Where the stories come from

“Where do you get your ideas from?” is a question I’ve been hearing a lot recently.

That’s mostly with regard to 30 Second Sci Fi, a project of mine where I’m writing one short sci fi story every day. I’ve been writing for eight months now, so we’re 2/3 of the way done. Only another 129 stories to go before the year is out.

Today 30secSF got a write-up with Vocativ, an online arts-and-culture site.  Emily Levy, the writer, asked me what my influences were.

I told her I had a few favorite authors. But there’s a twist to that tale. Let me start at the beginning.

The first sci-fi I read was William Gibson, Neuromancer. That was important for me. He pretty much invented cyberpunk, and I read Neuromancer as a kid before the internet was really a thing. So when the internet became a thing ten years later, I was kind of seeing it against that backdrop.

Later I really enjoyed and was affected by Iain M Banks and his Culture series. Epic space opera, at the other end of the scale. Excession and The Player of Games are two that most affected me I think.

Recently I’ve fallen in love with James S A Corey and The Expanse series. Those books have been a real inspiration. He has a realistic edge that is frankly really refreshing, and really resonated with me.

But influential as they are, those guys are surface detail for me. The authors that really affected me most deeply haven’t been published yet. Their names are Vince Carpini, Blake and Ehren Jessop, and Jon Bracewell. They’re all from Montreal, like me. I went to high school with them. They were the game masters when we played tabletop roleplaying games. We played Dungeons & Dragons and Star Wars, and later graduated to designing and making our own systems. Our group was eight people altogether, but these four and I used to rotate the GM seat most often. We used to play every week, and they still occasionally get together to roll the dice.

Their stories shaped me as a person, let alone influencing me as a writer. For years – our most formative years – we spun entire worlds of stories built on their boundless creativity, endless invention and instinctive eye for story, character and action.

You asked me once where the ideas come from. Well, everything I write draws from the well in the centre of the impregnable fortress of creativity we built together. The water is always new, but it flows thanks to them.

Better than storytelling: Four reasons interactivity is the future of PR

Many people in PR, advertising and communications put great pride in storytelling. Are they missing something?

Fighter jet pilot in simulator

Image courtesy NASA

Storytelling is a powerful tool. But storytelling is just one way of sharing understanding and spreading ideas. Like any tool, it has strengths but also limitations.

There’s another way: interactive experiences like apps, visualizations and games can also be used to share understanding and change what people think, feel and do.

If you don’t understand how to use this power, you’re missing out on an essential skill of the 21 century communicator.

In 2014, we’re only just beginning to realise the potential of this approach. Here are four reasons why interactivity is the future of public relations:

1. Interactivity teaches us things stories can’t

Linear media like text and video are very good at telling stories. That means they’re very good at giving people an understanding of what happened in a given situation. But stories are less good at explaining the way things work. This is a problem.

Many of the communications challenges we face aren’t stories at all. Often we need to explain how complex systems work, such as a company or part of a national economy.

When we’re trying to communicate the behaviour of a complex system, the best way to do that is to create a model of that system that people can interact with. That way, we can help them understand things that they wouldn’t by just being told about them. As the proverb goes,Tell me and I’ll forget. Show me, I might remember. Involve me and I’ll understand.

This is the reason that pilots and race car drivers spend hundreds of hours in simulators before they’re allowed to touch the real thing. Planes, ships and F1 cars are complex machines operating in complex environments. When multimillion-dollar vehicles and human lives are at stake, you need to understand how that system works before you interact with it in real life.

In PR and communications, interactive experiences can allow us to play with a system and discover its inter-relationships. An excellent example is Budget Hero, a game about the U.S. federal budget. Players must balance the budget – a difficult task, especially if you’re also trying to follow a particular policy like environmental sustainability or international competitiveness.

2. The public is ready

I’m 34. I’m old enough to remember a world without video games, but only just. These days interactivity is expected. Children get frustrated when they swipe a TV screen with their hands and the picture doesn’t change. Adults aren’t far behind. We all live lives immersed in interactivity at every turn. Most of us are gamers now; we’ve become interactivity-literate.

