TMC Inanimate Alice Case Study: Transmedia & the Future of Digital Learning
Transmedia & the Future of Digital Learning
An interview with Producer Ian Harper
This digital literacy project is transforming
education, connecting classrooms with an online
downloadable set of resources, supporting
participatory networked learning.
With Inanimate Alice, kids become makers,
participants in a transmedia story…
Why Inanimate Alice?
who is Ian Harper?
At the tender age of 50 and with a raw idea in his head Ian
Harper attended the UK’s National Film and Television
School to learn how to write for the screen.With two
screenplays under his belt he has created the role of
digital novel producer developing plans for a studio to
complete the Inanimate Alice series while producing five
further titles in a similar vein.
“Inanimate Alice is an interactive multimodal fiction, a
born-digital novel relating the experiences of Alice and
her imaginary digital friend, Brad.”
“Inanimate Alice is a multimedia, interactive narrative
told through the eyes of Alice, an aspiring game
designer and animator. Alice uses text, sound, music,
images, videos, and games in her adventures, beginning
with episode 1 when Alice, age 8, learns that her dad is
missing in a very remote part of northern China.
As Alice grows in age and skills, the 10 episodes become
increasingly interactive and game-like, with episode 6
(in the works) created in 3D Unity.”
5 oﬃcial episodes
A growing number of ‘spin-oﬀ’ local episodes
In the previous four episodes, Alice was 8, 10, 13, and 14.
Each episode has advanced in technology and complexity of story and
The 2014 Episode 5, Alice is now 16. As she has grown more complex, so
has the technology as Episode 5 was made in Unity 2D with added 3D
Episode 6 is being made in full Unity 3D and will be released summer
2015. Alice will be 19 and her adventures will continue.
Inanimate Alice’s extraordinary evolving
“A teacher in the US was using the stories to teach her class of ‘hard to
reach’ 17-year-olds, and they had created their own episodes. She'd
uploaded them to her class blog. This was a kind of eureka moment for us
all. Up 'til then, we’d thought that what we meant by interactivity was the
use of games in the stories -- games that are meant to have been created
by Alice herself, hence their incremental increase in sophistication).
Finding these reader-created episodes showed us that interactivity can
mean enabling or inspiring creativity. And this is something we have tried
to support and encourage ever since. Now the new Web site has a gallery
of reader-created episodes on it. So, yes, Inanimate Alice has become a
"slow media" title and this has worked in our favour in a number of ways.”
2009 Interactivity changed…1Writer Kate Pullinger described how in 2009 she discovered
reader-created episodes online:
Inanimate Alice Digital Resources
Create your own stories playing with
each story’s unique image / sound assets
I.H.: The ﬁrst 5 episodes have seen Alice grow from age 8 to 16. That’s
half of her life and co-incidentally we are halfway through the planned
series of ten episodes. It is a time to take stock of where the series is and
what is happening with regard to the audience so this opening question is
most poignant at this time. The audience is not so much growing older as
widening. The title still attracts the elementary and early middle-school
teachers who were the prime candidates for the earlier episodes but now
we see interest and engagement with those who are a year or two older.
With the shift to using the Unity game engine as the development platform
for episode 5 we have seen much more interest in the creative tools
aspect of the project. This ingredient plays towards the interests of those
who are slightly older and more tech-savvy.
S.O.: Inanimate Alice recently launched episode 5 and the multimedia series is
widely regarded as a ground-breaker in modelling new approaches to digital
learning and digital literacy. Alice is ﬁguratively and literally growing through
the series as she was child when it began and is now a teen. Are you seeing the
age of your audience grow as well?
I.H.: As you know, this project has been evolving over a relatively long
period. During this time we have experienced just how much more
knowledgeable students have become on the topic of digital media
creation. This fact is borne out by the emergence of the Maker Movement
which plays an ever increasing role in education these days.
In addition to those teachers in service, the title maintains a level of
interest among schools of education. The long-gestating shift to digitally
delivered education seems to be gaining momentum at last with
substantially increasing investments in technology. New start teachers are
to be heard saying “I don’t do paper.” This is music to our ears, of course,
as Alice comes into her own in a fully digitized environment.
Alice’s Baxi - game player & game creation tool
I.H.: Looking back on it, it seems an obvious conclusion that we would
“illustrate” the story in the way that we have, but at the time it was a far
from straightforward decision. It all started with a theatrical movie
screenplay I had written, where Alice is in her mid-twenties and prepping
Brad for his big debut in a world-saving game at the Tokyo Games Show.
I connected with Kate Pullinger who, unlike most writers at the time, had
experience of writing across platforms. She had written the book of the
movie, The Piano, with director Jane Campion and was experimenting
with digital ﬁction. It was when she introduced her collaborator, digital
artist Chris Joseph, that the decision was made to tell the backstory to
that movie in a series of increasingly interactive episodes.
S.O.: From the ﬁrst episode, Alice has been a game designer and kids get to play
her game in the experience. Can you talk about why you made that decision?
That she is a girl game designer stands out in today’s debates on games &
gender as she then stands as a role model of being a creator and not just a
I.H.: The story was not conceived to address the gender issue in games
development. I don’t recall it being quite such a discussion topic back
then, but is it surely on agendas now as ever more digital jobs are seeking
qualiﬁed candidates. The European Commission recognizes this, recently
announcing that it anticipates 750,000 jobs will be unﬁlled over the next
The strong, energetic yet lonely girl who creates male digital ‘friend’ is a
metaphor for our world today where seemingly everyone spends hours
staring at mobile screens. The device is our friend. Brad is the
manifestation of the device, the computer driven world.
