Both Choose Your Own Adventure gamebooks & Phone Tree Menu Systems are progeny of the explosion of creativity that happened after D&D arrived
Full Show Notes: https://www.thejaymo.net/2023/05/13/301-2317-dial-m-for-metaverse/
Dial M for Metaverse: How We Chose Our Own Adventure
I’ve reached the point in the book planning for The Web Was a Side Quest where I need to sketch out what happened to culture after Dungeon and Dragons fused with Computing.
I already discussed the creation of, and navigation by, narrative inside of techno-social systems in Episode 23-13. But this line of thinking only obvious in hindsight. To understand the trajectory of this transformation, we need to travel back to the late 70s and 1980s.
A key part of this story are paragraph games. Better known in the US as ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books and in the UK, the ‘Fighting Fantasy’ series by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingston.
Gamebooks are progeny of the explosion of creativity and world exploration that happened after D&D arrived. They didn’t invent the idea, but they did popularise it. These books introduced concepts like branching narratives, non-linear storytelling, and systemic world exploration to a generation. One that would go on to interact with computing environments as they grew up during the personal computer revolution.
As someone who lived through this period, it’s worth mentioning that these books weren’t just niche items for dedicated players. They were bestsellers.
Combined, both series have sold over 270 million copies, lifetime. In March of 1983 the one, two, and three spots on the UK Sunday Times bestseller lists were held by Fighting Fantasy titles. They permeated popular culture to such an extent that you didn’t even need to play them to understand what they were about. Someone’s brother or sister of a friend at school had a copy. The idea of a book where you have to ‘keep turning the pages back and forward to find your way through the story’ was just something we ambiently understood. It also wasn’t the concept of a gamebook that was dismissed at the time as satanic or nerd shit, but their subject matter.
The history of gamebooks is one of simultaneous invention, an idea whose time had come for culture. In the UK an editor for Penguin approached Games Workshop founders Livingston and Jackson about writing a book on the D&D phenomenon. Their response? “Why can’t we write a book that allows you to experience what it is to role-play?”
In the US, the traditional story is that Edward Packard conceived of Choose Your Own Adventure books in 1969. One evening Packard asked his daughters to decide the next step in a bedtime story. They both said different things, and the idea of branching story books was born. In 1970 he set out to find a publisher to run with the idea, which resulted finally in the 1975 publication of the first Choose Your Own Adventure gamebook ‘The Adventures of You on Sugar Cane Island‘. A modest 6000 copy print run that went on to launch the fourth-best-selling children’s book series of all time.
But as always, the story is more complicated. Games scholar James Ryan discovered recently the 1930 publication of ‘Consider the Consequences!’ by Doris Webster and Mary Alden Hopkins. A romance novel with 43 alternative endings that let the reader decide the fate of the book’s protagonist Helen Rogers.
Gamebooks and their logic of interactive branching narratives, decision-making within systems, provided all mental grammars required to understand the concept of hypertext. A truly radical idea that had been conceived of by the computer scientist Ted Nelson 20 years earlier in 1963.
You’d think me tempted to reiterate at this point, that gamebooks helped prime a generation for the navigation of digital worlds. But I won’t.
Instead, let’s consider another manifestation of interactive branching narratives. A patent that was granted to Dr Michael J. Freeman in 1982. Titled, the ‘Verbally Interactive Telephone Interrogation System With Selectable Variable Decision Tree‘. First filed in 1979, it describes what we now recognise as a branching touch tone phone tree menu system.
Convinced of and patented well after the invention of both D&D and gamebooks – phone trees were the public’s first introduction to systematic branching navigation though computational worlds. This recent historical period post D&D shows that society was becoming more comfortable with complex, user-driven systems. The mental map needed to navigate a gamebook isn’t so different from the mental architecture required to navigate a phone tree menu.
Phone tree systems are still known today as ‘automated attendants’. The question we must ask ourselves is; whom are the attendants that were being automated? Before the conceptual and technical leaps required to make self navigation possible, we were attended to and guided through the complexity of the telephone system by expert navigators. At the very dawn of this technology amongst the coper wires and electrical signals of the vast techno-social system were people.
These Hello Girls, or more formally, Telephonists were young women like my great nana. They worked inside telephone exchanges connecting callers physically to their destination with cables. Elsewhere in my notes I’ve begun to think about this workforce of women as the Metaverse’s first co-pilots. Roles that had already been automated away by the 1930’s due to advancements in mechanical telephone switching technology.
So that’s a quick sketch of just one of the stories about what happened after worlds arrived in culture. To be expanded upon in greater detail of course. I think it’s a good story and a compelling argument
The script above is the original script I wrote for the episode. It may differ from what ended up in the episode.
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