In this part of the paper, we will focus upon reportability, with particular emphasis upon two aspects: (a) the interactional circumstances that provide for reports to happen, and (b) the ways in which reports can be prompted (i.e. how things come to be seen as reportable). As we will see, engagement and reportability are tightly intertwined. Our underlying concern with reportability is that, without the reports of some kind, be they invited or offered, the content with which one is engaging never has a chance to become a topic of conversation, discussion, and debate. This being the case, the materials being provided and the question being posed will remain the province solely of those directly participating through the technology. We take this to be a severe limitation and contrary to the notion of e-debate, which should trigger participation, not constrain it.
The situated accountability of reports
Restrictions on reportability
A first thing to note is that reporting—that is, recounting to others something that has happened or some piece of information that has come your way—is not a thing that can just happen at any time and in any way and on any grounds in people’s interactions. First of all, you have to position a report right in some ongoing course of talk. Not just anything can stand as an opener for conversation , and if the report lacks credibility on that score, it must be introduced instead during ongoing talk. For that to happen, its relevance to prior utterances has to be made clear somehow . Nor can reports have just any form. They have to be somehow intelligible to those with whom one is interacting, in other words they have to be recipient designed, which can sometimes mean saying a whole lot more, but just as often a whole lot less. Furthermore, a report, even as a relevant part of ongoing conversation must contain something that makes it evidently report-worthy, otherwise one’s interlocutors can reasonably ask ‘And why are you telling me this?’. One has to make a point of reporting, but to do so the ‘point’ must be visible. The actual activity of reporting must be easily accounted for.
So one item in Bicker Manor that did end up being reported was a claim that Starbucks wastes 23 million litres of water a day by having its taps left running across all of its outlets. The observed report happened several weeks after the conclusion of the trial as part of a broader conversation about waste. Kafka27 and Norc, who both lived in the same house, did also briefly ask one another how they had responded to specific questions in the game. For instance, one question asked
‘What would you rather do to make you greener? A) Wear a jumper knitted by Gran B) Share a bath C) Give up flying for a year D) Don’t drive for a month. Isambard’ 29/11/08
However, in this case, Norc just wanted to see what kafka27 had replied because he himself had responded ‘Share a bath’ and had found it vaguely amusing. None of the content was discussed between Norc and kafka27 at all with regard to how it presented environmental issues.
This can be compared to a number of interchanges between two players in the same household in ‘Day Of The Figurines’. On one occasion, Celtic24, whilst passing his father on the stairs, announced ‘I’ve just won a goldfish’. On another occasion, he told his father ‘I’m on the point of passing out’, whilst his father was moved to report ‘I’ve beaten my way into the police station with a goldfish’. On all of the occasions when these kinds of interchanges happened, they were making direct reference to unfolding events and situations in the game.
More importantly, this did not stop at interchanges between players. At one point, Celtic24 was standing in the kitchen talking to his mother when a message came in on his phone. He inspected the message and then said to his mother:
Two lovers have been found dead in the cemetery
On another occasion, he made a point of telling his brother and sister he was walking around with a crowbar.
A particularly significant feature of the above interchange is how it demonstrates an orientation to what might count as newsworthy. In this case, Celtic24 had already been in conversation with his mother when the message came in. Nonetheless, he was able to announce the death of the lovers as a new topic of conversation. There are two things worth noticing about this. First of all, teenagers engage in the exchange of text messages in the company of their parents all the time and Celtic24 was no exception to this. They very quickly cease to report the content of every message they receive; indeed, they would often be embarrassed to do so (and sometimes make an effort to disguise their texting as a consequence). So the message about the lovers counts, without reflection, as something that can be immediately reported to one’s parent. The fact that two lovers have been found dead in the cemetery is itself, of course, something one might consider to be significant news but it is not like Celtic24’s mother takes this to be ‘real’ news about events in the local village or anything. Instead, it is oriented as a part of the ongoing game he is involved in, hence her subsequent remark:
Oh really? Are you going to eat anything today?
