Inventing New Conventions for Digital Storytelling

Curator's Note

First of all I have to pick a little quarrel with Henry Jenkins’ very useful formulation of “transmedia” storytelling to describe phenomena like The Matrix and Lost. I would argue that this temporary phenomenon of “transmedia” activity, however useful to today’s industry merchandisers, is actually a transitional phase of a long-term development of new story-telling forms within the Digital Medium.  The ingenuity and energy behind transmedia activity emanates from the  affordances and interaction patterns of digital environments, like social networking, search engines, GPS-mapping,  and multiplayer gaming. Transmedia is of interest to me only when it offers a model for new ways of structuring narrative worlds and channeling narrative curiosity.

At Georgia Tech I direct an Experimental Television Laboratory (  within the Graduate Program in Digital Media ( ). We make prototypes based on actual television content to explore design conventions for emerging narrative genres. This clip shows a “transmedia” prototype we made in conjunction with the Cartoon Network and the American Film Institute’s Digital Content Lab in 2007. It assumes that Ben 10 cartoons are being provided by a broadband feed for viewers watching on a Playstation. The challenge was to create a game that would reinforce immersion in the imaginary world rather than distract from it. Instead of making a side-by-side activity to distract from the viewing experience, we came up with an interaction pattern that worked for story exploration as well as gaming, and we illustrated how it would work using both Ben 10 and Lost.

Objects appear at the top of the screen signaling that there is a matching hot spot within the image. The viewer targets the hot spot with the game controller to capture the object and add it to a collection. The captured objects reinforce the imaginary reality of the depicted world, bringing with them attributes related to the story: the strength of the cartoon hero for use in a related mobile game; or the content of a document waved by a character in a dramatic series.  The captured items could also connect viewers to play against one another or to share information to decipher the secrets of a mysterious fictional island.

Other applications that we have developed use smartphones or the iPad in conjunction with the television to follow intersecting and multi-variant stories without confusion  ( ) . But though our applications might be called “transmedia,” we see no particular virtue in combining transmission formats. Instead, we are focused on enhancing the coherence and complexity of stories by exploiting the affordances of what we think of as a single digital medium into which all of these older representational forms are rapidly converging.  

Ben 10 copyrighted by Cartoon Network; Lost copyrighted by ABC.


This is a really interesting post. While the prototype shown in the video is fairly simple, it brings up a lot of possibilities. In particular, it reminds me of conversations I have had in the past concerning "achievements" in video games and their abilities to simultaneously strengthen and distract from the gaming experience. While you suggest here that this type of active interaction with television content would "reinforce immersion in the imaginary world rather than distract from it," I tend to think that adding objects outside of the content frame would draw the eye away from action and thus momentarily break the viewer's focus. Furthermore, the viewer is now dividing his/her attention between comprehending the show and searching the frame for the "hot spot" item, potentially missing plot elements or bits of dialogue while the eye combs the screen (though it is worth noting that issues of "distraction" are nothing new for TV studies).

However, if used strategically, this type of interaction could certainly lead to "enhancing the coherence and complexity of stories" by drawing viewer attention to especially important objects or moments in the story, or leading to increased depth by highlighting more subtle and easily missed elements of the show. This type of engagement could easily be used to extend narrative engagement beyond the confines of the episode's length by cataloging the objects discovered by the viewer to create a "history" of the episode as defined by each user's engagement. This historical record could unlock extra content linked to each object, adding narrative depth that is again reliant on user engagement during the episode. I can also think of ways that audience communities could design their own "guides" for each episode that would point out, say, evidence to support their own "Lost" theory, or what have you. 

I might also point to Microsoft's recent presentation of the upcoming ESPN on Xbox Live ( as a way of incorporating user engagement with televised content on one screen, both with content provided by ESPN (highlights, stats, scores, etc) and representative of the fan community (what team fans are rooting for, interactive trivia, etc). It's still to be seen how widely used this type of system will be, but perhaps the increasing prevalence of streaming film or television content through game consoles (be it through Netflix, Hulu Plus, AT&T U-Verse, Sky in the UK, etc) is what is needed to accelerate this "game-ification" of television.


