Every immersive eLearning experience, including virtual reality (VR) and 360-degree video training simulations, needs both passive and active storytelling techniques. It’s important to understand the differences and how to use them together to create engaging and effective XR eLearning experiences.
Passive storytelling simply means the audience watches (reads, listens, etc.) but doesn’t participate in any way, and the actors are not aware of the audience. The audience is a fly on the wall, a ghost. Active storytelling means the audience participates in and interacts with the experience and actors in some way. The audience is a character, a featured element of the story. Movies and books are examples of passive storytelling. Immersive theater and haunted houses are examples of active storytelling. Video games can have elements of both, as can XR experiences. The difference is in how much agency the audience has to impact the experience and affect the outcome. If they have enough agency, they may not even be considered “audience” anymore. Instead, they may be a visitor, a player, or even the protagonist of the story.
An XR experience with primarily passive storytelling elements could be a regular 360-degree video (as opposed to an interactive 360-degree video) of a scene with actors who ignore the camera. When someone views this video, whether in a VR head mounted display (HMD) or on a 2-D mobile device screen, they’re watching action unfold from a single point in space. Their only agency is which direction to look. Play the video again, and the exact same events will unfold in exactly the same way.
In contrast, an XR experience that uses active storytelling elements could be a VR video game. A player can not only look where she wants, she can move around, touch things, ignore other things, pick up objects, talk to or help other characters and players, solve puzzles, make decisions, and more. She can go fast or take her time. Further, she’ll typically have some degree of virtual self-embodiment or custom avatar, even if only a pair of floating hands. The game will never be played the same way twice.
The best storytelling often uses elements of both. Passive elements help orient the audience, provide key information, and set up future conflicts or tension in the narrative to be resolved later. In contrast, active elements engage the audience, keep them interested, and create a deeper sense of presence.
Agency within a narrative dance
When designing immersive experiences, balancing passive and active storytelling is like a dance. The creator leads a visitor around the “dance floor” (i.e., through the immersive experience). The visitor passively follows where she’s led, but she’s also able to actively move and spin within a limited region of the dance floor. Just like in dance where the leader and follower create the dance together, the creator and visitor weave the immersive story together. “[The creator] sets up active storytelling choices that the viewer will make. [The creator] will drive where [the visitor] will look, what they touch, and how they act in the space.” (Bucher, p. 67)
For example, we may have a need to provide background information at the beginning and periodically to move the story along. We also may want particular experiences to happen in a certain order. These outcomes are best accomplished with passive storytelling techniques. However, we may still want to allow the visitor some agency to explore, interact, or even fail. These other outcomes are best accomplished with active storytelling techniques. Fortunately, in VR we don’t have to choose between passive and active storytelling. We can combine both passive and active into a single experience.
We have many ways to create this dance and establish a flow of information between the visitor and creator. Maybe all the doors in a virtual building are locked, except for the ones we want the visitors to open. Maybe certain required actions could uncover keys that allow the player to unlock new doors. Perhaps an NPC (non-player character) could tell an important story when encountered. We could even set a timer to urge the player not to dawdle. Thus, just like in a dance, the player has agency to look, move, and act as she pleases, but only within a prescribed range that moves the story along in the preferred way. Many video games are designed this way.
Other immersive experience design elements that allow designers to combine passive and active storytelling techniques include:
- locomotion method and range (e.g., teleporting along a prescribed path)
- navigation menus
- temporal controls (e.g., interactive timelines, clocks/timers, play/pause buttons)
- geospatial controls (e.g., interactive maps, architectural layout, doors)
One noteworthy technique borrowed from the video game industry is the cut scene, a passively experienced segment placed inside or between periods of active game play. Cut scenes are recorded scenes that play between game levels, upon entering new buildings, when a virtual button is pushed, or after other in-game triggers. The normal action will stop and video will play for a few seconds to several minutes. They’re often high-resolution animations or live-action videos with professional or even celebrity actors. Since active video game action is highly-engaging but may not tell much of the story, a well-placed cut scene can move the story along, provide key information, or simply entertain.
Like entertainment video game designers, we can use cut scenes in our XR eLearning experiences, though we must be careful about jarring our visitors out of their virtual environments unexpectedly. We can use 360-degree videos as cut scenes that play when a visitor enters a new room, or for the visitor to watch as training immediately before interacting with an animated VR simulation of the same environment.
Passive and active storytelling techniques are both vitally important elements within effective and engaging XR experiences. We need to continually experiment with combining passive and active techniques in our own eLearning training experiences, as there is no standardized way of mixing the two. We’ll probably make some mistakes, and that’s okay. We’re applying very old narrative approaches to a completely new eLearning medium. As we play with combining passive and active storytelling techniques, we’ll begin to create whole new ways to learn. And that’s the hope and promise of using XR in eLearning in the first place.
Allen, Michael W. Michael Allen’s Guide to eLearning: Building Interactive, Fun, and Effective Learning Programs for Any Company, Second Edition. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2016.
Bucher, John. Storytelling for Virtual Reality: Methods and Principles for Crafting Immersive Narratives. New York, NY: Routledge, 2018.
Gee, James Paul. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, Revised and Updated Edition. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.