Types of Interactivity

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Lev Manovich refers to the interactivity that uses fixed elements arranged in a branching structure as closed interactivity; interactivity where both the elements and the structure are generated dynamically in real-time based on user interaction he calls open interactivity (Manovich, 2001, p.40). These concepts are similar to the open/closed and emergent/embedded narrative dichotomies mentioned by other authors.

Marie-Laure Ryan, in her essay “Beyond Myth and Metaphor,” breaks the open/closed interactivity dichotomy down even further (Ryan, 2001). Ryan sets up two pairs of opposing concepts: internal/external interactivity, and exploratory/ontological interactivity.

  • In internal interactivity “the user projects himself as a member of the fictional world” (Ryan, 2001). This can be done through an avatar, or by experiencing the world from a first-person perspective (ex. a first-person shooter video game). This is a form of personal perspective interactivity.
  • In external interactivity the participant is situated outside of the virtual world, either by playing a god-like role looking on and controlling from above, or by navigating a database-like story structure. This is a form of impersonal perspective interactivity that does not require a concrete persona.
  • In exploratory interactivity the user is free to move about the virtual world, exploring all the details, but their activity does not affect the overall plot in any way. The user simply reveals the story as they explore.
  • In ontological interactivity the decisions of the user can affect the plot, such that the story develops from the user’s interactions.

Cross-classification of these two dichotomies leads to four combinations for categorizing interactive works. These are not listed in any particular order of effectiveness.

  1. External/exploratory interactivity: Certain “classical” hypertexts fall into this category, such the “novels” of Michael Joyce, Stuart Moulthrop, or Mark Amerika. The user can choose paths through the virtual space, but the space itself has no physical narrative setting. This type of interactivity is exploratory because “the reader’s path of navigation affects not the narrative events themselves, but only the way in which the global narrative pattern… emerges in the mind” (Ryan, 2001).
  2. Internal/exploratory interactivity: In this category, “the user takes a virtual body with her into the fictional world, but her role in this world is limited to actions that have no bearing on the narrative events” (Ryan, 2001). Even though the user cannot affect the plot, she is still immersed in the narrative through a virtual body. She is present on the story’s stage, if only as an observer. Examples of this type of interactivity are the computer games Myst, Tomb Raider and Final Fantasy. In these games the user plays an internal role (ex. Laura Croft in Tomb Raider), but the game is structured in such a way that the user must follow a fairly linear narrative path. Deviating from the “correct” path simply stalls the narrative; the story does not progress any further until the user solves the puzzle/obstacle/mystery.
  3. External/ontological interactivity: In this category the user is outside of the virtual world, but has some control over the story and the fates of the characters, such that the story is generated directly through the user’s decisions. Typically in this case, because the user is external to the narrative, “the individual forking paths in the plot are… less interesting than the global pattern of their interconnections” (Ryan, 2001). Computer games that follow the god approach to user interactivty usually fall into this category (ex. Black & White, SimCity, the Sims, Caesar), where the user plays an omnipotent being controlling the world’s destiny. Most (if not all) of these games attempt to immerse the user a little more by giving them a role to play in the game. For example in Caesar you play a Roman Emperor governing your city, in SimCity you are the mayor. In Black & White you are a god fighting for power against other gods in the same world as you. This internalization of the user’s role places these games somewhere between external/ontological and internal/ontological.
  4. Internal/ontological interactivity: In this category the user is internal to the narrative, and has the ability to control their own fate by making decisions according to the laws of time and space of the virtual world. If the Holodeck of the Star Trek universe was ever to be implemented, this is the category under which it would fall. This category is actually quite broad, however, as the series of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books that were popular a few years back is also an example of this type of interactivity. Reading these books, the user flips through the first-person text to follow a branching-type narrative, and ultimately governs the path that they will take through the different narrative possibilities. A good example of this type of interactivity that is popular today is the Massive Multi-Player Online Game (MMOG), where thousands of players interact over the internet in a shared virtual world. Players are actual characters (represented by avatars) who travel around and explore the fictional realm, and who can either choose to follow the inherent storyline established by the game creators, or diverge from this and create their own set of goals and activities, thereby creating a completely generative narrative. In one MMOG, a group of players got together and instead of following the established game quests, decided to create their own club (actually called a guild) with no other purpose than to socialize with each other. For these people, the narrative experience emerged from their own interactions and relationships.

I believe that Ryan’s four categories of interactivity are very useful, although I do have a problem with her treatment of ontological interactivity. According to Ryan’s framework, a branching-type narrative that has a fixed, and often quite limited, number of possible paths can be in the same category as the Holodeck model, where the experience is completely generated through user interaction, and there are no fixed traversals through the narrative content. For this reason I believe that ontological interactivity needs to be broken down ever further, into embedded ontological interactivity and emergent ontological interactivity (borrowing from Eric Zimmerman’s terms). Under this framework a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book would be an example of internal/embedded ontological interactivity, and a Massive Multi-Player Online Game would be an example of internal/emergent ontological interactivity. An example of external/emergent ontological interactivity would be games like the Sims, SimCity, and any other god-game that has a virtually unlimited number of possible narrative paths.



Manovich, Lev. “The Language of New Media.” Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. 2001.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. “Beyond Myth and Metaphor: The case of narrative in digital media.” International journal of computer game research. Issue 1, July 2001.

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Adrian, or AJ, is the founder and Director of Technology of Pop Digital. He has spoken at tech conferences around the world, and published numerous articles about Agile methodologies, UX design, Information Architecture, and Web Development.

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