Emotions and Interactive Digital Storytelling

Doing a deep-dive today into digital storytelling research with a look at research from Zhao, Zhang, and McDougall (2011) titled Emotion Driven Interactive Digital Storytelling. The premise of their research is that most interactive digital storytelling is based on participants achieving specific goals, whereas their research indicates that emotion can be the driving force to move the story forward.


The author’s work is based on Smith and Lazarus’ cognitive-motivational-emotive theory, which states that there is an “appraisal process” that affects how the participant will respond based on their current needs and situation.  Two players may react similarly or very differently to situations based on their personality.  For example, the emotions of the participants may vary from attacking in anger, fleeing, or avoiding the situation entirely due to anxiety.

The research was based on creating an interactive digital story based on an episode of the TV show Ugly Betty.  The participants were shown the episode, but at different points in the narrative the story would stop and the participants were asked what emotions they were feeling at the moment. Based on their emotions, the story could go in any number of different directions.  The result was that each participant would see a story based on their own emotions.

In their research, empathy with characters in the story was a driving factor for how the participants navigated the story.  When they felt the emotions from a particular character’s perspective, they tended to influence the story based on their feeling towards that character.  And there was a significant difference between female participants (who tended to feel empathy towards the character and that character’s situation) and male participants (who tended to make up their own goals not based on the character’s situation).   The researchers also found that the participants preferred method of interaction with the game (game-players vs TV watchers) also had a significant influence on the results.

This research is an indicator to developers of interactive digital storytelling that emotion based story development can be an interesting and compelling means of player interaction that will create a unique story based on their personality.  As an instructional tool, it can be used to increase participation and interest in digital storytelling.


5 thoughts on “Emotions and Interactive Digital Storytelling

  1. David,

    Great article choice. I love articles that look at the psychology behind things. Thank you for posting this. I found it interesting, though not surprising, that men and women had different reactions to this gaming sequence. I also like the idea of a digital story that progresses based on the reaction of the viewer. This is particularly important on works of fiction, However, when someone is telling their own story, it might be a little trickier. But it might give us a better handle on who our audience might be. It is kind of in line with how certain genres of fiction appeal to different audiences. For instance, based on the emotional aspect of this article, it would make sense that books that include human interactions and romance might be more appealing to a majority women, while books that deal in facts and hard science are typically more appealing to men.

    This also brings me back to a philosophy class that I took many years ago where we talked about the different types of fallacies in argument. One of the fallacies was an appeal on emotion. Basically, and argument that appealed to people’s emotions was not a really a valid argument because emotions are rarely ever tied to facts.

    Thank you!



  2. Hi David,
    This sounds like a really insightful article and was a welcoming perspective on digital storytelling. I know I have been focusing a lot on various methods for telling a story, but I really haven’t focused on the idea of incorporating emotions, which I regret. Emotions are one of the main factors that allow stories to connect with their audience and a device that moves the story forward, so it only makes sense that it would play a central role as a storytelling device.

    This study sounds really interesting, I like that the audience was able to interact with the story based on their emotions, and that they each had a different outcome in the story. It reminds me a lot of the Tell Tale Games, all are basically choose your own adventure books in a gaming format. Your choices determine the various outcomes in the story.

    Thank you for sharing this!


  3. sylvanrobert1

    Hi David,
    We are often taught to deny our emotions as they will too often lead us astray. And here we have some researchers making the case to craft a digital story which appeals to the viewer’s emotions to make it more engaging. I must say that I like this approach of acknowledging one’s emotions, as emotions do absolutely motivate us, as stated in this article. I have learned that we should not suppress our emotions but instead be aware of them and use them as a tool to help us sense our environment. I’m not advocating that we should just react to our emotions, but instead let them help us “feel” our environment and then carefully consider why we are feeling as we are. I listen to my emotions by feeling my body and have noticed that I tighten my leg muscles and curl my toes when feeling anxious or stressed. I’m then able to reflect upon my surroundings and ask myself is there something in this environment that is causing my feelings of anxiety, or is it just some mindless story I’m telling myself. Then, I’m either able to reset and enjoy my environment or remove myself from it if there is a “need” to be anxious. I redirect, and it appears that the researchers found that participants prefer an interactive digital story where they too can create a unique story based on their emotional needs and reactions. How cool, thanks for sharing and I downloaded the article for future reference!


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