Engaging The Audience

In this thesis, there will be a lot about how it is important to keep the audience engaged, how it is important not to disengage the audience.

First, what does engagement actually mean? What does it look like? Second, what are some actual conceptual techniques for engaging audiences? How do we do it?

What Is Engagement?

Engagement: busy, occupied, involved, meshed, and/or pledged to marry. Let's ignore the last one.

I first found my own definition of engagement while teaching weeklong summer camp classes. Over beers with a co-worker one weekend, it was noted that our co-worker, Adam, always had attentive, dedicated, and productive students. He always had 'good' students. Lucky! The coworker was asking me how Adam got the level of focus out of his students. It couldn't just be coincidence, right?

I told him that Adam didn't ask the students questions, but got the students to ask themselves these questions. It wasn't "Let me tell you how to change the color of this object" so much as "well, that object is neat but its color doesn't help us much..." If the question comes from within the student, they are more engaged. Adam, after he did all his little tricks, tone, and so on, to keep the students engaged had to do spend less time on classroom management. He spent his time while the students all worked watching them carefully and jumping in before students got frustrated and turned for help, always leading them along to the next steps naturally. His student's projects were always impressive.

And his job was way easier, too.

So, accidentally, I stumbled on a working definition of engagement that has proven effective for many years now:

Someone is engaged with something when they are asking themselves questions and seeking answers about or within that something.

We want to engage our audiences. We don't want to be like Dora the Explora, where the story is blatant in asking the question of what happened (or: can you say map?).

Instead, we want to play like a good mystery or suspenseful thriller. These genres are most blatant in introducing confusion and unknowns, but not direct in asking any questions. It's up to the audience to think "What is going on?". These genres are, of course, very engaging.

A shorter definition may be this: An audience is engaged if the audience cares.

Engaging Audiences

The question is left, now, as storytellers, how to engage our audiences. This challenge is particularly significant for immersive storytelling because of how fundamental engagement is to drive action and choice.

Make Them Care

As mentioned in onimmersionandstorytelling.md, engagement in storytelling comes from a solid story. There is nothing new about immersive storytelling. Nothing! Believable characters with problems that feel real to them, and difficult non-obvious solutions.

Getting an audience to care about a story is more-or-less the same in 360 as it is in film, as it is in novels, as it is in comics, and so on.

This is not the place (and I am not the author) for such a discussion. Instead, let's focus on what's different with immersive storytelling.

Don't Make Them Not Care

Okay, making the audience care is nice, but we must be sure not to disengage them.

I'm really saying the same thing in a different way (obviously) but this is a good perspective to analyze stories from. Is there anything in the story that makes the audience not care? Anything that shows the audience that the creator's don't care? Poor production value, perhaps. Bad acting. Inscrutable plot or character motivations. Audience feeling like they're being tossed around or that the story is arbitrary. Anything confusing. Gimmicks or cheap tricks.

Any of these sorts of behaviors can disengage the audience because if they don't feel like their investment - time - is being respected, then they will stop caring.

Engaging Audiences with Immersive Storytelling

What's different about immersive storytelling and how can this difference be used to drive engagement?

Making A Decision

Immersive mediums can get an audience, early on, to make a decision revolving around "siding" with a character or environment. If we can get an audience to, say, choose to pay more attention to one character than others, then we can get the audience to start caring and asking themselves questions (engaging) with that character as we introduce plot points and challenges.

In 360 video, we may start with characters fairly spread out. We subtly drive attention towards the character that will be the main character, through cinematography, blocking, pattern-breaking, and so on. The audience likely decides to look at this unique character instead of the others, and this decision makes our character matter more to the audience than others. This phenomenon - caring about what we make decisions about - is the heart of immersive storytelling and if we start with it, and all goes well, then we are off to a pretty good start.

Another method for immersive storytellers is to get the audience not to decide to engage with what we want, but get them to decide not to engage with what we don't. This is another way around the same issues, but thinking in this way opens the door to more subtle and less forced direction for the audience. It's also an effective perspective to help analyze why a story is or isn't working.

Decide To Look At What Matters

When present audiences with a choice (still with subtle indications) of where to look, the audience will decide to follow a character, for example.

Let's say our first shot is a character getting ready. We establish a character as the main character.

Then we put them in a noisier environment where the audience could look around or could follow the character. Now, hopefully, they choose to follow the character, they invest in that character and will care about that character more than one they do not choose to follow.

Audiences commit to their investments. It's up to the storytellers to have the audiences make the right investments that will pay off in the story.

Removing Decisions

Most immersive mediums at the very least give the audience the expectations of being able to make choices. We can remove this ability, as a surprise or systematically, in order to drive focus and attention (and thus, hopefully, engagement).

Basically, we can place pivotal (engaging) plot moments outside of the space where one could look away. In 360 video, this could mean through audio. The audience has no choice but to accept or acknowledge what's happening.

How do we do this? Video games clue us in. This method can be summarized as switching or removing core mechanics for narrative emphasis. Cut scenes are one way, keys another. A character can't go onto the next level until they meet requirements, like talking to a certain character, in order to get a key to unlock a door.

If the audience doesn't have enough of a reason to choose to follow what matters, then let's not give them a choice.

Reaction and Response

Not everything rotates around the audience's decision-making. We can still leverage their axis of interactivity to get them to react to things in a way that affects their experience. This makes an audience 'feel' the experience more intensely.

In 360, consider an explosion so big, it didn't just shake the camera or make the screen flash white, but the entire viewing experience was twisted around and the audience had to re-orient. The audience's reacting to the explosion, turning away, allows them to view people and things being affected by it, as well as get not just the visual experience of somebody near an explosion, but a physiologically consistent one. The view one has would twist and, thanks to head tracking, the intensity of the 'camera movement' is directly the movement the audience's head has (plus some camera shake, probably).

This is about as on-the-nose example as you can get. Remember, it's engaging to be in the world. To be not just looking around (making decisions) but adjusting and reacting. Even just turning when a door opens and somebody walks in is engaging!

Let The Story Be Unique

See the section on Unique Experiences for a discussion of this more abstractly. In 360, this means letting the scene have enough details and enough freedom, and a non-obvious directing hand that the audience is able to follow little interests, hold their gaze at particular objects of interest and feel comfortable in the world of the story.

This is incredibly engaging but poses the risk of being confusing in execution. When writers talk about the "freedom" of 360 video being its strength, they are responding to this very type of engagement.