Carrie Cutforth

Participatory Fiction Lecture at OCAD U

February 23, 2019

Here is an updated version of  Carrie’s presentation on Participatory Fiction for an upcoming guest lecture at Lillian Allen’s Experimental Fiction class at OCAD University. You may download the powerpoint presentation which contains the talking points. Further notes and resources are available below.


Story was once uncontained, it was pervasive, immersive, interactive, participatory, co-created, in a shared storyworld (and in many cultures it still is) through multiple media: performance, text, architecture, etc.

To contain a story was a radical idea, experimental… ‘the novel was so radical’ it was well novel, new. The early novelists were experimenting with form borrowing from conventions of reality (note: both are linear):

  • collection of letters in sequence
  • serialized distribution

Transmedia is actually a return, a renewal of uncontained narrative. Trans means across and beyond, so transmedia means across and beyond media to tell a whole story that crosses multiple media channels (text, film, live events, etc.) in which vital narrative aspects might be missed if  media components are not consumed on their individual discreet platform, and often the participants/audience/users inform the narrative somehow by their active participation.



Users/audience makes choices to wayfind their way through the narrative.

  • ZORK
  • Interactive Fiction:
  • Choose Your Own Adventure novels
  • Interactive Film: Netflix’s Bandersnatch
  • To Be or Not To Be: A Chooseable Path Adventure
  • Visual/Kinesthetic Novels

Usera/audience are embedded inside the storyworld as self or character


Users participate beyond making choices predetermined pathways by author


Always accessible, moving in real time

  • Meatspace (live events)
  • websites
  • ARGS and AR games
  • twitter RPGS — Welcome to Sanditon

A collaboration between authors/participants or participants/participants based on constraints and facilitation


A world that has been built by an author/creator(s) that participants are invited to co-create with them either by explicit invitation or implicit permission (fan fiction)

UGC (User-generated content)

Any media item that the audience shares into the campaign or narrative


Any entry point into the narrative whether it be online content (a video, gif, blogpost, news item, etc.) or in meatspace (a poster, a t-shirt, etc.) that lures someone into the storyworld





“Interactivity is mainly an illusion. My favorite Castle gimmick was for his 1961 film “Mr. Sardonicus” — the audience were handed out little cards with a glow-in-the-dark thumb that he called The Punishment Poll. Near the end of the film, the audience had a chance to vote: thumbs up if you want to show Mr. Sardonicus mercy, and thumbs down if you want to see him punished. The audience was picking the ending of the film. Except, Castle says the “mercy” ending was never once shown, as the audience always voted for the punishment. But Castle was having a gag on all of us, as TCM explains: “Although Castle asserts in his book that there was an alternate ending filmed — one where Sardonicus lives — the consensus among horror film scholars is that it wasn’t actually filmed. No different ending has turned up, even in these days of unearthing every scrap of unused material in extra features for DVD releases.” William Castle definitely thought about the phenomena of theatrical experience (one could argue to the deficit of his actual filmmaking) and realized that this kind of showmanship could translate into profits at the box office. He inspired many filmmakers who came after him (including John Water’s Smell-o-Vision gimmick Odorama for the 1981 film “Polyester”.)” 

“I believe that transmedia actually reflects aboriginal storytelling methods where there was a lot of room for intersection between different communities, and different voices and different narratives.” 

“No-one has a mind. There is nothing inside my head. There are no ideas inside my head. There are no images inside my head. There are no memories inside my head. These are generated by my interaction with the world. What’s important is not what happens within us but what happens between us, in the medium of language in which we communicate, in the social institutions that we inhabit, in the culture that we’ve been conditioned.” 

Buckminster Fuller, while contemplating the nature of humanity and existence, once famously wrote, “I am not a thing – a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process.” Bucky was, in fact, arguing that we are all verbs, that we’re defined by our actions and come to know ourselves through those actions. This is the heart of the phenomenological concept of intentionality, retold in a more poetic way. Sometimes, we might think of the audience as someone we can strap into a chair and force to witness our work, like poor Alex undergoing the Ludovico technique in “A Clockwork Orange,” like an empty vessel that we can fill with meaning. Meaning doesn’t actually come into being that way, shoved from the media object into the brain without interpretation or synthesis or reflection. Instead, if we treated them as a verb, we might help them get to that realization that Fuller was describing with “I seem to be.” Phenomenal Work, The Audience is a Verb

Shepard Fairey is a great example of that perspective, all the way back to his earliest “Andre the Giant Has a Posse” stickers. In his 1990 manifesto, he explicitly called his work phenomenological and described it as: “The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker. Because OBEY has no actual meaning, the various reactions and interpretations of those who view it reflect their personality and the nature of their sensibilities.” Parse the words of Fairey, and you know exactly the verbs he was hoping to help bring to the surface: react, contemplate, search for meaning, interpret, reflect. The language of those words is very different than what you often hear among designers, who are more likely to talk about use, watch, view, click, listen. Before the age of interactivity in design, this would have been an obscure philosophical dialog, but today it isn’t. Today, I can see the verb of the audience clearly. I can see them react and interpret and search for meaning, on Twitter or their blogs or the Facebook posts. To create phenomenal work, we have to think more like Fuller and Fairey, and embrace that we are all verbs.”  Phenomenal Work, The Audience is a Verb

“However, it is important to note that the Storyworld pervasive bubble demarks the territorial ground of the storyverse in which the people formerly known as the audience are allowed to interact and participate within. A Storyworld contains and confines this audience in an attempt to restrict and control activities within (for various legal reasons in which copyright protection and brand integrity are only several factors). And within today’s technology, this Storyworld bubble tracks the audiences every movement for data analysis that is both quantifiable and measurable, becoming dependent on UGC not for value co-creation (as often is assumed) but for data mining, making the Storyworld model an inverted panopticon where the subject has willingly intruded the eye of the camera to become its iris. In addition, by the very nature of its design, a Storyworld can only expand or contract to responsively reflect the analysis of traffic of its audience moving within.”