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September 2009

Adrian Hon

Last Thursday, Adrian Hon came in to talk about Six to Start, games design and story-telling.

We’re about storytelling and play.

Storytelling is a huge part of the world’s culture, and great stories have always had the ability to move and excite us, whatever the medium. 

Play means a lot to us, too. We draw inspiration from video games, boardgames, casual games and playful applications and services.

Play helps us learn, grow and deal with new experiences – and when play and storytelling are combined, they give us the opportunity to deeply engage with our audience and get them to do things – as a large single group, or individually. Great storytelling and great gameplay are at the heart of what we do.

Adrian began by looking at the role of story-telling in human society, the reception of the first European novels, the ways in which our strong identification with literary heroes and heroines has been elicited and the great role now played in our lives by online text. You can get a good sense of what Adrian said from his posting earlier this year, How we Tell Stories.

This brought us to We Tell Stories ('six stories, written by six authors, told in six different ways — ways that could only happen on the web … released over six weeks'), pausing briefly to look at amillionpenguins.com. In particular, Adrian talked us through Charles Cumming's The 21 Steps and Mohsin Hamid's The (Former) General. The latter grew out of an idea for a CYOA with a difference, but emerged as something very different — a "still life": 'while it does have branching, it doesn't allow the reader to affect the outcome of [the] story — only their own experience of it'. You get an excellent sense of the excitement surrounding this project from Six to Start and Penguin Books launch We Tell Stories and, of course, We Tell Stories received great acclaim, winning both the Experimental and Best of Show award categories at this year’s SXSW Web Awards. More about We Tell Stories on the Six To Start site (and there's a screencast). I'm looking forward to using We Tell Stories with my Year 9 class this year.

A number of our students have been playing Smokescreen, Six to Start's new game, developed for C4.

there is no better way to inform and educate people about online security and privacy than through a web-based game. — Smokescreen: Why Interaction Matters

Adrian describes Smokescreen as ARGish. Unlike Perplex City (designed and produced by Adrian at Mind Candy), a massive treasure hunt lasting 18 months and playable just the once, Smokescreen is replayable and each mission can be played in 10–20 minutes. The game is also marked by a strong story — and you might argue whether it is more an interactive game or an interactive story.

At the time of the talk, just 6 of 13 missions were out. My murky slides (sans flash, in a darkened room) give a sense of the realism of the game — Gaggle, fakebook, tweetr — and two, short, Six To Start videos follow:

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I think we might use at least some of Smokescreen in this year's ICT course (also Year 9).

Questions followed — about platforms, episodic games, recommendations, the time he gives to games (books claim pride of place), his role at Six To Start … We're very grateful to Adrian for taking the time to come and talk at St Paul's. These words give some indication of how he set the bar higher for us:

I feel there are two, equally mistaken, views of games. One is that stories in games are basically mediocre, and will remain mediocre, due to business reasons. There is no doubt that many publishers are demanding juvenile and  dumbed-down games, and that this makes it difficult to write a good story, but it shouldn’t make it impossible. The other view is that the stories in games are already more than a match for books and TV. I would disagree with this as well. … I think a good story in a game relies on having writers who have independence, and the trust and respect of game designers. … Writers are important. When a game’s graphics grow old, and the game mechanics become dated, all that’s left to remember is the story. As designers and writers of games, we all need to set a higher bar for ourselves. …

When I compared videogames to the development of books and novels, I was being serious. Historians will look back hundreds of years from now, and they will say that the explosion of narrative and game forms that we have now was a momentous time that transformed the way that people think and see the world.

It’s hard to imagine a world without books; without Lord of the Rings, or Catch 22, or Pride and Prejudice, or Great Expectations. Equally, it’s already hard to imagine a world without games. Just imagine where we’ll be in a few decades time. We have the opportunity to make those new types of games and stories that will changes people’s lives in the future, and there are so many possibilities. We just have to open our eyes to them. — How We Tell Stories


"If we want to contribute to some sort of tenable future" …

Artworks in general are increasingly regarded as seeds — seeds for processes that need a viewer's (or a whole culture's) active mind in which to develop. Increasingly working with time, culture-makers see themselves as people who start things, not finish them.

