An nmrg interview: Tim Wright - Digital Writer

Planet Jemma

Tim Wright is a digital writer, an interactive producer and a director of XPT Ltd. His writing credits include two BAFTA-winning interactive projects: the comedy self-help disk ‘MindGym‘ and web & email drama ‘Online Caroline‘. He also co-developed, devised and scripted the BAFTA nominated science-learning Web drama ‘Planet Jemma’.

In 2004/5, he created the popular collaborative web fiction and Sony Award-nominated BBC Radio 4 play ‘In Search of Oldton‘, pioneering the use of user generated content within a narrative fiction format.

Tim has consulted and written for many high profile cross-media projects in the entertainment industry and also in the education and public information sectors. Tim speaks regularly at industry events & workshops. He is also an Associate Fellow of the Centre for Cultural Policy Studies at Warwick University.

GS: Hello Tim, Welcome to nmrg!

TW: Hello Gavin. Thank you for having me.

GS: I wanted to begin this interview by taking you back a decade to your work on Mind Gym. I was wondering whether you could recall what you were doing prior to Mind Gym and what first attracted you to working with this technology?

TW: Before joining NoHo Digital (the company that co-produced MindGym) I was a print magazine editor, writing mainly about computers. At NoHo, my main job was to develop and deliver electronic magazines for the likes of Dennis Publishing and MSN - and also produce a load of ad-related screensavers and games as well for clients advertising in the magazines.

I rather naively thought that if I could make magazines with no paper or ink costs, there’d be more money to spend on writers instead - what an idealistic young fool I was! What’s amazing to think even now is that during that time we produced a CD ROM’s worth of multimedia material every 4 weeks for over 2 years. And it wasn’t just text and image, but video, animation, audio, games, interactive cartoon strips, offline web pages, games reviews, interviews, music gig reports, quizzes… it was an amazing crash course in interactive multimedia production so that by the time I came to work on MindGym I felt like a veteran.

With MindGym I was particularly excited about the idea of writing something that could take advantage of the combined talents of the team - what a team: Rob Bevan as art director, Adam Gee (now a bigwig at Channel 4) as producer and script editor, Jason Loader a 3d animation maestro with comedic tendencies and Nigel Harris a sound designer who I don’t think has ever gained the recognition he deserves for his work both at NoHo and XPT. When I was writing scripts at this time I quite often didn’t think of an audience per sec or a user but rather I tried to dream up stuff that would provide amusement and a challenge for the other people on the team - especially Nigel because I love working in sound. Trying to make stuff out of what I had written wasn’t always easy, I think…

I was also very turned on by the possibilities of personalization - capturing mouse clicks and whatever the user did or typed in to produce a ‘profile’, and then using that profile to make the user believe that the system or “voice of the computer” might actually know you and speak to you in a very personal way. It’s not AI, just smart use of data, but for a writer it felt really exciting to be able play games and second-guess how people might react to material and start to think of the computer as a performer in some way.

GS: MindGym has been variously categorized as a ‘personality test’, ‘an interactive experience’ and ‘a game’. I was wondering how you positioned this piece in elevator pitches when you first began development. Did you struggle to convey the basic concept? Is it easier with the benefit of hindsight to position it in the contemporary media landscape?

TW: Well, the good news was that we didn’t really have to pitch it, since to start with MindGym was a client-driven project. It was Adam Gee’s idea, whilst working at video training company Melrose to produce an interactive training product that would teach corporate middle-management about the value of ‘creative thinking’. He approached NoHo about making it because of our ability to push out CD ROM product. Once I’d written a pilot script and we’d produced a demo we all saw that MindGym could be a bigger, funnier beast with broader appeal, so we entered into a co-production deal and jointly pitched a ‘consumer’ version of the project to Macmillan. At that point we simply called it a ‘comedy self help disk’ and at that point (1997) it sat comfortably within a fairly well developed lifestyle/edutainment CD ROM market - remember it was around the same time that JellyVision were making ‘You Don’t Know Jack’ and Douglas Adams was making ‘Starship Titanic’ so there was a definite ’school’ of comedy-led CD ROMs that we belonged to. If anything, I think MindGym looks more idiosyncratic and hard to define/explain now than it did ten years ago. We’re so used to low-res, dumb (i.e. unpersonalised) stuff on the Web these days that it’s rather strange to come across something so deliberately media-rich and ‘clicky’ - and yet fairly ‘buttonless’ in terms of navigation: no side bar, no ‘home’ or ‘next’ button or ‘click here for more’… It still has a really good ‘flow’ as an experience, I think (thanks largely to Nigel’s sound work) something that most web work still doesn’t have.

