How the experiences of fictional characters can lead to changes in our own behavior

Some interesting research into what happens when we really empathize with a character in a fictional story: 

Geoff Kaufman, our very own postdoctoral researcher, has just published his work on the effects of immersive fictional narrative on an individual’s behavior in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  His research (with Lisa Libby, OSU) is attracting a lot of attention due to its potential for social change. In the series of studies, Geoff examined what happened to people who felt “experience-taking” while reading a fictional story. ”Experience-taking” is a phenomenon that occurs when readers find themselves feeling the emotions, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses of one of the characters as if they were their own. Geoff and his research team found that for certain situations, “experience-taking” can lead to behavioral or attitudinal changes in the readers.

One experiment found that people who went through “experience-taking” while reading about a character who was revealed to be of a different race or sexual orientation showed more favorable attitudes toward the other group and were less likely to stereotype.

According to Kaufman, when people are able to forget about themselves, their own self-concept, and self-identity while reading, they merge their own lives with those of the characters they’re reading about. ”You have to be able to take yourself out of the picture, and really lose yourself in the book in order to have this authentic experience of taking on a character’s identity, ” argues Kaufman. For example, researchers found in one experiment that most college students were unable to undergo experience-taking if they were reading in a cubicle with a mirror.

One experiment found that people who strongly identified with a fictional character who overcame obstacles to vote were significantly more likely to vote in a real election several days later.

When participants read a story told in first-person about a student at their own university, the students had the highest level of experience-taking. When asked later, 65 percent of these participants reported they voted on Election Day.

Meanwhile, of the participants who were in the condition of reading a story told in first-person about a student from a different university, only 29 percent of them reported voting. The researchers argue that sharing a group membership with a character from a story told in first-person voice facilitates the “experience-taking” of the character’s life events. After, the act of experience-taking can affect the individuals for days afterwards. The researchers argue that experience-taking is different from perspective-taking, in which readers may understand what the character is experience while maintaining a separate sense of self. The act of experience-taking is much more immersive, and unconsciously replaces the self with the character. 

(Via Grand Text Auto)

Investing in the creative when the brief is the problem

Bud’s written some good thoughts and complaints about advertising. And while we all know that most of it advertising absolute dreck, I thought this bit about the marketing on the web was especially poignant:

I am truly disappointed in how the advertising industry has largely approached the web. (I’m disappointed in publishers, too)

We’ve taken a technology that’s led to an explosion in participatory culture, and we’ve recreated the billboard and :30 spot.

We’ve earned consumer’s apathy. We’ve conditioned it through our own laziness and sheer lack of creativity.

Like anything, the top 1% of advertising is brilliant. It’s inspiring and effective.

Some call the other 99% landfill marketing. I consider it to be the biggest waste of money, creativity, and talent in the history of the world. Full stop.

I can’t help but think that this is a direct result of the marketing or advertising department being far removed from the actual running of the business. This might be a completely naive assessment, but it often times feels like the advertising teams of large companies are handed media buckets to fill with product proof points rather than playing any actual business role. To Rob’s point, it’s often about briefs being full of “executional wants rather than commercial needs.” 

One of the things I always find interesting to observe is how people approach problems.

In my experience, they tend to fall into 2 distinct areas:

1. Jump right in with ideas.
2. Think [& discuss] the brief … then get on with coming up with ideas.

The basic problem with both of these approaches is that you assume the brief is correct.

I’m not suggesting someone has given you wrong information on purpose, however I have seem way too many briefs that talk about executional wants rather than commercial needs.

One is like going to the DR, telling him what is wrong with you and then ordering him what to prescribe whereas the other is like going to a specialist, explaining your situation and then having them diagnose your problem and offer advice on how to make you well.

There’s a whole bunch of reasons for these 2 possible outcomes, however one that is entirely our fault is our reluctance to investigate the brief.

I don’t mean asking a few questions about the audience or highlighting a few issues about timing or budget … I mean genuinely understanding what the brand/product/business actually needs to achieve and then evaluating that with what has been given to you.

