01/11/2013 03:24 pm ET

Digital Storytelling Continues To Push Narrative Boundaries

A new initiative by the Brown University creative nonfiction program is exploring the potential of digital nonfiction through some of the web's most unusual storytelling projects.

Led by its Digital Scholar in Residence, Michael Stewart, who describes himself as "an author and semi-profesional dilettante", this guest article comes courtesy of him and his class.

Despite what Mark Zuckerberg and co. would like you to believe, there is a wealth of viable, interesting and entertaining things on the Internet beyond the social media stratosphere. While some of it—nay, most of it—might generally be not safe for work, there are writers, gamers, archivists and storytellers who are harnessing the near limitlessness of the Web to create interesting and innovative digital projects.

Most notably, these pieces bring you as the reader into the process of creation. Instead of sitting down with a text, the reader gets to work with it, change it, and explore it in a unique way—a way only available in a digital medium. Whether it’s mapping out a story, collecting stars in a video game, or telling the tale of a duck’s adventure as a pirate (Really.), the user gets a new, fresh way to interact online. Check out some of the most creative digital work on the Internet, below. Don’t worry, you can Tweet about it later.

Books for Mandela

Google’s latest project offers readers more than the Kevin-Bacon-number-generator or driving directions—now you can get a new glimpse into a Nobel Prize winner’s life (and bookshelf). The Google Cultural Institute’s impressive new “Books for Mandela” project allows users to view a selection of books Mandela received both in prison and during his political career, primarily the inscription supporters wrote on the inside pages of their work.

The project is part of Google’s new online museum that features collections from archives and institutions worldwide. With 42 digitized collections and growing, the project spans 20th and 21st century history and highlights everything from the Spanish Civil War, to Anne Frank’s secret annex, to the history of South Africa, displayed chronologically through an interactive, sliding timeline on the main site’s homepage.

“Books for Mandela,” offers a more personal look into Nelson’ already much publicized story. While the other timelines featuring South African history are heavy on Mandela as a historic political leader, they often miss the essence of the man himself. The “Books for Mandela” project is a nice counterpoint.

Mandela, an avid reader, received books frequently as gifts. And these books show what is most remarkable about him as a leader and what about his story has created a resonance with an international audience.

Users can click on an image of a book, to look inside at a photo of the inscription from the author to Mandela. The messages themselves tell the story of Mandela as a man who served as an inspiration for admirers ranging from David Rockefeller to Australian Prime Minister Malcom Fraser. Notes from the authors referred to him as an inspiration, a hero, a man with the future of a nation in his hands.

The project really shines in audio selections of Mandela talking about his favorite books, where Mandela is given the space to speak for himself. It is a powerful experience to hear this great leader talk so eloquently about his favorite character, Kutuzov, in War and Peace, what he notes fondly is “a tremendous book indeed.”

As the project stands now, it could still work on providing a more fluid, interactive experience for readers. The elegant design of the platform could be extended to a more enriching user-interaction. The visually sleek interface could easily let readers view passages of the texts from Google Books or link to each author’s
main Google page. The lack of inter-Google linking seems strange and would add a more contextual historical experience for readers. However, the importance of the texts and the message of the project supersedes these issues and, overall, works to present a fresh take on a historical figure.

Check out “Books for Mandela” and other Google Cultural Institute projects at

–Hillary Brady. Hillary Brady is a first year Master’s student in the Brown University Public Humanities program. She graduated with her bachelor’s in English and Journalism from the University of Rhode Island this past May.

A Duck Has an Adventure

Simple. Engaging. Yellow. A Duck Has an Adventure is a fun digital storytelling project created by Daniel Merlin Goodbrey. Combining various elements of digital media, Goodbrey calls it “both a game and a story, although it probably leans a little more in the direction of story.”

Digital storytelling is a relatively new medium. While it is recognized as a new way to create and distribute stories, it is also a new way to read them. A Duck Has an Adventure takes an innovative approach. It is not revolutionary, it will not re- define the way we read, but it does tell a story in a way that can only be achieved
digitally: where you, the reader, become the author. And it’s fun.

