Digital scholarship blog

73 posts categorized "Games"

02 October 2023

Last chance to see the Digital Storytelling exhibition

All good things must come to an end, no I’m not talking about the collapse of a favourite high street chain store beginning with W, but the final few weeks of our Digital Storytelling exhibition, which closes on the 15th October 2023. If you haven’t seen it yet, then this is your last chance to book!

Digital Storytelling showcases eleven different born digital works, including interactive narratives that respond to user input, reading experiences personalised by data feeds, and immersive multimedia story worlds developed through audience participation. From thought provoking autobiographical hypertexts to data journalism, uncanny ghost stories to weather poetry, steampunk literary adaptation to quirky Elizabethan medical comedy. 

Digital Storytelling exhibition image with art from Astrologaster, Seed, 80 Days, and Zombies, Run!

If you want to hear more about this exhibition, Digital Curator Stella Wisdom will be giving two talks later this week. The first of these will be in-person on Thursday evening, 5th October, in Richmond Lending Library for the Richmond Reads season of events, celebrating the joys and benefits of reading. The second will be held online on Friday morning, 6th October, for the DARIAH-EU autumn 2023 Friday Frontiers series.

We are also delighted to share that there is a chapter about interactive digital books written by Giulia Carla Rossi, Curator for Digital Publications, in The Book by Design, which was recently launched by our colleagues in British Library Publishing. Giulia’s chapter discusses innovative Editions at Play publications, including Seed by Joanna Walsh and Breathe by Kate Pullinger, which are both currently displayed in Digital Storytelling.

Before the Digital Storytelling exhibition closes, we'd love you to join us for a party on the evening of Friday 13th October. For one night only, transmedia storyteller Yomi Ayeni will transform the British Library into the Clockwork Watch story world for an immersive steampunk late event.

Genre-bending DJ Sacha Dieu will be spinning the best in Balkan Gypsy, Electro Swing, and Global Beats. Professor Elemental will perform live for us, and we really hope he’ll sing I Love Libraries! You'll also be able to view the Digital Storytelling exhibition, and there will be quieter areas to explore 19th Century London in Minecraft, play board games including Great Scott! The Game of Mad Invention with games librarian Marion Tessier, and to discover poetry with the Itinerant Poetry Librarian.

If you plan to party with us, book your ticket here.

27 September 2023

Late at the Library: Digital Steampunk

Summer may be over, but there is much to look forward to this autumn, including our Late at the Library: Digital Steampunk event on Friday 13th October 2023, where we invite you to immerse yourself in the Clockwork Watch story world, party with chap hop maestro Professor Elemental and explore 19th-century London in Minecraft. If these kind of shenanigans sound right up your street, then book tickets here and join us!

Clockwork Watch by Yomi Ayeni is currently showcased in the British Library’s Digital Storytelling exhibition, which is open until 15 October 2023. Set in a retro-futurist steampunk Victorian England, Clockwork Watch is a participatory story that includes multiple voices and perspectives on themes relating to empire, colonialism, exploitation and resistance, which is told across a range of formats, including a series of graphic novels (there is an overview of these titles here), immersive theatre, role play, and an online newspaper the London Gazette.

Drawing of a a range of people in steampunk clothing,in front of a London skyline
Steampunk Illustration by Brett Walsh

For the evening of Friday 13th October, the British Library will transform into the story world of the next part of the Clockwork Watch narrative. Featuring an auction of the last few remaining properties on Peak B, and the opening of bids for Peak C, new housing developments situated on floating islands hovering over the British Channel. Leggett and Scarper, the estate agents managing these properties, will also be inviting inventors or anyone with a solution to problems plaguing these floating islands, to submit their plans for a chance to win a Golden Ticket to one of the new homes on Peak C.

Illustration of Peak B property development on a floating island
© Clockwork Watch / Graham Leggett 2023

Attendees will be able to explore the streets of Sherlock Holmes’ London in Minecraft created by Blockworks and Lancaster University, visit the Night Market, have a photograph taken with authentic Victorian Dark Box photography, or a portrait drawn by artist Dr Geof, and that’s before the auction begins. But be warned, buying your way into this real estate dreamworld is not straightforward – this night is a golden opportunity for the Clockwork Watch underbelly of pickpockets, rogues and vagabonds.

Dressing up and joining in is heartily encouraged. To prepare for this event, we suggest reading the Clockwork Watch graphic novels, you can order these online, or purchase the first two ominbus editions from the British Library’s onsite shop. Also check out the London Gazette website and this special British Library edition of the newspaper. We hope to see you there!

Cover page of the London Gazette British Library edition
© Clockwork Watch

02 September 2023

Huzzah! Hear the songs from Astrologaster live at the Library

Digitised archives and library collections are rich resources for creative practitioners, including video game makers, who can bring history to life in new ways with immersive storytelling. A wonderful example of this is Astrologaster by Nyamyam, an interactive comedy set in Elizabethan London, based on the manuscripts of medical astrologer Simon Forman, which is currently showcased in the British Library’s Digital Storytelling exhibition.

Artwork from the game Astrologaster, showing Simon Forman surrounded by astrological symbols and with two patients standing each side of him

On Friday 15th September we are delighted to host an event to celebrate the making and the music of Astrologaster. Featuring game designer Jennifer Schneidereit in conversation with historian Lauren Kassell discussing how they created the game. Followed by a vocal quartet who will sing madrigal songs from the soundtrack composed by Andrea Boccadoro. Each character in the game has their own Renaissance style theme song with witty lyrics written by Katharine Neil. This set has never before been performed live, so we can’t wait to hear these songs at the Library and we would love for you to join us, click here to book. We've had the title song, which you can play below, as an earworm for the last few months!

