What we mean when we talk about interaction.

So I’m burrowing away in the old PhD at the moment. Only about 4 months to go so I’m in the process of researching and writing the last chapter and some case studies, before heading into full redraft ‘let’s make this make sense’ territory. Re-reading chapter 2 (written in my first year) as I work up some case studies for it, for example, made me simultaneously proud of how far I’ve come and weep at the job I’ve yet to do. Anyway, for those of you who don’t know (actually that’s everyone including my supervisor because I tweaked it, again) my thesis title is roughly this:

First-person theatre; how performative tactics and frameworks (re)emerging in the digital age are forming a new personal-as-political

I’ve just finished writing a chapter called “First-person theatre and the body; transcendance vs. transposition” which is all about phenomenology and interactive theatre and why it’s better than immersive theatre in dealing with the frameworks/systems that make up the politics of daily life, and is more effective in terms of tackling the specific breed of capitalism expressed in/via personalisation and pervasive media. Anyway, a big part of talking about interactivity, and a bit part of talking about interactivity demanded defining it. This is a definition I’ve had knocking around in my head for a long while, and which has been informed by my reading since (obvs) and I go on about it so often, and rant so much at people claiming their work is interactive when it isn’t (and doesn’t need to be! ‘Interactive’ is not a synonym for ‘good’ or ‘relevant’ or ‘appeals to young people’) that I thought I may as well post my definition. Y’know, so it’s Out There. So here follows a short extract (extended quote, really) from draft one of chapter 4 of my thesis. Enjoy. If this is your kind of thing.


At this point it seems appropriate to offer some definitions for words to be used herein that are largely overused with regards to contemporary performance, and indeed most interfaces between the story- and real-world (marketing, News, other art forms, entertainment, etc.); those of ‘interaction’ and ‘immersion’.


The misuse of the term ‘interactive’ – or rather the necessity to talk in greater specificity when discussing interactivity – has been highlighted in more detail in the discussion of games and first-person performance in chapter 3. Steve Dixon likewise raises the issue of ‘levels’ of interaction in his extremely thorough Digital Performance (Dixon, 2007, p. 563). Here we attempt to refine these, along with other notions on the subject discussed in chapter 3 and set forth in other works such as Rules of Play (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004) and Pervasive Games (Montola, Stenros, & Waern, 2009), to form the following four ‘levels’ of interactivity:

  1. Reactive
  2. Navigational
  3. Conversational
  4. Emergent.

It should be emphasised that they are not hierarchical in value – one ‘level’ is not more effective than another – rather they mark levels of the participant-audience’s involvement in the work. Reactive work is best described as switch-based – you press ‘play’ on an mp3 player, you turn a light on, you take something that a performer hands you – the work is ‘on’ because you are there, but you do not shape the content or the context in which it is experienced. Work such as Analogue’s Lecture Notes on a Death Scene is a useful example of this, you are situated in the story-world; you pick up phones, open letters pushed under your chair, and are directly addressed, but you cannot choose to look from a different perspective, or shape the content or context of the work. Most immersive work fits into this first category.

Navigational work allows you to choose context, you not only get to choose how and where to direct your gaze, but also where and how you act – this may be guided (speed of walking, specific directions in which to approach something), your actions colour and shape the experience but the work does not react to it, although the work constantly stops if you do not take an action. Where reactive work offers moments for switching on/off, in navigational work your movement and actions are a constant on/off. Duncan Speakman’s (Circumstance’s) Subtlemobs, as discussed in chapter 2, are usefully characterised as ‘navigational’.

Conversational work is work in which the content as well as the context is shaped by the participant; there is a construct controlled by the artist(s) (who might be considered to have lexical control), but the content is directly shaped by the interaction with the participant whose responses fundamentally form the work. Ontroerend Goed’s Internal is a useful illustration of this; the key markers in the journey of the piece are the same with each performance, the performers select an audience member, they take them off and talk with them, then return to the group and discuss one another, but each time the work is contingent and made up of the responses of the participants.

Emergent work, finally, occurs within a framework – but content, context, and lexical control are all within the power of the participant; the content, and, crucially, conclusion is decided by their actions. Emergent work allows the greatest amount of agency for its participants and most often involves more game-like tactics; the asking of a question; a ‘what if’; which the participants are invited to inhabit. Coney’s A Small Town Anywhere is an emergent work, in this example, relying on game mechanics to build a framework for the question ‘would you let the fascists in?’.

Further to these clarifications, in Performance, Technology and Science, Johannes Birringer offers a useful insight into the effective use of interactivity using the metaphor of ‘hot’ (complex) and ‘cold’ interactivity:

 […] cold interactivity entails purposive decision-making and effectivity. […] Complex interactivity draws on metaphors of social interaction adding many layers of human behavior and emotion which reflect the grey areas of play, performance, and theatricality, all those hot zones of indecision, frivolity, irony, and confusion that affect the nature of action-reaction. (Birringer, 2008, pp. 238-9)

While different ‘levels’ of interaction suit different questions and forms of work, it is the area of ‘hot’ interactivity that this chapter is interested in; those tensions between play and performance, the mirroring of social activities in the embodied participant, and a dialogue between the ‘what is’ of the real world and the ‘what if’ of the performance framework that true or partial agency offers. Different kinds of interaction may all offer hot interaction, but they are found more often in navigational, conversational and emergent work. It is in hot interaction that the cracks between old and new ways of being can be discovered, investigated, inhabited, and thus form relevance to the socio-political thrust of this thesis.

Finally, as we speak to a direct theatre and performance context, it’s worth refining our application of the term ‘interactive’ with regards to performance in particular. Birringer offers another useful insight, here:

First, I think of “interaction” as a spatio-temporal and architectural concept for performance that maintains a social dimension even if intersubjectivity […] is reframed […] Secondly I look at “interactivity” in the more narrow sense of collaborative performance with a control system (Birringer, 2008, p. 110)

The second sense we have just tackled; levels of control systems for collaborative performance; the first is of further interest. Birringer here highlights for us a difference between the interactive – characterised by a maintenance of the real world amongst the invitation to re-frame it and our selves – and what we will call ‘immersive’ performance – not a ‘concept’ (framework) that maintains social dimensions and intersubjectivity, but an entire shift in context.


Birringer, J. (2008). Performance, Technology & Science . New York: PAJ Publications.
Dixon, S. (2007). Digital Performance. Massachusetts: MIT.
Montola, M., Stenros, J., & Waern, A. (2009). Pervasive Games: Theory and Design. Burlington: Morgan Kaufmann Publishers.
Salen, K., & Zimmerman, E. (2004). Rules of Play, Game Design Fundamentals. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

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