With VR, creators must focus on storydoing, not storytelling

[Adapted from an article Catherine Allen wrote in The Bookseller magazine published in February 2017]

You’ve probably encountered the hype by now: virtual reality was the digital talking point of 2016. Virtual reality will start to go mainstream in the next few years, and there’s a decent chance that this hype will transform from intrigue and excitement into a serious revenue opportunity. Market research firm, SuperData’s December analysis predicted that by 2020, global revenue from VR ‘media entertainment’ content will total $2.8 billion. It’s this category of ‘media entertainment’ where publishers can get in on the action, in a major way.

But, with what content?

The answer to this could seems obvious – with storytelling, of course. I’ve been making VR since 2015, having led the creation of two of the BBC’s first public-facing VR projects. During this time, I have seen the film and TV industry’s initial natural inclination to ‘tell stories’. When your industry is built on storytelling, that is the thing to do when a new medium comes along, right?

Myself and other creators have come to the realisation that the whole storytelling thing is actually a red herring; a false trail. Story is crucial to VR. But storytelling? Nope, it’s not as central as one might expect. VR at it’s best is a medium for storydoing. The most successful VR experiences give the audience a story world, and a compelling set of circumstances where they can come back with their own unique stories to tell.

The fledgling VR industry has now undergone a few important years of experimentation to get here. As Professor Janet Murray, one of the world’s most noted interaction designers says, “Expanding human expressivity into new formats and genres is culturally valuable but difficult work. We are collectively engaged in making necessary mistakes”. The results of many of these VR adventures have been showcased at film festivals, galleries, museums, on social media, and on the headsets’ own VR app stores. Endless panel discussions have focused on that key question – how do you tell stories in VR? How can we create a new ‘grammar’ for storytelling?

The most important difference between VR and other screen or paper based media is presence. VR is essentially one grand illusion: you strap a rectangular screen to your face and ta-daa, you can suspend disbelief, and achieve a sense of presence in a place you are not. This mimicry of reality means that VR experiences tend to be simulations of events, rather than representations. Participants usually apply similar rules and expectations (unless you manage their expectations otherwise).

While a great book is likely to give its reader the author’s representation of a story, a strong VR experience is more likely to give the user a simulation of their own story. This has implications, as Jessica Brillhart, Google’s principle VR filmmaker explained in Filmmaker Magazine, “Telling anything in a medium that’s meant to convince someone they have experiential freedom is very hard to do, unless you literally just tell it through narration or force someone to look in a direction, which is not really the point of this whole virtual reality thing”.

My advice to publishers is this. Rather than expend yourself or your authors on the very difficult challenge of ‘telling’, instead, pour your energies into the areas that simulation lends itself to. Story skills can be applied to designing captivating worlds for users to explore. Even the simple act of creating an evocative atmosphere can lead to an emotional state change in your user. Think about intimacy, and how audience members can get to know characters. Consider the role your user plays once they are in the experience, and make sure this is communicated to them. Embodiment in VR has been proven to have significant effects on the user – from reducing racism to increasing charitable donations.

The distinct effect of storydoing goes beyond when your user takes off the headset, and that effect lies in the power of ownership. If we look back to the word ‘storydoing’s’ roots, we can see the efficacy of the approach. Storydoing comes from the marketing world, first coming into popular use in marketing innovator Ty Montague’s book, True Story. Since then it’s become a trendy yet helpful way to describe to the shift in how consumers interact with certain brands.

A decade ago it was popular for brands to market themselves by telling their story. The web opened up all sorts of ways to do this. However, as social media increased its grasp on the population, consumers became more interested in telling their own stories. Brands observed this, realising that they could get far more organic reach by providing physical or digital experiences to their customers. Customer tweets, Snapchats, Instagram pictures and Facebook posts about that brand experience would follow. Brands realised that for certain audience segments, especially millennials and early adopters, this was far more effective because it provided audiences with a sense of ownership over their experience.

Imagine you are an urban 23-year-old posting selfies at a special summer hot tub film screening on top of a multi-storey car park, an event organised by a vodka brand. The nature of that memory is different. It’s not ‘I remember this story I was told about that vodka brand’. Instead it is ‘I remember this cool thing I did’. Not only is the experience more memorable the memory of you sitting in a hot tub sipping that cold vodka on the rocks, watching a cult classic now forms a part of how you perceive yourself as an individual.

The ownership effect that marketeers have exploited for several years will also apply to VR storydoing. As a reader, my sense of ownership comes from purchasing a physical or digital object. As a VR user, my sense of ownership stems from owning the things that I did in that space. Both activities contribute towards my sense of self, but in very different ways.

Publishers: be wary of directly transposing your properties into VR as stories told. Instead, focus on where your talents match the potential of this new medium. Think about the incredible worlds you can build for your audiences, the characters that you can introduce them to, and ultimately, how you can offer people experiences that will contribute towards their sense of self.