How to Ride a Lion: A Call for a Higher Transmedia Criticism (Part Three)

2011 C3 Research Memos and White Paper Series

edited by Prof. Henry Jenkins, Prof. William Uricchio and Daniel Pereira

How to Ride a Lion:

A Call for a Higher Transmedia Criticism

by

Geoffrey Long

Futures of Entertainment Fellow

Alumni Researcher for the Convergence Culture Consortium (C3)

(Author’s Note: Since this paper was originally authored in 2010, I’ve been delighted to discover an increasing amount of transmedia critics. Whose analysis of transmedia projects do you most enjoy? Please let us know in the comments! -GL)

PART 3 of 3

4. Conclusions and Next Steps

By now, the value proposition for transmedia criticism should be clear, even if the challenges involved in developing it are daunting. Even if one believes (as I do) that the rewards do justify the labor involved, the question remains of where such criticism will be found. Who will these transmedia critics be, and where will they publish their work?

It’s easier to imagine a home for transmedia criticism than one for transmedia reviews. Academically speaking, an easy place to begin would be a Journal of Transmedia Studies, but so far that has yet to come into existence. As more conferences and academic programs begin to appear with transmedia as their focus, more critical thinking about transmedia projects will continue to be produced as a result, and will likely be released either as conference proceedings or on blogs dedicated to particular courses or research projects (not unlike the C3 blog in its heyday)[18]. Programs to keep an eye on for such resources include the MIT Comparative Media Studies program, the IMAP program at USC, the Center for Future Storytelling at the MIT Media Lab, and the nascent Center for Serious Play at the University of Washington.

To date, many discussions of transmedia projects at levels that begin to approach true transmedia criticism can be found around the burgeoning alternate reality game sub-industry, such as ARGNet, the mailing list for the IGDA ARG SIG (or the International Game Developers’ Association Alternate Reality Game Special Interest Group, for the uninitiated) or the blogs of ARG authors like Andrea Phillips, whose April 6, 2010 post analyzing the Why So Serious ARG campaign for The Dark Knight explained what that campaign did exceptionally well and, in so doing, showed why the first Twilight book is so poorly designed for transmedia extension. Phillips:

One: Experiences like Why So Serious have come under criticism because they arguably don’t create audiences where none were before. At the end of the day, the people who were really involved in Why So Serious were all people who were going to see the movie anyway, right? It’s uncomfortable to admit it in public like this, but… yeah, it’s probably true.

Two: The most successful transmedia experiences are the ones where there is space for the player to live in the world. Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings; these are all worlds that are very much bigger than the action on the main stage. And that’s what we do in the ARG space; we provide walk-on roles that let people live in our worlds, while not requiring them to step onto the main stage themselves.

That’s why the first Twilight book is poorly suited to transmedia; there isn’t much of a world there outside of the couple in love. But the subsequent books increase the scope of the world more and more, incorporating group dynamics and government structures that add up to a world bigger than just Bella and Edward and their true, sparkly love.

So why was Why So Serious such a big deal? It’s because it took a world that did not have space for an audience to live inside it – Gotham – and created canon spaces where players could dwell, for the first time. They became voters and accomplices. It turned a property that was previously not very well suited to a transmedia experience and created one that suddenly is. It’s not just Batman and his allies and enemies anymore.

And while the people participating in that world are probably the ones who loved the property before, all of that energy and excitement brings more people in. The person with the Joker mask was already going to see the movie, but maybe their roommate wasn’t going to, or their cousin, or the person they enthuse about the film to at work or at the coffee shop or on the bus.

I know I started reading Harry Potter because of all of the fan energy around it; that’s also why I read Twilight. Giving your audience the freedom and an outlet for their passion for your work leads to them converting peripheral audience members into fans, and people who were never a part of the core audience into peripheral audience members. Participation is the engine that drives fandom, and fandom drives success.

