From Cinema to Games: Some Fascinating Data

I received correspondence recently from a French games scholar, Alexis Blanchet, sharing some really fascinating data that has emerged from his research into the flow of intellectual property between the games and film industries. Since I am finding this data useful in teaching my transmedia class, I wanted to pass it along to others who are interested in understanding the convergence of these two key sectors of the entertainment industry.

First, a little background on Blanchet. According to his blog: “I’m teaching and doing research in film studies in Paris (Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense). Formerly associated with the French National Library, member of the Observatoire des Mondes Numériques en Sciences Humaines (Omnsh), I’m currently studying the cultural, economical and technical synergies between cinema and the video game.”

games graph 1.jpg

Blanchet has identified 469 games based around film properties released between 1975 and 2008. His research encompassed more than 40 different platforms, but did not include mobile phones, which he notes results in some undercounting of games based on Bollywood films which tend to appear primarily on cell phone technologies. He also excluded browser based games, which he felt tended to be more oriented towards branding than entertainment experiences.

For most of the platforms, movie-connected games represented roughly 10 percent of their total output. But for some platforms, they represented a much larger percentage of the total product. They were 22 percent of the titles produced for the Nintendo Game Boy Advance (2001-2006), 20 percent of the Nintendo Wii (2006-2007) and 27 percent of the Nintendo Game Boy Color (1999-2003). He ascribes the centrality of tie-in games to handheld technologies to their greater targeting at younger consumers.

game graph 2.gif

As this graph suggests, there has been a dramatic shift over time from games released only after the film has been successfully released towards simultaneous release. It is now taken for granted within a range of genres that there may be a market for the game even if the film itself does not do well. This situation is especially ripe for transmedia storytelling, since it lends itself well to a co-creation rather than licensing model, allowing for the game and the film to be developed side by side and for their release to be coordinated more fully than would have been the case a decade ago.

Not surprisingly, Hollywood dominates the movie tie-in space representing 73 percent of the total, yet there are also European (8 percent) and Asian (4) movie tie-in games. And as already mentioned, the Asian numbers would have climbed considerably if mobile games were included in the count.

80 percent of the 134 international films which have made more than 100 million dollars upon release between 1991 and 2008 were adopted into games and of the top 20 money earners during this period, 95 percent were made into games: the holdouts were Titanic and The Dark Knight. And a Dark Knight game is finally on the way.

Franchises which extended across more than one film were especially strongly represented in his sample (and of course are also strongly represented in the list of top money earners during this period.) Of the 469 movie-based games, 231 of them were based on a franchise which had produced 2 or more films Almost all CGI animated films produced by Pixar, Disney/Pixar, Dreamworks Animation, 20th Century Fox Animation and others were adopted into games.

The most likely genres to make the transition from screen to games are: Action (236), Adventure (222), comedy (169) and Thriller (152). Those genres least likely to be made into games include documentary (2), Western (9), War (11), and Musical (23). It’s worth noting that these also represent genres which are less likely to be made into films in the first place and that there are few non-film based games on the market in these genres.

Blanchet, a loyal follower of this blog, wanted to give Aca-Fan readers some exclusive content. He shared with me this graph which looks at film to game translations based around their original ratings.

game ratings.gif

For a closer look at some of the data, check out his website which includes an English language summary of his research as well as more extensive writings in French.

Blanchet should be congratulated and thanked for the hard work which went into this project. It’s a real gift to our field.

District 9 (Part Two): Out of Afrofuturism?

Last time, I focused on District 9 as adopting and expanding some core strategies of transmedia branding, linking it to True Blood, Cloverfield, and the granddaddy of them all, The Blair Witch Project. I should note that about the same time that post went live, friend and Convergence Culture Consortium consultant Grant McCracken posted an interesting provocation about what’s behind the success of this season of True Blood.

I also should point you to the early “Save the Date” Announcement for this year’s Futures of Entertainment conference which went live yesterday: an entire day of the event will be focused around issues of transmedia entertainment. This is an event you will not want to miss.

Today, I am coming at District 9 from a somewhat different angle, suggesting that it might best be understood as borrowing from and contributing to a larger tradition of Afrofuturist science fiction. You could understand the last installment without confronting any spoilers. This time I need to deal with the larger story structure of the film so there are spoilers galore. So read at your own risk if you have not seen District 9.

Over the past decade or so, there has been an emerging body of criticism and theory around the concept of “Afrofuturism.” For a good introduction to this concept, check out the Afrofuturism website or watch John Akomfrah’s 1996 documentary, Last Angel of History, which traces the emergence of Afrofuturist concepts through science fiction and popular music of a much earlier vintage. For other good discussions of Afrofuturism, check out the special issue of Social Text which Alondra Nelson edited in 2001. Here’s a decent short definition of Afrofuturism, taken from the Afrofuturism home page:

Once upon a time, in the not so distant past, music writers and cultural critics like Mark Dery, Greg Tate, Mark Sinker and Tricia Rose brought science fiction themes in the works of important and innovative cultural producers to our attention. They claimed that these works simultaneously referenced a past of abduction, displacement and alien-nation, and inspired technical and creative innovations in the work of such artists as Lee “Scratch” Perry, George Clinton and Sun Ra. Science fiction was a recurring motif in the music of these artists, they argued, because it was an apt metaphor for black life and history.

Now a new generation of AfroFuturists are exploring these themes in a variety of genres: DJs Spooky and Singe in music and digital culture, Fatimah Tuggar and Keith Piper in the visual arts, Kodwo Eshun in music criticism, McLean Greaves in cyberspace, and Nalo Hopkinson in speculative fiction.

Are recurring futurist themes in these different genres just coincidences? Are they aesthetic a/effects of our millennial moment? Or have futurism and science fiction become the most effective way to talk about black experiences? How do these themes refer to the history of the African diaspora, yet imagine possible futures, futures that enable a broad range of cultural expression and an ever-widening definition of “blackness?”

Afrofuturism offers us a fascinating way of thinking about how the themes of science fiction emerge across a range of different arts, including music, rather than remaining in the space of literary, filmic, and television science fiction which have traditionally been dominated by us white guys. And as the images of science fiction circulated through those channels, they took on new shapes and meanings, becoming a set of metaphors for thinking about issues such as slavery and cultural oppression. In many cases, the alien became the vehicle through which oppressed people represent that have protected and enforced the values of the status qou. As these images took shape, they drew new artists to science fiction — including a growing number of artists of color — who brought these themes back into science fiction literature. A smaller number of films — most famously Brother From Another Planet — consciously contribute to Afro-Futurism.

It is an open question whether District 9 can be called, in the strictest sense, an “Afrofuturist” work. One way of understanding Afrofuturism would be race-neutral, refering to the deployment of a set of metaphors drawn from the realm of science fiction to understand the history and future of race relations (or conversely the borrowing of concepts from the history of race relations to envision how we would deal with other forms of difference and diversity). Many of the works most often cited as Afrofuturist texts fall into this category, including often-cited parallels to District 9 such as Alien Nation and the Planet of the Apes cycle.

Yet, in so far as the Afrofuturism movement has also functioned to call attention to the future of blackness or the responses of black artists to new tehcnology, then we might say that District 9 appropriates an Afrocentric movement and repackages it for a “mainstream” (i.e. majority-dominated) marketplace.

Clearly, as a South African born artist, Blomkamp has much to contribute to our understanding of the mechanisms of apartheid and how its structures and ideologies might return should we confront alien visitors. Blomkamp has been explicit about the links between District 9 and his experiences growing up in South Africa:

It all had a huge impact on me: the white government and the paramilitary police — the oppressive, iron-fisted military environment. Blacks, for the most part, were kept separate from whites. And where there was overlap, there were very clearly delineated hierarchies of where people were allowed to go.Those ideas wound up in every pixel in District 9.(LA Times)

District 9 is clearly intended to shock us out of our preconceptions about South Africa (and for that matter, about what kind of society might be central to a science fiction drama). Blumkamp wants to get past some of the defense mechanisms that have emerged through previous discussion of the conditions of segregation and poverty that have shaped the recent history of his country by telling that story through a different lens. Blomkamp displaces discussions of race onto aliens much as Art Spigelman’s Maus displaced discussions of the death camps onto mice, cats, and pigs Blomkamp has every right to make such a film. Yet, it would have been nice if he had also connected his work to this larger conversation about the intersection of race and technology. Discussions of the film have rarely acknowledged the larger Afrofuturist tradition, though again Hollywood in general has rarely acknowledged its borrowings from literary science fiction.

District 9 seeks to construct a science fiction narrative which isn’t about the global powers that dominate most work in the genre. It purposefully doesn’t deal with what the Americans, the Brits, the Japanese, the Russians, or the Chinese are doing while aliens are visiting South Africa. True enough, Multinational United is a global organization but we see MNU embodied in the film through characters who come from South Africa. There’s something really powerful about making the peripheral central, about dewesternizing science fiction. Again, a growing body of science fiction literature has made this move along time ago imagining the future from the perspectives of Eastern Europe, India, Brazil, African countries, the Arab World, Jamaica, and so forth. I picked up a recent catalog of science fiction books and was blown away by how many of them were set in the developing world as people seek ways to acknowledge a future which will not be simply an expansion of Americanism across the universe. For an excellent sampler that explores the relations between science fiction and postcolonialism, you might pick up a copy of Naola Hopkinson’s So Long Been Dreaming:

So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasyis an anthology of original new stories by leading African, Asian, South Asian and Aboriginal authors, as well as North American and British writers of color.

Stories of imagined futures abound in Western writing. Writer and editor Nalo Hopkinson notes that the science fiction/fantasy genre “speaks so much about the experience of being alienated but contains so little writing by alienated people themselves.”It’s an oversight that Hopkinson and Mehan aim to correct with this anthology.

The book depicts imagined futures from the perspectives of writers associated with what might loosely be termed the “third world.”It includes stories that are bold, imaginative, edgy; stories that are centered in the worlds of the “developing”nations; stories that dare to dream what we might develop into.

The wealth of postcolonial literature has included many who have written insightfully about their pasts and presents. With So Long Been Dreaming they creatively address their futures.

Contributors include: Opal Palmer Adisa, Tobias Buckell, Wayde Compton, Hiromi Goto, Andrea Hairston, Tamai Kobayashi, Karin Lowachee, devorah major, Carole McDonnell, Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, Eden Robinson, Nisi Shawl, Vandana Singh, Sheree Renee Thomas and Greg Van Eekhou

So far, film and television has lagged behind print science fiction in embracing this more global perspective — reflecting a fear that western viewers won’t be interested in a film set primarily in the developing world. So District 9 does important work in bringing this perspective to the screen.

Yet, this exclusion of first and second world powers in the film also poses questions about power relationships. It is hard to imagine, given what we learn in District 9 about the ways that the international arms industry wants to acquire access to the alien weapons, that the Americans and the other super-powers would simply step aside and let the Africans exert this level of self determination.

That said, we also have to note that District 9 falls into several of the traps critics have noted in other representations of the future of race relations in mainstream science fiction films. First, there is an over-arching logic of the film: we move from alienation from to identification with the “prawns” . The disturbing opening scenes really make them seem sub-human. The design of the aliens make them look like insects and crustaceans, neither of which typically engender compassionate or sympathetic responses. And their actions are beastial as they gnaw into meet or clammer through trash heaps. Only their eyes hint at something more soulful underneath their shells.

