Ross Raisin on Writing and Play

Posted filed under Experience.
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My recent experience of playing Bamboo on the Storyjacker site was my first involvement with any kind of digital writing game.  As such, I was very intrigued, and somewhat apprehensive, about what might happen – a state of mind that I think is, or should be, integral to the experience of writing.  In a certain way, the not knowing what will happen, and the creative vulnerability of setting your imagination loose on something that you know other people might read, is part of the act of creating fiction.  One of the enjoyable things about Storyjacker is that these familiar and important states are bound up in the game playing, but in ways that feel, to me at least, entirely new.

Actually, it is not, strictly speaking, true that I have had no involvement whatsoever with digital writing games before.  I did play a Storyjacker game over a year ago, when the concept was in its infancy.  So it was very interesting to play a more developed version of the game now, because the experience was a fresh one.  For one thing, the enhanced design of the site – the visual engagement with the screen – makes a big difference.  Which surprised me.  I am not somebody who generally warms easily to technological advancement and slick design (I don’t have a smart phone, for instance), but in spite of myself I did find that the slick, smart look of the site and the visual impact of the game itself was greatly appealing.  It makes it more clear and comprehensible, for one thing.  And gives the game more status, a sense for the player of it being important, sophisticated, proper.

One aspect of the game that attracts me is the very fact that it feels like a game – with rules; an etiquette.  It didn’t take me long to realise that I was enjoying the form of it in large part because I was playing during breaks from my own writing project, the form and stylistic rules of which are entirely of my own creation – and so the pressure of form is taken off the writer’s shoulders.  The pressures are unfamiliar, and so exciting.  As each player begins his or her new segment of writing there is a prompt to follow – ‘write in dialogue only’, for example, or ‘ramp up the drama’ – and it presents a real and unusual challenge.  The pressure of competing against others is also novel when compared to the individual writing of prose fiction.  And I did find that enjoyable, although, personally, the desire to win the game was not as fundamentally important to me as the pleasure of waiting to see what would be written next, or reading how somebody else would pick up the thread of what I had just written.

Although my main occupation is as a writer, for which I come up with and develop my own ideas, I do also work regularly as a teacher, or, more accurately, a writing tutor.  In so doing, I do instigate various types of collaborative writing for my students, particularly schoolchildren, to have a go at.  The essential idea of Storyjacker – of writing a story in collaboration – is one that comes up quite often.  And it is the prescribing of, often specific, rules that usually makes it fun.  For instance, coming up with a certain number of individual and difficult words that a partner has to use within a certain number of sentences to create a miniature story.  Or getting students into small groups and giving them a prompt for a piece of writing that they have to complete in collaboration – so have to figure out between themselves what will be their process.  I am sure that, for my school pupils in particular, Storyjacker would be a very worthwhile experience, one that they will respond to enthusiastically.  I believe this because I see just how much they enjoy the surprise and reward of writing together, therefore to do so digitally, in a way that heightens these particular pleasures, is something that I will be looking to do with students in the future.

I had wondered, given that I was playing the game in the same time period as writing a novel, whether it would distract me from my own writing.  In fact, it did not at all.  The experience is simply too different.  It was quite useful, if anything, because the game makes you write quickly, and instinctively, which is something that can be difficult to generate onto the blank page, and I did occasionally find myself carrying that momentum away from the game.  My own process of writing a story or a novel often feels, for want of a better word, painstaking.  I work always in the same way: I create a longhand complete first draft, then begin again on a blank sheet of paper, rewriting the piece using the material and knowledge – of style, point of view, characters, tense etc – that I have gleaned from the first draft.  When this second draft is completed, I will return to it, sweeping through with two to three edits.  All of this before any other person sees anything of the work.  So I judge the finished product in a very different way to the finished Storyjacker piece.  The game story is flexible, unpredictable, and out of your own control – all things that are directly opposite to the individual process.

I found it intriguing that the game led me to value the text in a different way too.  Because you come to your new segment on the back of somebody else’s segment, it makes you value plot with more weight than you might otherwise.  This plays into your choice, I discovered, of which segment you choose to follow.  It is also very interesting how much the segments that get discarded do temper the piece.  They may have been side-lined, but the placing of them, muted, alongside the main text means that an awareness of them does feed into the thought process of the writer creating a new segment.  In a way, I began to think of them like the backstory sketches and discarded passages that do not find their way into a short story or novel, but which give the writer a deeper knowledge of character and place to enhance the finished draft.

Overall, I found the experience of playing Storyjacker very enjoyable, social, challenging, fun, and it is something that I intend to do again myself and to use as a teaching tool.

Read Neighbourhood Watch, a story written through Bamboo, here.

Ross Raisin is an award-winning author of two novels: God's Own Country (2008) and Waterline (2011).  In 2013 he was named as one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists.