Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Building a Literary Simulation: 10 Lessons

Cast and Crew
Location: Post-Mortem for "House of Usher" Beta Test By Viv Trafalgar and Iggy

Now that the students have finished the beta-test, we will spend the holiday break adding whatever changes can be accomplished quickly. A major re-do of the House will have to wait until summer 2010. So, what did we learn?
  1. Iggy: Plan, plan, and plan-- Starting in mid-summer, it took me approximately 200 hours to build the House, after the student builder had made the floor plan and several stunning bits like the crypt entrance and the banisters for a couple of two-story areas. Then I had to buy or make props, recruit actors (calling in many favors), and prepare clues and special effects.

  2. Viv: Structure is important -- . Role play is new to many, and an in-class RP can feel very risky to some. This is especially true when they are working with peers in a class environment, and also exploring a piece of literature to compliment their actions that may or may not be a new text. Providing as many structural elements as are appropriate to support the central goal will help you focus on the point, playing out the character roles within the simulation and supporting learning.

    Some structural elements to plan for early:
    • including a goal or task that will give new RPers a starting point
    • a map of the area, or a native guide (our Roderick offered students a 'tour of the house')
    • an orientation opportunity, and/or someone to help students get dressed & into character
    • bringing in experienced actors to take the more difficult roles, help guide the narrative, and solve any simulation or actor issues that may come up.

  3. Iggy: Either hire an experienced builder or learn to build before you begin -- This sounds intuitive, but in my case I thought my skills with linked prims and simple copy/paste/modify scripting would suffice. While Jordan Mhia, our student builder--with no SL experience prior to Usher--did admirable work, I'd have rather done more of it alongside Jordan earlier on or hired it out, where I lacked the skills. In either case, it really helps to have a skilled primary builder do most of the heavy-lifting. In the event, we all learned by doing. What transpired--a laggy, overprimmed build we are still reworking--hurt immersion that is the key to literary work, whether in a book or on a screen. If you have a knack for building, I'd still buy a lag meter, learn to use mega-prims, reduce the number of scripted objects, and hire a scripter to save time and anguish!

  4. Viv: Immersion -- Immersion deepens when the environment becomes a character in its own right. This means thinking about a lot of things - from creating a space that is low-lag so people can move through it comfortably, to making the space vivid, tactile, and interesting - with great texture work, scripted objects, motion, and lots of things to discover. Some of these immersive aids will end up impacting RP, (and that's a good thing!) so bear that in mind. A few items that help with immersion:
    • period clothing to help the group get into character (because what you see before you helps you feel more realistic) as well to help each player. The act of putting on a costume is an event distinctly attached to "changing" your character.
    • Props - leave interactive items out for the actors, as well as discovery items. Things that can be toyed with for effect (a rocking horse, a skeleton) are as additive to the experience as things that pass an item or clue to the narrative.
    • Ambient sound and motion - Sound and motion can do a lot to create a living space, instead of a diorama. That said, too much sound, or too many movements will distract and detract. This is a place for subtlety. And, of course, occasional spooky laughter if you're an Usherite.

    Library Ghost
  5. Iggy: Don't be a slave to the story-- We deviated greatly from Poe's deterministic universe with our "telling" of Usher, both in entertaining our guests and in crafting details. Starting with hints Poe left (mysterious servants, body-snatching doctor) we created rich subplots that we are still elaborating. Often the very props that Viv notes in #4 became key elements in subplots (a diary entry, a creepy poem left in the crypt, a bottle of laudanum). If we had focused too much time on making the House collapse, as it does at the end of Poe's tale, we'd have wasted time better employed making our retelling lively. One might later return to an idea that could not be completed; we may have the House burn, as it does in the 1960 film starring Vincent Price, instead of having it fall apart. Since damage was on for the simulation, the outcome could be just as deadly.

  6. Viv: Use your people - even when they're dead -- No one is going to be doing everything all the time in a good narrative, but if you have a character who has some downtime, give them objects they can move around or trigger to add to the ambiance. They can stay in place, but cam all over the environment, looking for people to spook (er, I mean Immerse) with objects they have permission to use. Also, for the 'lead actors' a collaborative back channel (when group chat is working) or a skype conversation (when it's not) is very helpful for pre-planning, coordinating during the event, and post-game wrap-ups.

