Quickfire Continue with Jon Howard

Jon Howard (image via Jon Howard)

At Continue 2016, Jon joined us to talk about the BBC’s commissioning process for digital games, so it was really great to catch up with him again for Quickfire Continue.

Jon is an Executive Product Manager at the BBC and has a long history of making award-winning games and digital experiences. Jon works closely with BBC Children’s and youth brands such as Doctor Who and Radio 1 to develop and deliver exciting audience-focussed products that deliver strategic value to the BBC.

Jon had a lead role in the massively successful CBeebies Playtime app and Digital Creativity projects — and on many game projects that have been played by millions of young people. He takes a keen interest in creativity, innovation, and technology advancements. Jon has a great passion for Children’s, digital media, interactive experiences and more recently, machine learning.

Lynda Clark: What project are you currently working on, and what do you plan to work on next?

Jon Howard: Having spent many years producing games for BBC Children’s I saw an opportunity to benefit the next generation of creators. After much pitching and many meetings at the BBC we set up a team called Digital Creativity. Our mission is to inspire the nation to get creative with digital, to change a generation of young people from consumers into creators — giving young people the opportunity to identify, connect with and develop their creative talents and passions.

As part of our initial research and discovery phase, we undertook a large number of sessions where we asked young people about their digital hopes and aspirations. One line that was repeated many times struck a chord with us: “I’d love to make a game/an app/write a story but it takes years to learn how and then months to make one. If I could do it in 5 minutes — that would be awesome”.

On the basis of this research we set about making a series of creativity tools that had a really low barrier to entry, but produced rich outcomes — a user’s first rung on a journey of discovery. These tools included a game maker, a music video maker, a story teller and a script writer. To great effect, we teamed these tools up with BBC brands including Doctor Who, Blue Peter, Children in Need, Eastenders and 1Xtra.

As a home to the tools, we developed a publishing platform (mixital.co.uk) that enabled communities to form around the creative activities.

Having done the groundwork we are now looking to expand Mixital as a platform for creativity and sharing. We will be early adopters of new technology, including machine leaning and AI, to help us on our mission.

LC: What are your some of the BBC’s key goals and interests in relation to digital?

The BBC has a major public purpose to stimulate creativity and cultural excellence. This means providing a wide range of content and ensuring enrichment for all audiences across a wide range of cultural activities. The BBC aims to foster creativity, to nurture and support new talent.

My Digital Creativity work aims to make the BBC, as a cultural institution, more porous with more participatory opportunities. Storytelling, in many forms, is the backbone of BBC output and it is these skills that we can share and use to add value to creative activities like game-making and scriptwriting. Activities such as these provide an opportunity for informal learning that engages audiences deeply and help to achieve outcomes that benefit society.

The proliferation of new technology has democratised the availability of the hardware required to be creative in many ways from film-making and music creation to game-making and the means to distribute. This has formed the foundation of our enterprise and given us the possibility of reaching a broad range of young people.

LC: How do you see the relationship between the traditional arts and videogames developing in the future?

JH: As technology advances there will be a blurring of the line between traditional arts and digital experiences. Virtual Reality is making great progress in developing a grammar for storytelling within the medium. Though, by necessity VR detaches you from your location, Augmented Reality provides the possibility of shared digital experiences. A great example of AR inspiring mass participation was 2016’s Pokémon Go game. For a couple of months and beyond, the game drove users into behavioural changes that were amazing to see — active and social. There is huge potential for AR to open up brand new experiences that can be incorporated into theatre, museums, even film and music events.

An even bigger revolution is happening right now — the rise of machine learning. Every week there is news of new research, new experiences and new apps that have, at their core, machine learning and Artificial Intelligence. A future, which we know from Sci-Fi films, accelerates towards us at awesome speed. Suddenly we have computers that we can speak to in our homes, self-driving cars and robotics. It is a fantastical time, if more than a little scary.

With machines understanding us as individuals better and better, they will be able to provide us with cultural experiences and games that are tailored exactly for us. With these technologies at humanity’s disposal the idea of a game being ‘just a game’ will fade. As with any new media it will take time for works of quality to be developed, but very soon we will be experiencing games and non-linear content that will excite, amaze and affect emotionally.

There is a moral question here that the arts should explore. If computers know us better than we know ourselves, will we be able to break out of the bubble? How do we embrace this brave new world? I think it is the job of the arts to help us to understand. No small task, but an exciting one.

Jon at Continue 2016 (Image Credit: The NVA)

Jon has raised something we haven’t yet discussed on the network — where does AI fit with our creative, cultural and artistic work? How might it change the landscape of arts and culture as we know it? And, as Jon asks, how do we embrace this brave new world? We’d love to hear your thoughts via our Twitter page (@the_nvf), our discussion mailing list and via the comments below!