Playing in the imaginative gap

Playing in the imaginative gap

I got super-excited the other morning reading Tali Krakowsky’s post ‘The Spaces In Between’ as my approach to digital storytelling has from very early on focused on the power of what I call the imaginative gap. This for me is the idea that fragmented, non-linear narratives achieve richness through what we do to actively fill in the gaps and make connections between fragments. The film, Memento was an early model of this for me as was Scott McCloud’s notion of ‘blood in the gutter’ between panels in a comic, where we instinctively stitch together disparate events into a continuous story. So the idea in Tali’s post, that the gap is a place of play and exploration absolutely resonated with me.

I think we now see this principle in the use of dynamic spatial maps as the interface through which complex interactive narratives are told. You can see this in HBO’s Imagine (see above) and Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure

In each, we see the fragmented elements of the stories  in a dynamic model that allows us to intuit if not fully understand the whole. Interactivity allows us to play with fragments and the experience becomes rich when we stitch the pieces together into meaningful wholes, creating narrative closure between elements.

This is one way of thinking about how the imaginative gap functions. And really here we can go back to Barthes’ distinction between the readerly and writerly texts in ‘The Death of the Author’ with the understanding that Barthes’ vision of active readers creating their own texts is exactly what is now happening in digital media. So the death of the author/authority is really what we see happening now in the birth of participatory co-creators of online stories.  Check out Philips’ invitation to fans to create the 6th short  film in their Parallel Lines online series. The governing rule is that fan created short films have to contain the key lines of dialogue that link the existing films across genres and divergent story lines.

A second aspect that I am also fascinated with is that the spaces between are also spaces of play. That stories that are not closed, not perfectly rendered, but gapped, like the space between Chloe’ teeth in Tali’s blog, engage us in the act of playing with content, with meaning. This often means that there is more than one way to stitch a story back together. In the exploratory website for Hail the Villain we have to piece together the story behind a car crash.

Third, play is not just what we do within the story space, for me ‘play’ has become the defining characteristic of digital storytelling and I mean this in multiple ways. We play with the content AND we play with the interfaces and this second play is often the source of intensely satisfying immersion in the surprise and delight of unexpected nuances of interface design (see Eric Zimmerman & Katie Salen on play & game design). Most recently for me I find this in the preload bar on the NFB/Jam3 Waterlife website. And I will put on record here that yes, I often deliberately go the site just to play with the preloader.

The digital space is a playful medium and to really understand its potential means to not approach it as a content delivery system (to borrow from Russell Crowe in The Insider) but to understand it as a poetic medium. And poetic in that we look for patterns, rhythms, and multiple levels of meaning, just as we do in film or literature. This extraordinarily beautiful site is ‘a three-dimensional, interactive rendering of the Torah, to be written by over 300,000 global participants’ (source:

Storytelling in the digital environment is immersive, rich & satisfying when we are called upon to interact in two ways simultaneously and when there is integrity between these two modes: in the playfulness of the interfaces that extend and support the content and in the imaginative engagement with the content whereby we create and experience a story or stories in the moment. And there is more chance of this happening when the story is distributed, when fragments exist in dynamic juxtaposition, when the experience can really be different through each iteration. This is different from a branching tree model because the structure itself is designed to be mobile, giving the completion of the experience and narrative to the participant. Jonathan Harris’ The Whale Hunt, for example, offers multiple ways to follow his journey north, linear and non-linear

And this leads into what may be the most important distinction between film & tv and digital storytelling. I have also noticed that when digital creatives talk about their process and how projects are developed, they often talk about the importance of taking time to play. Sometimes, this is time set aside for brainstorming and discovery. Sometimes it is taking your staff out to to go indoor parachuting as Adrian Belina of Jam3 described at Storytelling X.O recently. And sometimes play means actually playing with tactile media, paper, toys, you name it. My most favourite of these stories is Joshua Hirsch, Minister of Technology of Big Spaceship (is that not a playful title?), tale of their most important purchase, a smoke machine and the value they found in playing with it. (Hey Josh! put that video up online!). You can see the results in the video below

In this latter sense, play is also exploration. It is not goal oriented and it is not bound by criteria of success and failure, and because of that it allows for the unexpected.

So know that when you start creating in the digital realm, you are not only allowed to play, play is also fundamental to the process. Here Big Spaceship’s foosball table becomes the interface for projected content:

The very best sites on the website engage us not only through the power of the story we discover but also through the delights of interaction. And it is this paradoxical combination that allows us to engage with content that can be serious and frankly depressing while still enjoying the experience. Understanding this is one aspect of being able to ‘design for the middle’ (Hirsch again – no wonder I love their work), as in digital storytelling the experience often means more than the arriving at the end. The interface to this last documentary, Gaza/Sderot, is beautifully conceived to reflect the crisis that impacts the lives of the Palestinian & Jewish communities depicted.