Storytelling is a magical and powerful craft. Not only can it transport the audience on a thrilling journey into an imaginary world, but it can also reveal the dark secrets of human behavior or inspire the audience with the desire to do noble deeds. Storytelling can
also be pressed into service for other human goals: to teach and train young people, for example, or to convey spiritual concepts or important information. Older forms of storytelling were done as stone carvings, paintings on vases, and told orally by master storytellers (see Figure 1.1)
. Although digital storytelling is humankind’s newest way to enjoy narrative entertainment, it is part of this same great tradition.
FIGURE 1.1 Ancient Greeks painted stories of their mythology on vases, as on this painting (ca 500 BC), portraying their god, Dionysus. He was the deity of the grape harvest, wine, festivities, and theatre. Note the images of grapevines and clusters of grapes in the decoration. Photograph by Maria Daniels, courtesy of University Museums, University of Mississippi.
Digital storytelling is narrative material that reaches its audience via digital technology and media. One of its unique hallmarks is interactivity—back-and-forth communications between the audience and the narrative material. Digital storytelling is a vast field. It includes video games, content designed for the Internet, mobile apps, social media, interactive cinema, virtual reality, augmented reality, and even intelligent toy systems and electronic kiosks—at least one dozen major and very different genres in all. Almost every genre of digital storytelling includes multiple sub-genres, as well.
On the vast timetable of human achievements, this type of storytelling is a mere infant, only coming into being in the mid-twentieth century with the development of computer technology. As to be expected with something so young, it is still growing and evolving. Each new development in digital media—broadband, wireless signals, mobile apps, touch screens, virtual reality—sees a corresponding development in digital storytelling.
The biggest difference between traditional types of narratives and digital storytelling is that the content of traditional narratives is in an analog form, whereas the content in digital storytelling comes to us in a digitalized form. Digital data is made up of distinct, separate bits: the zeroes and ones that feed our computers. Analog information, on the other hand, is continuous and unbroken—a continual stream of information. The oldest stories were conveyed by the human voice and actors; later, narratives were printed on paper; more recently, they were recorded on audiotape, film, or video. All these older forms are analog.
To distinguish between these older forms of content and the computerized forms, people coined the terms “new media” and “emergent media.” These newer forms of media content include the words and images we see on our computer screens; material that comes to us on DVDs and other discs; via streaming audio and video; and on our video game consoles, mobile phones, and tablets. All of these forms are digital. The difference between analog and digital can easily be seen by comparing an analog clock to a digital clock. An analog clock displays time in a smooth sweep around the dial, while a digital clock displays time in specific numerical increments of hours, minutes, and seconds.
Digital information can be stored easily, accessed quickly, and transferred among a great variety of devices. It can also be readily reassembled in an almost infinite number of ways, and thus becomes a viable form of content for interactivity. The digitizing of content—along with digital delivery systems—is what makes digital storytelling possible.
Yet, as new as digital storytelling is, it is part of a human tradition that stretches back to preliterate times. Furthermore, it has much in common with other forms of narrative—theatrical performances, novels, movies, and so on. (A narrative is simply an account of events which are interesting or exciting in some way; the word is often used interchangeably with “story.”) In essence, all stories have the same basic components. They portray characters caught up in a dramatic situation, depicting events from the inception of the drama to its conclusion. “Story,” of course, does not necessarily mean a work of fiction, something that is make-believe. Descriptions of things that happen in real life can be stories, too, as long as they are narrated in a dramatic manner and contain characters. Newspapers and TV news shows are major vehicles for non-fiction stories. And documentaries, which are long-form explorations of true events, are also stories.
Scientists believe that storytelling can be traced back to sometime in the Pleistocene Age (1.8 million to about 11,000 years ago) and was developed as a critical survival tool. Manuel Molles, Professor Emeritus of Biology at the University of New Mexico, theorizes that storytelling was used to communicate important information about the environment, behavior of wildlife, and availability of food (from his paper “An Ecological Synthesis: Something Old, Something New,” delivered at a 2005 ecology conference in Barcelona).
Dr. Dan Schwarz, a professor of English at Cornell University, also believes that storytelling shapes a basic human need. He stated in a recent interview that it was his bedrock belief “that humans are defined in part by an urge for narratives that give shape and form to their experience” (English at Cornell, Vol. 13).
Storytelling is such a powerful craft that telling the wrong story can even get you killed. Jeff Gomez, CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment, a transmedia production company, commented to me in an email interview: “When you think about it, many have been killed throughout history for articulating narratives out of sync with popular notions. Shamans, spiritualists and others have historically been accused of witchcraft and sorcery, targeting them for death.” To back up his point, Gomez sent me a link to an article published in the Peruvian Times (October 5, 2011), reporting that as recently as 2011, 14 shamans had been murdered in Peru over a 20-month period.
Expert Observations: Humans Hard-Wired to Tell Stories?
Dr. Daniel Povinelli, a psychologist from the University of Louisiana, has made some interesting observations about the origins of storytelling. Dr. Povinelli, who studies the differences between the intellect of humans and apes, feels our species has an inborn impulse to connect the past, present, and future, and in doing so, to construct narratives. As reported in the Los Angeles Times (June 2, 2002), Dr. Povinelli feels this ability gives us humans a unique advantage. For example, it enables us to foresee future events based on what has happened in the past; it gives us the ability to strategize; and helps us understand our fellow human beings and behave in a way that is advantageous to us.
In essence, stories help give meaning to the world around us and help us negotiate our world. They put events or characters into context and aid us in retaining important details.
One major aspect of digital storytelling that distinguishes it from classical storytelling is that members of the audience can become active players in the narrative and even have a direct impact on it. Surprising as it may seem, however, interactive narrative experiences like this existed long before the invention of computers.
Some professionals in interactive media hypothesize that the earliest forms of interactive storytelling took place around the campfires of prehistoric peoples. I can remember this theory being enthusiastically touted back in the early 1990s, when the creative community in Hollywood was first becoming excited about the potential of interactive media. At almost every conference I attended at the time, at least one speaker would allude to these long-ago campfire scenes. The prehistoric storyteller, according to this theory, would have a general idea of the tale he planned to tell, but not a fixed plot. Instead, he would shape and mold the story according to the reactions of those gathered around him.
This model evokes an inviting image of a warm, crackling fire and comfortable conviviality. It was no doubt a reassuring scenario to attendees of these first interactive media conferences, many of whom were intimidated by computers and the concept of interactive media. But to me, this model never sounded particularly convincing. For one thing, how could anyone really know what took place around those smoky old campfires? And even if it were true that ancient storytellers constructed their tales to fit the interests of their listeners, how much actual control or participation in the story could these campfire audiences have had? At best, it would have been an extremely weak form of interactivity.
But no matter what one thinks of this campfire model, it is unquestionably true that a form of interactive storytelling—a far more profound and participatory form—dates back to extremely ancient times. According to the renowned scholar Joseph Campbell (1904–1987), one of the earliest forms of story was the myth, and storytellers did not merely recite these old tales. Instead, the entire community would reenact them, in the form of religious rituals.