30-05-2011 mag 4 / popular /

article/

Interactive Books: Reconfiguring Reading

Abstract: 

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.

Introduction  

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.

Conclusion 

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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