Conference PaperPDF Available

The Motivational Appeal of Interactive Storytelling: Towards a Dimensional Model of the User Experience

Authors:
  • HKU University of the Arts Utrecht

Abstract

A conceptual account to the quality of the user experience that interactive storytelling intends to facilitate is introduced. Building on socialscientific research from ‘old’ entertainment media, the experiential qualities of curiosity, suspense, aesthetic pleasantness, self-enhancement, and optimal task engagement (“flow”) are proposed as key elements of a theory of user experience in interactive storytelling. Perspectives for the evolution of the model, research and application are briefly discussed.
The Motivational Appeal of Interactive Storytelling:
Towards a Dimensional Model of the User Experience
Christian Roth1, Peter Vorderer1,
and Christoph Klimmt2
1Center for Advanced Media Research Amsterdam (CAMeRA), VU University Amsterdam,
De Boelelaan 1105, 1081 HV Amsterdam, The Netherlands
2Department of Communication, Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz,
Kleinmann-Weg 2, 55099 Mainz, Germany
{Christian Roth, Peter Vorderer,
Christoph Klimmt, pch.roth@fsw.vu.nl}
Abstract. A conceptual account to the quality of the user experience that
interactive storytelling intends to facilitate is introduced. Building on social-
scientific research from ‘old’ entertainment media, the experiential qualities of
curiosity, suspense, aesthetic pleasantness, self-enhancement, and optimal task
engagement (“flow”) are proposed as key elements of a theory of user
experience in interactive storytelling. Perspectives for the evolution of the
model, research and application are briefly discussed.
Keywords: Interactive storytelling, user experience, enjoyment, entertainment
Acknowledgment: This research was funded by the European Commission
(Network of Excellence “IRIS – Integrating Research on Interactive
Storytelling” – Project ID 231824). We thankfully acknowledge the
Commission’s support.
1 Introduction
Interactive Storytelling applications strive for the intelligent synthesis of diverse
computing technologies with inspiring narrative content [1]. By offering the
opportunity to participate in, or even co-narrate a story, interactive storytelling
applications promise radically new modes of user experiences. But how exactly does
it feel to participate in an interactive story? Why should it be enjoyable? So far, only a
few mostly qualitative studies have examined users’ experiential qualities in specific
interactive storytelling settings (e.g., “Façade”: [2], or adventure video games: [3]).
The present paper offers a theoretical contribution on the user experience at the more
abstract level of social-scientific concepts. Mining existing theory in communication
science, we attempt to improve the connectivity between interactive storytelling and
‘old entertainment media’. Such a theoretical analysis shall help designers to set clear
goals for how their application should function from a user perspective and to stay
focused on specific experiential qualities in spite of possible alternatives. Moreover,
explicating the dimensions of the user experience at the theoretical level is the base
for evaluating prototypes and comparing different approaches to interactive
storytelling in a systematic, empirical way.
2 Conceptual Building Blocks from Past Entertainment Media
Research on the ‘past’ generations of media entertainment such as literature, film,
and video games, is useful to generate conceptual insight for interactive storytelling,
because interactive storytelling combines different ingredients of conventional
entertainment, such as cinematics, character development, and user agency (e.g., [1]).
We briefly refer to five experiential dimensions that have been found central in
research on old entertainment use, most of which have also been discussed already –
implicitly or explicitly – with regard to interactive storytelling
2.1 Curiosity
“What will happen next?” This question runs through the mind of users of
conventional media entertainment very frequently. Reading a novel, for instance,
generates knowledge on characters and situations, which allows readers to conclude
about what may happen next, what should happen next, and what is likely to happen
next. Good writers attract readers’ interest (e.g., [4]), which includes the motivation to
learn about what will happen next. Being curious is thus common for users of
conventional entertainment, and curiosity occurs in various modes. For instance, in
video games, curiosity may refer to the progress of the story, but also to the action
possibilities that players can try out (“What will happen if I do this?”). During movie
consumption, curiosity may also refer to artistic or formal issues rather than the faith
of the characters (e.g., “How will the director visualize this?”).
Because various genres of media entertainment build on curiosity so frequently, it is
likely that curiosity is pleasant in itself and thus contributes to overall appreciation.
Several theorists argue for a psychophysiological base of the pleasantness of curiosity
[5] [6]. When curiosity occurs, users (viewers, players etc.) first perceive a state of
uncertainty, which comes along with increased physiological activation. To the extent
that this uncertainty is not too strong, most users seem to enjoy such (temporary)
activation [5]. When uncertainty is reduced (e.g., readers turn the page and find out
what actually happens next), users experience a sense of closure or completion, which
renders the increased physiological activation a positive, pleasant experience. If the
state of curiosity is followed by a surprise (i.e., something unexpected happens), these
affective user responses often turn into exhilaration [7]. Entertainment media that
generate circles of increased curiosity and resolved curiosity thus create a chain of
pleasant affective dynamics.
