Books, Games and Beyond. An invitation to the LAB

While taking a shower today, I was musing about how much everything has changed in the Wild Wide Web since I started exploring it and in the publishing industry since I started working in it. But did it? Has anything really changed? People still create content, try to sell it or give it away for free. Data are still shared, sold or stolen. Physical goods still change owners via the interwebs. People still communicate. Sometimes, they even make money with it. The industry is still worried about all the disruptive changes and looking for solutions to handle it. One thing definitely changed, though: It is way more easy to do all things online nowadays. And everybody does it. A lot has been said about prosumerism and this was not what made me take my laptop and write down my thoughts after I stepped out ouf the shower. Let’s see: What else has changed significantly in the last couple of years? As far as I can see, it’s the rapid rise of mobile devices. And with them, new ways to distribute new kinds of digital content. In the last couple of months, mobile content (mostly apps) has become a major topic of my work. No wonder, my mind circled around this area a little longer…

Telling stories on mobile devices

So what does the publishing industry make of it? Well, there are ebooks and apps, for sure. And there are even games. When it comes to narratives, there are many ways they can be told. What are the differences? And are they adequate to overcome the obstacles of digital life? let’s have a closer look at some of them:

The simple (flow) e-book

The most important thing to tell a story are words. This is the simple e-book’s philosophy and main strength: It usually has a lot of written text and caters to avid readers. In spite of its usefulness, it usually lacks visual beauty. Plus, it doesn’t make use of the possibilities that mobile devices offer – except for being readable on them.

The „good looking“ e-book

For some narratives, words aren’t everything: Typography tells a story, too, and so do images. To make the visual elements play nice on e-book readers, tablets and smartphone, it takes an astonishing amount of effort. Lucky enough, some publishers accept the challenge and try to improve the way books with lots of pictures are displayed (one of them is my current employer mixtvision with Smart Layout e-books).

The enhanced e-book

Enhanced e-books incorporate multimedia content like image galleries, audio or video files into their stories. That’s it.

The animated e-book

Some elements of the e-book are animated. Sometimes, these animations even add to the content, though often they are just decorative elements.

The interactive e-book

This is where it gets interesting. The interactive e-book comes in many flavors: In its minimal form, the reader can tap on certain (image or text) elements and they move or make a sound. The interactions can be more sophisticated, though, and include mini-games like puzzles or quizzes, swiping in and out of elements  and the like. As most dedicated e-book reader don’t support these kinds of interaction, interactive e-books are usually only found in Apple’s iBookstore. Used in the right way, interactions offer a great way to add to the story or to tell a story themselves.

The book app

Most advanced in terms of technical possibilities, book apps have a high potential to enrich the reading experience. Native book apps should be developed with both the mobile reader and the mobile device with all its features in mind. Story and interactive elements can really ‚click‘, though they don’t always do as many publishers are still too preoccupied with printed books or animated e-books. Furthermore, production costs for book apps are high, especially if you intend to make them accessible on multiple platforms.

The game app

Lots of games at least try to tell a story. Not all of them make sense, though, as they are often built around a certain gaming principle. You can even find story elements (like characters to identify with or ‚missions‘, i.e. motifs or themes) in casual games: Even though they are not necessary, they can achieve a stronger attachment of players to the game. Games do come in all varieties, from simple to sophisticated. The ones telling a story tend to be found in the more sophisticated area which, again, means high production costs.

Gamified books and storified games

Nowadays, games are the big thing on mobile devices. You play while riding the bus, while waiting for a friend to arrive, while watching TV or wherever and whenever you find it suitable. Gaming takes the mind off everyday worries, you can conquer boredom, you can even learn something new. Books can do the same – plus, maybe even more than games, they can activate your phantasy by leaving more blank spaces to be filled in. Just as stories are used to strengthen a game’s drive and the player’s attachment to it, game elements can be used to drive a story or make the reader engage more with it. For example, you can challenge the reader and ask him to solve certain tasks before he gets to read on or he gets rewards for reading a certain amount of pages in a certain time. The challenge is to make the content and the game elements work together – without losing focus on telling a great story. Too many incoherent interactive or game elements will distract from the story itself. My musings about the current state of books or stories in the digital world made me wonder: Is that really all there is? And could I think of anything else? I have to confess: I didn’t take the time to research in depth. I did make up my mind, though: The real difference between reading on your PC and on your smartphone is not screen size but mobility and the context in which you use one or the other. Why not make use of that? As you take your mobile device with you, you can read (or consume content) in different environmental contexts. Couldn’t they be part of the story? Readers want to get lost in the story, gamers want to be challenged and feel a sense of achievment, people want to share stuff that matters to them in social networks and in real life. So let’s bring it all together!

An invitation to the LAB

You can find engaging stories and passionate players coming together in certain places to play, talk, enjoy themselves and escape from everyday life for a while. What brings them together is called LARP – live action role-playing. This might be a good model to develop a new kind of digital content. Welcome to the live action book – or just LAB! It is supposed to combine the best of all worlds, that is reading, playing, communicating with others and creating your own content.

What could the LAB look like? Imagine you’re writing a story about zombies (and shouldn’t every good story include at least on zombie?). Let’s say, there is some kind of virus that spreads. Or a secret government experiment on biogenetic weapons has gone wrong. Who knows? There are lots of possible sources for a zombie epidemic! Anyway, the few survivors need to find a safe haven, they need to find a cure, a solution for the problem. They need to survive. That’s the goal for the game. Maybe there are other minor goals like slashing as many undead as you can or find food.

Now, as the story unfolds, the characters need to overcome a lot of challenges like finding food or medicine, trying to get in touch with other survivors, organising weapons and means of transportation. How can the reader/player become a part of this? There could be the need to check-in at a certain place or a generic kind of place like a supermarket before you can read the next chapter. You could be asked to post a photo of your communications system, maybe even with a certain hashtag – and thus find other readers/players who are trying to find more „survivors“. To find find the cure or the evil scientist behind the zombie armageddon, readers/players should look for clues both inside the text and in the real world, maybe QR codes hidden in public transport vehicles and leading to the evil mastermind’s video diary. And while the characters are on the run, the readers/players need to finish reading the chapter in a certain time frame or run a certain disctance themselves.

There are a lot of possible variations how to intertwine story, game and reality. Some are very complex and expensive, some are easily implemented. You just need the right idea for a hybrid like this, between e-book and (alternate reality) game. And it’s essential that the gaming principles can be casually integrated into the readers’/players‘ daily routine – at least if you want to reach out to a „mainstream“ audience. I would suggest realising certain functions or triggers via well-established networks, e.g. check-ins via Foursquare or posting photos on Instagram, to make it as convenient for the readers/players as possible.

The LAB can be a costly endeavor, both in terms of money and in manpower. But as the name indicates, the LAB is supposed to be a place to experiment, to find new ideas and test them, to work and create together. Thus, dear publishers, please step in, go find yourself a lab partner and get the experiment going. And please, if you already have a LAB, don’t be square with me for not knowing about it – just let me know and I’ll sure try it out!

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