Bud’s point is largely focused on the output whereas Rob’s is focused on the input, but they are really dealing with the same problem. If the brief isn’t good, the idea people and their ideas are at a huge disadvantage.

If you look at where agencies are investing in training and in hiring right now, it seems to be largely about digital thinking…coming up with digital ideas and then sailing off into the brave new world and Cannes. But I think that focusing on digital is focusing on the wrong thing. It’s like focusing on “viral” or on getting a million likes. It’s an output. I think the biggest problem with advertising right now is that the input is broken. Account and planning need to be working with clients to get to the bottom of what actually needs to be achieved rather than on what needs to be made. Even the slightest tweak upfront can mean a huge difference in where things end up.  

Purpose is the mother of great ideas. 

Hyper-targeting communications to a twelve person audience: your board of directors

Rob really doesn’t like this Bank of Singapore ad. For good reason(s). But during his rant he hits on a phenomena that is responsible for you and I sitting through hundreds of hours of the kind of advertising that a more just society would judge as crimes against humanity: 

Seriously, this isn’t an ad designed to attract customers, it’s an ad designed to make the board of Bank of Singapore delude themselves that they’re not as bad as every other corporate financial institution board, despite the fact I’d bet they all live the sort of life that disconnects them from pretty much any single individual who lives by a genuine – and positive – code of honor.

(Via The Musings Of An Opinionated Sod [Help Me Grow!])

What an ecosystem-crazed world can learn from game development

Danc put together a great post on the different structures that games can take. The thinking seems incredibly relevant as almost every kind of creative endeavor now involves creating ecosystems of ideas that make an experience better for the end user. His post is way to long and nuanced and smart to do justice with a simple block quote, so I’ve posted some of the higher level thinking here and recommend following up and reading his full post.  

Loops and Arcs:

Here are two tools I’ve been using lately to better understand the functionality of my game designs.  The first is the loop, a structure that should be very familiar to those who have looked into skill atoms.  The second is the arc.


The ‘game’ aspect of this beast we call a computer game always involves ‘loops’.

  • The player starts with a mental model that prompts them to…
  • Apply an action to…
  • The game system and in return…
  • Receives feedback that…
  • Updates their mental model and starts the loop all over again.  Or kicks off a new loop. 

These loops are fractal and occur at multiple levels and frequencies throughout a game. They are almost always exercised multiple times, either within a game or by playing the game multiple times.

Nested, dependent loops yields complex feedback loops and unexpected dynamics.  Loops tend to deliver value through the act of being exercised.  Thus they are well suited for mastery tasks that involve trial and error or repeated exposure. The goal of both loops and arcs is to update the player’s mental model, however loops tend to rely on a balance of the following:

  • Interrelated actions that trigger multiple loops in order to bring about specific system dynamics.
  • Systems of crisply defined cause and effect that yield self contained systems of meaning.
  • Functional feedback that helps players understand causation. 

Loops are very good at building ‘wisdom’, a holistic understanding of a complex system.  The player ends up with a mental model that contains a thousand branches, successes, failures and nuances that lets them approach new situations with confidence.


‘Arcs’ have similar elements to a loop, but are not built for repeated usage. The player still starts with a mental model, they apply an action to a system and receive feedback. This arc of interaction could be reading a book or watching a movie. However, the mental model that is updated rarely results in the player returning to the same interaction. The movie is watched. The book consumed. An arc is a broken loop you exit immediately.

Arcs are well suited for delivering a payload of pre-processed information.  You’ll typically find many arcs have the following footprint:

  • Simple independent actions such as turning a page or watching a movie
  • Simple systems that rely heavily on complex mental models to have meaning.  Text on a page is a good example. 
  • Complex evocative feedback that links together existing mental models in some unique, interesting or useful manner.  For arcs, the feedback is 99% of the payload and the actions and systems are simply a means to an end.  Once this payload is fully delivered, the value of repeated exposure to the arc drops substantially. 

Arcs are highly efficient at communicating ‘success stories’, a singular path through a system that someone else previously explored. The best teach a lesson, either informative, positive or negative. This is a brilliant learning shortcut but the acquired knowledge is often quite different and less robust in the face of change than ‘wisdom’. With a slight shift in context, the learning becomes no longer directly applicable. It is not an accident that we make the distinction between ‘book learning’ and ‘life experience’.