Simon Forman was a self-taught doctor and astrologer who claimed to have cured himself of the plague in 1592. Despite being unlicensed and scorned by the Royal College of Physicians he established a practice in London where he analysed the stars to diagnose and solve his querents’ personal, professional and medical problems. Forman documented his life and work in detail, leaving a vast quantity of papers to his protégé Richard Napier, whose archive was subsequently acquired by Elias Ashmole for the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford. In the nineteenth century this collection transferred to the Bodleian Library, where Forman’s manuscripts can still be consulted today.

Screen capture of the Casebooks digital edition showing an image of a manuscript page on the left and a transcript on the right
Screen capture image of the Casebooks digital edition showing ‘CASE5148’.
Lauren Kassell, Michael Hawkins, Robert Ralley, John Young, Joanne Edge, Janet Yvonne Martin-Portugues, and Natalie Kaoukji (eds.), ‘CASE5148’, The casebooks of Simon Forman and Richard Napier, 1596–1634: a digital edition, https://casebooks.lib.cam.ac.uk/cases/CASE5148, accessed 1 September 2023.

Funded by the Wellcome Trust, the Casebooks Project led by Professor Lauren Kassell at the University of Cambridge, spent over a decade researching, digitising, documenting and transcribing these records. Producing The casebooks of Simon Forman and Richard Napier, 1596–1634: a digital edition published by Cambridge Digital Library in May 2019. Transforming the archive into a rich searchable online resource, with transcriptions and editorial insights about the astrologers’ records, alongside digitised images of the manuscripts.

In 2014 Nyamyam’s co-founder and creative director Jennifer Schneidereit saw Lauren present her research on Simon Forman’s casebooks, and became fascinated by this ambitious astrologer. Convinced that Forman and his patients’ stories would make an engaging game with astrology as a gameplay device, she reached out to Lauren to invite her to be a consultant on the project. Fortunately Lauren responded positively and arranged for the Casebooks Project to formally collaborate with Nyamyam to mine Forman’s patient records for information and inspiration to create the characters and narrative in the Astrologaster game.  

Screen capture image of a playthrough video of Astrologaster, showing a scene in the game where you select an astrological reading
Still image of a playthrough video demonstrating how to play Astrologaster made by Florence Smith Nicholls for the Digital Storytelling exhibition

At the British Library we are interested in collecting and curating interactive digital narratives as part of our ongoing emerging formats research. One method we are investigating is the acquisition and creation of contextual information, such as recording playthrough videos. In the Digital Storytelling exhibition you can watch three gameplay recordings, including one demonstrating how to play Astrologaster. These were made by Florence Smith Nicholls, a game AI PhD researcher based at Queen Mary University of London, using facilities at the City Interaction Lab within the Centre for Human-Computer Interaction Design at City, University of London. Beyond the exhibition, these recordings will hopefully benefit researchers in the future, providing valuable documentation on the original ‘look and feel’ of an interactive digital narrative, in addition to instructions on use whenever a format has become obsolete.

The Digital Storytelling exhibition is open until the 15th October 2023 at the British Library, displaying 11 narratives that demonstrate the evolving field of interactive writing. We hope you can join us for upcoming related events, including the Astrologaster performance on Friday 15th September, and an epic Steampunk Late on Friday 13th October. We are planning this Late with Clockwork Watch, Blockworks and Lancaster University's Litcraft initiative, so watch this blog for more information on this event soon.

02 August 2023

Writing tools for Interactive Fiction - an updated list

In the spring of 2020, during the first UK lockdown, I wrote an article for the British Library English and Drama blog, titled ‘Writing tools for Interactive Fiction’. Quite a few things have changed since then and as the Library launched its first exhibition on Digital Storytelling this June, it seemed like the perfect time to update this list with a few additions.

Interactive fiction (IF), or interactive narrative/narration, is defined as “software simulating environments in which players use text commands to control characters and influence the environment.”

The British Library has been collecting examples of UK interactive fiction as part of the Emerging Formats Project, which is a collaborative effort from all six UK Legal Deposit Libraries to look at the collection management requirements of complex digital publications. Lynda Clark, the British Library Innovation Fellow for Interactive Fiction, built the Interactive Narratives collection on the UK Web Archive (UKWA) during her placement. Because of Legal Deposit Regulations, most of the items in the Interactive Narratives collection can only be accessed on Library premises – which also extends to other collections in the UK Web Archive, such as the New Media Writing Prize collection.

Lynda also conducted analysis on genres, interaction patterns and tools used to build these narratives.

 

Many of these tools are free to use and don’t require any previous knowledge of programming languages. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but it might be a useful overview of some of the tools currently available, if you’d like to start experimenting with writing your own interactive narrative. We are also very excited to be able to offer a week-long Interactive Fiction Summer School this August at the Library, running alongside the Digital Storytelling exhibition.

For an easier navigation, these are the tools included in this article:

 

Twine

Twine is an open-source tool to write text-based, non-linear narratives. Created by Chris Klimas in 2009, Twine is perfect to write Choose Your Own Adventure-like stories without knowing how to code. The output is an HTML file, which facilitates publishing and distribution, as it can be run on any computer with an Internet connection and a web browser. If you have any knowledge of CSS or Javascript it’s possible to add extra features and specific designs to your Twine story, but the standard Twine structure only requires you to type text and put brackets around the phrases that will become links in the story (linking to another passage or branching into different directions). There is an online version or a downloadable version that runs on Windows, MacOS and Linux. Twine has multiple story formats, with different features and ways to write the interactive bits of your story. The Twine Reference is a good place to start, but there is also a Twine Cookbook (containing ‘recipes’, instructions and examples to do a variety of things).

