A Whale Of A Tale!: Ricardo Pitts-Wiley Brings Mixed Magic to LA

Last February, I announced here the release of Reading in a Participatory Culture, a print book, and Flows of Reading, a d-book extension, both focused around work my teams (first at MIT and then at USC) have done exploring how we might help educators and students learn about literary works through actively remixing them. Our central case study has been the work of playwright-actor-educator Ricardo Pitts-Wiley from the Mixed Magic Theater, who was successful at getting incarcerated youth to read and engage with Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick by having them re-imagine and re-write it for the 21st century. You can read more about this project here. And you can check out the Flows of Reading d-book for free here. 
If you live in Los Angeles, you have a chance to learn more about Pitts-Wiley and his work first hand. I’ve been able to bring Ricardo for a residency at USC this fall, which will start with a public event at the Los Angeles Public Library on September 26. Ricardo is going to be recruiting a mixed race cast of high school and college aged actors from across the Los Angeles area and producing a staged reading of his play, Moby-Dick: Then and Now, which will be performed as part of a USC Visions and Voices event on Oct. 11th. You can get full details of both events below. I hope to see some of you there. We are already hearing from all kinds of artists here in Southern California who have sought creative inspiration from Melville’s novel and used it as a springboard for their own work. But you don’t have to love the great white whale to benefit from our approach to teaching traditional literary works in a digital culture, and we encourage teachers and educators of all kinds to explore how they might apply our model to thinking about many other cultural texts.
For those who live on the East Coast, our team will also be speaking and doing workshops at the National Writing Project’s national conference in Boston on Nov. 21.
Thursday, September 26, 2013 7:15 PM
Mark Taper Auditorium-Central Library
Thu, Sep 26, 7:15 PM [ALOUD]
Remixing Moby Dick: Media Studies Meets the Great White Whale 
Henry Jenkins, Wyn Kelley, and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley

Over a multi-year collaboration, playwright and director Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, Melville scholar Wyn Kelley, and media expert Henry Jenkins have developed a new approach for teaching Moby-Dick in the age of YouTube and hip-hop. They will explore how “learning through remixing” can speak to contemporary youth, why Melville might be understood as the master mash-up artist of the 19th century, and what might have happened if Captain Ahab had been a 21st century gang leader.

* Part of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles and Los Angeles Public Library’s month-long citywide initiative “What Ever Happened to Moby Dick?”


Henry Jenkins is Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. He has written and edited more than fifteen books on media and popular culture, including Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture with Sam Ford and Joshua Green. His other published works reflect the wide range of his research interests, touching on democracy and new media, the “wow factor” of popular culture, science-fiction fan communities, and the early history of film comedy. His most recent book, Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick for the Literature Classroom was written with Wyn Kelley, Katie Clinton, Jenna McWilliams, Erin Reilly, and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley.

Wyn Kelley teaches in the Literature Section at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is author of Melville’s City: Literary and Urban Form in Nineteenth-Century New York and of Herman Melville: An Introduction. She also co-author Reading in a Participatory Culture: Re-Mixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom with Henry Jenkins and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley. She is former Associate Editor of the Melville Society journal Leviathan, and editor of the Blackwell Companion to Herman Melville. A founding member of the Melville Society Cultural Project, she has collaborated with the New Bedford Whaling Museum on lecture series, conferences, exhibits, and a scholarly archive. She serves as Associate Director ofMEL (Melville Electronic Library), an NEH-supported interactive digital archive for reading, editing, and visualizing Melville’s texts.

Ricardo Pitts-Wiley is the co-founder of the Mixed Magic Theatre, a non-profit arts organization dedicated to presenting a diversity of cultural and ethnic images and ideas on the stage. While serving as Mixed Magic Theatre’s director, Pitts-Wiley gained national and international acclaim for his page-to-stage adaptation of Moby Dick, titled Moby Dick: Then and Now. This production, which was presented at the Kennedy Center for the Arts in Washington, DC, is the centerpiece of a national teachers study guide and is featured in the book, Reading in A Participatory Culture. In addition to his work as an adapter of classic literature Pitts-Wiley is also the composer of over 150 songs and the author of 12 plays with music including:Waiting for Bessie SmithCelebrations: An African Odyssey, andThe Spirit Warrior’s Dream.

“Critical Pessimism” Revisted: An Open Letter to Adam Fish

A few weeks ago, Adam Fish called me out through his blog, Savage Minds, for what he saw as a harsh and unfair representation of the Media Reform movement in the final paragraphs of my book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. He did so for the most part by simply reprinting my own words to frame a story he wrote about the recent Media Reform conference.

I was a bit surprised to find myself singled out as an enemy of the Media Reform movement. If I am the biggest obstacle to your success, you are much closer to victory than I had previously imagined. 🙂

The experience was uncomfortable for me, but in a very constructive way, in that it has forced me to revisit my own words and reflect on how much my thinking has changed since I wrote them. It also hit at the end of the term so I am only now able to share some of these reflections with you.

Much of this change has been provoked through conversations with Eric Klinenberg, who I have gotten to know through several summers together at the Aspen Policy Institute, and through my participation in the Verklin Media Policy and Ethics Conference at the University of Virginia shortly before I left MIT. I have since written in my blog about some of these shifts in my thinking, making the argument that there is such urgency in the need for media reform right now that there is no longer any room for the usual infighting between critical and cultural studies perspectives.

Through these experiences, I have had a chance to get to know some of the young leaders who are pushing the Media Reform movement in significant new directions, including a deeper embrace of the potentials of digital media and networked communication and a willingness to partner with fan activist groups in ways which moves them away from a history of dismissing popular culture and scolding those of us who are engaged by it. When I wrote the passages for Convergence Culture which critiqued some aspects of the media reform movement, I was speaking about a very different generation of leaders and a very different set of rhetorics and practices. Even so, my caricature was inadequate and inaccurate, but perhaps even more so now.

Given these shifts in my thinking, I had very much hoped to attend and participate at the media reform conference this year, but was unable to do so because of a personal commitment. When I read Fish’s post, I felt a need to speak out less my absence be misinterpreted. It still remains to be seen to what degree someone who comes with my theoretical and political commitments will be welcomed into the ranks of the media reform movement, all the more so because I am clearly going to be forced to eat my words. But I remain eager to revise even more my picture of the reform movement.

There remain, as there have been, very real differences in emphasis and perspective. Many of those academics featured at the Media Reform conference come from critical studies and political economies backgrounds which have often dismissed the cultural studies traditions that inform my work. These traditions bring different things to the table, to be sure, and look at the world through very different lens, but what the world needs now is an approach to media reform which combines critical studies’ focus on structural inequality and cultural studies’ focus on agency and empowerment. We need to embrace the potentials of participatory culture even as we critique the exploitative practices of web 2.0. We need to understand the ways that digital media does and does not transform the terrain upon which debates about media policy are occurring.

