It’s safe to say that the pupils in my class did not like Alice, the eponymous heroine of Kate Pullinger’s digital fiction teaching phenomenon, Inanimate Alice (view trailer here). I know they did not like her because when they were let loose on creating their own episodes with which to continue the series, they all chose to kill, or at least maim her. But before I recall the varied inventions and brutalities enforced upon Alice, let’s be clear what we’re talking about.
Inanimate Alice – which, according to my Dutch colleague, sounds like the brand name for a blow-up doll – is an online digital novel currently existing in four episodic adventures. The narrative is a multi-sensory experience, combining text, images, sound, videos and interaction in the form of puzzles and games. Each episode is set in a different country, and the plot invariably follows the same thread: Alice finds herself stuck in some sort of dangerous predicament, and has to rely on her virtual friend Brad to save the day. There is an element of global citizenship here; by travelling the world she is exposed to a variety of cultures – and the novel can be taught in a variety of countries, since the series is available in different languages. Alice gets older with every instalment, and as she does, the story becomes more complex, more dangerous, and more involving for the reader.
It’s always vital to ask why we are teaching a particular topic, rather than simply choosing something because it looks cool. Why teach Inanimate Alice rather than a play, or a novel? I’d argue that for young teenagers (a class of 13 and 14-year-olds in my case) the combination of multimedia modes helps them develop lifelong skills that they benefit from learning early on. It’s likely that many of these pupils will end up in jobs involving processing spoken language, written text, auditory clues and visual images all at the same time, and this is what Inanimate Alice challenges them to do.
This online series is littered with possibilities. As well as offering us the opportunity to study the writer’s character development, setting, motifs, themes, pace – all the usual suspects when it comes to literary study – there’s also scope to boost literacy skills in listening, making notes, drawing comparisons, discussion, even debating (get a Digital Fiction vs. Traditional Storytelling divide going and watch them go). What we are dealing with here is a resource that is rich in learning, literary and literacy opportunities.
So it’s a great shame that my pupils hated Alice. That is not to say they disliked the medium, or the topic, or the varied activities and discussions we had based around the series. They just didn’t take to Alice as a character. Once we’d watched the four episodes currently available online, I asked the class to use the school’s ICT facilities to create their own Episode Five. They took great delight in making Alice suffer, in a frenzy of impressive bloodlust that incorporated their own text, images and sound effects.
One of my pupils had Alice horribly injured in a car accident and then caught up in a zombie outbreak. Another decided that she would become a gangster’s moll and implicated her in bank robbery. These pupils were at least good enough to keep her alive; in other episodes she was stabbed in a street riot, shot in the stomach, flattened by a bus and eaten by a sinister ghoul in a haunted house.
I’ve tried to figure out why the pupils took such a strident aversion to Alice. It may be because she’s an ultimately passive character – basically at the mercy of her parents and surroundings, unable to do much for herself, and relying on her imaginary friend Brad as a sort of guardian angel to pluck her from the various scrapes she gets into.
This passivity is hinted at in the title of the series. One of the first things I did with my pupils was to figure out what “Inanimate Alice” actually meant. It’s a difficult phrase to unpack. Ultimately we decided that it meant that the character Alice remains frozen online, suspended in time at a given web address, until pupils come along and animate her by starting the series. Perhaps it Alice’s inertia that persuaded the pupils that they should, when the time came, put her to rest.
It’s impossible to talk about Inanimate Alice without mentioning the soundtrack. For something so integral to a multimedia story, the music is wildly irritating. On my first day teaching it, this horribly repetitive drone kept me awake most of the night, reverberating around my head. When audio is used to create sound effects it works brilliantly: footsteps crunching in the snow, creaking doors, rumbling engines. These all work as part of the patchwork quilt which makes the experience so immersive. But the music is, in the main, fairly grating. I thought so. My pupils thought so. A colleague observing one of the lessons thought so. It seems like such a fundamental thing to get wrong in what is otherwise a pretty slick production.
I will be happy to teach Inanimate Alice again. The diversity of learning that can be achieved through the four episodes is staggering, and they are developing another, I hear. That is something to look forward to. When it comes out, however, I will make sure to turn the volume down.
Alan Gillespie is 27 years old. He works as a teacher at a remote school in the West Highlands. His short stories are widely published.