Go Forth with Openness: New Dimensions of Storytelling in the Digital World
Welcome to our sixth Story Kin and Cousin Conversation. We continue the vision of the Story NOW! interviews by exploring the power of storytelling to transcend divisions and create change. We interview an oral storyteller and a cousin storyteller from a kindred art form. Join us for a conversation with storyteller and Executive Director of Story Crossroads Rachel Hedman, and Story Cousin, Game Developer Dominic Nicholson.
Vel: Who told you the first story you remember capturing your imagination?
Dominic: Some of the first stories I was told I don’t completely remember, but my first stories were probably my parents reading me Dr. Seuss books when I was a child. But one of the stories that captured my imagination the most is the Tintin books. They’re funny, they’re full of adventure, and they have lots of colorful characters. Adventure stories in general I feel are great for capturing especially a child’s imagination.
Rachel: On a performance level of story, that was later. It wasn’t that I remembered my parents telling me stories all the time, they would take me to the library. It wasn’t until I was a sophomore in high school, my friends encouraged me to get involved with Forensics, public speaking contests. That’s the very first time I was introduced to storytelling. I was told to find a story. I was in the library. No one told it to me, you might say the author, the one who collected the folktale. It was a story from South Africa called “Big Keo, Little Keo”. I loved it. I don’t know why I was drawn to it, as I reread many years later. But I think the reason I loved it at that time was Little Keo was trying to prove himself to his father, Big Keo. He took quite the violent manner to do so, which I think grabbed my attention: why would you choose such a violent way? It was more of a cautionary tale to me. As a teenager, I guess I was thinking of proving myself. Now I’m a mom, I think of it from Big Keo’s point of view, and the relationships and kind of dynamics I have with my kids. My imagination grows from that. Every time I experience more of life, I have another way to look at it.
Dominic: A lot of children’s stories have a similar theme: children and adults take away different things from the same story. You made a distinction between listening to stories, to telling stories. Like you, Rachel, nobody told me stories when I was a kid. I just read them: Artemis Fowl and Tintin, stuff like that. But, when I was very young, I used to tell stories to my younger brother before we went to bed. They were stream of consciousness stories about Baba the Balloon Fighting the Army of Evil Explosive Pineapples. Every time I got stuck and couldn’t think what happened next I’d say: “And guess what happened next?” My brother might respond with an idea, or I might think of something in that pause. That continued many nights, many months. That’s a great way of activating your imagination: when you have to keep talking.
Rachel: When I was kid, I asked my parents for a tape player, cassette tapes. I could record conversations, as well as mine. I was the oldest in my family of three kids. I would basically force them to create stories on the spot. Mine would involve things like Blue Duck, and a Cougar, and Rachel Turn-A-Thing. I would do skits of traditional tales, a lot of fairy tales, with my cousins. When the adults would hang out in one room, the cousins hung out in another. We came up with little plays, nothing memorized. We definitely practiced. We had Wardrobe.
Vel: How have these first stories you enjoyed shaped the work you do today?
Dominic: In terms of the work I do now, most of it is programming. Programming can create a story in terms of finishing the videogame which has an overarching narrative to it, but programming itself is not story. You’re writing: but you’re writing functions, you’re writing things to do. What drove me to become a game developer, as a software engineer, are those stories, wanting to create that same kind of enjoyment for other people I felt when enjoying stories in videogames I played. The stories don’t influence my day to day work, but they influence why I do the work I do.
Rachel: Creativity itself is a way of being more open. Open overall, and to whatever you face, That doesn’t matter what career, or what you choose to do with life. When it comes to Story Crossroads, we try to be open, and not have one way of storytelling or even two ways. We like to combine things, just like you combine ideas in the stories. Besides openness, to continue the “Yes, If” game. You could say: “Hey let’s have a storytelling festival and let’s have it on the moon.” Everyone would say: “Yes, if…Well, we have to get some funding…Maybe have NASA involved…We have to get a nice dome that could have some air going…We have to put invites out to see if there’s any martians nearby…Maybe some astronauts that want to fly in…” Now that there’s private ways to fly into space, this is even more possible. The “yes, if”, I think, comes with creativity and creation of stories. By the way, that Moon Storytelling Festival: way back, David Novak talked about Brain Trust Sessions, and that was something he brought up: that idea came about in a discussion with other storytellers at a National Storytelling Conference.
