Interactive Books: Reconfiguring Reading
In the contemporary technologically dominated era, powerful software programs and applications have the agency to redefine the traditional stable perception of the cultural artifact of the book. By the affordances of computer technologies, books are not only digitalized in the format of e-books but have also reshaped them as multimodal interactive objects known as interactive books. This new artifact of the book is enabled by the properties of the software which transfer it into a rich multimedia environment that includes text, pictures, sound effects and video in an integrated, holistic form. Interactive books present a transformative experience for readers and writers as they engage in new practices for consumption and creation of stories. This article will explore how the software reconfigures the space of the book and can give an agency to a new type of digital artifact. The goal of the article is to present how the digital artifact invites readers and writers to adopt new practices, skills and roles which give a new meaning to the perception of the book. By examining the case study of the educational digital book Inanimate Alice, the article aims to illustrate the new ways of experiencing literature.
Since the beginning of the printed era, books have been perceived as a stable object through which we can enjoy the virtual space of the written text. The media scholar Jay Bolter (Bolter 2001) argues that printed books have trained us to “think of a written text as an unchanging artifact” (ibid, 4). Although our perception of the books seems stable, books have been transformed several times throughout the history of the written word. From the ancient papyrus roll, to handwritten codex and print, contemporary books occupy the immaterial space of the computer environment. Printed books still remain the “text’s embodiment” (Kastan 2001, 5), but the affordances of technologies are reshaping and “refashioning” (Bolter 2001, 3) the book.
Although the space of the book has been changed several times in the course of time, Bolter points out that the digital technology changes the way reading and writing “look and feel” (ibid, 24). The efficiency, speed and interactive nature of the digital environment have encouraged the rapid proliferation of e-books and invite readers to recognize the interface of the computer as a natural environment for the book. The transformation also provokes opposing debates among literary theorists about the status of the book in the contemporary culture. The historian Henri-Jean Martin expresses a skeptical view on the future of books, stating that “[b]ooks no longer exercise the power they once did" (quoted in Bolter 2001, 4). This article is not going to discuss the values and perspectives in front of printed books but it argues that the present software platforms and applications provide vast opportunities for creating new types of books in which traditional stories can continue to live in a new engaging and compelling form. Such a book is the case study of this paper – the students’ book Inanimate Alice, created in the software Adobe Flash Professional®. The software is a multimedia platform which allows web designers and developers to create “rich content, user interfaces and Web applications” (Johnson 2010, 1) that can include text, graphics, video, sound and animation. Now the affordances of the software encourage writers and designers to create a new genre of books known as electronic literature.
This article will explore how a digital artifact created by a powerful software platform invites new practices and roles in the processes of reading and writing.
Case Study: Inanimate Alice
An immersion into the world of Alice is an experience that cannot be compared to any other reading experience. Alice is the main protagonist of the interactive students novel Inanimate Alice (Inanimate Alice 2011), written by fiction writer Kate Pullinger and the digital artist Chris Joseph. The book is a digital born novel which means that it is not based on a print predecessor and it is specially created to be read from the interface of the computer screen. The plot presents the story of the growing-up girl Alice and reveals her journeys as she travels in different parts of the world alongside her parents. Inanimate Alice has a hybrid nature which includes a linear narrative and non-linear ludic elements. The audience of the novel is both a reader and a player. While reading the story, the user is constantly invited to take actions – from clicking on different navigational icons to interacting with Alice’s devices and with her friend Brad.
The story engages the readers with its compelling graphics and by challenging them to take an active part in the story. For instance, in chapter three the user can choose between reading the story or reading-and-playing. If one decides to play, the book gives a mission so that one cannot proceed forward without solving it.The reader can also manipulate the avatar of Alice’s friend Brad by using him to accomplish some of the game missions. The game space of the book is a navigable space where players are invited to move in the virtual world of the book. For instance in chapter four, readers can explore the maze of a building in which Alice is caught and they have to find her way out of the labyrinth. There are also parts in which the artifact invites the readers to choose a direction in the story and lets them decide what to read next. Readers can also move back in the previous chapters using a navigation panel on the screen which provides the orientation in the story. The artifact activates multiple sensors for text perception as readers are exposed to dynamic transition of text, unexpected sounds, video and games. Presently, the book is professionally used by teachers who train students to read stories, not with traditional reading practices, but by their personal experience with the digital narrative. The following parts of this article are going to reveal how the software platform of the digital artifact transforms the characteristics of traditional books and how the new artifact influences the traditional practices of readers and writers.