We’re expecting our discussions of big ideas to be mediated in an interactive way.

3. Interactivity is engaging

If they’re well-constructed, interactive experiences can draw us in and capture our attention in a way few other things can. They give us something to do, not just something to look at.

Take a look at these examples:

Each draws you in with compelling interactivity and the promise of something interesting to do.

This type of responsive system is like candy for your brain. The video game industry has discovered and implemented the powerful principles that make people keep interacting with a system. The explosive growth of the video game industry is proof of how powerful these principles can be. And they can be applied to any interactive experience, something I’ve written about elsewhere.

4. Interactivity can work on a budget

You don’t need triple-A game development budgets to make an impact with interactive projects. Depth and range of expression don’t correlate with size. You know you can affect people deeply with a small text or a 3-minute video. The same is true with interactivity. Even small interactive projects can attain great power of expression.

In addition to the interactive visualisations above, consider:

  • Drowning in Problems, a subtle interactive text-based exploration of mortality, by the maker of Minecraft
  • Oiligarchy, a tongue-in cheek critique of the petroleum industry by an anti-capitalist collective
  • Passage, an interactive experience about relationships and life choices played out in a tiny band of pixels

The examples are endless, and endlessly varied.

At the moment the techniques of interactivity are mostly being deployed for art and entertainment, plus some interesting experiments in journalism. It is an area ripe with opportunity. As communicators, it’s up to us to use this power to get the information where it needs to go.


A version of this post originally appeared on edelman.com.

The Three Fundamentals of Powerful Interactive Communications

Joystick_by_Rob_boudon_on_flickrOn the morning of 14 November 2008, a 15 year-old boy was rushed to hospital in Laholm, Sweden. He was suffering from an apparent epileptic fit, brought on by exhaustion and dehydration. Investigating doctors discovered that the cause of his illness was self-inflicted. The boy had been playing Wrath of the Lich King, an expansion of the popular World of Warcraft video game series. The game had been released just a day before. The boy had purchased the game on its midnight release, gone straight home, and started playing. He had kept playing, forgetting to eat or sleep, until collapsing in exhaustion over 24 hours later.

This is a true story. This case is extreme, but the reality that underlies it is everywhere. Video games are an exceptionally powerful and popular medium. Every year, another new game release breaks records for the highest-grossing entertainment launch in human history.

What lessons can we draw from the success of video games as we craft interactive experiences designed to change what people think, feel and do?

The video game industry has already discovered the secrets of compelling interactivity. This isn’t about gamification – it’s about creating interactive experiences that are intrinsically rewarding, experiences that people will participate in simply for the pleasure of doing so.

Games draw their engaging power from well-established design rules and principles. These principles can be adapted to improve almost any interactive digital experience – including advertising, thought leadership and other forms of communication.

Three of the most fundamental principles are challenge, direction and feedback.


A challenge that is too easy is boring; one that is too hard is frustrating. The key is to deliver a challenge just at the limit of what the player can achieve. Once players have solved this challenge, a good game immediately gives them another one – only a little bit harder. Players will stay engaged as long as the game keeps escalating the challenge level. This adaptable, escalating difficulty structure generates flow, and it is at the heart of what makes games engaging.

How can marketers and communicators make use of this principle? A rewarding interactive experience has to pose some challenge to the player. Give them something to do, not just to watch or read. There has to be some difficulty in it. Ideally, the task will be easy at first, but becomes more difficult as the player progresses and gains experience.

An excellent example of this principle at work is Josh Worth’s If the moon were only 1 pixel. This is a beautifully simple visualization of the solar system. The viewer has to scroll through it to find the planets in the solar system. This is an easy challenge, but it is a challenge – it requires patience. The player who demonstrates patience gets a payoff; finding the planets, and reading the fragments of thought-provoking text scattered through the emptiness between them.

How can you adapt the principle of challenge? When designing your interactive experience, ask yourself:

  • What challenge does this experience pose to users?
  • Is that challenge appropriate to their level of skill?
  • Do I want users to interact with this more than once, or engage for a longer time?
  • If so, how can the system adapt the challenge to their level of skill? If you want users to engage for longer, the challenge must escalate.


