“Deep Media,” Transmedia, What’s the Difference?: An Interview with Frank Rose (Part One)

Wired contributing editor Frank Rose is releasing a new book this month which will be of interest to many of my regular readers — The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue and the Way We Tell Stories. It is a highly readable, deeply engaging account of shifts in the entertainment industry which have paved to way for more expansive, immersive, interactive forms of fun. He’s talked to key players — from Will Wright and Jeff Gomez to James Cameron and George Lucas — and brings back their thinking about the changing media landscape. As he wrote me, “at various points in my career I’ve focused on technology and at other times on entertainment, but when I joined Wired in 1999 I started writing about both together.”

Rose has been exploring some of the key concepts from the book through his blog as he’s been working through the project. I suspect when I teach my transmedia storytelling class again at the USC Cinema School next fall, this book will be on the syllabus, since it manages to condense down many of the key conversations being held around these much discussed topic into language which is accessible and urgent.

When I first heard of his concept of “deep media,” during a talk Rose gave at South by Southwest, I was intrigued by its relationship with what I’ve called transmedia entertainment. And in fact, I’ve been asked about the relationship many times and didn’t really know what to say. So, naturally, given a chance to interview Rose for the blog, that’s where I started. It sounds like his own thoughts on the relationship have evolved over time and in interesting ways. As the interview continues, we talk about world-building, the relationship between games and stories, the interweaving of marketing and storytelling, and the impact of 9/11 on interactive entertainment.

You write in the book about what you call “deep media.” What do you see as the core characteristics of deep media? How do you see your concept relating to others being deployed right now such as transmedia or crossmedia?

To me it’s mainly a question of emphasis. Are we focusing on the process or the goal? Transmedia, or crossmedia, puts the emphasis on a new process of storytelling: How do you tell a story across a variety of different media? Deep media puts the focus on the goal: To enable members of the audience (for want of a better term) to delve into a story at any level of depth they like, to immerse themselves in it. Not that this was fully thought out when I started–the term was suggested by a friend in late 2008 as a name for my blog, and when I looked it up online I saw that it had been used by people like Nigel Hollis, the chief analyst at Millward Brown, so I adopted it.

That said, I think the terms are more or less interchangeable. I certainly subscribe to the seven core concepts of transmedia as you’ve laid them out. I also think we’re at an incredibly transitional point in our culture, and terms like “deep media” and “transmedia” are needed to describe a still-evolving way of telling stories. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if both terms disappeared in 15-20 years as this form of storytelling becomes ubiquitous and ultimately taken for granted.

Throughout the book, it seems you see these creative changes towards a more immersive and expansive entertainment form being fueled by the emergence of games. Why do you think computer and video games have been such a “disruptive” influence on traditional practice in other entertainment sectors?

Because they engage the audience so directly, and because they’ve been around long enough to have a big influence on other art forms. Movies like Inception, as you’ve observed, are constructed very much like a game, with level upon level upon level and a demanding, puzzle-box approach to narrative. If you’re a gamer, you know intuitively how to approach this. If you’re not, well, good luck.

One of the reasons I started this book was that I’d begun to meet screenwriters who’d gone from TV to games and back again, and when they came back it was with a different approach to narrative–moving across multiple levels, thrusting you directly into the story and letting you figure it out for yourself, that kind of thing. But at first I just had this vague sense that games and stories were blurring into each other–that in some way that I didn’t fully understand, games were becoming stories and stories were becoming games. I got obsessed with trying to understand the relationship between the two. I spoke with a lot of game designers, but it wasn’t until I got to Will Wright that I found someone who could really answer my question.

We all know that games are in some sense a rehearsal for life–a simulation that models the real world. That’s why kids who never play games tend not to pick up the skills they need to navigate adult existence. Wright said that at bottom, stories are an abstraction of life too–an abstraction we share with one another so we can all make sense of the world. This took on added depth for me when I stumbled across, in a neuroscience paper of all places, an 1884 exchange between Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson on the nature of fiction. James described it as an “impression of life.” Stevenson countered that life is “monstrous, infinite, illogical” while art is “neat, finite, self-contained”–a model, in other words. Steven Pinker took this a step further a century or so later when he described fiction as “a kind of thought experiment.” Jane Austen novels? Rehearsals for womanhood in Regency England. All those Hollywood disaster movies? Rehearsals for the apocalypse. And so on.

So stories and games are intimately connected because they’re two sides of the same impulse. Stories give rise to play, and play gives rise to stories. Think of Star Wars, and all those action figures, and the fan fiction that came out of it–story transmuted to play and then to story again.

The big question now is, will games and stories actually merge? Will we ever have the experience of being at the center of a carefully constructed dramatic narrative? That’s certainly the way things seem to be headed, but I’m not convinced that anybody in the business today will achieve it. Probably there’s a nerdy freshman at Harvard or USC who will. My advice would be, watch out for the Winklevosses.

Another key idea running through the book is the idea that entertainment is now designed to be engaged by collectives, often of the kinds that form in and through social network sites. What are some of the consequences of perceiving audiences as collectives of people who interact with each other and with the producers rather than as aggregates of isolated eyeballs?

I’m not entirely sure, and I don’t think anybody else knows either. It’s too new, it’s too different from anything we’ve ever experienced before. It’s not that we haven’t had participatory entertainment–we’ve had game shows on TV ever since the late ’40s, and on radio before that. But the idea of people working together to “solve” or interpret a story at any scale beyond the water cooler is unprecedented, simply because no technology has enabled it before. Will it change storytelling? It already has. Inception, Lost–because its narrative was so convoluted, Lost implicitly demanded that people connect online to figure it out. No one ever dared do that on TV before. Does this herald some emerging facet of connected existence? Definitely. How will it change us as a society? Too early to say.

Frank Rose is the author of The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Genera-tion is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories, to be published in February 2011 by W.W. Norton, and a contributing editor at Wired, where he has written extensively about media and entertainment. Before joining Wired in 1999, he worked as a contributing writer at Fortune and as a contributing editor at Esquire and at Travel + Leisure. He is also the author of The Agency, an unauthorized history of the oldest and at one time most successful talent agency in Hollywood, and West of Eden, a 1989 best-seller about the ouster of Steve Jobs from Apple, now available in an updated edition.

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