As the film goes forward, though, we are moved to critique the human population’s treatment of the aliens. So far, so good. But in order for this to happen, two things have to occur: we have to stress the “inhuman” qualities of the human characters (through depictions of their baser motives) and we have to reveal the “human” characteristics of the nonhuman characters — for example through the film’s representation of the “Prawn” protagonist as a caring father and a loyal friend. In short, the emotional power of the film depends on a logic of assimilation: we can care about the aliens because they are more like us than we initially thought. And it depends on a logic of liberal guilt – we should care about the aliens because after all, we are treating them much as we’ve treated other underclasses in the past.

For me, the most disturbing moment in the film comes when Wikus, our central human character uses a flame thrower to exterminate a nest of alien eggs, laughing and bragging that they explode like “popcorn” when exposed to heat. Given what we learn later about their family attachments, it is hard to redeem the character who was responsible for this genocidal act. There is no moment of self recognition where Wikus fully acknowledges what he has done. He mostly pursues his own self interests and has only a few moments where he recognizes the stakes for the “Prawn” and aids their cause.

You can read the main “Prawn” character as the alien version of the “magic negro” found in so many contemporary Hollywood films. Hollywood believes we can tell the story of oppressed people only through the lens of more sympathetic members of the dominant group. And often, this means that the oppressed people become sympathetic to us through their mentoring and assistance to the white protagonists. District 9 is more complicated than this largely because its human protagonist doesn’t ever really develop full consciousness and by the end, we understand the alien character more than he does. We start to value the alien’s motivates and needs above his in the process. This is no Dances With Wolves where the white man becomes a better Indian than the “redskins” and takes over leadership of the tribe. By the end of the film, Wikus is still totally outside the alien community, but has just had a glimmer of what it’s plight might look like.

The second trap, such films often to portray people of color as part of the system of oppression. So, here, we see how the Nigerians exploit the “Prawns”, we see black Africans in the man on the street segments justifying the segregation or deportation of the aliens, and we see black authority figures who are part of the state apparatus working to contain and relocate the “prawn.” All of this suggests that blacks would have behaved no differently than whites did if they were in a position of authority in Apartheid South Africa. It makes oppression a basic element of human nature and thus erases some of the moral culpability of previous generations for their racism. Here, again, though, the film does hint at the unequal status of whites and blacks within MNU through, for example, a scene suggesting that a black recruit is not being given the same body armor as the whites in the same expedition party.

Here’s hoping these observations spark greater discussion. I suspect many of you will disagree with my criticisms of the film. I fully expect to be called “politically correct” which is the language we use to deflect honest discussions about the impact of race and racism upon culture.. District 9′s cultural importance is that it provides us with new resources through which to reflect on the history and future of race relations in our world. I am not asking that the film be “politically correct”: for me, it is enough that it provokes reflections, encourages conversations, and forces us to think more deeply about the world around us. Part of that discussion should resolve around lingering racial assumptions even in works which are otherwise progressive in their goals. Let me return to what I said in my opening of this two part series: District 9 is a very important film, perhaps the best released so far this year, and will make a lasting contribution to how we think about science fiction in screen-based media. But it did not “come out of nowhere” and we will understand it better if we situate it in a larger historical context.

District 9 (Part One): Can a Bench Be a Transmedia Extension?

“In a good summer, there’s usually a movie that will come out of nowhere and completely wow us. This is a good summer, and that movie is District 9.” — Betsey Sharkey, Film Critic, LA Times.

Sharkey’s review of District 9 is typical of those that were published in newspapers around the country. Many film critics were taken almost totally by surprise by the commercial success of this low budget film, produced in South Africa, by a first time feature film director.

Make no mistake about it — District 9 is almost certainly the most impressive film released this summer and one of the best science fiction films to be released in recent years. It raises a high bar for Avatar, The Surrogates, and some of the other SF films which we are anticipating for Fall release.

Yet the film did not come out of “nowhere” either in the sense that those of us who follow the genre closely didn’t know it was coming or in the sense that it is a totally “original” work which shatters all of our expectations about what science fiction is. Some of the mainstream critics sound almost shocked that science fiction can be deployed as a genre for exploring serious and timely social issues, for example, overlooking more than a hundred years of such exploration in literary SF. As someone who has taught science fiction courses off and on for the past 20 years, I wanted to situate District 9 over the next two installments in two important conversations — one about transmedia branding and the other about race and science fiction.

The reason why the film wouldn’t have caught many who followed science fiction by surprise is that it has been the focus of a transmedia marketing campaign for well over a year in advance of the film’s release. Signs prohibiting nonhuman use of restrooms surfaced at Comic-Con a year ago. By the start of the summer, such signs were appearing on park benches, the sides of buses, and in a variety of other contexts around major cities. Here, the producers and promoters no doubt took some inspiration from the campaign which Campfire Media developed for the launch of True Blood last summer.

If you want to learn more about that campaign, check out Greg Hale’s presentation at Futures of Entertainment 3 at MIT last year. Hale shared a stunning video which traced the evolution of that promotion. You can see it here starting at 8:40. Hale, who worked on the campaign, was a veteran of the Blair Witch Project, the release that really has set the model for most subsequent efforts to use transmedia to expand cult audience awareness of forthcoming small budget films. (See Convergence Culture) Another example of this process would be the work that Lance Weiller did around his film, Head Trauma. Lance was also featured on this same session at Futures of Entertainment. (By the way, there will be a Futures of Entertainment conference this November and I will be sharing some details pretty soon. It is always the weekend before thanksgiving.)

Meanwhile, pseudo-documentary segments were surfacing on YouTube and across the web. Here are a few examples.

These films, and others like it, serve important expositional functionss. They situate the context of the film and establish some of its core premises. But they also suggest the debates sparked by the events of the film, showing us different sides of the story than are depicted on the screen. District 9, for example, constructed a site for supporters of the Prawn, MNU Spreads Lies. We see alien rights activists in the background in the feature film but here we get a better sense of what motivates them and how they are critiquing the MNU. We learn things about alien biology — including about the “Prawn”‘s sexual reproduction — which put the film’s depiction of parenthood in a different context. (I particularly love the way that the MNU Spreads Lies site repurposes a documentary from MNU on its blog, constructing its own alternative counter-reading, and thus creating space for ambiguity about how reliable the information it contains may be about the “Prawns.”)

This amateur video sought to stitch together some of the scattered pieces, drawing explicit analogy to Cloverfield, another film which “snuck” into the theaters, thanks to saavy deployment of transmedia branding and promotion strategies.

Of course, it makes sense that this film and filmmaker would embrace digital platforms as a means of expanding the fictional world given that District 9 was based on Neill Blomkamp’s short, Alive in Joberg, which has been widely available on YouTube for some time. It’s worth watching to see how the ideas and images in the current film took shape and how much he was able to achieve with a microscopic budget some of the same emotional impact that people have commented upon in District 9.

District 9 adopts a hyper-mediated style, framing the opening segments as a series of news reports, though it becomes harder as the film progresses to have a rational explanation for who is holding the shakey camera which follows the protagonist around the rubble of an increasingly militarized refuge compound. And the use of these various videos, depicted as coming from different sources, contributes to that aesthetic.

Given the filmmaker’s goal to blur the boundaries between our real world and the fictional world it depicts, creating a science fiction film that requires surprisingly little suspension of disbelief, it seems right that the film’s world would extend physically into our reality even before we step into the cinema.

The information value of the park bench is limited: it evokes a powerful history of racial segregation in this country and extends it into our understanding of the relations between humans and alien visitors. Yet, the shock value of seeing what amount to “Jim Crow” signs in contemporary Los Angeles reminds us that the story could indeed take place in our world and that we may be poorly prepared to deal with interplanetary diversity given how badly we have dealt with the very human diversity in our own midst.

So, can a park bench be a transmedia extension? I would vote yes — at least in this case. It may be a small piece of a larger system of information about the film but it moves beyond simple branding and already situates us emotionally and intellectually inside the fiction.

The Message of Twitter: “Here It Is” and “Here I Am”

Last week, the following conversation unfolded via my Twitter account about, well, my use of Twitter as a technology:

>aramique@henryjenkins mr professor… you theorize on participatory models over spectatorial but i’ve noticed your whole twitter feed is monologue12:32 PM Aug 19th from web in reply to henryjenkins

aramique@henryjenkins p.s i am a fan…just wondering why you are using twitter to simply broadcast instead of sparking dialogue12:34 PM Aug 19th from web in reply to henryjenkins

henry jenkins @aramique it is the curse of having 4.5k followers! Feels odd to do 1 to 1 conversations @that scale!2:39 PM Aug 19th from TwitterFon in reply to aramique

aramique@henryjenkins so then what would you say to a brand or entertainment property with millions of fans?2:54 PM Aug 19th from web in reply to henryjenkins

mikemonello@henryjenkins Twitter conversations aren’t 1 to 1, they are open to all. (re: @aramique)

henry jenkins @armique, @mikemonello, yr questions get Twt’s strengths, limits. but answer won’t fit in character limits. Watch for blog post soon.

I will admit that there is a certain irony about having to refer people to my blog for an exchange that started on Twitter but couldn’t really be played out within the character limits of that platform. But then, note that armique’s very first post had to be broken into two tweets just to convey the emotional nuances he needed. And that’s part of my point.

From the start, I’ve questioned whether Twitter was the right medium for me to do my work. I’ve always said that as a writer, I am a marathon runner and not a sprinter. I am scarcely blogging here by traditional standards given the average length of my posts. Yet I believe this blog has experimented with how academics might better interface with a broader public and how we can expand who has access to ideas that surface through our teaching and research.

For a long time, I held off joining Twitter because I was not sure how it might expand meaningfully on the work I am already doing here. My friend, danah boyd, the queen of social networks, more or less threatened to do me bodily harm if I did not join Twitter and she personally set up an account for me to use. Now, I am really glad that she did because there is so much I’ve learned by experimenting with this platform which has been expanding in visibility and influence over the past handful of months.

My first impressions were correct that Twitter is no substitute for Blogs or Live Journal. And in so far as people are using it to take on functions once played on blogs, there is a serious loss to digital culture.

Someone recently asked me, “If McCluhan is right and the medium is the message, what is the message of Twitter?” My response: “Here It Is and Here I Am.”

Here It Is

Let’s break that down:”Here it is” represents Twitter as a means of sharing links and pointers to other places on the web.

I’ve been reasonably selective about which Twitter streams I follow — and that selectivity has to do with both my respect for the person writing the account and my desire to get access to a broad range of communities. Different people give me a point of entry into conversations taking place around advertising, transmedia entertainment, journalism, civic media, intellectual property, fandom, and a range of other topics which run through my work.

I see each of those Twitterers as the only truly intelligent agents — human beings — and Twitter as a whole as a kind of knowledge community. None of us can spot everything in our field and collectively pooling our knowledge is of enormous value. For me, that’s been my primary use of Twitter both as a consumer and as a contributor. I also love to monitor how my contributions circulate — being able to read who has retweet me and watching the stats on as to how many people have followed my links gives me greater insights than ever before about my readership and the impact of different posts.

Unfortunately, there has also been some losses. Three years ago, when I started this blog, if people wanted to direct attention to one of my blog posts, they would write about it in their blog and often feel compelled to spell out more fully why they found it a valuable resource. I got a deeper insight into their thinking and often the posts would spark larger debate. As the function of link sharing has moved into Twitter, much of this additional commentary has dropped off. Most often, the retweets simply condense and pass along my original Tweet. At best, I get a few additional words on the level of “Awesome” or “Inspiring” or “Interesting.” So, in so far as Twitter replaces blogs, we are impoverishing the discourse which occurs on line.