In interactive experiences, the person we’re engaging isn’t a passive observer – they’re an actor. Like any actor, players need good direction.

Instead of a script or stage, games direct players by limiting the actions they can do, while clearly indicating those they can. In good games it’s rarely ambiguous what you should do next (unless resolving this ambiguity is itself a part of the game challenge). Every good game has a clear goal for the player at all times, and also a clear method of achieving that goal. Players should never be asking themselves what they need to do to win.

In Tetris, for example, blocks are falling from the sky. If they reach the top, you lose. The game becomes all about stacking them as neatly as possible.

The same principle applies to interactive experiences in general.

Buzzfeed made great use of direction in their wildly popular “Wikpedia names your band” game. Buzzfeed wanted to poke some fun at pretentious hipster-rock band names and album covers. They could have simply asked readers to submit their ideas for parody album cover images. They would surely have received a couple dozen images, from committed readers who also had an interest in hipster rock and graphic design skills. But Buzzfeed went broader than this. To get maximum participation, they created a simple three-step game to help people create a parody album cover image.

This is great direction. The way to “win” is very clearly spelled out. Follow the instructions, and you know you’ll get a unique and (ironically) whimsical album cover image that you can share with your friends.

That’s why thousands of people jumped on the experience, resulting in thousands of shares and uploads of users’ own band name album covers. It got Buzzfeed great exposure. The same can be done for a brand.

So how can you adapt this principle to your own interactive experience? When designing it, ask yourself:

  • What is the experience encouraging users to do? How is it making this clear?
  • Is there an obvious “win” state? How is it made clear?
  • How can the media surrounding the interactivity – the visual design, video cues, sound design, etc. – help the user understand what to do next?


Part of what makes video games attractive is their transparency and clarity. It’s always obvious how well you’re doing. You have a health meter, a power-up meter, a stash of gold coins, dragon souls or a kill/death ratio. Whatever the metric is, good video games are always displaying it to you, so you can modulate your behavior relative to it. People love clear, quick feedback. Interactive communications experiences can take advantage of this principle by giving it to them. For example, Britain’s Real Class System, an interactive journalism experience I designed for the BBC before joining Edelman, asks people a few questions and gives them feedback on their position in Britain’s socioeconomic system.

Generally, if the feedback tells the user something about themselves, it’s twice as engaging.

So how can you adapt this principle to your own interactive experience? When designing it, ask yourself:

  • When the user does something, how does the system respond to their actions?
  • Can we structure the experience so user actions are more quantifiable?
  • Is feedback displayed dynamically – i.e. can the user see their feedback change as they interact?
  • What can we do to make the feedback “juicier” – more clear, more visible, more eye-catching?

Bringing it together

Challenge, direction and feedback are the essential components of good interactivity. There are plenty of other lessons communicators can learn from video games – these principles are just the beginning. When they’re implemented well, they can create communications experiences that players will enjoy, seek out and share.

A version of this post originally appeared on Edelman.com

If the moon were only one pixel: the power of interactivity

This interactive model of our solar system perfectly and simply demonstrates the power of interactivity as a form of communication.

Great design work. You should check it out.

Great design work. You should check it out.

Interactivity is a powerful way to transmit understanding. By getting people to do something, rather than just watch or read something, you can get them to understand things they never would have otherwise.

If the moon were only one pixel is a great and simple example of this power, well-designed and well-applied.

It’s a truism that space is big. It’s so big that it’s difficult to understand just how big it is. The only place I’ve ever seen this explained well is the Scales of the Universe exhibit in the Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Well, that was the only place I’d seen it done well, until now.

As a piece of interactive communication, If the moon were only one pixel works, and it does so by implementing the three principles of interactive communication: Challenge, Motivation and Feedback.


OK, the challenge level on this interactive is pretty low: just keep scrolling to the right, and you’ll get there. But there’s more to it than the simple mechanic of moving your mouse. Firstly, it’s a game of patience. Few of us will have the patience to scroll straight through the whole experience. There’s a temptation to jump to the planets directly,  instead. But then you miss all the commentary – the text that Josh Worth has woven into the work. If you want to find those, you have to look and scroll manually. It’s the same game mechanic as Grand Theft Auto, but expressed in one dimension. Here the challenge is exploration and discovery, finding all those easter eggs.