 This is an extremely interesting development and prospective solution to the "problem" of interactive narrative. It allows for another level of attention and engagement with elements within the frame - elements that might not otherwise take on the same degree of meaning.

I tend to agree with Steven, though, that it still results in a competition for engagement and attention between what's "in" the frame and what's outside it - you're either involved with the characters as the plot unfolds, or with objects as they present themselves to the viewer.

This seems to me to the be crux of the challenge with interactive narrative - how to engage the viewer/user with character when interactivity seems to favor engagement with plot. The development here is fascinating and creative, but I think we still have some work to do to invite viewers to care about character development in an interactive setting.

The deeper we get into transmedia, the more complex the phenomenon seems to me. I certainly think that one strand of transmedia comes at the intersection between digital media and legacy media, and in that sense, it does make sense to read it as part of your larger project of understanding the evolution of new forms of digital storytelling.

But it is possible to have effective transmedia strategies which rely, for example, on live performance or comics as extensions which do not pass directly through digital media. You can argue that these strategies were inspired by the way that digital media has focused new attention on world building or rely on a network-enabled consumer to be able to track down the parts and share them with other interested parties.

But for me, the interest in transmedia is not reducable to an interest in the digital. In fact, transmedia is closely associated with your discussion of the hyperserial in Hamlet on the Holodeck, and my impression at the time was that you did not read what was done with Homicide, say, as simply about the expansion of digital storytelling. It has to do with the relations between media.

I also do not think this is simply a "transitional" or stop gate structure until we figure out the iPad. I think the play with transmedia and intertextual extensions has a much longer history than usually acknowledged and will likely continue into the foreseeable future as one impulse shaping contemporary storytelling practices. The nature of transmedia connections will evolve as media evolves, but something would be lost if we pulled transmedia back into a multimedia or digital media frame altogether.

Finally, as my post tomorrow suggests, I don't think transmedia is just about storytelling, central though this may be for human culture. I think there are multiple transmedia logics -- my post is on performance -- which we need to understand if we are to make sense of convergence culture.

Anyway, thanks for throwing down the gauntlet. I hope we have a great discussion this week around the various posts. I always enjoy seeing what you are thinking about and working on. I just want to signal that our disagreements are those of interest and emphasis, while I know we share mutual respect and friendship going back 20 plus years.

I'll be posting later this week (Friday), so hopefully this conversation can continue then with the benefit of some additional touchstones and context. In the meantime, I'd like to echo and expand on some of what Henry has said, and push back against this notion of transmedia as a technologically-contingent, inherently "industrial," and temporary or transitional phenomenon. 

This kind of practice has been with us for a very long time. A history of transmedia might begin by tracing its roots back through social and artistic movements such as Social Practice and Situationism, by looking at certain exponents of the experimental and avant-garde cinema (Greenaway's Tulse Luper, for example), or by examining a wide variety of pop culture texts and practices. But a thorough chronicle would by necessity be much more expansive. Think of propaganda. Think of organized religion. Creating engagement and absorption through the deployment of narrative and interactivity across platforms, contexts, and practices has been a part of consolidating power (organized religion) and formulating resistance (Situationism, agit-prop) since the very beginnings of history.

The "trans" in transmedia can stand for a lot of things -- most of which are related to the crossing of boundaries, be they temporal, spatial, social, technological, or whatever -- but as a dynamic and inherently "meta" practice, it does not, or rather cannot, stand for "transitional." In this sense, transmedia is a praxis and as such is not linked to a particular set of technologies. Pervasive computing and database aesthetics have undoubtedly expanded the palette of possibilities for transmedia practitioners, unleashing a new wave of creativity; but digital technology did not invent this mentality, and nor will it supersede it.

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