Re-shaping the space of the book
When exploring the space of the digital book, we cannot alienate the form from its carrier and we have to bear in mind that the material of the medium “influences our behavior” (Aarseth 1997, 62). Inanimate Alice is integrated in the digital environment and hence this new artifact is influenced by its properties. A key effect of using a software platform in the creation of interactive books is that it transforms the text into the form of hypertext. The term hypertext is coined by Ted Nelson in 1963 who defines it as “non-sequential writing-text that branches and allows choices to the reader” (Landow 2006, 3). The prefix hyper also implies an additional “extra dimension” (Douglas 2000, 16) of the text. Hypertext is not new or revolutionary but it is the building block and the “medium of the text” (Aarseth 1997, 76) in the interactive books and affects our perception of content. The affordances of the software applications extend the notion of the “text” in hypertext as hypermedia which encompasses not only static text, but also “visual information, sound, animation and other forms of data” (Landow 2006, 3).
In examining the characteristics of the space of the book, we turn to the properties of the digital environment described by the new media scholar Janet Murray (Murray 1997). Based on her characterization, we can define the game space of the digital books as “procedural, participatory, spatial and encyclopaedic” (ibid, 71). The notion of procedural space implies that the environment of the digital book is defined by procedural rules preliminarily set by the designers which correspond to the users’ actions. In Inanimate Alice the readers experience the rules of the game in the interaction with the friend of Alice, Brad, which is an avatar that users can control within a set of possible actions. The interactive book is also participatory because it does not only present a set of behaviors, but can also “induce the behavior” (ibid, 74). This property is an important characteristic because it changes the traditional concept of interaction between the reader and the text and provokes a new type of behavior by the readers. In printed books, the notion of “interactivity” refers to the readers’ mental processes of interpretation and comprehension. It is analyzed by literary theorists as “readers’ response” (ibid, 110) according to which, during the act of reading, readers develop “alternative narratives” (ibid) and adjust the story in a way it can fit their established system of believe. But in a flash book the relation between the reader and the text changes from “interaction” to “participation”, enabled by the participatory nature of the environment.
Cybertext theorist Espen Aarseth (Aarseth 1997) also supports the new notion of interactivity in electronic books and argues that interactivity is better described as “participation, play, or even use” (ibid, 49). The concept of participation is a key characteristic of the space of the digital book because it goes beyond the actual activities and creates “aesthetic pleasure” (Murray 1997, 128) of the text. Interactive books are also “spatial” because while linear books can represent a space by text and images on printed pages, in the interactive book we can move through the space of the book. At last, the digital environment is encyclopaedic. This property poses the expectation that the users possess towards the expansive capacity of the medium in terms of the volume of information and database. Inanimate Alice also uses this encyclopaedic property as the players are exposed to an impressive amount of pictures, animations and videos. The games space of Inanimate Alice includes both realistic and fantasy elements. According to Leigh Schwart the realistic elements play an important role in the comprehension of fantastic elements as they are making them more believable. As an effect of the merge of reality and fantasy players experience themselves as empowered to exert control over an environment, which in real life is beyond their influence (Schwart 2006).
Practices, skills and roles in reading interactive books
The new practices and skills
The properties of the digital artifact of the book change the perception of the traditional novels as they invite the readers to engage with new practices and develop strategies for reading. When we read material books, we tend to use our perception of a linear text where the paragraph structure makes the text clear and comprehensive. Paragraphs provide a visual orientation for the readers and prepare them for an upcoming idea in the story. In contrast, interactive books have a non-linear structure, composed by a network of “blocks, nodes or lexias” (Landow 2006, 62). The text in a hypertext artifact is a “network of fragments and the connections between them” (Aarseth 1997, 76). In order to orient themselves to the narrative, the readers have to build cognitive maps by which they can mentally construct the connections between the frames. This property of the book require “inner-directed readers” (Douglas 2000, 87) who can organize the sequences of the plot without getting “lost” in the narrative.
