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Playing In or Out of Character: User Role Differences in the Experience of Interactive Storytelling

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Abstract Interactive storytelling (IS) is a promising new entertainment technology synthesizing preauthored narrative with dynamic user interaction. Existing IS prototypes employ different modes to involve users in a story, ranging from individual avatar control to comprehensive control over the virtual environment. The current experiment tested whether different player modes (exerting local vs. global influence) yield different user experiences (e.g., senses of immersion vs. control). A within-subject design involved 34 participants playing the cinematic IS drama "Emo Emma"( 1 ) both in the local (actor) and in global (ghost) mode. The latter mode allowed free movement in the virtual environment and hidden influence on characters, objects, and story development. As expected, control-related experiential qualities (effectance, autonomy, flow, and pride) were more intense for players in the global (ghost) mode. Immersion-related experiences did not differ over modes. Additionally, men preferred the sense of command facilitated by the ghost mode, whereas women preferred the sense of involvement facilitated by the actor mode.
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Playing In or Out of Character: User Role Differences
in the Experience of Interactive Storytelling
Christian Roth, M.Sc.,
Ivar Vermeulen, Ph.D.,
Peter Vorderer, Ph.D.,
Christoph Klimmt, Ph.D.,
David Pizzi, Ph.D.,
Jean-Luc Lugrin, Ph.D.,
and Marc Cavazza, Ph.D.
Interactive storytelling (IS) is a promising new entertainment technology synthesizing preauthored narrative
with dynamic user interaction. Existing IS prototypes employ different modes to involve users in a story,
ranging from individual avatar control to comprehensive control over the virtual environment. The current
experiment tested whether different player modes (exerting local vs. global influence) yield different user ex-
periences (e.g., senses of immersion vs. control). A within-subject design involved 34 participants playing the
cinematic IS drama ‘‘Emo Emma’’
both in the local (actor) and in global (ghost) mode. The latter mode allowed
free movement in the virtual environment and hidden influence on characters, objects, and story development.
As expected, control-related experiential qualities (effectance, autonomy, flow, and pride) were more intense for
players in the global (ghost) mode. Immersion-related experiences did not differ over modes. Additionally, men
preferred the sense of command facilitated by the ghost mode, whereas women preferred the sense of in-
volvement facilitated by the actor mode.
Computer-based entertainment technologies are re-
markably popular all over the world. While certain video
games such as triple-A shooter or role-playing games repre-
sent the state of the art in computer-based entertainment
technology and dominate markets worldwide, a great
breadth of alternative concepts is evolving as well, such as
browser games, casual games, or mobile/pervasive games.
One particularly promising field of innovation in computer-
based entertainment is interactive storytelling (IS). IS systems
present evolving narratives that can be influenced, in real-
time, by the user.
The basic idea of IS is that intelligent
software dynamically synthesizes preauthored story elements
(e.g., involving characters and their mutual relationships,
events, and locations) with individual user input, allowing
users to cocreate a unique story. By allowing users to exert a
global influence on a developing storyline, IS is distinct from
conventional video games. Although video games usually
allow users to manipulate local events, character behaviors,
and virtual environments, the storyline itself remains linear,
and often fixed. IS’ vision, in contrast, is more similar to Star
where users generate novel, one-of-a-kind
entertainment experiences that combine characteristics of
advanced video games, virtual reality, and/or (virtualized)
Although the vision of IS is appealing, its development is
still in its infancy. Only few IS prototypes exist, and many
possibilities to design entertaining experiences need yet be
The current research zooms in on a design choice
that may be particularly relevant to IS environments, namely
how to involve players psychologically in the story devel-
opment. In most video games, players are assigned the role of
a protagonist: a local agent focusing on his/her own behavior
and immediate surroundings. In IS, however, perhaps, a
more natural role would be that of a global influencer: a
writer, director, or mediator whose main goal is to make the
developing story worthwhile. Such a global role could po-
tentially optimize control-related entertainment experiences,
such as autonomy, effectance, and flow.
On the other hand, it
could hamper the more immersive entertainment experiences
that go hand in hand with playing a protagonist: presence,
character identification, and affect.
The present study compares experiences of IS users in
a local versus global mode. Employing a previously devel-
oped array
of user experience measures derived from
Center for Advanced Media Research Amsterdam (CAMeRA), VU University Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Department of Communication Science, VU University Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
University of Mannheim, Mannheim, Germany.
Department of Journalism and Communication Research, Hannover University of Music, Drama, and Media, Hannover, Germany.