So there you have it, one of the most important keys to making a great transmedia world: Scope. Make it roomy enough for your audience to play in your world. They’ll love you for it, and their love brings rewards.[19]

I read that post and heaved a sigh of contented relief, as if I’d just been given a tubful of water after marching across the Sahara. It’s not long, but it’s insightful, and is an excellent example of how some sample transmedia criticism might work: pick a transmedia project to criticize, break it apart to determine what worked and what didn’t, bubble up the learnable observations, and draw connections from that observation to other examples to give it context (and your argument more weight). To my mind, this was a brilliant example of nascent transmedia criticism, and I constantly go back to Phillips’ site in hopes of finding more.

Another up-and-coming source for transmedia criticism is Christy Dena’s cheekily-named You Suck at Transmedia (www.yousuckattransmedia.com), which includes comments from Comparative Media Studies and C3 alumnus Ilya Vedrashko and friend of C3 Jeff Watson. Although the site is relatively sparse (24 posts over six months), many of the articles to be found there are really interesting. Here’s an excerpt from Dena’s opening post:

You Suck at Transmedia!!

Yes, this is something many of us have been wanting to say for a while…to others (mostly) and to ourselves (sometimes).

But don’t worry, this site isn’t about trashing specific people or projects. I’m a practitioner too, and so I know how even though we learn quickly, we cringe at old mistakes. But importantly, I also know how bad design is often the result of processes and people you don’t have control over. You know it sucks but nobody listened, or believed you, or worse still…you didn’t tell them. This site is part of that conversation. Encouraging us all to feel confident about what we know (and find out) sucks.

… How do you/we/us stop sucking at transmedia? Well, this site is a step in that direction. This site welcomes contributions that really do aim to progress the state of the art. Here we can discuss the consequences of transmedia design, production and execution decisions.

In short, this site will cover transmedia decisions that never, sometimes, and always work.[20]

As of this writing, Dena’s posts have titles like “YSA Directing Meaning Across Media,” “YSA Being an Artist”, “YSA Being Human,” and “YSA Sucking”.[21] As of this writing, most of Dena’s posts haven’t been critical evaluations of particular transmedia experiences so much as reflections on the trials and tribulations of life as a transmedia experience designer, including videos of Quentin Tarantino talking about being an artist and a critique of the National Theatre’s recent mishandling of a Twitter snafu, but the site has a great deal of promise.

A third newly-released resource for transmedia criticism is The Pixel Report, from Power to the Pixel’s Liz Rosenthal and Tishna Molla. TPR declares itself to be “devoted to showcasing new forms of storytelling, film-making and cross-media business development that is in tune with an audience-centered digital era. It is an essential tool for content creators, a vital resource for policy-makers & funding bodies and a unique guide for anyone interested in the future of film and the media.”[22] Unfortunately, the site seems to be a thinly-veiled set of hooks to draw people to the Power to the Pixel conference or order the proceeds from the conference. Although the site ostensibly includes case studies of such projects as beActive Entertainment’s Final Punishment, Tommy Palotta’s Collapsus, and the National Film Board of Canada’s Waterlife, the site’s pages for these case studies amount to little more than an overview of each project, video clips of people discussing these projects from the previous conference, and a big button encouraging people to order the case studies. This feels less like transmedia criticism and more like advertising for Power to the Pixel and their consulting services.

Finding a home for transmedia reviews are much more challenging. Let us for a moment ignore the (very real) possibility that the entire print magazine world is going belly-up. So far most articles on transmedia have been either mile-high “What is Transmedia?” articles in publications like Wired or slightly deeper and more directed pieces in publications dedicated solely to one medium, such as those found in Filmmaker Magazine. Although book reviews, film reviews, music reviews, video game reviews and even technology reviews are commonplace in mainstream publications, is it realistic to expect the New York Times to employ a transmedia critic alongside their film and book critics? How likely is a New York Review of Transmedia, or an On the Transmedia show on NPR?