Such curiosity experiences are important for many interactive storytelling systems [8].
Users can be curious about multiple dimensions, including pre-scripted story progress
(“What will happen next?”), interactive story progress (“What will happen if I decide
this way?”), system response (“How will this agent respond if I start cursing?”) or
technological capacity of the system (“How will the system visualize my view into
this tunnel?”). Because interactive storytelling systems unite elements from diverse
conventional media, they may combine different mechanisms of curiosity, which
should result in a high frequency and intensity of curiosity-based affective dynamics.
2.2 Suspense
“Will they survive?” For some types of entertainment media, this question occurs
in users very frequently, such as in thriller novels, action movies, and shooter games.
Because users are left in a state of uncertainty, the related user experience is similar to
the (rather pleasant) curiosity process. However, the experiential state typically
referred to as “suspense” is also fueled by aversive emotional components, such as
anxiety or empathic concern (e.g., a viewer fearing the defeat of a movie protagonist)
[9]. Suspense thus differs from curiosity in the sense that users experiencing suspense
have a strong interest in a specific outcome of a story episode, such as “My character
must win the fight”. In contrast to curiosity, suspense is rooted in emotional
involvement with characters. This emotional interest makes users long for specific
outcomes and generates the concern that these specific outcomes may not occur.
Therefore, suspense is a rather stressful mode of entertainment. However, if the
desired outcomes occur, strong experiences of relief and satisfaction occur in most
cases (“happy end”; [6]). Research in media psychology suggests that both the
aversive stage of suspense and the rewarding relief contribute to user enjoyment (e.g.,
[9]).
Suspense has been found to occur both in linear entertainment such as novels and
in interactive media such as video games [10]. Therefore, interactive storytelling
systems are likely to facilitate suspense as well. More precisely, interactive
storytelling applications can establish emotional involvement with characters and
situations [11], and they may simultaneously generate a perception of personal
challenge in users. For example, an interactive crime drama may situate the user in
the role of a police detective who is facing the climax confrontation with the villain.
At this moment, suspense should be high for narrative reasons (as stakes are high in
terms of plot development) and for interactivity reasons (as the user must make the
“right” decisions to succeed in the confrontation). Therefore, interactive storytelling
systems may also generate unique user experiences because they may facilitate high
levels of cyclic suspense and relief experiences.
2.3 Aesthetic pleasantness
“Beautiful!” is another typical user response to different content elements in
conventional entertainment media. Such positive evaluations may relate to the
physical appearance of characters, landscape imagery, or romantic episodes, for
instance; they may also relate to attributes that constitute a media application as a
piece of art. For example, movie experts may find the cinematic implementation of a
special scene “beautiful”. In Oatley’s [12] terms, aesthetic pleasantness may thus
occur in users “entering the world of the story” and in users who remain “outside of
the story” (and rather analyze it as a piece of art). Aesthetic enjoyment has been found
to depend on individual preconditions, such as expertise and absorption tendencies
[13].
Given the importance of aesthetics in conventional entertainment [14], it is likely
that interactive storytelling systems can have profound aesthetic impact on their users.
The quality of this aesthetic experience may differ across applications: Some
prototypes may facilitate affective responses through ‘beautiful’ imagery (e.g., digital
landscapes). Other applications may address users aesthetic perception with creative
plot development, character attributes, dialogue evolution, or puzzle tasks (e.g., as in
the “Myst”™ video games). Aesthetic pleasantness shares physiological roots with
curiosity and suspense ([5]), yet it is shaped to a stronger degree by individual factors
(biography, sense of taste, social status) and is not necessarily bound to uncertainty
reduction. In many cases, aesthetic appreciation is linked to users recognizing
citations (e.g., a melody from a famous old movie being cited in a contemporary
movie). Consequently, there are many routes that interactive storytelling systems may
take to generate aesthetic pleasantness in their users. Especially interactivity and
sensory immersion may add to this capacity [1].
2.4 Self-enhancement
“We are great!” – Entertainment media of various kinds have been shown to affect
users’ self-perception and self-worth. Video games have been argued to increase
players’ self-esteem by providing experiences of success [15] and reward [16].
Another mode of video games affecting player self-perception is identification [17]:
Identifying with a game character allows to feel like somebody one desires to be, such
as a hero, a rock musician, or a powerful decision maker. Fulfilling desires of being
like one wants to be generates positive emotions, and this response of reduced self-
discrepancy has been linked to video game enjoyment.
