Why Learners Need to Make Bad Choices

Choice is a powerful tool of engagement.  Training as a teacher in the late noughties, I was taught that the epitome of classroom practice was the Early Years model of ‘choosing time’, which you may vaguely remember from your own start at school.  Lay out engaging learning activities in engaging ways and allow the young learners in your care to move between them at will, following the impulses of their own curiosity and the rhythms of their own attention.   The biases in the University Education Department were historic, with lecturers and mentors frequently harking back to the pre-1988 period before the National Curriculum standardised Primary School course content.  They were philosophical biases too, based on the still-powerful writings of Piaget, Vygotsky and their countless disciples in the British education system.  But they were also biases in tune with the popular psychological dictum that had become mainstream by the end of the twentieth Century: give people choices, and they will make responsible decisions.  The Labour Party’s landslide victory in 1997 ran on a slogan of ‘Education, Education, Education’ and all around echoes of this idea could be heard and read.  Privatising services was justifiable since the consumer would have an increase in choice, and would make responsible decisions…

It all feels rather naive in a world in which political and societal stability seems under constant threat from populist politicians and demagogues.  Journalists seem to believe that we are once again in the age of the mob and that we are under the influence of people with the skill to whip up emotions, unbalancing what the supposed responsible, sensible, rational decision-making of the general public and herding them into Brexits, panics, xenophobias and surrenders of their own power and agency.

But reflecting on this as a teacher and a specialist in writing choice, I have a few thoughts.

Choice was always emotional.  In the classroom, children can only rarely be trusted to follow their own preferences, and even then, it must be within bounds defined by their educators.  No teacher or school can can provide enough options for all learners, or all readers; some children will want to play or exercise outside, out of supervision (!).  And then there are the children who want to test the limits of choice-and-consequence.  ‘I know we’re not meant to do this, but what if we do?’

This recent, and amusingly-structured, article in the New Yorker by Leslie Jamison is excellent, and she quickly gets to the point that so many theorists of choice, both teachers and writers, seem to miss: people like to choose badly.  It’s the old ‘What-happens-if-I-press-this-red-button?’ temptation.  (I have a guilty memory of curiously and needlessly pressing an airline steward button on a flight sometime in 1991 or 2 that seems to be burned into my amygdala.  I remember her face, the dim light of the plane cabin, and the smell…  And the acute embarrassment.  I would have been around 6 years old and very English indeed in my social discomfort.)  I have observed children reading and writing choice-based fiction explicitly for the ‘wrong’ choices: they love to play with a sudden death, an unfair, tricky author’s punishment and an unexpected consequence.

And this is where I think the largely-untapped education power of choice-based fiction: in the emotional engagement if the reader.  Feel that a consequence was disproportionate to a choice?  Life is unfair?  You’re likely to remember what you chose, hanging your memory on an emotional hook of resentment.  And you might not make that mistake again.

If I were to design a series of choice-based education materials based around a single topic, I would first aim to engage the emotions of my reader and invest them in what they were reading.  I’d want them to be curious, but also playful.  I’d need my reader to appreciate that the story or environment in which they found themselves was not a genuine free space with unlimited options, but a collaboration of agency, in which they accepted the author’s limits and in which they were granted in turn a specific type of power.  Yet part of the deal, if the experience is to be attractive to a reader, is the right to explore, to play and to knowingly make bad decisions, both to see what the author has chosen in the way of consequences and to think about it yourself – to see if you agree.

And that’s how I genuinely try to build my classroom.  I currently teach 9-10 year-olds.  It’s also, from one perspective, how my Steam Highwayman works, and how Saga seems to be developing.  There’s a relationship with my long-term love of Science Fiction – or Speculative Fiction, as I think the genre is better named.  Speculative Fiction has space for your classic or near-future Sci-Fi, Fantasy and Alternate History – a parcel of some of my favourite genres.  Back when I was a teenager reading at speed through Asimov’s oeuvre, I realised that his formula, as a scientist writing, was to take a hypothesis and to experiment with it, through the medium of a story.  What if robots were conscious human-analogues?  How would that really work in society?  How would their systems be governed?  Then he would test the edges – make intentionally bad choices – and see the stories go wrong, characters imperilled or killed or disappointed – but explore the idea.

Alternate History does a similar thing, even more extremely than Historical Fiction.  I love the rich world of O’Brien’s Master and Commander series, which seems to ask ‘What if the men of Nelson’s navy were pretty much like the humans we see and know today?’ and then pursues the hypothesis for twenty-one books.  Alternate History then asks, ‘What if it had been like this?’  Three perspectives on a Nazi victory in World War II – Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Deighton’s SS-GB and Harris’s Fatherland – run parallel experiments with some strikingly similar results, each beginning from a fundamental Bad Choice.

