Location-Based Mobile Storytelling

Location-Based Mobile Storytelling

Jennifer Stein (University of Southern California, USA), Scott Ruston (University of Southern California, USA) and Scott S. Fisher (University of Southern California, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-575-9.ch009
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This article describes an investigation in location-based mobile storytelling entitled Tracking Agama. Using a combination of SMS messaging, voice calls, and web log entries, Tracking Agama leads its participants on a narrative-based exploration of Los Angeles, in pursuit of a fabled urban researcher, “Agama.” Participants use a bit of detective work to discover the keywords allowing access to Agama’s voice-activated and phone-accessible audio diary entries; send and receive SMS messages from Agama and his assistant; and receive calls from the virtual characters.
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Perhaps the best known mobile experiences are the pervasive games designed by Swedish company It’s Alive! and the British group Blast Theory. Botfighters (It’sAlive), in many ways, is very similar to a video game like Halo, but based on live action and played in the real world. Location information, referencing a fictional future world, and game play battles are handled through the mobile phone, and with a periodically updated web-based backstory offers new missions and recontextualizes game world developments. Blast Theory’s projects, including Uncle Roy All Around You and I Like Frank among others, work like cooperative treasure hunts with online and street players having access to different elements and developing cooperation strategies via SMS messaging. These projects are distinctly games, both in terms of their marketing and the structure of the experience they offer their participants. And while they contain story elements to offer a more complete imaginative world, these features are secondary to the gameplay.

With their procedural and participatory environments oriented around spatial exploration, these mobile games fit new media theorist Lev Manovich’s contention that, in the new cultural order, database is the primary structuring device, subordinating narrative to a secondary (and competitive) role.1 Spatial annotation projects, such as Yellow Arrow, [murmur], and Urban Tapestries, also seem to privilege a database structure. These projects allow the participant to author personal diary-like episodes into the database of materials, available to future navigators of the same urban terrain. Again, much like the pervasive games of It’s Alive! and Blast Theory, these projects have story elements mixed in their database structure and exploratory method of participation. All of these projects, though, seem distinctly different from the story experience of a novel or film.

We can turn to film theorist Edward Branigan’s narrative schema and modes of collecting and understanding data to understand how these pervasive games and spatial annotation projects utilize narrative components. Branigan suggests that a narrative is comprised of a series of episodes put together as a focused chain. An episode contains all that happens to a character in a particular place or time and a focused chain of episodes exhibits a clear continuing center.2 These mobile experiences, though they might contain some combination of episodes, unfocused chains and focused chains, would fail the Branigan test as a complete or complex narrative structure in a traditional conception of narrative (though the episodes and unfocused chains of events are narrative-like and the back-story would qualify as a simple narrative). Botfighters represents an example, similar to many video games, in which a computational structure works in tandem with narrative or narrative-like components to create the complete experience.

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