To the extent that interactive storytelling systems facilitate identification with
characters and/or provide experiences of competence and success, they are also likely
to lift users’ self-esteem. The sense of active participation is a plausible mechanism
that renders users’ self-enhancement an important dimension of the user experience in
interactive storytelling: Because users are directly involved (or at least believe to be
directly involved) in what happens in the story, they can attribute positive events to
themselves (e.g., they make the hero save the world, [2]). Interactivity thus opens the
pathway to users’ self-enhancement. If users leave an interactive story with the
impression “I have achieved something great!”, their experience rests on competence
and success.
2.5 Optimal task engagement (“Flow”)
“Don’t disturb me!” – many video game players can be found strongly engaged in
their activity and trying to block out any external input that could distract them. Such
players are commonly described as being in the state of ‘flow’ [18]. Users in the state
of flow find themselves resolving a sequence of tasks that is exactly as difficult as
they can handle if they work with full dedication, and this experiential state (in the
middle between boredom and anxiety) is found highly pleasant in many situations.
Participating in an interactive story by making decisions and pushing a plot line
forward can be construed as a task-type of activity, especially since most interactive
storytelling applications set rules and limits to what users can decide on and do.
Shaping a storyline while complying to such limitations may feel like resolving tasks
– just as playing adventure games requires users to solve puzzles to move the story
forward. If the timing and difficulty of users’ participation in the development of the
story is ‘right’, users may ‘get lost’ in the activity of giving input, or, more generally
speaking, in co-narrating the story. Flow (or similar concepts such as immersion) may
thus turn out as an experiential dimension important to users of sophisticated well-
structured interactive storytelling systems that provide reasonable challenges and
defined tasks to their audience [2] [3].
3 Conclusions and research outlook
The synopsis of potentially relevant theoretical accounts has revealed a broad
range of experiential qualities that interactive storytelling can facilitate. Our approach
that is based on entertainment theory converges nicely with the existing case studies
on user responses in interactive storytelling that found qualitative evidence for diverse
experiential dimensions [2] [3]. The reviewed concepts may turn out useful in further
theorizing of what the envisioned synthesis of interactive user agency and (pre-
structured) narrative actually could mean (e.g. [1]). It seems already clear that user
appreciation of interactive storytelling systems is a multi-level phenomenon: Users
are likely to respond to story content (e.g., characters, events), artistic features (e.g.,
cinematographic aesthetics) and technological features (e.g., curiosity when trying out
the interface) alike, either simultaneously or sequentially, which will result in a
complex, multifactor explication of what users experience when they engage in an
interactive storytelling system.
Expert interviews and experiments with prototype systems for interactive
storytelling are now needed to find out whether all of the reviewed five conceptual
approaches are relevant and whether there are additional sources of user experience
that should be elaborated on the way to a more elaborate model. This way, an
advanced theoretical understanding of interactive storytelling from a user perspective
will emerge that can support system designers in planning and optimizing their
applications and system evaluators in comparing different systems. Standardized
measures such as self-report scales should be developed (or adapted from
entertainment studies) and tested in order to provide the methodological tools required
for assessing the impact of (future) interactive storytelling systems on their users. For
this endeavor, social-scientific research must be linked to technological work on
prototypes. The present paper marks an attempt to build such disciplinary bridges and
provide insight into the social science of media entertainment as a new starting point
for user-centered research on interactive storytelling.
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... Narrative Level 4 [14], [15], [12], and [33] Re-playability 1 [12] Interactivity 7 [14], [15], [12], [33], [35], [32], and [29] Characters' Interaction 5 [14], [15], [13], [12], [35], and [29] Content 6 [14], [15], [13], [12], [22], and [33] Coherence 1 [22] Originality 1 [22] Achieved curiosity 3 [28], [29], and [35] Immersion 6 [36], [12], [33], [28], [29], and [35] Desirability 2 [12] and [32] Narrative Level has been defined as a scenario characteristic that aims at evaluating the extent to which a game contains an appropriate introduction, sub-goals and ending [12]. Most of the heuristics used for assessing this characteristic are based on elements such as the game interface, mechanics, and gameplay. ...
... Narrative Level 4 [14], [15], [12], and [33] Re-playability 1 [12] Interactivity 7 [14], [15], [12], [33], [35], [32], and [29] Characters' Interaction 5 [14], [15], [13], [12], [35], and [29] Content 6 [14], [15], [13], [12], [22], and [33] Coherence 1 [22] Originality 1 [22] Achieved curiosity 3 [28], [29], and [35] Immersion 6 [36], [12], [33], [28], [29], and [35] Desirability 2 [12] and [32] Narrative Level has been defined as a scenario characteristic that aims at evaluating the extent to which a game contains an appropriate introduction, sub-goals and ending [12]. Most of the heuristics used for assessing this characteristic are based on elements such as the game interface, mechanics, and gameplay. ...
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