Example of text from Cat Simulator 3000. 'You dream of mice. You dream of trout. You dream of balls of yarn. You dream of world domination. You dream of opening your own bank account. You dream of the nature of sentience.' Followed by the prompt 'Wake up'.
Some quality cat dreams.
(from Emma Winston’s Cat Simulator 3000)

 

As the most used tool in the UKWA collection, there are many examples of IF written in Twine, from cat and teatime simulators (Emma Winston’s Cat Simulator 3000 and Damon L. Wakes’ Lovely Pleasant Teatime Simulator), to stories that include a mix of video, images and audio (Chris Godber’s Glitch), and horror games made for Gothic Novel Jam using the British Library’s Flickr collection of images (Freya Campbell’s The Tower – NB some content warnings apply). Lynda Clark also authored an original story as a conclusion to her placement: The Memory Archivist incorporates many of the themes emerged during her research and won The BL Labs Artistic Award 2019.

 

ink/inky & inklewriter

Cambridge-based video game studio inkle is behind another IF tool – or two. Ink is the scripting language used to author many of inkle’s videogames – the idea behind it is to mark up “pure-text with flow in order to produce interactive scripts”. It doesn’t require any programming knowledge and the resulting scripts are relatively easy to read. Inky is the editor to write ink scripts in – it’s free to download and lets you test your narrative as you write it. Once you’re happy with your story, you can export it for the web, as well as a JSON file. There’s a quick tutorial to walk you through the basics, as well as a full manual on how to write in ink. ink was also used to write 80 Days, another work collected by the British Library as part of the emerging formats project and currently exhibited as part of the Digital Storytelling exhibition.

A side by side showing the back end and front end of what writing in ink looks like.
A page from 80 Days, written using ink. To read in full detail, please click on the image.

 

inklewriter is an open-source, ready-to-use, browser-based IF “sketch-pad”. It is meant to be used to sketch out narratives more than to author fully-developed stories. There is no download required and the fact that it is a simple and straightforward tool to experiment with IF makes it a good fit for educators. Tutorials are included within the platform itself so that you can learn while you write.

This year’s Interactive Fiction Summer School at the British Library will teach attendees how to write interactive fiction using ink, with a focus on dialogue and writing with the player in mind. Dr. Florencia Minuzzi will lead the 5-day course, together with a number of guest speakers whose work is featured in the Digital Storytelling exhibition – including Corey Brotherson, Destina Connor, Dan Hett and Meghna Jayanth. The school runs from Monday 21st to Friday 25th August – no previous coding experience necessary!

A screenshot from 80 Days Ⓒ inkle. Two men facing each other with the prompt 'begin conversation'.
A screenshot from 80 Days Ⓒ inkle.

 

Bitsy

Bitsy is a browser-based editor for mini games developed by Adam Le Doux in 2016. It operates within clear constraints (8x8 pixel tiles, a 3-colour palette, etc.), which is actually one of the reasons why it is so beloved. You can draw and animate your own characters within your pixel grid, write the dialogue and define how your avatar (your playable character) will interact with the surrounding scenery and with other non-playable characters. Again, no programming knowledge is necessary. Bitsy is especially good for short narratives and vignette games. After completing your game, you can download it as an HTML file and then share it however you prefer. There is Bitsy Docs, as well as some comprehensive tutorials and even a one-page pamphlet covering the basics.

GIF animation from the Bitsy game 'British Library Simulator'
Shout-out to the Emerging Formats Project
(from Giulia Carla Rossi’s The British Library Simulator)

 

To play (and read) a Bitsy work you should use your keyboard to move the avatar around and interact with the ‘sprites’ (interactive items, characters and scenery – usually recognisable as sporting a different colour from the non-interactive background). You can wander around a Zen garden reflecting on your impending wedding (Ben Bruce’s Zen Garden, Portland, The Day Before My Wedding), alight the village fires to welcome the midwinter spirits (Ash Green’s Midwinter Spirits), experience a love story through mixtapes (David Mowatt’s She Made Me A Mix Tape), or if you’re still craving a nice cuppa you can review some imaginary tea shops (Ben Bruce’s Five Great Places to Get a Nice Cup of Tea When You Are Asleep). You can even visit a pixelated version of the British Library and discover more about our contemporary and digital collections with The British Library Simulator.

 

Inform 7

While Twine allows you to write hypertext narratives (where readers can progress through the story by clicking on a link), Inform 7 lets you write parser-based interactive fiction. Parser-based IF requires the reader to type commands (sometimes full sentences) in order to interact with the story.

A how to guide showing what text options are available for playing text based explorer games in Inform. Helpful tips like 'Try the commands that make sense! Doors are for opening; buttons are for pushing; pie is for eating!'
How to Play Interactive Fiction (An entire strategy guide on a single postcard)
<style="font-family: inherit;">Written by Andrew Plotkin -- design by Lea Albaugh. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License

 

Inform 7 is a free-to-use, open-source (as of April 2022) tool to write interactive fiction. Originally created as Inform by Graham Nelson in 1993, the current Inform 7 was released in 2006 and uses natural language (based on the English language) to describe situations and interactions. The learning curve is a bit steeper than with Twine, but the natural language approach allows for users with no programming experience to write code in a simplified language that reads like English text. Inform 7 also has a Recipe Book and a series of well-documented tutorials. Inform also runs on Windows, MacOS and Linux and lets you output your game as HTML files.

While the current version of Inform is Inform 7, narratives using previous versions of the system are still available – Emily Short’s Galatea is always a good place to start. You could also explore mysterious ruins with your romantic interest (C.E.J. Pacian’s Love, Hate and the Mysterious Ocean Tower), play a gentleman thief (J.J. Guest’s  Alias, the Magpie) or make more tea (Joey Jones’ Strained Tea).