At the heart of Fish’s account of Free Press’s gathering was a question which has haunted my own recent work as well: “Is the open, decentralized, accessible and diverse internet – by which media production, citizen journalism and community collaboration have been recently democratized – becoming closed, centralized and homogenous as it begins to look and feel more like the elite-controlled cable television system?” And there is in this piece a celebration for “ancient movement of ordinary people taking back power from entrenched elites,” which for him is embodied through the work of Free Speech TV. For the record, this “open, decentralized, accessible and diverse internet — by which media production, citizen journalism and community collaboration have been recently democratized” is what I mean by participatory culture and Free Speech TV is participatory culture.

We share common goals in providing the American public with the resources needed to sustain democratic citizenship, with a commitment to insuring diversity of perspectives, with a desire to expand the ranges of voices which can be heard, with a push to put the potential for media production in the hands of those who have historically been excluded and marginalized.

My own way forwards towards these goals has been to promote what I call participatory culture, to expand opportunities for people of all backgrounds to produce and share media with each other. I work to promote media reform through advancing the cause of media literacy and defending opportunities to participate through new media channels. My initial frustration with the media reform movement stemmed in part from my disappointment that some of its leadership have historically dismissed media literacy and new media practices as meaningful contributions to the media reform movement, which is why shifts in the movement rhetoric starting with the “Save Our Internet” campaign and the struggles over Net Neutrality represented a significant improvement from my point of view over earlier media reform formulations.

For many in the media reform movement, their strategy starts with a focus on concentration of media ownership. I certainly care about concentration issues, but see them as part of a much larger context of struggles over the nature of our communication and information capacities. The decline in journalism can only partially be understood as a byproduct of media concentration and has to also be understood as a product of other economic and technological shifts. I would, in any case, be as concerned if media was concentrated in the hands of governments, nonprofits, educational institutions, or the media reform movement itself as I am with the fact that it is corporately controlled. The goal should be to insure a world where media power is spread as widely across the culture as possible.

The defense of participatory culture and the critique of media ownership are two sides of the same coin — two flanks in a battle to democratize and diversify media in this country. One starts with a focus on agency (participatory culture), the other with a focus on structure (media concentration); one starts with an emphasis on the new world we are trying to build, while the other focuses on the system we are trying to dismantle; one is focused on what we are fighting for and the other what we are fighting against.

These are the differences I was trying to get at in making a distinction between critical utopianism and critical pessimism. “Critical pessimism” is at least as accurate a description of what I see as the limits of the critical studies perspective as phrases like “cultural populism” and “techno-utopianism” have been at describing the limits of a cultural studies perspective. Neither set of terms is totally fair, yet they also have descriptive value in helping us to understand where our approaches, taken to their logical extremes, may lead us.

For me, the term, “critical pessimism,” captures the distinction between cynicism and skepticism. My hope is that a viable media reform movement will embrace skepticism, asking hard questions of government policy, corporate actions, and, yes, its own assumptions and beliefs. We are not served, though, when skepticism becomes cynicism, when the rhetoric forecloses any meaningful change, when all corporate action, say, is treated as equally repressive and reprehensible. And we are not served, on the other side, by rhetoric which sees digital media as inevitably democratizing and thus does not feel the need to struggle for social justice and media reform, which sees grassroots media as somehow adequate in taking on the concentrated power of mass media. A naive celebration of contemporary digital culture denies the need for struggle and a cynical perspective on grassroots change denies the value of struggle. These are the blind spots which we need to work together to overcome in our work.

So, critical pessimism is not a bad term to describe certain forms of critical studies and political economy work at its worst, but I was wrong to imply that this is the only thing going on here, to conflate critical studies and the media reform movement, to simplify the media reform movement to a small number of highly visible figures, or to suggest we can dismiss the importance of the media reform efforts as a result of our disagreements in disposition and tactics. I have been struggling in some of my own recent work, much of it still not published, to try to work through a critique of Web 2.0 which combines the concerns for structural inequalities and the exploitation of free labor which comes from the critical studies camp with a defense of participatory culture (perhaps the best basis for such critiques) which reflects work from the cultural studies tradition.

I hope we can find ways to bring these two camps together through political activism as well, and my own current work is focused on understanding how the mechanisms of participatory culture can be deployed to foster greater political participation and civic engagement, work partially inspired by watching how the “Save Our Internet” movement was able to bridge between different sites of participatory culture and use grassroots media as the basis for critiquing corporately-controlled media.

Where my comments in Convergence Culture went too far was in my hyperbolic description of certain kinds of media reform advocates as seeking to “opt out of media altogether and live in the woods, eating acorns and lizards and reading only books published on recycled paper by small alternative presses”. This was frankly sophomoric and beneath the standards I set for myself. Fish writes, “This is a false exaggeration of a movement that is providing a necessary check on corporate power and mindfully working for greater civic, community, and citizen involvement in media production.” I agree.

So, let me now publicly apologize for stooping to this kind of stereotype. It was a really dumb thing to say. I am, I’m afraid, still a work in progress on these issues.

At the time I wrote this passage, I was frustrated by the recurring descriptions of popular culture as “weapons of mass distraction,” as “bread and circuses,” etc. I see popular culture as a much more complex terrain and respect those who would mobilize it for their own ends — whether in the form of fan culture or Free Speech TV. I have been delighted to see many images now emerging from the Media Reform movement which are not anti-media or anti-popular culture, but rather raise legitimate concerns about the distribution of media power and in particular the decline in substantive journalism, issues very close to my own heart.

I am sometimes struck that many critical studies writers are far more idealistic than critical utopianists insofar as their embrace of the ideal often does not allow them to recognize partial victories or contradictory advances. My own work talks often of “negotiations” between different forms of cultural power, of gains and losses, of progress made even if bigger battles remain to be fought, and for me, the recognition of the good, even when we can still imagine something better, is a necessarily fuel for media reform. To describe oneself as a “utopianist” is often to be accused of imagining that this is the “best of all possible worlds”, but in fact, as Stephen Duncombe has been reminding us in some of his recent writing, the construction of utopias has historically been a vital form of social critique, one which can both focus attention on the ways current conditions fall far short of ideal and allowing us to imagine alternative structures that might better meet human needs.

