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03 April 2020

Saving our digital heritage from being deleted

By Professor Alice Bell | Twitter

Monday 6 April • Viewing time: 4 minutes

When Flash Player is deleted at the end of 2020, many important works of digital fiction will be erased. We've found an innovative, immersive way to preserve them.

Video courtesy of One to One Development Trust

When you think about literary preservation, you might imagine people dusting off books in dimly-lit libraries. But not all literature is what you expect.

Throughout my academic career, I’ve been fascinated by digital fiction. This doesn’t mean reading a novel on a tablet or a short story on a website. Digital fiction is far more immersive and unique — a cross between videogames and the ‘choose your own adventure’ novels of the 70s, 80s and 90s.

Within these atmospheric and imaginative virtual stories, you’re not an onlooker — you’re a protagonist. You’ll roam landscapes and find your own path through vivid worlds of animation, images and text. It’s as much to do with personal exploration, interactivity and aesthetics as it is the written word.

I’m currently working with two internationally renowned creators of digital fiction — Andy Campbell and Judi Alston, of One to One Development Trust’s in-house digital storytelling studio Dreaming Methods. We’re helping to preserve some of the most important examples of the genre before they’re permanently erased.

But this story isn’t so much about why we need to save these works, as how we're doing it. 

Flash artifacts

Adobe Flash Player was once the go-to format for everything from online games to website graphics. But at the end of 2020, Flash will be removed from all web browsers.

While this may not affect the wider world of literature, it’s bad news for digital fiction. Many stories since the 1990s have been made using Flash. Its obsolescence will mean many important works will be lost forever.

We wanted to pay tribute to a classic era of digital fiction and do it justice. It was fitting to find a unique, immersive way of doing so.

Interior of the digital fiction curios VR experience
The interior of the digital fiction curios VR experience

The Digital Fiction Curios

We created a virtual preservation space in the form of a curiosity shop — the Digital Fiction Curios. Like a good bric-a-brac, book or antique shop, it's full of trinkets and treasures. Each visit brings a new discovery.

Visitors to the Curios wear an Oculus VR headset to delve into their surroundings. Amongst the strange clutter of objects and artifacts are stored three important examples of digital fiction written by Campbell and Alston: InsideThe Flat and Clearance.

In these stories, audiences immerse themselves in barren fens and abandoned apartments, unlocking eerie narratives through innovative storytelling techniques.

And once they’ve explored the three stories, they can delve even deeper — discovering the literary context of the works through analysis and commentary. 

 It's a rewarding and thought-provoking experience that sheds new light on an influential genre.

Preserving our online heritage

Digital fiction is a huge part of our cultural heritage. Its literary and technological experimentation pushes the boundaries of what it means to “read” or “play” in digital spaces. Its writers, animators and coders have shaped the nature of websites and games — that’s why it’s so important to retain these pieces for future generations.

Our Curios is very different to the archives and databases traditionally associated with literary preservation. By inviting readers to make their own way through an interactive, immersive Virtual Reality narrative, it breathes new creative life into the works it displays.

We plan to expand the space to preserve more examples of digital fiction, creating not so much a curiosity shop as a curiosity museum.

By doing so, we’re creating a new form of preservation — and making sure our digital heritage isn’t deleted.

Professor Alice Bell is interested in how digital technology can enhance and evolve literature. She studies literature written specifically for digital media, which often combine text with images, film, and sound. As a literary-linguist, Alice is interested in how language works in digital fiction. She is also interested in how readers process these texts cognitively.

Video and images courtesy of One to One Development Trust. You can find out more and download Digital Fiction Curios here.

A bottle in the digital fiction curios VR experience

Research themes

About this project

Explore the people and organisations behind this research, and find related publications by the research team.

Research team

Professor Alice Bell

Related courses

Our teaching is informed by research. Browse undergraduate and postgraduate courses with links to this research project, topic or team.

Get in touch

Find key contacts for enquiries about funding, partnerships, collaborations and doctoral degrees.

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