Participatory environment

In some environments, the core activities are fundamentally active; much of the experience is substantially created through the participants’ efforts. I call these participatory environments.

Participatory environments may or may not have been intentionally authored. Media environments are almost always intentionally authored, but many social and natural environments are not. Part of the experience in authored participatory environments may be an Enacted experience.

Participatory environments support learning

Participatory environments are often much more pleasurable for participants, perhaps because they induce Flow; see this description of flow from Daniel Zalewski’s New Yorker profile of Ian McEwan (via Chris Hecker; emphasis mine):

For the past two hours he’s been in a dream of absorption that has dissolved all sense of time, and all awareness of the other parts of his life. Even his awareness of his own existence has vanished. He’s been delivered into a pure present, free of the weight of the past or any anxieties about the future. In retrospect, though never at the time, it feels like profound happiness. It’s a little like sex, in that he feels himself in another medium, but it’s less obviously pleasurable, and clearly not sensual. This state of mind brings a contentment he never finds with any passive form of entertainment. Books, cinema, even music can’t bring him to this. . . . This benevolent dissociation seems to require difficulty, prolonged demands on concentration and skills, pressure, problems to be solved, even danger. He feels calm, and spacious, fully qualified to exist. It’s a feeling of clarified emptiness, of deep, muted joy.

Examples and counter-examples

Games basically always establish participatory environments. Per Lantz (2019): "Games are the aesthetic medium of action.” But watching someone else play a game on Twitch often does not create a participatory environment.

Books and films usually don’t establish participatory environments. The core activities of the environments created by these media are usually receptive and passive, for most participants. But counter-examples do exist: Make Magazine; Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain; workout videos; etc.

A dinner party is generally a participatory environment. A climbing wall (natural or man-made) is a participatory environment. A ride on the subway is generally not.

Most software interfaces establish participatory environments. One common class of counter-example is media players: VLC, Pandora, Kindle, etc. This software merely presents media which itself doesn’t establish a participatory environment.

Despite their aspirations, most explorables and Executable books do not establish participatory environments. The default behavior for the participant is to scroll and to read.


This term has significant overlap with prior concepts in education, cognitive science, and sociology like “active learning environment” and “embodied experiences” and “situated cognition” etc, but I’m trying to transcend those contexts and escape those terms’ baggage, so I’m intentionally building up a new term.


Conversation with Frank Lantz, 2019-05-07

Shirky, C. (2008, April 23). Gin, Television, and Social Surplus. Web 2.0 Conference.

Here’s something four‐year‐olds know: Media that’s targeted at you but doesn’t include you may not be worth sitting still for.

From now on, that’s what I’m going to tell them: We’re looking for the mouse. We’re going to look at every place that a reader or a listener or a viewer or a user has been locked out, has been served up passive or a fixed or a canned experience, and ask ourselves, “If we carve out a little bit of the cognitive surplus and deploy it here, could we make a good thing happen?” And I’m betting the answer is yes.

Last updated 2023-07-13.