What are the intersections of digital media and narrative studies?

  • Authenticity vs Sentimentality in Digital Storytelling

    Daniela Gachago's picture
    by Daniela Gachago — Cape Peninsula University of Technology 2 Comments view

    I am PHD student at the School of Education at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. My study investigates a digital storytelling project that we started in 2010 in a teacher education programme in the Western Cape. In this project final-year pre-service teacher education students explore critical incidents that impacted on their journey to becoming teachers.

    As we reflected on this project we realised that it had become - although designed as facilitating individual students’ own reflection and growth - what Benmayor calls a ‘social pedagogy’, a pedagogy that approaches learning as a collaborative process (2008, p. 198), allowing for collaborative and social learning in diverse classrooms through sharing and disclosure and initiating a ‘process of bonding and cross cultural alliance’ (p. 198). Students complain how uncomfortable they felt to share their past with students they didn’t know well and would usually not engage with. But reading on Boler and Zembylas' (2003)  "pedagogy of discomfort" convinced us that being out of your comfort zone is the only way to engage with the "other" in a way that can lead to a change of deep seated assumptions and beliefs and the way students view each other.

    The specific focus of my PHD is the role of emotions in this process. While there is no doubt that the personal content and authenticity of digital stories make them very engaging, there is also something about the often 'exaggerated tug on emotions' as Joe Lambert puts it (2013), that makes me very uncomfortable. This YouTube video exemplifies my feelings about what I would call the inherent  'risk of sentimentality' in the digital storytelling genre.

    What I have seen is that with emotions also comes the risk of sentimentality, of ranking oppressions (a colleague of mine called it the 'olympics of the oppressed', or ‘who can tell the sadder story?’) and of sentimental reactions to stories of hardship, bringing up emotions of guilt, pity in the privileged story listener and anger, resentment on the part of the storyteller. However, researchers in this field of digital storytelling, such as Burgess defend this sentimentality in digital stories (2006: 210):

    Somewhat paradoxically from a critical perspective, it is the very qualities that mark digital stories as uncool, conservative, and ideologically suspect – ‘stock’ tropes, nostalgia, even sentimentality – that give them the power of social connectivity, while the sense of authentic self-expression that they convey lowers the barriers to empathy.

    This is an example of one of this year’s students’ stories: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hnI58rzGb_8&list=UUm3GeRbRnpn-pkOTtaHSyOg

    Are this story’s raw emotions engaging the audience or putting it off? Does this raw display of emotions make us uncomfortable? Is this what Lambert would call an exaggerated tug on emotions? Or just the plain truth? Is there a role in teaching and learning for this kind of emotional display? Where does authenticity end and sentimentality start? Should we avoid this sentimentality or do we need it? What happens if these very personal stories leave the safe space of a digital storytelling workshop and are shared and published on YouTube? Any thoughts, ideas, suggestions on this?



    Benmayor, Rina. 2008. “Digital Storytelling as a Signature Pedagogy for the New Humanities.” Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 7: 188–204. doi:10.1177/1474022208.

    Boler, Megan, and Michalinos Zembylas. 2003. “Discomforting Truths: The Emotional Terrain of Understanding Difference.” In Pedagogies of Difference: Rethinking Education for Social Change, edited by P. Trifonas, 110–136. New York: RoutledgeFalmer

    Burgess, J., 2006. Hearing ordinary voices: cultural studies, vernacular creativity and digital storytelling. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 20(2), pp.201–214.

    Zembylas, Michalinos. 2008. “Trauma, Justice and the Politics of Emotion: The Violence of Sentimentality in Education.” Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 29 (1) (March): 1–17.

    Image on front page by Lucas and avaliable on Flickr. 

  • The Ever-Changing Zombie Narrative

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    by Alfredo Torres — Old Dominion University 2 Comments view

    One of the interesting aspects about the modern day zombie genre is the representation of the monsters in the artifacts in which they are presented. Zombies have represented more than just flesh-eating ghouls to the legions of horror fans that have catapulted the genre into a $5 billion industry (1). However, the course of the conversation had always been laid out for the zombie fan through the direction that the creators of the artifacts provided. This left little room for dialog between those who provided the content of the market, and those who would buy the books and see the films. The zombie fan has little recourse if he/she wanted to continue to enjoy the object of their fandom. It was either they participated in what was offered, or be excluded from the debate. The voice of the individual was lost because they did not have access to the community at large. Enter modern day technology.

    Through the use of common media spaces and social networks, the average fan of the zombie genre can now participate in the dialog and become active in shaping the future direction of the zombie sub-genre. Walter Fisher’s narrative theory “proposes that human beings are inherently storytellers who have a natural capacity to recognize the coherence and fidelity of stories they tell and experience” (2). Today’s technology has allowed for the fans to tell their own zombie narratives. The ability for authors to self-publish their own literary works or for filmmakers to use fund raising sites like IndieGoGo or Kickstarter to fund their films has influenced the direction that the genre has taken.

    The modern zombie genre has returned to its independent roots. Today’s technology has allowed the narrative to return to the public and they now direct its future. Some examples of this phenomenon are the podcast We’re Alive, an audio docu-drama in the style of the 1940's radio serials that details the struggles of a group of survivors of a zombie outbreak (3), or the novel The Reaper Virus, which started out as a set of blogs by author Nathan Barnes. Barnes self-published the book and was offered a writing contract by Pemuted Press, a publishing company that specializes in horror-related novels (4). Fans are now able to inject their vision of what constitutes a zombie into the public discussion of the zombie genre. The zombie narrative is changing and it is technology that will allow the fans to dictate its future.