 

ChoiceScript

ChoiceScript is a javascript-based scripting language developed by Adam Strong-Morse and Dan Fabulich of Choice of Games. It can be used to write choice-based interactive narratives, in which the reader has to select among multiple choices to determine how the story will unfold. The simplicity of the language makes it possible to create Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style stories without any prior coding knowledge. The ChoiceScript source is available to download for free on the Choice of Games website (it also requires writers to have Node.js installed on their machine). Once your story is complete, you can publish it for free online. Otherwise, Choice of Games offer the possibility of publishing your work with them (they publish to various platforms, including iOS, Android, Kindle and Steam) and earn royalties from it. There is a tutorial that covers the basics, including a Glossary of ChoiceScript terms. The Choice of Game blog also includes some articles with tips on how to design and write interactive stories, especially long ones.

Genres of works built using ChoiceScript are again quite varied – from sci-fi stories exploring the relationships between writers and readers (Lynda Clark’s Writers Are Not Strangers), to crime/romantic dramas (Toni Owen-Blue’s Double/Cross) and fantasy adventures (Thom Baylay’s Evertree Inn).

 

Downpour

Downpour is a game-making tool for phones currently in development. Created by v buckenham, Downpour is a tool that will allow users to make interactive games in minutes, only using their phone’s camera and linking images together. There is no expectation of previous programming knowledge and by removing the need to access a computer, Downpour promises to be a very approachable tool. Release is currently planned for 2023 on iOS and Android – if you want to be notified when it launches you can sign up here.

Downpour banner (purple writing over pink background)
Downpour banner.

 

More resources

As I mentioned before, this is in no way a comprehensive list – there are a lot of other tools and platforms to write IF, both mainstream as well as slightly more obscure ones (Ren’Py, Quest, StoryNexus, Raconteur, Genarrator, just to mention a few). Try different tools, find the one that works best for you or use a mix of them if you prefer! Experiment as much as you like.

If you’d like to discover even more tools to build your interactive project, Everest Pipkin has an excellent list of Open source, experimental, and tiny tools.

Emily Short’s Interactive Storytelling blog also offers a round-up of very interesting links about interactive narratives.

If you want to be inspired by more independent games and interactive stories, Indiepocalypse offers a curated selection of video and/or physical games in the form of a monthly anthology.

To conclude, I’ll leave you with a quote by Anna Anthropy from her book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters:

“Every game that you and I make right now [...] makes the boundaries of our art form (and it is ours) larger. Every new game is a voice in the darkness. And new voices are important in an art form that has been dominated for so long by a single perspective. [...]

There’s nothing to stop us from making our voices heard now. And there will be plenty of voices. Among those voices, there will be plenty of mediocrity, and plenty of games that have no meaning to anyone outside the author and maybe her friends. But [...] imagine what we’ll gain: real diversity, a plethora of voices and experiences, and a new avenue for human beings to tell their stories and connect with other human beings.”

This post is by Giulia Carla Rossi, Curator for Digital Publications

04 July 2023

MIX 2023 Storytelling in Immersive Media

This Friday we are looking forward to hosting MIX 2023 at the Library. Presented in partnership with Bath Spa University’s Centre for Cultural and Creative Industries, The Writing Platform and MyWorld, this conference explores the intersection of writing and technology, creating an opportunity for scholars and practitioners to share and discuss research and practice in the rapidly evolving field of storytelling in immersive environments.

Text on image says "MIX 2023 Storytelling in Immersive Media, 7th July 2023" underneath are partner logos

Our opening keynote speaker is Adrian Hon, co-founder and CEO at Six to Start, creators of the world’s best selling smartphone fitness game, Zombies, Run!, which is currently showcased in the Library’s Digital Storytelling exhibition (2 June – 15 October 2023). Following Adrian’s talk is a jam packed programme of presentations and panel discussions examining where and how creative writing and emerging technologies meet. MIX 2023 sessions will cover a range of themes and topics including interactive and locative works, text in immersive media, digital and film poetry, narrative games, digital preservation, archiving and curation, and storytelling with AI. There will also be an area at this event for attendees to experience VR works of poetry and literature, including The Abandoned Library by Dreaming Methods, led by Andy Campbell and Judi Alston.

If this event sounds up your street, there is still time to book a place for MIX 2023 on Friday 7th July, 09:00 - 17:00. It will take place in person, in the Library’s Knowledge Centre and will not be live-streamed. The ticket price covers a sandwich lunch, refreshments during the day, and includes access to an evening performance of An Island of Sound by award winning poet J.R. Carpenter and audiovisual composer Jules Rawlinson. 

Artwork from 80 Days showing profile faces of characters Passepartout and Phileas Fogg

If you would like to develop your interactive writing skills, then you may also be interested in signing up for our Fiction as Dialogue Interactive Fiction Summer School, which will run from Monday 21st to Friday 25th August 2023. Led by Dr. Florencia Minuzzi, veteran games writer and narrative designer, this course will teach participants how to create interactive narratives using ink, a writer-friendly open-source scripting language that does not require programming knowledge.

This summer school will also feature expert guest speakers, including Corey Brotherson, the writer for in-development interactive narrative Windrush Tales, and the adapting writer/editor of Yomi Ayeni’s acclaimed steampunk transmedia series, Clockwork Watch. Meghna Jayanth, a video game writer and narrative designer, known for her writing on inkle's 80 Days, for which she won the UK Writers’ Guild Award for Best Writing in a Video Game. Dan Hett, a prolific digital artist and writer from Manchester, whose work c-ya-laterrrr won the 2020 New Media Writing Prize, and game designer Destina Connor, Co-director of Tea-Powered Games, an independent game company dedicated to telling interesting stories in innovative ways.