I have often heard critical studies writers accuse us of “not being at all critical,” and I agree that this is a charge worth examining, but I want to challenge critical studies writers to be equally concerned with the charge that they are “not at all celebratory.” There is something important at stake in our struggles to defend the Internet and if you can not recognize progress made, how can you realize what’s at risk? Again, it comes back to the idea that any reform movement needs to be as concerned with what it is fighting for as what it is fighting against. But either way, we should not be fighting with each other, whether in the form of my original critique or Fish’s more recent provocation.

So, let me end by celebrating the strong ongoing tradition of media reform in this country as represented by the recent conference and let me urge all of us to work across artificial divides which may get in the way of us working together towards shared goals.

The Aesthetics of Transmedia: In Response to David Bordwell (Part Three)

This is the third and final segment of my response to David Bordwell’s thoughtful analysis of some of the pitfalls and challenges associated with transmedia storytelling. Thanks to David for sparking what has been a fascinating exchange, one which has forced me to sharpen my thinking about certain key issues that I am working through for my class.

Bordwell writes:

Another drawback to shifting a story among platforms: art works gain strength by having firm boundaries. A movie’s opening deserves to be treated as a distinct portal, a privileged point of access, a punctual moment at which we can take a breath and plunge into the story world. Likewise, the closing ought to be palpable, even if it’s a diminuendo or an unresolved chord. The special thrill of beginning and ending can be vitiated if we come to see the first shots as just continuations of the webisode, and closing images as something to be stitched to more stuff unfolding online. There’s a reason that pictures have frames.

Again, I’d argue that Bordwell is describing a specific kind of filmmaking, one that may gain very little from transmedia expansion. Yet, as I said earlier, the aesthetic properties of texts that lend themselves to transmedia experience are world-building (as we’ve been discussing) and seriality. By definition, a serial text is not self-contained. It resolves one chapter and immediately plants the book that will draw us into the next. It is, as Angela Ndalianis stresses in Neo-Baroque, a work which pushes beyond its frame. Now, to be clear, the cliffhangers which have shaped many classic serial forms do depend on an understanding of where one text stops and another begins. But we can see this as an art of chunking rather than framing. They know how to break the story down into meaningful chunks which are compelling emotionally within themselves but which gain greater urgency when read in relation to the other installments of the story. We still have a lot to learn about how to create meaningful chunks and link them together across media platforms. As such, I am watching more and more vintage serials to see how they balance between self-containment and openness.

This may be why transmedia seems so far to work best in relation to television, which is increasingly relying on seriality (and back story) to create a particular kind of aesthetic experience, and where it is applied to film, it seems to work best for franchises which will have a series of increasingly preplanned sequels. No one would take away the aesthetic pleasures of closure and containment, but there are also aesthetic pleasures in seriality, openness, and especially, for me, a pleasure in suddenly understanding how a bit of information consumed in one medium fits into the puzzle being laid out for us in a totally different platform.

So far, transmedia texts have been most compelling while they are mid-process and have tended to disappoint when they reached their conclusion. This phenomenon may tell us something about the degree to which they rely on open-ended and serialized structures rather than the kinds of closure which is the pleasure of a different kind of fiction. The anxious fan wants to know that the producers of Lost isn’t making it up as they go along, though of course, on one level, every storyteller is making it up as they go along. The hope though is for a certain level of integrity and continuity between the pieces which allows us to find the coherent whole from which the many parts must have once broken adrift.

For me, though, I am also intrigued by the moment when the story is rich with possibilities, when fan speculations span out in many different directions, and when each of us has taken the parts as resources for constructing our own fictional world. I wrote about this almost 20 years ago in response to Twin Peaks: I was much more interested in the hundreds of complex theories about who killed Laura Palmer that invested fans constructed individually and collectively than I was in the official version which David Lynch and Mark Frost were forced to add under pressure from the networks.

Bordwell writes:

In between opening and closing, the order in which we get story information is crucial to our experience of the story world. Suspense, curiosity, surprise, and concern for characters–all are created by the sequencing of story action programmed into the movie. It’s significant, I think, that proponents of hardcore multiplatform storytelling don’t tend to describe the ups and downs of that experience across the narrative. The meanderings of multimedia browsing can’t be described with the confidence we can ascribe to a film’s developing organization. Facing multiple points of access, no two consumers are likely to encounter story information in the same order. If I start a novel at chapter one, and you start it at chapter ten, we simply haven’t experienced the art work the same way.

Transmedia storytellers are becoming increasingly skilled at deciding when extensions should be rolled out in relation to the franchise’s “mother ship.” Some plot developments do require careful sequencing. There’s a pleasure to be had in watching Robert Rodriquez’s Shorts in making fun of a schoolboy who claims that sharks ate his homework in an early scene and then looping back in time to discover that he is telling the truth. Even though the plot of the film shifts around the story information so we see events out of sequence, there is still a larger rationale determining why we experience these events in a particular order.

The same may be said for the difference between materials released to the web before we encounter the film or television series, which often are designed to help us manage the complexity of an unfamiliar world or an ensemble-centered narrative, and those which come later in the unfolding of the franchise. Enter the Matrix comes at a particular juncture in the film series, while the multiplayer game based on The Matrix comes only after the film series was completed and the Wachowskis wanted to cede greater creative control back to the consumers to take the world in new directions. The Battlestar Galactica webisodes , “Face of the Enemy,” which came on the eve of the final season went back in time to refocus us on the character of Felix Gaeta, who had been a secondary figure for most of the run, showing us the events from his point of view and revealing previously unknown aspects of his motivation, just in time to set us up for the character to play a much more central role in the series’s final year. This is why transmedia “chunks” often tell us explicitly where they fit into the larger time line and why many of us prefer to read those chunks within a narrative sequence.

So, we may simply be over-stating the degree to which the dispersal of information is open-ended. Certainly, once the information moves beyond the borders of a single text, there’s no control over what order the spectator encounters it. And it may not matter in which order we encounter certain aspects of the world building. But it may still be the case that the release and roll out of transmedia content is carefully timed and structured to construct a preferred reading sequence. Geoff Long has called for navigational tools that help viewers to find relevant content and to identify at what point it fits into the unfolding of the larger transmedia story. Given this, I believe that it would be possible to do a formalist reading of a transmedia narrative which mapped the functions of different bits of information and for me, that would go beyond simply a list of joints and citations. It would simply be a task of enormous complexity. Much as Roland Barthes could apply his methods to only a small segment of a Balzac story, Geoff Long has been able to apply the narrative analysis to only a short segment of Jim Henson’s transmedia texts.

