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Grad Film Study Allows Viewers to Choose Their Own Apocalypse

Aug. 5, 2013

A post-apocalyptic group of cannibals is holding your best friend hostage. You have two options to save her from almost certain death. You can offer the cannibals your life in exchange, or you can take a risky shot with your gun that might save both of you. What do you do?

Grad Film

This question is just one of many asked by a new Baylor research study led by Dr. Daniel M. Shafer in Baylor's Film and Digital Media department. The groundbreaking study looks at a few things that have rarely been tested together.

The first is moral disengagement, when we set aside our standards and act or behave in ways we would ordinarily consider immoral. We often do this in films, especially when we cheer on the hero who we feel is justified when he cheats, steals, or murders.

The other aspect, which separates Shafer's study from others like it, is interactivity. Usually we are passive observers of movies and television shows, and we make judgements about how much we enjoy what we watch based on our individual values. Shafer's study puts the viewer in control of what happens next - "Choose Your Own Apocalypse" as it has been described.

"Studies on moral disengagement and enjoyment have been done before," Shafer says. "But, we have a unique opportunity with our graduate students here to create source material. When we made that switch, we were able to give the audience a more active role."

The study has a viewer watch one of two films. At different places in the film, the viewer makes a moral decision for the main character, which changes the outcome. The film then continues by following the viewer's choice, and multiple versions of the same film are possible.

"We've got these originally created short films, specially designed for this study," Dr. Shafer says. "And after the end of watching, the viewer rates their enjoyment in comparison to the standard, non-interactive film."

The two films have different approaches - one is apocalyptic, and the other is a real-world drama (deciding whether or not to call the police after being involved in a fatal accident).

While the study itself sounds fascinating, Shafer is especially pleased with level of involvement it affords his graduate students.

"The students wrote and filmed both movies," Shafer says. "It was tough because they had to create the different outcomes for the decisions. It was really like making five or six films at once."

"I think the study was innovative," says Maverick Moore, a student involved in the study. "Overall, it was cool to see how it all came together, and I hope it does something innovative for media studies."

Moore edited one of the films, which fellow grad-student Philip Heinrich directed.

"I think it's an interesting concept for a study," Heinrich says. "Writing a film that had interactivity like this was a challenge, but I tried to take it as an opportunity to do something different from anything I personally would do."

The graduate students spent a great deal of time on the study, in addition to all their other projects. For this help, Dr. Shafer has nothing but gratitude.

"Without the resources of our graduate program and the graduate students," Shafer says, "this study wouldn't have gotten done."

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