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If everything is interactive, then nothing is interactive

The word ‘interactivity’ reigns supreme as one of the buzziest buzz words to grace our ears in the past decade. Marketers deemed millennials the “me generation” to end all “me generations” and began shooting viral marketing campaigns asking the viewer to get involved out the wazoo. I like to call this new form of marketing the choose-your-own-advertisement. It boasts buzzinteractivitybuzz buzzsocial engagementbuzz buzzshareabilitybuzz! In reality, it’s Hulu asking you to take a quiz about its TV shows in order to collect information about your consuming habits while letting you do their work for them.

The worst part about interactivity’s buzzword-iness is just how often it gets misused, exaggerated, or unnecessarily employed. And games are at least partially responsible for that. Because interactivity isn’t just about clicking on an ABCD answer quiz about The Mindy Project. Interactivity is the extent to which a computer can participate in a dialogue with human inputs. The program responds to what you do, you respond to its response, it responds to your response to its response was—and so the dance goes.

Now, where videogames are to blame for perpetuating the misuse of this complex man-machine dance is, by and large, in overstating game worlds’ responsiveness to player input. Sure, you can either go right or left in a hallway in Gone Home, or pick up this object and not that object. And yes, technically that allows you to interact with the game in ways you do not interact with a painting. But to what extent are games like this actually engaging with how you interact with their world? And to what extent is the “interactivity” of a game world just a series of glorified menu options—in other words, about as “interactive” as pressing the volume button on your TV remote?

But finally, here is a video out of the Future of Storytelling summit that draws some lines in the sand and defines interactivity with a little more nuance. Interactive Video 101 is an interactive video explaining the narrative structures of a new form of videos that let you interact with them (have you caught onto the drinking game yet? That’s one shot for every “interactive,” two for every “video,” three if both come up in the same sentence.) Midway through viewing it, this video prompts you: which branching narrative structure will you explore?

Both the video and the platform used to design the interactive video were created by Yoni Bloch. The Israeli rockstar turned tech start-up success story invented the platform Treehouse in order to explore the possibility of responsive music videos. His first interactive music video allowed users not only to change the narrative direction of the story, but also altered the music accordingly. His company Interlude has now expanded to help bring interactive elements to a range of different video projects, from a Bob Dylan-sponsored Rolling Stone channel-flipping video to a Pepsi ad that I’m afraid doesn’t even really fall under the choose-your-own-advertisement model.

I’d frankly rather just watch my internet video in peace. 

There’s a certain pleasing yet obtrusive element to getting asked to interact with a video on the internet. It makes sense in both the Bloch videos, where one is explaining what interactivity can bring to video and the other incorporating actual meaningful responsiveness to user inputs. But the supposed interactivity of a Hulu ad or Pepsi trying to squeeze more time from viewers under its guise make me question interactivity’s place in video. Bloch’s interactive interview with Tech Crunch, for example, gave me some Walking Dead flashbacks that induced only panic while I yelled “I don’t know, you friggen decide!” at my screen. Execution of interactivity is key. And even some of Bloch’s videos still need work. In Interactive Video 101 for example, I clicked on Parallel Paths first and the narration began with “another approach…” But the thing is, I hadn’t clicked on any other approaches yet. So it seems the video just assumed I’d go down the line of options linearly rather than skipping around as its supposedly “interactive” interface invites.

And thus reveals the buzzword-y tendencies of incorporating “interactivity” into a medium or format. Yes, interactive storytelling does have exciting possibilities. But if a person’s input bears no meaningful function, other than to feign trendiness, I’d frankly rather just watch my internet video in peace. You know, without the timed prompts that give me horrible anxiety and flashbacks to letting a walker eat some lady who needed my help.