I have been especially amused and dismayed by the way Twitter removes or distorts context as it moves across cyberspace. People take notes at lectures, pulling out a sentence here or there. It is fascinating data to me to see which of my points stuck. But then often the sentence doesn’t capture the specificity of the idea and it rapidly takes different meanings as it travels. I am particularly dismayed by shifts in attribution. So, I quoted Ethan Zuckerman as having said that any technology sufficiently powerful to support the distribution of cute cat pictures can bring down a government and in my talk there is attribution. But the shortening needed for Twitter removes the attribution and before long, I am seeing this quote ascribed to me far and wide. Yes, I said it as in that the words came out of my mouth, but I did not write it, in the sense that the words are mine. I was equally dismayed when I qouted Shakespeare’s Hamlet for “Brevity is the Soul of Wit” and connected it to Twitter only to have readers assume I originated the phrase.

Early on, I proposed a Twitter game — Twik or Tweet. You throw out a quotation without attribution. And the Twitter community has to guess if it is an authentic tweet or a literary allusion.

If we see Twitter as part of a larger informational economy, it does very important work. It spreads my messages out to larger networks which might not even know my blog exists but who may be drawn to a post that s of particular interest to their memberships. Like many people out there, I was fascinated by some of the Twitter posts coming out of Iran in the wake of their contested election and Twitter expanded the information I had available to me. I sat in on a discussion at Annenberg last week with the program’s incoming journalism students and a key theme was how reporters could deploy the platform to tap into larger currents in the society or identify unknown sources for their stories. This is spreadable media at work.

Here I Am

Even among the intellectuals and thought leaders whose Twitter flows I chose to follow, there is an awful lot of relatively trivial and personal chatter intended to strengthen our social and emotional ties to other members of our community. The information value of someone telling me what s/he had for breakfast is relatively low and I tend to scan pretty quickly past these tweets in search of the links that are my primary interests. And if the signal to noise ration is too low, I start to ponder how much of a social gaff I would commit if i unsubscribed from someone’s account.

But even in my grumpier moments I find that I gain some loose emotional or social value out of feeling more connected to others in my circle. I feel closer to people I didn’t know very well before through following their tweets. The fact that I hear from them every day means they remain more active in my thoughts. And when we connect again, we can dig deeper in our exchanges, at least in so far as the feelings are mutual, moving past the small talk into other topics.

Here we come closest to McLuhan’s core idea — “Here it is” is a function of Twitter; “Here I Am” may be its core “message” in so far as McLuhan saw the message as something that might not be articulated on any kind of conscious level but emerges from the ways that the medium impacts our experience of time and space.

This effect even extends to tweets which have greater informational value. The power of the tweets from Iran was not simply that they got out messages which the mainstream media could not have delivered to us because of the limits on how they operate under that repressive regime, but it was also that we felt a sense of immediacy because we were receiving those messages from average citizens, like ourselves, who were seeing things happen directly, on the ground. (and no doubt a fair number of fake messages fabricated for propaganda purposes, but that’s another matter). As many of us turned our icons green as a show of solidarity, we saw the emergence of a larger community that felt linked to these developments.

“Here it is” became “Here I am” and more importantly “Here we are.”

Broadcast? Not Really

Twitter works on a number of different scales. For some users, most I’d assume, Twitter represents a relatively narrow cast medium, a kind of social network which allows them to communicate with people they already know. For others, the scale of contact expands and the people who link to them might more appropriately be called “Followers.” In my case, I currently have something approaching 4.5 thousand followers on Twitter, of whom I probably recognize by name only a few hundred. These are people who heard me speak, who saw my blog, and increasingly have picked me up because some one else retweeted one of my messages Thanks for Follow Friday shoutouts. This situation creates an asymetrical scale — many of these people feel much closer to me because I am one of a small number of Twitter Streams they follow while I feel no closer to them because they are not sending me their “Here I am” messages back.

armique’s initial question to me then asks why I am deploying Twitter as a broadcast medium.

The short answer is because the scale of communications, for me, is too great to allow for meaningful dialogue. A better answer would be because as an academic, I need a broadcast channel if I am going to get my ideas into broader circulation. I don’t have access to the airwaves or to a printed publication which might bring what I write to a much broader readership. I don’t have an advertising budget with which to put my ideas onto billboards. Twitter, as a platform, alters the scale of my communication by allowing me to expand my readership.

For others, companies for example, it may do the opposite, helping them to move from communications at an impossibly large scale, to something much closer to the ground. They can start to see their consumers as individuals or at least as a community of people who have a broad range of responses to what they are producing. They can sample public response to their products. They can discover groups of users they didn’t know existed.

Once again, they are combining the “Here It Is” and “Here I am” functions of Twitter to both collect data and feel greater closeness to their consumers.

In return, almost without regard to the content of their message, the consumer feels greater connection to the companies — the company ceases to be an anonymous entity and develops a face or at least a voice of its own. To me, this relationship — even at a large scale — is very different from broadcasting because of the ways that it creates a greater sense of intimacy and connectivity between both parties involved. When I watch a corporate message on television, I have no sense that the company can or would want to see my response.

But a smart company goes further. We are hearing stories of companies that scanTwitter looking for references to their products and reaching out to consumers to respond to their concerns. In some cases, consumers get quicker and fuller responses to their problems because they posted these problems on Twitter than they get calling the customer service department. And this is where the “Here I Am” message is especially strong — this company cares enough about me to actively seek out people with problems and make sure they get fixed, rather than hoping nobody complains. A really smart company hires people full time just to respond to Twitter: they can respond to many more people and they can get their responses out in real time, neither of which is really possible to me given that my day job involves many more activities than just dealing with Twitter.

Now, here we get to the interesting part: does the company do this through direct messaging or through a general post to the community? There are trade-offs in both case. Twitter certainly can through its Direct Messaging function allow for private one to one conversation.

But in many cases, there is a performative dimension for both parties. The customer did not simply want to get the attention of the company; they exploit the potential of Twitter to spread the word about their complaint, to identify others who share their concerns, and to exert collective rather than personal pressure on the company, thus potentially increasing their influence. The companies are responding more quickly to Twitter based complaints because they feel exposed or at risk as what was once a personal matter transmitted through the telephone as a one-to-one channel now because a public issue and if they don’t respond quickly, they may lose control.

On the other hand, because of this public complaint, the company wants to perform its concern not just to the individual customer but to the larger brand community. They don’t want to simply fix the problem; they want to show they care. And if there is an answer or response, they want to send it out to everyone who might have the same concern, thus expanding the impact that any given customer service call might have on their buying public.

Now, that’s the delimma I face as an academic confronting this much larger scale community. The 4 thousand plus followers I have amassed is larger than the audiences I draw at any speaking gig — even large hall events at South by Southwest.

We can imagine the exchanges there on two levels: in some cases, the queries I get feel very much like the questions I would get during a Q & A period after a talk and it feels totally natural to respond to them through the main Twitter feed in front of the large audience. Yet, it is challenging for people to link my response to the original question. If I was speaking some place and most people couldn’t hear the question, then I would feel compelled to repeat the question into the microphone. Yet in Twitter, by the time I did that, there wouldn’t be any characters left to answer it with. And in any case, the question is apt to be much more concise than any meaningful answer I could provide. So you can ask questions on Twitter that are impossible to answer on Twitter — present case a great illustration — and so you then have to use the “Here It Is” function to direct people to another space for the response.

Other questions feel much more intimate and personal, more like the kinds that I get when people crowd around the table after the talk, and it feels weird to share such intimate exchanges in front of the larger population that reads my blog. And in some cases, I get very personal messages which don’t belong in a public arena at all, that function more like texting, and it is clear that the direct message function is much more useful. I am still trying to sort out the different levels of address here and how they might shape my relationship to my readers.

I have seen a few Twitterers who are aware of this one-to-many aspect of Twitter and use it to create a kind of call and response or crowd sourcing relationship with their readers. Neil Gaiman seems to be a real master at this use of Twitter. I’ve seen him ask his readers for advice about specific language in a script he is crafting, almost like polling the audience on Who Wants to Be the Millionaire, and then make decisions based on the response. This is much like the company which performs its concern for the consumer and is designed to strengthen the sense of ownership and attachment his fans have to his work. If I was less over-extended, I would be playing with this community aspect of Twitter, and I suspect this may be what shaped aramique’s question in the first place.

All I can say is that I am still experimenting with the medium and have not yet achieved its full potential for my work. I hope to respond to this larger challenge in the weeks ahead.

So there you have it.

UCLA Faculty Rally to Support Endangered Arts Library

Some 20 years ago, I spent a month in Los Angeles doing research for my dissertation on early sound comedy and the vaudeville aesthetic. I have vivid memories of time spent in some of the great libraries and archives in the Los Angeles area and one of the many things which appealed to me about moving to the west coast was the thought that I might be able to dig deeper into the collections housed at USC, UCLA, the Academy, and the American Film Institute, among many others, in this great city.

I was much distressed earlier this week when Janet Bergstrom, a film colleague at UCLA, contacted me with the news that as a result of a budget crunch, her university was taking steps to close down the UCLA Arts Library, which houses many collections central to the fields of film and television studies. Bergstrom solicited my help in spreading the word about this tragic decision and about the efforts of UCLA faculty members to rally support behind the Arts Library.

She shared with me this description of the situation:

The Film, TV and Digital Media section of UCLA’s Arts Library (that entire library is now on the chopping block) is one of the finest and largest research libraries of its kind anywhere – books, periodicals, microfilm going back to the pre-history of the cinema, with deep international holdings. (The library holds some 160,000 volumes.) The reference room provides a place for students and researchers to consult print resources that are not on-line, and often held nowhere else in LA. The library is geared to integrating web-based research with traditional library research and special collections. Just take a look at this portal, put together by our Film/TV/DM librarian Diana King.

Unique, primary materials are housed in Arts-Special Collections (in an earlier move, the two units were separated). People come from all over the world to use the RKO papers, the Fox Studio Files, Republic, the collections of Walter Lanz, Jean Renoir, William Wyler, Preston Sturges, to name a few, enormous strengths in TV (and after), scripts, photographs, and onward. See here for a partial list These collection are likewise without a place to go, and are likely to remain in boxes for who knows how long.

Our library collections, in coordination with the UCLA Film and TV Archive, have been an area of great strengh and pride to UCLA as a research university and needless to say, crucial to the Dept. of Film, TV and Digital Media. The sudden announcement that the Arts Library would be dismantled, with no other facility on campus large enough to accommodate the collections, was made indirectly (it turned up in the librarians’ internal blog, and was their first notice of the decision), with no regard for standard UCLA procedures such as consultation with faculty, staff and UCLA’s Academic Senate about the impact it would have on our teaching and research mission. Please help by signing the petition put together by our colleagues in Art History, who are similarly impacted.

I would normally not get involved in the internal discussions of a university of which I am not a faculty but let’s face it — this decision will impact media researchers all over the world, who have come for many years to use these collections. I should I have wanted to expand on my early film comedy project by returning to the papers of Carol Burnett, Caesar’s Hour, Jackie Cooper, MGM Studios, Milton Berle Show, Paramount Pictures, RKO Pictures, Smothers Brothers, Twentieth Century Fox, not to mention a score of television and film scriptwriters who helped to shape the movement of vaudeville performers into other media. And if I wanted to pursue my research into science fiction on film and television, I might have been able to Irwin Allen, Harve Bennett, Dan Curtis George Pal, or Gene Roddenberry.And I might just dream up a new project if it meant getting to thumb through the archived collections of Dorothy Arzner or William Wyler! If you study film, television, or radio, take a look at the list of UCLA’s collections and then contemplate what the consequences for your research would be if UCLA blocked or limited access to these materials.

