The Gamification of Television? Bandersnatch, Video Games, and Human-Machine Interaction
Ryan Stoldt / The University of Iowa

Bandersnatch offers viewers interactivity
Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch offers viewers interactivity through binary choices that affect the narrative they’ll see.

Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch (2018) follows Stefan Butler (Fionn Whitehead) as he attempts to create a choose-your-own-adventure video game, in which “choices come up on the screen and you pick one against the clock.”[ (( Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, directed by David Slade. (London: Netflix, 2018). ))] This fictional video game, also entitled Bandersnatch, serves as a meta-commentary for the format of the television episode, which allows audiences to interact with the episode by choosing between binary options that result in narrative variations. Through this meta-comparison of the episodic format to the narrative world’s video game, Black Mirror: Bandersnatch argues for the gamic nature of interactive television and raises direct opportunities for the episode to be compared to modern video games like Supermassive Games’ Until Dawn (2015), which similarly employs branching choice narratives.

Branching choice narratives in video games like Until Dawn
Branching choice narratives in video games like Until Dawn offer players similar choices to the binary options available to viewers of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.

As the narratives, technology, and personnel involved in the creation of interactive television and video games converge, media scholars need to continue noting formal differences that affect the types of engagement offered to audiences by different delivery technologies. Although tempting to equate interactive television and video games, this column highlights how interactive television functions similarly and differently than video games, ultimately speaking to the different types of engagement each medium offers.

Personnel converging across media: Rami Malek and Hayden Panettiere both act as playable characters
Not only are technology and narratives converging across media. Personnel are also appearing across media. Rami Malek and Hayden Panettiere both act as playable characters in Until Dawn.

Television studies is intricately linked to the active audience theory of media, which states that audiences are not passive media consumers but actively make meaning from media messages through their social contexts. As television becomes more interactive, the theoretical approaches scholars use to make sense of the medium need to expand. Digital media scholar Alexander Galloway argues that interactive media moves beyond active audience theory because the physical actions of the user affect the material of the interactive medium itself.[ (( Alexander R. Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004) 3. ))] While bodies may respond to media messages in active audience theory, they do not intercede in how narratives progress or how machines input and output information. Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and other forms of interactive television ask audiences to bring their body into the narrative by physically engaging with the story by scrolling between choices and pressing buttons. Galloway’s inclusion of both the narrative and the machine in his conception of interactivity provides a useful distinction from other types of physical interactions audiences have with television—such as audiences using their phones to vote in reality television competitions like American Idol (Fox, 2002-2016 and ABC, 2018–) and the physical acts involved in turning on and off technology. From this perspective, interactive television is defined through the relationship between human and machine actions which cooperatively generate a narrative.

While Galloway’s conception of interactivity provides a useful analysis of how interactive television theoretically functions differently from past engagements with television, it does not fully provide a way of distinguishing between interactive television and video games. To help accomplish this, Galloway’s typology of four gamic moments further breaks down the interactions between humans and machines. These moments span across two axes: diegetic/non-diegetic, or whether the action is taking place inside the story or outside the narrative world; and human/machine, whether the actions are being generated by the input of the user or the machine. By using this typology to compare Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and a video game built around similar player choices like Until Dawn, these gamic moments help distinguish what each medium offers audiences in terms of engagement.[ (( Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, 17. ))]

Galloway’s four moments of gamic action
Galloway’s four moments of gamic action are broken up along two axes.

Galloway’s first gamic moment is the diegetic-operator action.[ (( Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, 17. ))] This moment occurs in a video game when the player directly interacts with the world of the story and prompts machinic reactions. Video games have a long history of varied diegetic operator acts, like the ability for players to control how playable characters move, interact with, and see the gamic world. Until Dawn offers players the ability to freely move their characters around the world and engage with the world based on a limited number of preset choices. These actions create branches of machinic reactions that shape which narrative is told in the game. Black Mirror: Bandersnatch offers operators a similar type of expression through its use of binary choices to trigger which narrative will play next. Although they offer a drastically different number of diegetic operator acts, this gamic moment functions similarly in interactive television and video games.

Operators are not just constrained to actions that take place within the narrative world though. Galloway’s second gamic moment is the non-diegetic operator act, which focuses on operator actions that take place outside of the narrative world but still function as play. These moments are built around operator actions involving information and configuration. Once again, interactive television and video games share basic similarities in this moment, like the pause button and the ability to toggle the usage of captions with audio. Video games typically offer more non-diegetic operator actions through their pause menus than interactive television. Until Dawn offers players a variety of menu options when paused, like the ability to see stats about the relationship levels between characters in game and look at collectible items from the story.

