Digital Literature and Emerging Media: 10 Years of the New Media Writing Prize
by Giulia Carla Rossi Curator of Digital Publications @giugimonogatari. Find out more about the New Media Writing Prize here. For more information about the Library's Emerging Formats project, click here.
On 18 July, The British Library hosted a Digital Conversations event to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the New Media Writing Prize. Digital Conversations is a series of events that explores the way in which technology is changing how we experience our life and how we communicate. New media writing perfectly fits within this theme as an example of the impact innovative technologies have on how we tell stories and express ourselves.
Now in its 10th year, the if:book UK New Media Writing Prize (NMWP) started as a one-off event in a literary festival in Poole. After realising its great potential, the event was moved to Bournemouth University (where it’s based today), with the help of co-founder and organiser Jim Pope. The 2019 prize is now comprised of five strands: the if:book award is the main award and the Dot Prize is an award for project proposals connecting literature with the digital; both are sponsored by if:book founder Chris Meade. The Unicorn Training Student Award, the Journalism Award and the Skylab innovation award round out the compliment, making 2019 the first year where these groups and mediums will be explicitly and separately recognised.
In ten years of the prize, words have always been at the centre of these works, combined with all sorts of new media, in constantly changing and innovative ways. New media writing is not identifiable with a single practice: it’s a whole range of forms that happens across disciplines and cultures. Genres have also been extremely varied since the beginning of the award: journalism, poetry, games, fiction, non-fiction, digital connected to non-digital. The constant element throughout the years has been the different way of writing (and reading) which this combination of digital and literature creates, giving the reader new agency and allowing for things that cannot happen in print.
New media writing to engage diverse audiences and preserve obsolete technologies
The event kicked off with a presentation by Andy Campbell, Co-Director of arts organisation One-to-One Development Trust, and judge of the NMWP since its inception. Andy talked about working with technology and people from a variety of backgrounds to tell stories both fictionally and factually. One-to-One Development Trust is involved in a range of different projects – some of the most ambitious ones are created in their in-house digital fiction studio, Dreaming Methods.
The studio began as a personal exploration on writing and new media; with the rapid changes in technology, Dreaming Methods has now shifted into the realm of playable narratives and immersive experiences. The studio produces works that use game mechanics to improve readers’ engagement and draw them to new forms of storytelling. One example of this is Wallpaper (2015), a VR sci-fi ghost story that explores reading and immersion. Following game dynamics, readers will get a score once they finished the story, depending on how much of the narrative they managed to uncover – this encourages readers/players to come back to the narrative to try and improve their score. Another example is All the Delicate Duplicates (2016): defined as literary videogame, it explores family relationships and mental health.
New media writing, like any discipline dealing with emerging technologies, is closely linked to the question of digital preservation. Some of the submissions entered in the first years of the NMWP have been successfully preserved by the Internet Archive thanks to their Wayback Machine, while others have now vanished. The latest Dreaming Methods project stems from this very issue: Digital Fiction Curious is a virtual museum created to house and preserve Flash works in VR. Flash will disappear in 2020, which makes the risk of loss very real for a great number of interactive narratives. Digital Fiction Curious uses three early Flash literary works created by the founders of One-to-One Development Trust and Dreaming Methods as a proof of concept. The access to all source code made possible to retain all the original Flash features and interaction patterns in VR.
The virtual museum was conceived as an archive, but it has become more of an artwork in its own right. It gives its audience the possibility to not just experience obsolete works in their originality, but to also explore them in new ways: Digital Fiction Curious includes a VR-within-VR function, which allows us to imagine the different shape these work could have taken had VR technology been available at the development stage.
This project has proven that a VR environment can successfully support Flash technology – the aim is now to create a comprehensive archive of different authors. Flash appears quite frequently among the submissions to the NMWP, especially in the early years – in 2010, 70% of the entries were created using this tool, and they’re now at risk of becoming inaccessible.
New media writing to represent the multitude of our emotional landscape
One example of new media writing that uses Flash, is the very first winner of the NMWP, Underbelly, by Christine Wilks. Underbelly revolves around a woman sculptor working on the site of a former colliery in the North of England. The work mixes audio and video, overlapping the inner dialogue of the sculptor (expressing her most hidden desires and fears) with the sepulchral voices of 19th century women who used to mine on the site. The result is a haunting of voices, reflecting on womanhood and on how much control can women have over their own lives.
Revealing what is hidden under the surface is one of the main concerns of Underbelly – there is a variety of themes and historical remnants buried within the work, as layers for the reader to excavate, mirroring the mining process as well as the sculpting itself. Readers search the map for elements that trigger narrative events: historical images of mine workers inhabit the same space of old anatomical drawings of dissected bodies. Gynaecological imagery is also recurring as yet another example of excavation, in the anatomical sense of cavity in the human body. The map itself is reminiscent of a anatomical drawing, an adaptation of the medieval Hereford Mappa Mundi, with the colliery tunnels and cavities taking the shape of the womb of Mother Earth.