Vel: Many stories take place in an “enchanted” or “alternate” world. Do you think Virtual Reality acts as another world? What stories can benefit from the Virtual/Digital realm?
Rachel: Virtual Reality many times is called “Virtual World” so I feel, yes, obviously it’s another world. There’s Virtual Reality, there’s Augmented Reality, then I was looking into Mixed Reality. All of them are fascinating. Virtual Reality definitely has this world. If it’s Augmented, it’s layered, so it’s more a bridge between. I believe an example of Mixed is the craze of Pokémon Go : a virtual object in the real world. Any time we use our creativity, I think we are naturally on a trip to another world. When I write grants for Story Crossroads, one of the categories is Multimedia, sometimes I mark that, because we are open to that, and we’ve dabbled in some things. I dream about Holographic Storytelling. There was talk of this over ten years ago, in Utah, actually happening at the Orem Public Library. Having wonderful storytellers be holographic, because they will not always be with us. You can record and have audio recordings, video recordings. But wouldn’t it be wonderful–you’d have 3D? I also love 360 domes you can be in, and you’re surrounded. I picture traditional stories. Let’s say you can’t travel there, or they can’t travel here, but through a dome, you’re suddenly there in that world.
Dominic: I have a VR room here. In a well-crafted game, it’s easy to forget you’re not really there. It’s not actually another world, but your brain can’t tell the difference. Even with a virtual fence that appears when you get close to your real world walls, I have a hole in my wall from people who don’t realize. Your brain doesn’t understand. When you look back on memories of playing a VR game, a good one, you won’t look back the way you would a regular game or a storybook. It will feel like a real memory. Though other stories can feel that way, with VR it’s easier. There’s lots of avenues to telling a story, like different senses. Putting yourself in virtual reality gives you more senses. The more ways you tell a story, the more ways you get the story into them. The deeper the connection in their brain–the more real it feels. As for what stories benefit most: take a look at the VR game selection on STEAM. A lot are horror. First person games have an advantage. An example would be the game Half-Life: Alyx, one of the most polished and well-known VR games. That puts you into the body of Alyx Vance as she blasts zombies and aliens. One scene in that videogame– spoiler alert–your father is falling to his death. You reach out to grab your father’s hand, and you fail. That would not be as impactful without making you literally hold out your hand. Virtual Reality, it’s very powerful.
Rachel: I’ve seen Virtual Reality, especially within the domes, tell the story of refugee families. That was moving. If you think about it, that’s a different kind of horror. If you don’t understand that world, Virtual Reality is one of the best ways to bridge that gap. That can be any story. We’ve had workshops, like Jim Brule has done, about The Other. If you don’t understand The Other, whether another culture or ethnicity or religion, Virtual Reality is a beautiful way to do so.
Dominic: It really connects you to whatever place, or whatever person, you’re put into.
Vel: How do verbal and digital story arts strengthen each other when crafting stories?
Rachel: There’s more understanding, specifically in the performance storytelling world, because of what I like to call: “This Historic Time.” I’ve felt ideas I had, I was pushing and pushing. Now I feel there’s more understanding. People are parting the way to make things happen. There’s understanding sometimes you need to be virtual. There’s always people who want, you might say, a pure storytelling: as simple as possible. Which might be just as engaging. We know that. But it’s possible to merge it with technology. Our festival will be what I call: “True Hybrid.” We will have it live, but also will have people ask questions in real time, and have someone monitor. Versus what I call: “Delayed Hybrid.” It’s live, recorded, and shared later. As a librarian I had to rethink programming. We couldn’t be in person. I did a digital Escape Room. Me and one other librarian did it together. We did a second one I liked even better, called “The Haunted Chamber.” We’re being told we can do a third one, we’re going to do it in a submarine. No, a museum! Then a submarine! I want to create one for Story Crossroads where it merges more with video. I’d love to see other storytellers do that.
