It’s an experience that sets a mood, brought to you by someone who’s been there. The mood is at once haunting and dark, almost existentialist, but countered by the bright humanity of its game-playing, geography-hopping central character. It’s immediately addicting, but isn’t a game. It sets a tone, but is unlike any novel you’ve ever seen. It’s an e-book, but that would disparage the level of aesthetics it has to offer. Whatever Inanimate Alice is, teachers love it—because their students love it.
“Ian Harper is a visionary creator and producer whose work is at the frontier of electronic books, multimedia, and gaming,” says John Warren, a 20-year marketing veteran in the publishing industry and a specialist in digital publishing who works for the RAND Corporation. Ian owns The Bradfield Company, the London-based creator of the digital novel Inanimate Alice, one of the best exemplars of the need for “trans-media navigation”. Inanimate Alice “stands above others to demonstrate the potential of a true ‘electronic book’—as opposed to the digital ‘picture’ of a printed book that you’d download to your e-reader,” says Warren.
Inanimate Alice is but a glimpse of the future of electronic texts and Ian Harper is leading the way, bringing artists, sponsors and readers together to make it happen. Ian has operated his own consultancy business for 20 years and has travelled widely in the Middle East and South East Asia. This experience, as well as his work in supply chain logistics for the oil and gas industry, finds its way into the stories that comprise the Inanimate Alice series, which are written and directed by award-winning novelist Kate Pullinger and digital artist Chris Joseph, based on a concept and characters developed by Ian.
The “digital novel” combines elements of text, audio, video, special effects and gaming to explore a form of storytelling where the reader becomes an active participant. The longer you read and play in this digital experience, the more your participation is required. But make no mistake; the experience is captivating, and not soon forgotten. The best way to understand Inanimate Alice is to read this interview with Ian, and then to simply click on the link and see it for yourself.
Victor: What is Inanimate Alice?
Ian: It’s a born-digital story; a gripping narrative that is being crafted primarily as a reading-from-the-screen experience targeting tweens.
It is dark and menacing, not at all what you would expect for that audience. Result? Teachers love it because the kids are fully engaged. “It’s not like learning” they tell us.
On a technical level, it’s an interactive multimedia audiovisual chapter book. That’s quite a mouthful. It will never catch on. If someone came up with a great name for this new way to read we would offer a prize!
For now we are calling it a digital novel, and suggesting it as an example of what will come next after e-books. I have the impression that kids growing up with the audiovisual stimuli of HDTV, computer games and a plethora of rich media will not take eagerly to e-books. They are the audiovisual literati, those more comfortable with manipulating images and music than they are processing words. I think they will find e-readers about as interesting as slate and chalk.
This kind of experience turns the reader into an active participant. While reading the text, from time to time you are required to undertake a task, solve a puzzle, listen to some music or focus on an algorithm driven piece of artwork. This simulated multi-tasking environment is an immersive experience that, while not a computer game, provides some of that feel at the same time as delivering a high-quality literary resource. This is of a quality necessary for the deep reading and re-reading required for academic investigation. Even though the series is incomplete it has inspired a considerable number of reviews. Three Ph.D. theses have focused entirely or largely on the series considering its merits in the future of education.
Back to what it is about: it is the story of a journey—or rather, a series of residences—that any of us could experience but few ever will. Together with Alice we get to visit strange places and see things from different perspectives. Viewers tell us that they like to hear stories and have views of places that are contrary to how they are portrayed in the media. The world is populated with wonderful peoples from many different races. ‘Alice’ embraces them.
Victor: Why did you create Inanimate Alice?
Ian: This series provides a commentary on the relationships humans, young people in particular, have with computers. I’ve had a burning fascination with this for some years. It is illuminating to watch young kids play computer games, how engrossed, how immersed they become in that world they are playing that they become unaware of their present environment. Similar behavior has overtaken cell-phone users, mini-computers in themselves. Folks become so engaged in their conversations that they lose awareness of their personal space. This has all kinds of implications, from the increasing importance of “self” to the reduction in social skills and corresponding lack of manners. We all know how dangerous it is to drive while on the phone or texting. Most folks seem to carry on regardless. Being connected “Right Now” is all so important, right?
My conclusion here is that, in relating to computers, the developing brain occupies another space; somewhere else other than the present, the here and now. If, as we are told, the brain is an incomplete project—then where will this new-found intensity, this always-on environment, take us?
So, my what-if scenario goes like this: what if the most important relationship in your life is with your computer? Many people already spend more time with their computer than with family and friends. What if on-line friends, who you never meet, become more important to you than the real people in your life? If you never get to meet them, what does it matter if they are not real people? What if you are just talking to the net?
You can see that we are exploring different levels of reality here. What will “real” mean to someone who rarely meets another human being but connects with hundreds or thousands of “friends” online?
The relationship between Alice and Brad, the character she has created, is the core theme of “Inanimate Alice”. Alice travels the world with her parents. Her father works in the oil industry and is always on the move. She has no long-term friends. But Brad is always there on her player, the personal computer she has with her at all times. He is Alice’s best friend in the world. To Alice, Brad is entirely real.
