'Click' Here To Become A Storyteller
John Ganz is no couch potato. In fact, when the sixth-grader has free time he'd rather not plop down in front of the television.
"I'd rather use the computer," says the young New Yorker. "With the TV, I'm just sitting there idly watching, but with the computer I'm actually doing something."
John likes to play story-based computer games - ones that let him be an active participant, a character in a fictional cyberworld where, with the click of his mouse, he controls the unfolding twists and turns of the plot.
For champions of cyber-technology, John's choices are proof that interactive media are creating a new form of storytelling - one that has the potential to engage kids' intellects.
From that kernel of change, some cyberscholars see the potential for a cultural revolution. They believe this new genre can liberate storytelling from television's passive, commercial-saturated grip and bring in a more spontaneous, collaborative form of authorship.
Skeptics find such notions to be idealistic, at best. While they believe this new genre may help ignite kids' literary interests, they also contend America's corporate culture is standing ready to co-opt it.
While still in the nascent stages, this new genre - from story-oriented computer games to cybernovels - breaks out of the bounds of linear narrative.
"For the first time, you're not limited by the boundaries of the page, or by the progression of the film," says Michael Utvich, designer of the interactive media writing program at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. "That's a critical development. You now have an electronic device, the mouse, that allows you to make a number of different selections, which will lead you in any number of directions."
In effect, the audience becomes a participant, a co-author of sorts.
That's what distinguishes this genre from all others. In traditional narratives, the author creates a story line with a defined beginning, middle, and end. It can have many twists, even shuffle between past, present and future, but the author is in control of the characters and what happens to them. The audience simply follows along and experiences what the author dictates.
In interactive media, the audience becomes a participant, and the author's job changes radically. Instead of creating a "story," he or she creates a cyberworld, a separate environment with a set of rules that dictate how things and people will behave when the audience/participant takes certain actions.
For instance, when John Ganz plays Myst, he enters a three-dimensional world where his decisions determine the computer game's story line.
The first click on the page in the "book" on his screen puts him on the dock of a surreal island with perfectly blue skies, trees, several buildings, and a series of clues that lead him, eventually, to the library.
"In the library, there are two books - a red book and a blue book," says John. "You choose one, touch a certain page, and you go into that world."
So the "author" of Myst sets up a series of clues and the rules that determine what happens after John decides which path he'll take this time.
"In other words, authorship in cyberspace means writing the rules by which things happen," says Janet Murray, director of the Program in Advanced Interactive Narrative Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
A dog's world
By way of example, Ms. Murray explains the authorship of a virtual dog.
The dog can be programmed to wag its tail when petted and nurtured electronically, or to growl and attack when water is electronically spritzed at it. The programmer defines the choices a person can make about the dog, and determines the way the dog reacts under each circumstance. He or she, in essence, is the "author" of the dog. But the person who creates the story line is the one who clicks the mouse to interact with the dog.
If the person/audience decides to click on the mechanism that pets the dog and makes it happy, the story is simple: Person pets dog, dog is happy. If the person decides to spritz the dog with water, the story will be much different.
Advocates contend this form of storytelling has the potential to reengage individuals, not only intellectually, but also in a larger cultural conversation. Individuals can "read" such stories individually on their computers, or whole groups can participate in a kind of communal cybernarrative on the Internet.
If that is done as a community, separate from companies that want to sell participants breath mints, cars, and soap, Mr. Utvich and others believe that such stories will more closely reflect the challenges that individuals and communities are currently facing.
C'mon, say the skeptics
Critics doubt that. While they concede interactive media may eventually create a new way to relate human experience, they argue its impact on storytelling will be limited. Only 40 percent of American households now have personal computers, and about half of those are online.
"The major source of storytelling in the culture is still in commercials, films, television shows, and, to some extent, in newspapers and books - none of which is essentially interactive," says New York University's Neil Postman, author of "Amusing Ourselves to Death."
Proponents of this view also see corporations standing ready to co-opt the new storytelling genre, even before it takes hold of the popular imagination.
"One thing to look at is how companies will use the new interactive media to target particular types of people with particular types of stories that fit commercial, advertising, and profit-oriented goals," says Joseph Turow of the Annenberg School for Communications of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
"They can now place a product they want me to buy electronically into a story, or they can create stories around products and give me a discount if I watch it," he says. At the end of the story, just click on "order now."
While this medium is still developing, many educators have already recognized its potential and tapped into the interactive cyberworld.
"It's the first medium in a long time that encourages kids to write," says Felicia Halpert of Scholastic Network, an educational online service. "The medium is great for storytelling, learning how to tell stories, and being more involved in writing period."
Art vs. 'Nuk 'Em'
For his part, John, the intrepid sixth-grader, thrives in the invented worlds of cyberspace. He loves the graphics that portray everyday things in extraordinary ways. He likes learning how customs and behavior differ in story-based cybergames. And he often writes his own stories on the computer, sometimes based on characters and worlds portrayed in the computer games.
"I like those games because you have to think, but I also like games like Doom and Duke Nuk 'Em, where you just blast the guts out of everyone," John confesses. "It's a good way to let out steam."