Text on image says "Everything Forever, 10 years of electronic legal deposit"

2023 marks the 50th anniversary of the British Library and also 10 years since the introduction of non-print (electronic) legal deposit, providing a perfect moment to reflect on our achievements and also to look forwards to the future. Our Digital Storytelling exhibition events, including MIX 2023, create opportunities to celebrate pioneering and experimental writing, and also to consider what new forms of digital storytelling may arise in the coming years. We hope you can join us.

22 June 2023

Explore Windrush Tales in our Digital Storytelling exhibition

On the 22nd June in 1948 the HMT Empire Windrush docked in Tilbury, Essex, bringing people from the Caribbean who had been invited to help rebuild "the motherland" after the devastation of the Second World War.

Seventy-five years later, stories from the Windrush generation are shared in a ground breaking illustrated text-based interactive narrative from 3-Fold Games. Windrush Tales is still in development, but a preview can be read exclusively in the British Library’s current Digital Storytelling exhibition, which is open until 15 October 2023.

Illustration of a boat and story choices
Windrush Tales art by Naima Ramanan © 3-Fold Games

Windrush Tales tells the stories of characters Rose, an aspiring nurse, and her older brother Vernon, through a beautiful illustrated interactive photo album and branching narrative, allowing choices within the game to lead to one of many endings. Apprehensive but tenacious, Rose joins her brother in England with the intention to start work as a nurse in the newly formed NHS. Vernon has been in Britain for several years but, unknown to his sister, has struggled to find and stay in employment. Through his photography, he documents how they adapt to their new life, from grassroots arts and activism, to church and social clubs.

Illustration of a photograph showing the faces of a man and a woman
Windrush Tales art by Naima Ramanan © 3-Fold Games

As part of their extensive research process to develop the game's story lines, creative director Chella Ramanan and writer Corey Brotherson, both descendants of the Windrush generation, have drawn upon their families' experiences, news coverage, books, and exhibitions. They also consulted with people who emigrated from the Caribbean to Britain during the Windrush period from the late 1940s to the early 1970s, and their families, via a workshop organised in collaboration with Jennifer Allsopp, from the University of Birmingham.

Windrush Tales is one of eleven showcased narratives in Digital Storytelling, the first exhibition of its kind at the Library. Curators worked closely with writers, artists and creators to display a range of innovative publications, which reflect the rapidly evolving field of interactive writing, stories that are dynamic, responsive, personalised and immersive.

To accompany this exhibition there is a season of in-person events at the Library. Writer Corey Brotherson from the Windrush Tales team will be speaking about another of his projects, the Clockwork Watch story world at MIX 2023 Storytelling in Immersive Media, a one-day conference exploring the intersection of writing and technology on Friday 7 July 2023. Corey is also a guest tutor at the Fiction as Dialogue, Interactive Fiction Summer School, which runs from 21st to the 25th August 2023.

13 January 2023

Digital Storytelling in 2023: A New Year of New Media

Here in Digital Scholarship we are looking forward to the Library’s upcoming exhibitions in 2023, including Digital Storytelling (2 June – 15 October 2023), which we are curating with colleagues in Contemporary British Collections and Digital Preservation. This display will explore the ways technology provides opportunities to transform and enhance the way writers write and readers engage. Drawing on the Library’s collection of contemporary digital publications and emerging formats to highlight the work of innovative and experimental writers. It will feature interactive works that invite and respond to user input, reading experiences influenced by data feeds, and immersive story worlds created using multiple platforms and audience participation.

A number of the selected works for this exhibition have been previous shortlisted and winning entries of the New Media Writing Prize (NMWP). An annual international award, which celebrates exciting and inventive born digital stories and poetry that integrate a variety of formats, platforms, and media. In recent years the Library has been working with the prize organisers to collect and preserve entries in the UK Web Archive (UKWA) New Media Writing Prize collection, which is the topic of this recently published Electronic British Library Journal article:

G.C. Rossi, T. Pyke, J. Pope, R.L. Skains and S. Wisdom, ‘The New Media Writing Prize Special Collection’, Electronic British Library Journal (2022), art. 8, pp. 1-19, https://doi.org/10.23636/kw7j-0274

New Media Writing Prize logo of a lightbulb with a smartphone, a pot of pens, a pair of headphones and a microphone inside the outline of the bulb

The NMWP UKWA collection is an ongoing initiative with works added from each year’s prize. To hear more about the 2022 shortlist entries, Library curators will be virtually attending the upcoming Awards Evening on Wednesday 18 January 2023. This online event is free and open to all, if you would like to attend please book a place here. Writer Deena Larsen will give a keynote lecture and winners will be announced for the 2022 Chris Meade Memorial Main Prize, the FIPP Digital Journalism Prize, the Writing Magazine Student Prize and the Wonderbox Opening Up (People's Choice) Prize, which celebrates all eligible entries submitted to the Main and Student Prizes. Opening Up does not affect the shortlist/winners in the other categories, but provides an opportunity for a public vote for a favourite; you can browse entries and vote for your favourite here, the deadline is 11:59pm GMT on Sunday 15 January 2023.  NMWP organisers are also holding a virtual two day Digital Literature for Social Good Unconference on 17-18 January 2023.

Image of the MIX 2023 conference partner organisation logos, these are Bath Spa University's Centre for Cultural and Creative Industries, The Writing Platform, British Library and MyWorld

Looking ahead to summer, we are collaborating with Bath Spa University to host the MIX 2023 Storytelling in Immersive Media conference at the Library on Friday 7 July 2023. This event will provide an opportunity for scholars and practitioners to share current research and practice in the rapidly developing field of storytelling in immersive environments.