School of Computing, Teesside University, England.
Volume 15, Number 11, 2012
ªMary Ann Liebert, Inc.
DOI: 10.1089/cyber.2011.0621
entertainment theory,
it aims to discover whether different
ways of involving users in interactive narratives cause sys-
tematically different experiences.
User Roles in Interactive Stories: Actor
versus Ghost mode
Thus far, IS developers emulated common practice in vi-
deo games by arranging user experiences around the role of a
protagonist. For instance, much-hailed IS system Fac¸ade
situates users as a guest in the midst of a conflict between two
autonomous characters. The few video games that include IS
elements (e.g., ‘‘Fahrenheit’’ and ‘‘Heavy Rain’’) also have
user-control central game characters. IS prototype EmoEmma
introduces a different approach, labeled ‘ghost mode’. Here,
users do not play a story character, but observe and influence
ongoing story events by, for example, moving or adding
objects or giving commands to virtual actors. Like ghosts,
users move freely through the story environment and interact
with its elements. Ghost mode therefore comes close to being
a global influencer: a story cocreator who takes charge of
story developments without ties to an individual protagonist.
Theoretically, such different ways to involve users in IS are
likely to elicit different user experiences. Video game identi-
fication research
suggests that IS based on character
control should drive users’ sense of entertainment through
simulated self-experiences of being a character, living in a
story world, and feeling characters’ emotions. These simu-
lated self-experiences, in turn, likely elicit entertainment ex-
periences such as character identification, presence, and
affect, that is, assuming identity, location, and inner states of a
In contrast, IS based on story control may elicit
user experiences dominated by a sense of control or auto-
as well as effectance and flow,
since this global role,
along with its means of interaction, helps IS players’ pursue
their goal of creating a worthwhile story, and thus facilitates
perceptions of self-sufficiency and task-oriented attention.
The only empirical study conducted thus far on user re-
sponses to different user modes in IS compared usability-
oriented outcomes for actor and ghost mode Emo Emma
It found that users covered far larger distances
within the virtual story environment in ghost mode, sup-
porting the assumption of autonomy as a key dimension of
the user experience in this design approach.
The present study goes beyond measuring usability and
player behaviors—it instead compares entertainment experi-
ences of users of Emo Emma in both local and global modes,
employing a pre-established measurement battery
a broad range of measures derived from entertainment theory.
Based on the arguments above, we expect actor mode to
better facilitate experiences of presence, character identifi-
cation, and affect, whereas ghost mode will better facilitate
experiences of autonomy, effectance, and flow. Overall en-
joyment, as well as theoretically established drivers of media
enjoyment—curiosity, suspense, aesthetic pleasantness, sys-
tem usability, user satisfaction, character believability, and
pride—are tested in an exploratory fashion. In addition, we
will test gender differences in entertainment experiences. Prior
research suggests that for male players, the sense of control
facilitated by ghost mode might be more appealing,
whereas female players might be more attracted to the sense of
communicative involvement facilitated by the actor mode.
An experiment compared players’ responses to an inter-
active story played in an actor versus ghost mode. A total of
34 university students (11 men, 23 women; average age
M=22.0 years, SD =1.92 years) with a low-to-moderate de-
gree of computer game literacy (M=1.71, SD =0.84 on a scale
from 1 to 3) participated in the study. Comparisons between
playing modes were implemented within subjects. The order
in which participants interacted in the actor-versus-ghost
mode was balanced, counteracting possible order effects.
The IS stimulus system was Emo Emma, an advanced
prototype developed at the Teesside University, UK.
on the classic French novel Madam Bovary by Gustave
Flaubert, this system allows users to engage in a romantic
conversation between two characters, situated in a mansion.
In the actor mode, users play the role of Rodolphe Boulanger
(Emma Bovary’s admirer), who intends to express his ro-
mantic feelings toward Emma, in spite of her marriage. In the
ghost mode, players are bodiless and invisible in the virtual
environment, can observe the ongoing conversation among
Rodolphe and Emma, explore the house freely, manipulate
objects, and influence the behavior of either character. In both
usage modes, the scene lasts between 4 and 6 minutes.
Mouse, keyboard, and vocal commands serve as user inputs.