We read the Internet with a short attention span: YouTube limits videos to ten minutes, Twitter to 140 characters. Many projects don’t take this into account. They are simply too elaborate. Too detailed. They take too long to read. Meanwhile, we’ve got Facebook, dinging, updating, competing for attention.

The story opens on a duck, presenting three paths: “a simple life,” “an education,” or “high adventure.” As you travel through the story, choices introduce themselves: on one path you can duel a cat, on another rekindle lost love. Your choice defines how the story unravels.

A Duck Has an Adventure succeeds here where many projects fail. It’s short. It’s “clicky”. It draws you in, but gives you space to breathe. It doesn’t put on pretensions, trying to be more than it is. It remains the story of a duck going on an adventure. Giving you a childlike sense of play. Recalling board games such as the Game of Life, while also fighting pirates and looking at how the choices we make define us.

When you reach the story’s “end” you are given the choice to go back and make new choices. Allowing you to read a new story, over and over. Different stories reward you with different hats – symbols of accomplishment: a mortarboard, a fedora. A tally of your hats is kept at the bottom: your score. It becomes not only a story but also a game.

Daniel Merlin Goodbrey originally created A Duck Has an Adventure as an Android Application, peaking at number 6 on Google Play's paid-for comic apps. The web-version reviewed here has been receiving quite a bit of attention, and was shortlisted for the New Media Writing Prize in the UK. Goodbrey has received various awards for his other work, and more of it can be found here.

A Duck Has an Adventure can be read by visiting this website, and it’s free. An Apple iOS Application is currently underway, with an expected launch in the coming year.

–Chase Shaffar-Roggeveen. Chase Shaffar-Roggeveen is currently a student at Brown University. He grew up traveling the world, visiting over 40 countries in five continents.


Findery, a new social media storytelling platform, combines users’ stories and images with the real world locations in which they take place. Created by Flickr and Hunch co-founder Caterina Fake, the website allows users to leave public notes on its “Big Map” of the world for others to discover.

This is not the geo-tagging of Facebook and Instagram, but a new angle on place-based social media with a clear emphasis on storytelling.

Users can create “sets” of notes centered around the same topic or theme, like childhood memories or historical landmarks. Notes in sets can include links to each other, creating chronologies, or they can be placed on the map at random. Users can tag one another in posts and can set notes to be discoverable by anyone, discoverable by specific others or private.

The website currently has a small — but active — user community where members can recognize each other by their profile pictures on the map. You can scan for notes left by @donald, Findery team member Donald Tetto, by seeking the image of a man in a giraffe mask.

The mask pops up in Egypt, where Tetto describes the inspiration for a Shelley poem, in coastal Italy, where he tells the story of a hiking adventure, and in four places in the Pacific Northwest, where he details the events surrounding D.B. Cooper’s mysterious 1971 plane hijacking.

Findery’s intimate community is further developed by the use of tags. “Helpmefindery” is a new tag, inspired by the success of one poster’s call for help in identifying the setting of an old photo of his grandfather — within a half hour of his posting, another user had determined the spot to be since-demolished Bernstein’s Fish Grotto in San Francisco. The team promotes tags for “findery challenges,” invitations for users to post notes about their first kisses, farthest travel destinations or brushes with the law.

For those more interested in exploring others’ notes than posting their own, the Findery team spotlights compelling sets and users — such as @The Sock Project’s documentation of donating socks to the homeless and @Missed’s descriptions of lost opportunities with attractive strangers.

Findery helps people document places they care about, share those memories and discover new places through others’ stories. A smartphone application is in the works.

–Lucy Feldman. Lucy Feldman, a Portland, Ore. native, studies Nonfiction Writing through the Brown University English department. She serves as Editor-in-Chief for The Brown Daily Herald, the university’s independent student newspaper.

Draw a Stickman

Not everyone can draw like Picasso, but everyone can draw a stickman. In the new app by Hitcents, that is all you need to be able to do. The story consists of a stickman that must battle a dragon to get a present and save two friends stuck on a tree without waking up a raging tiger. The story keeps you guessing what will happen next, yet at the same time involved in the process. The fun is guaranteed!

