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The Art of the Internet Novel

Language has a power all its own, or does it?

Can multimedia do what reading once did?

During the next to last week in October 2013 I made a presentation at the Northwood Branch of The Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore. While making a point I asked: “How many people here have read A Tale of Two Cities”?

Everyone in the audience said they had. Most gave a disclaimer like: “in high school” or “a long time ago.” I remarked on how I was still able to hear the clack of cart wheels against the cobblestone streets of London or Paris. From the mummer in the audience it seems that others also remembered a sound that none of us had ever actually heard. We read it!

The point that I was making was in discussion of the next book project I am working on: The Bay is Dying – An Ecology Game. It is a game-for-change, which, hopefully, will influence millions of players worldwide to change how they think and act toward the environment.

 Continuing the discussion in Baltimore, I said in some kind of extemporaneous way that:

 We used the Recruiting Site at TheBayisDying.org to assemble a team of successful fiction writers, environmental organizations, programmers, graphic designers, animators, photographers, cinematographers, musicians, and marketers from Asia, Africa, and across North America to create an interactive, multimedia, multiplatform, group-authored, Internet novel-as-a game.

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 “The primary setting for the story is the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Baltimore has been the largest city in the Watershed until Washington surpassed it in population in 2012,” I teased.

To the power of gamification in The Bay is Dying, we are adding the traditional power of storytelling. We believe that if Charles Dickens had had the Internet A Tale of Two Cities may have been the tale of our world, with oil or industrial sludge running into the Niger River in Africa and the Yellow River in Asia.

The continents now are as close and interconnected as the blood-filled streets of London and Paris were during the 1790s! As well as the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, The Bay is Dying, is set in Africa and China and branches to other place on the earth where the human effects of the abuse of the environment are most dramatic.

For our creative team, we set a very high bar. Can the wisdom of crowds ever create the impact equal to that of a solitary genius like Dickens whose Tale is the most read, and perhaps the most impacting novel, of all times.

Exercising vanity was not the reason for the high bar. We had assembled a creative team that is as passionate about environmental stewardship as Dickens was about the bloodletting in the name of progress during the 1790s.

The log line for our novel is: Aside from a nuclear catastrophe, ecological destruction may be the greatest threat to human survival. It would be great if we could use a multimedia mix in extremely creative ways (and there are literally an unlimited number of them), to impact the minds of players of our game with images as powerful as the clack of cart wheels against cobblestone streets in A Tale of Two Cities.

After I came home from the Baltimore presentation I googled an article I had read years ago about Professor Philip Davis of the University of Liverpool:

"Research at the University of Liverpool has found that Shakespearean language excites positive brain activity, adding further drama to the bard’s plays and poetry," the article began. The article argued that by using certain techniques Shakespeare forces "the brain to work backwards in order to fully understand what Shakespeare is trying to say."

"By throwing odd words into seemingly normal sentences, Shakespeare surprises the brain and catches it off guard in a manner that produces a sudden burst of activity,” Professor Davis said. The article continued: "Experts believe that this heightened brain activity may be one of the reasons why Shakespeare’s plays have such a dramatic impact on their readers."

Dickens did not throw odd words into seemingly normal sentences. What was his favored technique?  Perhaps assembling artistically-chosen words into a picture, for any reason, might add to the dramatic impact on readers.

With The Bay is Dying we plan to use words in our multimedia mix, usually no more than the 142 characters of a tweet on Twitter.  The words would function as micro-fiction does. With micro-fiction the idea is to use language that makes the mind work to create un-verbalized, and often un-verbalize-able, parts of a story. The story is enlarged by the missing pieces. A lot of great art—music, painting, sculpture—functions this way.

As we build our game novel we will also construct a text provisionally called The Art of the Internet Novel. Perhaps the art of our Internet novel is in not giving the reader/player the picture (or other multimedia) that is worth a thousand words, but giving a picture (or other multimedia element) that makes the mind work to fill in missing pieces.

Our method can allow reader/players to move through the game/novel page by page, or rather multimedia screen by screen, with the ability to move back and forth to make the mind work in order to fully understand. And we can hope that the sudden burst of activity resulting from the engagement in game quests will give multimedia images greater impact.

George Davis, as creative director of Quest Digital Worldwide, has assembled a world-wide team of volunteers and Strategic Partners to build an interactive, group-authored, Internet novel-as-a-game-for-good. The game-novel, The Bay is Dying, is about a global struggle to save the environment. 

George Davis is professor emeritus at Rutgers University. His latest book is Until We Got Here.

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