Bordwell writes:

Gap-filling isn’t the only rationale for spreading the story across platforms, of course. Parallel worlds can be built, secondary characters can be promoted, the story can be presented through a minor character’s eyes. If these ancillary stories become not parasitic but symbiotic, we expect them to engage us on their own terms, and this requires creativity of an extraordinarily high order.

Well, yes, and these are the functions of transmedia extensions which interest me the most — and for that matter, the ones which spark the most excitement in the industry types who seem to grasp the concepts the best. It isn’t simply about the narrative; it isn’t simply about filling in gaps in the plot. “Gap-filling” seems to be a special case: the parlor trick that The Matrix franchises plays with the delivery of information from the doomed Osyrus which unfolds across three different media platforms. More often, transmedia is about back story which shifts our identifications and investments in characters and thus helps us to rewatch the scenes again with different emotional resonance. More often, it is about picking up on a detail seeded in the original film and using it as a point of entry into a different story or a portal into exploring another aspect of the world. And yes, to do this well is creativity of an extraordinarily high order, which is why most transmedia extensions disappoint; they fail to achieve their full potential. Transmedia is appealing to artists of a certain ambition who nevertheless want to work on popular genre entertainment rather than developing avant garde movies or art films. It appeals to intellectually engaged viewers who are more at home with popular culture than with gallery installations.

I’m curious to hear what other transmedia critics and creators are thinking about this exchange.

The Aesthetics of Transmedia: In Response to David Bordwell (Part One)

David Bordwell, my graduate school mentor and one of the leading figures in academic film studies, joined the conversation about transmedia storytelling the other week with a typically thoughtful and engaging entry that explored the strengths and limits of transmedia as an expansion of the cinematic experience. Personally, I read Bordwell’s analysis as a friendly amendment and generous “shout out” to the work I’ve been doing on this topic, not to mention a timely one since it arrived on the eve of the start of my Transmedia Storytelling and Entertainment class at USC. His greatest contribution here is to raise a series of constructive objections and challenging questions any filmmaker would need to think through before moving their film — mainstream or independent — in a transmedia direction. To keep the conversation on these topics flowing, I thought I would respond to some of Bordwell’s arguments.

Bordwell writes:

Transmedia storytelling is very, very old. The Bible, the Homeric epics, the Bhagvad-gita, and many other classic stories have been rendered in plays and the visual arts across centuries. There are paintings portraying episodes in mythology and Shakespeare plays. More recently, film, radio, and television have created their own versions of literary or dramatic or operatic works. The whole area of what we now call adaptation is a matter of stories passed among media….

What makes this traditional idea sexy? … Some transmedia narratives create a more complex overall experience than that provided by any text alone. This can be accomplished by spreading characters and plot twists among the different texts. If you haven’t tracked the story world on different platforms, you have an imperfect grasp of it.

I can follow Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories well without seeing The Seven Percent Solution or The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. These pastiches/continuations are clearly side excursions, enjoyable or not in themselves and perhaps illuminating some aspects of the original tales. But according to Henry, we can’t appreciate the Matrix trilogy unless we understand that key story events have taken place in the videogame, the comic books, and the short films gathered in The Animatrix.

I would certainly agree with Bordwell that transmedia storytelling does not begin with The Matrix. When Jeff Gomez (Starlight Runner) spoke to my students last week, he repeatedly used the phrase, “mythology,” to describe the structure of transmedia narratives and others adopt a long-standing industry term, “Story Bible,” to describe the documentation that organizes the continuity. Both metaphors pay tribute to earlier forms of branching or encyclopedic narrative. In Gomez’s case, we might trace the concept of “mythology” backwards from the D&D games he played as a young man into the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien who clearly conceived of Lord of the Rings as modeled on structures found in folklore and mythology. I’d also argue that C.S. Lewis’s writings on stories contain a lot of great insights onto the value of telling details in fleshing out fictional worlds, suggesting that modern transmedia fans might have enjoyed a rich exchange if they were able to sit down in the faculty room at Oxford in the early part of the last century.

If I was having an imaginary conversation about the origins of this concept, I’d also want to include L. Frank Baum, who unfolded the world of Oz across a range of media platforms. What we now might read as a series of novels that fleshed out the Land of Oz began life as short films produced by Baum’s studios, Broadway musicals, and comic strips. (See the recent republished edition of The Marvelous Land of Oz which collects the comic strip elaborations of his “mythology.”) Indeed, you could argue that the shifts across media give the book series a kind of wacky incoherence, involving radical shifts in tone or theme, inconsistent conceptions of characters, and so forth.

I might also want to invite Cordwainer Smith, a science fiction writer who I’ve long been convinced was a time traveller, since his works prefigure many of the key themes and motifs of cyberpunk. Smith developed a complex and interlocking “mythology” which links together dozens of short stories published across a range of different magazines, and he specifically depicted many of his stories as “versions” or “installments” of a narrative the reader is already presumed to understand from encountering it across a range of previous media incarnations. Smith himself wrote only prose narratives, but in his fictions, he imagines explicitly how his tales would take shape on stage or television.

I would argue that the contemporary moment of transmedia has heightened our awareness of these earlier moments of authors unfolding stories across media, much as the rise of digital media more generally has led to a revitalization of the study of “old media when they were new” or the history of the book. We certainly want to understand what is new about our current push for transmedia entertainment, which to me has to do with the particular configuration of media systems and the push towards a more participatory culture.

Tolkien, Lewis, Baum, and Smith all sought to model contemporary fictions on the dispersed, episodic, yet interlocking structures of classic mythology — creating a folklore for a post-folkloric society. And so, yes, there are going to be many resemblances to be drawn between transmedia stories, informed by these creative figures, and traditional religious or mythological works.

That said, many of Bordwell’s examples above are simply adaptations of works produced in one medium for performance in another platform. And for many of us, a simple adaptation may be “transmedia” but it is not “transmedia storytelling” because it is simply re-presenting an existing story rather than expanding and annotating the fictional world. Of course, this distinction assumes a pretty straight forward adaptation. Every adaption makes additions — minor or otherwise — and reinterpretations of the original which in theory expands our understanding of the core story. These changes can be read as “infidelities” by purists but they may also represent what I describe in CC as “additive comprehension” — they may significantly reshape our understanding of what’s happening in the original work. Still, I think there is a distinction to be made between “extensions” to the core narrative or the fictional universe and adaptations which simply move content from one medium to another.

Bordwell continues:

The “immersive” ancillaries seem on the whole designed less to complete or complicate the film than to cement loyalty to the property, and even recruit fans to participate in marketing. It’s enhanced synergy, upgraded brand loyalty.

