This article is based upon a recent interview with Adipat Virdi, an award nominated storyteller delivering immersive storyworlds and experiences, brand stories, film, TV series & plays. Adipat is based in the United Kingdom.
This interview was conducted by Kathryn Engelhardt-Cronk, CEO of MissionBox,
I’m an immersive storyteller. In terms of the work I do, I have a very particular focus: I am about creating and using stories for social impact. I’m a big believer that storytelling can be a great way of creating effective audience engagement, but also a way of activating an audience to go out, to act, become advocates, and engender real-world social change. That’s what I’m in the business of doing right now.
MissionBox is all about audience engagement. How do you work as an immersive storyteller?
I work predominantly as a freelance consultant for various companies to deliver clarity when it comes to narrative structure and impactful audience engagement. More recently, I’ve worked in strategic partnerships with companies where I take on a longer-term development and / or creative role. To give some examples: I set up and led an Immersive Storytelling Lab with a documentary production company looking to diversify their portfolio; I am positioned as an ‘applied futures’ consultant with a company called Minkowski. They are a boutique management consultancy and I work with them to ‘re-brief’ clients from an engagement and impact perspective. Most of my work there is around strategic narrative thinking; I work with Immersive Storylab as a ‘Story Whisperer’ on new forms of storytelling delivered through testing and innovating with cutting edge Extended Reality (XR) techniques and technologies.
How did you come to be focused on immersive storytelling? This is so interesting!
My parents were quite limited in their view of what were acceptable career paths for me: architecture, medicine or law. I chose architecture because it had the most options for creativity. After qualifying, I did an MBA and then another graduate degree, after which I began to specialize in socio-spatial analysis for complex buildings and environments. Even then, my interest was in how I could measure user flow, interaction and emotional resonance.
I found it highly interesting to explore how people engage, how people communicate and how we can better understand the experience of inhabiting and immersing yourself in a space. That is what transferred over to telling stories. I’ve always wanted to write and make films. Storytelling is definitely my passion.
The term and notion of immersive came about because the storytelling goal is to offer a first-person active experience within an environment (physical or virtual), rather than a third-person passive viewing of content. That tied into my background in architecture and fired my interest in how you design experiences. That’s the key: “How do I get people to emotionally engage via a dynamic experience design?" And that’s what really appeals to me about immersive storytelling.
Are you working with producers of video games and with gamers? How do you meaningfully connect?
I am currently working with producers across a lot of different formats. There is a conception in the industry that immersive storytelling is all about technology. But it’s not. Immersive is about how far into an experience you’ve been able to transport your audience and using tech is one way of doing that.
For instance, the project I’m currently working on is about eradicating forced marriages and honor crimes in the real world. The aim is to use storytelling in a lot of different formats to address this big issue.
There are six separate elements to this immersive storyworld. Each one is geared up to provide a different angle or explore a different aspect within the culture and the issues that I’m dealing with. The idea is that they will all work together to change the way we look at this subject. Ultimately, it’s about breaking the barrier between “them” and “us” and recognizing that we’re all part of the same human machine. How we go forward, together, to make a difference, using narrative as a lens into the many facets of this serious problem, is the goal.
What are these six elements?
The best way I can describe them is to provide examples.
At the core of this project is a feature film. The catalyst for the film was an article in The Guardian newspaper about an organization that exists, it’s part of Mi-6, who go out and rescue back British nationals who’ve been kidnapped by their own families. Although the final story is more of a family drama that looks at why this happens and the cultural and religious context for it, I wrote the feature based on their work as a backdrop.
In terms of the immersive elements around it, there are six platforms that support the main feature. These include an immersive theatre experience, a VR / 360 film and a documentary. Utilizing all these six experiences towards a real-world goal is quite unique. We’re testing out a lot of innovative concepts around how story can be a powerful tool for change and intend for all these narratives to weave in and around each other and shine a light of the honor-based violence ecology. Audience immersion is key.
In terms of that real world impact, we’re working with prominent, honor-based violence prevention and support charities in the UK. Through them, one of the six experiences is to celebrate and learn from 10 women that have survived these atrocities, in an augmented reality enhanced photographic exhibition. By really understanding their story as women—as independent women, as survivors and as people who have shown the strength to be able to go through something like this and give us the lessons that they’ve learned, we have a framework to generate empathy and impact.