So (a) it is okay to report things about the game, and (b) the reports are understood to be relating to the game and are treated accordingly, rather than as matters that should suspend the ordinary course of life. The other thing we can see about this is that the interruption of the son/mother interaction by an incoming message was itself accountable in some way. The very fact that Celtic24 was bothered to pull his phone out of his pocket and check the incoming text whilst in the midst of a conversation made it open to report. Routine interchanges with friends might have led to the incoming message being heard. But its priority would have been different. An important part of Day Of The Figurines was the way participants oriented to incoming messages as something to be attended to more or less immediately, and this is something we shall be going on to discuss shortly.
In relation to the matter of newsworthiness, we observed earlier how Celtic24 reported to his father on the stairs that he had just won a goldfish. The important feature of this is not just its reportability but how it can be presented as a very first utterance. It differs from the situation where he has witnessably just received a message and read it. Yet he can say this to his father out of the blue. In other words, it has ‘first-topic status’ . But who might such matters as this count as first-topic candidates for? His father is a co-player with a similar orientation to the unfolding course of play so, for him, it is readily accountable. For anyone else, Celtic24 would have been obliged to explain the remark more fully, so a further subtlety here is the way Day Of The Figurines provided for co-report amongst participants, making its absence in Bicker Manor all the more significant. In fact, this is rendered more ironic still by the provision within Bicker Manor, using social software as an inspiration, of a mechanism whereby participants could ‘befriend’ one another and exchange comments about the game. Yet Norc and kafka27 never managed to make friends with one another even though they occupied the same household, meaning that the status of their participation relied solely upon their offering up verbal reports.
The contrast here could not be much stronger. As we have discussed in the previous work (see ), players routinely oriented to their interactions with the game during Day Of The Figurines as accountable to others around them. This meant that at any moment they engaged with the game in the company of others, they understood that they might need to report on what it was they were doing, even to the point of content. One player, Tog, for instance, reported several occasions where he did not respond to potentially flirtatious messages from other players whilst sat at home texting in the company of his wife. In Bicker Manor, any kind of reporting about the game to others was very restricted indeed. The routine receipt of questions and responses from the game lacked the kind of newsworthiness that might give them first-topic status and they were almost never taken as a prompt for report, for reasons we shall be discussing shortly. There are, however, some important and telling exceptions to this.
Norc goes to show a plastic bottle from the recycling to his wife in the kitchen. She is doing baking with their youngest daughter. He waits whilst she tips flour into the scales and his daughter tells me they are baking but burnt the sugar in the oven, then says to his wife, showing her the bottle: What do you think that means?—God, I don’t know—I have just been sent a multiple-choice question—Oh, right—with four options. There are only two possibilities I reckon. The number of times it has been recycled, or the amount of oil in the plastic. Or it could be the type of plastic I suppose.—Don’t know—I think it must be the number of times recycled. If it was the type of plastic, it would be a larger number—Well the oil doesn’t sound likely. And the type of plastic, well, there’s loads of different types of plastic—Yeah, that is what I was thinking. That would make the number longer—It must be the number of times—Yes, that is what I reckon.
Later, Norc finds out the answer—When he goes down for lunch a little later, he says ‘It was the type of plastic’—So there’s just two types of plastic then?—It would seem so
There are several things to notice about this. First of all, to show this kind of interest in the contents of one’s recycling bag is really quite a strange thing to do. People do not typically rummage around in their rubbish in this way, let alone then carry it through to their kitchen to have a discussion about it. That it requires an account of some kind is evident and several of the tasks proposed by Bicker Manor were similarly visible and accountable to other members of the household. At the same time, the only account Norc needs to give for his actions is ‘I’ve just been sent a multiple-choice question’. He sees no need to explain things further, just where he might have been sent a multiple-choice question from being treated as obvious. Nor does his wife probe the matter further, confirming his assumption that she understands it to be a part of the game. Alongside of this, and importantly for the larger objectives underlying Bicker Manor, the episode facilitates a discussion about the content, and subsequently, something is learnt that is actively shared between them. So clearly, online events such as Bicker Manor can be mutually oriented to, reportable, discursive resources amongst larger cohorts such as households given the right kinds of circumstances. So why did Bicker Manor only occasionally manage to produce this kind of effect?