It is a painful cliche that when budgets get slashed, the arts are the first to go. But it is disappointing to see a place like UCLA which has always been a leader in supporting film and media studies make a decision which can have such a dramatic and lasting impact.

The passion which many have for this great collection is suggested by this powerful comment from filmmaker Stanton Kaye:

This is an atrocious violation of the filmic trust of the students, the teachers, and the Filmic greats who have left this legacy of history and dreams…. How can I remember a Kindle the way I remember Edward Craig’s book on the Ubermarionette?or his son’s .Edward Carrick’s on the Art of the Scenic Filmmaker? What substitutes for reading the collected works of Henrik Ibsen –Book by Book? or Strindberg;etc….Who will ever know the annotated copies of Capra’s films or Joseph Von Sternberg’s?…Or Preston Sturges’s unpublished screen plays? or the history of Victor Saville’s greatest productions……or Jean Renoir’s Toni?…and it’s influence on GW Pabst or viceversa..or on De Sica….???/ Many of these men taught here..Ann carefully built it up as a worthy collection for the guys who hung out at the food wagon near the old army bungalows May you fear to go outside forever knowing the Film Giants might throw a reel or two down at your heads for shutting out the filmic light and history the students need so desperately.

UCLA faculty, staff, students, alums, and friends are organizing a public outcry against the potential shutting of this great resource. According to an announcement sent out yesterday, they have already collected 1,250 members to their Facebook community and 1,500 signatures on a petition they have drafted.

For more information, check out the Save the UCLA Arts Library Facebook page.

“The Pickford Paradox”: Between Silent Film and New Media

For some years, I’ve used clips from silent films in getting students to think about the visual vocabulary of contemporary video games. Silent films construct situations posing many of the same creative problems that level designers face and do so in a language which is primarily pictorial.

For example, consider the classic sequence from Harold Lloyd’s film, Safety Last, which might be described as a vertical scroller — as Lloyd has to make his way up the side of the building, past a range of different obstacles. In teaching games, we often talk about “verbing,” based on the remarks of Shigeru Miyamoto that he likes to add a new verb to the vocabulary of games with each new title he releases. So, the question to ask the students is what verbs, what capacities for action, would be required in order to enable game designers to capture the essence of this scene. In the discussion, I may also get students to reflect on why it is difficult for games to produce laughter as compared to the rich comic experiences offered by silent film comedies. And from there, I also get them to think about what difference it makes that this scene is played by a live actor rather than a virtual character in terms of how we react to the risks depicted here.

Here’s another clip I’ve often used in classroom discussions — this time from D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East. The highly codified emotional language of early 20th century melodrama would be relatively easy to capture in the pre-programmed behavior of game characters and the situation here — trying to navigate across ice floes before reaching a waterfall — has strong resemblances, again, to the kinds of situations encountered in classic scrolling games like Super Mario or Sonic the Hedgehog. Generally students find it much easier to imagine converting this sequence to a game than adapting the Lloyd sequence, but again, part of the power of the scenes comes from seeing real people in real spaces.

The point of the activity is not to bash games for not being able to achieve what cinema can do but rather to get students to think about the nature of the different media, the language that media makers draw on in producing their emotional effects, and the unrealized potentials which emerge when we look comparatively across media.

I was reminded of this classroom exercise when I heard last week from Manuel Garin Boronat, a researcher in Spain, who has produced a series of remarkable videos which juxtapose sequences from early films and early video games. I asked him to share with you the impulses behind this project and several of the short pieces he has produced. You can see more examples of his work at his website, GamePlayGag. These videos encourage us to look backwards and forwards in time, making comparisons across media, in ways that I find both liberating and illuminating.

Between silent film and new media

by Manuel Garin Boronat

Once upon a time, in the west, Mary Pickford said: “It would have been more logical if silent pictures had grown out of the talkie instead of the other way around”. In this direct statement, an early Hollywood actress -not a director, not a critic- touched an essential aesthetic problem that not only relates to a specific process of film history but also opens a potential path to question media evolution. Would it be possible to look backwards, to silent visual forms, as a privileged platform for comparative media analysis? Isn’t the study of early film, through its intense and varied visuality, a powerful resource to better understand today’s changes in videogame and new media languages?

By picking the word “logical” Pickford throws us into the limits of a paradox. Beneath her phrase lies the possibility of conceiving silent cinema as a door towards abstraction, given its concentration on visuals that escape the restrictions of dialogue-centered narration… Pickford envisions silent films as a reaction against the constraints of sound cinema, as an attempt to open more space for visual imagination (silence, motion, tempo) and less for the impression of realism. But what if we applied the “Pickford Paradox” to think about the evolution of new media, looking backwards to move forward in terms of developing an expressive language for games.

Nowadays, realistic graphics, dense dramatized plots and constant dialogue seem to be the self-imposed goal for the videogame industry (or for a big part of it). In a way, the visual freedom of the first computer games and arcades, which opened the possibility of a certain abstract-motion expression -concerned with gameplay visuality and not necessarily sacrificed to verbal storytelling-, is being constrained by a high-tech race towards anthropocentric realism. The so-called “cinematic sequences” inserted throughout the narration, as well as a number of allegedly film-realistic procedures, make games look more and more like talkies (but not necessarily like films). Is history repeating itself? Could Mary Pickford’s claim be adapted to contemporary videogame design? Of course better and worse games will always be made independently from its talkie/silent orientation, but are we simply facing a matter of technological and programming improvements or could we affirm that a certain aesthetic possibility is at stake?

Perhaps engaging a true comparison between silent film forms and early interactive games, through concrete sequences and examples, may be a good way to put into crisis our personal notion of media evolution. With a bit of luck, looking back to the origins of film history might help us to value the amazing discoveries and possible creative paths -yet to be developed- of early videogames and new media. Under that perspective, Mary Pickford’s husband may be resurrected as the ultimate silent version of Megaman, and the sight gags of Buster Keaton could maybe teach us a trick or two about Super Mario’s love affair with gravity… Perhaps it all boils down to jump, chase and pie-in-the-face.

Keaton Mario Scroll

Among the masters of slapstick, from Chaplin and Lloyd to Semon and Chase, Buster Keaton was probably the one who brought his obsession with motion, interfaces and Goldberg machines to a higher degree of visual lucidity. Sight gags, based on the creation, repetition and variation of a kinetic pattern (as in a three time musical structure), unveiled a world of infinite gameplay. As in the Super Mario games, the trace of the character’s action -jump, chase, pie in the face- and its physical developments -platform, rotor, slide, cliff, pendulum, pulley, seesaw, zip-line, lever…- define a screen trajectory while opening the question of gameplay laughter. Maybe, as Gilles Deleuze instinctively prophesized, Buster was secretly developing the first videogame (avant-garde) machine: “…the dream of Keaton, to take the biggest machine in the world and make it work with tiny little elements, transforming it into something that anyone can use, to make from it a thing for everyone”.

Fairbanks action arcade

As Will Rogers showed with his parodies of Douglas Fairbanks’ action routines, the Jump can constitute a mode of narration by itself. The silent cinematic hero, although being engaged in certain love requirements, was essentially a proteic pixel running, jumping and fighting across the screen. As in early arcade and action-platform games, the power of physics, motion and timing thrilled the audiences in a constant push “beyond what’s possible”. Prince of Persia, who now seems to be re-shooting the marvelous visuals of Raoul Walsh’s masterpiece The Thief of Bagdad.

Pathé magic puzzle

Visually enclosed by what Noel Burch called the “autarchy of tableau,” silent fantasy reels shared with early games an aesthetic awareness of the frame. Within that determined, magical space, a path was open for visually stunning effects and changes in shape, form and motion. In this segment, humans become geometrical figures, game pieces, whose movements and combinations resemble the legendary gameplay of Tetris, helping us to see in this classic video game traces of the cinema attraction.

Chomón arcade

Early mischief gags and pickpocket reels soon started to work around chases, jumps and visual transformations. As in certain arcade and scroll games, the relation between the main character, his antagonists and the surrounding space constructs a system of vertical and horizontal relations inside the frame. Stairs, connecting floors, holes, diagonals and magic bikes engaged a certain development in early film montage, much as these same devices became key motifs in early video games. The secret of Pathe silent films was a fascination with transformation which invites the viewer to play along with the characters.

Manuel Garin Boronat is a graduate in Humanities and Audiovisual Communication at Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona. He works as a research scholar at the Department of Communication in the same university, and teaches as assistant lecturer in the Area of Ideation and Script. In 2008 he defended, within the Ph.D. Programme in Film Theory, Analysis and Documentation, the first part of his doctoral thesis: The visual gag: form, character, game-play. He is currently finishing his thesis on the relations between audiovisual language and game forms, after a research stay in Tokyo University of The Arts (Graduate School of Film and New Media). His main research interests focus on media hermeneutics, sound analysis, videogame theory and forms of serial fiction.

New Media Literacies — A Syllabus

Last week, I shared the syllabus for my Transmedia Storytelling and Entertainment class and was blown away by the intensity of interest out there. I don’t expect the same level of excitement over this class, since there are many such classes out there around the world, but I figured I would share it just the same. This course is pretty much over-subscribed at USC so I am not trying to attract new students — just sharing models and resources with others doing work in this area.

What does it mean to be “literate” and how has this changed as a consequence of the introduction of new communication technologies? What social skills and cultural competencies do young people need to acquire if they are going to be able to fully participate in the digital future? What are the ethical choices young people face as participants in online communities and as producers of media? What can Wikipedia and Facebook teach us about the future of democratic citizenship? How effective is Youtube at promoting cultural diversity? What relationship exists between participatory culture and participatory democracy?

How is learning from a video game different than learning from a book? What do we know about the work habits and learning skills of the generation that has grown up playing video games? Who is being left behind in the digital era and what can we do about it? And how might research on pedagogy and learning contribute more generally to our understanding of media audiences? Much of the reading in this course will be drawn from a series of books recently produced by the MIT Press and the MacArthur Foundation. These books reflect a national push by the MacArthur Foundation to explore how young people are learning informally through the affordances of new media and what implications this has for the future of schools, libraries, public institutions, the workplace, and the American family.

This emerging body of research represents an important place where media and communication studies is interfacing with learning researchers and public policy makers. Understanding these debates helps shed light on long-standing debates in media and cultural theory, especially those having to do with the social production of meaning around media content and the nature of online communities. A better understanding of how informing learning, cultural collaboration and knowledge production takes place through fan and game communities may offer key new insights into media audience research and may also help journalists to better understand shifts in how young people access and deploy news and information. At the same time, translating this theory into practice poses challenges which may force our field to rethink some of its core assumptions. This course is intended to be a meeting point between students interested in communications research and cultural studies, media production, and educational research.

The course is structured in two parts: Part One, Learning in a Participatory Culture, seeks to provide an overview of our contemporary moment of media change, of the kinds of informal learning which is occuring in the context of participatory culture, of how schools are responding to the challenges posed by new media technologies, and of core debates between those who value and those who criticize the new media literacies. Part Two, Core Skills and Competencies, digs deeper into what young people need to learn if they are going to become full participants in the emerging media culture, adopting the framework of social skills and cultural competencies which shapes the work of Project New Media Literacies, and illustrating them by looking more closely at such cultural phenomenon as computer game guilds, youtube video production, Wikipedia, fan fiction, Second Life and other virtual worlds, music remixing, social network sites, and cosplay. We will be examining more closely new curricular materials which have emerged from Project New Media Literacies, Global Kids, The Good Play Project, Common Sense Media, the George Lucas Foundation, and other projects which are seeking to introduce these skills into contemporary educational practices.