The story is not about some third person character we are supposed to care about but rather the story of our own character. Both episodes are set up so that they can only be completed by the readers' stickman and additional drawings. After all, the readers' ladder allows the stickman to climb the tree and the readers' sword slays the dragon. Yet even if the story doesn't change, regardless of how many times it's read, the hero does, making the purpose of playing different each time.

What makes the story beautiful is the fact that it is only successful in an electronic format. A stickman that is drawn by the reader-player and moves on its own would never work in print for obvious reasons. While the web format gives the sense that the user is creating a life and making a difference in the trajectory of the story. Unlike reading a novel, which tends to be a passive activity, Draw a Stickman gives the readers agency and a deeper sense of involvement.

The never changing plot would be considered a flaw if it wasn’t for the small details of the story that personalize the experience. For example, in episode one when the user is asked to draw a key in the hand of the stickman, depending on the hand that the key is drawn on, it will walk an appropriate distance so that the key is directly in front of the box.

Furthermore, the stickman always succeeds, giving the reader a sense of accomplishment. Even though the reader doesn’t choose what to draw, the fact that it is the user's drawing that solves a problem in the story personalizes the result. It is also a story that is catered for the inevitable short attention spans of the internet, as it recognizes when the user switched windows and pauses the story, ensuring that the readers remain focused, but that if they are not, they won't miss parts of the story.

The simplicity of the drawings and the plot makes it possible for this story to be an all age appropriate game. The game has enough depth that adults looking for a quick pastime will enjoy reading it. Yet it does not alienate younger crowds because it is still easy to use and simple to follow, guaranteeing that they can also have fun.

Hitcents is a company that focuses on creating personalized and professional software. Aside from making apps, they have worked for various large companies and have helped creating websites as well as offering services of web consulting and managing, website hosting and other web related solutions. Moreover, Hitcents has won three WebAwards, the most recent one being the 2012 Game Site Standard of Excellence for their Draw a Stickman story.

Once the story is concluded, the users can personalize the story even more. Users can either share episode one with a finishing phrase of choice, or they can get a t-shirt with their stickman on it. This story can be read at and the quest-like app can be found on iTunes and other app stores.

–Samantha Isman. Samantha Isman was raised in Sao Paulo but is currently living in Providence where she is a student at Brown University majoring in Literary Arts. She is the co-editor in chief of HerCampus Brown chapter and writes novels and short stories in her free time. You can read more of her work at:


The success of video games like Angry Birds, recently reaching 1 billion downloads, and Call of Duty, now a multibillion franchise, highlight video games’ strong presence in the entertainment market. But despite this success the video game industry has yet to shake off the “simple fun” stigma first attached to its product during the early days of video gaming. Video games are fun—but will there come a day when video games can be thought as more than that, perhaps even art?

We may already be there.

One man at the foreground of this creative revolution is video game designer Jason Rohrer. A computer programer, a writer, a musician, and above all a storyteller, Rohrer’s videos games are as thought-provoking as they are simple.

Released in 2008, Rohrer’s fourth video game project, Gravitation, might at first glance be confused for an old Atari game—the simple graphics and controls (left, right, up, down, jump) are sure to evoke memories of lazy Saturday mornings. However unlike the average 8-bit creation, Gravitation tells a morbid, yet beautiful interactive story of a father whose attention is divided between his young son and his ambition to reach for the stars.

Gravitation begins with the player surrounded by darkness. The only way to bring light into the world around the player is to play catch with the child at the far left corner of the stage. This interaction is the key to Gravitation’s narrative—returning the ball increases a player’s field of vision and improves the player’s jumping ability, ignoring the ball causes the child to cry.

The more you play with the child the more your ability to jump increases—eventually the stars above the player become available to reach. The more stars you collect the higher your score will be, but grabbing these stars comes at a cost.

Your decision to abandon the child who allowed you to reach for the stars has now resulted in him abandoning you. Once the child leaves, he never returns and the player becomes stuck in the same dark world that Gravitation begins with.

Described by Rohrer as a game “about mania, melancholia, and the creative process,” Gravitation is not just a video game, it is a special moment held within 8-bit boundaries.

Gravitation can be downloaded for free at

–Luis Campos. Luis is a limousine riding, jet flying, kiss stealing, wheeling dealing son of a gun. Woooo!
Follow him on Twitter @luchalibrelife