Interactive, Addictive, Narrative – An Experimental Mini Thesis Spring 2010
By Brian A. Bernhard
Parsons New School of Design MFADT
Professor Stuart Cudlitz
The explosion of media on the Internet has been overwhelming over the last decade. As bandwidth and compression techniques become more refined, the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) artists have finally found an uncensored, monetizable distribution outlet for their work. Now, with such an incredibly saturated market for web video, how does an artist develop a product that will cut through all the extraneous white noise and find an audience?
I believe the answer to this question might lie within the human psychological susceptibility for addiction. The same endorphins that are released when someone is gambling or playing an addictive game such as “World of Warcraft” can be accessed in order to build a DIY audience in the world of original online viral video creation.
Most of my precedence exists in the form of YouTube channels and the artists that produce the majority of YouTube’s “most viewed” content. There are an increasingly large number of online video producers that have achieved a significantly powerful audience base who consistently produce original content every week to a subscription viewership of over 100,000 people.
One of the most significant online projects is “Fred”; a show launched May 1st, 2008 by a sixteen-year-old boy named Lucas Cruikshank. As of, April 26, 2010 the “Fred” YouTube channel now has more than 1,713,000 subscribers. I believe the success of “Fred” was largely due to the consistency of its creator, posting one or two videos a week, for a few years, until it became the first YouTube channel to boast over one million subscribers.
Many other creator-driven Youtube channels have achieved this type of powerful DIY audience, including: Rocketboom, Sxephil, iJustine, Rhett&Link, SMPfilms, Mystery Guitar Man, and many more.
Although, many of these viral video creators have developed substantially large audiences, none of them have been able to tap into the power of addictive gaming. Games have become a legitimized form of addiction in modern society.
Nick Fortugno, creator of the critically acclaimed and highly addictive game “Diner Dash”, co-founder of Playmatics and game design professor at The New School in New York City, states:
“Addiction is an ethical issue. If you cause someone to do an activity to the detriment of their health or their other relationships, that’s damaging. There are a lot of questions around whether games are addictive or not. The only place where it seems clear-cut is in gambling. A slot machine is an addictive device, we basically know that now.”
The endorphins that many people receive from the satisfaction of completing menial tasks have set a whole new level in psychological manipulation. On the forefront of this kind of manipulative gaming would be “World of Warcraft” and “Farmville”. While these two examples are very different types of video games, they both function similarly in their core draw to the player. They operate principally using a futile reward system, keeping the player in an endless loop of small achievable rewards, making them feel like they are succeeding at something; all the while, the player never suspects there are no ways to win these games. At certain points in both, the player continues to play even when their actions cease to be fun.
“I think there’s a very important question right now about the ethics of using the kinds of mechanical tricks that are used in slot machines, that’s technically called, “A variable reward ratio”. Which basically means that you get a reward for pulling a lever every X to Y number of times after you have pulled the lever once. You don’t know exactly when pulling the lever is going to give you a reward. This has been shown in mammalian life, not human life, but in the life of mammals, to be an addictive behavior. Games often use mechanics like that in the reward systems that they have.” – Nick Fortugno
Creating a narrative video project that fuses the gaming experience along with the viral video experience is what was attempted with, “Interesting Choice”, an interactive web series produced on a tight timetable. While I do not believe we achieved the addictive qualities of a video game or the status of viral video. I do think that “Interesting Choice” was a strong step in the right direction.
In order to produce a viable method of creating “viral” online video, there must be some kind of defined standard for what is considered “viral”. The Wikipedia entry on viral video states:
“A viral video is one that becomes popular through the process of Internet sharing, typically through video sharing websites and email. Viral videos often contain humorous content and include televised comedy sketches, such as Saturday Night Live‘s Lazy Sunday and Dick in a Box, amateur video clips like Star Wars Kid, the Numa Numa videos, The Dancing Cadet, The Evolution of Dance, the “Benny Lava” video, Chocolate Rain on YouTube; and web-only productions such as I Got a Crush… on Obama. Some “eyewitness” events have also been caught on video and have “gone viral,” such as the Battle at Kruger.
Humor is often a characteristic of viral videos, but not a defining one. A viral video is any video that’s passed electronically, from person to person, regardless of its content.
With the proliferation of camera phones, many videos are being shot by amateurs on these devices. The availability of inexpensive video editing and publishing tools allows video shot on mobile phones to be edited and distributed virally, by email or website, and between phones by Bluetooth or MMS. These consumer-shot videos are typically non-commercial, intended for viewing by friends or family.”
This definition seems a little too vague to me. Although it conveys the general idea, it does not define enough parameters to truly understand what a viral video is. It cannot just simply be a popular video, if that was the case, how is it that some creators can design videos that “go viral” every week. How can these content creators guarantee that every time they are going to post a new video, it will “go viral”? I believe the only way to answer these questions is to go to the source, so I began setting up interviews with some of the Internets most knowledgeable researchers and original content creators.
I asked the Executive Vice President of the social media marketing firm “Feedback Agency” Dean Browell Ph.D to help define what viral video is:
“It’s a video that’s been passed between people, and the people it’s been passed between do not all know each other.”
I also asked producer/writer Kenyetta Cheese from Rocketboom’s viral web series “Know Your Meme” to define the term:
“In the past if you came across a piece of video, something on TV that you thought was fantastic, all you could do was hope that your friends saw it the next day. Now with video being online, video being addressable, you can always find a URL for a YouTube video. I can take that URL and email it to friends, send it over IM, Facebook, whatever it is and everyone can have that common moment, have that shared culture all at once.
