The Interactive Audience

Curator's Note

The rise of digital media technologies, "new media", is heralded as the impetus for needing to reconceptualize how we understand and study the people who engage with them.  These people were "the audience" of old – television viewers, filmgoers, radio listeners, newspaper readers.  However, the new media are interactive, designed to require some type and amount of activity on the people's part to access and/or progress the content housed within the technology.  As time and technology advanced, audience reception studies and media studies have discussed how to alter or adapt research approaches to study interactive audience practices and paradigm.  

Around the world, these scholars have been innovating methods and methodologies for understanding the before, during and after engagement between the interactive audience and the interactive media.  Scholars have reconceptualized traditional research approaches by tweaking aspects that seem out-dated in the modern world.  Scholars have adapted research approaches from other fields, finding commonalities with other disciplines' procedures for studying similar phenomena.  Scholars have created wholly new research approaches grounded in the particulars of the emergent practices and paradigm. 

While a post-doc at Roskilde University in Denmark, I conducted research on people's sense-making their engagement with virtual worlds, video games, and films.  I argued there exist two types of interactivity: interpretive and physical.  Sense-making would be a form of interpretive interactivity.  To measure such a phenomenon, I adapted and altered methods and methodologies that have preceded and surrounded me.  The video attached to this essay demonstrates this collusion of approaches with an example of an experimental session.  In such a session, a participant was asked to engage with a media product – in this case, a Nintendo Wii game – and to talk aloud and be interviewed about his reactions and responses to the media product.  This study reconceptualized the experiment to provide more focus on interpretive interactivity as measured by combining survey, talk aloud protocols, adapted from user-centered design studies, and interviewing protocols, adapted from Dervin's Sense-Making Methodology. 

The interactive audience sings a siren song of possibility: the emerging provides a chaotic yet fertile space within which to innovate on what has been and what could be.  Our quest to understand the interactive audience provides the chance to rethink the audience, audience reception studies, even the media itself, and to stand with what we are thinking now and gaze back to reconceptualize what we were thinking then.


This is quite an interesting post - thanks! One of the things I often think about when examining the interactive audience is to what degree the audience needs to learn how to "read" interactive media, in the same way that audiences have had to learn (or have not succeeded in learning) to read film or TV. I'm thinking of "big picture" literacy here - the kind of literacy that has built up over decades as media have evolved.

Is some amount of interactive literacy required before audiences can really fully engage, and interpret, interactive works?

 That is also a question I am interested in, this idea of literacy and learning curves for interactive versus non-interactive (or at least non-physically interactive) media.  Because we do have to learn how to read books: we teach children how to read the symbols that are letters, how those letters form words, how those words have ascribed meaning, and how those words put together in particular linear pathways produce/relay larger meaning.  We assume we do not need to teach how to "read" television, film, radio, video games, and so forth because they are either assumed to be passive experiences -- you just take in what you are given like you receive sight and sound from the world around you -- or to be interactive experiences -- you will learn what you have to learn because it helps you to learn.  

However, rhetoric studies have taught us plenty about how the construction of images, and even sounds, can produce particular meanings that we may not be aware of with out critical engagement with the text.  The same is true for the meanings encoded into interactive texts.  And there is also a need to learn how to engage with interactive media: the learning curve of what it is you have to do to the media technology in order to access and/or progress the content.  Reading books has a learning curve.  Watching a film has a learning curve.  Playing a video game has a learning curve.

And the learning curve can vary depending on the type of technology, and even the type of content.  Watching a complex film like "Pulp Fiction" or "A Scanner Darkly" or "Pi" can take more learning of how to read the text in order to engage with the content.  Playing a table tennis on a Wii versus with the Kinect or an old Atari can have different learning curves because of how we have to learn to "read" the interface to make the controls work.

So these are all interesting questions that the rise of the interactive have led us to have, and not just looking at "new media" but in reconsidering how we were considering "old media".

I find it fascinating how our struggle to, as CarrieLynn puts it, “rethink the audience...” has manifested itself in definitional challenges.  While CarrieLynn puts “the audience” in quotes; Jennifer does the same with “read,” reflecting our collective uncertainty about how to deal with many of the shifts of media convergence.I have certainly confronted these very same issues when writing about “magazines," as today's "magazines" don’t neccessarily share the historical properties of the medium.  