    1. Ogg, J. (2000, October 10). Zombies worth over $5 billion to economy. Retrieved from http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/45079546/ns/businessstocks and economy/t/zombies-worth-over-billion-economy/.

    2. Fisher, W. R.(1984). Narration as a human communication paradigm: The case of public moral argument. Communication monographs, 51(1), 1-22. doi: 10.1080/03637758409390180.

    3. http://www.zombiepodcast.com/

    4. http://permutedpress.com/

    Image on front page by juco and available on Flickr. 

  • Digital Mapping and Travel Narratives

    Jordan Von Cannon's picture
    by Jordan Von Cannon — Louisiana State University 4 Comments view

    My response to this question begins with my initial foray into the GIS world as an English Ph.D. candidate working on narrative structures and the 19th-century American city novel.  At the beginning of fall semester, I signed up for an ArcGIS class, offered through the Geography Department, in order to learn the necessary skills for a digital project I’ve wanted to complete for some time now: mapping a nineteenth-century American author's trip abroad from 1839-1840. After researching other DH map projects, I embarked on this project with two central research questions: How would mapping Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s travels reveal the way she (and to a greater extent antebellum America) imagined Europe? And, within those “Old World” cities, what spaces does she spend time writing about (for example, in London, she draws a lengthy comparison between London’s parks and New York’s boulevards)?

    I’ve spent the last few months compiling data for my Arc GIS map, and I’ve been particularly struck by the way my reading focus and analytic strategies have changed as I attempt to “mine” this text for data.  I realized that during my first reading of Sedgwick's Letters from Abroad to Kindred at Home (1841), I paid close attention to her impressions and descriptions of the social and literary circles in which she moved while on the continent. However, now using the digital version of this text on Google Books to track her trip from city to village to historic site, etc., I'm forced to consider this narrative in several new ways so as to more effectively organize my data for a digital map that will give significance to both the historical timeline of the trip and the narrative space she devotes to different stops along the way.  

    For example, the letters are sometimes dated inconsistently, and while a four-day journey may be described in a single paragraph, an afternoon excursion down the Rhine in a steamer may be described over several pages—changing the representation of narrative spatial time. As a result, I’ve been wrestling with new research questions such as how to convey, through a digital map, that greater physical distance traveled may actually occupy very little space, or text-time in the narrative itself. As well, place-names take on far greater importance in the text now than they did before.  As I attempt to locate the exact longitude and latitude position of 19th-century hotels (some no longer in existence), I rely on Sedgwick’s description of city sites visible from her rooms (and mentions of these hotels in other 19th-century travel narratives) in order to approximate a location within the city.  

    I believe digital media and narrative studies can intersect in interesting and exciting ways, but, at the same time, I don’t necessarily know what these different intersections look like.  More importantly, I’m still learning how these digital tools can change not only the way we read and digest narratives, but what we perceive to be the narrative(s) of a particular text.  I hope through this project I can discover even more ways to represent and imagine narratives with the help of digital tools.  I’m really interested in how others have experimented with incorporating narratology and spatial studies in their own projects. In particular, how have digital tools or technologies changed the way you read narratives; and how have you effectively researched and presented narratives through these kinds of tools and technologies? 

    Image on front page by Eric Fischer and available on Flickr. 

  • Storymaking in the Digital Archive

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    by Janine Utell — Widener University 1 Comment view

    Digital archives transform the notion of archival space as well as practices of storymaking by providing readers and writers with opportunities for recombining and renarrativizing around time, space, gaps, epistemology, and affective response.  My particular interest resides in the possibilities for narrativization of intimate lives through the digital archive, and the implications for the narratological study of life writing.   How might we (re)consider life writing and the digital archive through narratology?

    This might be considered a new permutation of what Pedro Ponce referred to earlier in this cluster as the “malleability” of digital space.   First, digital archives radically transform the archival space.  That space is no longer one which reifies the arkhē, or origin, and it is no longer one constituted solely by authority.  Rather, the user is granted authority over the materials, and the authority of author to make of the materials the narrative he or she will.  The originary moment is brought into the now, remediated through shifting temporalities, causalities, and progressions.  Let it be noted that I am not thinking here of the ways that digitization has changed the material nature of the archive via specifics of hardware and platform (see Kirschenbaum 2013).  What I’d like to suggest is that the reader’s work in the digital archive alters her relationship to the materiality of the artifact, its existence in space, place and time, thereby activating the potential for other forms of storymaking.

    As the user becomes imbricated in the nexus of materials that make the archive, she herself becomes a maker.  Much thinking about life writing in the digital age has focused on social media (Podnieks 2009), but digital archives have the potential to alter the ways we narrativize lives in other, serendipitous ways.  Take a basic narratological function:  progression.  One might read the letters of, say, Thomas and Jane Carlyle, in chronological order, observing causality and the web of emotional and intimate life as it was constructed through private exchange.  The narrative progresses through stages shaped by the publication in print, or inventory, arranging, and cataloging in the archive.  But perhaps I want to construct my own version of the story of the Carlyles’ marriage.  I do a variety of searches, I make my own judgments, I order the material to make the story that needs to be made. 

