While a large chunk of the digital and social media world were networking it up at SXSW (and believe me, those left behind or who decided to leave early were quite jealous), a smaller but just as voracious group of unique storytellers and academics gathered at USC for the USC School of Cinematic Arts and the UCLA Producers Program, School of Theater, Film and Television co-sporsored one-day conference Trandsmedia, Holywood.
Lead by Denise Mann, Associate Professor, Producers Program, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television and Henry Jenkins, Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism and Cinematic Arts, Annenberg School of Communications, USC, the conference was a one-day affair packed to the gills with panels discussing everything from how transmedia is reconfiguring entertainment to tips and tools on designing your own transmedia stories, to where the future of marketing utilizing transmedia may be heading.
Although an entire article onto itself could be written about “What is Transmedia?”, and the term itself is heavily debated (one of my collegues instead refers to himself as “Platform Agnostic” while others think the term “Cross-Media” is simpler and more accurate), but the general consensus is that it is telling a story across numerous platforms. A simple example would be the Star Trek franchise, which began as a TV show and extended to movies, novels, video games, etc.
An especially niche example of this type of storytelling exists in the form of ARGs or Alternate Reality Games. These are generally described as a type of storytelling in which the audience members themselves are participants in creating the story and the world in which the story is taking place. One panelist at the conference described the process of participating in an ARG as “digging through sand to find shards of pottery. If you find enough shards, you can reconstruct the entire pot.” Through a process of tools such as puzzle-solving, clue-breaking, and live events, an audience is encouraged to piece together a world and ultimately, if the “game” is properly supervised, each player should feel as if they contributed in the overall story that will eventually unfold.
The third panel of the day at Transmedia, Hollywood focused exclusively on Alternate Reality Games and strove to answer the tough questions of whether they should be considered artforms unto themselves or could they be viably marketable as a type of advertising campaign. A wide array of experts in the field were gathered to discuss this issue, ranging from pure academics to those working for-profit in the field of ARG design. Moderated by Mann, the panel consisted of:
–Ivan Askwith, Director of Strategy, Big Spaceship (clients include NBC, A&E, HBO, EPIX, Second Life, and Wrigley)
–Susan Bond and Alex Lieu, 42 Entertainment (I Love Bees, Why So Serious?, NiN’s Year Zero)
–Will Brooker, Associate Professor, Kingston University, UK (Alice’s Adventures: Lewis Carroll in Popular Culture; The Bladerunner Experience; Using the Force; Batman Unmasked)
–Steve Peters and Maureen McHugh, Founding Partners, No Mimes Media (The Threshold)
Jordan Weisman, Founder, Smith & Tinker (The Beast, I Love Bees)
The discussion was a lively one, with widely varying views between those who felt ARGs should be looked at as pure artforms without the need to try to put marketing value on them, those that felt they should be valued on their academic merits alone, and those who were striving to prove they had marketability, and thus should be able to have a price tag put on them. Though all seemed to agree that at their core, ARGs are indeed a storytelling device and the artistry of that should not be understated. But as Jordan Weisman put it, “If we don’t figure out how to charge for them, we don’t have an art form.”
An audience member, who was clear to identify himself as Head of New Media at Vivendi as well as intellectually fascinated by ARGs, succinctly cut-to-the-chase of the argument by asking, “At what point does this move from intellectual masturbation into something that is actually successful and digestible and something that will perpetuate?”
“A lot of people are trying to get equity for their brand, to rise above the noise in their category. And an ARG can do that for you,” explained Susan Bond. “If we’re really talking dollars and cents on marketing terms here,” added Alex Lieu, “what is 18 months of engaging or 11 million people (the number of active participants of the Why So Serious? campaign) who are going to tell their friends, where the average length of engagement is 45 minutes or longer…what is that comparatively to a 30-second spot that you hope people will see and recognize and remember? That’s a very different argument in terms of Return on Investment and how much you are spending. So you can say that’s expensive but the expense should equal out what you’re trying to get.”
After this discussion, another audience member was quick to point out that if we’re talking ROI, then this is not an artform.
Obviously, there is still a lot to be discussed and discovered when it comes to ARG storytelling. Like “Transmedia”, even the term “Alternate Realty Game” was a debated topic, regarding how much of game theory should actually be included in their development and whether players or academics should be responsible for forming those theories. “Having played and now produced, it’s all about the story and the storytelling”, weighed in Steve Peters. “Of course you can use games to help catch people and obviously you need to do that and there are a lot of ARGs that you look at and say, they could have used this gaming technique…but at the end of the day it’s all about the entertainment just like with a great film or a great novel or a great book.”
The following quote from Maureen McHugh, I feel, does a good job of summing up this lively discussion: “We are in on the ground floor of what in 200 years will be a dominant entertainment form. I am probably wrong about that, in 50 years someone will have invented the Holodeck and they’ll forget all about us.”