Upon arrival in the laboratory, participants received a
short training in interacting with Emo Emma for about
5 minutes. Next, half of the participants were first exposed to
an IS sequence in the actor mode, whereas the other half was
first exposed to the ghost mode. Subsequently, participants
completed a questionnaire consisting of 14 previously de-
veloped and validated
measures that capture a broad range
of drivers of media enjoyment: curiosity, suspense, flow,
aesthetic pleasantness, enjoyment, affect, role adoption, sys-
tem usability, user satisfaction, character believability, effec-
tance, presence, autonomy, and pride. Experience dimensions
were measured on a 5-point Likert scale using two to five
items each. Internal consistency scores for all scales (Table 1)
were acceptable, except for negative affect whose two items
showed only a weak-to-moderate correlation, and suspense.
Subsequently, participants proceeded to interact with Emo
Emma in the opposite (ghost or actor) mode. Then, they
completed the questionnaire again. Finally, participants
received 20 EUR as compensation, were debriefed, and
Within-subject comparison of self-reported experiences
between playing in the actor-versus-ghost mode using paired
sample t-tests reveals that user experiences indeed differ be-
tween playing modes (see Table 1). When playing in the ghost
mode, participants reported significantly higher levels of ef-
fectance, and marginally higher levels of autonomy and flow.
These results confirm that the ghost mode facilitates greater
degrees of empowerment to pursue storytelling goals. Pride
was also significantly higher in the ghost mode. Providing
players with better means to pursue their goals seems to
improve the likelihood they experience a sense of accom-
plishment. More unexpectedly, curiosity was also marginally
higher in the ghost mode. Apparently, by offering a (nearly)
constraint-free mode of interaction, the ghost mode triggered
more user interest in the consequences of actions. Finally, user
satisfaction was marginally higher in the ghost mode, indi-
cating that it better met players’ prior expectations about IS
Playing in the actor mode resulted in relatively low expe-
rience ratings on the mentioned dimensions, which suggests
that playing a predefined role within the narrative yields
fewer perceptions of control and successful implementation
of intentions in users. Converse to our expectations, the actor
mode did not yield higher scores on presence, character
identification, and affect. This contradicts prior research on
video game identification
and indicates that perhaps the
immersive qualities of the current system did not (yet) elicit
perceptions of melting with a character.
An analysis of gender differences in user experiences using
a repeated measures ANOVA showed that while male users
overall enjoyed the ghost mode more than the actor mode
(M=3.94, SD =0.91 vs. M=3.74, SD =0.90), for female users it
was the other way around (M=3.18, SD =1.29 vs. M=3.59,
SD =0.92; F(1, 32) =4.57, p=0.04). This coincides with the
notion that men prefer the sense of control provided by the
ghost mode, while women prefer the communicative in-
volvement provided by the actor mode. This notion is not
backed up by more specific user experience measurements;
none revealed gender differences.
The current study tested whether different player modes
(actor mode, exerting local influence versus ghost mode, and
exerting global influence) yield different types of user expe-
riences (senses of immersion vs. control) in IS environments.
As expected, control-related experiences such as autonomy,
effectance, and flow were higher in the ghost mode. Also, the
ghost mode triggered a higher sense of accomplishment, user
satisfaction, and curiosity. Contrary to our expectations,
playing in the actor mode did not improve involvement-
related experiences such as presence, character identification,
and affect.
We conclude that participants responded positively to the
greater level of goal-oriented control enabled by the ghost
mode. In contrast, playing in the actor mode seems to come
with perceived constraints with respect to storytelling goals.
The ghost mode offers more freedom and a broader arsenal of
possible user interventions that can be employed to exert a
more global influence. In addition, however, the ghost mode
seems to offer a detachment from story characters that may
serve to take away psychological constraints to pursue the
storytelling goal. As one participant put it, ‘‘It was easier to
play the ghost, because giving Rodolphe tips about what
to say to her was easier for me than actually say these things
to Emma in a convincing way.’’ The combined benefits of
control, freedom, and character detachment may have
contributed to males’ greater enjoyment of the ghost mode;
female participants in contrast preferred the more socially
involving experience provided by the actor mode.
The present research implies that IS environments may
face a specific challenge with respect to user experiences, that
is, allowing users to exert global control over story develop-
ments while keeping them immersed in story developments.
One way to face this challenge is by producing extremely
convincing social interactions with digital agents, as well as
presence-evoking environments, to maintain suspension of
disbelief despite full story control. Surely, creating such en-
vironments poses an AI challenge for many forms of digital
entertainment, but for IS, where linear storylines and con-
straints to user autonomy are thrown overboard, it might be
particularly hard.
