Henry Jenkins responds

Henry Jenkins responds

2004-11-04

Who says hypertext readers have more brains than gamers? Not Henry Jenkins.

This essay makes a useful contribution to our understanding of interactive narrative by introducing a more nuanced set of categories - immersion, engagement, and “flow” - to discuss different kinds of reader responses. I would propose a fourth category - participation - to refer to those moments where readers do actively contribute to rather than simply explore an existing work. Participation describes not only those situations where hypertext readers construct new links or generate lexia, but also cases where game players create their own “skins” or where television fans create original fiction. Participation may be one step beyond engagement, much as flow seems to be one step beyond immersion.

What I find troubling about the essay is the ways that the authors map the immersion and engagement distinction onto traditional cultural hierarchies, implying that hypertext readers (their “privileged few”) are intellectually superior to game players. I would find the terms far more useful if they could be used descriptively rather than mobilized to justify specific cultural preferences. In the conclusion, they suggest that “immersion may shade into engagement… and engagement into immersion,” yet they had earlier drawn a pretty sharp line between the immersiveness of popular culture with the more intellectual engagement of hypertexts. Rather than setting up polarized account of popular and elite reading practices, we should be attentive to the complex negotiations through which all readers expand their existing schema vocabulary to assimilate or accommodate the distinctive features of an individual text.

Most contemporary genre theory suggests that popular works rarely follow a single genre formula but most often, balance competing formulas against each other. For every Jacob’s Ladder that fails to achieve an appropriate balance, there is a Matrix or Blade Runner that demonstrates the popular potential of hybrid genre construction. Contemporary film style is more elliptical and rapid-fire than the classical continuity system precisely because a generation that spends many hours per day consuming media demands cognitive challenges and perceptual puzzles rather than straightforward exposition. Similarly, television narrative has moved towards longer story arcs, denser plot structures, and ensemble casts because fans demand novel structures for expressing familiar plots.

Game players do depend upon formulaic elements to provide their initial orientation. Yet, they would be frustrated, rather than satisfied, if the game unfolded in an altogether predictable fashion. The most compelling games present challenges, albeit challenges the player can reasonably hope to master. Such a process is unlikely to sustain anything as simple as the immersive experience they describe. Rather, it makes more sense to think of game players as fluctuating between states of immersion and engagement, much as film critics can sustain an analytic relationship to cinematic technique and an immersive relationship to narrative content.

“Engagement tends to be pursued and enjoyed by those who are widely read” not only in the high literary canon but also in popular culture. Whereas those who are not “highly read” in specific popular genres see only the formulaic elements, fans see works which pleasurably “violate long familiar conventions and patterns.” The difference is that popular texts offer some minimally pleasurable experience to all readers, whereas hypertexts close themselves off to the uninitiated. Yet, in both cases, the best-informed and most fully engaged readers have the most pleasurable experience.

Moreover, we are seeing the emergence of new forms of popular culture, what I call transmedia storytelling, which combine traditional genre formulas with more hypertextual structures. Works such as Majestic, for example, confront players with a barrage of different textual fragments, which come at us across multiple media channels, and we are asked to assemble the pieces into a compelling narrative whole; we are encouraged to pursue lexical links across an interlocking series of websites; we are taught to distrust competing reality claims made by other players (who we can often not tell from preprogrammed bots); and we can never be certain of a simple or straightforward resolution. Such works reward the competencies of a generation of informational multitaskers. Here, the genre formulas of the conspiracy thriller motivate the active and skeptical reading strategies long promoted by hypertext theorists. Such works popularize the formal structures of hypertexts just as MTV demonstrates the popular appeal of various aesthetic devices drawn from avant garde film and video. As these transmedia stories blur cultural hierarchies, hypertext theorists may find it difficult to justify the lack of popular interest in their aesthetic experiments by falling back on assumptions that de-skill the consumers of popular media. Perhaps when we move beyond the easy dismissal of the masses, we can more accurately map the pleasures of interactive fiction.

Richard Schechner responds

Douglas and Hargadon respond