The New Media Writing Prize: The First Five Years

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Beginning in 2010, the New Media Writing Prize has been the only competition in the world to open its digital doors to every kind of online, multi-media, interactive storytelling, whether amateur, professionally funded, solo, or collaborative. The competition has placed no boundaries around definitions of literature or game – the only requirements for eligibility have been that the submitted work should only be able to exist in digital media, and that there should be interactivity for the audience. This has truly embraced a spectrum of work that is hard to define, hard to name, hard to grasp, but always innovative and challenging, as well as entertaining.

Since 2010 well over 500 entries have been submitted to the judges, some of dubious new-media status (e.g. text-only Word documents), some of huge significance in the field, showing a way forward and highlighting the massive potential for the future of narrative in the new-media environment. So, where have we come in five years and what are the key developments?

In the first shortlist, everything we saw relied upon browsers, because the technology around smart phones and tablets was not well established: interestingly though, and somewhat prophetic, one of our speakers on the first ever awards event was Chris Stevens, the creator of Alice for the iPad. We also gave an iPad as the main prize, showing how ahead of the game we were! Reading Chris’ piece for The Literary Platform reminds us how big a deal the iPad was, but also how crucial the relationship between technology and story is: “The temptation will naturally be to throw this technology at every book, but the craftsmanship behind implementing this technology is as important as the technology itself. It’s not a short-cut to “enhancing” a book for the digital age, and the power to create these books must be wielded as deftly and wisely as an illustrator’s pen.” As time has gone on we have seen more apps entered into the competition, but not one app winner, until 2015, but more of that later….

The 2010 shortlist did demonstrate admirably that the field had already moved hugely on from the days of hyper-text, to an era of hyper-media, and animation, video, sound, mobile text, film were all presented. And Chris was/is right – the technology is only as good as the story it is delivering, which is why Christine Wilks won the 2010 prize for her outstanding, and still effective, piece Underbelly. Underbelly seamlessly blends text, visuals, animation, sound and mouse-driven interactivity into what is a beautiful story about the struggle of women to live in an environment of oppression. I am still moved by this piece, and what it tells me in 2015 is that (as long as the technology still operates!) the narrative is key.

In 2011, Serge Bouchardon and Vincent Volckaert knocked us out with Loss of Grasp, a whimsical, free-flowing story of, well, loss of grasp. It showed how form and content could (should) be welded together in new-media. So, to activate the narrative you had to interact – interaction was not just page-turning, or a gimmick, it was the narrative, and the further one interacted with the piece, the more one’s grasp of it eroded. Brilliantly built, visual, funny, kinetic: it was short but oh so sweet, and showed us that new-media could tell short stories as pithy and satisfying as anything in print.

But there were other highlights, that showed how diverse the field was: Welcome to Pine Point by Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons was beautiful, easy to navigate, superbly constructed to be engaging, narratively coherent, and never obscure. As with Loss of Grasp, interactivity was driving the narrative, never holding it up for ransom. There is still sometimes the problem that some artists and developers are putting techno-wizardry before story: and of course, no names mentioned, but there were entries in 2011 and after, that, although maybe built with professional funding, did not deliver that all-important story that we love to lose ourselves in. Another lesson learnt: interactivity must be integral to the story, not simply bells and whistles.

In 2012, our eyes were treated to some beautiful visual work, from JR Carpenter’s gorgeous visual poem CityFish, to Stevan Zivadinovic’s 3D graphic novel, Hobo Lobo of Hamelin. The visual quality showed us that, in future, everything would have to look amazing, as well as work amazingly. Perhaps in the past we might have overlooked graphic excellence for a clever idea or intriguing writing, but now we wanted it all! The screen demands to be beautiful, as well as gripping – just as the greatest filmic narratives draw us into their visual world, just as theatre attracts our eyes as well as our ears, so must new-media narratives. Katharine Norman’s prize-winning Window draws you into an atmospheric sound/image poem, through a photo-real window. In 2012 I began to know that the form was truly ‘working’, not just at the avant-garde edges, but across the board. It was hard to draw up a shortlist, because there was plenty of great work going on everywhere, with new names popping up, delivering great story-experiences.