Given the infant state of IS, in the near future, most gains
can be expected by focusing on an improvement of the
experience of global control,suchasinEmoEmmasghost
mode. Such an improvement would make IS environments
stand out from other digital entertainment environments
(e.g., video games). Experiences such as freedom,
and successful implementation of one’s own
are established drivers of interactive enjoy-
ment, and could provide future IS environments with a
unique appeal.
From a cyberpsychology perspective, our research implies
that technological drivers can have a relevant impact on IS
entertainment experiences. Future conceptual work could
focus on how technological and content-related factors (e.g.,
entertainment vs. education-oriented IS environments) in-
teract in shaping users’ experiences.
This research was funded by the European Commission
(Network of Excellence IRIS—Integrating Research on
Interactive Storytelling—FP7-ICT-231824). We thankfully
acknowledge the Commission’s support.
Author Disclosure Statement
No competing financial interests exist.
Table 1. Comparison of User Ratings
Between Actor Mode and Ghost Mode
Actor mode Ghost mode
assessment) M SD M SD p
System usability a=0.61/0.70 4.11 0.80 4.22 0.65 0.28
User satisfaction n/a 3.09 1.06 3.35 0.98 0.08
Presence a=0.79/0.76 3.26 0.85 3.10 1.01 0.22
n/a 3.12 0.98 3.06 1.04 0.80
Effectance r =0.82/0.88 2.24 0.95 2.88 1.27 0.007
Autonomy a=0.84/0.87 2.17 0.85 2.47 1.08 0.05
Curiosity a=0.72/0.82 3.59 0.80 3.86 0.56 0.05
Suspense a=0.56/0.56 3.61 0.61 3.49 0.80 0.37
Flow a=0.62/0.71 3.09 0.71 3.31 0.79 0.09
a=0.81/0.87 2.33 0.91 2.44 0.94 0.34
Pride a=0.87/0.88 2.21 0.84 3.01 1.10 0.001
Enjoyment r =0.86/0.94 3.68 1.10 3.69 0.95 0.91
Affect: positive a=0.86/0.84 3.00 0.95 3.17 0.91 0.14
Affect: negative r =0.36/0.37 1.97 0.82 1.88 0.65 0.33
n/a 2.76 1.14 2.63 1.02 0.34
Marginal difference at p<0.1.
Significant difference at p<0.05.
Reliabilities of scales with only two items were assessed using
Pearson’s r correlations. No reliability (n/a) is stated for one-item
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De Boelelaan 1105
Amsterdam 1081 HV
The Netherlands
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The burden of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) is disproportionaly high for adolescents and young adults. Adolescents and young people report high rates of sexual activity, multiple sexual partners, and inconsistent condom use. The Internet and, more specifically, online social networks, are beginning to be harnessed as potentially effective and culturally congruent communication channels to reach and engage some communities and populations in HIV-prevention interventions. Rates of social media use tend to be high among adolescents and young adults, in particular; they create, share, and exchange information, ideas, and perspectives in “virtual communities,” including Facebook, MySpace, Ning, FourSquare, Second Life, Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram. In this chapter, we consider virtual communities and the opportunities that exist for using social media to promote HIV prevention. We then describe the processes of engagement and interaction with members of virtual communities through our own experiences developing, implementing, and evaluating our Just/Us Facebook page intervention.
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While replay value is a common term in interactive entertainment, psychological research on its meaning in terms of user experiences is sparse. An exploratory experiment using the interactive drama "Façade" was conducted (n=50) to examine shifts and continuities in entertainment-related user experiences between first and second exposure to the same system. A questionnaire with brief scales measuring various user-experience dimensions (interaction-related facets such as usability, flow, and presence, as well as narrative-related facets such as suspense and curiosity) was administered after the first and the second round of exposure. Findings suggest that replay produces gains in action-related experience components such as presence and effectance, whereas narrative-related experiences such as curiosity and suspense remain stable across exposures. Implications for theorizing on interactive entertainment experiences are discussed.
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Four studies apply self-determination theory (SDT; Ryan & Deci, 2000) in investigating motivation for computer game play, and the effects of game play on well-being. Studies 1–3 examine individuals playing 1, 2 and 4 games, respectively and show that perceived in-game autonomy and competence are associated with game enjoyment, preferences, and changes in well-being pre- to post-play. Competence and autonomy perceptions are also related to the intuitive nature of game controls, and the sense of presence or immersion in participants’ game play experiences. Study 4 surveys an on-line community with experience in multi-player games. Results show that SDT’s theorized needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness independently predict enjoyment and future game play. The SDT model is also compared with Yee’s (2005) motivation taxonomy of game play motivations. Results are discussed in terms of the relatively unexplored landscape of human motivation within virtual worlds.
