As far as origin stories go, mine is traceable to one specific moment.
During my time as an undergrad, I had very little experience with digital media. I never played video games. I pushed against what I thought was the “smartphone fad” for awhile. I didn’t even have a Netflix account. I read hardcopy books. I rented documentary DVDs from the university library. I listened to illegally downloaded music on my refurbished Zune MP3 player. If you listen closely, you can hear the stereotype of the millennial digital native shattering.
I wasn’t trying to be a hipster. I had just never been immersed in the digital world until I forced myself to be. I enrolled in the digital media minor offered at my university. The very first day of classes, my professor showed the class something I will never forget: the interactive documentary Bear 71.
This digital story about the life of a grizzly in Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada was unlike anything I had ever seen. It was fiction and nonfiction at the same time. It was a documentary, but something more. I had never felt more immersed in a story before.
Bear 71 sparked my interest in digital stories and led me to the EMDD program today. When I began brainstorming possible topics for my thesis during my first year, I always came back to Bear 71. Why had it intrigued me? What was it about the digital setting of the story that had gripped me more than traditional documentaries? I think this is where the heart of academic inquiry really lies: questions that pull at your curiosity and inspire your passions.
I have to remind myself of this fact whenever I get in deep with research jargon and contrasting opinions while writing my thesis. The working title for my thesis is currently, “Interactivity as a meaning making tool in interactive documentaries: a user experience study of Bear 71.” It even makes me roll my eyes, so I can only imagine the reaction of someone who doesn’t eat, sleep, and breath this stuff every day. I have to keep asking myself, “Why would anyone care about what I have to write?”
But then I think back on Bear 71, and how much I cried at the end of the bear’s story. I look back at how ubiquitous digital worlds have become in our culture in the last decade. Words like “interactive” and “meaningful” have become so overused that designers and audiences alike lose perspective of what these terms mean and why they matter. The technicalities of academic writing can undermine passion and muddle the potential applications of such in-depth topics. But even a tiny peek outside of the academic bubble can be an integral part of the research process.
It’s easy to observe the ways and tools people use to engage with new information. That’s interactivity. It’s easy to see how people change their opinions, values, and understandings based on the information they perceive. That’s meaning-making. And it’s easy to see how the things we as creators make affect how people interact and make meaning out of the information we present. That’s user experience.
What isn’t always easy is remembering why the things we study as academics, researchers, and creators matter. Sometimes all it takes is a moment of reflection on how we came to ask these questions in the first place.
Original image taken by Tony Hisgett and used under a Creative Commons license.