Today, the Annenberg Innovation Lab at USC and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center announced the release of “T is for Transmedia: Learning Through Transmedia Play.” The report is written by Becky Herr-Stephenson and Meryl Alper, under the supervision of Erin Reilly. This paper provides a much-needed guidebook to transmedia in the lives of children age 5-11 and its applications to storytelling, play, and learning. Building off of a review of the existing popular and scholarly literature about transmedia and children, this report identifies key links between transmedia and learning, highlights key characteristics of transmedia play, and presents core principles for and extended case studies of meaningful transmedia play experiences.
“We really have two goals for the report,” says co-author Becky Herr-Stephenson. “Our first is to get educators thinking about how they might incorporate transmedia play into activities, lesson plans, or projects. Our second goal is to put the design recommendations before media makers in the hopes that the principles will reinforce the good work people are already doing as well as encourage others to bring play and learning to the forefront of their transmedia projects.”
“T is for Transmedia” is embedded below and is also available for download here.
I know that this report is going to generate a lot of interest from the transmedia enthusiasts and new media literacy educators who constitute this blog’s most loyal readers, so to give you a taste of what to expect, I am sharing with you the introduction I contributed to this project.
There’s a Monster at the End of This Report
There is a monster at the end of this report (well, maybe there is, but you won’t know for sure until you turn all of the pages and read what we have to say).
But, it is telling that most of you probably recognize this phrase as a reference to a classic children’s book, written by Jon Stone, illustrated by Michael Smollen, released in 1971 just a few years after Sesame Street debutted on PBS, and “starring lovable, furry old Grover.” Much has been made of the ways that Sesame Street reinvented children’s television, embracing rather than running away from the properties of its medium, incorporating tricks from advertising, parodies of popular culture, songs and skits, into something which encouraged the active engagement of its young viewers. Yet, far less has been made of the fact that Sesame Street from the very start encouraged its young fans to follow it across media platforms – from television to records, books, stuffed toys, public performances, feature films, and much more. Certainly, the then-Children’s Television Workshop’s steps in that direction were cautious, given the anxieties many parents have about the commercialization of children’s culture. But, over time, much of the American public came to embrace those experiments in transmedia storytelling as part of what made Sesame Street such a powerful learning system. In a 2007 online poll, the American Education Association voted The Monster At the End of This Book onto a list of “Teachers’ Top 100 Books for Children,” and a few years later, the School Library Journal gave it a prominent spot on its list of the Top 100 picture books.
Part of what makes The Monster so compelling is that it is as reflexive about the nature of the printed book as a medium as Sesame Street was about our experiences of watching and learning from television. Reading this book becomes a kind of play as children scream with a mixture of fear and delight as we turn each page, wondering when the scary monster is going to appear, only to discover that it is “lovable furry old Grover” who is the monster we warmly welcome at the end of the book. Grover tries to do everything he can to block us from turning the pages, from tying knots to constructing brick walls, from begging to harranging us, yet the desire to read overcomes all of the walls he might try to erect. The children’s book has long been a site for domestic performance, as parents and children alike try out different voices, make sound effects, respond with mock emotions, to the pictures on the page.
This book had effects which go beyond the printed page: Grover emerges as an early fan favorite on Sesame Street as his personality took shape across platforms. When young people pick up The Monster, they already know who Grover is, they know his back story, they understand his motivations, they identify with what he is feeling, and as a result, there is an immediacy about our experience of this book.
Predictably enough, Monster has in recent years evolved into a digital book, an interactive experience children on their iPad. We certainly do not want to exclude adults from the fun – reading books together across generation is perhaps the most powerful way to foster a deeper appreciation of the pleasures of reading. But, Sesame Street has always understood that children do not enjoy equal opportunities to learn. Some children are left on their own while their parents work long hours. Some parents do not have good models for active reading with their children and look for prompts that might allow them to learn how to play and perform and speculate around the printed page. The experience of an e-book version of Monster will ideally supplement and scaffold the experience of reading the traditional picture book, not replace it, but it also adds a new layer to the ever expanding “supersystem” which constitutes the world of Sesame Street. So does The Putamayo Kids Presents Sesame Street Playground, a CD/DVD set which shares with children songs from the many versions of the program which have been localized to languages and cultures around the world, and video clips featuring the original casts in India, Mexico, Russia, or South Africa. And Sesame Street, the longest street in the world, just keeps growing.
Today, we might describe Sesame Street as a transmedia experience – that concept did not exist in 1971 when Monster was first published. Transmedia is an idea that has come into sharper focus over the past decade, having emerged from active conversations between academic researchers, creative artists, policy makers, fan communities, anyone and everyone interested in the future of entertainment and storytelling. Transmedia, by itself, means “across media” and it describes any number of possible relationships which might exist between the various texts that constitute a contemporary entertainment franchise. Marsha Kinder (1991), a media scholar who has written extensively about children’s media, coined the term, “transmedia,” to refer to the “entertainment supersystem” which had emerged around characters such as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Muppet Babies, or the Super Mario Brothers, as personalities and characters that move across media platforms, encouraging their fans to follow them where-ever they appeared. In my own work (Jenkins, 2006), I extended her concept to talk about transmedia storytelling, which refers to the systematic unfolding of elements of a story world across multiple media platforms, with each platform making a unique and original contribution to the experience as a whole.
Monster at the End of the Book builds off what we know of Grover on television but it creates a new kind of experience that takes advantage of the distinctive affordances of the printed book, which is designed to be read aloud in the child’s bedroom or playroom. Follow that Bird expands upon the time we get to spend with Big Bird while watching the television series in order to flesh out his backstory, situate him within a quest narrative, and suggest how much he means to the larger Sesame Street community. Neither example builds on extensive narrative information that must be remembered across different texts — that would not necessarily be appropriate for younger viewers — but it does reward fans who apply what they learned in one context to each new appearance of the characters.