And when you’re looking for those little flickers of signal in the darkness of space, you see just how much emptiness there is to cover. This is where the experience draws its communicative power.


Like in any good interactive, when you start this experience, your motivation is clear. Move to the right. It’s explained right there, even with an arrow in the text. Since the challenge involved is an exploration challenge, this is all you really need. Any more direction, and it would rob the challenge of its appeal (especially since it’s in one dimension).


Of course, the entire experience is a bit like a progress bar filling in, so you know exactly where you are and how far you have left to go. But it’s Worth’s text, and the unexpected highlight of finding planets, that is the real feedback here. At first the text consists simply of factual observations on how empty it is, but it soon evolves. Before you know it, you’re reading an essay on emptiness and whether our minds are configured to really understand it. There’s more to it than that, and I don’t want to spoil it. The effect is a little like setting out to watch a dumb comedy, only to realise at the end that the comedy was based on a surprisingly complex look at human behaviour.

Worth writes that he set out to create this piece after a discussion with his daughter. It certainly does the trick. If the moon were only one pixel elegantly demonstrates how interactivity can convey a point far more effectively than words or pictures on their own.

#DME14: How to stop worrying and love sponsored content

Sponsored content. Native advertising.  Whatever you want to call it, if you do it right, it’s good for the public, good for publishers, and good for brands.

Why are people so nervous about it?

This is the text, more or less, of a talk I gave at the Digital Media Europe 2014 conference in London this afternoon. 

What’s the best piece of sponsored content ever made?

It’s not by Red Bull. It’s not Swedish.

The best piece of sponsored content ever made is Italian.

Many of you have probably seen it.

How many of you have been to Rome?

This is the best piece of sponsored content ever made:

Continue reading

TEDxUoN: Communication and the power of video games

This post is the text, more or less, of a talk I just gave in Nottingham for TEDxUoN.



The summer that I was eighteen years old, I went on a bike trip to Ireland. I borrowed my older brother’s bike and got my own plane ticket. I was going alone. It was the first really big thing I did on my own. 

                    Irish countryside in The Burren, County Clare.

Biking around Ireland was great. It was pure liberty. But it felt incomplete. Here I was seeing all these new things, and no one knew what I was discovering. So through the whole trip I bought disposable cameras so I could take pictures and show people back home. Every time that I saw something cool, I took a picture. I took hundreds of pictures. The irony is that since they were all printed on paper – this was still in the days of film – they’re all stuck in a box in my mother’s apartment in Montreal. But they’re there.

The funny thing is that without the photos, it seemed pointless to have gone on the trip at all. 

There’s a saying that I love. It’s from Rabindranath Tagore, a Bengali philosopher.  

“All that is not given is lost.” 

I think I wanted to take those pictures to show people, so the experience wasn’t lost. 

Sharing, communicating, makes experiences worth more. 

I believe deeply in communication. I believe in the value of transmitting understanding across minds. 

This is something that’s always fascinated me. 

That’s why, some years later, I became a journalist. I worked for the CBC in New York and in Montreal and then, later, I moved to London and eventually joined the BBC. That’s when I left TV and radio reporting and started to work in digital journalism.

I’ve done a bunch of things since then. Now I work for Edelman Digital, a big communications agency. The work I do there is basically the same as what I did at the BBC. It’s about sharing understanding. I get some information, and I think of the best way to get the right people to understand that information. 

I think that’s really important. Communication is what defines us as human. Communication is essential to humans because it’s our survival advantage. It means we can work together and share understanding, across space but also across time. We can adapt to change and threats much faster than any other animal. Communication is what has allowed us to dominate this planet. 

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Alone against a tiger, none of us stands a chance. Ten people who can talk and plan can take out any tiger. One hundred coordinated people, communicating and working together, is all it would take to destroy all the tigers. 

Or preserve them. 