Dominic: There are quite a few videogames that follow those lines. For example: Visual Novels are mostly reading, looking at text. But there are also Visual Mystery Novels like Danganronpa, where it’s a murder mystery, somebody dies and you need to figure out who the killer was. Hopefully you were paying attention when the story was told. Both verbal and digital are different senses you use to send a sense of story, to send a message. Stories can be told without senses as well. You can tell a story without words. You can tell a story without digital aspects or images. Or tell with just one. The more you add, the more potential to immerse someone in the story. But if you take away senses, that also can be an advantage. It leaves it up to the reader, listener or viewer’s imagination to come up with details. That can end up being better than if you provided them. It depends what your target is. And how complex the story is. If you’re telling a complex story, sometimes you need extra senses, to fill in details not obvious through just verbal or digital storytelling. They’re different dimensions of storytelling: verbal, audio, visual…In Virtual Reality, you have depth. Interactivity in videogames. Sometimes having them is a benefit. Sometimes not. That’s why things get adaptations. Even though it’s the same story, it feels different. Sometimes not good different, sometimes very good.
Rachel: There was a family sitting in front of us watching the Harry Potter movies. One of the kids turned to their dad: “That’s not how I pictured it, they ruined it!”
Vel: You share a love of challenges. How is this part of the stories you’ve enjoyed and crafted?
Dominic: That goes back to what we were talking about with adventure. Overcoming challenges is what adventure is all about, right? A lot of everybody’s favorite stories are adventure stories. I’m no exception. videogames are also about challenges, they’re all about overcoming challenges. Whether those are mysteries in terms of Danganronpa, or defeating a big boss, or beating other players, or beating yourself and improving yourself in a videogame. There are all sorts of different challenges you can overcome. Some are created by the developers specifically. You’ll be playing through the Metroid Prime series or the Halo series, something with a single player storyline: you’ll defeat the boss, kill the enemies, solve the puzzles. There are other games that are a bit more ambiguous, or fluid. Games you would think not very story-focused can still have a story, but a story you create yourself. Multiplayer games, if complex enough, can give you your own story, especially if you play with other people. Playing a cooperative videogame, I do that a lot, we create our own stories as we go along.
Rachel: My personal choices in performing? I don’t do it as often, because I focus so much on Story Crossroads. But it’s still there. One of my great loves would be adoption and foster care folktales from around the world. They have lots of adventure, and are identity quests, many times. The hero, usually in these stories, is the adoptee. Sometimes they’re asked at the end: “Do you want to know your birth parents?” Sometimes it’s “Yes” and sometimes it’s “No.” Sometimes these stories are from the eyes of the birth parents. Some, it seems pretty balanced with all three: the adoptee, adoptive parents, and birth parents. On a videogame level, wouldn’t it be amazing if there was one to prepare ones about to be adopted? Or they have been adopted and they’re wanting to understand? Or having a game that mirrors what they’ve experienced? Sometimes it’s easier to talk about if it’s not them. If it’s a character. A lot of times, in folktales, they’re not named. It’s then easier to slip in our own names. It could be therapeutic as well as exciting. Talking about challenges to be met: putting together something like that. I love collecting adoption folktales from around the world. I want to have one from every country, if nothing else, the countries you might say have the most adoption placements, would be important to me. That’s a lifelong goal. I’ll continue doing that.
Vel: Do you ever feel you move between being a character and yourself?