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In this paper, we describe a small-scale, yet complete, integration of a real-time immersive interactive storytelling system. While significant progress has been achieved in recent years on the individual component technologies of interactive storytelling, the main objective of this work is to investigate the concept of interactive storytelling in a fully immersive context. We describe each individual component of immersive interactive storytelling from a technical perspective. We have used a commercial game engine as a development environment, supporting real-time visualisation as well as the inclusion of Artificial Intelligence components controlling virtual actors. This visualisation engine has been ported to an immersive setting using dedicated software and hardware supporting real-time stereoscopic visualisation. The hardware platform is built around a 4-sided CAVE-like immersive display operated by a PC-cluster. The interactive storytelling engine is constituted by a planning system based on characters motivations and emotional states. The user can interact with the virtual world using multimodal interaction. We illustrate the system's behaviour on the implementation of excerpts from Madame Bovary, a classic XIXth century novel, and demonstrate the ability for the user to play the role of one of the characters and influence the unfolding of the story by his actions.
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The Entertainment potential of Virtual Reality is yet to be fully realised. In recent years, this potential has been described through the Holodeck#8482; metaphor, without however addressing the issue of content creation and gameplay. Recent progress in Interactive Narrative technology makes it possible to envision immersive systems. Yet, little is known about the usability of such systems or which paradigms should be adopted for gameplay and interaction. We report user experiments carried out with a fully immersive Interactive Narrative system based on a CAVE-like system, which explore two interactivity paradigms for user involvement (Actor and Ghost). Our results confirm the potential of immersive Interactive Narratives in terms of performance but also of user acceptance.
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With the increasing number of prototypes and market applications of interactive storytelling, the understanding and optimization of how end users respond to computer-mediated interactive narratives is of growing importance. Based on a conceptual model of user experiences in interactive storytelling, a measurement instrument for empirical user-based research was developed. We report findings from an initial test of the self-report scales that was conducted with N=80 players of the adventure game ”Fahrenheit”. Interactivity was manipulated experimentally in order to validate the measures. Results suggest that the scales will be useful for comparing user responses to ‘real’ interactive storytelling systems.
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Interactive Storytelling is a major endeavour to develop new media which could offer a radically new user experience, with a potential to revolutionise digital entertainment. European research in Interactive Storytelling has played a leading role in the development of the field, and this creates a unique opportunity to strengthen its position even further by structuring collaboration between some of its main actors. IRIS (Integrating Research in Interactive Storytelling) aims at creating a virtual centre of excellence that will be able to progress the understanding of fundamental aspects of Interactive Storytelling and the development of corresponding technologies.
Two experiments tested the prediction that video game players identify with the character or role they are assigned, which leads to automatic shifts in implicit self-perceptions. Video game identification, thus, is considered as a kind of altered self-experience. In Study 1 (N = 61), participants either played a first-person shooter game or a racing game. Subsequently, they performed an Implicit Association Test (IAT) designed to detect cognitive associations between character-related concepts and players' self. Findings indicate a stronger automatic association of military-related concepts to shooter players' self and a stronger association of racing-related concepts to racing game players' self. Study 2 (N = 48) replicated the IAT result from Study 1 and demonstrated the stability of the identification pattern. Implications for identification as an element of the video game experience and future research directions are discussed.
This article introduces an explication of video game players' identification with a game character or role that is based on social-psychological models of self-perception. Contrasting with conventional ("dyadic" ) notions of media user-character relationships (e.g., parasocial interaction or affective disposition theory), ("monadic" ) video game identification is defined as a temporal shift of players' self-perception through adoption of valued properties of the game character. Implications for media enjoyment, the measurement of identification, and media effects are discussed.
This article suggests an integrated view of media entertainment that is capable of covering more of the dimensional complexity and dynamics of entertainment experiences than existing theories do. Based on a description of what is meant by complexity and dynamics, the authors outline a conceptual model that is centered around enjoyment as the core of entertainment, and that addresses prerequisites of enjoyment which have to be met by the individual media user and by the given media product. The theoretical foundation is used to explain why people display strong preferences for being entertained (motivational perspective) and what kind of consequences entertaining media consumption may have (effects perspective, e.g., facilitation of learning processes).