Ludic Narrans:Drew Davidson Talks Cross-Media Communication (Part One)

One of my first classes at USC was in transmedia entertainment and storytelling and I plan to be teaching a large lecture hall class on transmedia in the Cinema School starting in the 2011-2012 academic year. My growing interest in transmedia is one of many reasons I have ended up here. I want to be closer to the entertainment industry to be able to watch some of the changes that are unfolding as this emerging conception of popular entertainment really takes root and I want to be in a position to influence the entertainment workers in training.

Think about how the generation of “movie brats,” such as Spielberg and Lucas, influenced the American media. For generations, directors emerged from one or another of the guilds, bringing with them specialized skill sets. Robert Wise was an editor; William Cameron Menzies was an art director; most of them knew how to work with actors, but few of them had an integrated perspective on all of the technical skills required to produce a movie. With the rise of film schools, we got directors who knew the full vocabulary of their medium, who knew how to speak to workers with more specialized skills (who often trained alongside them and spoke a shared language) and who knew the history and genres that constituted their tradition. As Hollywood begins to embrace transmedia, a common concern is that there are few people who fully understand how to tell stories or create entertainment experiences in more than one medium: comic book people don’t know how to think about games, say, or television people have limited grasp of the web. My own hope is that the Film Schools will once again be the space where future media makers get exposed to a broader range of different kinds of media and also develop the social relations and vocabulary to meaningfully collaborate with others who have specialized in different modes of expression.

For this to happen, transmedia entertainment needs to emerge as a subject not simply at USC but at film schools all over the country. And, indeed, I am hearing more and more from other faculty who are starting to teach such classes at their own institutions. That’s why it is such good news that Drew Davidson, Director of the Entertainment Technology Center Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon University, has produced a new textbook designed to introduce undergraduate critical studies and production students alike to the world of what he calls “crossmedia entertainment.” (Full disclosure: the book includes a short piece by me which offers my definition of transmedia.) I have long admired Drew Davidson’s contributions to the space of games studies, especially through the Well Played books, which offer smart, engaging criticisms of specific games by some of the top games scholars in the world, and his earlier book, Stories in Between is a hidden gem which already poses important questions about new and emerging forms of storytelling.

This new book, Cross-Media Communications: an Introduction to the Art of Creating Integrated Media Experiences will play a central role in shaping how concepts of “cross-media” or “transmedia” expression get taught, encouraging educators around the world to explore some of these intriguing concepts in their classrooms. Over the next two installments, I will be sharing this interview with Davidson about the book and about his thoughts on all things crossmedia.

What are your goals for this book? Are we far enough along in identifying and explaining these new techniques that there is a space for an undergraduate textbook on crossmedia? Is the book focused on developing critical understanding, practical skills or both?

My primary goal was to try and create an introductory textbook to this topic, so I was aiming for a freshman-level book. An inspiration was the various textbooks currently out that focus on mass communications. I thought it would be interesting to do something similar, but with a specific focus on how media communications are tending more than ever to be threaded together.

Thinking about where we are in our understanding of cross-media techniques and how media experiences can be threaded together, we could go back to Plato’s concept of ekphrasis (roughly, using one medium to relate another). So it’s been around for some time, particularly if you think of advertising campaigns since the advent of mass media. There are some sophisticated ad campaigns that link together various media (e.g. print, radio, tv and collectibles) in ways that are primarily meant to get us to consume. And

more recently, there is the increasing ability for us to also join in the creation of these experiences. Plus, as you’ve pointed out so well, the current generation of students are accustomed and acclimated to being this (inter)active with their media experiences. So, I think it’s a good time to try and engage this topic in a textbook.

That said, I worked to create a textbook that is more broad than deep. It is meant to provide a good overview of the critical concepts involved as well as some practical application experience in a design and development context. It’s a starting point and foundation for more in-depth study and practice of cross-media communications. The exercises, illustrations and information graphics in the book and DVD-ROM are meant to introduce students to the design process, and the professional perspectives throughout the book help give students a sense of the range of ideas involved. From here, students could work on their design skills specifically while also digging more deeply into concepts covered by people like yourself, Christy Dena, Kurt Kurt Lancaster, Monique de Hass, Jonathan Gray/a>, Max Giovagnoli, and Geoffrey Long (just to name a few). This textbook can be a way to show the various opportunities for them to consider.

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What do you see as the role of academic programs in preparing the next generation of crossmedia designers and/or in educating an audience to become better consumers of existing transmedia properties?