The experience of the game offers others using the system the ability to see what is being reported. Other projects such as Tidy Street  and the Neighbourhood Scoreboard  take a different approach by siting large, situated public displays within a community setting, this in itself draws attention to the data represented and they argue that this encourages community participation and debate, in this case around environmental topics. Building on this kind of research may prove advantageous for systems such as Bicker Manor in numerous ways, such as promoting the system, happen chance discovery of facts, and encouraging non-technologically mediated, face-to-face community discussions. It would even be possible to move the displays onto sites that have a different level of impact within the community, or to encourage flash mobbing in these sites so that physical activities could take place with other members of one’s community. Key to understanding the impact of such settings would be understanding and developing such systems in real-world settings, sometimes referred to as in the ‘wild’ .
Prompts to report
Invitations and callings to account
A standard prompt to report is to find oneself in some circumstance where one is invited to explain one’s actions or where one sees oneself as accountable for them in some way. As a consequence of its capacity to breach a range of social situations, Day Of The Figurines was regularly a source of both disruption and account. We discuss this in some considerable detail in the previous work . What makes an important distinction between Day Of The Figurines and Bicker Manor is the fact that for the majority of each day throughout that running of the event, Day Of The Figurines could result in people receiving a text message at pretty well any time. They were therefore obliged to manage their interactions with the game in ad hoc ways. This meant that they often found themselves in situations where people either noticed their interaction with their mobile phone and expected some kind explanation, or else they felt it was incumbent upon them to account for what they were doing in some way. The management of interaction with Bicker Manor proceeded in a very different way. This resulted in the participants positioning their interactions in ways that were tailored to their existing routines, rather than having these routines disrupted. As people do not typically organise their affairs so that they have to continually account for them, Bicker Manor became, unsurprisingly, elided into a range of unremarkable activities . In the following materials, we look at some of the ways in which this management occurred.
Occasioning and opportunity
An important finding of the ethnographic study of Bicker Manor was that the very structure of the game and people’s interactions with it served to mitigate against the occasioning of accounts or the very opportunity or reason to report. This carries further implications for how far the game was capable of engaging groups of people in debate about the environmental issues it was raising. One of the important features of the structure was that the timing and criticality of the messages facilitated the easy management of one’s own interactions with the game, an apparently desirable outcome.
Prioritisation, predictability, and time criticality
One particular feature of Bicker Manor was that participants quickly reached a point where they could predict when missions were going to be assigned and encountered.
It is just after 10 am and Norc is shopping at Sainsbury’s. He hears a message tone on his phone but does not respond. Later on, Norc commented
‘I knew it was the game, and I know I will only get one message. And it’s not as if it’s urgent, they have no time critical element. I figured: “I can do it any time in the day, so why do it now when it’s not convenient?”’
As can be seen from this extract from the notes, it did not take long to recognise an incoming message as being from the game because the messages always went out at the same time of day. A consequence of this predictability was that immediate checking of the phone when hearing messages was only a feature early on in the game. This can be contrasted with the following example:
16:12 message comes in—Even though working Norc checks straight away because he’s not sure it’s from the game—It’s unusual to get a game message at this time
This delineates the prior observation. In this case, the phone is checked precisely because it might not be from the game but from someone else and therefore more important.
So, in Bicker Manor, once the pattern became predictable, it was easy to set messages aside saying ‘oh, it’s only the game’ and not take them to be urgent. In Day Of The Figurines, participants nearly always checked their phones immediately, even though this meant they might have to account for doing so, and, by contrast, considered many messages to be time critical with definite outcomes for their health (in the game, that is) if they ignored them.
It is not as if there were no time-critical tasks in Bicker Manor. On the contrary, many of the missions were only listed as active missions for a certain amount of time. However, the kind of orientation participants exhibited to this is demonstrated by the following:
‘Missions just drop into extra missions so you can do them anyway’
So what typically happened once a mission had timed out was that it was then posted in a players’ ‘Extra Missions’ list, meaning that they quickly realised they could always go back and do it later. Nor did failing to complete a mission have any evident consequences beyond missing an opportunity to increase your points. However, for reasons we shall be shortly elucidating, the scoring system did not work as a strong motivation amongst the participants in Bicker Manor.
This can be compared with how time criticality was oriented to in Day Of The Figurines.
