continuing from Barcamp Leipzig (part 1)

Storytelling for Companies

I have difficulties to recount what I learned from Till's presentation, although it gave a lot of food for thought. The subject is a bit hard to grasp for non-marketeers, though, and towards the end the main thread got somewhat drowned in too many off-topic comments from the audience. So we actually only got to see the first few slides of the presentation.

The basic idea (as I understood it) is to present your company in a way that appeals to audiences (especially journalists). Several classic motives of storytelling come to mind as a template. A popular example is "David against Goliath". If you are a startup, chances are good that the story would apply to you. So rather than proclaiming "we have the best product", you could tell the story of how you were dissatisfied with the status quo and decided to try to improve the situation against all odds. If you ever walked across an IT business fair like the Systems in Munich or the CeBIT, you might know what this is about. There are so many companies who sound exactly alike - "we solve all your problems, and we have the best products" - but it is never clear what they actually do. A very frustrating sight.

It really is hard to recount, because I think it will only become clear once you try it. I haven't tried it, but I can imagine what it could be like. As Till and commentators said, often the story takes on a life on it's own. People start to muse about possible continuations for the story, and you yourself start to fit yourself into the story.

A lot of the off-topic comments were from the "Alternate Reality Gaming" crowd, in my opinion they missed the point a bit, because that was not the kind of storytelling Till had in mind. I could be wrong, though. Eventually, they decided to hold their own session for Alternate Reality Games, which I also attended.

This marked the end of the sessions for Saturday. In the evening there was also a party for barcamp attendees, but since Andreas and I first went home to see my girl-friend, we arrived there only late, and we also didn't stay long. I felt I had already exhausted my capacity for socializing for the day, so that there was not much point to being at the party.

Sunday unfortunately I had to leave quite early to catch my train, but I got to see two more sessions.

Alternate Reality Games

Alternate Reality Games are games in which a team of puppet masters sets up fake clues and circumstances in the real world, to allow players to play in an alternate reality. For example, apparently recently some people received parcels with mysterious contents, without ever having signed up for a game or ordered anything. Those inclined could start deciphering the clues and presumably stumble across the generated story. An early example was Majestic a game that would communicate with the players by phone, among other things.

I am not sure how big the marketing impact of these games is, as I never stumbled across them before, but usually communities form around solving the game. At the moment The Lost Ring appears to be a bigger ARG, sponsored by McDonalds (other links are listed on the barcamp leipzig page). It also has a german branch - apparently the story is that around the world several people woke up without memories, and the goal of the players is to help them on their way. One of those people is located in Germany. As an example for actions the presenter mentioned to meet for sports with that person (ie go running), or try to talk to him to cheer him up and so on. I find it hard to imagine - how can the person go running with hundreds of players? But of course it is interesting in a way. A younger me would probably have gotten excited about it, but at the moment I felt that "normal" reality is interesting enough and I don't really need to get involved.

Apparently there are also grassroots movements of people trying to organize non-commercial ARGs, but often they underestimate the effort that goes into them, and they fail. Thing to remember.

AntMe

Tom from AntMe seems to be a genuinely nice guy, and to be honest, I envy him a little. I have always been interested in Artificial Life, but industry jobs in that area were rare. With AntMe, Tom seems to have found a way to make money with Artificial Life, Game Programming and getting girls interested in Computer Science. Of course he had to sell his soul to Microsoft to do that, but it seems a small price to pay.

But slowly from the beginning: AntMe is a programming game, in which you program ants to harvest sugar and fruits as fast as possible, all the time evading the hungry, ant-eating bugs. You can write programs to control the ants and upload them, to be rated in the Highscores list. There is also a multiplayer modus where you compete directly with other ant colonies.

That is just great, fantastic, especially as apparently Non-Programmers actually seem to get it and enjoy it. The ants are programmed in C#, which explains the Microsoft endorsement (basically, I guess they pay the bills and salaries): they use it to win people over to C#, possibly even make C# the first programming language they ever learn. It sounded as if AntMe also visits job fairs, girls-days and the like to present the ants and get people interested in programming. A few days ago apparently there was something like a "girls-in-science day", so Tom got to present the ants in front of a large audience of teenage girls, who actually liked it. I can't really get over this - it is even more amazing than earning a living with Artificial Life programming ;-)

The game itself is very nicely done, with cute 3d graphics. I was sceptic at first because the ants seem to know a few tricks that real ants don't, but once you see them running diligently across the screen, you can't help but like them. Tom also had lots of stories about the ways the AntMe community managed to outwit the programmers of the simulation. For example they created a kind GPS system which allows ants to go to absolute coordinates, something they were never meant to be able to do. I was also interested in the "Ticket Ants", which seem to be among the most successful AntMe competitors: if a sugar heap is found, they calculate exactly how many ants are needed to carry it away, and create tickets for the task. Idle ants then start accepting the tickets and getting to work - you can't get much more efficient than that. I am interested because I wonder if "logistics" can really perform better than nature - it seems for the virtual ants the answer is yes, but of course real ants face other constraints (they don't have a centralized server, for example).

Sadly, my aversion against C# is too great, so that for the time being I probably won't join in the fun. But who knows. I understand the reasons for it being C#, and for some people it definitely is a suitable language (like if you know you will always stay on the Windows Operating System). Actually, as a Java developer I used to be interested in C#, but now I think it is not different enough from Java to warrant the effort of learning it for me, and I want to move to dynamic languages anyway.