The ‘Angstfabriek’ experience:
Factoring Fear into Transformative
Interactive Narrative Design
University of the Arts Utrecht, P.O. Box 1520, 3500 BM, Utrecht, The Netherlands.
Abstract. Interactive Narratives in the form of Interactive Theater have the
potential to offer a transformational learning experience on societal and political
topics. The purposive interactive installation Angstfabriek (Dutch for fear
factory) lets visitors experience fear-mongering and the related safety industry,
with the goal of eliciting reflection, insight and discussion. As a case study for a
potentially transformative experience, the installation is described and evaluated
by means of a focus group interview and a pilot user experience study (N = 32).
Findings show the importance of sufficient scripting of interactors regarding their
role and agency, highlighting the conceptual connection between interactive
digital narrative design and interactive theater design.
Keywords: Transformative Design, Interactive Narrative Design, Interactive
Theater, User Experience Evaluation.
1 Transformative Learning Through Interactive Narratives
The Angstfabriek, the factory of fear, is a physical installation combining theatrical
elements and insightful interactive exercises with the goal of raising awareness and
stimulating dialogue on fear-mongering as instrumentalized by the safety industry.
Communication strategies often make use of narrative as a means to engage audiences,
drawing them in and inviting them to experience a story that illustrates a point rather
than simply stating facts in order to convey a lesson. This communication style has the
effect of eliciting an emotional and cognitive response from the audience, thus helping
the message create a more significant impact, in some cases influencing transformation.
Interactive narrative experiences take this one step further, changing the role of the
audience from spectator to interactor, and increasing the potential for transformative
learning [1, 2].
Murray postulated that interactive narratives should provide interactors with
agency, “the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the result of your
decisions and choices” . This gives audiences the ability to influence the course of a
narrative to some degree, for instance by taking decisions of a main character or by
choosing one of several perspectives to experience the narrative from. Interactive
narratives allow for exploration, play, performance and experimentation with different
actions and consequences [1, 3].
This is in line with the concept of transformative learning which, according to
Mezirow , is an attempt to explain how cultural assumptions and presuppositions
influence our expectations, in turn framing our perception and interpretation of our
experiences. This concept explains a change in meaning structures within the domains
of instrumental and communicative learning. Instrumental learning focuses on learning
through activities designed to promote the discovery, analysis and understanding of
cause-and-effect relationships. Communicative learning, on the other hand, involves
the understanding of different perspectives concerning values, ideals, feelings, moral
decisions, and concepts such as freedom, justice, love, labor, autonomy, commitment
and democracy. Transformative learning occurs when communicative and instrumental
learning involve a “reflective assessment of premises . . . [and] of movement through
cognitive structures by identifying and judging presuppositions” .
The constructivist, inquiry-based approach by Bruner  introduced the concept of
discovery learning, which implies that students construct their own knowledge for
themselves, enabling them to find answers and solve problems on their own with
minimal guidance. This encourages motivation, active involvement, and creativity,
promoting autonomy and independence.
Interactive digital narratives offer such a learning environment, enabling interactors
to derive meaning from active involvement and experience. This underscores the value
of interactive narratives beyond entertainment, as applied in education, health
awareness and the communication of ideas.
Only a few studies exist so far that evaluate the effectiveness of interactive (digital)
narratives (e.g. [3, 6, 7, 8]). Findings of these studies suggest that interactive narratives
may be effective tools in raising awareness and empathy, creating insight, and
increasing pro-social behavior.
Similarly, Interactive Theater has been conceptualized and applied in education or
to illustrate real life political and moral debates . The roleplaying aspect of
interactive theater, for instance, has been shown to be an effective tool in teaching
medical students communication skills when breaking bad news to patients .
Saypol  defined interactive theater as “a theatrical form in which the audience
participates, in varying degrees, in the creation of the drama on stage in real time,
resulting in a combination of scripted and improvisational performance, with the goal
of fostering critical dialogue designed to challenge attitudes and behaviors around a
variety of social issues.” Interactive theater can be understood as a non-digital
implementation of interactive narrative design, where audiences shift from the role of
observer to that of participant, immersing themselves through interaction with their
surroundings, e.g. by conversing with actors.