    The digital alters our experience of access, and of materiality.  In the archive, we gain access to the physical object, perhaps a holograph letter, which might also give us access to the corporeality of its maker. Take, again, the Carlyle archive; a snippet of a letter from 21 May 1834 is shown here. 


    In the case of this particular example, the text of the letter is reproduced without the corporeal presence of the hand (except the rather ghostly presence haunting the page background:  might we not also theorize design as we do space [Freshwater 2003]?).  The bodily presence made possible by letters which are themselves the effect of absence is here transformed by the digital space.  Daniel Punday has called for a “corporeal narratology” (2003).  If we rethink through the digital the materiality of the archive and the stories it makes possible, how might we rethink the materiality of those who made it?  And how do we rethink the origin of those stories:  does it begin with them, or us?


    Freshwater, Helen.  “The Allure of the Archive.”  Poetics Today 24, no. 4 (2003).  729-758.

    Kirschenbaum, Matthew.  “The .txtual Condition:  Digital Humanities, Born-Digital Archives, and the Future Literary.”  DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly 7, no. 1 (2013) http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/7/1/000151/000151.html

    Podnieks, Elizabeth.  “‘New Biography for a New Millenium.”  a/b:  Auto/Biography Studies 24, no. 1 (2009).  1-14.

    Punday, Daniel.  Narrative Bodies:  Toward a Corporeal Narratology.  New York:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

  • An Oral Storytelling Paradigm For Our Cyber Village Squares

    Laura Lisabeth's picture
    by Laura Lisabeth — St. Johns University 5 Comments view

    The Arabian Nights: Tales Of 1001 Nights1 began in the oral storytelling tradition, taking shape in dusty village squares through the verbal interplay between storyteller and community.  In contrast to our romantic tradition of a text as fixed, an oral narrative is a constantly changing co-creation.  Shahrazad and King Shahriyar represent this recognizably social medium in a particularly exigent way, as nightly she invents another tale forestalling her death, and the murderous King gradually revises the violent narrative about women that has led him to want to kill every one in the kingdom.

    Today we engage in many cyber village squares. The character of Shahrazad and the oral storytelling tradition have things to teach us about how our cultural narratives might go forward in purposeful, generative ways. The keys to meaningful uses of social media lie in the co-creative process and in the way Shahrazad embodies the change she wants to effect. In what ways do we use social media to speak back, to rewrite unjust narratives as Shahrazad does?

     Young women in my literature classes at first interpret Shahrazad’s narrative tactics not as subversive proto-feminism but as a non-threatening performance of beauty and brains. They conflate her with Disney’s film Aladdin, a confection that gave them princess Jasmine, who always comes up in affectionate terms, bringing memories of Jasmine toys and clothes. The typical Disney princess not only doesn’t shake up the patriarchal order, she has her own commercial empire. Having begun to learn their own narratives as women here, where is the media magic carpet taking these students now? 

    Successful social spaces like Etsy and Pinterest spin complex narratives for women.   The disembodiment of cyberspace has lead to the popularity of social sites with a traditional feminine home craft emphasis that recalls the analog2, creates feel-good nostalgia, and purports to empower women economically while wrapping women’s stories about their lives in a curatorial frenzy reminiscent of my students’ early Disney princess collections.  In an article about the “Etsy moment,”3 Susan Luckman points to this human need for embodiment in the face of the digital: “…handmade objects are imbrued with the sense of touch and therefore offer the sense of the ‘authentic’ in an inauthentic world.”4  Luckman expresses concern about Etsy’s emphasis on women’s creative work in the home as reinforcing “the invisibility of women’s labor” as well as serving utopian middle class consumer values “…quench(ing)  the desire for genuine change.”5  According to Bridget Crawford of the blog Feminist Law Professors, “the sugar ‘n spice act counters next to no expectations.”6  Etsy’s kind of “cupcake feminism” is simply more girl than grrl.

    How can we characterize digital narrative tactics? In our social media environment of instantaneous response, Shahrazad’s narrative tactics seem ponderously reflective. (It takes her 1001 nights to effect a change!)  Where are our places for reflective social exchange and purposeful engagement with dominant narratives?  How do we bring our bodies, our gendered, racial, cultural identities into cyberspace in authentic ways that tell stories to generate change instead of to quench it? How will we move the mind of the King?



    1 The version I refer to here is The Arabian Nights: Tales Of 1001 Nights, Malcolm C. Lyons, trans. Penguin Classics. 2007.

    2 Susan Luckman, “The Aura Of the Analog in a Digital Age,” Critical Studies Review. 19:1, http://epress.lib.uts.edu.au/journals/index.php/csrj/index. pp. 249-70.

    3 Luckman, p. 255.

    4 ibid.

    5 Luckman, p. 264-265.

    6 Bridget Crawford, “Who’s Afraid of Cupcake Feminism?” http://www.feministlawprofessors.com/2012/02/whos-afraid-cupcake-feminism/

    Image on front page by Gwydion M. Williams and available on Flickr. 

  • Twitter Conversation on Digital Narratology

    Jamie Henthorn's picture
    by Jamie Henthorn — Catawba College view

    Below is our Twitter conversation on digital narratology from last week. 

