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  • What Is Interactivity?
  • Aaron Smuts (bio)


Technological advances over the past thirty years have given rise to new forms of media—video games, interactive video installations, virtual reality, and computer-based art—that some enthusiastic commentators see as harboring revolutionary artistic potential. The concept of "interactivity" frames the discussion of these new candidate art forms, perhaps marking the divide between "new" and "old" media. While everyone seems to have something to say about the significance of interactivity, no one seems to have a clear understanding of just what makes something interactive.1 Making matters worse, this theoretical imprecision is coupled with a general looseness in our everyday use of the term.2 Unless we have a better understanding of the nature of interactivity, any claims about the nature of interactive artworks or the effects of interactivity on audiences will be suspect. Rather than risk talking past each other in our critical discussions, it is worthwhile to clarify our terminology.

Accordingly, in this article I attempt to develop a definition of "interactivity" that meets two sometimes incompatible goals: the definition should be in accord with our best intuitions on how the term should be used, and it should usefully differentiate interactivity from related but incompatible concepts with which it is often confused.3 I argue that the term "interactive" should be considered a general-purpose term that indicates something about that to which it is applied—whether this "something" is [End Page 53] art, artifact, or nature. I base my definition on the notion of "interacting with." First, I look for essential features of this relationship; second, using these features I develop a surprisingly simple definition of "interactivity" that can help distinguish the interactive from noninteractive arts. I argue that to be interactive, something must be responsive in a way that is neither completely controllable nor completely random.

Before developing a theory of interactivity, I analyze five problematic definitions: (1) Terrence Rafferty's control theory, (2) Marie-Laure Ryan's making use theory, (3) David Saltz's input/output theory, (4) Dominic McIver Lopes's modifiable structure theory, and (5) Janet Murray's procedural/participatory theory.4 In each case, I reveal a problem that my final notion solves. After presenting a novel definition of "interactivity," I defend the viability of my theory against several objections, including skeptical remarks that interactivity is a useless concept.

Five Theories of Interactivity

Control Theory

In an article in the New York Times on DVD technology, Terrence Rafferty complains that interactivity does not herald an age of fantastic new narratives but rather of unchallenging, audience-driven art.5 Rafferty sees interactivity as a form of control exercised by an audience that is unable or unwilling to submit to an artist. He thinks DVD chapter selection is just a bit less insidious than DVDs with alternative endings, and that the increasing ease of viewing DVD chapters according to one's own order is symptomatic of a wider failure to submit to artistic vision by audiences in need of instant gratification. Rafferty argues that DVD chapter sequencing is continuous with choosing different endings of a story, which, in turn, is just a few steps from controlling the entire narrative. Perhaps the future Rafferty imagines is not entirely off base. Although not an official release, a version of the second Star Wars sequel with the Jar Jar Binks character removed circulated on the Internet soon after the theatrical release. Closer to a full manifestation of Rafferty's nightmare, new endings were added to 28 Days Later (dir. Danny Boyle, 2002) while it was still playing in theaters.

Rafferty's worry is not that the ontology of the film is muddled by optional endings but rather that DVD chapter selection and alternate endings are part of a recent disturbing trend toward interactivity—a trend that is gradually phasing out the artist. As such, his criticisms of interactivity can be seen as an extension of Rousseau's diagnosis of the popular theater: The theater is unable to teach because it must pander to the audience's attitudes in order to be effective.6 Rousseau argues that "an author who would brave the general taste would soon write [End Page...


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pp. 53-73
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