For instance, the interactive installation or documentary theater Situation Rooms by
art collective, Rimini Protokoll, allows participants to perceive several out of 20
different roles (weapon seller, soldier, ruler, refugee) by re-enacting the personal
narratives told through a video device . By following what they hear and see on the
video equipment, participants are led through the installation, which takes them through
sets depicting the world of weapons manufacturing, sales and war.
In a similar fashion, the installation Angstfabriek, uses an interactive narrative
theatrical experience as a way to invite participants to reflect on the societal and
political implications of fear-mongering.
2 Case Study: Angstfabriek
Fear, a ubiquitous experience among humans, has evolved over millions of years as an
autonomous mechanism to aid safety and survival . However, given the complexity
of modern society and the factors that influence human interactions, fear – its
fabrication and perpetuation – can be a threat in itself.
Fear is fueled by complex issues such as divisive politics, war, migration, climate
change and health risks, but is equally propagated by seemingly ordinary everyday
discussions about vaccination, dietary choices, or the excessive consumption of social
media and games. People are increasingly driven towards an immense need to limit
risks and dangers – idealizing a society with guaranteed safety, to which the safety
industry responds by developing solutions. And while the world is safer and better than
ever before in many ways , there is also the risk of fear leading to potentially
Consider the dystopian scenarios featured by Black Mirror. The episode “Nosedive”,
for example, shows a social credit system similar to the one now being implemented in
China, which – in an attempt to create an ideal society – rewards preferred social
behaviors while penalizing undesirable ones. Such a premise is controversial not only
because it creates a system that fosters a false sense of self-valuation, but because it
normalizes the notion of surveillance and profiling. This demonstrates that people,
perhaps in their need for the reassurance of safety, are willing to bend on otherwise
inviolable democratic values and civil rights, raising the question of whether societies
are at risk of falling victim to unchecked and unregulated safety measures.
Dutch NGO Critical Mass created the theatrical pop-up experience ‘Angstfabriek’
(Dutch for ‘fear factory’) intending to unmask the inner workings of the global fear
industry and safety industry . The Angstfabriek is a physical installation with
theatrical elements, narration and interactive experiences that challenge visitors to
reflect on their own attitude and behavior towards the topic.
With the goal of raising awareness, encouraging critical thinking, and stimulating
dialogue, the Angstfabriek is based on the concept that fear can be manufactured to
create a demand for safety as a product and as a service. As a fear factory – a place
where fears are made – techniques to frighten us are designed, tested and thoroughly
perfected for maximum impact and then marketed to companies, politicians, activists
and lobbyists that require tailor-made fear campaigns for a variety of agendas.
This concept is inspired by Securitization theory and the so-called Copenhagen
School of Security Studies, which asserts that security is about survival, and that an
issue, when posed as an existential threat to a designated referent object, legitimizes the
use of extraordinary measures to handle them .
2.1 The Angstfabriek Experience
Entrance. The fake fear factory welcomes visitors in groups of up to 6, at 15-minute
intervals. As participants enter the building, they are asked to sign up with their real
names. Personal information is used to create the illusion that the factory has
background information on each participant. Information from online profiles etc. are
used for short personal verbal interactions. At times, the demonstration is subtler, in the
case of a visitor who suddenly hears music written by his band playing as the group
enters the installation, causing him to react, “That’s my music!”
Then participants are asked to stand behind a futuristic display to be scanned. The
scan presumably searches for themes that they might be afraid of – terrorism, alt-right,
climate change, food safety – and depicts these with percentages on the transparent
screen in front of them. See Fig. 1.
Fig. 1. Entrance (left) and reception of the Angstfabriek with scanning platform (right)
Virtual Reality Lab. Participants are then guided into the VR lab where four members
of the group are shown scenes through VR headsets. The remaining members act as test
supervisors, selecting which topics, and at which intensity, to show to the testers. As
the testers view the clips, their heart rate, perspiration and brain activity are monitored
to measure their reaction to the visual stimuli. Finally, the results are shared with the
participants, showing them their personal level of susceptibility to media messages. See
Fig. 2. Conducting the fear response experiment in the VR lab (left) and discussing the results
using the measurement graphs for each participant.