In order to explore the concept of infusing a game-like agency into a viral video experience, I collaborated with two other artists, Jess Haskins and Christy Sager, and developed a project called “Interesting Choice”. The objective of this project was to create a web video series that would engage the audience with a game-like experience. We defined a system of rules enabling the audience to make a series of “controlled” choices that would determine the narrative arc of the story. We wanted to achieve as many episodes as we could in the small window of time allotted during the school semester, so we decided on a rigorous weekly production schedule.
The production schedule began with a round table discussion about potential questions to begin the series with. We wanted to choose questions with “narrative” key words that would give us something to structure our story around. We then decided to only give the voters three choices for each question. We developed our three options for each question, by individually thinking about what we would like to make. The first round of questions and answers were as follows: (The selections in red were the poll winners and the numbers in parenthesis are the voting percentage.)
1. What should the genre be?
A. Film noir (10, 38%)
B. Sci-fi (8, 31%)
C. Horror (8, 31%)
2. What should the setting be?
A. A playroom (10, 38%)
B. A forest (9, 35%)
C. Mars (7, 27%)
3. There should also be…
A. A character that doesn’t speak (9, 35%)
B. Handcuffs (5, 19%)
C. A fish (12, 46%)
Monday morning we posted a short video on the YouTube channel that contained the questions, a brief synopsis of the project and a link to the blog post where the poll questions were hosted. After we got the content online, everyone in the group emailed, Tweeted, and Facebooked as many of our contacts as we could to try and get players for our “video” game.
Chris Menning another write on the popular Rocketboom webseries “Know Your Meme” had this to say about networking your videos:
“Networking is definitely a big part of it. If you really want to maximize the exposure of your content, you should already have a goof profile on BuzzFeed with some followers there who will vote up the content that you submit. The same thing goes for Digg, Reddit or all of the other social aggregation sites.”
The poll was closed Tuesday at noon. The players had decided that they wanted a film noir, set in a playroom, with a fish. By Wednesday we had our first script. Thursday was spent going over the script as a group and convincing actors to join the project. It was storyboarded on Friday and production took place on Saturday. Sunday began the lightning-fast editing session and brainstorm for the next list of questions and answers, so that the video could be uploaded onto YouTube Monday morning. The process repeated for the second and third episodes, screeching to a halt before production could be completed on the third episode. Because of the delay on the third and final episode, we produced a short animated teaser to keep the audience entertained and interested in the project. After a few weeks of delay and no luck securing the cast from the first two episodes, the series finale had to be re-scripted and recast in order to meet production deadlines.
The result of our efforts became the critically acclaimed web series, “Interesting Choice”. We managed to deliver three completed episodes and two teasers before the completion of the first season. We told the mysterious tale of a husband and wife whose bizarre rendezvous with their child’s schoolteacher some how resulted in the violent death of their son. The story is concluded with a wrap-up provided by detective Dick Fish that ends in frustration and an unsolved case, as the investigator quits the case and goes fishing.
Interesting Choice Episode 1: “F” is for Fish
Interesting Choice Episode 2: Remember the Fish
Interesting Choice Episode 2.5: The Teaser
Interesting Choice Episode 3: Gone Fishing
I feel that “Interesting Choice” was a successful project. While it did not achieve viral video status, it did achieve a small but loyal following; who became very involved in the interaction with the story. There was a significant shift in the preferences of the audience between episodes two and three. At first the audience selected all the “safe” options. I think this happened because they were not sure what to expect. After we exceeded expectations with the first and second episodes the audience was ready to commit to the experience and the results of the final poll were pushed to the extreme. The audience at that point no longer selected the “safe” options. They wanted see how far they could push the narrative and challenge creative abilities of the video makers.
In building on this idea for future projects, I feel that with the addition of a budget, ability to secure a crew and actors, a more detailed and creative marketing campaign and the production and completion of many more episodes, “Viral” video status may well be within the scope of this combination approach.
Browell, Dean. 2010. Interview by Brian A. Bernhard on April 24th 2010. Interactive, Addictive, Narrative. Vimeo. http://www.vimeo.com/11639116 (Accessed May 12, 2010).
Cheese, Kenyetta. 2010. Interview by Brian A. Bernhard on April 17th 2010. Interactive, Addictive, Narrative. Vimeo. http://www.vimeo.com/11639116 (Accessed May 12, 2010).
Clark, Neils & Scott, P. Shavaun. 2009. Game Addiction – The Experience and The Effects. McFarland & Company, Inc.
Dini, Kourosh MD. 2008. Video Game Play and Addiction – A Guide For Parents. iUniverse, Inc.
Fortugno, Nick. 2010. Interview by Brian A. Bernhard on April 30th 2010. Interactive, Addictive, Narrative. Vimeo. http://www.vimeo.com/11639116 (Accessed May 12, 2010).
Menning, Chris. 2010. Interview by Brian A. Bernhard on April 17th 2010. Interactive, Addictive, Narrative. Vimeo. http://www.vimeo.com/11639116 (Accessed May 12, 2010).
Roundtree, Ellie. 2010. Interview by Brian A. Bernhard on April 17th 2010. Interactive, Addictive, Narrative. Vimeo. http://www.vimeo.com/11639116 (Accessed May 12, 2010).
Tyrer, Richard J.J. 2008. Addiction and Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs): An In-depth Study of Key Aspects. University of Salford
YouTube, LLC. 2010. YouTube. http://www.youtube.com (Accessed May 10th, 2010).
Wikipedia. 2010. Viral Video. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viral_video (Accessed May 10, 2010)