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Of course, in the past, tiger-level threats is all we had to worry about. The threats were complex, but they were small-scale. So we could deal with them in a small-scale way. We’d gather around the fire and tell each other stories and legends. 

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Legends teach lessons. The stories of the Aboriginal people of Australia are tied to the landscape, telling you what happened in this valley or at that waterhole in the dreamtime, when the world was young and all things were made. A childhood spent listening to stories like that leaves you with a pretty good idea of how to survive in that landscape. 

We teach our kids with stories, too. What’s Little Red Riding Hood? It’s about an animal predator preying on an innocent, naive little girl in her new red cape. Think there’s a survival lesson in that one?

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We’ve grown since then, and our society has become more complex. Now we have a mass society and we need mass communications. 

The printing press brought us standard texts and wider distribution, but we lost the interactivity we had before.

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Broadcasting allowed us to communicate quickly across great distances to many people at once. It was one-way communication for a command-and-control society. 

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Now the Internet has changed communications again, and it’s changing everything. For the first time, many-to-many communications are possible. Communications are interactive again. The Internet allows us to build networks of communications and influence. Communications, as a survival tool, are becoming more powerful than ever. 

And it’s about time. Because we’re going to need some survival power tools. And we’re not even using the power of what we have, yet. 

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The threat of atomic war may have receded – slightly. But what new threats face us?

Dealing with climate change. 

Finding enough energy.

Feeding seven, eight, nine billion people. Maybe more.

Managing a volatile economy fuelled by the increasing pace of technological change. 

These issues are huge and complex. They’re not like tigers. Linear stories aren’t going to cut it anymore. One-to-many communications aren’t going to cut it anymore. 

Let me give you an example. Another story. 

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This one is about a town. It’s Churchill, Manitoba, in Canada. Churchill is a small place. There’s not much there. It’s remote. It’s in the Canadian Arctic. It’s only home to about a thousand people. 

But the railroad goes there, and it has a good deep-water port. In fact, it’s the only deep-water port in that part of the world. It would be the perfect place to ship out all the grain that grows in the vast Canadian prairies. It’s actually pretty close to East Asia, Russia, and Western Europe, if you can sail straight and don’t have to worry about the ice. 

Now, until recently, no one much cared about this, because there’s ice. It’s in the arctic, so the port is icebound eight months of the year. But lately, the ice has been breaking up a little earlier in the spring, and it’s been forming a little later in the fall. The port authorities figure that they’ve already gained an extra month of shipping time. Last year, the last ship full of grain shipped out in November. That’s never happened before. 

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The port authorities want to expand. See, there’s another thing that the Canadian prairies produce: sweet crude oil. Churchill would be a great place to export all that oil from. Imagine. Fleets of super-tankers lining up to take on millions of barrels of crude oil and sail off, between the icebergs towards China.

Is this a good story?

Well, it’s a story about climate change, but I hope that a few of you are thinking “Hey, wait a minute. There’s more to it than that!”

Yeah, there is. And you can’t express it through a story. 

See, stories are powerful, but they’re limited. We engage with stories because they are abstractions of reality, bent into very particular configurations that are easy to understand. Seven particular combinations, in fact

Churchill’s story is just one strand in a really complicated system of climate change. The system is massively complex, and it poses all of us a massively complex challenge. Ecological change, global trade patterns, weather, commodity price fluctuations. You can’t understand all that with linear, non-interactive communications.

As we’ve grown as a society, we’ve had to deal with increasingly complex problems and challenges. We need to be equipped to deal with that complexity. Not just the experts, not just the elite. The whole, networked mass of us. We’re highly educated, we’re literate, we’re deeply connected, and each of us is a powerful broadcaster in our own right.

The good news is that we have the tools. Interactivity is the answer. 

See, there’s three ways of transmitting understanding. 

The first and least effective is what I’m doing now. Lecturing. 

The second, and very effective, is storytelling. 

The third is interactivity. When interactivity works really well, we call it play. When interactive communications tools work really well, we call them games. 

We like games. Games are fun, right? 

But what is fun?

Can you define it? 

I can.

In games, fun is learning. 