MIX 2023 themes include storytelling with AI, interactive and locative works, digital and film poetry, narrative games, digital preservation, archiving, and enhanced curation. The call for presentations and papers is open until Monday 13 February 2023. Proposals are invited for 15 minute papers or presentations and 6 minute lightning talks from technologists, artists, creative writers and poets working in the digital realm, as well as academic researchers and independent scholars, submissions focused on teaching and pedagogy are also welcome. After the conference there will be an opportunity to publish papers on The Writing Platform, an online magazine for sharing knowledge and expertise around digital innovation in publishing and storytelling. If you have any questions about the MIX 2023 conference please email [email protected] for more information. 

29 September 2021

Sailing Away To A Distant Land - Mahendra Mahey, Manager of BL Labs - final post

Posted by Mahendra Mahey, former Manager of British Library Labs or "BL Labs" for short

[estimated reading time of around 15 minutes]

This is is my last day working as manager of BL Labs, and also my final posting on the Digital Scholarship blog. I thought I would take this chance to reflect on my journey of almost 9 years in helping to set up, maintain and enabling BL Labs to become a permanent fixture at the British Library (BL).

BL Labs was the first digital Lab in a national library, anywhere in the world, that gets people to experiment with its cultural heritage digital collections and data. There are now several Gallery, Library, Archive and Museum Labs or 'GLAM Labs' for short around the world, with an active community which I helped build, from 2018.

I am really proud I was there from the beginning to implement the original proposal which was written by several colleagues, but especially Adam Farquhar, former head of Digital Scholarship at the British Library (BL). The project was at first generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon foundation through four rounds of funding as well as support from the BL. In April 2021, the project became a permanently funded fixture, helped very much by my new manager Maja Maricevic, Head of Higher Education and Science.

The great news is that BL Labs is going to stay after I have left. The position of leading the Lab will soon be advertised. Hopefully, someone will get a chance to work with my helpful and supportive colleague Technical Lead of Labs, Dr Filipe Bento, bright, talented and very hard working Maja and other great colleagues in Digital Research and wider at the BL.

The beginnings, the BL and me!

I met Adam Farquhar and Aly Conteh (Former Head of Digital Research at the BL) in December 2012. They must have liked something about me because I started working on the project in January 2013, though I officially started in March 2013 to launch BL Labs.

I must admit, I had always felt a bit intimidated by the BL. My first visit was in the early 1980s before the St Pancras site was opened (in 1997) as a Psychology student. I remember coming up from Wolverhampton on the train to get a research paper about "Serotonin Pathways in Rats when sleeping" by Lidov, feeling nervous and excited at the same time. It felt like a place for 'really intelligent educated people' and for those who were one for the intellectual elites in society. It also felt for me a bit like it represented the British empire and its troubled history of colonialism, especially some of the collections which made me feel uncomfortable as to why they were there in the first place.

I remember thinking that the BL probably wasn't a place for some like me, a child of Indian Punjabi immigrants from humble beginnings who came to England in the 1960s. Actually, I felt like an imposter and not worthy of being there.

Nearly 9 years later, I can say I learned to respect and even cherish what was inside it, especially the incredible collections, though I also became more confident about expressing stronger views about the decolonisation of some of these.  I became very fond of some of the people who work or use it, there are some really good kind-hearted souls at the BL. However, I never completely lost that 'imposter and being an outsider' feeling.

What I remember at that time, going for my interview, was having this thought, what will happen if I got the position and 'What would be the one thing I would try and change?'. It came easily to me, namely that I would try and get more new people through the doors literally or virtually by connecting them to the BL's collections (especially the digital). New people like me, who may have never set foot, or had been motivated to step into the building before. This has been one of the most important reasons for me to get up in the morning and go to work at BL Labs.

So what have been my highlights? Let's have a very quick pass through!

BL Labs Launch and Advisory Board

I launched BL Labs in March 2013, one week after I had started. It was at the launch event organised by my wonderfully supportive and innovative colleague, Digital Curator Stella Wisdom. I distinctly remember in the afternoon session (which I did alone), I had to present my 'ideas' of how I might launch the first BL Labs competition where we would be trying to get pioneering researchers to work with the BL's digital collections.

God it was a tough crowd! They asked pretty difficult questions, questions I myself was asking too which I still didn't know the answer too either.

I remember Professors Tim Hitchcock (now at Sussex University and who eventually sat (and is still sitting) on the BL Labs Advisory Board) and Laurel Brake (now Professor Emerita of Literature and Print Culture, Birkbeck, University of London) being in the audience together with staff from the Royal Library of Netherlands, who 6 months later launched their own brilliant KB Lab. Subsequently, I became good colleagues with Lotte Wilms who led their Lab for many years and is now Head of Research support at Tilburg University.

My first gut feeling overall after the event was, this is going to be hard work. This feeling and reality remained a constant throughout my time at BL Labs.

In early May 2013, we launched the competition, which was a really quick and stressful turnaround as I had only officially started in mid March (one and a half months). I remember worrying as to whether anyone would even enter!  All the final entries were pretty much submitted a few minutes before the deadline. I remember being alone that evening on deadline day near to midnight waiting by my laptop, thinking what happens if no one enters, it's going to be disaster and I will lose my job. Luckily that didn't happen, in the end, we received 26 entries.

I am a firm believer that we can help make our own luck, but sometimes luck can be quite random! Perhaps BL Labs had a bit of both!

After that, I never really looked back! BL Labs developed its own kind of pattern and momentum each year:

  • hunting around the BL for digital collections to make into datasets and make available
  • helping to make more digital collections openly licensed
  • having hundreds of conversations with people interested in connecting with the BL's digital collections in the BL and outside
  • working with some people more intensively to carry out experiments
  • developing ideas further into prototype projects
  • telling the world of successes and failures in person, meetings, events and social media
  • launching a competition and awards in April or May
  • roadshows before and after with invitations to speak at events around the world
  • the summer working with competition winners
  • late October/November the international symposium showcased things from the year
  • working on special projects
  • repeat!

