The City of IF Story

The City of IF is a web site dedicated to the art of interactive storytelling, in which author and audience create a story together. The site was created by Mark Keavney, PhD, a web designer, writer, and longtime roleplaying game player. Below is a six-part history of the City of IF, which includes some general thoughts on myth, roleplaying, and interactive storytelling, and a vision for the future.

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1. Myth and Roleplaying Games: Seven Treasures and Five Dragons
2. Lost in the Wilderness: The Many Paths of Interactive Storytelling
3. Storygaming: On This Land I Will Build a City
4. The City of IF: Past and Present
5. The City of the Future
6. You


The City of IF: Past and Present

In the previous parts of this history I described how I came to be interested in interactive storytelling, what others in this field are doing, and my idea for a different approach that I call "storygaming." In this part I'll say what I've learned trying to make storygaming work for the past few years.

My test of storygaming began in November of 2001. I created a small web site on the domain where I could put up chapters of a story and others could post suggestions and vote. In the initial version, Interfable was not publicly available: the only people who came there were people I knew personally.

Over the next six months, I told the beginning of the story that would eventually become "The Archer's Flight" (now a published novella). It was the story of Deica, a human girl raised in a village of centaurs, who grows up an outcast because of her strange form.

For the first few chapters, nothing too unusual happened. This activity was new to everyone and the players were still feeling out what to do and how to play, but I was impressed by the quality of the suggestions and by the players' ability to post them in-character. The story progressed through Deica's teenage years where she secretly learned archery from her grandfather to an important turning point where her village was threatened by a great serpent. The villagers had beseeched a local hero for help; Deica's grandfather and the other village elders were meeting with him and his soldiers the next day. The decision point was what Deica would do.

I was looking forward to the suggestions, because the situation offered a good dramatic conflict and a rich set of options. Deica was proficient with the bow and could be a real help against the serpent, but the centaurs wouldn't normally let a girl (let alone a "deformed" one) take part in a battle like this. Would she plead with her grandfather to stand up for her? Would she crash the meeting and show the centaurs how well she could shoot? Would she secretly tag along behind when they went hunting the serpent? I had already thought about the different ways the centaurs might react and was planning ahead to the finale, when Deica would join the battle against the serpent and (presumably) fire the decisive shot.

And then one of the players suggested that Deica disguise herself as a boy and run off to the big city, and the other players voted for that suggestion. The suggestion was perfectly appropriate: Deica was adventurous, she felt alienated from the village, and from an early childhood experience she had a special reason to be afraid of serpents. It was also completely unexpected. Suddenly I had to write the next chapter about Deica's travels to the big city, and I had no idea what the city would be like, what she would do there, or how I could possibly tie this back to the huge loose end of the serpent attacking her village. All my plans for the story were going awry.

And I loved it - because this was what I'd experienced in roleplaying games: that no one knew where the story was going, but we were going there together. I happily cast aside my plans and started to make new ones. And for me, that was the moment storygaming was born.

The Early Years: 2002-2004

After writing five chapters of The Archer's Flight, I took time off from Interfable in April of 2002. When I reopened the site in November 2002, I made it public and started telling two storygames at the same time: the continuation of The Archer's Flight, and another storygame set in the same world but with a different character. For the next year and four months, I played these storygames with anyone who found the site and decided to join in.

Although the storygame plots continued to evolve in unexpected ways, and there were occasional flashes of brilliance like the one that had happened with Deica leaving the village, the overall interest and interaction during this time was less than what I'd hoped for. In hindsight, it's easy to see why: the site had no real community.

Two of the strongest "treasures" that I loved about roleplaying games - the gathering of friends and teamwork - depended on people being able to recognize each other and form bonds. But at Interfable at this time, players couldn't even create a persistent identity. All the site had was a form for them to fill in a suggestion at the end of each chapter - there was no way to register, customize a profile, select an avatar, or do anything else that's normally possible in an online community. The site was more like a streetcorner than a city: some of the same people would show up from time to time, but no one really knew each other. And the lack of community made the storygaming weak. People were not as involved with online RPG games or storygames when they were playing with strangers.

I was slow to realize what was missing, but in February 2004, more as an experiment than anything else, I installed forum software at Interfable. Now the players could create online identities, with avatars, profiles, and posting histories. Lots of people signed up and the storygame play continued, but the sense of community still seemed to be lacking.

Again with the benefit of hindsight, it's easy to see that a community is more than a set of identities. The site had storygames and members, but nothing else. There were no places for people to gather and chat, no way for them to contribute to the site apart from playing in the storygames, nothing else for members to do. They couldn't even create their own storygames except through the somewhat cumbersome process of emailing me and asking to be set up with their own forum. If the pre-forum Interfable was like a streetcorner, this was like tents in a desert: everyone had an identity, but there were no buildings.

