The Mobile Story

Narrative Practices with Locative Technologies

Lauren Burr is a PhD candidate and HASTAC Scholar in the English Department at the University of Waterloo, writing a dissertation on critical locative and pervasive media. She also dabbles in game studies and spends too much time on Twitter.

The Mobile Story

Narrative Practices with Locative Technologies
Edited by Jason Farman

“Throughout this book, while many authors acknowledge the deep historical roots of digital storytelling with mobile media, they are keenly invested in exploring the emerging medium-specificity of mobile technologies. Since mobile media are becoming the most pervasive technology on the face of the planet right now, how does such pervasiveness change the ways we tell stories and read stories?” (Farman 8).

Jason Farman’s 2014 edited collection The Mobile Story: Narrative Practices with Locative Technologies follows closely on the heels of his critically acclaimed Mobile Interface Theory (2011). This new book features twenty articles from a diverse range of voices working in the field of locative media theory and design, each bringing his or her own background to bear on the topic of mobile narratives. Many of the challenges, considerations, and theoretical perspectives addressed in this volume serve to complement what has thus far remained a gap in game studies: the growing popularity of mobile games. While there have been several articles and books on the rise of mobile, social, and other “casual” games, most notably Jesper Juul’s A Casual Revolution (2012), there has been very little written on narrative in mobile games. Farman’s collection doesn’t fall back on the emergence of locative media as a field in the early 2000s, but rather propels both design and scholarship forward by acknowledging what I would call a second generation of mobile narratives and games, linked with the convergence of GPS and high-speed wireless Internet in smartphones since the iPhone 3G.


The Mobile Story is divided into six sections, each with three or four essays from a mix of scholars, artists and designers. The first section, “Narrative and Site-Specific Authorship,” begins with Farman’s own introductory chapter in which he outlines an interdisciplinary, narratological framework for the larger book with a focus on site-specific and media-specific reading practices. It’s in this chapter that Farman defines the integral concept of creative misuse as “creatively using a technology in a way in which it was never meant to be used, the results of which offer a thoroughly transformed view of the technology, its place in society, and future practices with the technology” (4). Creative misuse informs the critical-artistic direction of many of the projects highlighted throughout the chapters of The Mobile Story, and provides a newly defamiliarized perspective on widely adopted mobile media technologies and practices. This first chapter is followed by a case study of the role of intermedial design in the Fort Vancouver Mobile storytelling project by Brett Oppegaard and Dene Grigar, and a chapter from Adriana de Souza e Silva and Jordan Frith on the narrative potentialities of location-based data and social networks such as Foursquare.

The book’s second section, “Design and Practice,” focuses on more practical issues and questions relating to the creation of mobile narratives. The section opens with a chapter from Jeff Ritchie on the narrative affordances and constraints, or possible uses and limitations, of mobile and locative media. This is followed by a piece from Mark Sample in which he argues that “GPS is made for storytelling. It simply hasn’t been understood this way” (76). He calls for narrative intervention with geolocation-based tools and platforms, and describes an undergraduate assignment in which students were asked to playfully infiltrate the gamified Foursquare “check-in” service with fictional narrative fragments. Susan Kozel’s chapter “Dancing with Twitter” considers the popular microblogging service as a platform for networked improvisational choreography, and the micro-narratives of Twitter as a “script” or “score” (86). In chapter 7, John Barber conceptualizes an audio-based locative narrative project, “Walking-Talking,” for the modern flâneur who traverses soundscapes rather than the arcades of Charles Baudelaire’s 19th-century Paris.

Part III of the book, entitled “Space and Mapping,” encompasses three interrelated chapters on geography, cartography and spatial narratives. Didem Ozkul and David Gauntlett’s chapter explores cognitive maps and sketch maps hand-drawn from memory as forms of storytelling that inform how the inhabitants of a city make sense of their surroundings through their own personal narratives. Next, Lone Koefoed Hansen investigates the artistic practice of locative media pioneer Esther Polak through the lens of foundational French spatial theorists Guy Debord and Michel de Certeau. And in the final chapter of this section, Paula Levine discusses the tactical potential for locative media to create empathic narrative experiences through the spatial layering of remote conflicts onto local surroundings.

Part IV, the designated “Mobile Games” section, features four chapters by mobile and locative game scholars. Ben S. Bunting, Jr. opens the section with a chapter on geocaching games and “hybrid gameworlds” that bridge physical and virtual gameplay. He argues that location-based mobile games can create “the possibility for more engaging in-game narratives as well as more meaningful player-directed explorations of game worlds by virtue of their ability to . . . enable the player as a place maker whose actions within the game continue to resonate in the physical world well after the game ends” (165). In the following chapter, Rowan Wilken writes about the narratives of urban alienation found in the hybrid reality games of the media arts collective Blast Theory. Next, Bryan Alexander illustrates how what he calls “storygames,” or “cultural artifact[s] that combine elements of play with those of stories,” have been adapted for “interstitial” play on mobile devices (192-93). His examples range from locative games explored by other authors in the book to popular location-agnostic mobile games like Plants vs. Zombies, to the Frotz app for mobile-friendly interactive fiction. To close the section on games, Mark Ruppel looks at the role of the smartphone in alternate reality games (ARGs) and other transmedia works, and, more specifically, how it extends the fiction of the game into players’ everyday lives.

