The immersive and interactive qualities of literature

On: September 4, 2010
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About Suzanne Schram
I am Suzanne Schram. I have a Bachelor degree in Literature and I have done the Master Book and Digital Media Studies, both in Leiden.


In “Immersion vs. Interactivity: Virtual Reality and Literary Theory” Marie-Laure Ryan explores the problematics of Virtual literature. Marie-Laure Ryan is a literary scholar and critic. She has written several books and articles concerning narratology, fiction and cyberculture, and she has been awarded several times for her work. Ryan has a diverse background. She has studied literature, linguistics, German, French and computer science and she has worked at Universities, as a software engineer and as a software consultant.

In the article she uses a definition for Virtual reality which is used to determine whether it is possible for literature to be virtual. She uses the definition of Pimentel and Texeira: “In general, the term virtual reality refers to an immersive, interactive experience generated by a computer.” This is a proper definition for the goal of this article. Jonathan Steuer in his article “Defining Virtual Reality: Dimensions Determining Telepresence” already argued that a definition of Virtual Reality should not be technical but rather focused on experience. However in his article Steuer doesn’t use the word immersion whereas I believe that it is essential for Virtual reality. The words ‘immersive’ and ‘interactivity’ are key words in this article. She claims that immersion and interaction makes an experience an experience of reality.

Ryan describes that certain qualities are needed to create immersion. She agrees with Thomas Sheridan that various points of view are necessary. According to Frank Biocca the user should not be aware of the computer, so a transparent medium is needed. This can be accomplished by a user friendly computer design. Myron Krueger wants to interact with computers in a way which is more natural to human beings. He has done several experiments in which this is envisioned such as GLOWFLOW, MAZE and VIDEOPLACE. In these experiments people and machines interact with each other in a virtual environment. Besides the transparency of the medium language must disappear if it can be replaced by physical actions. It should not be necessary for the user to translate their vision into sets of precise instructions. This quality is a problem for virtual literature.

Ryan explains interactivity as: “Interactivity is not merely the ability to navigate the virtual world, it is the power of the user to modify this environment.” The virtual world must respond to the actions of the user. The response of the virtual world must be “in real time”, Steuer calls this speed. Speed is one of the three factors Steuer mentions as determining the degree of interactivity. The other two are range, the number of possibilities for action, and mapping, which constraints the behavioir of the system.

The virtuality of literature

Ryan claims that VR relates to art trough the immersive power. She explains that computers are always interactive whereas immersion is an effect of art. The effect of immersion is not the only quality which VR and literature have in common. Fiction presupposes as does Virtual Reality transparency of the medium. The reader looks through the work towards the reference world. A form of not paying attention to the materiality of the text is plot reading. The reader wants to find out what is happening next in the fictional world. Another quality which literature has in common with Virtual Reality is telepresence. The literary equivalent of 3D is depth in the narrative universe such as round characters, as opposed to flat characters, and the encouragement of the reader to reconstruct the content of the characters mind. Another thing which they have in common is that literary language can represent the entire spectrum of human experience. Literature offers a mobility of point of view at least as extensive as that of VR systems. Both VR and fiction present the ability to transcend the boundaries of human perception. VR enable users to enter places which are normally inaccessible and fiction legitimates the representation of what cannot be known. When one reads literature the reader is aware of the collaboration with the text in the production of meaning. This is best explained by hermeneutics. According to Hans-Georg Gadamer meaning is formed by the interaction of people with a piece of art.

Can literature be immersive and interactive?

One form of interactive literature is hypertext fiction. This means that the reader has a choice of directions which can be followed. However this principle isn’t specifically a quality of hypertext fiction. The matter of choice is also possible for printed literature. A famous example of this is the book Rayuela (Hopscotch) by Julio Cortázar. This literary experiment can be read in several ways; the reader can chose in which sequence he wants to read the chapters. Another example is the poem Kwartetspel by Judith Herzberg. This poem can be read in several ways because half of the sentences are written in italics. The reader can decide to read the poem in total, only the sentences that are written in italics or only the sentences not written in italics. Hypertext fiction is more digital than virtual because the reader can’t change the environment, he only can make pre-written choices which don’t alter the configuration of the network. Hypertext fiction can be seen as the actualization of hermeneutics: there is an actual dialogue between a piece of art and the consumer. Every reader gives a different meaning to a story, when a reader reads a hypertext novel every reader really reads a different novel. The interaction between reader and a story can be increased. A reader can really change a story when he co-writes a story. The problems which arise when readers are invited to co-write a story are to trying to sustain a coherent story and a story with an esthetic value. Howard Rheingold argues that is should not become a multi-user word processor therefore he stresses the need for “scenario control”.

Immersion for e-books

Ryan illustrates immersion: ‘If readers are caught up in a story, they turn the pages without paying too much attention to the letter of the text: what they want is to find out what happened next in the fictional world.’ This means that a reader becomes immersed into a story when the medium is transparent. I suggest that for e-books there are two forms of interactivity, interactivity in the sense that the reader influences the story and interactivity in the sense that the reader influences the illustrations. In current e-books readers can only interact with the illustrations. However will this new way of reading lead to a more immersive way of reading or will the opposite be the case? Ryan believes that the interactive illustrations will diminish the immersion since it emphasizes the materiality of the book.