Each of these texts, thus, contributes something to our knowledge of this fictional realm, and each takes advantage of those things their respective medium does best. We want the depiction of Oscar or Cookie Monster or the Count in a Sesame Street game to be consistent with what we see on television, but we also want the game to provide us with an interactive experience that is only possible in digital media. By combining media with different affordances, we create a more layered entertainment experience. Or at least, that’s the theory. A good transmedia narrative uses these various cross-platform extensions to flesh out the world, to extend the time line, to deepen our familiarity with the characters, and to increase our engagement.
With an educational property like Sesame Street, transmedia does something else – it reinforces the learning both by encouraging us to reread and re-experience a particularly pleasurable narrative (something, as we all know, kids are often inclined to do with little or no adult encouragement) and because they are invited to connect together pieces of information across multiple installments. In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell (2000) describes the original Sesame Street as “sticky,” suggesting that young people become so drawn to its vivid characters that they keep coming back for more and in the process, these repeated encounters reinforce what they learn from its curricular design.
Transmedia encourages additive comprehension. We learn something new as we follow the story across media. This distinguishes it from cross-media, which refers to the use of these other media platforms as simple delivery mechanisms for the same old content. So, if we watch Sesame Street online or on a DVD and change nothing else about the content, that’s cross-media. We might also distinguish transmedia from multimedia. Multimedia might use multiple kinds of media – words, pictures, sounds, videos – which are brought together in a single package: so, in the old days, there might be a CD-ROM developed around Sesame Street, where clicking a button opens us up to a range of different kinds of media. In transmedia, there’s something powerful about how the reader is incited to search out dispersed content and reassemble it into a meaningful mental model.
In a hunting society, children learn by playing with bows and arrows. In an information society, they learn to play with information. That’s part of why we think transmedia learning is such a potentially transformative concept. A science fiction writer has to construct a world which can extend across media platforms, but there already exist many rich worlds – the world under the sea, the universe beyond the Earth, the ancient world, the people who live on the other side of the planet — which are central to our desired curriculum. Perhaps, the best way to learn about them is to explore their stories, their environments, across media platforms, much as we acquire a deeper affection for Grover through repeated encounters.
Like any other kind of storytelling, transmedia is something which can be done well or badly. You can be attentive to the possibilities of expanding a story in new directions or you can simply slap a logo on something and pretend like it’s part of the same franchise. Transmedia can be enriching or exploitative, can be motivated by the crudest of economic motives or shaped by the most cutting edge learning science. But, when transmedia is done well, it creates a deeply engaging, immersive experience, which multiplies the number of learning opportunities.
Young people do not simply consume transmedia narratives; rather, transmedia encourages playful participation. In my book, Convergence Culture (2006), I talk about attractors (things that draw together an audience) and activators (elements which give the audience something to do, especially in a network society, ways to interact with each other around the shared content). Narrative-inflected play is hardly new. Go back and reread the great children’s books of the 19th century. There’s Meg in Little Women developing a backyard game based on Pilgrim’s Progress. There’s Tom Sawyer in Mark Twain’s novel pretending to be a pirate or Robin Hood. There’s Anne, she of the Green Gables, who re-enacts the story of the Lady in the Lake. Each of these books remind us that children before the era of mass media actively engaged with stories told to them by adults and transformed them into resources for their own creative play.
In the 20th century, mass media displaced many traditional forms of storytelling, but children’s play with narrative remained meaningful as a way of trying on adult roles and expanding core stories that matter to them. And this is what this report means by transmedia play. Certainly, adults have some legitimate worries about commercial media “colonizing” their children’s imaginations, but keep in mind that the human imagination feeds upon the culture around it and children show enormous capacity to re-imagine the stories that enter their lives.
Transmedia encourages this kind of creative reworking. The scattered fragments of a transmedia story are like pieces of a puzzle; they encourage curiosity, exploration, experimentation, and problem solving. Transmedia’s process of dispersal creates gaps which require our active speculation: some call this negative capability. Transmedia processes show us that there are more than one way to tell story, that there is always more we can learn about the characters and their world, and that represents a provocation to imagine aspects of these characters that have not yet made it to the screen. Young people make these stories their own through their active imaginations. The stuffed toy becomes their avatar: they use it to work through their problems; they use it as a vehicle for their emotions; they project their own personality onto the plush or for that matter, they use it a a stand in for some other powerful figure in their life. For a short moment, as they are reading about or manipulating Grover, they become the monster, and again, that’s a valuable experience. The child psychologist Bruno Betellheim (1976) tells us that young people need to read stories which acknowledge the darker sides of life, because children know that they are not always good and they need resources for thinking through how they should respond to the things that frighten them in the real world.
So, there you have the core concepts of this report – transmedia stories, transmedia play, transmedia learning. Put them all together and something magical happens.
Transmedia is not the monster at the end of the book; it’s not something you need to be afraid of encountering. So far, we know more about transmedia in entertainment and branding contexts than in relation to learning. That’s not a reason to take off running down the street. That’s a reason for people who care deeply about insuring the most diverse learning opportunities for our children to take transmedia seriously, to try to understand how to link multiple media together to create new pedagogical experiences, to be ready to explore how we might play together around the materials of a transmedia franchise, to invite children to explore what it means to read a story across the borders and boundaries between different texts and different media. This report offers some rich exemplars of groups who are doing well by children through their creation of powerful and transformative transmedia experiences, and it offers some design principles so that educators and producers might generate more meaningful, even mind blowing, transmedia experiences for the coming generation.