Inanimate Alice: Her Unexpected Rise from Marketing Tool to Pedagogical Blockbuster

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In 2006 Chris Joseph and I were commissioned to create a series of interactive stories for a marketing campaign for a feature film that didn’t exist.  From that inauspicious beginning, Inanimate Alice has gone on to become one of the most popular digital stories for educators around the world, from primary to doctoral level.  How and why did this happen?

The publishing story behind Inanimate Alice is a tale of mistakes, bad ideas, good ideas, dead-ends, lucky accidents, and spectacular success.  Inanimate Alice consists of four episodes that reside online, with a further six episodes planned.  Created by myself and web artist Chris Joseph, Inanimate Alice was commissioned and financed by Bradfield Ltd producer Ian Harper.  The stories are told through text, music, games, images, sound effects, and video and are available for free.

Inanimate Alice tells the story of a girl called Alice, growing up in the near future, surrounded by technology.   Ian Harper had written a screenplay for a feature film and had the idea that he could generate interest in the script by publishing a series of short, interactive, online multimedia stories that provided a backstory to the script itself.  Harper was also involved in a company that had created a gadget, for domestic use, that could detect electronic emissions, the Electrosmog Detector; the sound made by the detector when it picks up electronic emissions is used as background noise in all the episodes.  To date, the screenplay has not been made into a film, and the gadget has not sold in vast quantities; however, Inanimate Alice continues to grow and thrive.

In 2006 there was so little of this kind of storytelling around – accessible, screen-based, digital stories – that Chris and I had no idea of what to call it.  We used the term ‘webvid’, which, thankfully, hasn’t survived. Our budgets were very small; we considered using photos of actors to represent our characters, Alice and her parents, and we considered animating the characters, but we couldn’t afford either option.  This was our first lucky accidents: one important aesthetic feature of Inanimate Alice is that Alice herself is never represented visually on screen.  This practical decision had large creative ramifications:  the fact that Alice remains off-screen throughout renders this hybrid form of storytelling closer to that of reading a book, where it falls upon the reader to imagine the main character’s appearance.  This aspect, combined with the first person narrative voice, draws readers into Alice’s world, allowing readers to identify with Alice, to place themselves in the story.

Lucky accident number two was that Chris Joseph and I did not initially consider the fact that a work about a child might appeal to children, an aspect of the project that seems obvious with hindsight.  Children have been among our most passionate readers.

Lucky accident number three: our character, Alice, wants to be a games designer when she grows up, and it was this aspiration that allowed us to embed games into the stories in a way that made narrative sense. In each episode the games included are representative of what a talented child Alice’s age might be able to create herself.   Accordingly, the level of interaction and gaming skill required by the reader increases with each episode as Alice reaches age 8, 10, 12, and 14.  This gradual increase in interactivity through the episodes has meant that the work functions well as a primer or introduction to digital fiction.

In 2007, I was teaching part-time at De Montfort University, where a PhD student, Jess Laccetti, was researching multi-modal fiction.  Jess was very interested in digital pedagogy, and was in contact with a number of educators at primary, secondary, and HE level. We’d already begun to have interest in the project from teachers, so Ian Harper commissioned Jess to write a set of teacher’s notes, and this was part of what kick-started Inanimate Alice as a tool for digital literacy in schools and universities.  As well as that, Jess is an Italian speaker; she offered to translate the text of the work.  From the web analytics it became apparent early on that Inanimate Alice was drawing readers from many non-English speaking countries and we decided to provide translations of the text in French, German, and Spanish as well. These multilingual aspects of the project fuelled further growth in its readership.

From early on, Inanimate Alice won prizes, including awards in Italy, South Korea, the USA, Ireland, Germany, and Spain. It featured in digital arts exhibitions as well as being promoted by countless teacher-advocates, desperate for engaging digital content suitable for use in the classroom. All of this meant that our audience continued to grow and expand.  Other factors contributed to its success as a title, not the least of which is that all four episodes are available to view for free.  Episodes three and four have two versions:  ‘read-only’ and ‘full version’.  In the full version readers need to complete games before they can move on in the story; in the read-only version the games are by-passed.  Early and anecdotal reader response showed us that our audience is split evenly between those who enjoy the games and those who do not; we took a decision to accommodate both types of readers throughout the remainder of the series.

For me, a pivotal moment came in March 2009, when my Google Alerts first picked up multiple versions of Inanimate Alice: Episode 5;Chris and I had not yet created a fifth episode.  Following the links I discovered that an American high school English teacher, Ms Aronow, had been using Inanimate Alice with a group of ‘hard to reach’ teenagers, encouraging them to create their own versions of episode five using Microsoft Powerpoint, which Ms Aranow published on her class blog.  Discovering these episodes gave new meaning to me for the potential of ‘interactivity’, a term often heralded at the time as the new paradigm for reading and writing.  It was flattering to discover a text I’d written disseminated and reconstructed in this manner, of course, but more importantly, these new episodes are a true indicator of the potential for reader-writer, reader-text interaction, as well as for digital fiction in the classroom.  New episodes have continued to appear online regularly, from around the world; for example, a New Zealand teacher, Mr Woods, encourages his Samoan students to use their own language and culture in their versions of the stories.  Ian Harper has continued to expand the project as a pedagogical tool, making links throughout the large education market; our most recent commission, from Education Services Australia, was a series of twelve photo-stories describing a year Alice and her parents spend living in Australia.  This is where the still developing business model for the project is emerging; the fact that there hasn’t been a new episode since 2009 has not hindered the growth of the project.

It’s been a fascinating process to watch a work like Inanimate Alice, which was not intended, originally, as an educational title, being adopted, adapted, and augmented by educators.  We’ve been able to capitalise on that interest by creating pedagogical tools and spaces for discussion specific to Inanimate Alice and have collaborated with Promethean Planet, Edmodo, and Everloop to create bespoke materials. 2012 saw two big developments:  the American Association of School Librarians named our site as a ‘Best Website for Teaching and Learning’ and the Mozilla Foundation Webmaker project used Inanimate Alice to develop their online remix tool, X-Ray Goggles.

In conclusion, the sizable audience of children for Inanimate Alice has redefined the work as children’s literature, while its popularity with teachers has repositioned it as a classroom resource. Neither of these outcomes were anticipated by us when we set out to create our first ‘webvid’ back in 2006.  

A few examples of new episode fives:

Aronow’s English 10 blog:  http://aronowsenglish10.blogspot.com/

http://6cathie.com/

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-itUTAlahrw&feature=related

Alice and Friends – Digital Literacy wiki built around IA, created by two teachers in Australia: http://aliceandfriends.wikispaces.com/

Mr Woodz NZ class lesson plans:  http://inanimatealice-aperspective.wikispaces.com/

Mozilla Webmaker, ‘Make Your Own Episode of Inanimate Alice’: https://webmaker.org/en-US/projects/make-your-own-episode-inanimate-alice/

Kate Pullinger is Editorial Director of The Writing Platform and Professor of Creative Writing and Digital Media at Bath Spa University.

She writes for both print and digital platforms. In In 2009 her novel The Mistress of Nothing won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. Her award-winning digital writing projects include Inanimate Alice and Flight Paths: A Networked Novel

You can find out more about Kate and her work over on her site.