Victor: What does the name mean?
Ian: Alice is a student growing up to become a game designer. She talks to Brad and he talks back to her. This is in her head at first, but later on we get to see them chatting on screen. Alice is an energetic girl, full of life, but Brad is a manifestation of the computer. He is so fast he makes her feel lethargic, as if she has almost ground to a halt. So much so that she feels like an inanimate object.
This has yet to be revealed in the series—so don’t tell!
Victor: Who created it?
Ian: At the tender age of 50, I was invited to attend the UK’s National Film and TV school. I had the human-computer relationship idea and I wanted to develop it as a screenplay for a movie. In the movie, Alice is in her mid-twenties and working for the biggest games company in the world. It is a sci-fi thriller set in a near future where Government is broken and the world operates by the playing of computer games on-line. It’s an alternative voting system. The most successful game is ‘Environmental Outrage’ where players tackle real-life issues that are destroying the planet.
The characters and the premise originate in the screenplay. I was eager to promote that screenplay and investigated a variety of ways in which to draw attention to it. After much discussion, I invited Kate Pullinger, an award-winning novelist and digital pioneer and Chris Joseph, a remarkable digital artist, to outline a backstory.
The first episode went on to win a substantial prize. We produced a second episode. Shortly thereafter we noticed a high proportion of those accessing the materials were teachers. Alice’s fate was sealed.
Victor: What does it do? What are the benefits?
Ian: Over a planned 10 increasingly complex and interactive episodes we will see Alice grow from age eight when she is living with her parents in a remote area of China until that moment when she appears in the movie. We visit with her traveling the world, at school, college and finally working at the games company. Each stage is delivered with age- and experience-appropriate technology, imagery and narrative. Every single element changes, improves from episode to episode in keeping with Alice’s developing capabilities.
When complete, the series will provide on-line about four hours of entertainingly educational material using the latest digital storytelling technologies with a production quality that youth audiences have come to expect.
Presently, with four episodes complete and the fifth in development, already it provides the backdrop for a substantial body of resources focused towards Literacy, Language Arts and ICT education (information and communication technologies). The first ‘education packs’ have been warmly received. The feedback is singularly supportive.
Our vision is that children will grow up with Alice, from class to class, from year to year. Attaching curriculum learning experiences to a well-loved story will delight classrooms and online learners as they delight audiences for books, movies or computer games. Being tuned in to the story will afford teachers opportunities to address their objectives more quickly and in a way that has the student’s full attention.
When Minneapolis middle school reading specialist Julie Call first came across the series she declared, “So that’s New Literacy!” She told me that she had been hearing about new literary forms for quite some time but until encountering ‘Alice’ had yet to come across a useful example. Julie has had considerable success in inspiring hard-to-engage inner city students in reading and creative writing. With ‘Alice’ she has students eager to get back to the story after the lesson has finished.
Interestingly, a little over 10 percent of our audience teaches English as a second language. The European Commission has featured the series in projects on two occasions, for eSkills and Intercultural Dialogue. The latter encouraged us to develop episodes in French, German, Italian and Spanish with the Spanish version now finding viewers throughout the Americas.
Victor: How is it unique from other similar products/services? What companies do you see as in the same market?
Ian: How often do you hear that there is nothing completely new, nothing unique and that there are competitors everywhere? Kate draws parallels with the 19th-century novelists, like Conan Doyle, who wrote novels in chapters for periodicals. I think this helps understand what it is and how it and similar titles may be projected in the future.
However, what we are producing sharply contrasts with other episodic works whether they are novels or TV series. ‘Alice’s is unique through its increasing complexity and interactivity, its changing use of technologies through the series, and the interplay with a sandbox of software tools, mini-apps, written into the story. These elements all go towards making a vast canvas which is only just starting to be revealed.
When he saw ‘Inanimate Alice’ CTV journalist Kris Abel said, “there is nothing else like it on the net.” I use this comment a lot and am frequently challenged on it. My response? “Show it to me.” This is not meant to be arrogant. I see plenty of competition in what publishers are doing to audiovisualize their printed works, but Alice is in a space of her own—for the time being at least.
This response is pointed at the storytelling aspects of the title. When it comes to the commercialization of the project, the offering of educational products that will accompany the series, I am sure we will be in amongst some of the most aggressive providers in the business.
The shift from classroom-based resources to online is gathering pace and the market is in pretty muddy waters right now. In this light, it seems imprudent to suggest who our competitors will be. We simply don’t know. Our business model remains flexible while we consider the optimum path forward. Whether we collaborate with mainstream ‘channels’ or stand alone is undecided.
Victor: Why didn’t you create a computer game?
Ian: Many folks seem to be convinced that video games are effective as teaching tools. They are interactive; certainly they are fun, experiential and easily accessible by children. However, the storytelling qualities of games are routinely derisory if not entirely absent. Our approach is to put the story first, placing it at the heart of what we offer. Our alternative strategy is assembling games and software (mini-apps) around the core high-quality, literate text.
Victor: When was it developed? What is something interesting or relevant about its development history?
