I Want to Tell You a Digital Narrative

Writing in this week’s TESS, Peter Wright, president of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, offers a six-point plan to ‘rescue’ Scottish education from the doldrums in which he claims it to be currently stuck. Some of his ideas I happen to agree with, such as his recommended class size maximum, but on the subject of improving literacy he has this to say: “It must be defined as the ability to read and write. The current fad, which defines it as the ability to access texts in all their forms, must be shelved.” On this I couldn’t agree less.

That statement is wrong on so many counts. For one thing, ‘the ability to read and write’ is in itself meaningless, as it immediately begs the question, ‘the ability to read and write WHAT?’  The ability to read, and the ability to access texts in all their forms, are not mutually exclusive. The use of the word ‘fad’ is simply a sign of a desperate man in search of an argument.

I have written before about the blurring of the lines between reading, writing, listening, watching and talking, and about the development of digital narratives which appear to be breaking down the divisions between books, films and computer games. Inanimate Alice is a particularly exciting example of a multimedia, interactive narrative which combines digital photographs, video, printed text, drawing, painting and sound. The narrative is progressive and increasingly complex, not to mention absorbing and engaging. For a range of other good examples of digital narratives in development, and a wonderful range of materials and suggestions for creating digital narratives I would suggest you visit Martin Jorgensen’s definitive website The Digital Narrative – Finding Your Story with New Media and its close relatives The Lightning Bug, where young writers are provided with a host of ideas to inspire and support them in their efforts, and Building Community in Your Classroom, for teachers who are keen to introduce new technologies into their classroom but don’t quite know where to start.

I have also been excited recently by computer games such as Samorost and Machinarium, which have a narrative structure, but little or no printed text. They are described as ‘games’ but have a definite narrative or story – even although they have very little or no printed text – which only becomes complete or obvious after the player has solved all the puzzles and the plot has been resolved. These games are visually quite stunning and provide the perfect stimulus for discussion and for the creation of text, including the writing of stories. Beyond these however, it is difficult at the moment to find computer games which have a strong narrative element, rather than simply providing a context for interactive learning and social integration, commendable as both of these aims undoubtedly are. Ultimately, it’s the quality of the narrative which counts, and at the moment it seems to me there are very few games which are able to provide this. The problem for games developers is perfectly summed up in this very funny presentation from Daniel Floyd of Animation Mentor.


3 thoughts on “I Want to Tell You a Digital Narrative

  1. I agree completely with your view that the boundaries are blurring and that digital narrative has an ever-increasing role in literacy. Indeed interactive digital narratives have the potential to take digital literacy in a completely new direction from the more traditional narratives, with the potential for non-linear storytelling.

    Last week I attended a seminar by Judy Robertson from Heriot Watt University, where she described the Adventure Author project. In short, learners are able to design their own computer game using the framework of the fantasy RPG Never Winter Nights 2. This involves describing characters, locations and plot as well as writing any game narrative. I am interested in finding out if there are other gaming environments out there which offer a similar level of “modding” capability which extend to dialogue.

    The lack of games with a strong narrative is a concern. The same ones seem to pop up each time (Myst, Samorost, Machinarium etc.) but I remain convinced there are plenty of others out there. Time for some Christmas research…

  2. Thanks for comments Mark. I shared a platform with Judy at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this year and I was very impressed with the Adventure Author project. I am a big fan of books (made of paper) but I also recognise that there are loads of alternative narrative forms out there ripe for further development, and many kids will be more able to relate to them. I wish you well in your research and I look forward to reading about them.

  3. Pingback: Animated by Alice: transmedia, literacy and learning : John Connell: The Blog

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