  7. Iggy: Link tasks to tangibles -- This advice comes from an article I'm revising for publication. In the case of Usher, the writers had a final blog entry that counted for participation credit. It's sad to say that the college students I teach won't do an activity just for the fun of it. It must be connected to a class activity and, yes, graded. In our case, the Usher experience grew from their overall goal (Save the Ushers) and individual tasks (such as "Find out what you can about the family doctor"). In each case, the Ushers' guests were not simply tossed into the simulation without guidance. Viv gave me the idea for this, by the way. I'd been thinking broadly about how writing assignments in and about virtual worlds need to lead to something useful in the class and beyond it, as when writers' work becomes republished in a well known blog like New World Notes.

  8. Viv: Engage -- Ask, don't just answer. Don't give all the answers straight off! Interact with visitors as if you were the character, not as if you were a lesson about the character. Be as curious as they might be and sometimes parry questions with questions.

  9. Iggy: Improv-- A good literary build is not a museum, though we did intend for the House of Usher to be used, at times when actors are not available, as just that. When actors or visitors roleplay, however, why not be ready to "wing it" when visitors come up with a clever idea? Good gamemasters in old paper-and-pencil games like Dungeons & Dragons know how to improvise when players go "off script." That also saves a GM time, since s/he need not prepare so many notes but merely a general outline with several "what if" scenarios. One phenomenal moment of improv occurred when the actor playing Roderick confused an avatar named Jennings for Jenkins, a servant we invented for the retelling. Jennings IMed me about this, and I said "run with it. Be offended." I then IMed Roderick to say "Jennings is going to challenge you. Keep pretending he's your employee. You are mad, after all." The results were just what we wanted: a new plot direction emerging from an accident.

  10. Viv: Schedule, prepare, have backup plans, prepare some more -- Any live performance needs a good coordinator. A good coordinator is someone who can master (rapidly changing) schedules, make connections that get people where they need to be, and who has the phone numbers and emails of everyone else in the group. (Personally, I think Iggy is a genius at this - let me know if you want his contact info. {just kidding, Iggy.}) The coordinator and everyone else need to be comfortable with the fact that 'if you build it, they will come' is not always true - and that the opposite - no one showed up - isn't a reflection on your effort. Schedule participants for the performances or tours to come at certain times; even establish a penalty if they do not show up and you've arranged a live show for them. The theatre industry does this to real theatergoers who have forgotten the time of the show in the form of a hefty charge to a credit card, so do a number of restaurants, come to think of it; and many are somewhat forgiving and willing to reschedule as well.

    Preparation is as important as scheduling. You need to prepare your audience - tell them what this is, why they're doing it, and how it is different than what they've done before. Then tell them again. Remind them where it is, and the appropriate level of behavior. Then tell them some interesting details like what this is, why they're doing it, and how it is different. Wash, Rinse, Repeat. Don't assume that because this is foremost in your mind, your participants are automatically going to feel the same way. But, once the time comes to become part of the experience, they stand a better chance of arriving prepared, and ready to engage you and your build in some original and imaginative ways, which is exactly what happened to us. The students arrived at their scheduled times (mostly), dressed and ready, and began to interact with the characters, the surroundings, and to become part of the story themselves - even (as Iggy said above) to delve into new possibilities for the narrative. That was exciting to see, and a pleasure to be a part of, especially since this was a beta test. It was a very good beta test!
Skeleton in the attic
Iggy's Coda: This has to "go to eleven," gentle readers. So, as Viv noted, I'll schedule and coordinate your interactive improv events in SL: fees begin at $200 USD per hour :)


Mirt Media Maven said...

Joe this is a great summary and is something I'll definitely refer our faculty to! Thanks for taking the time to articulate & share this.

Viv Trafalgar said...

Kudos to URichmond, the student and faculty builders, and to all the actors who took part in the first round of Usher - you all made this happen and did a wonderful job!

Maggie said...

This is a great summary. I would recommend the anyone interested in role play activities should participate in a role play activity. This has been very helpful for me.

Unknown said...

Great summary of an interesting project. I was wondering if you've heard of the LEEF conference at Harrisburg University. This project sounds like an excellent case study in building immersive environments. Take a look at the call for submissions for more information.