The two previously mentioned moments focus on how the operator acts on the machine. Galloway argues that machines also act on players though. The third gamic moment, non-diegetic machine acts, occurs similarly in video games and interactive television. These moments take place outside of the narrative world but occur within the machine. Lag, crashes, and other machinic errors may occur regardless of medium and function as disabling acts.[ (( Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, 3. ))]

Galloway’s final gamic moment, diegetic machine acts, take place in the narrative world through pure machinic process, meaning the machine acts without input from an operator. This moment encompasses a range of actions common in video games, like the ambient acts of the non-playable characters, the game world, and playable characters that are not receiving operator input as well as cutscenes that continue unaffected by operator actions.[ (( Galloway, Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, 10. ))] For instance, if a person walks away from Until Dawn without pausing, the character continues to exist in a moving narrative world in a moment of machinic ambience. This type of ambient action does not exist in interactive television because, to date, television streaming technology does not algorithmically generate content. It streams the pre-recorded footage available within the database. While moments of ambience denote one area where interactive television and video games differ, the machinic deployment of cutscenes truly highlights the need to understand interactive television and video games differently.

Cutscenes occur at the intersection of player input and
machinic response. The cutscene itself is a diegetic machine act, but the
trigger is a diegetic operator act. However, the interaction between human and
machine does not need to occur for cutscenes to play in Black Mirror:
. Netflix will automatically play the next scene whether or not
a viewer interacts with a choice. Because of this, current forms of interactive
television can be consumed without interaction between human and machine, where
audiences engage with the program actively instead of interactively.
This denotes a key difference between video games and interactive television
currently—to consume a narrative, video games require interactions between
humans and machines while interactive television provides the option for
interaction without the necessity.

While interactive television and video games share many of Galloway’s gamic moments, the moments they do not fully share, mainly the relationship between diegetic machine and operator acts, highlight the importance of distinguishing how the formal elements of different media can result in different types of audience engagement. Interactive television like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch allows audiences to consume stories either actively or interactively, a choice unavailable in video games. Active audience theory applies to both groups, but the narratives that active and interactive consumers see will likely differ based on their level of engagement. More interactive audiences have a broader range of possible narrative outcomes, which also broadens the number of potential ideological interpretations a text may provide.

Image Credits:

  1. Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch offers viewers interactivity through binary choices that affect the narrative they’ll see. (author’s screen grab)
  2. Branching choice narratives in video games like Until Dawn offer players similar choices to the binary options available to viewers of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch. (author’s screen grab)
  3. Not only are technology and narratives converging across media. Personnel are also appearing across media. Rami Malek and Hayden Panettiere both act as playable characters in Until Dawn.
  4. Galloway’s four moments on gamic action are broken up along two axes. (author’s image; adaptation of Galloway’s quadrants of four gamic moments)


Audiences as Subscribers and Netflix’s Notions of Success
Lane Mann / University of Texas at Austin

Netflix audience

Audiences as Netflix Subscribers

Exploring how mainstream subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) companies consider and construct their audiences is vital when researching how SVOD platforms – Netflix specifically – brand their popularity. Surveying Netflix’s public discourse reveals a few themes prioritized in the contemporary SVOD industry: engagement, a new understanding of ratings, and brand building techniques.

In Desperately Seeking the Audience, Ien Ang discusses two primary ways the TV industry – as of 1991 – imagines audiences: audience-as-market (connected to commercial service) and audience-as-public (connected to public service). [ (( Ien Ang, Desperately Seeking the Audience (New York: Routledge, 1991), 28. ))] With changing cultures and technologies, legacy TV companies and premium cable channels have imagined audiences in other, distinct ways since Ang’s theorization. An understanding of how SVODs construct audiences both diverges from and overlaps with legacy TV and cable’s new imaginings. Through a focus of SVODs, I have targeted three ways dominant SVOD players imagine audiences: audiences as subscribers, as data, and as promotional partners.

SVOD industry’s interactions with these three imagined audience groups allows for an insight into larger business plans, brand strategies, and notions of ideal viewing practices. Further, these audience categories address culturally shifting ideas of audiences within the ever-changing TV industry. SVOD platforms carefully guard ratings data, thus audiences are constructed differently from network and cable TV audiences, which are inherently shrouded in Nielsen ratings rhetoric. SVOD-produced audience discourse can help divulge how these companies quantify people, imagine user actions, envision their platform, define success, and forecast how their programming is watched. While these are the strengths in examining SVOD audience constructions, it is important to remember that audiences are commodities. As Dallas Smythe theorized, “Audience power is produced, sold, purchased, and consumed, it commands a price and is a commodity.” [ (( Dallas W. Smythe, “On the Audience Commodity and its Work,” in Dependency Road: Communications, Capitalism, Consciousness, and Canada (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1981), 233. ))] The imagined audience employed by SVODs and their stakeholders is reductive, utilized for the perception of greater consumer choice and personalization.