GS: Can you give some sense of your trepidations and aspirations you felt as you began to work on MindGym? How did the technology effect your creative process?

TW: Well, I felt incredibly inexperienced and unqualified to be working on the project. I’m not a programmer or a designer in any sense - just a writer. So for me to be defining - or rather suggesting I suppose - what the programmers and designer then had to make seemed like a big responsibility and also a bit of an insult to their skills. But then again, it’s the same for feature film writers I suppose handing over their words to directors, camera technicians, set designers, actors etc.

I guess my background as a computer journalist meant that I had some idea about how a computer worked and what was actually possible - and because of the production experience at NoHo I also had some idea about how long it might take to actually make each aspect of a scripted sequence. I did write some sequences quite deliberately focusing on audio and keeping graphics to a minimum (e,g. the ‘Fire In The House’ sequence) so that Rob’s workload was kept down. I wrote others knowing that Jason had a block of time to do some 3d graphics work. Even when you’re working alone, you don’t want to write stuff that gives you a design and build nightmare later on. It’s tempting to dream up amazing stuff that you can’t actually build, but it usually means you end up building something a bit clunky and half-arsed that only really points at the wonderful thing you wanted to write rather than being the wonderful thing.

We had to be sensitive to file loading times and caching in the background - just as today on the web you don’t want your audience to be hanging around watching a loading screen too often or suffering audio or video jumps every 30 secs. I still have to think about file sizes when I’m writing stuff.

Generally both the trepidation and then aspiration was around creating a seamless experience - we wanted to produce an interactive experience where you could really forget about the technology and the platform and simply engage with and enjoy the content just like you do with a TV or when going to the movies. That’s still my aim with stuff today - if people have to stop to wonder where to click next or wait for something to load or there’s a crash or they have to start again (unless they’re meant to) or they have to upgrade their browser and so on I consider that a failure. Making the damn thing stable and reliable is two thirds of the battle in interactive work - and still we fail at that bit more times than we succeed!

Mount Kristos

GS: Turning now to your ‘online’ work, I was wonder whether you found the web server/ browser technology affected your creativity?

TW: Yes, of course it did. With MindGym we were imagining a piece that was viewed full screen with no other application interfaces between you and the content, something involving quite ‘fat’ media rich files and something that was single user, pre-authored and formatted (i.e. not connected, not live). Actually for quite awhile we toyed with the idea of making connected CD ROM projects so we could have the best of both worlds - CD based multimedia assets, authored environment and ‘player’ plus web connection for upload/download of simple data. In one case we actually did a pilot project with Philips developing an online/cdi drama with video and music on the CDi triggered by browsing web pages - a very weird/niche thing indeed.

So when developing for online I wanted to think about small file sizes (really small file sizes - so little or no audio, still image and text), about linking (where would an audience come from when looking at our site(s) and where could/would they go to next, about messaging (who would the audience want to talk to and how would these conversations affect my work) and about ‘liveness’ (when would the audience be hitting the site, how would stories unfold over time and how ‘real time’ did everything need to be - indeed how ‘real’ generally). I guess Online Caroline was my first big creative response to these issues.

GS: I am also interested to know how you addressed the issue of personalization. Was this an important aspect of Online Caroline and Mount Kristos?

TW: Yes, personalisation has always been important to me. It seems to me to be one of the main reasons why anyone would choose to engage with content within an interactive environment as opposed to just watching TV or going to the movies or reading a book. You want to be made to feel like an individual, you want to be able to customize experiences and you want to project an image of yourself, your individuality, into various communities or groups. I learned from MindGym that people do like to use computers to explore their sense of self or play with their conceptions of ‘what I’m like’. Online Caroline is very much about this sense of self - who is Caroline? what is she like? is she like you? could you be friends?. Mount Kristos extends this idea by realizing that people online can have more than one self using different email addresses and usernames etc (hardly a revelation these days) and that it can very quickly become a crazy game of matching identities and befriending different versions of yourself. Personalization is a key driver of interaction and online storymaking - in a sense Facebook is the current manifestation of what we were playing around with ten years ago. As is something like Kate Modern on Bebo.

GS: I would argue that one of the most distinctive features of your work at this time was that it played with contemporary notions of the internet and reality.Webcams, for example, were something of a craze and ‘Online Caroline’ made play with the idea that they provided un-mediated windows into other peoples lives. However, did you find that your audience appreciated that their preconceived ideas about the medium were being played with? Did they complain?