It’s true. And I’ll prove it to you, right now. Let’s play tic-tac-toe, or noughts and crosses as you call it over here. 

Tic tac toe, or noughts and crosses as it's called in the UK.

Your move, punk!

Now, was that fun?

Of course not. We all knew exactly how it was going to go from the very beginning. And yet, once upon a time, when we were little, this game was fun to all of us.

What changed? Why did this game stop being fun?

We learned all the game had to teach us. We discovered every option. That happens pretty fast, because there are only 26,830 possible games of tic-tac-toe. That might seem like a lot. But consider this: there are ten to the power of a hundred and twenty possible games of chess. You know how big a number that is? It’s ten thousand trillion trillion games of chess for every atom in the observable universe. Even if you were immortal, the universe would die before you played them all. 

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Chess is still fun because it offers inexhaustible new challenges, and inexhaustible solutions to learn.

Fun in games is learning. Once you’ve mastered a game, its challenge fades, and it stops being fun. Unless the game is pushing you, there’s no point.

Now, that doesn’t mean that every game is teaching you something worth learning. The lessons of Angry Birds are quickly absorbed. Once you’ve figured out the perfect angle to launch birds at in every level, the fun is gone. 

But in a lot of cases, you can learn things by interacting with a system that you never could just by hearing stories about it.

For instance, Grand Theft Auto is about exploration. Once you’ve discovered everything the world has to offer, the game loses its appeal. That’s why I’ll bet none of you are still playing GTA 4. 

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Fighter pilots learn on simulators. They spend thousands of hours in simulators before we let them anywhere near a real plane.

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The games we play are powerful and effective teachers. And they’re subtle. Look at this picture. These are kids from Canada in the 1940s playing house. Who’s holding the baby, and who’s holding the newspaper? These kids were learning something.

Just a game of house . . . OR IS IT?

Not only are they subtle, games as learning systems are incredibly powerful. Let me give you an example. It’s a true story.

It’s the evening of Tuesday, November 12th, 2008 in Laholm, a town in Southwest Sweden. 

A fifteen year-old kid is lining up outside a store. He’s really excited. He’s lining up to buy a copy of Wrath of the Lich King, an expansion for the super-popular World of Warcraft video game series.

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Exactly at midnight, the boy is let into the store – he’s at the head of the line – and buys the game. He takes it home, installs the module, starts playing with his friends. There are seven of them. He starts on playing at about two on Wednesday morning. The sun comes up, the sun goes down, he’s still playing. Parents come home from work and go to bed. He’s still playing. He plays all through the night. The sun comes up on Thursday. He’s still going. He goes for a good bit of Thursday, as well, until finally he collapses from exhaustion on Thursday afternoon.

This is an important story, and not because of the obvious question of what the hell this kid’s parents were doing letting their son play non-stop for over 20 hours.

The point is that we have here a medium so powerful, so compelling, that people will forget to eat or sleep for using it.

What was it that held this kid’s attention so completely? 

There are three basic principles to compelling interactivity. 

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The first is Challenge. The system needs to give you something to do. And that thing has to be just at the level of your ability. As you improve, the challenge should get harder. All good games do this.

The second is Motivation. In every game, it’s always clear what you should do next. There’s nothing more frustrating than blundering around not sure what to do. 

The third is Feedback. The system has to show you how you’re doing so you can adjust your input. 

By adopting these three principles correctly, it’s possible to create intrinsically rewarding experiences. That means we can create learning experiences so compelling that people will participate just for the sake of doing so.

And these experiences are really complex. How many of you are WoW players? 

OK, for the rest of you, here’s what World of Warcraft looks like.

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Here’s another popular game – EvE Online. It’s a space simulator, but some people have compared it to flying a spreadsheet. It’s so detailed and involved it has a functioning commodities market where you can trade derivatives. Tens of thousands of people are playing this game right now. It costs $15 per month to play, and it’s Iceland’s main export.

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We can build interactive communications to transmit understanding of any topic, no matter how complex. Wouldn’t it be great if we could build a system like this to help solve a big problem like climate change? 

Well, we haven’t done climate change, yet, but we have done a big interactive project around another complex system. The British class system.  