Play is the Highest Form of Research

Albert Einstein (according to the internet… and also not)

Speculative or Choice-Based Fiction should be a place to explore – a place for ‘learning play’.  The Einstein quote (above) that gets thrown at toddler groups and university students alike here is almost certainly a misattribution or, at best, a paraphrase.  (There’s a short discussion of its possible origin here).  Hyperbole aside, play can be research, and if the space is safe enough to intentionally make bad choices, then there has to be an element of playfulness present.  But in a written book or an authored Choice-Based educational programme, there is only an illusion of experiment for the reader: the author has already decided upon the consequences.  It is the author who is really playing – really experimenting – not the reader.  If the reader wants to experiment with seeing what happens when they make new bad choices, or if they disagree with the author’s consequencing, they must graduate to creating their own Choice-Based fictions and be prepared to defend their own structures of choice.

An educator has a responsibility to their student.  For a learner to experiment open-endedly, without plan, structure or system will result in a mass of findings – data – and emotions that they will struggle to use.  But to lead a student along a path, using a collaboration of agency invites questioning and challenge: I love to hear my students or readers disagree, when they say ‘I don’t think that should happen…’ in response to the consequence I have suggested.  That’s fine – they simply need to be able to tell me what they think should happen, and begin their own choice-and-consequence chain.

All play and no work made Albert a paradigm-breaking physicist, apparently.

While looking on Pinterest for an amusing image of this much-bounced-about quote, I came across another that terrifies me a bit, and not just because of the ugly comma in the centre where a semi-colon or a nice conjunction would be so much clearer: “I never teach my pupils, I only provide the conditions in which they can learn.”  I’m a father now, as well as a teacher and a writer of Choice-Based Fiction: I recognise the absolute need to teach my children and my responsibility to be direct and unambiguous.  Yet without the right conditions – more the illusion of choice, or shared experiment, or safe play – there will never be a genuine independence of learning.

The Gamebook Ecosystem is Growing…

I’ve been spending time finding an illustrator to work on the internal art for Steam Highwayman III: The Reeking Metropolis, writing briefs and reference documents and leafing (digitally) through portfolios. It’s a tough job, as I’m having to build new working relationships and plan for a wide range of outcomes to a new Kickstarter. The affordability, quality and deliverability of the illustration is the primary concern of my campaigns, since I do my best to have the book written before hand.

One thing is clear – there are some great illustrators out there, ready and keen to work in gamebooks. Which is great, because the more gamebooks that are being published, of all kinds, then the more exposure the medium will have, and the greater chance of new readers discovering my own project.

And less selfishly, it’s plain to me that a high proportion of readers of choice-based fiction have dabbled in writing it too. Even if it wasn’t at school, like through my Write Your Own Adventure programme (which I used in class last week and will take to a neighbouring yeargroup on Thursday), there’s a good chance of your average reader of gamebooks being a hobbyist writer too.

Over the last few years I’ve met many of the people engaged in independent gamebook writing and publishing, largely based around the Fighting Fantasy fan community. Among them, Steam Highwayman Backer #5, Mark Lain, has today launched his own Kickstarter Campaign to raise £3000 to produce his gamebook, Mistress of Sorrows. Last year I enjoyed the first volume in what he’s called the Destiny’s Role series, and if you’re interested in reading more or in supporting the independent publication of gamebooks, why not head over to the campaign page to take a look? He’s working with some talented artists and seems set to fund in a very short time.

A Twitter Playthrough

Steam Highwayman by Sam Iacob

A little while before Christmas, my fellow Gamebook author Sam Iacob began chronicling his adventure as the Steam Highwayman on Twitter. If you’ve read any of his work, then his sarcastic pleasure in mad adventure will come as no surprise – but you may not know what a talented cartoonist Sam is as well. These are his images (shared with permission) which have the honour of bring amongst the very first fan art for Steam Highwayman. I love his interpretation of the velosteam above, as well as the desperate expressiveness of the Highwayman’s face. There’s a Beano-sort of quality to it, don’t you think? And that’s from a chap who says;

My favourite artists are Otto Dix, John Blanche, Ralph Steadman, Raymond Briggs and Caravaggio.

Well, I haven’t found anyone quite get into the spirit of Steam Highwayman like Sam has. Always on the lookout for cash and advancement, utterly ruthless and driven to pick at any loose narrative threads… And he looks after grandma too.