By the end of the course, students will be able to:

• Map the ways the changing media landscape has impacted the way young people learn

• Identify how participatory cultures work to support the growth and contributions of their members

• Recognize and be able to respond to core debates surrounding the value of bringing new media technologies and participatory culture practices into the classroom.

• Outline some of the ethical challenges which youth face in their roles as media producers and members of online communities.

• Describe our current understanding of the connections between participatory culture and civic engagement, including the relationship between the digital divide and the participation gap.

• Summarize and critique core theorists working in the field of New Media Literacy

• Comprehend the framework of basic social skills and cultural skills associated with the new media literacies

• Apply their theoretical understandings to the development of curricular resources for use in school or after school programs.

• Critique existing curricular resources designed to teach “the new media literacies”

• Deploy course concepts in the development of an independent research project which makes a substantive scholarly contribution.


Course Assignments:

• For each class session, the student should make one thoughtful contribution to the class forum, describing their response to the readings, and offering some topics or questions we should explore during the class discussions. This process is designed to jump start the conversation before class so students should make an effort to read their classmate’s contributions. Keep in mind that contributions here also allow me to assess your mastery over the course content so try to anchor your comments closely to the readings. You need not, however, reference all of the readings for that week but should focus your discussion on salient points of interest. (10 percent)

• Deploying their emerging understanding of the literature on New Media Literacies and their own personal experience as a user of new media tools and platforms, the student will write a five page response to Mitoko Rich, “Literacy Debate – Online, R U Really Reading?“, New York Times Book Review, July 27 2008. The response should consider what counts as literacy, how literacy changes in response to the new media landscape, and what value we should ascribe to the new forms of communication that are emerging online. (Due Week Three) (10 percent)

• The Student will do a short interview with a student or educator, identifying some of their core beliefs about the value of new media technologies and practices for learning, and sketching out how much and in what ways they use such tools and techniques inside and outside of school. Drawing on the literature we’ve read so far in the class, the student will write a short five page essay which paints a portrait of their interview subject and links them to larger trends impacting how young people are learning through and about new media. (Due Week Six) (20 Percent)

• The Student will develop one challenge for the Project NML Learning Library. Challenges may deploy videos produced by the project or other material that already circulates online. The challenge should reflect their understanding of the “new media” skills and should introduce young people to some aspect of digital culture. (Due Week Ten) (20 Percent)

• The student will complete a paper or project of their own design, with consultation with the instructor, which makes a significant scholarly or pedagogical contribution to our understanding of the new media literacies. A written paper should be roughly 20 pages in length. (due at end of the term) The scale of projects should be negotiated with the professor. The student will make a brief presentation of their paper or project to their classmates during the final class session. (Due Week Fifteen) (40 Percent)

Required Books:

Cory Doctorow, Little Brother (New York: Tor, 2008).

Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006).

Peter Lyman, Mizuko Ito, Barrie Thorne, and Michael Carter, Hanging Out, Messing Around, And Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning With New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press/MacArthur Foundation, 2009).

John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives (New York: Perseus, 2008).

Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel, New Literacies: Everyday Practices and Classroom Learning (Maidenshead: Open University Press, 2006).

S. Craig Watkins, The Young and the Digital (Boston: Beacon Press, 2009).


Week 1 (August 25) Growing Up Digital

Recommended Readings (For after the first class session):

Mark Prensky, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” (2001)

Henry Jenkins, “Reconsidering Digital Immigrants,” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, December 5 2007.

Henry Jenkins, “Eight Traits of the New Media Landscape,” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, November 6 2006

Henry Jenkins, “Nine Propositions Towards a Theory of YouTube,” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, May 28 2007

Renee Hobbs, “The Seven Great Debates in the Media Literacy Movement

Week 2 (September 1) The New Media Literacies

Henry Jenkins et al, Confronting the Challenges of a Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. , pp.3-23.

James Paul Gee, Good Video Games + Good Learning (New York: Peter Lang, 2007), chapter 8, “Affinity Spaces”, pp.87-103.

Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel, New Literacies: Everyday Practices & Classroom Learning (Maidenhead: Open University Press, 2006). Part One: “What’s New?”, pp.7-101.

Richard Sennett, The Craftsman (Yale University Press, 2008), Chapter 6 “Expressive Instructions,” pp. 179-193.

Week 3 (September 8) The New Digital Landscape: Differing Perspectives

Peter Lyman, Mizuko Ito, Barrie Thorne, and Michael Carter, Hanging Out, Messing Around, And Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning With New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press/MacArthur Foundation, 2009).

Mark Bauerlein, The Dumbiest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. (New York: Tarcher, 2008), Chapter One: “Knowledge Deficits,” pp. 11-38 and Chapter Two, “The New Bibliophobes,” pp.39-70.

Week 4 (September 15) The Ethics of Participation

Carrie James with Katie Davis, Andrea Flores, James M. Francis, Lindsey Pettingill, Margaret Rundle and Howard Gardner, “Young People, Ethics, and the New Digital Media,” pp.1-62.

John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives (New York: Basic, 2008), “Privacy” pp. 53-82, “Safety” pp. 83-110, “Pirates” pp. 131-154, “Aggressors” pp. 209-222.

Thomas McLaughlin, “The Ethics of Basketball”, Give and Go, Basketball as Cultural Practice, State University of New York Press, Albany, 2008. 23-45

Ellen Seiter, “Practicing at Home: Computers, Pianos, and Cultural Capital” in Tara McPherson (ed.), Digital Youth, Innovation and the Unexpected (Cambridge:MIT Press/MacArthur Foundation, 2008), pp. 27-52.

Week 5 (September 22) The Politics of Participation

Cory Doctorow, Little Brother (New York: Tor, 2008).

Justine Cassell and Meg Cramer, “High Tech or High Risk: Moral Panics about Girls Online” in Tara McPherson (ed.), Digital Youth, Innovation and the Unexpected (Cambridge:MIT Press/MacArthur Foundation, 2008), pp. 53-76.


Week 6 (September 29) Play

Jenkins et al, pp. 22-25.

James Paul Gee, “Learning and Games” in Katie Salens (ed.) The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games and Learning (Cambridge: MIT Press/MacArthur Foundation, 2008), pp. 21-40.

Kurt Squire and Shree Durga (in press), “Productive Gaming: The Case for Historiographic Game Play,” in Robert Fedig (ed.), The Handbook of Educational Gaming (Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference), pp. 1-21.

Mary Louise Pratt, ” Arts of the Contact Zone,” Profession 91 (1991), pp.33-35.

Eric Klopfer, “Augmented Learning,Confessions of an Aca-Fan, July 7 2008

David Williamson Shaffer, “How Computer Games Help Kids Learn,” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, January 25 2007

Week 7 (October 6) Performance

Jenkins et al, pp. 28-31.

James Paul Gee, “Pleasure, Learning, Video Games, and Life: The Projective Stance,” in Michele Knobel and Colin Lankshear (eds.), A New Literacies Sampler (New York: Peter Lang, 2007), pp.95-114.

Shelby Ann Wolf and Shirley Brice Heath, “Living in a World of Words,” in Henry Jenkins (ed.) The Children’s Culture Reader (New York: New York University Press, 1998), pp. 406-430.

Gerard Jones, Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Superheroes, and Make-Believe Violence (New York: Basic, 2002), “The Good Fight,” pp. 65-76 and “Fantasy and Reality,” pp.113-128.

Geraldine Bloustein, “‘Ceci N’est Pas Un Jeaune Femme’: Videocams, Representation and ‘Othering’ In the Worlds of Teenage Girls,” in Henry Jenkins, Tara McPherson and Jane Shattuc (eds.) Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002) pp.162-186.

Week 8 (October 13) Appropriation

Jenkins et al, pp. 32-34.

Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006), Chapter 5, “Why Heather Can Write,” pp. 169-205.

Rebecca W. Black, “Digital Design: English Language Learners and Reader Reviews in Online Fiction,” in Michele Knobel and Colin Lankshear (eds.) A New Literacies Sampler (New York: Peter Lang, 2007), pp.115-136.

Angela Thomas, “Blurring and Breaking Through the Boundaries of Narrative, Literacy, and Identity in Adolescent Fan Fiction,” in Michele Knobel and Colin Lankshear (eds.), A New Literacies Sampler (New York: Peter Lang, 2007), pp.137-166.

Lankshear and Knobel, “New Literacies as Remix,” pp.105-136.

Week 9 (October 20) Transmedia Navigation and Multitasking

Jenkins et al, pp. 34-36, 46-49.

Gunther Kress, Literacy in the New Media Age (New York: Routledge), Chapter 4 “Literacy and Multimodality: A Theoretical Framework,” pp. 35-60.

Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006), Chapter 3 “Searching for the Oragami Unicorn,” pp. 93-130.

Mimi Ito, “Technologies of the Childhood Imagination: Yugioh, Media Mixes, and Everyday Cultural Production” pp.31-34.

David Buckingham and Julian Sefton-Green, “Structure, Agency and Pedagogy in Children’s Media Culture,” in Joseph Tobin (ed.), Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokemon (Durham: Duke University press, 2004), pp.12-33.

Week 10 (October 27) Collective Intelligence and Distributed Cognition

Jenkins et al, pp. 37-43

Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006), Chapter One “Spoiling Survivor,” pp.25-58.

Jane McGonigal, “Why I Love Bees: A Case Study in Collective Intelligence Gaming” in Katie Salens (ed.), The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning (Cambridge: MIT Press/MacArthur Foundation, 2008), pp. 199-228.

Andrew Clark, Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies and the Future of Human Intelligence (Oxford: Oxford University Press), Chapter Two “Technologies to Bond With,” pp. 35-58.

T.L. Taylor, “Does WOW Change Everything?: How a PvP Server, Multinational Playerbase, and Surveillance Mod Scene Caused Me Pause,” Games & Culture, October 2006, pp.1-20.

Week 11 (November 3) Simulation and Visualization

Jenkins et al, pp. 25-30.

Ian Bogost, “Procedural Literacy: Problem Solving in Programming, Systems and Play,” Telemedium: The Journal of Media Literacy, 52, 2005, pp.32-36.

Rachel Prentice, “The Visible Human,” in Sherry Turkle (ed.), The Inner History of Devices (Cambridge: MIT Press 2008), pp. 112-124.

Sherry Turkle, Life on Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (New York: Touchstone, 1996), Chapter Nine “Virtuality and Its Discontents,” p.233-254

Barry Joseph, “Why Johnny Can’t Fly: Treating Games as a Form of Youth Media Within a Youth Development Framework,” in Katie Salen (Ed.), The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning (Cambridge: MIT Press/MacArthur Foundation, 2008), pp. 253-266.

Week 12 (November 10) Networking

Jenkins et al, pp. 49- 52.

danah boyd, “Why Youth Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life,” in David Buckingham (ed.) Youth, Identity and Digital Media (Cambridge: MIT Press/MacArthur Foundation, 2009), pp. 1-26

W. Lance Bennett, “Changing Citizenship in the Digital Age” in W. Lance Bennett (ed.), Civic Life Online: Learning How Digital Media Can Engage Youth (Cambridge: MIT Press/MacArthur Foundation, 2009), pp. 1-24.

