Academic Research / Computer Culture

Interactive Storytelling of the Less-Virtual Variety

What do American Idol, lonelygirl15, and Invisible Children have in common?

They were all instituted to function based off of mass audience interactions and they all deliver strong and dramatically-compelling narratives.  The idea of interactive preexists video games and virtual worlds, and it’s alway refreshing to go back and examine new ways that interactivity plays out in our world today.

American Idol is the most “house-hold” of the three, mostly because it is most accessible, simple, and easy to digest.  The TV show draws you into the parallel narratives of all the contestants on the show.  Of course, for a contest where individuals have the opportunity to go against the odds in order to live their greatest dream, American Idol pulls on some core intrinsic desires among all people.  Overall, it benefits from this need to satiate a desire for the dramatically compelling and perhaps, affect the outcome of something that matters to somebody.  Maybe to abstract even further, it’s to give people a sense of being part of something important or interesting (albeit, there’s not a whole lot of agency as an audience to American Idol).

lonelygirl vlog

lonelygirl vlog

Although lonelygirl15 is presented under the guise of some sort of reality entertainment, it’s actually an almost fully-scripted experience.  I had the privilege to come across it right before it was revealed to be staged by filmmakers.  On youtube, I watched the vlogs of a sheltered religious girl, both deep and yet simple, share about her struggles with emerging adulthood.  The vlogs progress to reveal that she is in some sort of dangerous cult and in preparation to be a human sacrifice.  Her and her friends go against the odds, break away from what is expected of them to change the world.

The narrative, for the first series, was absolutely compelling, creative, and unexpected.  As these “actors” performed on their youtube channels, they also interacted with non-actor viewers in, what would be, typical internet conversation, as if the characters were real people.  Throughout the series, other “viewers” would fall into the lime-light only to be revealed as other staged characters for the narrative.  The lines between real and fabricated were able to be blurred by the power and culture around web 2.0.

In comparison, longelygirl15 wins for having far more agency (and creativity).  American Idol, on the other hand, unifies the convergent stories of real life to form one emergently cohesive experience, as opposed to having it made up. Still, lonelygirl15 is an immersive space where anybody can interact as themselves or their own creation to fit the “reality” of the storyworld.  User created content is commonly integrated and acknowledged by the staged actors, but also expected and accepted as expansions of the world.  Thus, the lonelygirl15 community has created a universe where anyone can participate in this psuedo-reality youtube drama.

I believe that the most unlikely-acknowledged interactive experience is that of Invisible Children.  Three film-makers go to Uganda to discover a story that’s changed the world and so many lives.  I have a few friends who were roadies for the Invisible Children non-profit that emerged from the film, and their stories are more captivating than any reality TV show or modern fiction.  The film-makers are indeed great storytellers, but they’ve given over authorial control and engineered their experience to be driven by interactivity.  On one level, anyone can volunteer and be a prominent acting agent.  In so many other ways, events and ideas are employed to gather as much participation as possible, all the while authoring the story as it unfolds.  Invisible Children is the archetypal example of a modern-day interactive documentary that continues to make itself as a result of its “fan-base,” showing us that changing the world in observable and distinct ways is perhaps the greatest of all agency.

The overly-analytical side of me believes that mass media has disillusioned us to feel things only when they are made up.  The truth is: our imagination is based off of those possibilities and even the desire to experience something so powerful for ourselves.  Mass media makes it so easy that we forget to pay attention to those things in our own lives, and the agency we have in the world around us, such as what the Invisible Children narrative space is trying to do.  Our creative media should be representing the reverence we have for the real things in our lives, not the replacement, because we are, in fact, able to live out the things that captivate us about fiction in our real lives.  I believe that the beauty of fabricated experiences speak to us, because of how possible those situations actually are.

So, if your life is boring and you need to be entertained, why not join and be entertained by the meaningful narrative that is around you?

4 thoughts on “Interactive Storytelling of the Less-Virtual Variety

  1. “So, if your life is boring and you need to be entertained, why not join and be entertained by the meaningful narrative that is around you?”

    No save / restore!

  2. Pingback: If You Don’t Do This, You Will Regret It - ReClaiM! Blog

  3. I’ve never thought of non-profit charitable organizations as interactive storytelling before; it’s interesting. But I guess if you’re interacting with a real story that is being played out in the real world, it just makes it that much more powerful.

  4. To point out that interactive narration drives people to seek the agency sometimes offered in those presentations certainly makes us question the value we put in our individual agencies in the world. Of course, one would have an simpler time becoming part of a cause that eases the “audience” and invites them to join, all the while claiming a solid purpose… however most happenings or issues in our immediate surroundings don’t offer such a solidly defined medium or means of involvement.

    Perhaps it’s people like myself who need to come to understand that while the meta-picture is important, there is the immediate surrounding that requires our agency.

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