The winners were announced in July 2013, and then we worked with them on their entries showcasing them at our annual BL Labs Symposium in November, around 4 months later.

'Nothing interesting happens in the office' - Roadshows, Presentations, Workshops and Symposia!

One of the highlights of BL Labs was to go out to universities and other places to explain what the BL is and what BL Labs does.  This ended up with me pretty much seeing the world (North America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and giving virtual talks in South America and Africa).

My greatest challenge in BL Labs was always to get people to truly and passionately 'connect' with the BL's digital collections and data in order to come up with cool ideas of what to actually do with them. What I learned from my very first trip was that telling people what you have is great, they definitely need to know what you have! However, once you do that, the hard work really begins as you often need to guide and inspire many of them, help and support them to use the collections creatively and meaningfully. It was also important to understand the back story of the digital collection and learn about the institutional culture of the BL if people also wanted to work with BL colleagues.  For me and the researchers involved, inspirational engagement with digital collections required a lot of intellectual effort and emotional intelligence. Often this means asking the uncomfortable questions about research such as 'Why are we doing this?', 'What is the benefit to society in doing this?', 'Who cares?', 'How can computation help?' and 'Why is it necessary to even use computation?'.

Making those connections between people and data does feel like magic when it really works. It's incredibly exciting, suddenly everyone has goose bumps and is energised. This feeling, I will take away with me, it's the essence of my work at BL Labs!

A full list of over 200 presentations, roadshows, events and 9 annual symposia can be found here.

Competitions, Awards and Projects

Another significant way BL Labs has tried to connect people with data has been through Competitions (tell us what you would like to do, and we will choose an idea and work collaboratively with you on it to make it a reality), Awards (show us what you have already done) and Projects (collaborative working).

At the last count, we have supported and / or highlighted over 450 projects in research, artistic, entrepreneurial, educational, community based, activist and public categories most through competitions, awards and project collaborations.

We also set up awards for British Library Staff which has been a wonderful way to highlight the fantastic work our staff do with digital collections and give them the recognition they deserve. I have noticed over the years that the number of staff who have been working on digital projects has increased significantly. Sometimes this was with the help of BL Labs but often because of the significant Digital Scholarship Training Programme, run by my Digital Curator colleagues in Digital Research for staff to understand that the BL isn't just about physical things but digital items too.

Browse through our project archive to get inspiration of the various projects BL Labs has been involved in or highlighted.

Putting the digital collections 'where the light is' - British Library platforms and others

When I started at BL Labs it was clear that we needed to make a fundamental decision about how we saw digital collections. Quite early on, we decided we should treat collections as data to harness the power of computational tools to work with each collection, especially for research purposes. Each collection should have a unique Digital Object Identifier (DOI) so researchers can cite them in publications.  Any new datasets generated from them will also have DOIs, allowing us to understand the ecosystem through DOIs of what happens to data when you get it out there for people to use.

In 2014, https://data.bl.uk was born and today, all our 153 datasets (as of 29/09/2021) are available through the British Library's research repository.

However, BL Labs has not stopped there! We always believed that it's important to put our digital collections where others are likely to discover them (we can't assume that researchers will want to come to BL platforms), 'where the light is' so to speak.  We were very open and able to put them on other platforms such as Flickr and Wikimedia Commons, not forgetting that we still needed to do the hard work to connect data to people after they have discovered them, if they needed that support.

Our greatest success by far was placing 1 million largely undescribed images that were digitally snipped from 65,000 digitised public domain books from the 19th Century on Flickr Commons in 2013. The number of images on the platform have grown since then by another 50 to 60 thousand from collections elsewhere in the BL. There has been significant interaction from the public to generate crowdsourced tags to help to make it easier to find the specific images. The number of views we have had have reached over a staggering 2 billion over this time. There have also been an incredible array of projects which have used the images, from artistic use to using machine learning and artificial intelligence to identify them. It's my favourite collection, probably because there are no restrictions in using it.

Read the most popular blog post the BL has ever published by my former BL Labs colleague, the brilliant and inspirational Ben O'Steen, a million first steps and the 'Mechanical Curator' which describes how we told the world why and how we had put 1 million images online for anyone to use freely.

It is wonderful to know that George Oates, the founder of Flickr Commons and still a BL Labs Advisory Board member, has been involved in the creation of the Flickr Foundation which was announced a few days ago! Long live Flickr Commons! We loved it because it also offered a computational way to access the collections, critical for powerful and efficient computational experiments, through its Application Programming Interface (API).

More recently, we have experimented with browser based programming / computational environments - Jupyter Notebooks. We are huge fans of Tim Sherrat who was a pioneer and brilliant advocate of OPEN GLAM in using them, especially through his GLAM Workbench. He is a one person Lab in his own right, and it was an honour to recognise his monumental efforts by giving him the BL Labs Research Award 2020 last year. You can also explore the fantastic work of Gustavo Candela and colleagues on Jupyter Notebooks and the ones my colleageue Filipe Bento created.

Art Exhibitions, Creativity and Education

I am extremely proud to have been involved in enabling two major art exhibitions to happen at the BL, namely:

Crossroads of Curiosity by David Normal

Imaginary Cities by Michael Takeo Magruder

I loved working with artists, its my passion! They are so creative and often not restricted by academic thinking, see the work of Mario Klingemann for example! You can browse through our archives for various artistic projects that used the BL's digital collections, it's inspiring.

I was also involved in the first British Library Fashion Student Competition won by Alanna Hilton, held at the BL which used the BL's Flickr Commons collection as inspiration for the students to design new fashion ranges. It was organised by my colleague Maja Maricevic, the British Fashion Colleges Council and Teatum Jones who were great fun to work with. I am really pleased to say that Maja has gone on from strength to strength working with the fashion industry and continues to run the competition to this day.