In terms of the core idea, we’ve curated iconic images of women, e.g., Princess Diana, Michelle Obama, Madonna: these independent, highly creative, powerful women. We are now in the process of recreating these images, exactly as they were originally portrayed, but instead of their original subjects, we’re going to transpose the women who have survived honor-based violence into the photographs, on a massive scale. The intention is that you look in awe of these photos but then, with an augmented reality app on your phone or pad, pointed at the photographs, these women will come to life and actually tell you their story of survival.
I feel like games for change is just part of what you’re doing. What you’re telling me is a lot bigger than that. It’s a transmedia project.
Yes, it’s more gamification for change. When people ask me what I do, my answer is that I ‘gamify advocacy’.
While you are talking about gamifying, it’s all more than a video game.
Yes, in the sense of the whole ecology that you create. It is more about organic exploration with multiple characters in multiple environments rather than the more traditional concept of a game where you have a linear direction in which the story is told.
What you do when you talk about immersive, which involves the gaming side that we’re talking about, is that you’re creating the storyworld. My definition of the storyworld is that it’s a ‘theme ecology’. Just to explain that, what you are creating is a lot of different elements which people can explore and interact with.
My definition of a game is where you have content, you have an audience and they interact with one another in an environment where there is mutual exploration, discovery, and the completion of tasks. And, ultimately, the reward is a satisfying, enriching experience.
What ties all the elements of a storyworld together is the theme around which they’re built. For instance, in my project about honor crimes, the theme that ties it together is choice. It’s all about the choices we have, what choices people are given and how you can find your identity when you can’t choose the choices that you make. That’s what drives every story element, every interaction, every exploration.
One of the things that we really want to do, after this whole project has been completed, is to distill the learning in terms of what people engaged with and what they didn’t, and develop a video game format where elements and essences from all of the multi-platform immersive elements can be put into one gamified environment geared towards audience empowerment. That is our ultimate aim.
If there was something you wanted to say to nonprofits about how to create audience engagement and what a difference it could make, I would really appreciate it.
There’s three things I have to say in answer to that question. Most of my consultancy work is spent identifying the core thematic driver because, without it, you can neither formulate an effective audience engagement strategy nor generate empathy. I’ve worked with multiple non-profit organizations and there is a commonality in terms of the two, key questions I get asked: How do we create effective audience engagement? How do we create that dialogue in a way that’s important, impactful and creates/drives change? With that in mind, here are the three things:
The first is this notion that we’ve talked about, which is gamifying advocacy. There is a lot happening at the moment which treats the engagement of audiences as a destination. Currently, for most nonprofits, the ultimate aim is to get more people on board, with the view to getting more money. That is not building meaningful advocacy.
If we were to see engagement as a thoroughfare, i.e., a place or experience that allows you to explore in a more engaging way around the core themes or the core questions of what you stand for, that is a much better way of getting people to stay and increase their interest curve when it comes to your message.
One of the key bits of work that I’ve done on that level is distilling exactly what core value question is any nonprofit trying to ask of their audience? Identifying that value question and asking it in various engaging, immersive ways is critical. That is how you gamify advocacy; you bring the audience back on board in a meaningful way.
Second is about building an empathy engine. I built an experience blueprinting tool that looks at how can we measure people’s emotional engagement with the experience they are having. That is the second layer of this puzzle. How can you figure out what your core brand values are and be able to translate them into emotional triggers that you can talk about with your audience? You’ve got to build an empathy engine so that people know in what way they can and should be involved.
The third and last thing is this notion of how you close the gap between ‘them’ and ‘us’, i.e. your audience and their understanding of what you stand for and the issue you’re trying to create awareness around via the ways in which you communicate.
As an example, I was part of the team that did the Syrian refugee experience for the BBC. It was an interactive website. It was getting traction, but not sustained traction. I wanted to find a way to create empathy between a person fleeing their home in Syria and someone sitting comfortably in their home in the UK.
We interviewed a lot of people and one of the stories we heard was about a man who was given a new pair of shoes by his mother because she knew he was about to escape and get to freedom, find a new life. Instead of wearing the shoes, he kept the shoes and said, “Look, this means so much to me, I’m only going to wear them when I get to freedom.” And it made us think about what’s the one thing you take with you if your whole world is falling apart and you have to leave everything else behind.
We put that question out there and that led to a lot of people who had not visited the site engaging with this question: "What is the most meaningful object to me and what is its resonance?" That is what closed the gap between them, the audience, and us, i.e., the Syrian refugees.
If you get all three of these, you can build a dynamic relationship between you and your audience in terms of really getting people to understand the power of what you stand for, the issues you’re trying to solve and to homogenize us as a community and as a society.