Digital Narrative and Interactive Storytelling for Public Engagement with Health and Science

Authors: Skains, R. and Nguyen, A.


Outside formal school education, digital media have emerged as a major source of information and knowledge that shapes how societies follow, understand, perceive, reason about and connect with health and science issues. This, however, has recently been greeted with some fears, with digital platforms in the largely unregulated social media sphere having been identified as key drivers of widespread mis/disinformation around the globe. Together with the rise of post-truth, populist politics, where science denial has become a personal and political act, digital platforms have fueled an increasing resistance to scientific theories and to science-based medical advice and public health policy (such as COVID-19 safety measures, vaccination safety and benefits, the facts of climate change, and even the notion of the Earth as a spherical planet). While such fears are strongly grounded and should continue to be raised in the public debate, it is important not to let them distract us from the less discussed but significant potential of digital media. This special issue will focus particularly on the power of digital narrative and storytelling.

As has long been established, narrative and storytelling is a key aspect of human communication: we convey, process and understand information shaped with certain structures — and we will impose those structures in the absence of clear narrative (Douglas 1992; Dahlstrom 2014; Dautenhahn 1999; Boyd 2009). While they have traditionally been regarded as something at odds with scientific rigor, narrative formats have recently been found to enhance lay audiences’ comprehension, interest and engagement with science (Dahlstrom 2014). Thanks to a variety of socio-technical attributes, digital media – such as interactive edu-tainment, user-directed narratives, digital personal storytelling, multimedia journalism, interactive and personalized data visualization, social media streaming, immersive gaming, virtual reality, augmented reality, hypertext fiction, and so on – can become not just an effective antidote to mis/disinformation but also a catalyst to enhance public understanding of and engagement with the health and science issues of our time. Their unique narrative affordances have long been used to convey accurate, engaging and impactful science messages, from Randall Munroe’s xkcd webcomic to Elise Andrew’s social media-originated sci-comm juggernaut IFLScience. Recent efforts with immersive multimedia science journalism, gaming and gamified education have had promising results making inroads against mis/disinformation on the internet (Maertens et al. 2020). By utilizing the most ubiquitous form of media in the modern world, science communication is expanding and amplifying its efficacy, reach and impact.

It is in this context that this Research Topic aims to investigate how digital media affordances—such as human-machine and human-human interactivity, multimedia capacities, dynamic visual appeal, playfulness, personalization, real-time immersion, multilinear narrative, and so on—have been and can be used to effectively communicate health and science issues. We would like to go beyond the current discourse on fake news, mis/disinformation and online radicalization, which recognizes the malignant effects of digital media on health and science affairs, to refocus on the positive affordances of digital media—both in direct education (e.g., museums, public demonstrations, school settings) and through the media (e.g., news, film, games)—as communication tools and techniques for health and science topics.

The aim of this Research Topic is, therefore, to explore the current state of play, as well as potential future trajectories, of digital narrative and storytelling in the communication of health and science topics.

Source: Manual