The whole family are sat down to watch a film together—Tog receives a message and pulls out his phone—Having read the message he sends back a quick response (he is currently engaged in pursuing a mission and has already received a number of texts, one of which read: ≪ 08:00 pm, new task: a rat faced man in a waistcoat rushes up: ‘The drummer’s been arrested. Find a DRUM KIT and get to the Locarno by 10 pm to take his place ≫)—Shortly afterwards Tog receives another message and immediately checks it and responds again—At this point Tog’s wife says:
Are you watching this film or what?
A little later, another text comes in—When the sound of the incoming message is heard, the rest of the family look his way, frowning—This time, Tog does not take the phone from his pocket to look at it.
Here, it can be seen that the player was effectively instructed to cease playing by those around him, demonstrating the extent to which he had previously been prepared to give priority to the game when time was understood to be of the essence.
Priority is always a quite finely tuned affair. Where more than one thing is currently in need of doing the choices made as to which gets done first are always open to being called to account by those who have an interest in the other things being dealt with. Even though Tog ultimately lets the game drop in the above example, his manifest engagement initially demonstrates a presumption that he can easily account for his actions, e.g. by saying that if he does not do this, he might die. It takes a fairly strong reminder of his moral accountability to other things, such as participation in family film-viewing, for him to see what priorities he ‘should’ be seen to demonstrate.
In fact, in Bicker Manor, the relatively low priority participants could easily ascribe to the game had additional consequences. We have already outlined above how the performance of physical tasks was one of the few things that actually really did seem to facilitate the kinds of phenomena the game was designed to encourage. The trouble with physical tasks was that they took additional investment of time and effort beyond immediate interaction at the game interface, something that only happened at registration for Day Of The Figurines. Physical tasks typically demanded not only the performance of something in some other location, but the simultaneous creation of some kind of record of that activity through photographs or video. In view of the fact that the structure of the game already enabled it to be set aside in favour of other things and the missions were typically seen to be non-time critical, it was easy to account for holding off doing such tasks until a moment when one was not ‘too busy’, or to see such tasks as too much trouble to be worth the effort, as can be seen here:
‘Mega missions are not as easy to do, coz you have to go and do things for them, and I just can’t be bothered to do that’
As soon as a game moves beyond just the evident accountabilities of engagement at the interface to encroaching upon one’s daily routine in other ways that will need accounting for, it is easy to see how these tasks might be oriented to as low priority. Evidently, the need to account for them is a powerful drive to reportability and further interaction around the kinds of issues the game is designed to expose. However, to accomplish this effectively, the game also needs to provide the kind of structure and engagement mechanisms that will enable participants to locate adequate grounds for its prioritisation over the ordinary requirements of everyday living. One such ground that can be used is competition that one will suffer negative outcomes if you hold this off to another moment, but Bicker Manor was not constructed to support such motivations.
Competition as a trigger
As can be seen above, the sense of competition in Bicker Manor was rather undermined by the fact that supposedly time-critical missions just slipped into the category of extra missions and could therefore be completed on another occasion. Indeed, for many players, going to extra missions became a routine way of doing them. The other mechanism for competition that was apparently provided was scoring. Each mission had a certain number of points allocated to it, and players were able to see their tally whenever they went to their own page on the Website. This was somewhat undermined by the fact that a bug in the system meant that some players discovered they could go back and do the same mission multiple times, thereby boosting their score enormously. However, the more important concern here is revealed by the following comment:
‘You don’t see any other points registered on the page apart from Isambard’s and Eve’s which are huge numbers, so I just don’t feel motivated to try and compete’
Amassing points is ultimately pretty meaningless unless one has some sense of how that might compare to others who are participating. In this case, all that was available was the gross tally of all the players associated with Isambard versus those associated with Eve, and players found this to be of little interest. What they did crave was a sense of personal competition but this was not given to them, leading a number of players to question whether it was a game at all. Indeed, one player commented that it was more like filling in a questionnaire.
Obviously, there is no intrinsic need for online events that are designed to encourage debate to have a game-like structure or to encourage competition. However, what does matter is that the event provides some mechanism, whereby it becomes reportable to those around you. Where competition is a potential element, it provides players with a reason to orient to their interactions with it as being of a certain accountable priority. Thus, one can find them seeing adequate grounds in it for engaging with it at times when it can potentially impact upon others around them. This in turn makes it likely that engagement will be called to account from time to time, and that is at least one way in which forums for report and discussion can be created.