And what is possible in art becomes thinkable in life. We become our news selves first in simulacrum, through style and fashion and art, our deliberate immersions in virtual worlds. Through them we sense what it would be like to be another kind of person with other kinds of values. We rehearse new feelings and sensitivities. We imagine other ways of thinking about our world and its future. …

As artists and culture-makers begin making time, change and continuity their subject-matter, they will legitimise and make emotionally attractive a new and important conversation.
Brian Eno.

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Tower Bridge talking

Exciting times in ICT as its interconnections with other school subjects become clearer and as we build new areas to our curriculum. And some of that really does involve building.

This is a video made by my colleague, Olly Rokison, of his working Tower Bridge model. Both model and video are being used this year in our ICT course for our 13 year-olds as we explore how things are now talking to us.

From our school website (where the full, annotated Arduino code can be downloaded):

At St Paul's, we take a steady interest in new and emerging technologies. We have been experimenting recently with the open source Arduino hardware.

In this project, Oliver Rokison, Technology, ICT and Computing teacher, built a working paper model of Tower Bridge, connected it via Arduino gear to the Tower Bridge Twitter account — and the result is a model that mimics the movements of the real bridge.

The Tower Bridge Twitter account was, of course, set up by Tom Armitage. Tom wrote about putting Tower Bridge on Twitter in February, 2008, in Making Bridges Talk:

I’ve written before about how wonderful Twitter can be as a messaging bus for physical objects. The idea of overhearing machines talking about what they’re doing is, to my mind, quite delightful.


We are all Bayesians now

Intent on not being late for an evening session at Tinker.it! last week, I dropped by Bunhill Fields for too short a time, the light beginning to fail and a hurriedly printed off, crumpled map for guide.

image

Easy to find the memorials to Blake and his wife and Defoe. But I was on a quest for Thomas Bayes:

Bayes, Thomas (b. 1702, London - d. 1761, Tunbridge Wells, Kent), mathematician who first used probability inductively and established a mathematical basis for probability inference (a means of calculating, from the number of times an event has not occurred, the probability that it will occur in future trials). He set down his findings on probability in "Essay Towards Solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances" (1763), published posthumously in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London.

It took me too long to find his resting place, railed off and not in a great state of repair, and my rushed photos weren’t worth posting, but here’s one from the ISBA site (taken by Professor Tony O'Hagan of Sheffield University and seemingly not copyright):

Bayes 1 

The famous essay is online (PDF).

I need to spend more time in and around Bunhill Fields, but what prompted me to try to take it in as I sped across London was reading in Chris Frith’s book, Making up the Mind, how important Bayes is to neuroscience:

… is it possible to measure prior beliefs and changes in beliefs? … The importance of Bayes’ theorem is that it provides a very precise measure of how much a new piece of evidence should make us change our ideas about the world. Bayes’ theorem provides a yardstick by which we can judge whether we are using new evidence appropriately. This leads to the concept of the ideal Bayesian observer: a mythical being who always uses evidence in the best possible way. … Our brains are ideal observers when making use of the evidence from our senses. For example, one problem our brain has to solve is how to combine evidence from our different senses. … When combining this evidence, our brain behaves just like an ideal Bayesian observer. Weak evidence is ignored; strong evidence is emphasised. … But there is another aspect of Bayes’ theorem that is even more important for our understanding of how the brain works. … on the basis of its belief about the world, my brain can predict the pattern of activity that should be detected by my eyes, ears and other senses … So what happens if there is an error in this prediction? These errors are very important because my brain can use them to update its belief about the world and create a better belief … Once this update has occurred, my brain has a new belief about the world and it can repeat the process. It makes another prediction about the patterns of activity that should be detected by my senses. Each time my brain goes round this loop the prediction error will get smaller. Once the error is sufficiently small, my brain “knows” what is out there. And this all happens so rapidly that I have no awareness of this complex process. … my brain never rests from this endless round of prediction and updating.