  • A Challenge to Narratology - How to Understand Interactive Digital Narrative

    Hartmut Koenitz's picture
    by Hartmut Koenitz — University of Georgia 3 Comments view

    Established narratology and interactive digital narratives (IDN) are uneasy companions. There certainly is narrative in interactive digital forms; however the difference in material basis in comparison to earlier narrative media poses a challenge to conventional narrative theory. New theoretical approaches are necessary to answer these challenges.

    Janet Murray (1997) clearly establishes the difference to earlier media forms by describing the specific affordances - procedural, participatory, spatial, and encyclopedic - and phenomenological qualities - agency, immersion, and transformation – of digital media. The first two are the constituting elements of what is often referred to as interactivity, and they most clearly mark the difference to earlier media forms. Instead of a permanently static artifact in the form of a book, or the released final cut of a movie, there is a malleable, dynamic, reactive and at times generative system, infused by her creator with narrative potential, but waiting for the user to interact, to press a virtual button, to choose a character, to start a conversation, to move within a virtual world.

    This need for the user to do something in the first place, and to continue interacting in order to generate an output, a walkthrough, is another distinguishing factor for interactive and video game narrative. An IDN needs to be instantiated to exist as a fully realized experience; else it is only narrative potential. The instantiation happens as the result of an interactive process that includes the computer system and the reader turned interactor. It is this instantiated product of an IDN system that can be recorded and that can analyzed with the toolset of established narratology.

    However, important aspects are not covered in this way and the analysis is incomplete. First, an IDN system contains the potential for many different outcomes and the question remains how many instantiations are necessary to provide a complete, or at least adequate object for analysis. How many times do you need to play Michael Joyce’s hypertext fiction Afternoon, A Story (1991) to be sure of an exhaustive understanding? And how about Quantic Dream’s interactive thriller Heavy Rain (2010) or Telltale Games’s interactive horror narrative The Walking Dead (2012) ?

    Another question left unanswered in this way concerns what is actually manifest in terms of narrative in the IDN system. In other words - if fabula/story and sjuzet/plot exist in the instantiated product, how can we describe and analyze the narrative content and structure of an IDN system? What is it that comes before and contains potential story and potential plot?

    Furthermore, looking at the product alone is incomplete by itself; an IDN as a concrete artifact is software and hardware first. Then, there is an interactive process as a second element, before the instantiated product, as the final part. A full narrative analysis of an interactive digital narrative must account for these additional elements. I have proposed (Koenitz 2010) a theoretical framework that includes these aspects of IDN (see Koenitz et al. 2013 for how the framework can be integrated with other approaches). Based on Murray affordances and phenomenological qualities, Herman’s (2002) view of narrative as a cognitive structure, and Ascott’s theory of cybernetic art (1964), it takes system, process and product as the constituting elements. Protostory designates the content of the system, while narrative design denotes the structure. Narrative vectors describe micro-structures within the narrative design, roughly equivalent to plot points. In addition, this specific view of IDN takes additional elements as integrative to protostory – amongst them environment definitions such as spatial design of the virtual world, the rule systems (physics system, scoring, society rules), graphical and procedural assets, and in this way makes these components of interactive digital narrative available for analysis.

    This specific framework also has a practical application as the ontological basis for the Advanced Stories Authoring and Presentation System (ASAPS) (Koenitz 2011, Koenitz & Chen 2012), an authoring tool that has been used to create over 80 narratives so far. In this way, both theoretical enquiry and practical experiments are joined in a tight feedback loop. This methodology is befitting the continuously developing expressive forms of narrative in interactive digital media. 



    Murray, J. (1997). Hamlet on the holodeck: The future of narrative in cyberspace. New York: The Free Press.

    Joyce, M. (1991). Afternoon, a story. [Hypertext fiction]. Watertown, Eastgate Systems

    Heavy Rain. [Video game]. Paris, Quantic Dream, 2010.

    The Walking Dead [Video game]. San Rafael, Telltale Games

    Koenitz, H.: (2010) Towards a Theoretical Framework for Interactive Digital Narrative In R. Aylett et al. (Eds.): ICIDS 2010, LNCS 6432, pp. 176–185, Berlin, Springer-Verlag.

    Koenitz, H., Haahr, M., Ferri, G. and Sezen, T.: (2013) First Steps Towards a Unified Theory for Interactive Digital Narrative, Transactions on Edutainment X (Special Issue), LNCS 7775, pp 20-35, Springer 2013 Berlin, Springer-Verlag.

    Herman, D. (2002). Story Logic: Problems and Possibilities of Narrative. Lincoln, Nebraska: U of Nebraska Press.

    Ascott, R. (1964). The Construction of Change. Cambridge Opinion, 41, 37-42.

    ASAPS home page, http://advancedstories.net

    Koenitz, H.: (2011) Extensible Tools for Practical Experiments in IDN – The Advanced Stories Authoring and Presentation System. In Si, M., Thue, D., André, E. et al. (Eds.): ICIDS 2011, LNCS 7069, pp. 79-85, Berlin, Springer-Verlag.

    Koenitz, H., and Chen, K.-J. (2012) Genres, Structures and Strategies in Interactive Digital Narratives – Analyzing a Body of Works Created in ASAPS, In Oyarzun, D., Peinado, P., Young, M. R., Elizalde, A., Méndez, G. (Eds.): ICIDS 2012, LNCS 7648, pp. 84-95, Springer 2012 Berlin, Springer-Verlag.


    Image on front page by Matt Saunders and available on Flickr. 

