My daughter, who is a cinema studies major in college, is currently taking a class that explores the fairly new phenomenon known as transmedia. According to her textbook (A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling by Andrea Phillips), transmedia is “telling a story through multiple communication channels at once, particularly channels such as the web and social media”. Since my daughter has issues retaining information through reading, I often read assignments to her, and so have been learning about transmedia as well.
Don’t recognize the term “transmedia”? Think of the TV series Lost; how along with the series there were websites for the Dharma Institute and Oceanic Airlines, which, while not being necessary to watching the show, gave added atmosphere to the entire franchise. Or the ilovebees project from Halo 2 that incorporated an ARG (alternate reality game – “an interactive networked narrative that uses the real world as a platform to deliver a story that may be altered by players’ ideas or actions”) instigated by a hidden message in the Halo 2 trailer leading to a website which unlocked backstory material that enriched the Halo 2 experience.
And it’s not just merchandizing or film/television tie ins. The Lizzie Bennett Diaries conveyed the story of Pride and Prejudice via contemporary vlogs (video blogs) as well as other media that allowed for alternate perspectives and deeper insight into the story. Cathy’s Book (If Found Call (650) 266-8233) was a physical book that led to an ARG allowing the reader to interact with the story (such as calling phone numbers to leave messages for various characters) where a young woman tries to unravel the mystery of why her boyfriend dumps her (of course it turns into so much more).
Consider digital storytelling, where Twitter and other social media sites are utilized to build original content by anyone who wishes to join in. Think of characters who maintain their own Facebook pages, their own Twitter accounts, their own blogs. Podcasts done in character. And the willful combination of all of these.
As our world moves towards more ways to interact with others and our own reality, transmedia is set to become a larger and more expected part of society’s entertainment landscape. I find this completely understandable and incredibly exciting.
After all, humans are social critters. We have a curiosity, a need to know about that which stands beyond ourselves. So much of our developing technologies have been spurred by our desire to reach over the distances between us. That’s part of what makes the internet so exciting. Suddenly, people who were across town or across the world are at our fingertips. Words, images, thoughts, passions, art, culture – all of that and so much more can be shared with the mere push of a button.
It’s not all rainbows and sunshine, no. Just as we now can freely and easily interact with the best of what there is in our expanded world, we also cannot insolate ourselves from the influx of fear, bigotry, hatred, distrust, small mindedness and manipulation which also exists. But we can choose to set those things aside, to be aware them but not drawn in; to focus on what draws us together rather than that which pulls us apart.
I believe this is part of the role that transmedia will play in our future. Not as a savior but as a way that disparate people will be drawn together through love of a story, love of a genre, love of an invented universe, regardless of what other aspects might otherwise keep them apart. Transmedia will help foster communities.
We seem to gravitate towards communities, the need to be social, the need to be secure in a group, whether that be physically or socially. Most of us feel uncomfortable in total isolation. We crave interaction with others, especially when there is some shared experience to bind us together. That desire to interact is being utilized by transmedia. But before the word was coined, our online communities were still moving in that direction.
Back in 2003, months before Facebook was launched and years before Twitter would see the light of day, I became community manager and forums moderator for a fansite following the development of a yet unreleased video game known then as Middle-Earth Online (which would eventually become Lord of the Rings Online). As an MMORPG (Massive Multi-Player Online Role Playing Game), being developed by Turbine, Inc., it would be the first attempt at bringing JRR Tolkien’s Middle-earth “to life”, where players would be able to slip into online avatars and become hobbits, elves, dwarves and humans adventuring in the verdant lands of Arda.
While forums based role play was a huge (and wonderful) part of our website – MeoSource, later to become LotroSource – what I enjoyed most as a behind the scenes partner of the site was building the contests that we sometimes sponsored. Along with a site manager, an incomparable and talented graphic designer and a coder who was absolutely amazing, we were able to come up with interactive contests meant to not only draw in an audience, but to involve our community intellectually and creatively in what would hopefully be a very fun and engaging way.
For instance, our “Epic Anniversary Contest” (meant to coincide with the one year anniversary of the Turbine announcement of the game, and the one year anniversary of the establishment of MeoSource), involved teams of two “obtaining” items that had been “hidden” on various other MEO community websites, the locations of which were hinted at from clues unlocked by solving riddles on our site. But that was just part of the challenge:
The contest will be split into three different and challenging areas: the Quest, the Journal, and the Map. Just as Tolkien’s works were grand in scope and depth, so, too, we wish this contest to be challenging in more than one way, drawing upon more than one kind of talent in the contestants.
The Quest will test teams’ skills at following directions and solving riddles. The Journal will allow contestants to show their role-playing chops. And the Map will tap into the graphic, as well as artistic, talents of each team.
It is up to each team to determine how they will move through the contest. No one aspect of the contest is mandatory – one team could complete the Quest and write a Journal, but not even attempt a Map; another team might spend a great amount of time with cartography but turn in a minimal Journal. It is not even necessary to solve all the clues in order to submit an entry, as originality and creativity are being judged just as highly as accuracy and precision. However, not knowing the items involved – which are uncovered through the Quest – might severely impact a team’s ability to complete a worthy Journal or Map.
The contest was kicked off by our own spirited Middle-earth role play, urging teams to obtain ten items needed for the grand celebration being thrown by the Old Took and the hobbits of the Shire. It was supported by not only other MEO fansites, but also by the team at Turbine (a panel of whom served as judges of the final entries, as well as providing us with some swag as awards, and whose official website housed the final “item” in the Quest, which at the same time unlocked a screenshot for contestants of an ingame character created by the development team just for our contest).
Role-playing, problem solving, graphic arts, journaling, working in teams, traveling through the internet, unlocking clues, interacting with MeoSource and Turbine personnel… heck, that was as transmedia as it could get back before transmedia was even a thing!
So keep your eye out for that transmedia stuff… I bet before too long, it will be everywhere, seamless, a part of being online. And I have a feeling we’re all going to love it, in our communities and in our lives.
(NOTE to those who may care: the graphic accompanying this Gimbling is not of MeoSource’s “Epic Anniversary Contest”, but a different contest we ran a year later; unfortunately, much of what was once MeoSource/LotroSource has been lost to time.)