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On Interactivity: Friction, Empathy, and The Narrative Impulse

“Interactive Fiction” has been on a lot of people’s minds lately.

Neal Stephenson has recently launched an ambitious novel/app project called The Mongoliad that is explicitly interactive in many ways, from social media interaction to possible side stories being generated by participants.

The broader subject was examined in the Guardian’s Games Blog last week, where new technology and ideas about how to make novels more engaging were assessed.

And author Paul Jessup responded to the topic of the Guardian piece with a history lesson rant.

The latter two point out that Interactive Fiction (which good ol’ Wikipedia, the interactive encyclopedia, says is abbreviated “IF“) is nothing new: from Choose Your Own Adventure books to Tom Disch’s groundbreaking Amnesia, IF has a deep history. IF as found on the Internet is mostly about text-based computer games, but endeavors such as Stephenson’s and IDEO’s go beyond this in an attempt to make fiction itself more interactive. New technology and modes of connectivity make interactivity more possible, perhaps allowing for IF to be more fully merged with traditional fiction.

But, does anything really innovative get added to a story via IF?
Lack of inherent novelty notwithstanding, interactive fiction certainly has new toys to play with in our digital age. E-readers, increased access to wireless internet, and the rise of social media in general creates opportunities to refashion traditional narrativity in fiction (and by traditional I mean directed narratives with texts that cannot be altered by the reader and are not enhanced by the publisher). That refashioning, however, may not just jazz up the story, but detract from it as well. A loss of imaginative friction, the inability to displace one’s sense of self and create empathy, and even the nature of narrative itself, our impulse to narrativize may be diluted through interactivity of the sort presumed in interactive narrative.
Because this is not some anthropological “Imagine yourself set down. . . .” moment; the reader willingly gives up a certain amount of imagination to be carried along by the interactive device or conceit. Certainly, the idea is that one can use the imagination to engage more directly with the story as it unfolds, and influence it, but what is lost in the exchange is friction. Instead of brushing up against the narrative and generating imaginative energy, the narrative entices you in and engulfs your imagination. The problem here is that, the looser the structure and purpose contained in the unfolding interactive moments, the less friction there is, and thus less tension. If you have more control over the narrative, you can steer it away from situations and endings that you don’t want, and while this makes for a sensation of smoother flow, it takes away the sparks that a more directed narrative can create in our minds.
Simultaneously, this can also mean less empathy is generated in the mind of the reader by the narrative. While it seems counter-intuitive to think so, the greater the interactivity, the less empathy is generated. Studies have suggested that traditional narratives are often better at creating empathy, perhaps because we have to take the extra step of putting ourselves in the place of the characters in the story. In interactive fiction, the proximity to and engagement with the characters is conditioned differently; you have to take on their actions using your own motives. You do not acquire the distance needed to reflect on what is taking place; instead, sympathy might be generated (in the strict sense of the term). This difference changes what we take away from a narrative,whether in terms of entertainment, or deeper meanings.
Most significantly, our human capacity to make sense of the world around us by categorizing it and then making stories from those assumptions is altered through interactivity in a way that may ratify our assumptions rather than questioning them. While the narrative impulse may be “natural,” how we use it, and what we learn from it, is not. As China Miéville observed in a recent interview, “I’d advocate a certain amount of scepticism towards the healing power of storytelling or the emancipatory potential of narrative.” Interactive fiction is promoted as better than traditional narrative, adding on information and the potential to influence what’s going on in a story. But no lens is value-free or acultural; subject, content, and the guided choices of an interactive narrative can be as loaded as the most obvious propaganda, and are only as good, in the end, as the authors and designers make them. While interactive narratives might harness an impulse that we have towards telling stories, it does not automatically make that impulse better.
As stated in the Guardian piece, “imagination is the ultimate form of narrative interactivity.” Rather than look for tricks and geegaws to “enhance”narratives, perhaps we should think more about what a narrative is capable of, and what it contains.
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