Corporate Video. A stack of boxes is used as a projection screen to show a corporate
film featuring satisfied customers talking about their fears (e.g. of foreigners, of
harmful ingredients in products, etc.) and how the Angstfabriek helped them. Visitors
wait here for the director to pick them up. On a design level this also serves as a buffer
to manage the flow of visitors. See Fig. 3.
Director’s Office. Next, visitors listen to the Director deliver a speech. He is proud of
his factory and emphasizes the usefulness for society as he needs public support. He
asks visitors about their personal fears and then argues that fear is a natural instinct
intended to keep people safe. He concludes by stating that fear creates the need for
safety, hoping to turn some of the visitors into future clients. See Fig. 3.
Fig. 3. Angstfabriek Corporate Film (left) and Director’s speech in his office
Whistleblower. As the visitors prepare to leave, they suddenly encounter an employee,
the cleaner, who offers to show them “what is really going on”. While the work of the
Angstfabriek sounds good at first, the reality is different. Former factory staff have
therefore decided to leave without letting the director know. This allows visitors to step
into their shoes and experience with their own eyes what is happening in the factory
and to make this information public. The cleaner, part of the whistleblower team,
therefore helps visitors to go undercover by wearing the uniforms of employees that
have gone missing due to their moral reservations. As they go through the facility again,
they are able to see behind the curtain and form their own opinion.
Fear Video Creation. The first stop is the creation of an impactful news clip on an
important topic such as terrorism or climate change. This gives participants insight into
how messages are combined in order to create fear. Through this exercise participants
begin to see through fear as a business concept. Video clips, text, music and titles have
to be combined to create a strong, fear inducing media message. The results are
critiqued and rated by the CEO on the screen. Participants who complete this task
become complicit in spreading fear. See Fig. 4.
Fig. 4. Following instructions at the media station (left) and creating an impactful fear video
Assembly line. In their role as fear factory workers, participants have to order 4 out of
8 possible safety measures. They investigate boxes on a movable assembly line, by
scanning QR codes using an augmented reality device to reveal the safety measure
contained by each box (e.g. anti-riot drones, social credit systems, smart borders, 3D
printed weapons, tracking devices). See Fig. 5.
Fig. 5. Following instructions at the assembly line (left) and choosing safety measures
Locker room. The installation ends when visitors bring the coats back to the staff room,
where they find the lockers of the employees that have left. Visitors are given the
opportunity to look inside these lockers, where they find personal stories on the effects
of fear-mongering and interactions to further convey the installation’s message with an
invitation to reflect.
In this paper, we discuss the results of two studies: a focus group interview (N = 7)
conducted with docents from the Games & Interaction department at HKU University
of the Arts Utrecht, with backgrounds in psychology, interaction and game design,
game art, documentary making, and interactive narrative design; and a pilot study (N =
32) using a questionnaire, with qualitative and quantitative sections. A summary of the
3.1 Focus group
After experiencing the Angstfabriek for about 70 minutes, the focus group made
suggestions on what they would improve to create a more meaningful and more
Overall, the focus group praised the installation in terms of concept, engagement
and presentation. The experience flow was good. The more interactive parts, such as
talking to the director and creating a fear video, were deemed engaging and valuable to
the concept of raising awareness and giving insight. The locker design in the end felt
overwhelming as it provided too much information, and not entirely related to the topic
of fear and safety. This issue has since been improved and the subsequent pilot study
already used the new design.
Other points of critique, however, concerned the visitors’ role, agency and
immersion. The focus group had been recruited without significant knowledge of the
installation. While the tagline on the Angstfabriek website  clearly states “Go
undercover in a fake fear factory”, it was not clear to the focus group what this actually
entailed. A number of group members pointed out that the introduction to the context
and their role in it could have been better.
