them across the centre space.
  4. Everyone is instructed then to take their time walking around and looking at the items. When they feel drawn to something, they can pick it up and stand back to the circle again. [Note: some wait until there are ones left, allowing the crowd to choose for them.]
  5. Once all the gifts are accepted, we then invite people to speak in this order: 1) A person who took a gift comes forward and briefly describes what they think they have, and what drew them to the gift. 2) After the gift recipient talks, then the gift giver reveals themselves. They then tell the story of the gift (and perhaps what it is).
  6. This continues until all gift stories are told.

I pass on these two activities as my last gift to those that couldn’t come to F/S. Thank you to all of those who were a part of this experience. It has been an honour to create for you and with you.

Full lists of participants, and teams, at the Forward Slash Story website!

Adapting the “Hierarchy of Understanding” Method for Games and Other Forms

Today, a colleague tweeted out a call for examples of good onboarding experiences in games. Onboarding is a term that didn’t originate in games, where the term “tutorial” is more widespread. Onboarding refers to the whole entry experience, whereas discussions about tutorials are often concerned with player instruction regarding mechanics, etc. I am fond on the notion of “onboarding”, or to be clear, I’m fond of designing the entry experience. Although, in truth, it is more a threshold experience, as “entry” implies a separation that cannot be upheld by the continuity of your human experience. But we do move through *worlds* all the time. And so onboarding is about designing that entry experience, that threshold between worlds. Today I want to share a particular method I’ve been using the past few years to design onboarding experiences in games, and beyond.

It is a method I came across in 2013, when I attended a lecture by Stephen Cleary held at the Victorian College of the Arts. Cleary is a film development consultant, who has worked on films like What Happened Miss Simone?, and is the former Head of Development at British Screen. I was so taken by Cleary’s ideas that the next time I realised he was in Australia, I flew to Melb over a couple of weekends (I was in Brisbane at the time) to participate in his Structure Workshop at Open Channel. In that workshop, Cleary introduced me to Frank Daniels’ sequence approach (brought to us through Paul Joseph Gulino), which I consider a transdisciplinary method and so have applied in games and transmedia (and I’ll be sharing a new method I’ve developed to take this further, shortly).

It was at the 2013 speech, and latter at that 2015 workshop, that Cleary spoke about what he terms the “Hierarchy of Understanding“. This hierarchy is a list of eight (8) questions that the audience has in their head at the beginning of an experience, and at the beginning of every scene. Those questions need to be answered before they can connect emotionally. Out of respect for Cleary’s IP, I will refer to what is in the public domain regarding this technique, as stated by Apocalypse Films in their writeup of the 2013 event:

According to Cleary, viewers ask themselves these questions, in chronological order, at the beginning of every new scene. It is a subconscious process that occurs in the blink of an eye. […] The screenwriter’s aim should be to propel the audience to questions seven and eight as quickly as possible because it’s there that empathy with the character begins.

The questions in the Hierarchy of Understanding are:

  1. Where are we in time?
  2. Where are we in the world?
  3. What is happening now?
  4. How do I contextualise it?
  5. Who or what motivated it?
  6. Who are the characters involved?
  7. How do they feel?
  8. How do I feel?

Cleary explains:

“Time then place, followed by cause and effect, because it underpins plot, the understanding of which drives intention, thus revealing an underlying motivation and so defines character which allows audience identification with the character.”

Apocalypse Films think through an example with Star Wars:

To show how our brain might take all this in, using these eight questions, let’s look at the opening scenes of Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) starting with the iconic scrolling text, ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…’ Question one and two answered right off the bat. When? A long time ago. Where? A galaxy far, far away. Right. Onto question three. What’s happening is a period of civil war. Four? The context is that a rebel alliance is trying to defeat the evil Imperial forces that rule the universe. Five’s answer is the evil Empire again. Question six? We can’t answer six because there are no characters so far as it’s just been text on screen. Then a space-ship flies overhead and we jump on board.

What I love about the “Hierarchy of Understanding” method, is that it is an audience-orientated writing approach. So it helps you write your film with the audience thought process in mind. It also highlights the need for certain elements that the audience needs to orientate themselves. In this regard, it is in some ways an internal “wayfinding” method. Through the notion of a hierarchy, it highlights the need for certain information to be there before emotional connection can happen. These insights are, to me, transdisciplinary, and so I have adapted the method for different contexts.

The Hierarchy of Understanding in Games

Taking these insights, I’ve been playing with how this works in games. Here is my latest sketch of the questions a player needs:

  1. Who am I?
  2. Where am I?
  3. What can I do?
  4. Why am I here? 
  5. What is my objective?
  6. Who is involved?
  7. How do they feel about me?
  8. What needs to happen now?
  9. How do I feel?