  • Post-narratology: A case for object-oriented narrative game studies

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    by Dominic Arsenault — Université de Montréal view

    I recently wrote a chapter for the forthcoming Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies(1), sexily titled “Narratology”. Writing this piece gave me a chance to reflect on the work being done on narrative and narration in game studies, which happens to fall across two camps following the narrative/narration divide. Following film narratologist André Gaudreault’s two strands of narratology(2), there is a narratology of contents, dedicated to the study of stories, characters, themes or plot devices, rather independently of their telling (narratives as objects), and a narratology of expression, concerned with the expressive properties of different media and their intrinsic narrative potential (narration as a process). Here’s a nice but schematic table, because internets:

    Studies of/by/done…

    Narratology of contents

    Narratology of expression


    Narratives as objects (extrinsic narrativity)

    Narration as a process (intrinsic narrativity)


    Stories, characters, themes or plot devices

    Expressive properties of media


    Normative / evaluative studies

    Definitional / theoretical studies


    Narrative designers, practice-oriented researchers, and game critics

    Game scholars interested in narratology or from a theoretical background

    (Where? and When? are, of course, up for grabs. But I wouldn’t circumscribe them too narrowly just yet.)

    The first often lends itself to normative inquiries, where contents can be evaluated according to their effect on the player, or in respect to ideal or typical forms. By and large, the study of contents (extrinsic narrativity) has been laid forth in game criticism and review, or in practical, hands-on game writing handbooks( nchor3), usually authored by game writers or researchers in design or practice-oriented research. The second deals with theoretical questions, such as the ever-popular “what is a narrative”, or “in what ways do games renew narrativity”, and game studies scholars with a more theoretical approach have almost entirely studied game narration from the expressive properties of video games, trying to identify an intrinsic narrativity to gameplay rather than examining select cases of storytelling or structures of interactive narrative. The rising popularity of transmedia narratology provides a nice illustration of this phenomenon.

    In so doing, we (I include myself in this group) often attempt to derive some Grand Principle of Game Narrativity out of our case studies, thinking (or wishing) to achieve a unitary model applicable to all cases. But the diversity of games may mean that “what they have in common may in fact be rather less interesting or important than the ways in which they differ”( nchor4). As Rune Klevjer pointed out( nchor5), game studies suffer from a curious lack of genre studies, which could benefit us as a way of linking the too-broad with the too-specific. Narratology cannot be envisioned as a viable or productive framework for studying every single game. However, it is a relevant analytical frame for a wide variety of game genres and analytic purposes.

    I currently see two promising ways in which narrative game research could productively bridge the contents/expression, object/process divide:

    • Studying particular narrative figures or tropes. Two of them, off the top of my head:
                - The narrative integration of the fail/retry cycles in games. Something Juul has touched on briefly with his Donkey Kong example(6), but without treating it as a case of reduction ad absurdum, and looking at games that actually address it.
                - A phenomenon I recently coined “pandiegetic conspiracies”(7), where it seems like the entirety of the fictional world (diegesis) conspires against the player to “keep them on track”: bridges are closed, tunnels to the mainland unfinished, the ferry is in repair, and there’s an air traffic shutdown, all at the same time, and they will coincidentally go away when you perform the right action.
    • Developing an approach of narrative aesthetics. These aesthetics are tailored to some specific corpus, whether a genre, historical period, or individual game developer; after all, the players and game developers of Call of Duty andFinal Fantasy seek to experience or elicit widely different responses through their game’s narrative. That distinction may also form a basis to trace some of the classic divides between Western/Japanese or PC/Console RPGs. Multiple games (or scenes within a game, etc.) may share a common narrative aesthetics, hence permitting a form of comparative evaluation that may account for aesthetic distance(8) and other related phenomena.

    Game studies have for a long time required researchers to specialize in some theoretical approach, subject or topic. It’s now time for game scholars to embrace some form of specialization as to the objects they study as well. Because we all have a backlog of games we need to play for our specific subjects of study, and that backlog is increasingly getting as tall as the books we need to read.



     (1) M. Wolf & B. Perron (Eds.), forthcoming in December 2013.

    (2) André Gaudreault (Timothy Barnard, tr.) (2009). From Plato to Lumière: Narration and monstration in literature and cinema, University of Toronto Press. (Original : Du littéraire au filmique: Système du récit, 1988)

    (3) See for instance Chris Bateman (2006), Game writing: Narrative skills for videogames; Rafael Chandler (2007), Game writing handbook; or Wendy Despain (2009), Writing for video game genres : From FPS to RPG.

    (4) David Buckingham, in Diane Carr, David Buckingham, Andrew Burn & Gareth Scott (2006), Computer games: Text, narrative and play, Polity Press, p.7.

    (5) Klevjer, Rune (2006). “Genre blindness”, DiGRA Hardcore column no.11. http://www.digra.org/hc11-rune-klevjer-genre-blindness/

    (6) Jesper Juul (2005),Half-real: Video games between real rules and fictional worlds, MIT Press, p.123.

    (7) The presentation is archived here (in French); the term appears around the 13:30 mark: http://oic.uqam.ca/fr/communications/limmersion-virtuelle-et-les-conspirations-pandiegetiques-la-fictionnalisation-des.

    (8) This term is from Hans R. Jauss (Timothy Bahti, tr.) (1982), Toward an aesthetic of reception, University of Minnesota Press.

    Image on front page by Glasgow School of Art and available on Flickr. 

