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Computer Game Storytelling And The Man Who Wants To Do Good

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Recently, BBC Radio 4's Today programme had a strange report on 'Bibliotherapy' and the psychologically-positive healing power of reading books. It sounded to me like Californian inmates had taken over the asylum and managed to confuse someone at the BBC into giving them an advertising slot.

Apparently there is also something called Writing Therapy.

I am all for reading and writing, of course, but I am not convinced it is a branch of medical science. Stroking furry animals is apparently psychologically comforting for hospital patients (if they don't give you fleas or eat you). That sounds sensible, but it ain't a new branch of medical science.

I recently blogged in the Huffington Post about being on the panel at a Storywarp event in which telling "Other People's Stories" was discussed. Afterwards, I got an e-mail from Simon Fox, who was in the audience.

"We're working on this collaborative storywriting game called The Written World," the e-mail said, "and it's currently out to tender on Kickstarter."

I know nothing about online games. When I bought an ancient Apple Mac at some point near the Dawn of Time it came with a demo version of Prince of Persia and I thought I'm not interested. I have better things to do with my life than try to achieve Level 53 in some virtual game.

I may have been wrong about the course my life would take.

But I went to have a chat with Simon Fox on a freezing cold day this week, in an attempt to upgrade myself to v2.0.1.1 in our brave new 21st century world where publishers and bookshops equate to passengers and the Titanic. His idea was far more interesting than Bibliotherapy, though it perhaps sounded a bit overly altruistic at first.

"We started developing The Written World about five years ago," Simon told me, "and, in the meantime, I've become involved in Playlab London which is a company that focuses on games which do 'good things'. That's maybe a lofty flag, but we try to find games which involve some sort of action which can be objectively defined as good or which encourages people to behave in that way."

But, I asked him, aren't computer games just a trivial, mostly shoot-em-up way to waste time?

"Well, what excites me," he says, "is that, if you play a game, you absolutely cannot avoid learning something. So, for someone like me who is interested in producing games that can concretely be shown to be doing good things..."

How can you angle it so it is 'good', though?

"Here in the UK," says Simon, "one in six people have a literacy level lower than that expected of an 11-year-old. To me, that figure is shocking. Anything that gets people interacting with writing in a new way is good. It's the experience that's important.

"I think there's something really interesting about what a game is. It's the only piece of media that tries to make you achieve something by intentionally putting obstacles in your way. Games are as old as the human race.

"Games mostly used to be a thing where a group of people communed together over a set of rules. Then, with computers, they became one person dealing with a machine that handled the rules. Now we have come back to people getting together online and dealing with, essentially, a set of data."

But all this involves developing the Written World idea further.

"That's why we are running a Kickstarter campaign," Simon told me. "We are a really small, young company which needs to put together enough cash to develop it more. Kickstarter is a way of getting your audience to pledge a little money to help you bring them better product.

"A big game like Battlefield is like the Hollywood of games. We're just a small group of people. It's a labour of love as much as anything and our costs are comparatively very low. We are looking to raise just $17,500 in total, which is about £12,000. It will cover our coding costs, our hosting costs. It will cover us to the point of getting the product to a group of people on the internet so they can use it for free and then we can develop it further.

"We are big believers in 'agile development' - you get your product to your audience and then you work with them to make it better. We have a set of tools for writers so they can create a story. Readers can then put a character together for themselves and come and experience someone else's story. We boil the story down into a set of assets - characters, locations, story arcs and the beats of the story.

"We would love to see really prolific writers in our system getting to a point where they can package together stuff they've made and sell it to other users for a really small amount of money - 50p or whatever - just as a way to make cash back from helping other people have a really cool experience. We are both a game and a writing tool.

"We also want to see established properties entering our system in the same way - our huge dream would be for something like the Discworld series to live inside The Written World. At the moment, we are talking with publishers and directly with authors about ways that we might bring existing stories into it."

So what about copyright in a finished product perhaps created by 714 or 500,000 people - a story which someone might want to make into a movie or novel in its own right?

"Our approach to this is to be as open as possible," says Simon. "We want everything created by anyone to be available to the community to use and re-use and re-mix through the Creative Commons."

So where would the company profits come from?

"For me, what's exciting is not the money but seeing something get done. I would love it if this developed into a real platform for people to write collaboratively. In my mind's eye I can see, in five years' time, The Written World being somewhere that millions of stories have taken place and it has grown into this huge living thing just slowly built over time from all the stories people have been telling and there are different genres of stories intermingling with each other in a beautiful repository of collective literary achievement.

"And it would be fantastic if people were able to make some money for themselves by writing stories for and with each other. For me, that would be wonderful.

"We are using Kickstarter to get finance because, right now, it's a tough landscape for funding out there. You set your target - for us, $17,500 - and you either reach it in the given time and get the money or you don't reach it and get no money. Obviously, on top of that, there is our own time and money going into this as well. We just want extra money to get us to definitely the next milestone - definitely producing something that gets to people."

A worthy idea and Kickstarter funding may be their breakthrough. Stranger things have happened.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, since 1991 I have been able to write books but have been unable to read printed books. Books on computer screens are another matter. So Simon Fox's The Written World is for me. Bibliotherapy is clearly not.