Interactive documentary and education: a field to explore (I)



One of the essential premises of the traditional documentary is the desire to organise a story that is both informative and entertaining. And, in this sense, the interactive format should continue with the tradition to try to offer similar experiences that mix a recreational (entertainment) proposal with an educational one (knowledge), in the most efficient, original and attractive possible way. And this is mainly possible thanks to the combination of different navigational and interactive modalities, which enable a multiple exchange between the work and the interactor.

Firstly, navigating and visiting different proposals and structuring the content (information and knowledge) means the use of strategies and resources of the games. This way, from the structure of the interactive, and through the navigation modalities, the user, in a certain sense, “plays” with the possibilities offered by the work and can satisfy their first necessity: amusement and entertainment.

Secondly, this strategy close to the game experience usually gives the user a sensation of deep immersion and stops their learning from being boring and that their need of being informed or need or learning ends up fading. Therefore, the didactic proposal offered is attractive and dynamic, beyond that present in most classical hypertexts.

Already at this stage, the interactor “learns through playing” and once they have “learnt the lesson” in a fun, original and light-hearted way, they can share it with other interactors, in real time or whenever they deem it appropriate.

Therefore, we see how an interactive documentary can satisfy three needs or desires: that of the player (recreational), that of the student or anyone with cultural interests (educational or formative) and that of the communicator (communication level with other participants). Through the correct mixture of these three aspects, non-fictional multimedia applications can be equated in terms of attractiveness with proposals close to fiction.

Processes/behaviors involved in an interactive documentary:

1. Viewing (observer)

2. Learning (student)

3. Playing (player)

4. Sharing (interactor)


A (possible) new paradigm for education

Internet and Web 2.0 offer immense opportunities to enhance some of the classic principles of education and disclosure of knowledge in general. The genres of interactive fiction and interactive nonfiction, applied in the context of information transfer, and characterized in this post by the interactive documentary, are becoming pedagogic tools and teaching materials used by the teacher in different contexts.

In the current ecosystem of digital media, how to display information quickly becomes appreciated when we see how the traditional media and related audiovisual productions (fiction and nonfiction) with certain forms of exhibition and distribution approach and has increasingly given way to the creation of projects that hybridize the two formulas, information (content) with entertainment (fun). Incorporating interactivity means going one step further and allows the participation and involvement of the user. The formats have created new platforms for interactive display capable of collecting various types of content, in addition to achieving break the linearity of the prevailing discourse of traditional formats consume content from the classical Greek period.

This post focuses on the study of the process of converging between two communication fields, which are, apparently, very different: the documentary genre and digital media. Although the history of the documentary started half a century before that the one of the digital media, both processes have progressed and, nowadays, they have reached a very interesting point of convergence. From this first contact, each genre adopted a series of properties and characteristics typical of the other. In some ways, a fusion begins from mutual attraction: the documentary genre contributes with its several modes of representing reality, and the digital media genre contributes with its new navigating and interacting modes.  This setting has favored the development of different formats and the creation of new genres, such as the interactive documentary, which is a result of a double fusion of, on one hand, the audiovisual (documentary genre) and interaction (interactive digital media), and, on the other hand, between information (content) and entertainment (interactive interfaces).


The interactive documentary as a new 2.0 learning system for the “digital natives”

Internet, Web 1.0 and Web 2.0 offer immense opportunities to enhance some of the classic principles of education and disclosure of knowledge in general. Some of the pedagogical principles in teaching give us clues about how to approach the use of Web 2.0 and future versions. Then we present some of the advantages posed by these new technologies in educational uses:

- Open possibilities to create networks of learning

- Foster cooperation and collaboration between those who wish to learn (while opening paths to reinforce the personal differences and autonomy)

- Facilitate the exchange of information and resources

- Facilitate the dissemination and presentation of results and work

- Facilitate the replenishment, storage and indexing works

- Provide new ways for the evaluation

- Provide greater flexibility in many ways

- Etc.