The fifth section of the book, “Narrative Interfaces,” centres around location-agnostic mobile narrative platforms. In chapter 15, Gerard Goggin and Caroline Hamilton outline the formal differences between e-books and mobile narratives that are not explicitly book-like. They argue that, “with the establishment of second- and third-generation digital mobile phone technologies and the associated user cultures surrounding them, these devices became a site for inspiring creative experimentation with narrative formats and modes” (227). In “Stories of the Mobile,” Larissa Hjorth traces the early history of Japanese cell phone novels (keitai shōsetsu) and SMS text message narratives as an early form of mobile storytelling initiated and almost uniquely participated in by women. The final chapter in this section discusses the use of iPads for nonlinear storytelling by college students with intellectual disabilities at the Toronto Visual Storytelling Club. Authors Jennifer Chatsick, Rhonda McEwen and Anne Zbitnew explain how certain affordances of the iPad allowed students to express themselves more easily in a visual mode than on paper or even a desktop computer.

The final section, “Memory, History, Community,” brings the book to an end by expanding outwards to investigate the larger sociocultural impact of mobile narratives on a local level. Alberto S. Galindo contributes a chapter on the “Explore 9/11” app from the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, and the function of narrative memorialization. In chapter 19, Claire Ross et al. discuss their QRator project, which integrates QR codes into the typical museum experience to make it more interactive. Although the project is described as being in an early stage at the time the chapter was written, the authors are optimistic that mobile technology can allow museum-goers to connect to its objects on a more personal level and enable “personal narrative creation” in a more traditionally passive space (286). Finally, in the last chapter of The Mobile Story, Mark C. Marino discusses two examples of polyvocal, location-specific storytelling projects that make use of SMS text messaging and social media in the city of Los Angeles. His examples of VozMob and The LA Flood Project both deal with issues of representation and voice in a city with a long history of racial, ethnic, and class-based discrimination.


As a scholar and designer of locative, augmented and alternate reality games with a background in literary studies, I place a lot of stock in narrative. This isn’t to say that all mobile and locative games should focus on narrative development, but I do think it’s often sidelined in the current smartphone app-based scene. Locative media scholars such as Rita Raley, Jeremy Hight and Chris Eaket have all written about early mobile narratives including 34 North 118 West, [murmur], and the hybrid reality performance games of Blast Theory. These are the examples most often cited when we talk about locative narrative, and yet the field has come a long way since the first generation of locative media projects were created in the early 2000s for expensive and not-so-mobile specialized equipment. Early locative works that ran on devices such as Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) and laptops attached to external GPS systems were awkward, glitch-ridden, and generally inaccurate at assessing the user’s physical location. Comparatively, second-generation locative media is created almost exclusively for smartphones with internal GPS systems, ubiquitous Internet connections, and various sensors for detecting light, motion, velocity, and magnetic direction. The hardware is (usually) reliable, and the software (generally) more accessible when it can be downloaded at little or no cost through centralized app stores linked to the devices themselves. Since the release of the iPhone 3G in 2008, the field has reoriented itself towards smartphone app development, and has expanded to include location-agnostic mobile works.

I mentioned at the beginning of this review that the narrative side of mobile and locative games has been under-researched in game studies. Most research on mobile games up to this point has focused on education, fitness, gamification, and the economic models by which certain popular mobile games succeed—or don’t—financially. (Note: I’m purposefully excluding games produced for handheld consoles like the Nintendo 3DS or the PS Vita from my categorization of mobile games, as they occupy a very different position from smartphones and tablets vis à vis the term “mobile.”) With the release of narrative-heavy mobile games like the locative transmedia game Zombies Run!, the binaural audio game Papa Sangre, or the literary iPad game Device 6 which takes full advantage of the iOS platform, mobile games are quickly gaining more recognition as objects worthy of study and critique within the humanities.

Jason Farman’s The Mobile Story provides a much-needed update to the critical conversation on both location-based and location-agnostic mobile narratives, including but not limited to games. The specific section on mobile games includes examples ranging from geocaching games to Angry Birds, but many more chapters of the book wrestle with issues that are pertinent to the study and design of narrative-based mobile games. Several chapters look back on the formative years of locative media design and the artists who founded the field, but an overwhelming majority of the book is concerned with contemporary works and current/future issues.

In chapter 5, Mark Sample argues that “Location is not compelling. Or, perhaps, to state it more accurately: your location is not compelling. . . . Check-ins are not compelling. They offer an impoverished sense of place. . . . (71-72). He speaks bluntly and ambivalently about our everyday interactions with location-based services, but Sample doesn’t entirely write off the narrative potential of locative media. Echoing Farman’s introductory call to creative misuse, Sample challenges designers and authors to “turn locative media from gimmicky entertainment coupon books and glorified historical guidebooks into platforms for renegotiating space and telling stories about places” (73). Examined together, the collected chapters of The Mobile Story take important steps towards a future of stronger design for mobile narratives and games. The Mobile Story is a cutting-edge collection of essays for the designer or scholar of locative media in the present moment. It moves the field forward from what has felt, for several years, like a period of stagnation. But it also broadens the horizons of what mobile games can be. For the games scholar interested in mobile games, Farman brings an eclectic mix of voices and perspectives to the table to bolster a mostly absent discussion surrounding mobile narrative within the realm of game studies.