Founding the City: 2004-2005

In the fall of 2004, I had some conversations with a few new members about my plans for the site. I realized from these conversations that I had things backwards. I had been thinking of the site as a place to storygame. I'd assumed that if I provided a compelling storygame experience, everything else would follow, including an online community. But the members, even those who were enjoying the storygaming, were asking me what else there was to do at the site. To them, Interfable was a gathering place for a community, and storygaming was just one thing that the community did. And so the way I thought about the site underwent a profound shift: I started thinking of it as an online community first, and a place to storygame second.

Once I made that leap, I started adding to the site things that didn't directly affect the storygaming, but that the community needed (and asked for): recognition of achievement, places to gather, the chance for members to contribute in their own way. I shared responsibility for running the site with the members, appointing a "City Council" to help moderate forums. Together we created new forums where players could bounce around ideas, write their own storygames, or just have conversations; we created site ranks based on number of forum posts to reward the players who were most active; we instituted a contest for the best New Storygame of the Month. We also added a chat room, which may have been the biggest change: now for the first time members could actually have conversations. Finally, in March 2005, I moved the site to a new domain that better matched the new site identity: it was no longer Interfable; it was now the City of IF.

These changes led to huge site growth. Once I gave members the ability to create their own topics, they rushed to post storygame ideas, give feedback on other's stories, and post general conversational topics (one of the longest threads on the site today is titled "How old is everyone?") Traffic levels rose by a factor of four over a few months.

Even more important from my point of view, the quality of the storygaming improved. Once the players got to know each other, they were much more active in the storygames. They debated and built on each other's suggestions. They declared and explained their votes, trying to sway others to vote the same way. Conversations started taking place, whereas before the storygame topics were just a series of suggestions. This made the storygaming itself more compelling, which in turn built the community.

The community is now building the site on its own, as other features are added to the City in response to member requests. In addition to the several dozen storygame forums, the City of IF now has a forum for traditional linear stories, a set of awards for overall best storygame (The "Ifys"), and a forum for tips and discussion about writing. All of these forums came out of member requests and are run by members.

The community also developed its own culture and atmosphere. It's helpful, welcoming, creative, and a little bit crazy. It's an interesting mix of gifted and colorful teenagers with imaginative adults who are serious about writing and/or gaming. Geographically, it spans the globe, although most members are from the UK, US, or Australia.

Testing the Foundation: Three Questions Revisited

So I started out to build a storygaming site, and realized I had to build a community first. But storygaming is still the purpose of the community and its long-term foundation. So what have we learned about storygaming in the last few years? Does it live up to the promise of the theory?

In the context of a community, storygaming does have all the "treasures" that we expected: friendly gathering, teamwork, strategic problem-solving, creativity, mythic storytelling. And it solves the "dragons" of fixed location, high price of entry, game length, and dependency on players. But there are three questions from the last section that we weren't sure about: "Is it roleplaying?", "Is it interactive?", and "Can it work with large numbers of people?" I argued that the answers to all of these are "yes" in theory, but now let's look at the answers in practice.

The best answer to "Is it roleplaying?" is "sort of." Storygaming allows a kind of character identification: most players have no trouble making suggestions and choices based on the character's knowledge and personality, and some even make their suggestion in the character's voice. However, "in voice" suggestions are the exception rather than the rule, and storygaming clearly doesn't have the same sense of ownership and control as roleplaying a character in a tabletop roleplaying game. Most of the storygamers who have played roleplaying games extensively seem to regard storygaming as a different kind of animal. So storygaming may not quite capture the "treasure" of roleplaying, even though it does allow a kind of character identification that's stronger than a linear story.

The answer to the next question, "Is it interactive?" is "yes." As we discussed in the theory section, storygaming will never have the amount of interactivity of some activities (such as computer games), but from playing, authoring, and watching storygames over the past few years, it's clear to me that it is interactive and it feels interactive. I've lost track of the number of times my or others' storygames have taken unexpected turns as a result of player suggestions; the players can see when they influence a storygame and they feel good about that; they vote, they wait for the results, they try to sway things one way or another. The players are active, and the storygames are interactive.

The answer to the final question, "Can it work with large number of people?" is "We don't know yet." The site isn't large enough to test storygaming on a mass scale. We haven't found a limit yet, but we haven't had more than 10 to 15 people playing any given storygame at one time. I still believe it can work based on the theory I talked about in the last section, but until the site grows we won't know for sure.

So while the three answers - "sort of", "yes", and "we don't know yet" - aren't the resounding validation that we might have hoped for, they are encouraging. Roleplaying is not at the heart of storygaming and "sort of" is good enough even if that's all it ever becomes. Interactivity is at the heart of storygaming, and it has delivered on that promise. Mass participation is necessary for storygaming to develop as an art form, but I remain convinced that there is no problem there that hasn't already been solved.

What We Haven't Built

I'm proud of the City of IF and I believe that its foundation is solid. But what gives me the most hope for the future is not what we've built, but the landscape in front of us. We've only scratched the surface of all the applications and variations of storygaming. I can see what we haven't built, and it is vastly greater, more intricate, and sophisticated than anything we have now.

And what is it? That's the next topic.

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