Steam Highwayman performing an act of charity

Sam and I crossed paths at that Thing at Tring, and he showed a gratifying interest in the project. Slightly inspired by that playthrough, I’ve started a fresh playthrough in Highways and Holloways, partly with the intention of taking a player’s mindset into the writing of The Reeking Metropolis, which has had its first clean passages written, amongst many placeholders and structural drafts.

Tomorrow at Dragonmeet

Tomorrow I’ll be at Dragonmeet in Hammersmith, selling and signing Steam Highwayman: Smog and Ambuscade, as well as accepting pre-orders for Highways and Holloways and Write Your Own Adventure.  Dragonmeet has got a reputation as a really lively, friendly convention, so I’ll be spending some time a-wandering around as well as meeting people on my author stall.

I’ll be with several other authors in the demonstration room (first floor), rather than in the trade hall. Will I still be able to make sales?  Who knows!  I’ve only got 13 paper copies of SH1 in stock currently, so I’ve created some nice paper order forms for buyers to purchase copies once these run out – or pre-order copies of SH2 and WYOA.

I know that several other Gamebook Authors are going to be there, including Jon Green and Ian Livingstone, downstairs in the trade hall.  I’ll also be keeping an eye open for others drifting around and plenty of the region’s board game developers are booked in to.  Watch out for a couple of Facebook Live sessions as I keep myself entertained…

Authors Abroad!

Did you ever have a visit from an inspiring writer to your school?  The chances are good that they were booked through Authors Abroad, an agency who place writers, performers, poets and illustrators in schools across the UK and internationally.

I’m really pleased to announce that I am now be available for school visits through the Author’s Agency, running my Write Your Own Adventure workshops and inspiring the next generation of writers.  You can book me on their website or by contacting Trevor on +44 (0) 1535 656015, or email him at trevor@caboodlebooks.co.uk .

Who knows who’ll catch the gamebook bug next!

Couldn’t Get to Manticon…

This made my day.  Over on the facebook Fabled Lands page, Dave Morris posted a link to two videos taken at MantiCon, the German role-playing and fantasy convention, earlier this summer.  The first features Jamie Thomson and Paul Mason and Dave discussing role-playing games and it’s jolly interesting.  The second, embedded below, is a longer video in which they discuss the various gamebooks they have written and even some more recent ones they have read.

Including, at 1:11:49 onwards, Mr Morris’s interesting response to Steam Highwayman.

[Steam Highwayman]is very rich and I look at something like that and think, it’s great because it’s obviously based on Fabled Lands… but now I can learn from him.

The rest of the discussion is very interesting to a gamebook enthusiast and includes some great anecdotes of the golden age (the first golden age?) of gamebooks.  If you end up having a listen, let me know what you think.

‘Noutch’ isn’t a common surname by any measurement, so I won’t bother him for rhyming it with ‘pooch’ instead of ‘pouch’.

A Recipe for a Better Brexit?

Can You Brexit Without Breaking Britain?

Authority: 53%; Economy 48%; Goodwill: 66% and Popularity 48%. With final scores like these, it seems as though I negotiated a middle-of-the-road success of my withdrawal from the European Union, although I did have stick my finger in the page when tossing an imaginary coin to decide a nasty last-minute leadership contest. My rival, the utterly unlikeable and deeply eurosceptic Colin Fungale, decided to rejoin the Conservative Party, you see, and my hands-off disregard almost backfired. That was when all my hard work in negotiating looked like it was going to become unstuck… but I figured that I owed it to the authors to see what would have happened if I survived the election.

And that’s pretty much the way this book works. In a playthrough lasting around four hours, my decisions were chiefly about which aspects of the negotiation I would personally oversee and which I could delegate to an unreliable cabinet. In the relationships between Foreign Secretary, Chancellor, press secretary and you as Prime Minister, Thomson and Morris are at their most satiric, maintaining a consistent distaste for the political class, touched with ridicule, pitched somewhere between Private Eye and Yes Minister! Trying to survive their bungling and backstabbing is the lightly comedic and fairly cynical part of the book, while the actual negotiations are heavily factual and purposefully realistic. This means that there are several rounds of briefings available to bring the reader up to speed, more or less useful depending on their political knowledge, but all rather a slog. Reading these tended to push me towards taking a compromised position on most issues, as I think was intended, but I had decreasingly less patience for these rather passive infodumps after the first round and made most of my later decisions by instinct.