For the most part Hollywood is thinking pragmatically, adopting Lucas’ strategy of spinning off ancillaries in ways that respect the hardcore fans’ appreciation of the esoterica in the property. Caranicas quotes Jeff Gomez, an entrepreneur in transmedia storytelling, saying that for most of his clients “we make sure the universe of the film maintains its integrity as it’s expanded and implemented across multiple platforms.” It would seem to be a strategy of expanding and enriching fan following, and consequent purchases.

As best I can tell, then, in borrowing this academic idea, the industry is taking the radical edge off. But is that surprising?

I’ve long ago given up trying to separate the creative and commercial motivations of transmedia entertainment, but then, all popular culture, no, all art depends on a complex balance between the two. From the start, most transmedia has been funded through the promotional budget rather than being understood as part of the creative costs of a particular franchise, even where it has been understood as performing key world building or story expanding functions. This was a central issue in the Writer’s Strike a few years ago. Indeed, in so far as Hollywood has grasped transmedia, it has been in the context of a growing awareness of the urgency of creating “consumer engagement” that has been a buzz word across the entertainment industry in recent years. This is why the transmedia chapter in CC follows so closely after the discussion of “affective economics” and American Idol.

Yet, as I suggested in my recent discussion of District 9, one man’s promotion is another man’s exposition. Increasingly, transmedia extensions are released in advance of the launch of major franchises and do some of the basic work of orientating us to the characters, their world, and their goals, allowing the film or television series to plunge quickly into the core action. Yet, even at this level, they can do other things — creating a more layered experience by introducing us to conflicting points of view on the action (as when we learn more about alien rights protesters through the District 9 promotional materials). Most of the people in the industry who take transmedia seriously are open about the fact that they are highjacking parts of the promotional budget to experiment with something that they think has the potential to refresh genre entertainment as well as reward viewer investments.

On another level, I’d say we are still at a moment of transition where transmedia practices are concern. Each new experiment — even the failed ones — teach us things about how to shape a compelling transmedia experience or what kinds of tools are needed to allow consumers to manage information as it is dispersed across multiple platforms. In some ways, the transmedia stories may need to be conservative on other levels — adopting relatively familiar genre formulas — so that the reader learns how to put together the pieces into a meaningful whole, much as the first jigsaw puzzles we are given as children take shape into familiar characters and do not have the challenges found in those designed for hardcore puzzlers.

(Two More Installments To Come)

Why Universities Shouldn’t Create “Something like YouTube” (Part Two)

Universite de Montreal is developing a new web strategy, they intend to

integrate web 2.0 features. They are thinking about letting students become

publishers, but they fear a teacher backlash. Is this fear reasonable? What

would be the worst case scenario?

When we create more open platforms, we destroy old monopolies of information. That can be a brutal blow for those who gain their self worth from their role as the dispersers of that information. So, yes, when you open it up to students to submit materials, teachers feel threatened. There are some legitimate concerns here, having to do with the credentializing of information and the liabilities of the university. For most of us, credibility on the web is situational: we are not so much assessing content as we are assessing the reputations of the sources of that content. We tend to put our greatest trusts in the institutions we would trust for information in the physical world. So, many people who sought information from Universite de Montreal or MIT will make a general judgment about the reputation of the institution and then apply it to all content which gets circulated.

For me, a lot of this has to do with how we frame the materials — as a reference work (which meets certain criteria of reliability, which many faculty members would be hard pressed to meet) or as a space for investigation, deliberation, and discussion (where there are ongoing conversations about the value of different content being circulated). Most academic web resources represent the former; Wikipedia and YouTube would be better understood as the latter. The need is to be clear about who is contributing the content and then you need to create a context where the community has the literacy practices and collective intelligence processes to take ownership over critically engaging with the materials being shared.

Everyone in the university would need to have a stake in insuring the integrity of the process and that means being highly critical and skeptical of anything that gets submitted, whether by a student or a teacher.

Can a platform upstage the learning process ? By that I mean that students

would get lost in a pile of information and would no longer be able to know

what to use ?

A platform certainly can upstage the learning process if by a platform you mean a technology. It is not at all unusual for faculty members to become enchanted

with one or another kind of hardware and not think through its pedagogical implications. We can see some of the ways universities have embraced Second Life as an example of this process. Second Life has some remarkable affordances which can support powerful new kinds of learning, but it’s also a challenging technology to learn how to use. There’s no point in using it for things that can be done just as easily through more traditional learning platforms and there’s no point in using it if it takes much longer to learn how to use the program than it is going to be possible to use the program for instruction. In

other words, we have to do a cost/benefit analysis and know why we are using this platform, why it is better than traditional means, what it allows us to do that we couldn’t do otherwise, what challenges it poses to learners, and so forth.

On the other hand, I would argue that a process or a community is less likely to upstage learning because for the most part, it comes with its own pedagogical logic and if you work within that logic, everything you do will ultimately contribute to learning. Again, the choice of the community needs to be aligned to the pedagogical goals, because the community will impose its own goals which will often be more deeply motivating.

Is there more value in sharing ( as with OpenCourseWare) or in mashing and

allowing expression ?

For me, they are two parts of the same process. When I hand you a printed book, which couldn’t be more fixed in its content and couldn’t be harder to reconfigure, you are still going to pay attention to only those parts that are of interest to you; I can’t determine whether you read the whole thing; I can’t determine what parts you cite in other works you write; and indeed, the book only becomes valuable when you can take out your yellow pen, mark up the passages that are meaningful to you, compare them with other books on your shelf, and use them as resources for your own explorations and ruminations.

So, why should we imagine that digital resources are any different? Once you share them, they are going to be sampled and remixed, if they are of any value to the person who receives them. That’s at the heart of the learning and research processes. So, the question isn’t whether to allow remixing; you can’t stop it and you really wouldn’t want to if you could. The question is whether to facilitate it or for that matter, whether to increase the visibility of what readers do with the content you provide. In the end, that boils down to the question of whether you want to be part of a conversation or whether you simply

want to publish.

In our participatory culture, though, keep in mind that publishing as an end unto itself is having diminishing return and people are much more likely to be drawn towards spaces which enable and support meaningful dialog. You can try to block it, if you wish, but you are also cutting yourself out from the marketplace of ideas, so what’s the point?

Should all this self-expression be recognized ? Where can we draw the line between « artistic self-expression » and bad work ?

The point is that I don’t draw the line; the community draws the line. A society where there is lots of bad work out there is ultimately more generative than one

which supports only excellent work. It provides points of entry for more people who are encouraged to try things, be bad, get feedback, and do better. A society which circulates only excellent work creates too strong a barrier to access and thus discourages most people from producing anything. The result is that we lack the diversity we need for collective decision making or shared cultural experiences.