… our brain is a Bayesian machine that discovers what is in the world by making predictions and searching for the causes of sensations.


tapTap and Beatbox

A very great pleasure last Thursday lunchtime to welcome Andy Huntington to St Paul's — to talk about his work as an interaction designer and artist. Part of a strand in our talks that seeks to show how computing is now intimately involved with the creative arts as well as the sciences, Andy’s talk both explained the background to his approach and interests and gave plenty of opportunity for hands-on engagement, focusing on tapTap and Beatbox, as the pictures show.

Andy

tapTap and Beatbox

tapTap and Beatbox

tapTap and Beatbox     tapTap and Beatbox     tapTap and Beatbox

Experiencing the shared delight and pleasure in the room when tapTap left the realm of talked-about-concept and leapt into life under Andy’s hands was just great. Toy + game + interaction + music. Play and enthusiasm.

Lots of good feedback about this talk. Thanks, Andy.

We hope to be doing some follow-up, inter-disciplinary work with Andy.


Flight

 Denham Airfield

Last Thursday, I was very fortunate to have a chance to fly again in a helicopter. Back when I was a teenager, the RAF took some of us up for about five minutes — but last week we flew for an hour in a Twin Squirrel, from Denham into London, then back out along the Thames. An opportunity for Jonathan to take some aerial photos of the school.

Over St Paul's        St Paul's School

Amazing the price of helicopters — and that’s a pre-owned Eurocopter EC155B, the old version, I presume, of one of these. But what reduced me to pretty well speechless wonder was the experience of sustained helicopter flight, flying through and over London, hovering for several minutes at a time 700 feet up, the world below us … a map. The all-at-once and almost shocking change of scale and perspective, so different from what I'm used to when flying by plane: it's close to the human, but we're difficult to pick out — our larger artefacts and their patterns fill our vision. It's simultaneously beautiful and unsettling, alluring and alien.

The day was hazier than we might have expected from the ground (you could see the haze over London as we approached) and my photos were all shot across the cabin and through the perspex of the windows. Some of the quality was affected and I’m pretty inexperienced at handling processing software, but I was surprised at how good the results were nonetheless.

Wonderful, too, to fly a few minutes East and come to St Paul’s Cathedral. The school began at St Paul’s, 500 years ago this year, and Barnes is as far West as the school’s ever been — or likely ever to get.

St Paul's School 

St Paul's School

St Paul's Cathedral

Once it was done, I told my 92 year-old mother about the flight. I needn’t have worried — she wasn’t. Just excited and thrilled.

Of course, this makes me think of that clip of Louis CK on YouTube, Everything is amazing right now — and nobody's happy. I’ve shown that to 13 year-olds this term, very early on in their ICT course, and I’m pleased to report that they love it. ‘Did you partake in the miracle of human flight, you non-contributing zero?’

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AUP

ICT AUPs are hardly sexy, but they of course reflect how an institution thinks of its computing resources and of its users. We drew up a revised AUP last calendar year and have just gone live with it for this new academic year.

In the development of ICT at St Paul’s, we have put the emphasis upon users being both informed and responsible. The course for our first years (13 year–olds) is open to all in our community to make use of and, within the constraints of a busy school’s life, we try to communicate widely key points about online life — from the way stuff endures online, is read by unknown publics, etc, to the exercising of thoughtfulness and the nurturing of a good ear for context and (therefore) register. Underlying all this, two things: the value in creating and nurturing your online identity, and the whole business of learning to be accountable for what you post or send.

The debt to danah boyd in our AUP will be evident, but we’ve also drawn upon a number of other writers. Last year’s introductory lesson on blogs and wikis cited danah, but also included this:

In all online activity,  you must post responsibly and wisely.  How we behave online affects our reputation — and the reputation of others. Here are some simple guidelines for participating in online life: ‘be civil’ (Jeremy Keith's Irish music site, The Session); ‘be polite and respectful in your interactions with other members’ (Flickr); ‘use common sense while posting’ (Last.fm); ‘Use your best judgement. Don't forget your day job’ (IBM, pdf); ‘IBM's integrity & reputation, as well as your own, are in your hands’ (IBM Virtual World Guidelines).