  • Questions and Challenges for Digital Narratology

    Ruth Page's picture
    by Ruth Page — University of Leicester 1 Comment view


    For the last few years, I’ve been writing about different kinds of digitally-enabled storytelling.  I started out exploring  examples of digital fiction, moved on to critique sex bloggers and their blooks, and more recently have been examining the various ways in which people self document their lives in blogs, social network sites and community projects. I’m currently leading an AHRC funded research network (Transforming Thresholds) which uses ideas about narrative and digital media to help improve visitor experience in museum entrance spaces.  These examples of my work seem perhaps eclectic, but they also show that the intersections between digital media and narrative studies are many and varied, that this kind of work is often transdisciplinary and works to connect theory and practice. 

    The transdisciplinary, constantly shifting diversity makes the narrative study of digital media an exciting field to work in. But the potential for connectivity idealised in the metaphor of a network masks often profound differences which function to keep researchers in academic disciplines with remarkably robust boundaries.  Narrative communities like the International Society for the Study of Narrative may have diversified the kinds of materials they examine to move beyond print and film to include digital media, but the dominant frameworks which inform the scholarship at their conferences and published in their journals are still (more or less) from a literary-critical background (as opposed to sociolinguistic, media studies background and so on).   While I don’t want to argue for a universalising approach to narrative studies, I do want to ask:

    • Is it useful to make connections between the different subfields of narratives studies as scholars try to explore digital media? What can we learn from each other?

    On a practical level, working with other researchers is often imperative to facilitate the narrative study of digital media.  The sheer amount of stories that are published in digital media and their multimodal formats can be duanting to handle by a sole researcher, or to process using manual annotation. So there are plenty of methodological questions we need to address, like

    • Can we scale up the analysis of individual, specific examples of digitally enabled storytelling using techniques from information mining and visualisation? But conversely what does a ‘big data’ approach to narrative analysis miss?
    • How can we accommodate audio, visual and verbal analysis of narratives in digital media?

    Lastly, applying narrative studies to digital media raises questions about how socio-political contexts intersect with the architectures and affordances of different online contexts to shape the politics of storytelling.  So rather than leaving narrative studies to examine the surface of storytelling alone, I close with these questions:

    • What political and social factors shape the stories which are emerging in digital media?  Should narrative studies have a role in engaging with these political issues, and if so, how?

    Image on front page by Guilia Forsythe and available on flickr. 

  • Narrative Studies as a Tool for Understanding Digital Texts

    Jennifer Roudabush's picture
    by Jennifer Roudabush — VCU 1 Comment view

    Digital media, just like any other form of media, could consist of any number of different “types” of texts. These could be informational, data-driven, primarily visual, or narrative in nature. I think, then, that it is important to remember that a media form does not necessarily preclude or include a specific genre or mode. 

    When considering digital narratives, though, the connections between these texts and narrative studies, or narratology, are strong. Narrative studies inform the ways that we make sense of narratives as a whole, and they allow us to better understand the structures, themes, conventions, and functions of the stories that we tell and have told to us. Narratology helps us to understand how and why we tell stories, and, in doing so, it colors the ways in which we perceive the world, its cultures, and individuals. When we consider these facts, it is clear that, as we move towards increasingly digital modes of communication, we should stop to consider how these same elements are shaped by and shape our digital world.

    It is only in our best interest to continue to push the boundaries of narratology past the print-centric study that was dominant in the latter half of the twentieth century towards a much more inclusive model of storytelling. Questions about the nature of narrative, the contracts between authors and readers, and the process of sense-making that readers must undertake are still just as relevant, if not more so, in digital works as they are to non-digital ones. While considerations of these topics inspire many of the same questions when allowing for print or digital narratives, there are also some unique areas of exploration inherent to the multimedia, collaborative, and responsive capabilities inherent to digital media.

    Born-digital narratives, or those created using a digital device and meant to be experienced on a digital device because of its unique technological capabilities, can be experienced in ways that print-based narratives cannot. Born-digital narratives could include moving images or Flash-based videos that complement alphabetic text, or, perhaps even replace it altogether. They can require readers to navigate through them in unique ways, and they can inspire collaboration between any number of readers and writers who have never met and who have uniquely different worldviews. When a text is constantly generated (or regenerated) as readers explore and contribute to it, than it only makes sense that narrative studies might have something to say about the nature of the relationship that text builds between the author(s), reader(s), and narrative content itself. How does this relationship differ from those inspired by traditional models of print publication? Any reader who has struggled to navigate through a complex digital narrative knows also the unique potentials of many of these texts, and, again, narrative studies can allow us to question how things that we might have previously taken as a given (say, how to move from page one to page two) are evolving in digital platforms. The intersections, then, between digital media and narrative studies are multifold. I do not believe that we have even begun to imagine the ways that digital technologies might continue to inform the texts that we create and consume in the near future, and, without narrative studies, we will be lost in trying to make sense of these modes of narrative representation.

    Image on front page by VFS Digital Design and available on Flickr.

  • What to do with Wikis? Using the Internet to Watch TV.

    Laura Buchholz's picture
    by Laura Buchholz — Old Dominion Univeristy 1 Comment view

    As an avid viewer of the ABC television series Lost, I first found my way to the wiki site Lostpedia sometime during its second season, not as a narrative scholar, but as an admittedly confused viewer and fan. The show was a guilty pleasure I looked forward to once a week, and the website was a way to extend that pleasure while waiting for the next episode. Though I remained a “lurker,” never contributing to the wiki myself, I took great joy in mentally arguing with its contributors as I sometimes agreed and sometimes disagreed with the theories and assessments they contributed.

