Plugin Narratives

Alternate reality experiences layer fictional narratives over the real world, blurring the boundaries of fiction and reality. Immersion in fictional worlds often involves some level of disconnection with reality, but alternate reality experiences can conversely draw attention to selected activities and entities in the real-world. Alternate reality games incorporate these characteristics in a playful, problem-solving context, where narrative paths are uncovered and new paths are forged through interaction with resources located online and in real-world locations (Kim et al., 2009). These characteristics mean that such games are often designed with aims that go beyond entertainment and include marketing (McGonigal, 2008), health (Macvean, 2012) or educational goals (Connolly et al., 2011). An area which is currently little explored is the potential for such games to aid reflection and engagement in local communities.

Novel technologies designed for use in local communities often focus on specific communication goals, such as supporting discussion around democratic decision making (Van Der Merwe and Meehan, 2010) or providing a way of sharing information about local events (Hoffman et al., 2012). The proposed seed project will explore the potential for broader inter-generational community engagement and reflection through fictional narratives rooted in alternate community futures. The seed project will act as a catalyst for a more ambitious project by allowing exploration and development of a number of key ideas.

The eventual project will involve action research aimed at the engagement of a community around a participatory fictional narrative with playful elements. The fictional premise will present an alternate reality, closely connected to everyday life and revolving around significant subjects for the community as a whole. The activity will involve different levels of engagement and multiples forms of participation, shaping an evolving, rather than pre-defined narrative, through the contributions of the participants (thus the plug-in metaphor). The aim will be to foster collective reflection on a socially meaningful subject through co-created storytelling and worldbuilding. At the same time, it will allow exploration of collaborative creativity through individual and collective sound and video media production, textual production, social media, physical or live events, all linked to decision-making processes within the fictional context.

There are a number of challenges inherent in the proposed project, primarily relating to participation, narrative direction and technology platform. The seed project aims to investigate and address these challenges. Plugin narratives is directly engaged in the notion of participation in different ways: first, as an experiment in participatory cultural creation, secondly as a community-shared experience related to the everyday. The notion of participation in regard to the so-called ‘participatory culture’ has been the object of intense controversy, as it tends to be applied as an empty signifier meaning not much more than ‘feel part of something’. This over-simplification obliterates a broader conceptualization coming from political-democratic theory, emphasizing processes of decision-making, mutual recognition of participants as active agents and transparency, which is opposed to overblown celebratory discourses of empowerment and unique experiences in tightly controlled environments (Jenkins and Carpentier, 2013; Deuze, 2008). As a creative experience, one of the challenges of Plugin narratives will be to bring participatory processes into the fore. The seed project will examine strategies for establishing a continuous dialogue with a diversity of community stakeholders and participants (thus identifying meaningful social issues and the best ways to foster participation); finding a balance between play, engagement or surprise with transparency; dealing with different motivations, identities and levels of participation and expertise; responsiveness to contributions and opinions through the adoption of technology solutions aimed at providing effective and inclusive options for creative participation and decision-making; the design of open, self-reflective, everyday yet engaging narrative structures; encouragement of collaboration among participants and the outlining of a thorough documenting process for academic discussion and as a toolkit for further future experiences.

Howland, Case for Support



Howland, K. & Roig, A., ‘Plugin Narratives: Final Report.’ Working Papers of the Communities & Culture Network+ Vol.5 (April 2015)


Key Participants

Dr Kate Howland, Principal Investigator: Kate Howland is a lecturer in interaction design in the Department of Informatics at the University of Sussex. Her research examines the ways in which novel technologies can support users in creative, social and playful activities, particularly in relation to digital narratives. Her PhD research involved the participatory design of software tools to support multimodal and interactive narrative creation through computer games. She has previously investigated the online and offline community engagement of retired people in a CNN+ pilot project, and contributed to a CCN+ scoping study looking at literacy and expertise in digital media across community groups, including museum staff, children, families and older people. In the seed project, Kate’s main focus will be on identifying the technological requirements and understanding the needs of authors and collaborators when contributing to complex branching narratives with location specific content.

Dr Antoni Roig, Co-Investigator: Antoni Roig is a lecturer in audiovisual communication in the Department of Information and Communication Sciences at the Open University of Catalonia (UOC). His research has been always connected to the different ways of opening creative processes in digital media production: his MA Thesis (2002) was oriented to the democratization of TV production through webcasting, taking as a case study British initiative TV Swansong, while PhD research was focused on participatory filmmaking practices. Since then he has been writing, from a critical point of view, on participatory creative projects, from video sharing sites to videogames, fanworks, machinima, collaborative filmmaking and transmedia experiences. He became involved in the CCN+ network after a research post-doctoral stay at the University of Sussex in 2013. In the seed project, Antoni will take particular responsibility for activities related to participatory processes, fictional worldbuilding, storytelling development and media production issues.