With regard to agency, the creation of a fear-inducing news item offered the most
interaction, as the activity involved a process of content selection and feedback. This
forced participants to think about which options would work best in creating fearful
reactions, and then – in consultation with the group – to come to a choice that was
morally reprehensible. The focus group participated in creating an impactful fear
inducing news item without discussing rebellious alternatives.
Interactive narratives usually involve some level of influence on the story. At the
Angstfabriek, agency was only possible on a local level, during certain scenes, without
having any impact on subsequent scenes or the overall outcome.
Finally, the focus group pointed out that the narrative twist and their new role as
undercover employee were not sufficiently convincing. The whistleblower cautions
visitors to avoid eye contact with the director, and to put on employee uniforms.
However, a lab coat passing off as a convincing disguise requires considerable
suspension of disbelief, which was not helped by an unconvincing performance from
the whistleblower. Ultimately, these issues contributed to a break in immersion.
One participant remarked that for interactive narratives, Murray  stresses the
importance of active creation of belief and that allowing for more roleplaying is a way
to achieve this.
3.2 User experience study
A total of 32 participants visited the Angstfabriek, after which they filled out a
questionnaire comprised of qualitative (open questions) and quantitative sections
(statements rated via 5-point Likert scales). The sample consisted of 20 women, 11
men, and 1 non-binary with ages ranging from 15 to 71 (Median = 37, M = 39, SD =
13), having moderate experience with virtual reality (M = 2.77, SD = 1.25) and
interactive theater (M = 2.86, SD = 1.11) on a scale from 1, no experience, to 5, a lot
The open questions asked what participants liked and what they would improve, as
well as what they think the installation was about and what their take-away message
was. Overall, participants gave similar feedback to the focus group here, by praising
the concept and presentation: “The overall concept was very impressive. In particular
the start, where you are immediately confronted with questions, the sales pitch of the
director, the fabrication of your own news item and the end with the various stories of
Based on participants’ responses the intent of the experience was well understood.
23 participants understood that the topic of the installation was related to fear-
mongering, specifically about the use of fear to influence people’s opinion about social
issues. Feedback from 6 other participants focused on the effects of fear.
When asked what could be improved, 6 participants stated that they expected a more
frightening experience: “It remains too distant, does not create a sense of fear in me”.
These expectations probably stem from the naming of the interactive installation:
Angstfabriek (fear factory) and the entrance scene, that presumably detects personal
fears, whereas the remainder of the experience focuses on given topics: climate change,
terrorism and the safety industry.
The lack of a concretely defined role became apparent by statements of 5
participants: “I did not know who I am as a participant in the experience”, “Improve
the introduction to role and context: who am I, where am I, why am I here, what can I
Participants were asked to rate their liking of the different Angstfabriek sections on
a 5-point scale (1 – I did not like it at all, 2 – I disliked it, 3 – I neither liked nor disliked
it, 4 – I liked it, 5 – I liked it a lot). Table 1 shows the results, with the creation of the
fear news video being the most preferred part and the assembly line getting an overall
Table 1. Rating of the experience sections; mean values and standard deviations (N = 32).
Entrance / Reception
Virtual Reality lab
Fear video creation
Table 2. Ratings of statements regarding the user experience via 5-point Likert scales; mean
values and standard deviations (N = 32).
Curiosity and Expectation
During the experience I felt curious and wanted to know more.
The experience was interesting.
The experience met my expectations.
Before visiting, I already knew what the Angstfabriek is about,
so I knew what to expect.
The experience got me thinking about the topic of fear-mongering.
I had already a good insight into the topic of fear-mongering.
The experience made me more critical about the safety industry.
I was familiar with the products of the safety industry.
Because of this experience I want to learn more about fear-
mongering and the safety industry.
I found the character of the director believable.
I found the character of the whistleblower believable.
After meeting the whistleblower, I felt like I was actually going
undercover in the Angstfabriek.
I could identify with the 'undercover employee' character.
I tried to sabotage the factory.
I was inspired by the experience.
I was impressed by the experience.