TW: Yes, I think pretty much all of my writing concerns contemporary notions of the net and reality - in a way I tend to adopt story lines and characters that fit in with the format or platform I’m interested in exploring rather then engaging in content first and foremost. Sadly, I think this makes me look rather unengaged and aloof and ‘not serious’ when it comes to actually ‘ saying something’ in my work. As I get older I’d like to remedy that. But to answer your question, you have to remember that Online Caroline came out at a time when domestic web access was in its infancy, so the audience for online content was very naive. When Orson Welles made radio listeners believe Martians had landed in New Jersey back in the 30s (?), he could get away with it because audiences were very naive about how fictional material might be delivered on a platform used mainly to broadcast live news. It taught us something about how/when to trust the medium and offered choices about how to use it/what to use it for. Faking a Martian landing on a radio station nowadays wouldn’t fool anyone - and even if it did wouldn’t really be a useful or entertaining thing to do I don’t think. It’d just end up getting one group of people to laugh at another group for being stoopid (think about that terrible endemol reality show Space Cadets and you’ll see what I mean).

That was never the intention with Online Caroline. We just wanted people to be able experiment with what it might be like to befriend an online stranger and to do it in a fairly safe and private way. It was one to one, nobody else saw your name or your email address and you could stop at any time. Nevertheless, it was surprising how many people did want to believe that Caroline was real, did want to correspond with her, did want to hand over quite a lot of personal information and also amazingly wanted to parade their relationship with Caroline in front of others within forums. There were some complaints from people who saw us as cosmopolitan techno-wankers who were pulling other people’s chains for our own amusement/remuneration - but in most cases we were able to explain that nobody was smirking, or selling personal data or trying to make people look/feel stoopid and that we offered robust ways to ensure privacy and control over personal data. For me Online Caroline - like many of the projects I work on - is essentially a relatively safe playground where people can experiment about how they want to be and behave elsewhere both online and in the ‘real’ world. Personally, I go to the theatre for pretty much the same experience - to see how others are and think about how I want to be and to rehearse experiences, thoughts and emotions in a safe space.

GS: The other distinctive feature of your work from this period is its occasional hints of a dark Swiftian sense of humour. I remember laughing out loud when I came to the end of Mount Kristos. However, I also remember feeling a little uneasy about the experience as though I had been tricked (or tricked myself) in some way. Is my experience unusual? Is there an obvious ‘message’ about the medium or the culture in this satire?

TW: Well, I’ve always been a big Swift fan (I wrote a dissertation about Swift at uni). Laughter and uneasiness and ‘tricks’ are definitely reactions I go for quite often and effects I enjoy in other people’s work - although I hope the uneasiness is more about defeating expectations, challenging received wisdom and encouraging open-mindedness rather than making people feel nervous or bad in some way (there’s a thin line here I think). I’m not sure whether MK is satirical. It’s definitely a bit dark mainly because I was having quite a tricky time in my personal life around that time. Definitely I was keen to write about how playing with online identities could lead to some strange and unsettling experiences and I was also reacting to the first rash of online dating sites that were appearing around that time. Coincidentally, I was reading Ted Hughes’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses around then and it really created a lot of resonances for me - so the animal/human, written in the stars, coupling, changing, dying Greek thing all came from there in a fucked up kind of way. I’m actually rather proud of the ending of Mount Kristos because we did manage to provide a rather neat (and chilling? and funny?) conclusion to what right to the last minute looks like a messy rag-bag of mad story ideas. Interactive writing is quite often about making patterns or ’sense’ out of disparate and random sources (think about how web 2.0 writers today have to weave something coherent and compelling out of piles of uneven ‘user generated content’.)

If you felt ‘tricked’ I’d say that’s down to your own sense of control within online environments and how far you feel you can take your sense of self without feeling ‘uneasy’. So yes, I guess there was a point being made here, but I hope not in any didactic way and also not in any way that upset anyone in a bad way. As with Online Caroline it’s a safe playground - you’re always fully in control of how people see you, what happens to your personal data and how long you stay in the game. What more do you want?!!!

GS: I was interested to note that you mentioned ‘web2.0′ just then. I am wondering what web 2.0 means for you as a producer/writer?