The order of these change according to your design context, and they can repeat or spiral through. For example, here is the entry experience for Animal Crossing Pocket Camp:

  1. Who am I? – Connect to Self (questions to player)
  2. Who am I? – Self in Game (customisation of player-character)
  3. Where am I? (Camp)
  4. What can I do? (this is how to move)
  5. Why am I here? (You’re the Camp manager/also who I am)
  6. What is my objective? (camp managing)
  7. Who is involved? (Slider/K.K., Isabelle)
  8. How do they feel about me? (“It’s great to meet you!”) (“I’ve heard great things about you”)
  9. Who am I? (“enter a nickname”)
  10. What needs to happen now? (“My name’s Isabelle, and it’s my pleasure to show you around and explain how things work.”) 
  11. What is my objective? (“You can set up amenities and furtive any way you like! There are so many possibilities”) (“host guests”)
  12. How do I feel? (“Sounds good!” or “I’ll do my best.”)
  13. What do I care about? Why do I care? (“Tell me, how would you describe your ideal campsite in one word?”) – choice.
  14. What do I do now? (“Actually, now that I think about it…would you be able to help me out a teensy bit?”) (“Why don’t you drive that shiny new camper over to Breezy Hollow and see if anyone needs help?”)
  15. What is my objective? (“Trading craft materials around is kind of how we do things out here in the country. You’ll see!”)
  16. What do I do now? (arrow to map)…

This is just one example of how an entry experience can be examined, and how what happens can have some function on the hierarchy of understanding. But the exact questions, and the order of the questions are not rules. For example, a game or interactive project may begin with a cinematic, which in turn calls on questions from Cleary’s list. So the method is instead a way to highlight the informational and emotional functions of the entry experience. It guides our attention towards the potential obstacles preventing our players/users/guests/audience from understanding and connecting with our work. Indeed, the questions can used as a guide for the design of the entry experience, as well as an audit tool when analysing why your players/users/guest/audience are having difficulty. That is: think about what you haven’t answered, and test whether that is the issue.

The Hierarchy of Understanding in Presentations

I have also used this method when thinking about what is needed in a presentation, a pitch-deck or a project description. For instance, depending on the project, questions may be:

  1. What are we talking about?
  2. Why is this important to you and/or me?
  3. How will I experience it?
  4. What will it make me think, feel or do?
  5. What do I feel about it?
  6. How do I contextualise it?
  7. What motivated it?
  8. Can they pull it off?
  9. What needs to happen now?
  10. What do they want from me?

For me, when I’m asking for artists to tell share their research, I use a hierarchy guide like this:

  1. What are you searching for?
  2. Why are you searching for this?
  3. Who else has searched for this?
  4. How did you embark on your journey?
  5. What did you discover?
  6. How are you changed now? How is your project changed now?
  7. How does this change things for others, or me?

There are many directions you can take this method. But I have found looking for what questions have been answered, and which haven’t, and whether it still works, is enlightening.

The big questions, though, begin before we enter the presentation, game, or film. They’re the kinds of questions I’ve discussed previously in light of transmedia/cross-media promises, and there are others. They’re questions that we take with us to different worlds, questions that are up there in our personal hierarchy of understanding, like:

Will I find myself here?

Am I here?

…and they’re the ones that we ask ourselves again at the exit experience.

P.S. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what hierarchy of understanding operates in the projects you make!

The Link Between What We Make and the World We Live In

“Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.” Ursula K. Le Guin

But what can my creative work do?

First, what it does for you.

It is a creation from you. If it doesn’t match how you see yourself, then fix it. Start making projects that reflect who you really are. That means knowing who you really are, and living it. No more hiding. No more compartmentalising what you create and who you are outside of your creations. Where are you?

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” Mahatma Gandhi

Second, what it does for others.

It works as a feedback loop, communicating to others to either stay naive, to get back in their box, to stretch a bit, or to generate their own worlds. It doesn’t matter what you make, your creative work is doing one of these things.

If you’re not thinking about what you’re saying, and trying to say something with your work, then you’re either helping them remain unaware (and therefore not living their own life), or scaring them to toe the line.

“The quality of results produced by any system depends on the quality of awareness from which people in the system operate.” Otto Scharmer

Third, what it does for societies.

Your works lay the ground for massive change. They can facilitate openness to change on a massive scale, or help preserve the system as it is.

“[I]deologies and political movements which lessen the resistance to an infrastructural change increase the likelihood that new infrastructure will be propagated and amplified instead of dampened and extinguished. Furthermore, the more direct and emphatic the structural and superstructural support of the infrastructural changes, the swifter and the more pervasive the transformation of the whole system.” Marvin Harris

You have been told this before. You will hear this again.  

“As an artist, creator and dreamer of this world, we ask you not to be discouraged by what you see but to use your own lives, and by extension your art, as vehicles for the construction of peace.” Herbie Hancock

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