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Seven interactive essays on digital nonlinear storytelling
edited by Matt Soar & Monika Gagnon

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As interactive narrative continues to develop and find itself, creators will increasingly work toward more tightly immersing participants into the emotional experience. At this moment, however, crowdsourcing provides one means for investigating how exactly interactivity engages a participant within the narrative.

This investigation into the function of crowdsourcing reveals an additional concern: to what extent does successful interactive narrative rely on the new media literacy of its participants? Given the shift from traditional relationships of syntagmatic and paradigmatic engagement that Manovich outlines, is a deeper understanding of the grammar of interactive narrative needed for the participant to fully connect? Or, like the early days of cinema, is it simply a matter of time before everyday users adapt and intuitively figure out the language?

Crowdsourcing helps to bridge this gap in interactive narrative literacy by explicitly engaging the participant and drawing upon their personal creations and experiences to underscore the importance of their role in creating meaning for the work. Whether it’s a politically profound contribution like documentary footage of the Egyptian uprisings, or an animated frame lasting a fraction of a second, crowdsourced works ask participants to look at others’ contributions as they would their own, to see themselves in others. As they navigate the narrative, they’ve already been provided with a framework for understanding because they’ve participated in the work; they’ve helped create the narrative language it uses. They’re the authors and the audience.

In these works, interactivity allows for elements in the database to be called up in an order determined by the participant, creating a dialectic among the seemingly disparate data objects. This dialectic bridges the gap between syntagmatic and paradigmatic semiotic frameworks within interactive narrative. Crowdsourcing provides the emotional connection that enables deeper immersion.

Part of the shift toward a more emotionally engaged interactivity involves adaptation and literacy on the part of the user/viewer – a willingness to rethink what it means to participate in a narrative, especially one that privileges the paradigmatic over the syntagmatic. As the production of narrative changes, so must its audience – and this may signal a turning point in online consumption from one that is ephemeral, bite-sized, quick, and fleeting, to an experience that is longer, deeper, and more demanding of time. And, of course, this shift is one of the major challenges for producers of interactive narrative.

Interactive narrative, on the other hand, often involves treating the work more like a book, with a patient commitment to a long-form experience (a slow Internet, as it were). As such, interactive narrative can be consumed in pieces, returned to, browsed over, “read” chapter by chapter. But this sort of engagement will require an evolutionary jump, and even a fervent attempt at a new literacy, on the part of audiences. Participation in the form of crowdsourcing helps to provide a bridge for audiences on the way to this new model.
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