So, the goal should never be to get rid of bad work; the goal should be to develop mechanisms which helps us to identify what we see as valuable or meaningful work according to our own criteria. There are a number of different mechanisms which allow us to do so: we can have gatekeepers who curate the materials and use their personal reputation to bestow recognition on work they consider valuable; we can have some kind of system of aggregation, such as Digg, where many people vote on what’s valuable and the “best” stuff rises to the top; we can have some system of collective deliberation in which we have ongoing debates about what constitutes good work and what works are

good. All of those mechanisms can be found at work in one or another site online.

We still don’t fully understand how these mechanisms work and what kinds of areas each works best. And universities would have a lot to contribute into research in these areas if they would free themselves from the burden of feeling like they can only support excellence.

A lot of bad work could tarnish the reputation of a university. How can it reconcile openness and the promotion of itself as a supplier of good knowledge?

It depends on what the university is trying to sanctify: is it seeking to guarantee the integrity of the product (in which case, every bit of content needs to be vetted) or the integrity of the process (in which case, the university is creating a space where people learn through vetting each other’s content.) Is the reputation of a university based on the fact that they gather together lots of people who know things or is it based on the fact that they create a context where the ongoing questioning of information takes place?

What is the role of universities in this new « knowledge society » ?

Universities have gathered together many forms of expertise into one institution and they have provided the time and space for those expertise to be exercised

around compelling questions. They have developed processes by which questions can be asked and answers can be debated, where information can be produced, exchanged, and evaluated, and where expertise can be exchanged between many different minds. So, how do universities expand those functions and processes beyond their brick and mortar campuses? How do they open up these conversations to include a larger public who wish to continue learning beyond their undergraduate years or who wish to learn things that are not available to them at their local level? Universities can potentially play an enormous role here but it requires them to rethink their interface with their public and indeed, requires them to expand their understanding of what constitutes the constituency for higher learning.

Note: In response to the first installment of this interview, reader Chris Lott asks why the Creative Commons license for MIT’s Open Courseware initiative constitutes a “conservative” approach to Fair Use. I am not, in this case, concerned about reader’s making Fair Use of my materials. They are welcome to use them with attribution as far as I am concerned. But my problem is that as a media scholar, I need to be able to provide excerpts from other people’s media — especially corporate media — if my teaching materials and approaches are going to be accessible to people around the world who may not have ready access to American media. MIT’s position is that we have to clear rights for every piece of material that we include in our course materials, rather than asserting a broader understanding of Fair Use which would define such materials as being circulated for the purpose of critical commentary. I apply such a broader notion in my own blog but so far, the Open Courseware people will not accept this perspective and as a result, I’ve been locked out of contributing to this program. People often ask why not use materials under Creative Commons license and the problem is that the kinds of materials currently circulating under Creative Commons tends to be indie media, which is great, but in teaching media studies, I also have to deal with material by mainstream media and universities feel themselves vulnerable to the exagerated assertions of copy right by many corporate rights holders. I hope this further clarifies my position.

Why Universities Shouldn’t Create “Something like YouTube” (Part One)

I was recently interviewed by a Canadian journalist, Alexandre Cayla-Irigoyen

Chef de pupitre – Societe Monde, about OpenCourseWare, Collective Intelligence, and the modern university. Somehow, the interview questions sparked me to dig deep on some ideas that I hadn’t really formulated before and I figured the answers might prove interesting to blog readers. So I asked the reporter if I could run the transcript here, once he had gotten what he needed from it for his story.

I read your book (Convergence Culture) and also a couple of other of your publications. You argue that, right now, the school system is failing its children because they are learning more experimenting outside class than in it. Do you think that Internet and the tools that are being developed will help change this situation ?

The internet is improving opportunities for learning for at least some portion

of our youth, but most of what is most valuable about it is locked outside of

schools. For example, many American schools block all access to YouTube, to

social network sites, even to blogging tools, all of which are key sites for

learning. Schools are discouraging young people from using Wikipedia rather

than engaging with it as an opportunity to learn about the research process and

to engage with critical discussions around issues of credibility. The schools are

often frightened of anything that looks like a game to the point that they lock

out many powerful tools which simulate real world processes, encourage a ‘what

if’ engagement with history, or otherwise foster critical understanding of the


As long as they react to these developments as risks rather than resources, then those kids who have access to this online world are going to be de-skilled as they enter the schoolhouse gates and those kids who don’t have access are going to be left further behind because they have been abandoned by the institutions which are otherwise best situated to address the digital divide in terms of technical access and the participation gap in terms of access to skills and experiences. So, yes, informal learning is taking place outside of school for those who are able to access it but the refusal of schools to engage with it further amplifies the inequalities between information haves and have nots.

Can such changes be implemented in university classes? Flexibility seems to be the key aspect of this new approach whereas the university classroom is typically governed by a rigid student-teacher relation (at the undergrad level at least).

Whatever their limitations in terms of bureaucratic structure, most university

instructors have much greater flexibility to respond to these challenges than the average public high school. Unfortunately, by the time we get to college, these gaps in experiences, skills, and resources will have already had a near lethal impact on those kids who are being left behind. It isn’t just that we will need to have a head start program to get them the technical skills they need to deploy these technologies. It is going to be much harder to give them the sense of empowerment and entitlement needed to allow them to feel fully part of the online world. They are going to be much less likely to play and experiment with the new technologies because they will be afraid of failing and looking dumb in front of classmates who will have been using these tools for more than a decade.

That said, we certainly do want to integrate these skills into college classes, because they are key to higher order thinking an research in most of our disciplines, because doing so is the best way of reaching a generation that expects to be able to participate in social networks and manipulate data through simulations. But we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking we can fix a decade’s worth of neglect through the public schooling system.

How can an institution recreate the type of communities you spoke about in your book ?

The kinds of communities I discussed in the book are what Cory Doctorow calls “ad-hoc-cracies.” They emerge quickly in response to shared interests and concerns. They last as long as people need the community to work through a common problems or query. They vanish when they are no longer useful to their members. They are radically interdisciplinary or I’d prefer, “undisciplined,” in that they draw together people with many different expertises and they deploy social networks which observe few of the barriers to interaction we experience in the physical world to bring people together who should be working together. They develop informal yet very powerful systems for vetting information and for carrying out deliberation.

Almost none of this holds with the average college class which has a fixed duration, a prearranged sequence of materials and problems, a disciplined border, a geographically narrowed location, etc. So, if we want to integrate these into our classes, they require

much greater flexibility in imagining what constitutes an educational context. They certainly involve developing projects which span disciplines, which link several classes together and requires students to build on each other’s work, and which may straddle multiple universities dispersed in space. All of this is easier said than done, of course, but we should be experimenting with how to achieve this goals since at this point it is even hard to point to many real world examples of what this would look like.