One of the common issues with arcs is that people burn out on them rapidly, rarely desiring to experience them more than once. It is possible to give arcs a bit more staying power by stringing them together serially in a sequence of arcs. This is a pretty proven technique and is at the base of the majority of commercial attempts to give content arcs longer retention.  Businesses that rely on a constant sequence of arcs to bring in ongoing revenue often find themselves running along the content treadmill.  If you stop producing content, the business fails.

Any loop can be superficially described as a series of arcs with one arc for each pass you make through the loop. This is an expanded loop. This is useful for recording a particular play-through, however it tells you little about the possibility space described by the loops.  Where loops often describe a statistical spectrum of outcomes, the arc notation describes only a single sample.

Mixing Loops and Arcs

Since both loops and arcs can be easily nested and connected to one another, in practice you end up with chemistry-like mixtures of the two that can get a bit messy to tease apart.  The simplest method of analysis is to ask “What repeats and what does not?”

Narrative games are the most common example of mixing loops and arcs.  A simple combination might involve layering a segment where the player is engaged with loops with a segments of arcs.  This is your typical cutscene-gameplay-cutescene sandwich.

However, the analysis can get far more detailed.  For example:

  • Parallel Arcs: You can treat the emotional payload of song as an arc that plays in parallel to the looping gameplay.
  • Levels:  The spatial arc of navigating a level provides context for exploring variations on a central gameplay loop. The ‘Golden Path’ in a single player level is really just another name for an arc. 
  • Micro Parallel Arcs:  A game like Half Life combines both levels and parallel arcs to deliver snippets of evocative stimuli as you progress through the level. 

These structures also exist in traditional media. For example, if you look at a traditionally arc-based form such as a book, you find an odd outlier in the form of the Bible.  At one level of analysis it can be seen as a story arc that you read through and finish.  However, it is embedded in a much larger set of loops we casually refer to as a religion. The game-like loops include everything from worship rituals to the mining of the Bible in order to synthesize weekly sermons.  The arc is a central rule book for a larger game consisting primarily of loops.


(Via Lost Garden)

DIY: An app built for kids’ creativity by my friend from waaaaaay back, @okaysamurai

I’m not sure if everyone has someone like this, but I can specifically remember being inspired to creativity by my friend David in Elementary school. He did awesome stuff for an elementary school kid, like writing books and drawing comics and making paper video games. He’s since gone on to learn how to make awesome stuff as an adult and has apparently been working with a startup on a creativity app for kids called DIY.  

Check it

Our ambition is for DIY to be first app and community in every kid’s life. It’s what we wish we had when we were young, and what we’ll give to our kids. Today we’re releasing a tool to let kids collect everything they make as they grow up.

We’ve all seen how kids can be like little MacGyvers. They’re able to take anything apart, recycle what you’ve thrown away – or if they’re Caine, build their own cardboard arcade. This is play, but it’s also creativity and it’s a valuable skill. Our idea is to encourage it by giving kids a place online to show it off, so family, friends and grandparents can see it and easily respond. Recognition makes a kid feel great, and motivates them to keep going. We want them to keep making, and by doing so learn new skills, use technology constructively, begin a lifelong adventure of curiosity, and hopefully spend time offline, too.

We’re looking to you parents as partners to make it all work. It used to be that you hang your kids’ work on the fridge to let them know you’re proud. Now the Web is becoming a part of their life at home and school — and there’s a new opportunity to connect you to their creations and cheer them on.

Here’s how it works today:

DIY kids sign up and get their own Portfolio, a public web page to show off what they make. They upload pictures of their projects using or our iOS app. Kids’ projects are online for everyone to see, you can add Stickers to show support. You also have your own dashboard to follow their activity and to make sure they’re not sharing anything that should be private. Kids are ready for this. They’re instinctively scientists and explorers. They’re quick to build using anything at their disposal. They transform their amazement of the world into games. They’re often drawn to learning that’s indistinguishable from play (think about bug collecting!). And, most important, they embrace technology.