To borrow a term from alternate reality games, I think academic programs can serve as a rabbit hole for both the preparation of crossmedia designers and the education of audience members. By helping introduce both groups to crossmedia, academic programs can then guide them deeper into what it has to offer.

For designers, courses of study could be developed to help teach students both the practical skills as well as the conceptual rigor they would need to create crossmedia experiences that took full advantage of the interplay of all the media involved together.

From a perspective of audience members, a crossmedia 101 course could introduce students to exemplars of crossmedia experiences and illustrate their fundamental characteristics. Subsequent courses could help students develop a deeper critical literacy that would help enable in-depth analysis of crossmedia.

In both cases, academic programs can help shape the understanding and direction of the field as it continues to develop. Going down the rabbit hole would just be the start of the adventure.

There has been a jumble of terminology around this topic. I prefer to use “transmedia.” Frank Rose talks about “deep media.” and you went with “cross-media.” Do you see “transmedia” and “crossmedia” as two words to describe the same thing or as capturing different aspects of this new aesthetic?

To be honest, I think they’re all fairly synonymous, and I think they could be interchanged for the most part. That said, here’s how i see some of the distinctions and specific emphases between the three terms.

I like how you use transmedia to describe narrative universes that we can experience through multiple entry points which are accessed through various media. For me, this terms serves as a foundation for the other two.

Deep media is similarly about exploring experiences that take place across media. But it seems to have more of a focus on how the internet is performing as the glue that helps hold the narrative together and enables a deeper experience of the story.

And crossmedia focuses more specifically on how the audience needs to become interactively engaged in order to experience narratives that occur across, between and through various media. So the focus is more on how interactive you get.

But even just trying to point out these distinctions shows that they are quite subtle. Personally, I feel comfortable with all three terms and how they define this aesthetic.

Your discussion of “crossmedia” places a particular emphasis on interactivity. So, can you share with us what you mean by interactivity? Does this imply that other kinds of narratives are consumed passively? In a networked culture, are there any kinds of narrative which do not spark some form of participation and interactivity?

I think all communication is inherently interactive in nature, narratives included of course. But different media can enable different levels and types of interactivity. I like Espen Aarseth’s distinction on how digital media can enable us to interact more directly within an narrative experience and help shape it through our interactions; whereas with other media (like books and film) we also interact, but with less agency within the

experience.

Building on this, I’ve noodled around with the notion of ludic narrans, or playful stories. Looking at Johan Huizinga‘s idea of homo ludens, and how humans begin life in a playful pre-linguistic consciousness as babies where we’re solely homo ludens as we literally learn everything through play as we interact with the world. And then we learn language, and a new phase of consciousness begins, one that dominates, shapes, and constrains our worldview for the rest of our lives. We are now homo narrans, as we

discursively talk about what we play, what we learn, what we feel, believe, think, etc. But I don’t think being homo narrans erases our foundational homo ludens nature; we are always already homo ludens, it¹s just now we talk about it.

Looking at how interactivity can be found in crossmedia, I believe Aarseth’s notion of interactivity evokes a type of narrative experience that has definite para-linguistic activities involved; meaning is conveyed across media through gesture, space, color, sound, activity and agency. I think one of the reasons these experiences are so compelling is that they enable us to tap more directly into our pre-linguistic homo ludens consciousness as we can playfully engage with them. Of course, we then step back and talk about it, which engages our discursive homo narrans consciousness. So we have

ludic narrans, playful stories.

Drew Davidson is a professor, producer and player of interactive media. His background spans academic, industry and professional worlds and he is interested in stories across texts, comics, games and other media. He is the Director of the Entertainment Technology Center Pittsburgh at Carnegie Mellon University and the Editor of ETC Press. He completed his Ph.D. in Communication Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Prior to that, he received a B.A. and M.A. in Communications Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He chaired Game Art & Design and Interactive Media Design at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh and the Art Institute Online and has taught and researched at several universities. He consults for a variety of companies, institutions and organizations and was a Senior Project Manager in the New Media Division of Holt, Rinehart and Winston. He was also a Project Manager in Learning Services at Sapient, and before that he produced interactive media at HumanCode. He helped create the Sandbox Symposium, an ACM SIGGRAPH conference on video games and served on the IGDA Education SIG. He works with SIGGRAPH on games and interactive media and serves on the ACTlab Steering Committee, and many review boards and jury panels. He founded the Applied Media & Simulation Games Center at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He is the lead on several MacArthur Digital Media and Learning Initiative grants and has written and edited books, journals, articles and essays on narratives across media, serious games, analyzing gameplay, and cross-media communication.

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