Furthermore, the digital artifact invites us to use a new visual perception of the text. In printed books our optical comprehension includes illustrations, pictures diagrams as well as the space between the words, the typography and style of the text. But compared to the properties of the software echnologies, these elements seem bounded as they are locked in the materially stabilized body of the book. In contrast, when we read hypertext books we receive much more information through visual elements. Although the printed books also possess a variety of illustrations, in the digital book the visual is central because “the computer restores and heightens the sense of word as image” (Hayles 1999, 26). Another distinct characteristic of the Flash® software is the form of animation which enhances the experience of comprehending the text. Animated elements are also central in Inanimate Alice where the text constantly “dances” on the screen, appearing over different backgrounds, blurring and flickering in front of the reader.
As the artifact invites the readers to use new practices for orientation and visual perception, it gives them also a mental training and develops several skills of “digital literacy” (Eshet-Alkalai 2004, 93). While comprehending the book, the users improve their skills of “branching literacy” and “photo-visual literacy” (ibid, 98). Branching literacy refers to the ability of multi-tasking and spatial orientation which is used also in daily practices of interacting in a digital environment. In this sense, the interactive book improves the navigational performance of the readers and trains them to perform tasks better and faster when operating in a digital environment. The artifact also teaches the users to follow the text in a fluctuating rhythm. While in printed text, the reader possesses the control over the tempo of the sequences; in digital books the rhythm is constantly changing which improves users’ speed in meaning comprehension. Furthermore, the increased number of visual elements and multimedia improves the “photo-visual type of thinking” (ibid, 94). This skill refers to the comprehension of reading visual representations and develops the human’s memory and “associative thinking” (ibid, 95). In that sense, the properties of the Flash® software of Inanimate Alice enable children to develop the ability of decoding messages from visual representations which improves their mental capabilities.
The new practices and skills prescribed by the artifact transform the traditional immersion in printed books and bring a new type of pleasure in reading. The process of immersion is “the complete surrender to the text, whether print or digital” (Skains 2010, 107) and it can be described as the “experience of being submerged into water” (Murray 1997, 99). But the immersion process in printed text and in interactive books such as Inanimate Alice presents a different experience to the readers. In interactive books we immerse in the story through the combination of visual and “haptic perception” (Mangen 2008, 406). This “sensory-motory interaction” (ibid, 413) is facilitated by the means of material computer devices such as a mouse, pad or a joystick. Moreover, the notion of participation in the book significantly benefits the creation of immersion as the digital environment allows the users to strengthen their belief in the fiction by practicing in the virtual world of the game (Murray 1997, 112). In Murray’s view, the immersion in the digital environment is also prolonged by the opportunity for the player to be masked by the digital avatar. Another compelling element that facilitates the process is the effect of sound. According to a research on virtual reality games, sound effects and music are “conveying a sense of immersion” (Murphy and Pitt 2001, 22). Finally, the artifact of interactive books presents the “pleasure of navigation” (Murray 1997, 129) through the spatial environment of the book and the pleasure of taking control of the story which are engaging experiences that cannot be obtained through the means of reading traditional books.
The new role of the reader
"The reader comes of age"
J. Y. Douglas, The End of Books or Books Without Ends (2000)
The participatory nature of the software platform prescribes the readers a central role in the story. As mentioned earlier, the role of the reader in traditional books has never been passive but in interactive books, the digital artifact turns the user into a player. The user is invited not only to read but to perform and participate in the creation of the story. An essential characteristic of a reader is that one is required to make a “non-trivial effort” (Aarseth 1997, 1) in order to go through the content. By this, the artifact negotiates a new role of the readers by assigning them an “explorative” function (ibid, 62). The artifact also constantly attracts the attention of the reader by challenging the players’ minds in thinking about an element that was not seen or heard. The changing forms of the navigational links make the user constantly alert for the signs of navigation in order to continue to the next segment. The reader of interactive books is also an adventurer as the artifact gives missions which serve as a prerequisite for moving the story forward. In part three of Inanimate Alice, the reader is given the tasks of collecting hidden matryoshka dolls and one cannot proceed until the task is successfully accomplished. In digital books, the reader is at the same time the “receiver” and the “sender” of the message (ibid, 162) as both players and game respond to each others’ actions. The participation in the story and the opportunity of the reader to make choices also illustrate that the software allows users to re-shape the initially inscribed structure of the artifact itself. By giving the freedom to navigate in the book, the artifact empowers the players to create their own narrative which, as an effect, provokes the sense of “co-authorship” (Skains 2010, 104).