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I’ve been fascinated by the class system here for a long time. Working, middle, upper class right? 

The last big project I did when I was at the BBC was an interactive experience called The Great British Class Survey. 

Most polls show that about two-thirds of Britons consider themselves working class. Now, what does that actually mean? Two-thirds of Britons don’t work in factories or out in the fields. What is it actually based on? We set out to investigate this and find out what Britain’s class system is actually like. 

Instead of going out and recording a whole bunch of interviews with people and reporters looking thoughtful while walking, we did it interactively. We partnered with professors Mike Savage and Fiona Devine, two of the UK’s lead experts on social class. With them, we devised an interactive questionnaire that anyone could fill out. It looked at three things: your wealth, your social connections, and your cultural habits. 

Over a hundred and sixty thousand people participated. We re-drew the map of class in the UK. It turns out that there are seven distinct social classes in the UK today. And they’re not based on what you’d expect. You can still go take the survey right now and find out how you fit in to this country’s class system. 

Now, this wasn’t a game. It was an interactive experience. But it used game principles and the power of interactivity to transmit understanding of a complex topic.

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At the beginning of the 21st century, our society is more sophisticated and complex than ever before. We’re also facing bigger, more complex threats than before.

As always, our most powerful advantage as a species is our ability to communicate. Without it, we’re just monkeys. All our science and our tools mean nothing without communication. How many of us individually know how to make a smartphone? No one. It takes a team, and that takes communication. The bigger, the more complex the challenge, the bigger and more complex the communications needed.

We are the species who do things together. It’s what we do. We need to communicate to survive, and to thrive. 

And we’ve just discovered a form of communication capable of transmitting understanding of the most complicated, subtle systems. People can use it together. They want to use it. In fact, it’s SO powerful that people will forget to eat or sleep while using it.

These tools need to be developed, they need to be improved. That’s why I made interactive journalism at the BBC, and that’s why I’m making interactive projects at Edelman now. That’s why I’ll keep doing it. Because we need these better tools.

Because we are lost if we can’t share understanding. But if we can, one day our children will reach the stars.



Conversation: the Rules

We all know conversation is a game.

Sometimes it’s a game with a very definite prize, like getting someone to think you’re interesting enough that they’ll give you their phone number, or getting someone to trust you enough that they’ll consider your business proposal. Whatever the goal is, conversation is challenging, scalable, and interactive – all the hallmarks of a really good social game.

But what are the rules of the game?

I think I may have deduced them. Here’s the alpha version. Let me know what you think.


Conversation is a game for 2-6 players. (It is possible to play with more than 6 players, but scoring becomes extremely complicated as sub-conversations may form.)


Conversations are a collaborative game, scored by group. Though individuals do get points, ultimately the objective is for the group’s score to be as high as possible by the end of the conversation.

The game is based on provoking information exchange. Players take turns trying to get others to share information with the group.


  1. Every time a player is provoked to reveal a piece of information, both the provoker and the revealer get a point.
  2. If the provoker provokes a revealer to recount an anecdote, the provoker (not the revealer) gets an additional point.
  3. Provoking laughter scores the provoker one point for every person who laughs. An additional point is awarded for every person still laughing after five seconds, repeatedly, until laughter is extinguished.
  4. Any attempted provocation that results in refusal or embarrassment loses the provoker two points.
  5. Silence is the enemy. Periods of silence cause all players to lose points, at a rate of one point per five seconds.

There are two exceptions to rule 5.

The first is if the players are engaged in some sort of activity while the conversation takes place, e.g. taking a walk, visiting a gallery, driving, or similar. In such cases, point loss speed is quartered – that is, all players lose one point per 20 seconds of silence. (Note that eating does not count as an activity for scoring purposes.)

The second exception to rule 5 is if some of the players are Scandinavian. Such players permanently  count as if they are engaged in an activity, losing one point only once every 20 seconds of silence.

Required Materials

None. However, one bottle of wine/beer/whiskey or similar per 2 players may be a welcome accessory, depending on the length of the conversation. Alcohol has been associated with higher-scoring conversations.