    Since that time, Jason Mittell’s scholarship concerning what he labels “Complex TV” and “Forensic Fandom” goes a long way in defining both the way television viewing has changed over the past few years and the activity in which I was engaged as a viewer of Lost. He explains how multiple shows now “convert many viewers into amateur narratologists, noting usage and violations of convention, chronicling chronologies, and highlighting both inconsistencies and continuities across episodes and even series” ("Complexity in Context," paragraph 51).

    Within this context of the evolution of television, the question that I keep returning to is how and to what extent narrative studies can utilize the wealth of reception data that these wiki sites continue to generate. By definition, wiki’s are collectively constructed encyclopedic resources. As such, they reconstruct storyworlds originally presented through other media such as television and film, or collect information concerning transmedial storyworlds that unfold across multiple media platforms such as video games, books, television and film.

    On the one hand information compiled on these sites has tremendous potential to shed light on the process of how fans collectively configure and then reconfigure narrative elements. For example, Smash.wikia.com is a wiki devoted to the not-so successful NBC series Smash. Even so, the wiki site maintained an active participant base. The show featured a story within a story as it chronicled the production of two fictional Broadway musicals. The second, entitled Hit List, was said to be an original composition by one of the characters. Neither musical was ever presented on the show in its entirety, and songs were often presented out of order. In response, in the case of Hit List, the site history shows how fans left gaps in the reconstruction of the plot an order of songs, only to return with later episodes to revise their understanding of the musical and reconfigure the song order and the surrounding libretto.

    On the other hand, as Jason Mittell has also previously argued (2009), wiki sites do not just report facts established in the show, but also become sites of creative storytelling in their own right. For example, on the same Smash wiki, after the show was cancelled one admin contributors with the username Wicked.Renthead-Gleek published his own version of the libretto which he then tweaked with the help of comments from other participants and references to the show.

    Still, there are problems in researching fan wiki’s that need to be addressed. First, as with any research that deals with online anonymous forums, to what extent participant statements can be taken at face value is difficult to determine. Instead, the question we must ask is does it matter whether one participant’s theory or idea is genuine if, regardless of their intent, it shapes the way a lurker like me configures the storyworld.

    The second issue is the fact that nothing shuts down debate on sites quicker than a definitive statement from a show’s creator such as Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad) or Shonda Rhimes (Grays Anatomy). As an academic this is often frustrating. I am sometimes baffled at the conflicted nature of these sites in that fan participants who seem to revel in speculation and their own creativity will equally yield to the creator’s expressed intent when provided.

    Even so, though I do not have hard and fast answers to these questions, I continue to see fan wikis as both an untapped resource for narrative studies and a new mode of storytelling in its own right.


    Mittell, Jason. Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling, pre-publication edition (MediaCommons Press, 2012-13).

    —“Sites of Participation; Wiki Fandom and the Case of Lostpedia.” Transformative Works & Cultures; 3 (2009). Web. 29 March 2011.


    Image on front page by Aashnik and found on Lostpedia.

  • The Flat, The Round, The Digital: Aspects of the New Fictional Character

    Pedro Ponce's picture
    by Pedro Ponce — St. Lawrence University 2 Comments view

    Character is arguably fundamental to how and why we read fictional narrative. We sympathize with certain fictional characters and vilify others. We learn more about ourselves to the extent that characters resemble us; we escape our emotional, physical, and historical limitations by living lives nothing like our own. We read for character at least as much as we read for plot. At the same time, digital culture seems to problematize this notion of narrative characterization.

    Take for instance the distinction of flat versus round characters. As explained by E. M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel (1927), flat characters are dependably predictable, while round characters are dependably surprising. While Forster argues that both types of characters are useful to the writer, creative writing instruction has tended to favor the round and dismiss the flat, reasoning that three dimensions are better than two.

    Digital culture, on the other hand, presents us with a number of examples that seem to pry apart this binary of print culture. Online gamers can inhabit specific character types within virtual worlds. Are such characters flat or round? One could argue they are flat because they are generated from a preexisting bank of possibilities; their costumes, weaponry, and even their personalities are determined by type and point value. But couldn’t one also say that these flat personalities are also round, occupied as they are by human gamers, who exercise free will and autonomy with potentially surprising results?

    Forster’s binary is further unsettled if one considers data like Facebook profiles. Is a Facebook profile round or flat? Flat, of course—how could anyone think otherwise of a prefabricated template for personal information? But the drama of changes in relationship status; the outrage prompted by status updates; and the flurry of traffic on birthdays and anniversaries all suggest otherwise.

    What does it mean that Forster’s binary of flat and round characters is rendered questionable by digital media? The pessimistic reader and writer might see one more sign of the imminent death of print. But the optimist might see opportunity in the digital deconstruction of conventional characterization. We have yet to fully explore the creative possibilities afforded by virtual narrative. For centuries, the printed page has marked a clear boundary between the real and the fictional. Digital space is far more malleable. Writers of both print and digital narratives now have more than two choices for who should inhabit created worlds. Given that Forster’s theory of characterization is almost a century old, it’s about time.