There are three different types of e-books. The first category is the simple e-book. The simple e-book does not add anything extra to the content of a book. The simple e-book is an equivalent of the conventional printed book, it displays especially text. The second category is the ‘enhanced e-book’ which is not just simply a digital version of a book but it has extra features. This extra information consists of primarily text and relates to the core text but is not part of the core text. The last category of e-books is the multimedia e-book. This category contains e-books which embed different media such as music, video and games. Examples of multimedia e-books are the iBook and the Vook. The different e-books have different effects on immersion. The immersion of a simple e-book does not change, the immersion of an enhanced e-book might increase and the immersion of a multimedia e-book might increase or decrease. The enhanced e-book can influence the immersivity of the story since the adding of extra information might deepen the feeling of immersion. The immersion of the story will not be influenced negatively since the reader can decide when and whether to read the additional text or not. The additional text does not interrupt the story. The addition of the different media forms in the multimedia e-book might influence the feeling of immersion into a story. The media forms might deepen the immersion or might distract from the reading experience. This effect might depend on the kind of reader, the manner in which the media is implemented, the quality and the sort of media. The creators of the Vook version of The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux have implemented videos from a screen-version. They claim about the effect of the videos: ‘The original videos helps recapture the chilling tone of the original novel.’ The inclusion of videos or photos from the screen-version might deepen the immersion because it makes the world of the story visible.

I expect that every form of medium has its own form of immersion; a reader feels a different kind of immersion when watching a film, reading a book or playing a game. I propose to make a distinction between two kinds of immersion, the immersion into a story and the immersion into the medium. A digital medium can display a story in which text, video and audio are completely integrated. There are no separate windows for every form of media and there are no different operating systems. In this way the reader feels more immersed in the medium than when the medium is fragmented; when the different modalities are shown in separate windows with different operating systems. I expect that when the reader switches between one form of medium to another this will result in a rupture of the immersion. This rupture might be greater when the different forms of media are displayed in different windows with different operating systems. When there are no separate windows and different operating systems the medium is more transparent and transparency is required for immersion.

The future of immersion

The problem Ryan mentions in her article is: “in literary matters, interactivity conflicts either with immersion or with aesthetic design, and usually with both.” She explains that the more interactive a text is the less immersive the text is. This is because they are in conflict with each other; when readers are immersed in a story they look through the signs toward the reference world, whereas when readers interact they exploit the materiality of the medium.

Her solution for this problem is a “game of in-and-out” wherein both interactivity and immersion are combined. Ryan’s “game of in-and-out” is also a strategy which is used in Postmodern literature. This strategy is called ‘Chinese-Box Worlds’ Brian McHale explains this strategy: “the effect of interrupting and complicating the ontological “horizon” of the fiction, multiplying its worlds, and lying bare the process of world-construction.” This is one of the strategies which are used in postmodern literature to show the thin line between fiction and reality. Ryan proposes more concretely as solution for the problem a dialogic and live interaction: “turn language into a dramatic performance, into the expression of a bodily mode of being in the world.” Users are invited to play the role of a character. However is this role-playing still the reading of literature or is this the writing of literature? Moreover when literature is made into a dramatic performance is it still literature or is it theatre or a new medium? This new form of literature when readers co-write brings forth also the question: what is the function of the author?

This article is written in 1994 and since then a lot has happened in the development of VR. An example of a narrative Augmented Reality project is Alice’s Adventures in New Media, created in 2001. This project is interactive and immersive. The insertion of AG in literature might increase the immersion of the reader because the physical body of the user becomes the avatar. The creators claim: “The medium depends on the delicate tension between the virtual and the physical to immerse the user in the story.” This project is based on only one chapter of the Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The user plays the role of Alice and visits a tea party with three interactive characters: the Mad Hatter, the Dormouse, and the March Hare. The characters are video-based and are presented through a head-mounted display, they are sitting at the same physical table as the user. The goal of this project is to explore AR as a storytelling medium. The characters can interact with the user and with each other. The user’s objective is to get directions to a garden. The user can talk to the characters through simple audio level sensing. The characters have procedural behaviors that govern how each character acts or reacts to the user or other the other characters. The user’s actions vary the arrangements of story primitives.

This project solves many problems pointed out in Ryan’s article. The user of this project can influence in real time the story; the environment reacts on the actions of the user. So the factor ‘speed’ used by Steuer is high for this project. The factor ‘range’ is also high for this project, the user has unlimited choice; the user can say what he wants. The last factor of Steuer is ‘mapping’, the actions of this project have a direct real-world counterpart therefore the mapping strategy matches the natural action. A problem formulated by Ryan is that the user is subjected by the author this is not the case in this project since the user can say and do what he wants. Another problem which Ryan mentioned is: “But the user of a VR system interacts with a world that is experienced as existing autonomously because this world is accessible to many senses.” This problem is solved by the technology of AV; the user can use his whole body and he can see and feel. So the user can interact with the story and also feel immersed. Though the question remains: can it still be called literature? One might say that this project relates more to film than to literature. Can AR be the future form of literature?


Krueger, Myron. 1977. “Responsive Environments”. In Wardrip-Fruin, Noah and Montfort, Nick (ed.) The New Media Reader. (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003).

McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. (New York and London: Methuen, 1987).

Moreno, Emmanuel, Blair MacIntyre and Jay David Bolter. ‘Alice’s Adventure’s in New Media: An Exploration of Interactive Narratives in Augmented Reality.’ CAST’01 (2001).

Ryan, Marie-Laure. ‘Immersion vs. Interactivity: Virtual Reality and Literary Theory’,
SubStance Vol. 28 (1999), pp. 110-137.

Ryan, Marie-Laure. Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).

Schram, Suzanne. The consequences of the literary e-book. From:

Steuer, Jonathan. ‘Defining Virtual Reality: Dimensions Determining Telepresence.’ Journal of Communications 42.4 (1992), pp. 73-93.

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