Dominic: I suppose that depends on how immersive that story is. In a VR game, it can get closer to me feeling like I am a character in the story. I’ve never felt I am completely that person in the story. I always understand I am myself. If I get scared, I don’t feel the character is scared; I feel I, myself, am scared. I feel most connected, like I am the person in the story, when I have my eyes closed, I’m in bed, and listening to a story being read to me through an audiobook or my phone reading it through text-to-speech. That’s when I feel the most presence in the story. Because my eyes are closed and imagination has taken over. It’s more like a dream than anything else, I suppose. When fully awake and playing a videogame, it’s harder to attach myself to the feelings of the character, but I attach myself to the experiences happening.
Rachel: A long time ago, I had an avatar with Second Life. You can choose to have your avatar be any kind of creature, or it can be human. I chose to be human. I try to have it be as close to me as possible, though it was missing you might say, my trademark cap. Well, I performed as an avatar in Second Life. I had all these avatars of various types listening. But they can give tips, and one of them gave me a tip, crazy enough, of this gray cap. It was perfect. Sometimes it’s so blended. You are the avatar and you, yourself, sharing at the same time. Did you do much with Second Life, Dominic?
Dominic: I didn’t work on it, nor did I play the game. But I am familiar with it, and know it’s very popular, especially a few years ago. It’s a great game. It’s very similar to The Sims. Any game where you make your own character has more potential for you to feel like you are in the story. I know people also play games specifically to roleplay in a certain way. In a game like Star Citizen, where it’s a space game, and you can be space pirates, people will roleplay as space pirates. They will fly around through the galaxy and find someone in a ship and say: “I’m stealing your stuff. Give me all your gold.” Usually other people play along, and create their own narrative within the game that wasn’t there before.
Vel: What are some story-making experiments you’ve enjoyed or are looking forward to trying?
Rachel: Besides the digital escape room and really involving video more with it, I’ve always dreamed, this is on the to-do list, of having a Story Crossroads app. I don’t know exactly what it will do, but it will be fun. It will be immersive. Then I have to figure out developers for it, and write grants for it. I’m all for experimenting, but as soon as I think of the idea, in the back of mind I can’t help but think: but how will we pay for this? You have to pay for the artist who creates it, whether it’s the performing artist or developers. So with experimentation, it goes right back to the “yes, if.” And I want that dome. That is on my to-do list: work on grant funding to have this dome and traditional storytelling. It doesn’t have to be in English. We can work that out, and translate and blend it. Have not just one location in that dome, but the ability to walk a little, so we can go into the village more. I know Amy Douglas, in the UK, recently got a grant or funding to create a digital experience. I am thrilled! I told her to please be in touch with Story Crossroads about that, because I’m positive we’re going to want to do some kind of panel, a feature, something, once she’s done.
Dominic: As far as story- making experiences that I’ve tried, one I’ve tried recently is a website called AI Dungeon. You write a story prompt, and the AI will generate the next line of the story, and then you react. You can have your character say: “Stop right there criminal!” And the AI might respond: “The criminal got into his car and started driving away. You get into your car and start racing after him.” The other player can say what happens next, and the AI will generate what happens after that. It’s a back and forth that goes in all sorts of wacky ways, because the AI is adding to the story. There’s a digital aspect to this written story that makes for a very unique experience. It’s a lot of fun to play with others. I’ve got a question: If circumstances weren’t as they were, do you think storytelling would still be going in a digital direction? Does it benefit storytelling to go in a digital direction? To what extent is it each?
Rachel: I’ve always been a rebel. Even twenty or so years ago, when I’d go to the National Storytelling Conference, I’d wonder why they weren’t recording. They would usually say their number one reason was there has to be a budget for it. When we started Story Crossroads, we started with a budget for videography. For me it seems a natural fit. It wasn’t until the last two years it feels like people are listening. If it had not been for these last two years, it might have been a few decades before enough would have been convinced, or sadly, a generation would pass away, and then the opening of ideas would come. It did rush the timetable for the storytelling world overall, but I was ready from the beginning. I get annoyed when we get close-minded, because I love everybody in the storytelling world. There will always be people who resist the change, but I see more resistance in storytelling than any other art form. Because storytelling is the parental art form, by nature it tends to have a traditional feel and outlook. Not to say no one else is thinking this, but finally people realize the potential.