Although word choices may seem merely semantic, there are certain power dynamics underpinning them (Sonia Livingstone, for example, has noted the evolution from “audience” to “users”). I'm also reminded of Dallas Smythe's idea of the audience as "commodity." I wonder if the way we choose to define the audience (including "participants" and "consumers") might play a role in the reconceptualization CarrieLynn speaks of.  



 We do see a lot of that semantic freedom -- or confusion -- these days, as the boundaries between online and offline have become more porous (to use the gaps idea that Tom Boellstorff spoke of at last weeks AoIR conference in Seattle).  I know I fight the idea of categorizing media based on what seems to be an outdated bifurcation of old versus new.  But the challenge is, do we see these semantic issues as cases of confusion, as disorder, as we must determine THE way to have the words defined, or do we consider them to be opportunities, to be instances where we are facing the freedom of changing the paradigm to perhaps make it more reflective of the reality as it is constantly becoming...

Also, in regards to the idea of how we define the audience, my piece at IJoC on gameplay marketing was an attempt to address the issue of what is the audience now if it is not a "commodity".

This is a really fascinating post and video. I'm really interested at the idea of you both playing together as well as you recording your subjects playing and what they are playing. It provides an awful lot of rich data, both in terms of watching what the player is doing on and off-screen, and in terms of what he is saying. 

It did rather remind me of some of Helen Wood's work on filming people watching (or rather interacting) with the television, and so, for me, raised that thorny question of exactly what we mean by interactivity, linking in to Brooke's point about terminology above. 

It also raised lots of interesting questions about where and how the footage was shot. It looks like this is in a college room, rather than the participants own home, and I was struck that the participant was standing (I usually play the Wii sitting down). I'd be interested to hear Carrie Lynn's thoughts about what kind of effect (if any) this might have on the research findings.

 Part of the study was to also have the person record reactions to watching a film: and I wished I had filmed it as Wood had done.  The next time I try this study, the methods will be far more exacting across the sessions.  In regard to what is interactivity, I did write a piece on this issue, using this study to argue against the idea of using "interactivity" as a boundary characteristic to separate the "new" and the "old" media.  Obviously I think there are differences in the type and amount of interactivity required by the different media technologies, but the fact is that they all require some, including physical and interpretive forms.

As for the video in this piece, that was an example of how the sessions were conducted: it was not actual footage from a session.  It is a video made to show at presentations how the study was conducted, without the risk of jeopardising my participants' anonymity.  In the actual study, there was a chair provided, and no one choose to stand up while playing the Wii.  Since it was not a sports or fitness game played, sitting seemed to be the standard way people engaged with the system -- perhaps because that is what they had learned to be the way one plays a video game.  Even if they have not played much with consoles, that style of engagement has become imbued in our culture now that video games have a history of three decades.  

Now, that is a theory, one I hadn't considered at the time, but I think it gets back to the point the first respondent to this piece made, regarding the idea of literacy and learning interactive media.  Like other media products -- technology and content -- we come to learn how to engage with it through direct experience, instruction, and/or observation.  We are not naturally hardwired to know how to read a book, sit in a movie theatre, play a video game, and so forth.  And the more the truly physically interactive media become integrated into our pop cultures and mainstream cultures, then perhaps the more we learn what to do with them without ever really having much direct experience with them.

 It's great to see others considering concepts such as interactivy and presence/social presence/telepresence as user-side variables rather than technology-side ones. Certianly our tools can help us feel more or less involved in a mediated environment, but one's interpretations of the environment (at least to me) are key to understanding one's virtual experience (or arguable, simply their experience). 

One aspect of this process that I have been considering lately is the notion of task load (a function of cognitive demand). When I think of Mori's uncanny valley - the notion that increasing realistic portrayals can actually be intepreted as less real - I often wonder if the explanatory mechanism is that we as users are being forced to dually process fantasy and reality; that is, we are forced to both think about our fantasy environment and understand and accept it as well as deal with the cognitively-demanding dissonance in realizing that our fantasy environment is not reality. After all, we are cognitive misers and simply put too much thinking will disrupt our (virtual) experiences! In other words, as the vitual becomes more real, it also be comes too demanding - after all, we don't think about reality in the real world. 

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