TW: Yes, I’m afraid I maybe used that term a bit loosely. I suppose I was thinking of web applications like delicious, flickr, youtube, lastfm and so on that are about shared media, social networking, personal publishing, tagging, embedding, RSS, widgets, open source, working in public on the network rather than in private at the desktop, ‘mass amateurisation’ and so on. I suppose I’m thinking of it in contrast to web 1.0 which seemed to be very much about taking the desktop publishing methods of the late 80s early 90s and applying them to online - so in effect still aping the printed page at that point or at least thinking of the screen as a single homogenous broadcast environment (e.g. one big Flash animation or video) rather than, say, a collection of embedded ‘views’ or customisable’feeds’.

GS: Thanks! On a similar note, the ‘Oldton’ website makes use of materials provided by contributors. Did any issues arise from working with kind of material? Did you have any problems with authorship or ownership of the material?

TW: People often ask me this. No, I didn’t have any problems but I guess I was dealing with a relatively small number of contributors so it was easy to make sure that everyone understood the proposition. In terms of actual contributions, it was important to me that each one is held as a separate entry on a blog and thus each has its own distinct URL. I then only ever link to each entry from and don’t make an actual copy of anyone’s stuff. If anyone wants to remove themselves from the blog, they just have to email me. It’s important in any system like this that people feel they have control over their own stuff (I’ve mentioned this before). With the playing card element it was trickier since I was taking other people’s images and texts, manipulating and merging them - and ultimately then printing & selling the results as packs of cards. In this case I did mail everyone concerned with a formal proposition about what would happen to the revenue generated by the cards. There was no formal contract but everyone was aware of what I was doing and had an opportunity to say they didn’t want their contribution used in this way. Generally, I think if you have a clear and transparent dialogue with your audience you’re not really going to have any problems on this score - and if you have concerns it’s perfectly possible to formalise and automate the upload procedure so that every contributor reads and accepts terms before contributing.

GS: I was also fascinated by the multiple ‘outputs’ that came out of the Oldton project (a website, a pack of cards and a radio production). What is the relationship between these outputs? How do you decide which medium is right for a particular idea?

TW: Yeah, I’m fascinated by this too - how many times can you ‘flip flop’ a project across platforms and still retain coherence and control? In terms of Oldton I really had no plan about this. I started thinking I was making a web site and that was it. I then started using a blog for contributions because it gave me an easy way to manage and tag contributions. The biggest breakthrough for me was rolling out a big piece of paper and attempting to draw a map of Oldton based on everyone’s contributions. Not only did that liberate me in terms of being a person who draws as well as writes it also made me think about paper, print-outs and through the creation of a map I necessarily started thinking about grids. I quickly got to a 4 x 13 grid (thinking about four quarters of the year maybe) and the playing card idea then sprang from there. The radio play wasn’t my idea at all. A radio 4 producer called Pam Marshall read about Oldton in a newspaper and for some reason thought it might make a radio play.

So you see, each new form emerged out of process - and I think generally that’s how it should work. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that web, print and audio were my eventual outputs since these pretty much the bedrock of computerised DIY culture these days: publish, podcast, print. And notice how portable that mix is becoming, taking you away from the screen and out into the world. That’s all very exciting.

GS: On a different note I was also interested by the way that Oldton draws attention to truthfulness of its materials. Does truthfulness matter to you?

TW: Well, yes and no… by the time I came to writing Oldton I had got concerned that projects like Online Caroline had upset people because they’d thought she was ‘real’ and that they’d somehow been manipulated by some dot com wankers.

I’d also too often in both my personal and professional life found myself running away from ‘the truth’ by resorting to silly jokes - and spoiling other people’s genuine seriousness by being deliberately facetious. What - I asked myself - is there in my life that I’d find it hard to take a joke about or which I wouldn’t really want anyone else - online strangers - to dick around with? The death of my father was an obvious one; less so, was the leaving of my first childhood home which I still find it hard to think about without my stomach turning over, like it really was the end of happiness for me (well, one form of happiness anyway).

So my intention all along was to put something ‘truthful’ out there and see what other people did with it. I was challenging people to come and dick around with my truth.

I notice that on YouTube people do this all time - one person videos something heartfelt about bust-ups, breakdowns, being pissed off etc and then a bunch of others parody it, re-enact it, embellish it, set it to music and so on. There’s a lot of truth in these places - but people are still playing games with the truth.

Writing about my dead dad also obviously raised the issue of who remembered him best, who knew him best etc. that goes on in all families I guess. Each member of a family is going to remember a loved one differently and will also pull rank on others - “you weren’t there… you were only three, you wouldn’t remember… he told me something different… that’s just not true…” The truth is a slippery fish at this point - so it’s rich material I had there.