I found this experience to be very meaningful.
I was moved by this experience.
The experience was thought provoking.
This experience will stick with me for quite a while.
I was touched by the stories in the locker room.
Curiosity and Expectation. Participants were intrigued by the installation and wanted
to find out what it is about. Overall, they deemed it to be interesting, albeit it did not
meet all of the expectations. Only a minority knew what the experience was about
Insight. While participants stated that the installation triggered thoughts about fear-
mongering, they did not state a strong impact on their critical perception of the safety
industry. This seems to be connected to the mixed reactions towards the assembly line
interaction. On average participants were not very well informed about the safety
industry prior to the experience. Men rated their familiarity with existing safety
products (M = 3.45, SD = .93) significantly higher than female visitors (M = 2.45, SD
= 1.23), t(29) = 2.348, p = .026. Interestingly, participants did not state that their
experience with the Angstfabriek resulted in an increased interest in learning more
about the topic of fear-mongering and the safety industry. However, participants’
takeaway messages in the qualitative part of the study indicate their insights on the
importance of thinking for oneself, remaining objective, and being critical of
information received from the media. It is possible that the participants found these
insights sufficiently transformative, which may explain their lack of interest in learning
more about the topic.
Character believability. The performance of the director was overall rated as more
believable than the whistleblower’s. That poses a problem for the experience, as the
director is persuasive and in line with the messages of the corporate film. This finding
supports the opinion of the focus group that felt underwhelmed by the whistleblower
character. Interestingly, men found the character of the director (M = 4.37, SD = .65)
significantly more believable than female visitors (M = 3.55, SD = .99), t(29) = 2.156,
p = .040. This shows the importance of taking possible biases into account when
Role-identification. Identification with the new role of an undercover employee was
rated low, which supports the result from the focus group interview. Many participants
were not aware that it was possible to sabotage the experience. The analysis of the open
question “If you tried to sabotage, how did you do it?” revealed that 13 out of 32
participants tried to actively sabotage the factory by not following the instructions.
Most reported boycott strategies involved creating a neutral news clip instead of a fear
inducing one, not sending the clip, or scanning an insufficient number of products at
the assembly line. Other participants stated that they were not aware of this option. Two
exceptions are worth noting. One participant stated that he was inspired by the
director’s speech and “[...] enthusiastically went along to spread fear”. Another claimed
that he did not sabotage on purpose: “I enjoyed playing the bad guy for once”. We did
not find significant differences when comparing the experience ratings of participants
that claimed to have sabotaged with those who did not.
Personal Meaningfulness. The items of this category are based on Roth’s
measurement toolbox , which follows the taxonomy of Murray (Agency,
Immersion and Transformation) and which locates personal meaningfulness
(eudaimonic appraisal) under transformation . The results indicate a clear trend of
participants rating their experience as meaningful. More so on a cognitive than on an
emotional level. The locker room stories were deemed touching by a minority. On
average, participants gave a rather neutral rating when asked if the experience will stick
with them for a while. These findings indicate that the emotional impact could be even
Furthermore, the study revealed that the participants’ age plays a crucial role in the
rating of the experience. Age correlates significantly negatively with evoked thinking
about fear-mongering (r = -.495, p = .004), and personal meaningfulness, e.g. “I found
this experience to be very meaningful” (r = -.458, p = .008), “I was moved by the
experience” (r = -.495, p = .004), “The experience was thought provoking” (r = -.527,
p = .002). A statement of the oldest participant (age 71) gives insight to why it was not
meaningful to him: “It is not confrontational. It is too hasty and not interactive enough.
There is not enough time to consult, especially if you do not know the others in your
group.” Older participants seemed to be knowledgeable with the concept of interactive
theater as age correlates positively (r = .434, p = .013). However, visitors within the
older age range encountered difficulties when using some technological parts of the
installation, hampering a more meaningful experience.