The routinisation of engagement and its resulting ‘invisibility’
There is one other significant way in which the structure of Bicker Manor served to limit its scope for reportability. We have already discussed the fact that players received messages from the game at enormously predictable times. It was also the case that messages were usually only sent to players once a day. For players, using computers to engage this had an almost inevitable consequence. The mechanism worked in such a way that the usual way for those playing on computers to receive a message was via their email. In that case, as the following remarks make clear, what happened was that the messages were discovered and treated as a routine part of people working through their email inboxes, potentially during work time:
‘I’ve gone online almost exclusively when I’ve been prompted… When I’ve had an email telling me there’s a new mission and if it’s been convenient I’ve gone straight online… Almost always during the day when I’ve been at work’
Email interaction can occur throughout the day, and many working people do keep their email applications open so that incoming messages can be noticed as they are received. However, when there’s only one mail a day, and what is more, at more or less the same time every day, the treatment of that mail almost inevitably becomes routinised as a feature of the larger sequence of dealing with emails. This means that engagement with the game managed to blend wholly into other activities, making it neither noticeable to others nor open to report or remark.
Even for those engaging via mobile phones, the visibility to others was really very low. A part of what happened in Day Of The Figurines was that the very frequency and oddness of timing of incoming messages tended to make them noticeable and accountable to other people, as the following reveals:
‘For the first few days I was playing text messages coming in during the evening were almost always noticed. In other words people would look at me whenever the phone made a sound and then I’d have to say something like “it’s okay, it’s just the game”’.
However, in Bicker Manor, what happened most often was that one text message was received each day. It was at a regular time and had only that one chance to be noticed and made reportable to others. Any other messages from the game were so rare that they managed to blend into the potential receipt of any text message for most players. This alone made them pretty well unremarkable and to all intents and purposes invisible to other people. Why comment suddenly upon the fact that someone has received a text message when they get text message from time to time anyway? This was made even more the case by the fact that few players oriented to the incoming message as anything they should be taking a special interest in or dealing with immediately. Indeed, the latter point is also significant because the orientation to interaction with the game through response to messages as something postponable meant that players mostly held off responding until moments when they were doing nothing much else, as the following reveals:
15:02 Norc hears another message coming in on the phone. He is online booking a hotel at the time so he leaves looking for now. After this he gets involved in making arrangements for work the following week.
17:04 Norc finally gets a chance to check his phone
This only served to make it even less likely that their interactions with the game would be visible and accountable to others.
Engagement as a methodical outcome
What we have been outlining in the above materials are the ways in which engagement is not just something that happens when presented with materials that might be considered inspiring, challenging, or controversial. Instead, engagement is a methodical accomplishment that turns upon certain mechanisms that have to be realised in situationally nuanced ways. This is just as much the case whether the materials are well or poorly realised. Clearly, there are ways in which one might argue that engagement in Bicker Manor might have been better if the content had been improved. Certainly, some players did complain that the content was not particularly motivating or memorable. However, this rather misses the point. If that was the only story here, this paper would be of little value. Issues of content are easily remedied in further iterations, and this was, after all, just an initial trial, not a finished product. Nor is there much about that to interest designers. What we have been at pains to present here are the ways in which it was the actual structuring of interactions between players and the system that most significantly undermined the scope for the game to promote an engagement with the game that was reportable and implicative for debate. Systematically, these features were as follows:
An absence of recountability as an unfolding series of events or as news
A lack of mechanisms to provide for interaction with the game that would be open to explanation and account
A lack of mechanisms to provide for the prioritisation of the game in situated interaction in ways that would make it visible and accountable
Some of the things that fed into this were as follows:
A limited number of interactions with the game
A predictable timing and frequency of interactions with the game
The lack of implicativeness of messages for immediate response
The lack of accountable grounds for immediate response such as competition
All of which led to an engagement with the game that was largely routinised and non-implicative for wider interactions.
Most particularly, in view of what we said in the introduction regarding the move away from co-situated family viewing, one potential problem with Bicker Manor was that people gravitated to what might be called an ‘inappropriate’ platform. In other words, they all preferred to manage their interactions on their PCs, even when they were presented with alternative platforms. It was the use of this platform, largely out of the sight and company of others, which particularly led to the absence of report and the routinisation of engagement.