So yes, truth matters to me but I guess it goes back to what I keep saying: how much you want to be in control of your own data and you identity? And have you worked out when you’re in and out of the playground? Personally, as soon as I’m online I’m in the playground but I have come to respect more the fact that this isn’t true for everyone.

GS: I thought would be appropriate at the end of this interview by talking about what you are working on at present and your plans for future projects. Are you still planning to play golf on the moon?

TW: Yes I still have lunar golfing ambitions, although I have been doing a lot more consultancy and development work for broadcasters in the last couple of years so more independent personal work has taken a back seat. Golfonthemoon has three big aspects to it that I really like. First, it’s about keeping alive the spirit of aimless play, impossible dreaming and hobbyist ambition that I believe we all have as children but generally gets beaten out of us as we are trained into being professional adults. Second, the project is a useful exploration for me about how to tell coherent meaningful stories in an online world where there is no single monolithic point of broadcast but rather a collection of loosely connected web services and social networks that make use of tags and embedding and RSS and search etc. I think a lot of content providers of various stripes are struggling with this - i.e how to direct audience attention to the right places at the right times in an increasingly personalised and disparate multiplatform environment. Third, there’s a dressing up and performing (i.e. theatrical) element to golfonthemoon in that I’m meant to don my astronaut suit every now and again and play golf on the streets with my audience and with passers-by. Increasingly I am drawn to an offline theatrical element in digitally-driven work. I’ve been particularly inspired by theatre groups like Punchdrunk, Shunt etc. It feels like there’s a growing audience for participative, location specific performance pieces - and I think these could be really strong/central elements of new media writing concepts.

GS: Finally, while we’re talking about the future I wonder whether you mind firing your crystal ball and making a prediction about where you seeing the technology and the culture going next? Do you expect to see web3.0 any time soon? Do you look to the future with a sense of optimism/pessimism?

TW: It’s an old belief amongst ageing computer folk that Windows never really worked properly til version 3.1 and that generally you shouldn’t trust any software that isn’t at ver 3.1 or beyond. I think there’s no question that our world is going to become increasingly wired and automated in ways that we can’t yet imagine and - curiously - we probably won’t even notice when it happens. Already I think we don’t really notice the impact of things like domestic broadband, mobile phones, the opening up of big back-end database systems, advances in graphics and screen technology and so on. Sometimes it feels like we are sleepwalking into the future.

For me the next big thing is going to be the development of really really cheap and simple processors that can be embedded everywhere. RFID tags on all our shopping items is just the tip of the iceberg. We’ll be able to make a lot of dumb objects smarter so that furnitures and clothes and houses and perhaps our own organ might have the capacity to blog or twitter or become multifunctional in some way. This offers people like me a lot of possibilities. I’m already thinking about how smart trees and cars might become engines for digital storytelling.

For writers and artists generally - or anyone involved in cultural content - the big issue seems to me to be the ever-increasing divide that the web has brought so much into focus between monolithic professional producers of nationally or internationally branded content and small-scale local amateur DIY makers of content-making platforms, tool and services. These two groups of people offer very different and partially conflicting views of what the web is for, who’s in charge of it and what kind of content should be distributed on it.

In the short term I see two roads ahead - one is all about TV/video everywhere with everyone learning how to be a ‘professional’ filmmaker and the other feels like it’s more about fairly low tech podcasting, printing and ‘tailoring’ where everything is acted out and made very lightly and locally with lots of smarts for maximum mobility and exchange - we all learn to be digital jam-makers, amateur craftspeople if you like. Both paths look like fun - I guess you just end up operating within a different clan or set of ‘friends’, right?

This interview was conducted by e-mail in January and February 2008

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21 Responses to “An nmrg interview: Tim Wright - Digital Writer”

  1. Steven Conway Says:

    Great interview. Any chance Tim can fit one more in for golf on the moon?

  2. Jason Says:

    Hi there Gavin - nice interview. Maybe you’d like to republish here

  3. Alexis Says:

    Very thought provoking…. I find it fascinating to witness how easily it has now become to move creative ideas across from one format to another, not only for professionals but also for the amateur. What is functional literacy in western society has changed so much in the past 5 years…..

    Much to reflect on. Thanks

  4. Zuzana Says:

    Wonderful interview! Thanks for bringing an opportunity to read it. It is an amazing idea to publish artist’s expression on university website. Looking forward to reading some more of them

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