The new role of the reader changes the traditional relation between readers and authors. In printed books we can clearly distinguish a hierarchical relation between the writer and the reader. According to the linguist Frank Smith, “writers must produce texts and readers must interpret them, and the text always stands between the two, a barrier as well as a bridge” (Smith 1994, 87). While in printed books, the narrative is fixed and structured by the authority of the writer, the digital book allows the readers to have a certain degree of control over the text. As the new media scholar Lyle Skains notes, this dynamics of the plot will not ignore the role of the writer but presents “a more fluid dynamic between the creator and the receiver of the narrative” (ibid 105). By refashioning the role of the reader, the digital artifact serves as a bridge between users and writers and “expand[s] this author-reader relationship” (ibid, 104) by making it more equal than in printed books.
The new role of the author
The affordances of the software platform reconfigure the role of the authors and invite them to use new methods in the creation of the story. For one, the digital artifact of interactive books is created in a team of writers and digital graphic designers. The goal of the team is to build a rich, compelling and entertaining story in order to deliver an aesthetic pleasure with the text. The authors’ challenge is to develop a “coherent story” (Murray 1997, 185) which will encourage the participation of the user. The software also provokes the authors to think of new methods by which they can establish their communication with the reader. In any written text the communication between the author and the reader takes place through the text. But in order to serve as a bridge, both readers and the authors need to have “mutual knowledge of convention”, which is also called “reciprocity” (Skains 2010, 107). In printed books, readers have established conventions such as the turning of pages. But the ways of navigation through the interactive books may present unfamiliar conventions of reading which can result in difficulties in the readers’ comprehension and less enjoyment of the text. Hence, writers and designers have to develop simple building blocks or “primaries” (Murray 1997, 190) that will be easily noticed by the users. In Inanimate Alice, although the book provides a variety of icons that require action from the user, there is a standardized symbol “>>” which refers to the transition of the plot’s sequences and is easily recognizable by the users.
Furthermore, the authors have to offer a variety of options for exploration of the space of the game and have to predict the possible interactions of the player. Since the reader of an interactive book is often not allowed to proceed without solving a particular task, the authors have to provide a “character” or an instruction that can help the readers move through the game. In Inanimate Alice such a role has Bart, the friend of Alice, who in chapter 4 provides hints to the readers when they have to help Alice find her way out of the labyrinth of the building. Since the software presents an immense amount of possibilities for interaction, the artifact provokes writers and designers to negotiate their roles in order to find the balance between the game element and the storyline. These new methods of creating literature define the increasing complexity of the function of the authors as they have to combine the role of being the authority that leads the story and at the same time of being choreographers of the possible actions of the users.
In the contemporary post-modern era the artifact of the traditional book is conveyed into the immaterial space of the digital environment. Now, in the midst of digital innovations, sophisticated software programs have the power to redefine the concept of the books once again. Interactive books present a new type of reading experience which includes active participation and interaction with the artifact. The new space of the book invites the readers to immerse in a multi-dimensional environment and prescribes them to use their visual, auditory and haptic perception. The artifact gives a new function of the reader, changing it from a consumer into a participant and creator of the story. The affordance of the software programs also opens a new field of exploration to the writers and empowers them to reveal stories using compelling multimedia elements such as animation, video and sound. Interactive books invite the readers to co-create along with the author and by this they transform the traditionally perceived border between them into a bridge where they can meet and build the story together. Moreover, digital books not only prescribe new practices and roles but they can also improve the comprehensive capabilities of their readers. They do so by engaging in the reader's processes of deriving meaning from the text and through interactive visual representations and spatial navigation which improve their digital literacy. The media specialist Laula Fleming describes the digital book Inanimate Alice as a “remarkable literary and digital phenomenon” (Fleming 2010). So far, interactive books are perceived as an experiment, but this research showed that they have the potential to play a valuable part in contemporary culture and can be explored as a new educational practice. In a time when humans are becoming more dependent on the interaction with the digital environment and its artifacts, interactive books can bring the essential skills for orientation in this environment, which requires not only technical skills but also a complex range of cognitive models of comprehension.
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