Yasmin B. Kafai, “Gender Play in a Tween Gaming Club,” in Yasmin B. Kafai, Carrie Heeter, Jill Denner, and Jennifer Y. Sun (eds.), Beyond Barbie & Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008), pp.110-123.

Elizabeth Hayes, “Girls, Gaming, and Trajectories of IT Expertise,” in Yasmin B. Kafai, Carrie Heeter, Jill Denner, and Jennifer Y. Sun (eds.) Beyond Barbie & Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008), pp.217-230.

Vanessa Bertozzi, Unschooling and Participatory Media (Master’s Thesis, Comparative Media Studies, MIT, 2006), “Carsie’s Network: Connecting a Geographically Dispersed Population,” pp. 98-123.

Week 13 (November 17) Negotiation

Jenkins et al, pp.52-55.

S. Craig Watkins, The Young and the Digital (Boston: Beacon Press, 2009)

Antonio Lopez, “Circling the Cross: Bridging Native America, Education, and Digital Media” in Anna Everett (ed.), Learning Race and Ethnicity: Youth and Digital Media (Cambridge: MIT Press/MacArthur Foundation, 2008). pp. 109-126.

Week 14 (November 24) Judgement

Jenkins et al, pp. 43-46

Henry Jenkins, “What Wikipedia Can Teach Us About the New Media Literacies,” Journal of Media Literacy,

Axel Bruns, “Educating Produsers, Produsing Education,” Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond: From Production to Produsage (New York: Peter Lang, 2008), pp.337-356.

Andrew J. Flanagin and Miriam J. Metzger, “Digital Media and Youth: Unparalleled Opportunity and Unprecedented Responsibility,”In Andrew J. Flanagin and Miriam J. Metzger (eds.), Digital Media, Youth, and Credability (Cambridge: MIT Press/MacArthur Foundation, 2008), pp. 5-28.

Week 15 (December 1) Student Presentations

“Why So Socialist?”: Unmasking the Joker

Last fall, I spoke at the University of Oregon about the role of popular and participatory culture in the American Presidential campaign. Many of the ideas in that talk had taken shape through this blog. For example, here’s a post which looked at the role of photoshop mash-ups in shaping how the public responded to the announcement of Sarah Palen as McCain’s VP candidate. I also made passing reference in this talk to a discussion of the Anonymous movement which one of my graduate students posted on this blog.

In the audience for the talk was a PhD candidate Whitney Phillips who is doing research on transgressive humor on the internet with particular focus on the group 4Chan. This past week, she shared with me a thought piece she had drafted about some recent images of Obama which are making their rounds online and have been deployed on both the left and the right in response to current debates about health care. In the piece below, Whitney Phillips dissects where these images come from and the different ways they have been deployed as they have circulated across the web. It’s a compelling case study of the politics of spreadable media.

Unmasking the Joker

By Whitney Phillips


A few weeks ago, a photoshopped image of President Obama surfaced online. In it, Obama is presented as Heath Ledger’s Joker, complete with ghastly, blood-stained grimace and spooky blackened eyes. The image, which is disturbing enough on its own, is accompanied by the word “socialism,” begging the question–who created this, and why?

So far, no one seems to know the answer. Rightwing bloggers insist that the image proves Obama’s growing unpopularity. Tammy Bruce, a conservative radio host, tagged the photo with an almost audibly giddy caption proclaiming that “You know B. Hussein is in trouble when… “; on conservative blog Atlas Shrugs, the photo is filed under “The Worm Turns,” complete with emoticon smiley-face .


In liberal circles, the Obama/Joker image is causing much more consternation. According to Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post, the poster equates Obama with everything that is dangerous and unpredictable within the urban landscape, and by extension, links the President to all those dark bodies that threaten the purity of some Palin-approved “real” America. Forget the ghoulish whiteness of the Joker’s makeup; forget the apparent claim that Obama is a socialist; according to Kennicott, the take-away point is that Obama is quite literally a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

One’s political orientation, then, determines one’s reaction. Either the Obama/Joker poster is yet another example of Wingnut lunacy or is proof that the Kenyan Usurper is finally getting his due.

That said, there is one point of agreement. No one knows who the culprit might be, leaving both sides quite puzzled. In an era of democratized fame, in which infamy is little more than a mouse click away, why wouldn’t the artist take credit? Is he/she afraid to be outed as a Secret Republican? Is he/she lying low, as Patrick Courrielche suggests, to shield him/herself from the wrath of an Obama-worshipping art world? Or is it something else, something more sinister?

The answer to this riddle can be found on 4chan, an enormously popular–and much maligned–image board home to gamers and trolls. And, most significantly, to Anonymous, a loosely-organized Internet hive-mind responsible for, among other things, the hacking of Sarah Palin’s personal email account and myriad attacks against the Church of Scientology. Intimate knowledge of this group is not necessary to feeling its influence; generally speaking, whenever an internet meme reaches critical mass, it is safe to assume that Anonymous had something to do with it.

Such is the case with the Obama/Joker image. When The Dark Knight was released in 2008, Anonymous immediately embraced the film and generated a veritable fleet of new memes. In one, several stills of Batman and the Joker are superimposed with the phrase “I just accidentally a Coca-Cola bottle is this bad”; in another, a particularly unflattering shot of Christian Bale is offset by the seemingly nonsensical claim that “this is why we can’t have nice things.”


Most notably, however, Anonymous became obsessed with and delighted by an early viral ad campaign that featured one of the first official images of Heath Ledger’s Joker. His head twisted like a psychopathic rag doll, the Joker has just scrawled the phrase “why so serious?” in what appears to be blood. Anonymous collectively revved up its photoshop engines, sparing very few targets. A simple search of the phrase “why so serious” on Encyclopedia Dramatica, Anonymous’ unofficial archive, reveals the full extent of this meme, as cats , babies , Miley Cyrus and even Al Gore (modified slightly to read “why so cereal”) have all been given the “Joker treatment.”



It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that images of Obama as the Joker have been in circulation since before the election; it was only a matter of time before some clever Anon incorporated the Wingnut/ Birther/Teabag contingent into the joke.

Thus, why so socialist.

It is impossible to know how and when “Why so socialist?” was replaced by the simpler “socialism.” Perhaps a Rightwing blogger encountered the original image somewhere, assumed the author was playing for his team, and tweaked the message in the name of clarity and/or font size. A more likely possibility, however, is that this image is the handiwork of some Anonymous troll who did it for the “lulz,” a term trolls and gamers use to indicate shenanigans. A corruption of “lol,” “lulz” is a kind of laughter associated with deliberate trickery. The more confusion one causes, the more “lulz” he/she earns; in the case of the Obama/Joker poster, the lulz have been epic.

Still, the question remains–what are we to make of this controversy? What does the image really mean? What were the author’s intentions? So far, all evidence points to Anonymous; Anonymous is less concerned with politics than with controversy; more likely than not, the original artist wasn’t trying to do anything, meaning there’s a very real chance that the Obama/Joker image is in itself meaningless. This is not to say, however, that the context is meaningless, or that the image is worthless. Quite the contrary, in fact–just because we can’t affix objective meaning to a given cultural artifact doesn’t mean there is nothing to learn. Indeed, I would argue that what something actually says is less important than what it does.

In this case, the Obama/Joker poster elicits one of two reactions. The Birther crowd, for example, has taken particular interest in–and, amusingly, credit for–the Obama/Joker image. Their argument is simple: Obama is trying to destroy the country with Socialism, just like the Joker destroyed Gotham City. Of course, the Joker failed, but that’s beside the point–to a Birther hell-bent on discrediting the Obama administration, the Joker image is just what the doctor ordered. Furthermore, because the image was plastered all over Los Angeles a la Shepard Fairey’s “Hope” poster, Rightwing bloggers have tried to package its existence as an organized, grassroots effort to contest Obama’s so-called Socialist agenda. Of course, there is no solid evidence to corroborate this assumption–the image may have been posted onto Conservative blogs, but that’s the extent of the connection. This, however, is the narrative they have chosen to adopt.

Similarly, after weeks of racially-charged attacks against the president, including one particularly ham-fisted birth certificate forgery, liberals were primed to see racism in the Obama/Joker image–despite the fact that even the most careful analysis cannot account for its downright contradictory message(s). The argument might go something like this: Obama presented himself as a reasonable candidate; in short he presented himself as white. But now that he’s revealed his Socialist agenda, he has unmasked himself as a psychopathic killer, one whose true face…actually…is white…which merely calls attention to the fact that he is Un-American, and therefore black, which is why he wants to euthanize both your grandmother and Trig Palin. If the Obama/Joker image were two images instead, one of Obama as the Joker and one featuring the President with the word “Socialism” stamped over his chest, such a conclusion might be plausible. As it is, the image of Obama/Joker simply does not make any sense–but by positing this argument, liberal commentators inadvertently reveal the extent to which they expect lunacy from Republicans.

In short, despite the fact that both camps have harnessed the Obama/Joker image for their own purposes, and despite the fact that no one, no one, has provided an airtight (not to mention fully coherent) account of what the Obama/Joker image is trying to express, each group has used the image to prove something nefarious about their political opponents. Whether or not the image was intended to take on any of the aforementioned meanings, it has–and good luck trying to wrench either set from those who need them to be true. Why so serious, indeed.

In 2004, Whitney Phillips graduated from Humboldt State University with a BA in Philosophy; in 2007, she received an MFA in Creative Writing (fiction) from Emerson College. Currently she is a second-year PhD student and writing instructor at the University of Oregon. Although her department is English, her research focuses on transgressive humor within online subcultures, specifically trolling and gaming communities. She is particularly interested in the political dimension of online humor, and the ways in which participatory culture frames and responds to cultural events.

I thought I would add a few more images, using the same trope of the Joker, but applied to GOP figures, such as George W. Bush, John McCain, and Sarah Palen, all of which had surfaced on my radar last fall when I was monitoring the role of Photoshop manipulations in the Presidential campaign.

Joker McCain.png

Joker Bush.png

Here are a few other variations which link Obama with the Joker, which are also in circulation at the moment. Clearly, once a powerful template exists out there for mapping politics onto popular culture, our shared expertise as fans allow for a wide array of different permutations and mutations over time.

joker 1.png

joker 2.png

For other examples of Batman images deployed during the campaign, check out this post from last fall.

Transmedia Storytelling and Entertainment — A Syllabus

Given the interest out there in transmedia or cross-media entertainment, I thought I would share the syllabus for the course I am teaching this fall at the University of Southern California. I am still shifting some details, as I deal with the scheduling of guest speakers, but all of the speakers listed have agreed to come. The readings are a good starter set for people wanting to do more thinking on this emerging area of research. I will be sharing reflections about the course material here throughout the fall, since I’m sure working through these readings in a class context is going to spark me to do some fresh thinking on the topic. I’d love to hear from others out there teaching transmedia or cross-media topics.

If you know someone at USC who you think might want to take this class, let them know. I still have room for more students.

Course Description and Outcomes:

We now live at a moment where every story, image, brand, relationship plays itself out across the maximum number of media platforms, shaped top down by decisions made in corporate boardrooms and bottom up by decisions made in teenager’s bedrooms. The concentrated ownership of media conglomerates increases the desirability of properties that can exploit “synergies” between different parts of the medium system and “maximize touch-points” with different niches of consumers. The result has been the push towards franchise-building in general and transmedia entertainment in particular.