MIT has the OpenCourseWare program that seems to follow a more open logic. Does MIT have other programs that would help it achieve (or create) a more open, flexible and creative environment ?

The Open Courseware Initiative has very worthy goals — indeed, the vision

behind it is deeply inspiring to me. Universities like MIT should be opening up their resources to the planet. We should being supporting independent learners and providing materials to support education in parts of the world which do not have what major research institutions have to offer. The scale on which Open Courseware is operating now is astonishing and a real tribute to the people who developed it.

That said, I do not myself participate in Open Courseware. I freely give away my own content through our various blogs, podcasts, and online materials. But MIT has failed to assert a strong Fair Use defense which allows instructors to meaningfully quote from and repurpose existing materials as part of their instructional process. As a media scholar, my teaching centers on helping students understand other people’s media content and if I can’t quote from and share that content with the users of the Open Courseware, I can not meaningfully reproduce my instructional practices online. MIT had an opportunity to be a leader in the arguments about Fair Use, especially given the good will they have gotten through Open Courseware, yet they have chosen to take a very timid and conservative legal approach to these matters and as a consequence, I feel like it severely compromises the goals and ideals of the Open Courseware initiative.

I am thus a conscientious objector in my relation to this project. I am going into this here not to slam the Open Courseware people but to suggest that the ideals of free distribution of content by educational institutions are compromised by the current intellectual property regime and that we are not going to be able to meaningfully achieve the full ambitions of such a project until we develop stronger defenses around Fair Use.

At the present time, MIT is thinking about its next step in its Internet strategy (after the OpenCourseWare project), what are the options ? What should a university try to implement ?

Many universities are trying to figure out how they can build “something like YouTube” to support their educational activities. Most of them end up building things that are very little like YouTube in that they tend to lock down the content and make it hard to move into other spaces and mobilize in other conversations. In a sense, these university based sites are about disciplining the flow of knowledge rather than facilitating it. As I think about what makes YouTube YouTube, I see a number of factors:

  • Anyone can submit content at anytime and thus doesn’t have to operate from a base of academic and institutional authority. It respects multiple kinds of expertise, understands people are differently motivated, and appreciates that information can be posted for many different reasons.
  • YouTube content can be embedded on any website, blog, or social network page. It is spreadable and it gets value as it gets inserted into these various contexts, because they represent different social communities which are having ongoing conversations. YouTube sees information as something that can be used, not something that is simply stored.
  • YouTube provokes responses. Indeed, the most valuable content on YouTube is content which inspires other users to talk back, reframing and repurposing materials, coming at them from many different angles.
  • The content on YouTube can be reconfigured many different ways. It is not part of a structured curriculum; rather, it is modular, nonliner, unstructured. And as such, we are encouraged to play with it rather than being disciplined to approach it in set ways.

    So, I don’t know for sure what the next stage of an academic content system looks like but my own sense is that it should look MORE like YouTube and less like what university lawyers and department heads think will be “something like YouTube”.

Fan Fiction as Critical Commentary

This has been my week for dealing with law professors — having engaged in a conversation with Yale Law Professor Yochai Benkler last week at the MIT Communications Forum, I was pleased to find a review of Convergence Culture over at the blog of the University of Chicago Law School written by Randy Picker. The first and second parts of the review mostly provide a detailed, accurate, and positive summary of the key points from the book, targeting those passages which may be particularly relevant to people interested in the legal implications of participatory culture. The last segment, not surprisingly, gets into the book’s discussion of fandom and intellectual property law. I thought I would use my post today to respond to a few of Picker’s key points there.

Now let’s be clear that I am no expert on the law. My wife happens to have a law degree from the University of Wisconsin and we both take some interest in developments in the area of intellectual property law and regulation of free speech. I suspect I know more than most laymen about these matters as they impact fan culture and the other sites of grassroots participation I have written about. But I would be a fool to try to debate the fine points of the law with a scholar of Picker’s stature.

Fan FIction and Fair Use

Picker writes:

Jenkins pushes (p.190) for a reformulation of fair use “to legitimate grassroots, not-for-profit circulation of critical essays, and stories that comment on the content of mass media.” But he clearly wants more, as he recognizes that most fans aren’t that interested in producing work that the law is most likely to protect (parody or critical commentary of the sort seen in The Wind Done Gone), but who want instead to write about Ron and Hermione kissing.

Let me spell out a little more precisely what I argue on page 190 in the book:

Nobody is sure whether fan fiction falls under current fair-use protections. Current copyright law simply doesn’t have a category for dealing with amateur creative expression. Where there has been a public interest factored into the legal definition of fair use — such as the desire to protect the rights of libraries to circulate books or journalists to quote or academics to cite other researchers — it has been advanced in terms of legitimated classes of users and not a generalized public right to cultural participation. Our current notion of fair use is an artifact of an era when few people had access to the market place of ideas and those who did fell into certain professional classes. It sure demands close reconsideration as we develop technologies that broaden who may produce and circulate cultural materials. Judges know what to do with people who have professional interests in the production and distribution of culture; they don’t know what to do with amateurs or people they deem to be amateurs.

For me, the phrase, the public right to cultural participation is a key concept underlying the book’s discussion. If I had my way, the right to participate would become as important a legal doctrine for the 21st century as the right to privacy as been in the late 20th century. I argue elsewhere in the book that a right to participate might be abstracted from the combined rights listed in the First Amendment and the right to participate would include the right to respond meaningfully to core materials of your culture. In that sense, I might go beyond our current understanding of fair use.

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Getting Lost

I’ve been sitting out the conversation that Jason Mittell, Jane McGonigal, and Ian Bogost have been having about Lost, Twin Peaks, serial fiction, and puzzles until now. I have had limited time to write new content the past week or so.

One of the thing that interests me about this conversation is that it suggests what ludologists and narrativists can learn from each other if they actually talked amongst themselves. I am finding myself pulled back and forth as I read this discussion in part because both groups have valid points and a lot rests on how one reads the series. I m learning so much by looking at television through the eyes of game designers like Jane and Ian.

Puzzles or Enigmas?

Lost is a series that works on multiple levels:

1) There are indeed puzzles (defective ones, perhaps, but ones that seem engaging to an awful lot of folks who watch the series): what’s inside the hatch, what’s the status of the Island (social experiment, purgatory, what have you), what can we learn from deciphering the map, what do those numbers mean, etc.

2) There is all of the well-constructed backstory — with each character allowing us a point of entry into a slightly different genre and into a different world.