2013 developed an emerging trend that we had spotted in 2012, the trans-media potential, the use of digital media to take the narrative out of a single space into many. In 2012, Kristi Barnett’s Hurst narrated via YouTube and Twitter; and another great writer and innovator, Caitlin Fisher, experimented with augmented reality, breaking down the walls between media. Her piece Circle, via an iPod, hard-copy images and QR codes, took the viewer/reader/listener into a strange three-dimensional world of sounds and images, hovering somewhere between the virtual and the actual. In 2013, Declan Dineen’s Foursquare Tales used the locative app Foursquare to create fiction out of his hometown of Glasgow.

Another emerging note in our shortlist was the journalism of Mat Charles and Juan Passarelli – The Engineer is a moving, intense portrayal, via text, photography and video, of El Salvador gangs, and this piece was a precursor for two outstanding journalistic shortlisters in 2014 (We Are Angry, and What I am Wearing). Imagine what that infamous literary journalist, Hunter S. Thompson, would have done to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas if he had had an iPad!

The 2013 winner was an indication of how mobile technology had moved into every part of our lives: Siri and Me was a fiction based on the iphone/iPad search engine-personality of Siri. A carefully crafted conversation with a non-intelligent but frighteningly believable piece of software. Esmeralda Kosmatopoulus saw that technology was becoming more and more seemingly-sentient, and her piece explored that strangeness in a visual/textual way, also demonstrating another trend that we noted earlier – Siri and Me was first presented via Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter.

And finally, 2014: with tablets clearly established in the mainstream of personal communication and computing, it is no surprise that we have now seen the first app as the main winner of the competition. We have had several apps submitted as entries, but none that quite ticked all the boxes of great story, great interactivity, great visuals, great engagement. But PRY, by Samantha Gorman and Danny Cannizzaro, gets everything right. PRY uses the interactivity for the iPad as an integral aspect of the story form. In this piece we see all of the elements of old media (words, film, sound, image, character, plot) fused to user-input, with ingenious deployment of touch-screen possibilities. For example, to ‘pry’ into the main character’s mind we must ‘open’ rifts in the screen of text to reveal further words. It is visual and essential – interactivity is narrative. At the awards event in January, Chris Meade, sponsor of the main prize and a digital explorer in his own right, remarked that PRY might well be the ‘breakthrough’ piece that the field needs. As I write, PRY has been listed as a top download from the App Store. But back to 2010 and our first thoughts: no amount of animation, touching, swiping, clicking, choosing, interacting will engage the reader if the story does not speak of human issues and feelings – PRY does this. As Samantha Gorman told me, ‘Pry was written with new tool sets, but it is still a very human story.’

Sam Gorman and Danny Cannizzaro Skyping from San Diego at the 2014 awards

Sam Gorman and Danny Cannizzaro Skyping from San Diego at the 2014 awards

 Telling a good story will always be the aim and the magnet, for writers and audiences, and in five years we have seen the relationship between narrative and medium become more closely wedded. It’s also clear that developing technology has enabled improved interfaces, visuals, and more meaningful interactivity. As digital pioneer Andy Campbell has said: ‘The biggest change has been a wave of new media stories created for tablet and mobile devices, without doubt.’ For me, the tablet is the medium that can bring together all the media with all the audiences: narratives that will please lovers of literature, lovers of games, lovers of film, as I think PRY demonstrates.

But what I find most fascinating, especially given the success of PRY, is that there is no category on the App Store, called ‘fiction’ or ‘narrative’ or ‘story’. It’s as if apps do not do stories, only functions. Maybe there is still some work to do in bringing a wider audience on board, assuming that is what we want (I do). As Christine Wilks told me, ‘We’re still in a highly experimental phase, the technology is changing rapidly, but some best practices and design principles are emerging. I also think the vehicle of dissemination is vitally important for reaching larger audiences and this is where mobile devices, amongst other things, have a big part to play.’

Looking to the future, the New Media Writing Prize will embrace all the technologies that emerge, because so will the writers – and, hopefully, they will keep sending us their stuff!

Jim Pope at the 2014 awards

Jim Pope at the 2014 awards

Dr James Pope is co-founder of the New Media Writing Prize and senior lecturer at the Media School, Bournemouth University. He has a particular interest in how digital media may be changing narrative forms as well as reading and writing practices. the teaching of creative writing in digital media environments, and children's literature. As well as several recent publications around his research into readers' reactions to interactive fiction, Jim has also published six novels for children and teenagers.