It's time to get serious about not just a research question, but the research question, the one that will shape my work on the Fort Vancouver Mobile project and be the engine of my dissertation. Since I like to work transparently, I thought I might as well post the drafts and progression of that question here, for feedback (and in case it might help someone else develop ideas of their own).
I have to start somewhere, so here are my initial thoughts on the question.
This project, at least at this point, is expected to be an experimental study intended to validate the hypothesis that mobile devices offer unprecedented potential for delivering immersive and interactive narratives. That, of course, is too broad, even for a dissertation, and it doesn't really say anything. "Potential" takes me nowhere, and what I really want to study is the creation and audience response to mobile content, compared to other kinds of media.
Just producing mobile content right now, in a form that is usable and coherent and accessible, could be a complex and exasperating undertaking. There is no industry-standard platform to deliver mobile interactive narratives. There aren't even many good options in that regard.
And then the questions start emerging about a genre of place, where setting takes on a level of importance potentially equivalent to character and plot, or maybe even more important than those pillars of storytelling, because place / space is what distinguishes mobile as new and different than any other medium. It seems like the most important questions about the field will be focused on place / space in a mixed-reality environment, with one foot in the real world and one in the digital universe. These devices now allow awareness of location but also of spatial relationships to other things and context of all sorts, from user profiles to environmental conditions. How is that different than anything else humans have experienced before? The potential paths of discovery appear endless.
To create a descriptive and analytical study of this sort invariably will mean also leaving a lot of work for later. That is a liberating perspective, I think, in that I don't have to answer every question I can imagine. I just need to start by answering one good one.
I originally was inspired by this field not because I love talking on my cellular telephone. In fact, that is my least favorite ability of the mobile communication device. Instead, I find it endlessly fascinating that virtually all of the information of the world can be delivered to me wherever I am, illuminating whatever intrigues me at that second, especially in relation to something I am experiencing first hand in real space. From my extensive study of narrative, and belief that it is the core perspective through which humans view the world (or as each person sees the next event as the next chapter in a life story), I also am curious about what the combination of that information delivery style with such omnipresent data could lead to, in terms of immersion in knowledge and generation of wisdom. Delving into such territory alone, though, like sitting in the back of the library reading book after book from the shelves, doesn't seem nearly as interesting as an interactive environment could be. Each additional person brought into the story could dramatically affect the dynamic of the content, the interplay, the experience itself. How could collective intelligence in such a situation accomplish amazing feats that we could never even approach individually?
More pragmatically, I wonder what this environment will look like, be like. A game? That thought keeps coming back to me. If it's not a game, at least in the broad sense, with familial relations to other games, as Wittgenstein envisioned that term, then what motivates users?
It seems to me that the concept of edutainment starts to enter the picture here. Before I continue this thought, a bit of background. The Fort Vancouver Mobile project does have certain parameters in place to make it attractive to a variety of partners, including the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. In that regard, the content to be created and studied needs to be based on either the historical importance of the site, which was the end of the Oregon Trail in the early days, or the regional and national significance of the area related to the reign of the Hudson's Bay Company and the initial U.S. Army presence in the Northwest. So while some people in this field are looking purely at fiction within mobile games, and creating interesting projects like that, my intent is to work as much as possible in the realm of nonfiction, with some creative flexibility inherent in historical reconstructions. Back to the edutainment concept, I envision people coming to the Fort Vancouver site wanting to learn more about the place. That information can be delivered in many ways, from brochures to ranger lectures to living history presentations. A mobile content experience could be another option, and, in that respect, I want to find out how such material can be delivered most effectively and powerfully while also learning about how it is received, hopefully identifying best practices for increasing motivational interests. In other words, how can interactive mobile content be developed best, enriching the visitor experience in unique ways, while encouraging further involvement in this type of content, compelling deeper and deeper exploration of the material?
Those are some of my initial thoughts. That covers a lot of ground, not all of which I will be able to study. And here is a first draft of the research question, a starting point in such an investigation:
Does the intersection of place and space, as accessed through mobile interactive narrative, increase a user's interest, engagement and motivation toward related knowledge about a subject?
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