And in this process of briefing and decision-making, the authors’ own position becomes clear. This means that the book, while allowing the reader to make choices, does have some recommendations about Brexit. For example, at the end of the whole drawn-out process, you open up your Brexit Deal to a vote in the Commons – a vote which is by no means certain in our own trouserleg of time. Choices presented to the reader are all realistic options, with few flights-of-fancy permitted, meaning that this is a very different type of gamebook to any adventure story. The book closes with brief predictions of the country’s future, tied to your ending scores, but personally I would have been very interested to see the effects of the hard-won policies illustrated in more detail – just as I would have loved to read of more of the national background. The media play a small part, but in general the entire book takes place entirely within the corridors of power, intentionally isolated from everyday experience.

Some readers have noted the cynical tone of the book, particularly in the descriptions and treatment of the electorate, but dismissive attitudes that describe your average voter as wearing ‘George from Asda’ and voting from ignorance are plainly a perspective of the character you are given to inhabit. Thomson and Morris are asking their reader to work with what we have all been given – an entrenched political class, years of international compromise and even the individual character of our current Prime Minister – to represent the odds that are stacked against the Brexit process, and that in itself is their commentary.

The structure of the book depends on periods of intense conversation, interspersed by rather ‘bare-bones’ mechanic passages that check for previous experiences or resolve loops. This complexity means that the reader can pass through three consecutive ‘checker’ passages at points, which breaks up the story significantly. There is little sense of time for most of the book, and suddenly you are told that six months have passed – or only six months remain. Certainly time is a well-marshalled enemy in this book: being forced to choose to engage in only some of the negotiations also intrigues the reader and invites a replay.

That said, this isn’t really a book that demands an adventurer immediately restart and begin again. If anything, I feel the need to breathe after reading this, and to engage with the current political debate to see how accurately I think Morris and Thomson have drawn some of the crucial issues. Can You Brexit is plainly written to engage and educate and, given the right sort of reader, I think it could be quite successful. However, you’ll need one old-school skill at least – a high stamina score – and probably be throwing your five-fingered bookmark into the book constantly. And will you be satisfied with the result? I’ve calculated the ‘best’ scores possible and traced an ‘optimum path’ and it’s bad news – the best outcome still includes massive compromise, the chance of everything tumbling down at the last minute and a disappointing lack of recognition. Who’d go in to politics, then?

Don’t expect this to read like an episode of The West Wing; don’t expect the chance to assassinate frustrating UKIP leaders. Perhaps in another political gamebook… This is all about doing your best with a poor hand – an attitude explored in too few gamebooks, regardless of their setting or story. It may make you smile, grimace or gasp in frustration – powerfully posing the question ‘Is this the best we can expect?’ See if you can beat my scores and, if the results satisfy you, please tell me. But better yet, take your recipe for a better Brexit and tell Mrs May…

Writing to Music

I’ve been writing for hours at a time again and it can be difficult, some days, to turn my mind and focus on an imaginary world when there are so many things to keep me in the everyday world.  Having a piece of music playing can help.  By filling up my ears, it over-rides part of my consciousness – the ‘internal editor’ that is constantly correcting and improving before I’ve even drafted.  But getting the right album or long track is tricky.

Good writing music is melodic.  Some classical music does this, but film or game soundtrack is more reliable – the themes that repeat and develop are much easier to grasp.  Soundtracks are also explicitly written to create atmosphere, which is the other big reason for writing to music alongside focus.

When I’m writing cyberpunk – or gastropunk – I rely on Vangelis – either the extended Blade Runner soundtrack or his album The City.  Melody a-plenty, but I don’t get too distracted from what I’m writing because I know the pieces so well.

I’ve been focusing on Steam Highwayman II for the last week and so Blade Runner doesn’t match at all.  Following a few comments by Jonathan Green, who also writes to music, I discovered the soundtrack to Skyrim.  I only know the game through watching a few playthrough videos and (mercifully for my schedule) have never had a computer that could run a large CRPG, but I was really impressed both with the composition by Jeremy Soule and the simple arrangement into a long track by TheSagaris2.  This is perfect writing music – no jarring transitions, plenty of atmosphere, loads of melody, easy to get to know.

The sound might feel pretty open and natural, so it doesn’t fit the world of Steam Highwayman too well, but it certainly suits the writing of it.  I mean to post soon about my search for a ‘Steam Highwayman sound’ and what sort of music sounds steampunk to me.  Let me know if you’d be interested in reading that – or listening to a curated list.

Spartacus Soundtrack

I love film music.  Let’s just get that right: I love big orchestras telling grand stories with memorable, hummable melodies.  Not just ‘mood music’, but story music.

Sometimes a great soundtrack can get me writing when I’m stuck for ideas: it can stir up emotions that find their way into my stories or make me long for a better world.  So, in a complete change to my recent focus on Steam Highwayman, let me tell you about a piece of music I love.