Ian: The project has been in development since 2005 shortly after I completed the screenplay.
We have been fortunate in that it has generated a great deal of publicity. Episode 3 was launched in collaboration with the Guardian newspaper in the UK. This was a great success and at the time, one of the paper’s best download events. While episode 3 was being downloaded from the Guardian’s servers, our site attracted more than 2,000 visitors per hour from folks seeking the other episodes.
Victor: Where did it originate? Where can you get it now?
Ian: The first four episodes are available online at http://www.inanimatealice.com where teachers can also access downloadable education resources that offer guidance in creating lesson plans and worksheets.
Victor: How much does it cost? What are the options?
Ian: The episodes are available online for free. More than 1 million episodes have been downloaded from our site—mostly by teachers, who are the majority of our audience.
Alongside the production of episode 5 we are developing a considerable body of additional resources addressing literacy, language training and ICT education.
In an ideal world we would like to provide the entire series online for free in perpetuity selling or licensing additional ‘products’ to help pay for it. Whether we are able to support that goal through investment in the educational assets that will accompany the series, by sponsorship or other means, remains to be seen.
Victor: What are some examples of it in action?
Ian: Presently the series is most popular in Australia, where it has been recommended for the new curriculum, and New Zealand, where the National Library says it is “amazing” and promotes it to library groups and at conferences.
One of the most popular outcomes is for teachers to encourage students to investigate the title and create their own next episode. Already there are many hundreds of student created next episodes on wikis, nings, moodles and blogs, like these:
Victor: Who is it particularly tailored for? Who is it NOT for?
Ian: The series targets 10-14 year olds. It seems to point mostly towards girls who are engaged with the story, asking who Alice is, what is she like. Boys become engrossed with the gadgets and games. It acts as a primer for those not familiar with games and stimulates awareness of a multi-tasking environment.
It is not for avid gamers who find it relatively slow-paced and not having enough action.
I continue to be surprised by the variety of interests it inspires, and uses to which it is put. Just recently, ‘Alice’ has connected with a hospital school services organization. Similarly Community Adult/Family Learners find it engaging. We have seniors who like to listen to the music as the artwork unfolds. It is too much to suggest that there is something in it for everyone but it does appeal to quite a wide audience.
Victor: What are your thoughts on education these days?
Ian: It seems to me that we are overdue on a rethink about the entire learning process. The fundamentals, high-quality resources and great teachers—are being overshadowed by the debate about the fabric of education, its organization, the buildings it occupies. The world has moved on and it is time to turn this on its head. Let’s stop thinking about education as a process that takes place Monday to Friday for a few hours during the middle of the day. Let’s have multi-purpose buildings where the lights are on seven days a week and deliver 2 x 3.5 school weeks. Let’s have a fundamental part of the process take part in the home—not just ‘homework’ but such that all children are home-schooled a portion of their time. Essentially this means being connected online and working remotely.
It’s a sad state of affairs, but unfortunately accountants consider buildings as appreciating assets and favor them over the depreciating assets of technology and content. Beyond the numbers game this is rather nonsensical. It is the buildings that have become the albatrosses around our necks.
Victor: What sort of formative experiences in your own education helped to inform your approach to creating Inanimate Alice?
Ian: It feels now, at this remove, I spent most of my time with a complete lack of engagement. Many lessons seemed entirely irrelevant to life as I saw it. From quite a young age, I felt that I was rational and if I saw no use in what I was being taught I switched off—which was most of the time.
It has to be about engagement. I wanted to be inspired, stimulated, delighted. That was a rare occurrence for me.
Victor: How does Inanimate Alice address some of your concerns about education?
Ian: I see ‘Alice’ as a vehicle which will encourage “all the time” education. In a world that is always on, a student introduced to the story at school and enjoying the experience will take news of this home and discuss it with their parents and their friends. They can watch the series online together.
Homework attached to the series will then be encouraged and can be shared in an engaging way. Essentially, it makes the whole process much more inclusive.
I can imagine students learning English or another second language along with Alice on their mobile devices as they walk along the street.
Victor: What is your outlook on the future of education?
Ian: The debate lies in the relative cost of computing power vs. the capital cost of constructing and maintaining buildings. The core has to be online. Sub $500 computers now deliver a great deal of capability. I see students carrying these back and forth from school to home rather than lugging piles of books. This seems to me inevitable. It is just a matter of how fast it happens.
Victor: What else can you tell educators and other leaders in and around education about the value of Inanimate Alice? What makes you say that?
Ian: In their personal lives, students have more choice, more freedom than ever before. They have an array of TV programs, games, etc., which have substantial production budgets. It seems unreasonable to expect young people to tune educational assets in the same way when those are created on the low-to-no budget formula. This will suffice no longer.
Provide students with educational assets as media-rich and high-quality as entertainment assets and you will have engaged audiences—sorry I meant to say classes. And there we have it in a nutshell.
You’ve got to try this: www.inanimatealice.com
Victor Rivero is editor-in-chief of Edtech Digest. Write to: victor@VictorRivero.com