4 Discussion and Conclusion
As a project that seeks to raise awareness of fear-mongering, the Angstfabriek is a
cleverly thought-out interactive narrative experience that was well received by the
focus group and our subsequent sample consisting of 32 participants. As a project that
is defined in terms of encouraging a more critical attitude towards the media, raising
awareness, and initiating dialogue on the topic of fear-mongering, Angstfabriek has
already partly succeeded. In order to create a more impactful or transformative
interactive narrative experience, it would benefit from better scripting of the role that
the interactors play, including the level of agency and roleplaying as the focus group
interviews revealed. Murray  refers to this design strategy as Scripting the Interactor
(StI), which casts an interactor into her role by providing context, manages expectations
and exposes opportunities for action. Roth and Koenitz  identified StI as a design
convention for interactive digital narratives, where it is commonly used as introductory
The interactive installation seems to work better with a younger audience and the
topic of fear-mongering and media literacy is both timely and relevant in an educational
context. However, the limited number of 6 concurrent participants makes it more
challenging for larger school classes to visit, as groups have to wait up to 15 minutes
for their turn. Here, digital interactive narrative experiences have a clear advantage as
they scale more easily.
For a transformative learning experience, it is crucial to allow for reflection and
discussion . Currently, this has to be self-organized by visitors. Inviting them to a
discussion round directly after the visit could be a valuable addition.
If transformation is influenced by the level of interaction in the sense of the agency
that participants experience, then one could argue that the Angstfabriek is mainly
exploratory (cf. classification model of Ryan ). While it is possible to boycott
certain tasks (create a video that is neutral instead of fear-inducing, pull out a power
cord to stop the assembly line), these actions bear no clear dramatic agency  that
significantly impacts how the plot plays out. And in the event that participants
purposely or unwittingly break with this order, actors immediately intervene to inform
them that this is not allowed. Usually, visitors of the Angstfabriek do not challenge the
actors through off-beat behavior. Inviting more roleplaying could change this, though,
which might become difficult for the experience designers to handle. In this regard,
interactive theater installations face a similar challenge as interactive digital narratives.
Aylett  describes this as the narrative paradox – the required moderation between
interactor freedom and the structured experience, which was designed for maximum
emotional impact. It is important to note that interactive narratives offer different levels
of agency and that the granting of agency by itself does not automatically guarantee a
richer user experience (cf. [22, 23]).
Dubbelman, Roth, and Koenitz  discuss the challenge of creating transformative
interactive narratives from a pedagogical perspective. Following Janet Murray , the
authors see one educational aspect of interactive digital narratives in the potential to
revisit earlier decisions by replaying. This allows to explore a topic from additional
perspectives which are not given by linear and static representations. While replaying
interactive digital narratives is usually a matter of restarting the application, it becomes
more difficult, in terms of cost, time and availability, when visiting interactive theater
presentations and physical installations that only allow for a limited number of
interactors at a time.
However, Boal  states that interactive theater is not meant to satisfy participants,
and instead suggests that “these theatrical forms create a sort of uneasy sense of
incompleteness that seeks fulfillment through real action.” (p. 120)
Practitioners therefore often endeavor to measure the efficacy of interactive theater
by asking about the medium and their long-term influence on a participant’s tendency
towards social activism . This study is therefore only a first step in evaluating the
potentially transformative effects of the Angstfabriek installation. When visitors start
to engage with the topic, their personal experience triggers an interest in seeking more
education on the subject. Whether this interest leads to action or results in nothing more
than mild curiosity is unclear.
Perhaps further study could be dedicated to measuring transformation in the sense
behavior and subsequent action, similar to the study by Steinemann et al. , which
measured the amount of money participants donated out of their participation reward
to a related cause.
Furthermore, future evaluation needs to aim at a younger, more coherent, group of
visitors, like school classes, and could include a knowledge test to measure what was
learned. The project is perfectly suited as part of an educational program, particularly
one tackling the role of media and public perception.
Thanks to Hiske Arts, founder and creative brain of Critical Mass, for involving and
supporting us in the critical evaluation of their Angstfabriek project. Thanks to the
visitors for taking the time to give insights into their experience. Thanks to the focus
group who gave their professional feedback and for approving the usage of pictures
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