A transmedia story represents the integration of entertainment experiences across a range of different media platforms. A story like Heroes or Lost might spread from television into comics, the web, computer or alternate reality games, toys and other commodities, and so forth, picking up new consumers as it goes and allowing the most dedicated fans to drill deeper. The fans, in turn, may translate their interests in the franchise into concordances and wikipedia entries, fan fiction, vids, fan films, cosplay, game mods, and a range of other participatory practices that further extend the story world in new directions. Both the commercial and grassroots expansion of narrative universes contribute to a new mode of storytelling, one which is based on an encyclopedic expanse of information which gets put together differently by each individual consumer as well as processed collectively by social networks and online knowledge communities.

The course is broken down into five basic units: “Foundations” offers an overview of the current movement towards transmedia or cross-platform entertainment; “Narrative Structures” introduces the basic toolkit available to contemporary storytellers, digging deeply into issues around seriality, and examining what it might mean to think of a story as a structure of information; “World Building” deals with what it means to think of contemporary media franchises in terms of “worlds” or “universes” which unfold across many different media systems; “Audience Matters” links transmedia storytelling to issues of audience engagement and in the process, considers how fans might contribute unofficial extensions to favorite media texts; and “Tracing the History of Transmedia” pulls back to consider key moments in the evolution of transmedia entertainment, moving from the late 19th century to the present.

In this course, we will be exploring the phenomenon of transmedia storytelling through:

• Critically examining commercial and grassroots texts which contribute to larger media franchises (mobisodes and webisodes, comics, games).

• Developing a theoretical framework for understanding how storytelling works in this new environment with a particular emphasis upon issues of world building, cultural attractors, and cultural activators.

• Tracing the historical context from which modern transmedia practices emerged, including consideration of the contributions of such key figures as P.T. Barnum, L. Frank Baum, Feuillade, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Cordwainer Smith, Walt Disney, George Lucas, DC and Marvel Comics, and Joss Whedon.

• Exploring what transmedia approaches contribute to such key genres as science fiction, fantasy, horror, superhero, suspense, soap opera, teen and reality television.

• Listening to cutting-edge thinkers from the media industry talk about the challenges and opportunities which transmedia entertainment offers, walking through cases of contemporary projects that have deployed cross-platform strategies.

• Putting these ideas into action through working with a team of fellow students to develop and pitch transmedia strategies around an existing media property.

Required Books:

Pat Harrington and Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009), 636 pages.

Kim Deitch, Alias the Cat (New York: Pantheon, 2007), 136 pages.

Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross, Marvels (Marvel Comics, 2003), 216 pages.

Kevin J. Anderson (ed.), Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina (New York: Spectra, 1995),

416 pages.

Joss Whedon, The Long Way Home (New York: Dark Horse, 2007), 136 pages.

All additional readings will be provided through the Blackboard site for the class.

Grading and Assignments:

Commercial Extension Paper 20 percent

Grassroots Extension Paper 20 percent

Final Project – Franchise Development Project 40 percent

Class Forums 20 percent

In order to fully understand how transmedia entertainment works, students will be expected to immerse themselves into at least one major media franchise for the duration of the term. You should consume as many different instantiations (official and unofficial) of this franchise as you can and try to get an understanding of what each part contributes to the series as a whole.

COMMERCIAL EXTENSION PAPER: For the first paper, you will be asked to write a 5-7 page essay examining one commercially produced media extension (comic, website, game, mobisode, amusement park attraction, etc.). You should try to address such issues as its relationship to the story world, its strategies for expanding the narrative, its deployment of the distinctive properties of its platform, its targeted audience, and its cultural attractors/activators. (Due Sept. 23)(20 Percent)

GRASSROOTS EXTENSION PAPER: For the second paper, you will be asked to write a 5-7 page essay examining a fan-made extension (fan fiction, discussion list, video, etc.) and try to understand where the audience has sought to attach themselves to the franchise, what they add to the story world, how they respond to or route around the invitational strategies of the series, and how they reshape our understanding of the characters, plot or world of the original franchise. (Due Nov. 18) (20 Percent)

FINAL PROJECT – FRANCHISE DEVELOPMENT PROJECT: Students will be organized into teams, which for the purpose of this exercise will function as transmedia companies. You should select a media property (a film, television series, comic book, novel, etc.) that you feel has the potential to become a successful transmedia franchise. In most cases, you will be looking for a property that has not yet added media extensions, though you could also look at a property that you feel has been mishandled in the past. By the end of the term, your team will be “pitching” this property. The pitch should include a briefing book that describes:

1) the core defining properties of the property

2) a description of the intended audience(s)

3) a discussion of the specific plans for each media platform you are going to deploy

4) an overall description for how you will seek to integrate the different media platforms to create a coherent world

5) a business plan which includes likely costs and revenue and the time table for rolling out the various media elements

6) parallel examples of other properties which have deployed the strategies being described

The pitch itself will be a 20 minute group presentation, followed by 10 minutes of questioning. The presentation should give us a “taste” of what the property is like as well as to lay out some of the key elements that are identified in the briefing book. For an example of what these pitches might look like, watch the materials assembled at, which shows how a similar activity was conducted at MIT. Each member of the team will be expected to develop expertise around a specific media platform as well as to contribute to the over-all strategies for spreading the property across media systems. The group will select its own team leader who will be responsible for contacts with the instructor and will coordinate the presentation. The team leader will be asked to provide feedback on what each team member contributed to the effort, while team members will be asked to provide an evaluation of how the team leader performed. Team Members will check in with the instructor on Week Ten and Week Fourteen to review their progress on the assignment. Presentation (Dec.7, 9) Briefing Book (Dec. 14) (40 Percent)

CLASS FORUM: For each class session, students will be asked to contribute a substantive question or comments via the class forum on BlackBoard. Comments should reflect an understanding of the readings for that day as well as an attempt to formulate an issue that we can explore through class discussions or with the visiting speakers. (20 Percent)

Class Schedule:

*Guest Speakers are tentative, subject to availability. Shifts in speakers and thus topics and readings may occur after the semester starts.

Part One: Foundations

Week 1

August 24: Transmedia Storytelling 101

Henry Jenkins, “Transmedia Storytelling 101” Confessions of an Aca-Fan,

Henry Jenkins, “Searching for the Origami Unicorn: The Matrix and Transmeda Storytelling,” Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006), pp. 93-130.

Geoff Long, “What Is Transmedia Storytelling”, Transmedia Storytelling: Business, Aesthetics and Production at the Jim Henson Company, pp. 13-69.

August 26 Intertextual Commodities?

P. David Marshall, “The New Intertextual Commodity” in Dan Harries (ed.) The New Media Book (London: BFI, 2002), pp. 69-81.

Derek Johnson, “Intelligent Design or Godless Universe? The Creative Challenges of World Building and Franchise Development,” Franchising Media Worlds: Content Networks and The Collaborative Production of Culture, PhD Dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2009. pp.170-279.


Battlestar Galactica: The Face of the Enemy

Week 2

August 31: Media Mix in Japan

Anne Allison, “Pokemon: Getting Monsters and Communicating Capitalism,” Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), pp. 192-233.

David Buckingham and Julian Sefton-Green, “Structure, Agency and Pedagogy in Children’s Media Culture” In Joseph Tobin (ed.) Pikachu’s Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokemon (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), pp. 12-33.

Mizuko Ito, “Gender Dynamics of the Japanese Media Mix,” Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming (Cambridge, MIT, 2008), pp. 97-110.

September 2: Toys and Tales

Jeff Gomez, “Creating Blockbuster Worlds” (unpublished)

Henry Jenkins, “Talking Transmedia: An Interview with Starlight Runner’s Jeff Gomez,” Confessions of an Aca-Fan,

Mark Federman, “What is the Meaning of the Medium is the Message,”

Guest Speakers:

Jeff Gomez, Starlight Runner

Jordan Greenhill, DivX

Week 3

September 7 is the Labor Day holiday

September 9: Transmedia Branding

Faris Yacob, “I Believe Children are the Future,”

Henry Jenkins, “How Transmedia Storytelling Begat Transmedia Planning…”, Confessions of an Aca-Fan,

Guest Speaker: Faris Yacob, McCann Erickson New York

Week 4

September 14 Heroes and Alchemists: The New Storytelling

The 9th Wonders, Chapters 1-9

Henry Jenkins, “We Had So Many Stories to Tell’: The Heroes Comics as Transmedia Storytelling,” Confessions of an Aca-Fan,

Carolyn Handler Miller, Digital Storytelling: A Creator’s Guide to Interactive Entertainment (Amsterdam: Focal Press, 2006), “Using a Transmedia Approach”, pp. 149-164 (Rec.)

Guest Speakers: Mauricio Mota, Mark Warshaw, Here Come the Alchemists

Part Two: Narrative Structures

September 16: Seriality

Angela Ndalianis, Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004), “Polycentrism and Seriality: (Neo-)Baroque Narrative Formation,” pp. 31-70.

Jason Mittell, “All in the Game: The Wire, Serial Storytelling and Procedural Logic” (Harrington and Wardrip-Fruin, pp. 429-438.


The Wire

“Young Prop Joe”

“Bunk and McNulty”

“Young Omar”

Jennifer Haywood, Consuming Pleasures: Active Audiences and Serial Fictions from Dickens to Soap Opera (University of Kentucky Press, 1997), “Mutual Friends: The Development of the Mass Serial,” pp. 21-51. (rec)

Week 5

September 21: Soaps Go Transmedia

Sharon Marie Ross, “Managing Millennials: Teen Expectations of Tele-Participation,” Beyond the Box: Television and the Internet (London: Blackwell, 2008), pp. 124-172.

Sam Ford, “From Oakdale Confidential to L.A. Diaries: Transmedia Storytelling for ATWT,” As the World Turns in a Convergence Culture (Master’s Thesis), pp. 141-162.

Louisa Stein, “Playing Dress Up: Digital Fashion and Game Extensions of Televisual Experience in Gossip Girl‘s Second Life,” Cinema Journal, pp. 116-122.


Gossip Girl: Tales From the Upper East Side

LA Diaries

September 23: Creating Alternate Realities

Christy Dena, “Emerging Participatory Culture Practices: Player-Created Tiers in Alternate Reality Games,” Convergence, February 2008, pp. 41-58.

Jane McGonigal, Why I Love Bees: A Case Study in Collective Intelligence Gaming.” Ecologies of Play. Ed. Katie Salen. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008), pp. 199-228.

Dave Szulborski, “Puppetmastering: Creating a Game” and “Puppetmastering: Running a Game,”This Is Not A Game: A Guide to Alternate Reality Gaming (New York: New Fiction, 2005), pp. 207-284.

Guest Speaker: Evan Jones, Stitch Media


Week 6

September 28: Speaking of Serials

Kim Deitch, Alias the Cat (New York: Pantheon, 2007) (Required Book)

David Kalat, “The Long Arm of Fantomas” (Harrington and Wardrip-Fruin), pp. 211-225.

September 30: The Unfolding Text

Neil Perryman, “Doctor Who and the Convergence of Media: A Case Study in Transmedia Storytelling,” Convergence, February 2008, pp. 21-40.

Lance Perkin,”Truths Universally Acknowledged: How the ‘Rules’ of Doctor Who Affect the Writing,” (Harrington and Wardrip-Fruin), pp. 13-24.

Matt Hills, “Absent Epic, Implied Story Arcs, and Variations on a Narrative Theme: Doctor Who (2005) as Cult/Mainstream TV,” (Harrington and Wardrip-Fruin), pp. 333-343.

Part Three: World-Building

Week 7

October 5: Migratory Characters

William Uricchio and Roberta E. Pearson, “I’m Not Fooled By That Cheap Disguise,” in Roberta E. Pearson, The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to A Superhero and His Media (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 182-213.