    Image on front page by Daniel Ferencak and available on flickr

  • Xbox is ordinary

    Timothy Welsh's picture
    by Timothy Welsh — Loyola University New Orleans 1 Comment view

    Our discussion of digital media and narrative coincides with the launch of the eighth generation of video game consoles. Microsoft's third console, the Xbox One, will appear on store shelves around the world later this week. It seems appropriate that, as the release of new platforms heralds the next evolution of video game development, we take this opportunity to (re)assess the intersections of digital media and narrative study.

    Videogames have long been at the forefront of discussion about digital storytelling. Particularly in the nineteen-nineties, when affordable personal computing, the popularization of the Internet, and the rise of the dedicated gaming console coincided with advances in virtual reality simulation research led to speculation about a version of Hamlet playing on the Holodeck, video games looked like the future of narrative. Whether or in what capacity games have fulfilled those projections is a topic for debate. If Microsoft's own introduction of the Xbox One last May is any indication, there is still a great deal of optimism that video games can capitalize on their narrative potential. And yet, their press event revealed that this optimism still hinges on videogaming's assumed immersivity.

    Microsoft's central pitch was that their "ground-breaking technology"—from enhanced animation detail to new trigger mechanisms—will "broaden the landscape and canvas for the storyteller" to "[make] games more immersive." A developer's insistence that new hardware promotes immersive storytelling is not uncommon. What is remarkable is that producers and consumers of digital narratives might buy into such an established fallacy at this late date in digital culture (Salen and Zimmerman 450). Fallacy aside, on a more basic level, the immersion metaphor, which likens user-machine interface to being submerged in a "completely other reality" (Murray 98), simply doesn't describe our everyday interactions within virtual environments.

    Whether making balance transfers at an ATM, sending an update to Facebook, using a GPS to find a restaurant, or playing Angry Birds on the subway, the boundary between the virtual and the real is never in question nor is it very relevant. Videogaming is an ordinary occurrence, woven into the practices of everyday life. While gaming, I might talk to a friend over voice-chat about dinner plans, glance at text message that just popped up, and leave the game running as I fetch a soda from the kitchen. In such a scenario, Edward Castronova observes, it may be possible to isolate when I'm in-game and when I'm out, but to what end? "Our culture has move beyond the point where such distinctions are helpful" (159).

    In my current book project, Mixed Realism: A Theory of Fiction for Wired Culture, I suggest that the immersion metaphor persists because it derives from deep-seated expectations about media and mediation in general, the same expectations at play when we say a reader gets "lost" in a book. For this reason, the study of digital media, and videogames more specifically, overlaps with literary and narrative studies in important and unexplored ways. This overlap brought me to literary metafiction—its peak and decline corresponding roughly to the rise of videogames—for models of self-reflexive structures that subvert their own immersive capacity in order to traverse presumed ontological boundaries.

    I have no doubt that the next generation of videogame hardware will draw lush, detailed, and inviting virtual environments in which to play out compelling interactive stories. Still, I hesitate to call them "immersive" because of the implied division between what happens on- and off-screen. Instead, I propose we seek out what I've been calling mixed realism, or the intertwining of media-generated virtualities—print and digital alike—and the real world circumstances in which we engage them.

    Castronova, Edward. Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2005.

    Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1998.

    Ryan, Marie-Laure. “Immersion vs. Interactivity: Virtual Reality and Literary Theory.” Postmodern Culture 5, no. 1 (1994). http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/postmodern_culture/v005/5.1ryan.html.

    Salen, Katie, and Eric Zimmerman. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003.

  • Introduction to Digital Narratology

    Jamie Henthorn's picture
    by Jamie Henthorn — Catawba College view

    Narratology is the study of the structure of narrative and how in turn that structure affects our cultural expectations of the world around us. The study has in fact developed into narratologies, as debates within the discipline continue over what constitutes an object of study. Coming out of poststructuralist thought driven to define elements of narrative, today narratology utilizes a variety of approaches (cognitive, rhetorical feminist, postclassical, etc.) to deal with the phenomenon of storytelling across a variety of media, from film and television, to video games and a multitude of digital forms.

    This cluster focuses on the intersections of the digital and current studies narratology. This will include both projects that apply narrative theory to digital media, like video games and social media, but also ways in which the digital humanities have opened up new ways to analyze narrative and its consumers. Projects shared include, but are not limited to a reimagining and re-working of classical narrative theories for the digital age, studies on affect and the development of empathy through narrative, and the use of GIS to map either narrative or the travels of authors and their writing.

    In conjunction with this cluster, the Front Page Collecting be hosting a Twitter conversation about narrative on Thursday, November 21st from 1:30 to 2:30pm est. We will use the hashtag #mcsurvey. We hope that you will join us.

    Below is the schedule for our survey.

    Week 1  

    Tim Welsh Loyola University

    Pedro Ponce St. Lawrence University

    Laura Buchholz Old Dominion University

    Jennifer Roudabaush Virginia Commonwealth University

    Ruth Page University of Leicester


    Week 2

    Dominic Arsenault University of Montreal

    Hartmut Koenitz University of Georgia

    [Break for American Thanksgiving Holiday]


    Week 3

    Alfredo Torres Old Dominion University

    Janine Utell Widener University

    Jordan Von Cannon Louisiana State University

    Laura Lisabeth St. John’s University

    Daniela Gachago University of Cape Town

    Image by Arbyreed and available on Flickr.