Dominic: And it’s such an old art form. It’s been around since humans existed.
Rachel: Exactly! What I like to say is: as soon as humans spoke– we have storytelling!
Dominic: Maybe even before humans, with animals making their own stories, who knows?
Rachel: Well of course, yes! I’m fascinated by what you are developing. Some of those ideas I’m going to be gnawing on myself. The “yes, if” on that. How do you find the funding for the fun ideas you talk about? Do you get paid to do those things? Or as a business, reach out for the funding to make those ideas happen?
Dominic: I don’t own a videogame company. I’m a worker drone who programs for it. I don’t have to worry about getting funding. I just get paid a salary. In terms of: how do I find the time or money to work on things that are storytelling related? I use my regular job to fund that kind of stuff. So I have my programming job. As a programmer I’m not the lead designer. When making a videogame there’s only a handful of people, maybe one person, who decides the story direction. Maybe other people will get a say in how things go, or the exact way things play out. For my part, I can adjust some things, and make suggestions for how I want things to go, and they are pretty receptive. But I don’t have a gigantic influence on my work story. For the rest of my stories: I fund them with the money I get from my work. If you make your dream job your work, it might suck the fun out of it; maybe you wanted it as a hobby. It wouldn’t turn out as grand, with a team of people, but you have control, you can make whatever story you want. So that’s what I do: in my own time, I do as I wish.
Rachel: I think we have that spectrum in the performance storytelling world too. There’s definitely the ones who are novice or amateur storytellers. And those who perform, but not often enough to be beyond a hobbyist. And then you have the professional storytellers. Sometimes the easiest way to figure that one out is: do you count it towards your taxes? A lot of times, that happens to me: anything I do with storytelling, I’m going to put right back into storytelling. These days I put it right back into Story Crossroads. It’s been a big dream. I still dream for it. 2030 is the goal: to have World Story Crossroads. an Olympic-Level event with storytelling celebrating around the world. Broadcasting galore. Traditional Storytelling, and New Age Storytelling, and everything in between. Every year it feels we get a little bit closer. It has to use technology for it to work. To broadcast and connect with universities, it has to.
Dominic: Everything has to. The more we go into the future, the more technology is going to be a bigger part of our lives. Who knows, maybe it will become like some of those movies, and we’ll all be in VR 24/7? We better all be digital at that point or no one’s going to hear anything.
Rachel: Now I’m thinking about Ready Player One…Do you feel the timeline overall for society, for technology, has been rushed because of the last couple years? What do you see happening in five or ten years?
Dominic: It clearly has been rushed. Especially in the working world. There’s a lot of sectors of the workforce that have very old technology: that still use fax machines to send important paperwork back and forth, and have documents that are physical. The current circumstances accelerated a lot of businesses to do things digitally. I don’t know if this will be five years, it might be more…A lot of people are working remotely now, a lot of people enjoy it, but there are certain disadvantages. I know I feel them. Collaborating with a big team, which I do, can be difficult. Before we started going fully remote I knew all my coworkers, I interacted with them. I was already up to speed with how everything worked. But if new people want to get started, it will be really rough for them. I feel it’s inevitable places will have VR conferences and meetings and collaboration. Virtual workplaces. It merges the benefits of remote work as well as the easier collaboration and some benefits of in-person work. You can still disconnect when you need to, but feeling you’re in person, being able to walk over to someone’s desk physically, in Virtual Reality, as cheesy as that might sound, will make a difference for people working remotely.
Rachel: That’s why we are a hybrid festival. There’s no going back. We will always offer live, if we’re allowed, especially these days with safety and conditions. There’s the virtual side, and we overlap them, too. We know live is best, so we don’t want to take that way, but we also know, let’s have those options. It’s a beautiful way to be connected: if there’s no other way, and even if we didn’t have to, the enhancing that can happen as we shared before.