It’s possible that the very structure of transmedia experiences, where ideally each extension in each medium is of sufficient quality and modularity to serve as an ambassador for the rest of the franchise to the ‘native’ fans of that medium, also extends to critics. If Escape from Butcher Bay is good enough to garner a high score on Metacritic, perhaps it’s good enough to be reviewed by video game critics who will serve as multipliers (to steal a term from Grant McCracken) and advocates for the rest of the franchise to their audience. However, this still leaves us wanting for critics who will advocate for transmedia experiences that do transmedia well, evaluating and recommending the “greater than the sum of its parts” super-experience of the franchise as a whole. It’s possible that such reviews will be relegated to the review sections for the medium in which each franchise has its mothership – so reviews of the transmedia franchise surrounding The Matrix will be found in the film section, reviews of the transmedia franchise for Assassin’s Creed will be in the video game section, and so on – but as transmedia experiences continue to evolve into massive things that touch on every part of our lives, will the notion of “mothership” continue to exist? Only time will tell – but it seems likely that, if such a scenario comes to pass, by that time our reviews systems will have evolved to accommodate such vast experiences as well.

Finally, returning to the notion that newspapers, magazines and other print-centric media structures might be dead anyway, it’s possible that the very notion of curated collections of reviews will dissipate as well. We already have big blogs dedicated to particular audience demographics, like Engadget or io9 or Blastr, that, like special-interest basic cable channels, cover everything that might be of interest to that particular demographic.[23] This suggests that students interested in becoming transmedia critics might first attempt to become staff writers for such blogs – and supplement their writings there with a constant stream of insights posted to their own blogs (a tactic similar to that of both Phillips and Dena).

As transmedia continues to trend towards mainstream acceptance and continues to gather mass as a key area of development in the entertainment industry, all of these options are likely to flourish. It’s only a matter of time before a Journal of Transmedia Studies appears to support the research coming out of these new academic programs, only a matter of time before sites like io9 have to figure out how to review projects from transmedia shops like Fourth Wall Studios, Quixotic Transmedia, Campfire, or Blacklight Transmedia, and only a matter of time before more rich resources begin to appear online that cater specifically to producers and fans of transmedia experiences.

Our next steps now are for more of us to start engaging in close analyses of transmedia experiences, to start breaking them down and figuring out why they work or why they fail. More of this exploration must be done in order to help us understand how to really leverage the unique affordances of transmedia experience design as its own particular art, both individually and as a whole. Tearing into these new transmedia experiences to figure out what makes them tick, sharing those insights with one another and then using those lessons to create more astonishingly fantastic transmedia experiences, teaching each other how to ride these lions, is how we will push the medium forward. Writing more transmedia reviews to spread the word about those experiences to a broader audience is how we will ensure that we will all keep riding lions for a long time to come.

Geoffrey Long is a media analyst, scholar, and author exploring transmedia experiences and emerging entertainment platforms at Microsoft. Geoffrey received his Master’s degree from the Program in Comparative Media Studies at MIT, where he served as a media analyst for the Convergence Culture Consortium and a researcher for the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. Through his work with the Convergence Culture Consortium, Geoffrey authored “How to Ride a Lion: A Call for a Higher Transmedia Criticism” and “Moving Stories: Aesthetics and Production in Mobile Media”. His personal site is at geoffreylong.com, he can be reached at glong@geoffreylong.com, and he can be found on Twitter as @geoffreylong.

WORKS CITED:

[18] The Convergence Culture Blog ran from 2005 through 2011.

[19] http://www.deusexmachinatio.com/2010/04/why-so-serious-lessons-in-transmedia-worldbuilding.html

[20] http://www.yousuckattransmedia.com/2010/06/hello-world/

[21] The YSA stands for “You Suck At,” naturally.

[22] http://thepixelreport.org/

[23] Unsurprisingly, Blastr.com is operated by genre cable channel Syfy.

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