The change proposed by the Internet is ideal to apply in the field of education and knowledge transfer. In this area, the interactive disclosure (interactive applications that have different displays or browsing possibilities and show a clear educational and recreational intention) has a lot to say. Therefore, it is to converge and mix two different strategies, one based on fun and learning and a second based on new technologies. Salaverría comments on Hipertexto periodístico: mito y realidad (2003), the fact that the hypertext character of cyberspace has opened great opportunities to update journalistic text. Thanks to hypertext, it is possible to explore nonlinear ways of structuring the speech and to encourage reader’s participation in the configuration of narrative itineraries. Nevertheless, these theoretical possibilities come up against a much modest reality: present cybermedia show a noticeable tendency to reproduce in cyberspace the textual formats that they used in other supports. (Salaverría, 2003:517)

Ribas (2000) explains it clearly and concisely in the final section of his research called El tractament dels interactius d’autor o assaigs interactius [The treatment of author interactive or interactive essays]:

“Our central hypothesis for future research is that there is a wide range of interactive cultural diffusion characterized by a treatment that closely integrates the navigation for the information structure and the navigation by the content.” (Ribas, 2000:104)

The navigation for the information structure allows the exploration in the traditional sense (from a menu you can view a given program of a subject). Moreover, the added value of offline interactive cultural diffusion contribution at the time was the fact of having an interactive navigation structure content. This mode allows the user to explore in a more fun and close to the case of games way, making the experience of learning something rather than link some documents. Ribas continues developing their central hypothesis:

“We got this idea from the realization that the essential characteristic of cognitive overload is precisely the effect on cognitive abilities of the reader, because there is competition between these two positions in the awakening process and content. Integrating both seem the better option and more attractive. We believe that this solution has been adopted by many designers spontaneously and is specific enough to be able to detect and characterize.” (Ribas, 2000:104).

As we see, when these two processes are not balanced in the learning process, it produces the cognitive saturation of the student, and this is extrapolated to any educational environment. When a student is bored and loses attraction in the study, loses interest or just does not assimilate the information in hand. Ribas explains in the following paragraph that the user has to be stimulated to avoid losing the interest at the same time, and some strategies are a positive approach to challenges and rising expectations. His current work is directed to solving these issues. As he states (2000:104), the different ways of doing this integration and how they provide opportunities to stimulate and maintain the user interested are based on positive challenges or enlargement of the expectations. Ribas believes that essential feature of the interactive essays and nonfiction is the fact that these two structures were joined together and not separately, are articulated from a particular argument, which affects the semantics, relating both structures, and is responsible for sorting, marking and fragmenting the content:

“We think that the defining feature of interactive essays is that the semantics of node’s own content and link semantics, proper of the structure, are intimately mixed so that the navigation of content and navigation structure are inseparable, cannot be divided without altering them substantially. In the interactive essays the interfaces that developed this treatment have a “plot”, a structure intimately related to both semantic and order and set the pace and fragmentation of content. “(Ribas, 2000:106)


It should be noted that this proposal is being reviewed in order to be presented as part of the theoretical framework on interactive documentary study, which may be subject to changes in the future (PhD defense:“The interactive documentary as a new audiovisual genre. Approach to proposed definition, taxonomy and analysis model for the evaluation, design and production”, UPF 2007-2012).


Arnau Gifreu Castells

Researcher, Professor and Producer

Universitat Ramón Llull / Universitat de Vic


Bibliographic references

Prensky, M. (2001), “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants”. On the Horizon. NCB University Press. Vol. 9 No.5, October.

Ribas, J. I. (2000), Caracterització dels interactius multimèdia de difusió cultural. Aproximació a un tractament específic, els “assaigs interactius” [research work], Barcelona: Universitat Pompeu Fabra. Facultat de Comunicació.

Salaverría, R. (2003), Hipertexto periodístico: mito y realidad (2003), in Tripodos 2005, pp. 517-524.


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arnaugifreuInteractive documentary and education: a field to explore (I)