DigitAlice – A Conversation with Inanimate Alice Producer Ian Harper

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“This is a multimedia story, ostensibly for kids, but I couldn’t believe how creative and engaging it is even for an adult. First story is about 5 min. long and is set in China. Wow!” — Quote from Alice’s Facebook wall

“Inanimate Alice” is an online digital storytelling project that has gotten quite a bit of attention from storytellers, publishers interested in new media, and educators that use “Inanimate Alice” to teach digital literacy, to inspire creative projects, and to reinforce reading skills.

Combining imagery, text, sound, and game-like interactivity,  “Inanimate Alice” is a free multimedia experience that also features comprehensive lesson plans to link the series to education standards.

Recently, I caught up with Producer Ian Harper to talk to us about the inspiration for “Inanimate Alice” and how Alice has been received by readers of all ages.

Tell us about Alice and her world. How can people meet Alice and experience her story?

Alice is a 21st century girl, growing up with aspirations of becoming a computer game designer one day. She has had a lonely, unsettled, childhood travelling the world with her itinerant parents. Homeschooled by her mother in a yurt in Northern China, in the deserts of Arabia and in a Soviet era tenement in Moscow, she goes to school for the first time at the age of 14.

This is Alice’s story, told by her when she is in her mid-twenties looking back over her life and reflecting on the circumstances that brought her to the momentous occasion when her world and ours changed forever. Over a series of 10 increasingly interactive and complex episodes, Alice demonstrates her improving skills in writing, art and design. The words selected, the typefaces, music and imagery changing from episode to episode, are all age appropriate.

Right now, we are at episode 4. Join Alice when she goes to school for the first time. She thrives while her parents’ circumstances are on the wane. Those four episodes provide a unique interactive literary experience. The simulated multi-tasking environment is suggestive of a computer game so be prepared to solve puzzles, play little games and immerse yourself in modern art as you read of Alice’s adventures here at the Inanimate Alice website.

The series is written and directed by novelist Kate Pullinger (The Mistress of Nothing/Simon & Schuster) and digital artist Chris Joseph.

What motivated you to develop an online story project such as “Inanimate Alice”?

Several years ago, I had the idea to create a seamlessly integrated film to game project. Back then, multi-platform and transmedia were not words that tripped off the tongue and the games being merchandised from movies seemed to lose so much of what gave the movies their core strengths. I wanted to see the game projected in the movie, and then play the game I saw on the screen. I developed a screenplay “E|Mission” which strives to achieve that goal.

“Inanimate Alice” is the backstory to that movie screenplay. The increasingly complex episodes become more and more game-like as we approach the end of the series, morphing into the game we see on the movie theatre screen.

Alice is building a considerable audience through the free online experience. Think of it as pre-selling the movie/game franchise.

How do you think Alice fits in to emerging trends in learning and publishing?

Presently, we are seeing the digitization of traditional publishing and traditional learning materials and methodologies. Essentially publishers are moving materials from print to digitized versions of the same thing. What has yet to be addressed is the “born-digital” material that is written primarily for the screen.

There is a very clear and considerable need for high-quality literate “born-digital” texts in education, the thousands of teachers accessing the series bear witness to this.

“Born-digital” is a game changer and so I don’t see it so much as fitting in as offering new concepts in project design. This kind of rethink does not address the present world so much as hint at the far horizon of what is to come. Maybe the question should be turned on its head by asking “how does learning and publishing fit in with Alice?”

“Inanimate Alice” incorporates gaming elements into the narrative. How do you think this enhances the story and Inanimate Alice’s learning objectives?

The game elements together with the music and sound effects set the scene, simulating a game-like world.  The games and puzzle components are part of the narrative and play a direct role in helping the narrative to unfold. More than viewers or readers, participants engage with the story in an authentic and meaningful way. It is an immersive experience that sucks you right in.

There is something for everyone who wishes to understand more of the world of digital literacy. For adults and children who are not familiar with computer games it acts as something of a primer. It works well for teachers of the hard-to-engage and reluctant readers who find the powerful themes and immediacy attention grabbing. For the more gifted children it is an inspiration for their own creative writing.

Do you have any idea of the reach of “Inanimate Alice,” in terms of number of students, or classrooms, that are engaging with Alice in a classroom or learning setting?

We have a pretty good idea of the numbers of teachers engaging with the series. Many of them register through the website to access the free education resources often leaving valuable feedback on the purposes to which they will be putting the materials to work. Others subscribe to the mailing list and engage with the discussion group on Alice’s Facebook page.

However, the digital world is one of fleeting glimpses and cost per click advertising where our six- and seven-figure audience scores low and fails to raise an eyebrow. Those measures have little relevance where an episode download reaches a class of students each of whom spends hours engaged with Alice.

Over time we have noticed classrooms shifting from a single projection of the series to small computer groups (three of four students per screen) to rooms where students have individual access.

How are students responding to the “Inanimate Alice” experience? Have you been surprised by their reactions?

It’s the feedback that the students are giving to their teachers that is the most rewarding aspect of the entire project. Teachers love it because the kids are wholly engaged. We have many hundreds of teacher testimonials all of which point to an extraordinary level of enthusiasm for the series.

The students report along these lines:

“Inanimate Alice is something special because it is really original to make a story you can read, play and watch.”

“I felt I was the main character and this was my story.”

When asked what is her favorite book a student piped up with “Inanimate Alice of course.”

One of the big bonuses from the series is the number of teachers who inspire their students to create next episodes of their own. In the absence of the official “Episode 5” we have seen many student created episodes which have taken Alice to the most unlikely places on extraordinary adventures.

“Inanimate Alice” is currently offered as a free online resource for teachers and students. What are some of the challenges of that you face in providing “Inanimate Alice,” and do you have plans to monetize the experience?

The production has been based on the “freemium” business model where it is intended that the core story be made available for free in perpetuity. However, as you can imagine, the costs of production are considerable and so, in order to complete the series, we intend developing premium content, both in terms of resources for education and entertainment outcomes.

Where do you see the future of storytelling going? Of learning? What does the future hold for Alice?

We can already see a fast-developing trend of furthering the experience of any given story. Multi-platform environments, two-screen experiences of book/film/game are becoming routine. I see this continuing with an ever greater push towards the mobile platforms.

The biggest audience hike has yet to come with the world expanding to 5 billion internet connections by 2020 from 1.8 billion today. Storytelling will become an ever more global, multicultural, multilingual experience. As for Alice is concerned, look out for her on multiple platforms like interactive white boards and mobile devices. We will be pushing the envelope as far as co-creativity is concerned. The kids have responded so well to that aspect… beyond that, well you’ll have to wait and see.

[Ed.: Meet Alice and experience her story for yourselves at the Inanimate Alice website, which also offers numerous student and teacher resources to integrate “Inanimate Alice” into the classroom. Check out the Inanimate Alice Facebook page for community discussion and the latest updates.]

At the tender age of 50 and with a raw idea in his head Ian Harper attended the UK’s National Film and Television School to learn how to write for the screen. With two screenplays under his belt he has created the role of digital novel producer developing plans for a studio to complete the Inanimate Alice series while producing five further titles in a similar vein.

Interested in learning more about using transmedia storytelling and cross-media strategies? Join us at StoryWorld, the only major gathering of industry leaders, decision makers, and transmedia specialists, to explore new business models, innovative partnerships, and fresh revenue streams.

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