Reading: Interactive Stories and the Audience: Why Empathy is Important

Stacy Hand and Duane Varan investigated interactive narratives potential to increase “immersive and transformative experiences” by conducting two audience studies: first, testing and interactive drama for television and, second, testing interactive narrative-based advertisements. In both of the audience studies, they found empathy was “consistently and significantly increased by the addition of interactivity” in comparison to their linear counterparts.

In their article, they outline three schools of thought regarding interactive narrative: 1) they don’t work 2) they only work for certain people 3) interactive narratives only work when interactive is encased within a narrative structure. (See Fig. 1)

They acknowledge that a common struggle for interactive fiction is the balance between interactivity and narrative. The “yo-yo” model depicted above is similar to the beaded structure IF writers tend to use anyways. Using a beaded structure helps make writing IF more manageable since the plots come back together, rather than having strands of plots diverging out of control.

They also refer to Murray’s, “Hamlet on the Holodeck,” where he hypothesizes that interactive narrative will improve entertainment through transformation narrative, immersion, agency, and empathy. Through interaction the audience is able to “internalize and personalize” the narrative, resulting in an experience which effects them on a much deeper level compared to a linear narrative. Immersion refers to the audience’s feeling of being submerged into the narrative. Agency is the ability of the audience to change the narrative. Finally, empathy is defined as the audience imagining characters’ lives, thoughts, and beliefs “as though they were one’s own.”

In their two studies, they tested the “yo-yo” model of interactive fiction. Each audience research study included 180 participants (a total of 360 participants). To measure differences in empathy, they asked participants to respond to statements such as “I feel that I am a lot like Nick (the main character); I wanted Nick to do well during the story; I felt sorry for Nick” using a Likert scale. Their findings indicate that interactive narrative fiction has the ability to “heighten audience empathy.”

Hand and Varan’s research provides exciting evidence towards the effectiveness of interactive narrative as a means to deepen a person’s empathy. A concern of mine has been if players will be able to empathize with the characters they play, especially if they differ from their own identities. Reading this article encourages me to continue exploring IF as the primary type of gameplay in my project.


Hand, S., & Varan, D. (2009). Interactive stories and the audience: Why empathy is important. Computers in Entertainment (CIE)7(3), 39.

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