Will Brooker, “Establishing the Brand: Year One,” Batman Unmasked: Analyzing a Cultural Icon (London: Continuium, 2001), pp. 36-67.

Bob Kane, “The Legend of the Batman” (1938) and Bob Kane, “The Origins of the Batman,” (1948) in Dennis O’Neil (ed.) The Secret Origins of the DC Superheroes (New York: DC, 1976), pp. 36-50.

Bob Kane, “The First Batman” (1956) and Dennis O’Neil, “There Is No Hope in Crime Alley,” (1978) The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told (New York: DC, 1988).

Guest Speaker: Geoffrey Long, GAMBIT

October 7: World Building in Comics

Matthew J. Pustz, Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1999), pp. 129-133.

Jason Bainbridge, “Worlds Within Worlds: The Role of Superheroes in the Marvel and DC Universe,” Angela Ndalianis (ed.), The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero (New York: Routledge, 2008) pp. 64-85.

Sam Ford and Henry Jenkins, “Managing Multiplicity in Superhero Comics,” (Harrington and Wardrip-Fruin), pp. 303-313.

Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross, Marvels (New York: Marvel Comics, 1993) (Required Book)

Alec Austin, “Hybrid Expectations, Expectations Across Media, CMS Thesis, pp. 97-127.

Week 8

October 12: Who Watches the Watchman?

Stuart Moulthrop, “See the Strings: Watchmen and the Under-Language of Media” (Harrington and Wardrip-Fruin), pp. 287-303.


NBS Nightly News With Ted Philips

The Keene Act and YOU

Saturday Morning Watchmen

Guest Speaker: Alex McDowell, Production Designer, Watchmen

October 14: World Building in Science Fiction

Walter Jon Williams, “In What Universe?” (Harrington and Wardrip-Fruin), pp. 25-32.

George R.R. Martin, “On the Wild Cards Novels,” in Pat Harrington and Wardrip-Fruin (eds.) Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007).

Cordwainer Smith, “The Dead Lady of Clown Town,” and “The Ballad of Lost C’mell,” J. J. Pierce (ed.) The Best of Cordwainer Smith (New York: Del Rey, 1975), pp. 124-209, pp. 315-337.

Week 9

October 19: Launching a New World

David Lavery, “Lost and Long-Form Television Narrative” (Harrington and Wardrip-Fruin),

pp. 313-323.

Guest Speaker: Jesse Alexander, Executive Producer, Year One

October 21: Transmedia and Social Change


Guest Speaker: Bram Pitoyo, Wild Alchemy

Part Four: Audiences

Week 10

October 26: The Logic of Engagement

Ivan Askwith, “The Expanded Television Text, “Five Logics of Engagement,”; “Lost at Televisions’ Crossroads,” Television 2.0: Reconceptualizing TV as an Engagement Medium, CMS thesis, pp. 51-150.

Guest Speaker: Ivan Askwith, Big Space Ship

October 28: Expanding the Audience

Kim Moses and Ian Sander, selections from Ghost Whisperer: The Spirit Guide (New York: Titan Books, 2008).

Guest Speaker: Kim Moses, Executive Producer, The Ghost Whisperer

Week 11

November 2: Fan Productivity

Jesse Walker, “Remixing Television: Francesca Coppa on the Vidding Underground,” Reason, August/September 2008,

Francesca Coppa, “Women, Star Trek, and the Early Development of Fannish Vidding,” Transformative Works and Cultures (2008),

Bud Caddell, “Becoming a Mad-Man,”

November 4: The Encyclopedic Impulse

Janet Murray, “Digital Environments are Encyclopedic,” Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997), pp. 83-90.

Bob Rehak, “That Which Survives: Star Trek‘s Design Network in Fandom and Franchise” (Unpublished), pp. 2-79.

Robert V. Kozinets, “Inno-Tribes: Star Trek as Wikimedia” Consumer Tribes (London: Butterworth-Heinemann, 2007), pp. 194-209.


Star Trek: Phase II “In Harms Way”

Week 12

November 9: The Power of Details

Kristin Thompson, “Not Your Father’s Tolkien” and “Interactive Middle Earth,” The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), pp.53-74, p. 224-256

C.S. Lewis, “On Stories,” Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories (New York: Harvest, 2002), pp. 3-21.

November 11: Ephemeral Fascinations

Michael Bonesteel, “Henry Darger’s Search for the Grail in the Guise of a Celesttial Child” (Harrington and Wardrip-Fruin), pp. 253-267.

Amelie Hastie, “The Collector: Material Histories, Colleen Moore’s Dollhouse, and Ephemeral Recollection,” Cupboards of Curiosity: Women, Recollection, and Film History (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), pp. 19-72.

Week 13

November 16 Independent Horrors

James Castonguay, “The Political Economy of the Indie Blockbuster: Fandom, Intermediality, and The Blair Witch Project,” in Sarah L. Higley and Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock (eds.) Nothing That Is: Milllennial Cinema and the Blair Witch Controversies (Detroit: Wayne State University, 2004), pp. 65-86.

The Blair Witch Project Website

Head Trauma Website

Guest Speaker: Lance Weiller, Head Trauma

Part Five: Tracing the History of Transmedia

November 18: Before the Rainbow

Neil Harris, “The Operational Aesthetic,” Humbug: The Art of P.T. Barnum (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), pp. 59-90.

Mark Evan Swartz, “A Novel Enchantment,” Before the Rainbow: L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz on Stage and Screen to 1939 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), pp. 161-172.

Week 14

November 23: What Uncle Walt Taught Us

J.P. Telotte, Disney TV (Detroit: Wayne State, 2004), pp. 1-91.

Karal Ann Marling, “Imagineering the Disney Theme Parks,” in Karal Ann Marling (ed.) Designing Disney’s Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance (Montreal: Centre Canadian d’Architecture, 1997), pp. 29-178. (Rec.)

November 25: Franchises and Attractions

Henry Jenkins, “The Pleasure of Pirates And What It Tells Us About World Building in Branded Entertainment”, Confessions of an Aca-Fan,

Don Carson, “Environmental Storytelling: Creating Immersive 3D Worlds Using Lessons Learned from the Theme Park industry,” Gamasutra,

Week 15

November 30: Lessons From Lucas

Jonathon Gray, “Learning to Use the Force: Star Wars Toys and Their Films,” Show Sold Separately (Forthcoming), pp. 232-247.

Will Brooker, Using the Force: Creativity, Community and Star Wars Fans (New York: Continuum, 2002), “The Fan Betrayed,” pp. 79-99, “Canon,” pp. 101-114.

Kevin J. Anderson (ed.), Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina (New York: Spectra, 1995) (Required Book)

December 2: Across the Whedonverse

Tanya Krzywinska, “Arachne Challenges Minerva: The Spinning Out of Long Narrative in World of Warcraft and Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (Harrington and Wardrip-Fruin), pp. 385-399.

Joss Whedon, The Long Way Home (New York: Dark Horse, 2007) (Required Book)


Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog

December 7 Student Presentations

December 9 Student Presentations

Get Ready to Participate: Crowdsourcing and Governance

A year or so ago, Mark Deuze (Media Work) and I edited a special issue of the journal, Convergence, which explored some of the issues around “Convergence Culture.” One of the best essays we received in our open paper call came from Daren C. Brabham, a Ph.D candidate at the University of Utah, who was doing his dissertation on “crowdsourcing.” I’ve remained in touch with Brabham ever since and recently encouraged him to share some of his own recent thinking about how the crowdsource model can and is being adapted from the commercial arena to address issues of social welfare and public policy. I am happy to share Brabham’s insights with the readers of this blog.

Crowdsourcing and Governance

by Daren C. Brabham

It’s been three years since Jeff Howe coined the term “crowdsourcing” in his Wired article “The Rise of Crowdsourcing.” The term, which describes an online, distributed problem solving and production model, is most famously represented in the business operations of companies like Threadless and InnoCentive and in contests like the Goldcorp Challenge and the Doritos Crash the Super Bowl Contest.

In each of these cases, the company has a problem it needs solved or a product it needs designed. The company broadcasts this challenge on its Web site to an online community–a crowd–and the crowd submits designs and solutions in response. Next–and this is a key component of crowdsourcing–the crowd vets the submissions of its peers, critiquing and ranking submissions until winners emerge. Though winners are often rewarded for their ideas, prizes are often small relative to industry standards for the same kind of professional work and rewards sometimes only consist of public recognition.

Crowdsourcing is a killer business model, effectively stitching the market research process into the very design of products, minimizing overhead costs, and speeding up the creative phase of problem solving and design. Theories of collective intelligence and crowd wisdom help to explain why crowdsourcing works: broadcasting a challenge online taps far-flung genius in the network and aggregating that talent can, for some types of problems, be just as effective as solving the problem in-house.

What I have argued for a few years now, and what I am trying to make clear in my dissertation, is that crowdsourcing has the potential to work outside of for-profit settings. In fact, it may be a suitable model for solving government problems, supplementing traditional forms of public participation to help government make better decisions with more citizen input.

Though you’d be hard pressed to see them ever use the word “crowdsourcing,” one such example of crowdsourcing in governance is Peer-to-Patent. Begun in June 2007, Peer-to-Patent is a project developed by New York Law School’s Institute for Information Law and Policy, in cooperation with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The pilot project engages an online community in the examination of pending patent applications, tasking the crowd with identifying prior art and annotating applications to be forwarded on to the USPTO. The project helps to streamline the typical patent review process, adding many more sets of eyes to a typical examination process.

Another attempt to use crowdsourcing in public decision-making is Next Stop Design, a project with which I am involved that asks the crowd to design a bus stop for Salt Lake City, Utah. With Thomas W. Sanchez and a team of researchers from the University of Utah, we’re working in cooperation with the Utah Transit Authority (UTA) and funded by a grant from the U.S. Federal Transit Administration. On the Next Stop Design Web site, you can register for free, submit your own bus stop designs and ideas, and rate and comment on the designs of others. Launched on June 5, 2009, the project runs through September 25, 2009, and the highest rated designs will be considered for actual construction at a major bus transfer stop in Salt Lake City. Winning designs will be publicly acknowledged and included on a plaque affixed to the built bus stop.

Traditional public participation methods, such as town hall meetings and design charrettes, often involve relatively few voices in the decision-making process. The goal with Next Stop Design–as with all crowdsourced governing projects–is to draw in more voices by taking the process online. And though the realities of the so-called “digital divide” persist with any online process, crowdsourcing may still bring in a more diverse set of viewpoints than typically exists at town hall meetings. Finally, broadcasting the process online may attract innovative ideas from everyday Web users that might not have ever appeared in local face-to-face processes or among even large panels of experts.

There is much potential for crowdsourcing in government, certainly as one of an array of social media methods quickly being embraced by all levels of government. President Obama has made his intentions with technology and transparency in government clear. His appointment of Beth Noveck, the New York Law School professor who launched Peer-to-Patent, as Deputy Chief Technology Officer for Open Government, makes his intentions very clear. I predict over the next two years we’ll see in the U.S. a rapid proliferation of government by the crowd, for the crowd. Get ready to participate.

Daren C. Brabham is a Ph.D. candidate and graduate teaching fellow in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah. His article, “Crowdsourcing as a Model for Problem Solving,” appearing in a special issue of Convergence edited by Mark Deuze and Henry Jenkins, was among the first research articles published on the crowdsourcing model. Directed by Professor Joy Pierce, his dissertation makes the case for crowdsourcing in public problem solving contexts.