Has Narrative Found a Challenge in Virtual Reality?

By Michael Humphrey

The complexity and the context of what we are trying to communicate demands both certain techniques and technologies. But the question is, can narrative and VR enhance one another? The answer might very well lie in our brains.

You likely have had the experience of wanting a piece of information and feeling frustrated. Rather than simply stating the fact or detail, a document might force us to swim through a sea of verbiage to find that one treasured piece of gold we seek.

You likely also have experienced a quite different frustration. The answer was easy to find, but it is so opaque and decontextualized that you are more confused than before. The art of technical communication is to balance the need for details with its context, so that discovery is a process rather than a wild chase.

In many ways, narrative and “information and communication technologies” (ICTs) share the same qualities in the hunt for meaning. They can both either ease the process of understanding or severely complicate it. How information is designed rests at the heart of both challenges.

In another way, these two elements of communication work in opposite directions. Narratives work well when they activate some part of our inner world—ourselves and our mental maps of lived experience—and that activation helps us integrate new information. ICTs, on other hand, work well when they send us out into the larger world, mapping new landscapes for us to consider.

Usually, this is not a tension, even in technical communication, but rather a symbiotic relationship. Technologies such as papyrus, books, radio, film, television, PCs, tablets, and smartphones have all held narratives with great aplomb, and both rich inner and outer world understandings are the result.

When you look at the technology of virtual reality (VR), however, the relationship with narrative is more complex. We live in a time when both narrative and VR have returned for another round of consideration. For technical communication, some questions that emerge with them are:

  • Is VR useful for my work?
  • Does using narrative lead to more efficient and fulfilling understanding, or does it distract?
  • Will VR help people learn in more vigorous and functional ways?

The complexity and the context of what we are trying to communicate demands certain techniques and technologies. The questions I have been asking for the past two years, however, are: can narrative and VR enhance one another? Would a VR training in a highly technical field, for instance, work better if a narrative led us through the lessons? These are more problematic questions than they might first appear due to the way our brains process both narrative and VR.

There are three points that continue to recur in research and personal VR experiences.

The brain works differently in VR than other media. VR-brain research is just starting to emerge, but early work shows that VR can be useful in reminiscence therapy, that it can aid in retention in training, and most intriguingly, that it affects our hippocampus, which is essential to memory and our sense of space.

Testing VR mazes on rodents, UCLA researcher Mayank Mehta found that while the animals tracked down rewards as easily as their peers in physical mazes, the brain function was completely different. In VR, the animals shut down more than half of their hippocampus cells. What this means, exactly, will be more clear with much future study, but that change in brain function is important, because it tells us that our brains adjust powerfully in virtual realms.

The brain works differently in certain kinds of narratives. Over the past 20 years, researchers have found that we process information differently in narrative when we become “transported” by a story. Transportation is an effect of feeling so engaged in the arc of the main character that we replace our own place in the world for a time. Most importantly, our attitudes and intentions to act will reflect the story rather than our normal dispositions.

VR Immersion and Narrative Transportation might not blend well. Because VR has such an effect on the mind, which we will call immersion to keep things simple, the normal effects of narrative media (books, films, radio, etc.) might not appear. So, narrative might take on a different role in VR states.

What do these research findings mean for the technical communicator? First, it likely means that those pioneers of using both narrative and VR in their communications will need to experiment. The properties of each, alone, have already proven rewarding. But when used together, we do not yet know what works, what we should avoid, and how the natures of the technique and technology might create new forms. If there are any guesses to be made, we might as well listen to the original VR pioneer, Jaron Lanier, who told Wired last year, “… virtual reality is a future trajectory where people get better and better at communicating more and more things in more fantastic and aesthetic ways that becomes this infinite adventure without end .…”

How that adventure includes technical communicators is likely based on the desire to try and the willingness to waste a little time seeking that one treasured piece of gold.


Green, Melanie. C., and Timothy C. Brock. “The Role of Transportation in the Persuasiveness of Public Narratives.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 79.5 (2000): 701–21. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.79.5.701.

Lamar, Elise. “UCLA Researcher Uses Virtual Reality to Understand How Animals Perceive Space.” UCLA Newsroom. Accessed 8 November 2018. http://newsroom.ucla.edu/stories/ucla-researcher-uses-virtual-reality-to-understand-how-animals-perceive-space.

Rubin, Peter, Angela Watercutter, Jason Parham, Brian Raftery, Jennifer M. Wood, and Graeme McMillan. “A Conversation With Jaron Lanier, VR Juggernaut.” Wired. 21 November 2017. https://www.wired.com/story/jaron-lanier-vr-interview/.

MICHAEL HUMPHREY (michael.humphrey@colostate.edu) is an Assistant Professor of Digital Storytelling in the Department of Journalism and Media Communication at Colorado State University. He also writes about the convergence of technology and entertainment for Forbes.com.

Add Comment

Click here to post a comment

Download the May/June 2020 PDF

2020 PDF Downloads