Dominic: Live, it’s always best. It’s a matter of convenience, making something digital. If everybody was able to teleport, you could teleport to the conference, teleport back to your home. If everyone had a bubble to keep them safe…It would be great if we could do everything live.
Rachel: That would be fantastic! Please get that worked on, or tell your people!
Dominic: I’ll do my best. That won’t be five years, you might have to wait five hundred.
Rachel: No, ten years. We’ll negotiate that timeline. A lot of time storytellers worry about the generation gap. I don’t. Storytelling has been from the beginning. It will, always, prevail. Those my age, a lot of times are raising a family, and it is tricky to suddenly travel to a conference. Yet virtual makes it possible. What they think is a generation gap really doesn’t exist. It just means we aren’t as visible. Virtual, we are suddenly becoming more visible. I think it will always carry forth. As storytellers get older, it happens to be on their mind, because you don’t want something to die. But storytelling, it’s been around since the beginning.
Dominic: It can’t die.
Rachel: If that fear is set aside, and we focus on options we can give people, we can go forward with hope and excitement.
Dominic: It’s not like the advent of television got rid of storytellers–they’re still around.
Vel: Are there any upcoming projects or events you’d like shared?
Dominic: I can’t share any upcoming work projects due to my contract. Those are all classified. Very top secret stuff. Because I work as a game developer, I don’t work on private game projects, because that would be a conflict of interests. The only type of project I can share is tangentially related. That would be my gaming YouTube channel, CCALAD. I play videogames for the first time and give my commentary. I focus on the story of the game as I go through them.
Rachel: With Story Crossroads we keep expanding. There’s tons of programming. What I’ll focus on is our virtual workshop series called: All Things Story. I happen to be teaching the next one, which is rare, because it’s a 100% fundraiser for Story Crossroads.We want to have The Story Crossroads Academy, a self-led online course: Storytelling Basics in Eight Hours, all in Spanish. We are using 2022 to raise funds, so by 2023 we can do that. We already have it in English and American Sign Language. That particular workshop is January 28th, 2022. It will be about Grant Writing, specifically for storytellers and storytelling organizations. The other big thing would be our summit and festival May 9th-12th 2022, which is hybrid.You can see whether our experimentation works with True Hybrid!
Vel: Is there one thought you’d like readers to take away?
Rachel: Going forth with openness. It doesn’t mean you’ll agree with any or all things that come before you, but being open to see if there’s potential or possibility with it. If not for you, maybe for another person or group of people. I think storytelling has a way to build bridges with all humanity. We need to be as open as we can, knowing we’ll still have our opinions. But we can respectfully honor, and move forward, and be inspired by everyone around us.
Dominic: Be mindful of what storytelling senses you are using. Which ones you need to use, and which ones are distracting from the experience. And which ones you might add which would add to the experience. Sometimes less is more. Sometimes you just need to add another sense and it will take your story to the next level.
Rachel Hedman, M.A. received the Western Region storytelling award for service and leadership (ORACLE) as well as the Karen J. Ashton Award. She completed her Storytelling Masters and celebrated 27 years in the art. As Story Crossroads Founding Executive Director, she will help with the 7th Annual Summit & Festival (hybrid) on May 9-12, 2022 in Salt Lake County, Utah and continues to organize year-round arts education opportunities. For more from Rachel: find her at her All Things Story workshop on grant writing January 8, 2022, Story Crossroads Summit & Festival: The Hybrid on May 9-12, 2022 (registration for both up on: https://linktr.ee/storycrossroads; her personal work is at: https://folktalesaboutfamilies.com/ specializing in adoption and foster care folktales; or contact her at by email at: or call/text her at: (801) 870-5799.
Dominic Nicholson is a game developer who works as part of a large team, programming PC and console videogames. For more from Dominic find him on his YouTube channel CCALAD: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCvwQk88dKSaKAACqREHUQug, or contact him at: .