Alex North’s soundtrack to Spartacus is a powerful thing.  It merges one of the most beautiful love-themes with clever orchestration and Roman brutality and imagines a world different to our own.  The love theme has been adapted and even become a part of the jazz repertoire, but it’s in the context of the movie that it means the most.  You first hear it when the bitter gladiator Spartacus sees a beautiful slave-girl, Virinia, and first begins to dream that life could be different to anything he’s ever known.  They enjoy an all-too-brief relationship with a beautiful blossoming of tenderness and freedom before Spartacus is defeated and crucified, along with his rebels.  In the final scene, the love theme struggles to make itself heard again beneath the Roman cymbals and horns, as Virinia introduces her lover to his baby son – who has been born free.

It makes me cry.  This might be just a film from sixty years ago, with dated performances and dated production values, but that melody can’t get old.  It communicates something awful and wonderful – that people have died and are dying to see their children free to live freely.

After all that music, it’s the swell at 2:29 that brings tears to my eyes, just before the Roman theme stomps in.

Real sacrifice like this is both tragic and beautiful: it’s there when an economic migrant makes the journey to Europe in an attempt to provide for his family back in Somalia, or Sudan, or Syria.  It’s there when those with the ability to leave a war-torn city stay for the sake of those who can’t leave.  In the movie, the character of Spartacus dreams longingly of a God for the downtrodden: a ‘God for slaves’, and prays that his son one day will be born free.  By the end of the film, that’s what the music means: that his prayer has not been in vain and that despite his sacrifice, he has not been ignored.

One day I want music like this to accompany my stories.

Age of Access I

We live in the beginning of the post-ownership age. I write ‘we’ because if you are reading this through the medium of the internet, most likely on a smartphone, on a 4G network, then you live in a part of the world that has encountered the Future. The Future, as somebody, maybe William Gibson, once said, is unequally distributed: the Future moves across the world in waves, reaching different communities and nations at different times as different technologies become available to the populace.

Post-ownership – what does that mean? It means that there are cultures in which all material needs of possession have been satisfied: the vast majority of the population (not all, but most) have a roof over their head, clothes on their body, food in their stomach (and their fridge), tools in their closet or cupboard, baking tins in their kitchen cupboard, more clothes in their (walk-in) wardrobe, and the ability to access more of the same at will. They also possess leisure time which they have been trained to spend – at least partly – in seeking and choosing more consumable products.

In fact, this widespread availability of stuff has gone so far as to generate a whole back-lash movement: Marie Kondo’s The Joy of Tidying, youtube videos on doing more with less, like the ones davehakkens produces, the fetishisation of the ‘authentic’ that hipster culture indulges in (at least according to Peter York’s analysis). Businesses like AirB’nB depend upon people’s growing preference for use over ownership.

The irony is that in many other cultures around the world, use and ownership were in a completely different relationship to that accepted as ‘normal’ within Western mainstream culture. Consider the waste and personal isolationism latent within the ownership of ten lawnmowers in a street of ten houses in an English town. On only one of a very few days would more than one of those lawnmowers be used: why are ten ‘necessary’? Because it is socially inappropriate to ask for or to use another person’s possession.

Consider by contrast the very different attitude of the Filipino car: my cousin possesses a car; my cousin is my family member; therefore I have access to a car. This is a “Filipino Syllogism”. My cousin is honour-bound, but also considers it normal, that on those less-than-frequent occasions when I require the use of a car, he should put both his car and his own time at my disposal. Why? Because possession within the Filipino community is not a matter of any single individual person’s ownership, but of the larger family group’s ownership. And so it is in many non-european cultures.

Ironically, the Judeo-Christian ideal of ownership is less influential on Western thought than you might expect: the coveting of your neighbour’s donkey is less of an issue when any particular family’s rights to land and objects are guaranteed by religious law, as in the Levitical pattern, and Jesus Christ’s teaching that should tease the grip of the possessive from their cloak and tunic has never been fully accepted by mainstream Western, English, British or European thinking.

The age of access is an age in which instant, international communication is abrading our current norms of possession, and culture is in the process of undergoing a permanent change. Even if we should experience a Massive Internet Collapse, culture influencers have now had a taste of a post-ownership life and will not let it be forgotten: it comes with the illusion of freedom, typified by wide choice and easy gratification.  I don’t write this bewailing the change, but observing it.  Asimov would do one better: posit a future in which any possession seemed strange and in which a historian, observing our present, would laugh.  Le Guin did one better than that in one of my top-five books, The Dispossessed.