Active Participants vs Active Observers in Interactive Fiction

Certain interactive fiction pieces have differing effects on the reader based on their structure, platform, and  use of visuals and language. These aspects of the piece come together to give the reader a sense of what Carolyn Petit in Power to the People describes as “active participation” or “active observation.”

Petit discusses the implications of Twine and some of the different platforms Twine could support. From interactive games, to interactive experiences, Twine allows for new influential literary experiences. Interactive fiction pieces that involve active participation may have different social value than those that place the reader into a more observational role. Both can come together to help one understand the experiences of others, or even influence one’s own future experiences.

Twine games allow the user to influence the events of the story and tend to place the player “into” the experiences. Typically, they are written in first person and you, the character, are making the decisions. To compliment a first person narrative, sensory inputs are often described in great detail, further placing the reader into the situation. The user becomes invested in the outcome of the game as they feel their own decisions influence a storyline that suddenly becomes their own.

Active observation literature also places the reader in the experience, but limits their role on the events of the story. The story is told allowing for the reader to explore different thoughts, events, or details more closely so that they may learn more about the situation. Although the reader can’t change the events, they can choose that aspects of the text they want to engage in. Giving the reader the ability to engage in the text in different ways, adds to the sense that the reader is observing the situation in close detail and learning about the storyline as they experience it.

These types of textual experiences can be valuable when understanding mental illness and the difficulties of dealing with them. Petit mentions Vacuum, by Travis Megill; a story told from the perspective of a mother of a Schizophrenic. The active observation experience allows the reader to dig deeper into the mother’s thoughts and memories as she interacts with her son. The experience exposes the reader to the concerns and feeling of the mother in ways that allow them to empathize and gain a new understanding of those dealing with mental illness.

In Gavin Inglis’ Hana Feels, the reader interacts with Hana, a character struggling with self-harm. Through conversations as Hana’s boss, friend, or a help hotline operator, one must respond to Hana’s experience and mental state. Granting the reader the ability to choose how to respond to Hana gives them a sense of responsibility over her wellbeing as if they were one of her friends. In the project description Inglis describes how he knew he was achieving his goal when test readers felt guilty for decisions that increased Hana’s stress levels. He wanted the readers to connect emotionally with Hana and feel connected with her emotions and well being. Those feelings may be vital to understanding how to interact with people dealing with mental illness. Hana Feels can serve as a model for how/ or how not to respond to real life situations.

Through both active participation and active observation, readers can gain a better understanding of certain social groups or social interactions by placing the reader into an experience they may have never had exposure to. By simulating the realities of the world around us through interactive fiction, everyone can gain new perspectives and appreciation for others.

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