Abstract: To Step into a Character’s Shoes: How Character Perspectives and Modalities Influence Persuasion in a Health-Oriented Immersive Story.

◆ Zexin Ma, Oakland University
◆ Douglas Zytko, Oakland University

Background – Telling a story of someone who engages in, and subsequently suffers from, a risky behavior is a common strategy in health campaigns to persuade the public away from such behavior. These stories are typically told from the perspective of the risk-taker. However, exposure to stories told from the risk-taker’s perspective may inhibit persuasiveness by arousing reactance and suppressing message recipients’ identification with the risk-taker. There are other character perspectives available for telling a story, such as friends or family members of the risk-taker, yet it remains unknown how the character perspective may impact persuasion. This question of character perspective is imperative at a time when immersive media technology (e.g., virtual reality, 360° video) is increasingly used to immerse audiences inside of a story. These technologies enable audiences to repeatedly experience a story from multiple character perspectives, or in other words, as multiple characters. The goal of this research is to further our knowledge of the role of character perspective and immersive storytelling technologies in narrative persuasion. We use an immersive story about binge drinking to examine how different character perspectives (risk-taker vs. friend) impact persuasion and how the effect of perspective varies as a function of modality (phone vs. virtual reality headset).

Methods – A 2 (perspective: risk-taker vs. friend) × 2 (modality: phone vs. virtual reality headset) between-subjects experiment was conducted with 147 young adults in a research lab. Two immersive stories featuring the negative consequences of binge drinking were used. They had identical stories, but differed in terms of the character perspective through which the viewer experienced the story: Greg (the binge drinker) or Steph (the non-binge drinking friend). Through the binge drinker’s perspective, participants saw Greg’s body and hands and experienced the story in the first-person through Greg’s eyes. In the friend’s perspective, participants saw Steph’s body and hands and experienced the story through Steph’s eyes. Participants watched one of the videos either with Cardboard virtual reality headsets or phones. A pre- and post-exposure questionnaire was administered to measure key variables.

Results – We found that taking the perspective of the risk-taker (vs. friend) led to more favorable attitudes toward binge drinking, less perceived severity of binge drinking, less identification with the assigned character, and greater psychological reactance among viewers. Reactance was found to mediate the effect on attitudes toward binge drinking. These results were most salient when the story was viewed in phones. Furthermore, we found that modality had a significant main effect on perceived susceptibility, with viewers in the virtual reality headsets (vs. phones) condition reported greater perceived susceptibility.
Implications – Given that health-oriented narrative experienced from a risk-taker’s perspective attenuate the persuasive effects, health message designers should be cautious of using a risk-taker’s perspective to dissuade the adoption of risky behavior. In addition, our findings imply that enhancing the immersion level may offer a unique way to bolster narrative influence. Considering the growing interest in virtual reality, immersive storytelling is a promising tool to communicate health risks to the general public.