We also had some interesting projects working with younger people, such as Vittoria's world of stories and the fantastic work of Terhi Nurmikko-Fuller at the Australian National University. This is something I am very much interested in exploring further in the future, especially around ideas of computational thinking and have been trying out a few things.

GLAM Labs community and Booksprint

I am really proud of helping to create the international GLAM Labs community with over 250 members, established in 2018 and still active today. I affectionately call them the GLAM Labbers, and I often ask people to explore their inner 'Labber' when I give presentations. What is a Labber? It's the experimental and playful part of us we all had as children and unfortunately many have lost when becoming an adult. It's the ability to be fearless, having the audacity and perhaps even naivety to try crazy things even if they are likely to fail! Unfortunately society values success more than it does failure. In my opinion, we need to recognise, respect and revere those that have the courage to try but failed. That courage to experiment should be honoured and embraced and should become the bedrock of our educational systems from the very outset.

Two years ago, many of us Labbers 'ate our own dog food' or 'practised what we preached' when me and 15 other colleagues came together for 5 days to produce a book through a booksprint, probably the most rewarding professional experience of my life. The book is about how to set up, maintain, sustain and even close a GLAM Lab and is called 'Open a GLAM Lab'. It is available as public domain content and I encourage you to read it.

Online drop-in goodbye - today!

I organised a 30 minute ‘online farewell drop-in’ on Wednesday 29 September 2021, 1330 BST (London), 1430 (Paris, Amsterdam), 2200 (Adelaide), 0830 (New York) on my very last day at the British Library. It was heart-warming that the session was 'maxed out' at one point with participants from all over the world. I honestly didn't expect over 100 colleagues to show up. I guess when you leave an organisation you get to find out who you actually made an impact on, who shows up, and who tells you, otherwise you may never know.

Those that know me well know that I would have much rather had a farewell do ‘in person’, over a pint and praying for the ‘chip god’ to deliver a huge portion of chips with salt/vinegar and tomato sauce’ magically and mysteriously to the table. The pub would have been Mc'Glynns (http://www.mcglynnsfreehouse.com/) near the British Library in London. I wonder who the chip god was?  I never found out ;)

The answer to who the chip god was is in text following this sentence on white on white text...you will be very shocked to know who it was!- s

Spoiler alert it was me after all, my alter ego

Farwell-bl-labs-290921Mahendra's online farewell to BL Labs, Wednesday 29 September, 1330 BST, 2021.
Left: Flowers and wine from the GLAM Labbers arrived in Tallinn, 20 mins before the meeting!
Right: Some of the participants of the online farewell

Leave a message of good will to see me off on my voyage!

It would be wonderful if you would like to leave me your good wishes, comments, memories, thoughts, scans of handwritten messages, pictures, photographs etc. on the following Google doc:

http://tiny.cc/mahendramahey

I will leave it open for a week or so after I have left. Reading positive sincere heartfelt messages from colleagues and collaborators over the years have already lifted my spirits. For me it provides evidence that you perhaps did actually make a difference to somone's life.  I will definitely be re-reading them during the cold dark Baltic nights in Tallinn.

I would love to hear from you and find out what you are doing, or if you prefer, you can email me, the details are at the end of this post.

BL Labs Sailor and Captain Signing Off!

It's been a blast and lots of fun! Of course there is a tinge of sadness in leaving! For me, it's also been intellectually and emotionally challenging as well as exhausting, with many ‘highs’ and a few ‘lows’ or choppy waters, some professional and others personal.

I have learned so much about myself and there are so many things I am really really proud of. There are other things of course I wish I had done better. Most of all, I learned to embrace failure, my best teacher!

I think I did meet my original wish of wanting to help to open up the BL to as many new people who perhaps would have never engaged in the Library before. That was either by using digital collections and data for cool projects and/or simply walking through the doors of the BL in London or Boston Spa and having a look around and being inspired to do something because of it.

I wish the person who takes over my position lots of success! My only piece of advice is if you care, you will be fine!

Anyhow, what a time this has been for us all on this planet? I have definitely struggled at times. I, like many others, have lost loved ones and thought deeply about life and it's true meaning. I have also managed to find the courage to know what’s important and act accordingly, even if that has been a bit terrifying and difficult at times. Leaving the BL for example was not an easy decision for me, and I wish perhaps things had turned out differently, but I know I am doing the right thing for me, my future and my loved ones. 

Though there have been a few dark times for me both professionally and personally, I hope you will be happy to know that I have also found peace and happiness too. I am in a really good place.

I would like to thank former alumni of BL Labs, Ben O'Steen - Technical Lead for BL Labs from 2013 to 2018, Hana Lewis (2016 - 2018) and Eleanor Cooper (2018-2019) both BL Labs Project Officers and many other people I worked through BL Labs and wider in the Library and outside it in my journey.

Where I am off to and what am I doing?

My professional plans are 'evolving', but one thing is certain, I will be moving country!

To Estonia to be precise!

I plan to live, settle down with my family and work there. I was never a fan of Brexit, and this way I get to stay a European.

I would like to finish with this final sweet video created by writer and filmaker Ling Low and her team in 2016, entitled 'Hey there Young Sailor' which they all made as volunteers for the Malaysian band, the 'Impatient Sisters'. It won the BL Labs Artistic Award in 2016. I had the pleasure and honour of meeting Ling over a lovely lunch in Kuala Lumpa, Malaysia, where I had also given a talk at the National Library about my work and looked for remanants of my grandfather who had settled there many years ago.

I wish all of you well, and if you are interested in keeping in touch with me, working with me or just saying hello, you can contact me via my personal email address: [email protected] or follow my progress on my personal website.

Happy journeys through this short life to all of you!

Mahendra Mahey, former BL Labs Manager / Captain / Sailor signing off!

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