Netflix subscribers

Netflix Subscription Data

For the sake of this post, I focus on just one of the SVOD imagined audience groups listed above: audiences as subscribers. Also, I use Netflix as a test case and example, since their subscription service is the most publicly known and utilized, with 83 million members in June 2016 – though most major SVODs employ similar rhetoric. Netflix uses subscriber statistics as a proxy for audiences. The company is interested in subscriber data because subscribers drive revenue and appease stakeholders, content creators, and advertisers. While subscriptions statistics do not figure prominently in mainstream press coverage or widespread marketing, the statistics are contained within quarterly reports. These statistics, however, do not give information about audience engagement and viewership (what people actually watch). Put simply, subscriber numbers only detail the amount sold rather than the amount used. [ (( Nielsen data is arguably trying to encompass viewership data (amount used/TV viewed). But, just because a TV is on a particular channel does not mean anyone is watching. Though, Nielsen ratings are more relevant to viewership than SVOD subscription numbers. ))] Comparatively, insights into Netflix algorithms and their data collection process convey more information about actual consumption patterns and usage, but Netflix relies on subscription figures in reports. Subscriber numbers are invoked, foremost, for intra-industry stakeholders. The idea of “audiences as subscribers” feeds into a larger, industry-held idea that a monthly monetary exchange – your automatic subscription payment – proves success. However, this data does not prove engagement, which is a key asset for modern media brand strategy. And, it doesn’t show how particular viewers regard the platform. Audiences as subscribers is primarily valuable within the industry itself.

Further defining SVOD success through subscribers is challenging. Without access to internal corporate documents or audience engagement data, their performance is difficult to assess. The only available option is raw subscription numbers and, as of 2015, Netflix dominated the market. To survive within the larger TV industry, streaming platforms must cultivate a sense of superiority and active audience engagement to remain competitive and relevant. Subscription numbers only go so far for the platforms, primarily circulating to tout income and challenge rivals.

Quantifying success

Netflix Brands Success

Netflix in particular, much like legacy TV channels, still relies on imagined audiences to promote and define their perceived success. But Netflix’s conception of ratings is different from legacy TV. As television scholar Jason Mittell writes in The Atlantic, “Netflix simply doesn’t care about ratings – at least not in the way other television providers do.” [ (( Jason Mittell, “Why Netflix Doesn’t Release Its Ratings,” The Atlantic, February 23, 2016, ))] Netflix still cares about ratings, to be sure, but this is a new conception of ratings. Such a new conception must be considered in future SVOD studies and by TV studies scholars more generally. The “new ratings,” or, the common ways Netflix has defined success without sharing ratings, have been disclosed through award nominations/wins (an appeal to taste cultures), occasional PR releases including viewer and subscriber data (quantifying success), and by marketing high levels of cultural relevance (success measured by engagement). Other TV companies frequently use these metrics too, though as a complement alongside Nielsen ratings.

From examples above, as Netflix shows off to the public in order to demonstrate success, it is clear that the company values people as both a mass of subscribers for monetary purposes and as a mass of engaged viewers, and these two ideas are symbiotic for the company. Building hype by remaining a relevant brand, winning awards, and being included on year-end lists potential creates a beneficial cycle for Netflix: subscribers that become engaged viewers that generate hype and continue subscribing. I agree with Mittell’s claim that, for Netflix, at least externally, “actual popularity is less important than perceived popularity.” [ (( Ibid. ))] Netflix’s marketing strategies strongly construct and promote perceived popularity. Nonetheless, actual popularity is still important when it comes to appeasing shareholders and content producers, because actual popularity translates into income (and loss of churn). Netflix envisions its product as more successful the more people that subscribe, tweet, and share Netflix experiences. This is a different type of popularity than tuning in at 8 p.m. on a Thursday for Nielsen ratings. Netflix’s Chief Content Officer, Ted Sarandos, outlines his criteria for success when he asks, “Is [the show] drawing an audience? … Is it getting positive reception from fans, from you guys, from the critical reception…Is the show positive to Netflix?” [ (( Alan Sepinwall, “Ted Talk: State of the Netflix Union Discussion with Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos,” Hitfix, January 26, 2016, ))] There is clearly a balance of numerical popularity, critical acclaim, and brand building happening in the company’s discussion of success – all emerging from Netflix’s imagined audience.

Image Credits:

1. Audiences as Netflix Subscribers
2. Netflix Subscription Data
3. Netflix Brands Success

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