Alice & Brad, a digital friend with a life of his own
I.H.: The gamiﬁcation of education discussion has been around for a while.
It seems that there are increasingly loud calls for gamiﬁcation these days
as primarily it delivers on the need for engagement. There are many
reports of successes in STEM subjects, but in my view, games in general
are not renowned for their literary qualities. Delivering words in correctly
formed sentences is not their primary purpose.
In contrast to game mechanics, the design of Inanimate Alice is such that
the narrative drives the game-like story forward. With a literary novelist on
board, we have a text that is suited to the deep-reading and re-reading
necessary for academic investigation. The merit of this is borne out, again
and again, when we see evidence of teachers and their students analyzing
every sentence of the script.
S.O.: From a diﬀerent pov, as you have always had games in the episodes, what
is the value of games in education?
I.H.: It has been a joy to work with the team at Education Services
Australia who have invited us to expand the story so that Alice can
adventure in Australia and around the region. Most recently this has meant
our creating interactive Language Learning Journals for Australian learners
of Indonesian and Japanese languages. Inevitably, this means more
storylines in new territories and the opportunity to extend the journeys in
those countries at a later date. These journals have been conceived as
part of Alice’s seemingly endless “Gap Year” and, as such, are inﬁnitely
S.O.: I’m particularly fascinated by the way Inanimate Alice is partnering with
local education communities in order to create content that engages directly
with kids in their own lives. The Australian “episode” models this as an
adaptable, expansive and inclusive approach to digital learning and literacy.
Do you see this kind of partnership as viable in future? With new episodes
reaching out to new audiences? perhaps, bilingual content??
I.H.: Partnership is viable in the sense that it
adds value to the core content being used in
the speciﬁc territory addressed and also in
that territory reaching out to other parts of
the world saying “come visit.” In this way the
Australian adventures invite students from
around the world to visit the country virtually.
As I write this I strive to imagine what an
“Alice in Canada” series of adventures
would look like. For sure it would be in two
languages and so the language toggling
mechanism we have developed will be an
I.H.: It took a while for us to realise that we are not in the raw numbers
game like Facebook and Twitter. However, Alice has attracted in excess of
30,000 teachers from over 100 countries. They and their students have
downloaded something like 4 million episodes. It is gratifying to note that
many hundreds of university schools of education have integrated Alice
into their coursework.
It is not about the numbers, though, it is about the quality of the work and
depth of engagement with teachers that is of primary concern. We are
fortunate to have many teachers who call themselves Alice’s friend, some
of whom have been on the scene since the very beginning. After all this
time, and especially considering the gaps between the publication of each
new episode it is wonderful to see the same folks dropping a line asking
for more. Let’s hope we can keep the wellspring ﬂowing from this time
S.O.: My sense from following online discussions is that you have a wide global
community of teachers who are incorporating IA into their teaching. Do you
know how big that community is? Do you have teachers who have been with
you from the ﬁrst episode? How much interaction does the educator community
I.H.: In terms of interaction between
teachers this has been less than
substantial until quite recently. Moreover,
it is a little disconcerting to hear from a
potentially powerful advocate to the
eﬀect that “I don’t want to share Alice, I
want to keep her for myself.” It has been
hard identifying the right platform for
such a forum. At last, I am pleased to be
able to say that we have a Teacher
Group on Facebook which, after just a
few weeks has almost 200 members and
a pretty active dialogue to go with it.
I.H.: There is an interesting parallel with
Alice and Peter Jackson’s explanation of the
development cycle of Lord of the Rings and
The Hobbit. With the completion of the third
Hobbit movie Peter explained that only then
could the audience see the entire canon of
work in the order not of production but in
the story’s historical sequence. As he
pointed out, it has taken about 17 years to
complete the series….only now can a new
generation discover the story in the way
Tolkein conceived of it.
S.O.: Alice is now a 16 and presumably she can continue to get older - who is
your audience now in terms of age and grade level and do you see the
possibility of levelling up into post-secondary education?
I.H.: Our parallel is that the whole story will only make sense when
completed. And completion date, in my view, is the opening night of the
theatrical movie and the audience gets to see Alice’s face for the ﬁrst time
on the big screen. Imagine getting to know her very well perhaps over
several school years, creating your own stories about her, bringing her to
experience your part of the world….and only then getting to see her face-
It is not diﬃcult to conclude what the age/grade level will be when the
series is complete and the movie is in theatres. The entire work is
approachable for a family audience and while the present age range of
10-14 years will remain the target zone, we are hoping that the high-end
production studio graphics of the ﬁnal episodes and the high-energy of the
action sequences in the movie will encourage the audience to skew
I.H.: For me, the elephant in the room is the shift towards 1:1 education,
where every student in the class will have a computing device….and
importantly where they use it all of the time. Although computers have
been available to schools for more than 30 years it is only relatively
recently that they have been used for much more than administration and
incidental “computer lab” use.
Even today, for most people, it is still seen as an add-on. There is only
relatively small scale commitment to on-all-the-time digitally delivered
education. Neither the infrastructure nor the content is in place now but
inexorable change is upon us. It will happen, and when it does, then the
educational world will look remarkably diﬀerent to the one we see today.
7S.O. What’s exciting you in the digital learning space??
Downloadable Digital Assets
Resources for teachers & students
Create new stories & post online…
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the ian harper inanimate alice
was prepared by:
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