Karen is back in the app store this month and as one of our most downloaded and played apps – over 25,000 and counting – we wanted to share some of the things we learnt in making the work.
This short video from the archive gives an insight into how we tackled the technical challenges faced in making a piece of work using interactive storytelling techniques.
Karen is a life coach and she’s happy to help you work through a few things in your life.
You interact with Karen through an app. When you begin, she asks you some questions about your outlook on the world to get an understanding of you. In fact, her questions are drawn from psychological profiling questionnaires. She – and the software – are profiling you and she gives you advice based on your answers.
Why did we make Karen?
When John McGrath asked us to develop a project with National Theatre Wales in 2013 we were keen to create a personal and intimate experience for smartphones in which you interact directly with the lead character. We wanted you to be challenged about how honest and open you might be and to experience the thrill of having your personality appraised.
We became fascinated with big data, and particularly how governments and large companies such as Facebook are collecting data on us secretly and using it without our consent. When we met Dr Kelly Page – an expert in this area – we learnt about the various techniques developed by psychologists to measure personalities. Researcher Geraldine Nichols spent a few months visiting libraries and archives in Wales and England to delve into the history. She helped us trace back to Assessment of Men by the Office of Strategic Services: a book published just after World War Two that helped the military recruit undercover operatives.
From there we rifled through hundreds of personality tests across the decades. We chose some of the most fascinating, unnerving or significant scales that we found and wove them into the story of Karen, a divorcee with just enough knowledge to be dangerous.
We feel it’s our job as artists to pose questions about this new world where technology is ever more personalised and intrusive. We love having our services tailored to us and we’re scared of the price we’re paying for that personalisation.
Karen is a system that gets to know you. She/it uses data about your behaviour – whether freely given or obtained by monitoring – to give you an experience that is personalised, adaptive and intriguing.