Christine also discussed a few of her new projects.Writing New Bodies is an international research project on bibliotherapy, currently in the process of being developed. It’s a work of interactive digital fiction which aims to address body-image issues, where her own text-driven game engine works to develop interactive narratives focused on the characters' psychology through a rich vocabulary of emotional states.
New media writing to democratise language and escape censorship
Amira Hanafi won the main prize in 2018 with A Dictionary of the Revolution. This work was driven by Amira’s desire to understand the language that was developing around her in Cairo during the Arab Spring: people were talking politics in the streets, openly expressing themselves in a way that hadn’t been possible before they took control of public spaces in 2011. Originally conceived as a book, A Dictionary of the Revolution took almost 5 years to reach its current form.
The writing of this work can be divided into two main steps: the first step consisted of collecting the words people used when discussing politics into 320 cards. Cards allowed for a fluid narrative that could be shuffled and recombined and were the perfect tool to spark conversation around how the meaning of words can change after great social and political events. The second step was to interview people interacting with the cards, and then use these recordings (of almost 200 interviews) to form a dictionary of language as a process – the aim was not to define terms, but to represent language as something that’s alive, pliable material that we revise and remake as collective. Amira’s process involved listening to interviews by term, not by interviewee, so that different voices could mix and provide multiple perspectives.
The final step was to assemble the text to understand the collective language, and find a way to organise the data and show the hidden patterns. Amira wanted her work to be available in Egypt first, but by the time she finished transcribing her audio archive the political atmosphere had changed, and it was hard to imagine the text would make it through censorship unchanged (if at all). Online publishing began to seem the best option, especially in terms of making the book accessible. Digital tools also opened up new possibilities for analysing the text and organising the narrative. She chose to visualise data through a core diagram, which represents connections between nodes (words) in a circular layout, using line weight to indicate the closeness of the relationship.
Machine reading found connections between words that weren’t obvious in print, and the website structure allows readers to explore the dictionary in a non-linear way, through a web of connected concepts, events, and characters. Although analytics tools for one-page websites tend to not be precise, it looks like people only spend a short amount of time on the website. This seems to suggest that most users are interacting with the diagram more than reading the full text. The project has translated into its visualisation; it has ‘gamified’. With the shift to visualisation as the main narrative, the act of reading has also transformed into navigating the web of relationships between words.
New media writing to own your narrative and renew civic identity
The 2018 Dot Award for a digital literature project proposal was won by Kayt Lackie (Burgess) for her VESSEL Project, a transmedia storytelling project and pervasive game set in her hometown of Elliot Lake, Ontario, Canada. The project is supported by the Vessel Transmedia Storytelling Lab, an initiative that uses new media storytelling to explore the history and culture of a community.
Elliot Lake was hit by a tragedy in 2012 when the roof of the local shopping mall collapsed causing a number of casualties. Suddenly the town jumped to the front of the news, with this story ending up defining the community to a national audience (and to the town itself), as well as negatively impacting its economy. Kayt’s project seeks to use counter narratives to re-appropriate media representation and progress community renewal and civic identities through multimedia writing and storytelling.
The VESSEL Project (Virtual Experience & Superimposed StoryWorld in Elliot Lake) is a transmedia story set in a fictionalised version of Elliot Lake, mixing folklore, science and environmental conservation. It draws upon the town history, as well as the cultures and languages of its community, bringing people together in a unified story world. The transmedia story will represent the first act of the VESSEL Project, created by a collective of writers through a series of new media and digital writing workshops (like the Ephemera Storytelling Box) and further developed by other participants to the project (artists, creators, schools, etc.) The transmedia story will be hosted online and unfold through a variety of art pieces, such as social media accounts, photos, blogs, art installations, videos and audio file.
The transmedia story will culminate in an alternate-reality festival weekend (scheduled for summer 2021), which will introduce the project to a wider audience. Elliot Lake will become the physical setting of a real world video game, where people can solve puzzles and overcome challenges while experiencing the story created and performed by the local community. A location-based app will also be developed as part of the festival, and hopefully help to preserve it and give it a long afterlife after the festival is over.
This pervasive form of new media storytelling is effective in bringing people together to create counter narratives and tell the story of a place and a community. It allows participants to recognise that powerful stories are all around them and not just controlled by the media – people feel seen through storytelling, which strengthens their sense of civic identity.
The Emerging Formats Project
The British Library, together with the other five Legal Deposit Libraries, is currently researching how to manage collections of innovative digital publications. For this purpose, the Emerging Formats Project was set up, looking at collection management requirements for complex new media.
Many of these publications present challenges linked to their software and hardware dependencies, which might affect long-term preservation as well as access to content. The rapid pace at which new technologies emerge and become obsolete also presents a risk to born-digital publications with no print counterpart.
The British Library is looking into different collection methods for different formats: we have recently collected files for inkle’s 80 Days, including contextual information that could aid preservation and future access. We are also testing web archiving tools for capturing online interactive narratives: Rhizome’s Webrecorder has proven effective in capturing some examples of early Flash works, and the British Library’s own Annotation and Curation Tool (ACT) has allowed us to create an Interactive Narratives collection on the UK Web Archive, with the option of nominating yours or someone else's work for inclusion.