3) there is the unfolding life of the castaways and the world they are building for themselves on the island — all of the interpersonal politics, the stories of redemption or corruption, the issue of how they are going to deal with the Others, etc.

Lost is very very good at pitting these differebt pleasures and interests against another, with some new information added at each level in any given episode and the satisfaction of one level of interest being used to defer resolution on another level. Lost is a very well constructed serial fiction in that regard. Some of these pleasures are game-like in their dependence on puzzles, mazes, and ciphers; others are narrative in their dependence on enigmas.

The combination of puzzles and enigmas seems especially effective at motivating fan engagement and participation. This accounts for how Lost can work, in my book’s terms, both as a textual attractor (drawing together a community that shares a common interest) and a textual activator (feeding that community something to do, some information to process, some knowledge to gather).

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Response to Bogost (Part Three)

When Ian Bogost wrote me earlier today to say that his response to the first installment hadn’t appeared on my site, I was confused. I went back to my spam filter and discovered that more than 30 substantive comments to this site from a variety of sources had gone missing. I had been trying to be as inclusive as possible and make sure all of the reader’s comments were posted, cutting out only obvious spam and purely personal invective. I feel really bad to discover so many of you fell prey to the spam catcher. Now that I know it is an issue, I will be checking regularly. I have now reposted everything that got blocked — for archival purposes if nothing else. Sorry for the mixup. All I can say is that I am new at this.

Over the past two installments, I have been responding to Ian Bogost’s thoughtful yet challenging review of my new book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, over at Water Cooler Games. In part one, I addressed some issues surrounding the emotional dynamics of contemporary advertising. Last time, I addressed some questions around transmedia entertainment and fan culture. Today, I will wrap up with some thoughts on the commercialization of culture and the relationship between technology and culture, among other topics.

For those who might be interested in hearing me speak more about the ways convergence culture is impacting the games industry, check out my appearance on a podcast organized by the editors of The Escapist.

Noncommercial Media

Tthe omission of convergence communities that opt for more historically-entrenched creative practices in lieu of outright commercial commodities seems to reflect Jenkins’s own preference for contemporary popular culture, and perhaps his own libertarian politics. The subversive undertones in Convergence Culture remain squarely on the side of mass market global capitalism. While Jenkins admits that many corporations are pushing convergence as a strategy of control, he frames consumer resistance as a struggle to get media companies to be more responsive to consumer tastes and interests.

Hmm. Where do I start? I see my book as describing a particular aspect of contemporary culture which has to do with the intersection between commercial and grassroots media. I am very clear from the start that no one can describe the full picture and that all I can offer are a limited number of snapshots of cultural change in practice. There is much about the culture which this book doesn’t address, though I would hope that its insights help others to begin to explore these implications for their respected areas. I know that Mark Deuze, for example, has been applying some of these ideas to the study of news and journalism; I have myself done some writing lately about the implications of participatory culture for education and for participation in the arts; and so forth. I would have said that the book tries to show how trends in popular culture are relevent to the political process, to education, to religion, and to the military at various points along the way, which is more than what most books on popular entertainment have tried to do.

My own particular background as a scholar — and my own particular interest as a fan — lies in the area of popular culture. It doesn’t mean I don’t see value in other forms of cultural production. I do. But there are plenty of others in the academia who know those areas better, write about them more knowledgibly, and make better contributions to them. I find myself drawn to popular culture in part because it requires me to defend what some see as the indefensible and in the process, to try to complicate the easy hierarchies that too often operate within our culture.

Some of what my book doesn’t discuss is addressed very well by Yochai Benkler’s Wealth of Networks, a book that I really wish I could have read while I was writing my own book. He’s making an argument that we need to discuss the present moment in terms of the shifting relationship between commercial, amateur, civic, and nonprofit sectors, each involved in the production and circulation of media, and each meeting each other on somewhat different terms because of the leveling influence of the web. Man, I wish I had said that. My book really focuses on the two extremes there — the commercial on the one hand and the amateur on the other. I do think it could have said more about these other players in the middle — various nonprofit groups, educational and cultural institutions, etc. and the role they play in reshaping the media landscape.

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Response to Bogost (Part Two)

On Friday, I began the first of a three part response to Ian Bogost’s thoughtful, engaging, and provocative review of my new book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. Bogost’s discussion of the book at Water Cooler Games allows me to respond to some anticipated challenges to the book’s content and approach. It also seems that many of you are relishing a good debate in the dog days of the summer so far be it for me to deny you your entertainment. All of this will make more sense if you’ve read both the book and the review.

Last time, I mostly addressed some questions Bogost raised about the affective economics chapter of the book. Today, I take up some issues about transmedia storytelling/entertainment and about fan culture more generally.

Keep in mind two things: Bogost’s review was primarily positive and I have enormous respect for Bogost’s contribution to the game studies world. This is an intellectual debate, not a blood feud.

Ludology vs. Narratology

As the sonic boom of the so-called ludology vs. narratology debate dissipates, I find it interesting that Jenkins continues to insist on the terms “narrative” and “storytelling” as the principle units of cultural expression. Even though Jenkins admits that “storytelling has become the art of world building,” where artists create environments and situations for a multitude of consumer intersections, he still does not reimagine such a craft separate from the particularity of narrative. Following Roger Shanck and others, Jenkins argues that “stories are basic to all human cultures, the primary means by which we structure, share, and make sense of our common experiences.” Yet, the examples he cites, from the rich worlds of The Matrix, and Star Wars to transmedial experiments like Dawson’s Desktop, readily elude the narrative frame, offering representations of behaviors, fragments, and environments. Michael Mateas and Gonzalo Frasca have called the privileging of narrative expression narrativism, and I have argued that narrativist gestures like Jenkins’s occlude representational gestures based on logics and behaviors. Convergence Culture continues Jenkins’ narrativist practice.

Given the propensity for such non-narrative interpretations of media properties, it is curious that Jenkins did not choose the more general term transmedia authorship over transmedia storytelling

My first response upon reading this was to gasp, “not again.” The last thing any of us wants is to reopen the trumped up feud between the self-proclaimed ludologists and the so-called narratologists. The argument is, in my opinion, based on a false set of distinctions that are getting imposed on a hybrid medium at a highly transitional moment. (Anytime someone accuses you of “occluding” something, you know you are in trouble.) More seriously, I think the ludology/narratology debate was based on misidentifications across cultural and language differences. When Espen Aarseth and I sat down together a few years ago at the HumLab, we found that there was relatively little to debate. We were involved in disagreements in emphasis but not in a substantive dispute about the future of game studies.

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