I like the point an IBM blogger made concerning IBM’s Corporate Blogging Guidelines, something I apply in my mind to a good ICT AUP, too: ‘a commitment that we all have entered into together’. Schools, with their transient populations, have to renew their commitment continually, not only every year but many times each year. This is the guts of teaching and of good schools. It’s tiring, but very rewarding.

Another reason why AUPs test schools: ‘most schools and districts are operating under Acceptable Use Policies that were written before there was a Read/Write Web’ (David Warlick, in 2007). As I’ve said before, no-one I know saw what we were really doing when we started connecting our schools to the web. The shared perception was that we were enlarging our libraries. When we began more fully to appreciate that we’d in fact joined the read/write web, the need for a very different kind of AUP was evident.

An AUP should, to borrow Roo’s words from his 2008 post about IBM’s conduct guidelines, Policing vs Guidelines, be ‘annually revisited (though not necessarily annually revised)’. This is what we’re running with this year:

ICT: policy for good use

This policy is binding. It has been kept as simple as possible and is intended to encourage creative, imaginative use of our computing facilities. If you exercise due care and consideration, you will be observing its spirit.

The school provides both networked, desktop computers and wireless access to the internet through the school’s own filtered connection. Wireless access (which does not provide direct access to the school’s network) is available in specified locations for authorised users to use via their own devices.

Identity and responsibility (online and digital)

Respect and maintain the integrity of digital identities — yours and others’. For example: log on only as yourself; keep your login details private and make them secure; do not leave any device logged in and accessible to others.

Exercise informed judgement about disclosing your personal details and do not give out another person’s details without their clear consent.

Except for Coletines, financial transactions by pupils are permitted where you act within the constraints of the school’s rules and with your parents’ approval.

In the digital realm, once something is posted online it has a persistence that is not like something that is said. It is also searchable and replicable and you cannot be sure who your audience is or will be. Once something is posted online, its effects are often magnified and can be mirrored out of context. All of this requires experience to understand. Remember: when you post, you have not only your own reputation to consider but also that of others and that of the school. Every member of the community has to take responsibility for his or her actions online. If you are in doubt, it is best not to post, send an email, etc.

Network and hardware integrity

Respecting and maintaining the network and the computers the school provides is largely common sense. For example, if the functioning of the system were to be impaired by the introduction of a virus, it would have a possible impact not just on the school’s network but on all devices using the school’s facilities. Attachments sent to you should be assessed case-by-case: unexpected or suspicious files should not be opened.

Many different devices exist which can be connected to a network or a computer. Every user needs to exercise judgement: for example, storage devices (eg, USB sticks) with non-executable files on them are clearly fine, but should have been virus-checked first by you. Harder to assess can be executables designed to run safely from a USB stick (etc) — eg, a browser. If in doubt, consult with a member of the ICT staff.

Devices that are themselves computers (in whatever form) should not be linked to the wired network without first consulting either the Director of ICT or the IT Manager.

Laptops and other portable devices can access the internet (and, via this route, the school’s systems) by using the wireless network — accessible from a number of points within the school.  Anti-virus provision for all mobile and portable devices is the owner’s responsibility.

Downloading files: again, exercise judgement and be aware that viruses can be hidden in documents and images (for example) and not just in executable files. To guard against accidents, the school’s own machines do not allow unauthorised software installation. Think about what you are doing and always seek advice if in doubt.

Respecting the network’s integrity extends to how messages are sent. There are many ways of spamming people, or generating needless messages, and no-one should be doing this. Another example of unacceptable practice would be attempting to send messages anonymously or pseudonymously.

It is standard practice in organisations to audit users’ internet activity and all staff and pupils are audited in this way. Audit trails are rarely examined but exist as a safety net should things go wrong. Should you find yourself looking at or opening material you consider the school would think inappropriate (or material you find disturbing), simply inform a member of staff so we can work with you to address the matter.

Note:

  • On our intranet, there are hyperlinks to further info for: disclosing your personal details and financial transactions by pupils are permitted where you act within the constraints of the school's rules.
  • “Coletines” refers to pupils in our junior school, Colet Court.
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