The Lure of Games and the Power of Networks

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Café de García, Buenos Aires. © Kevin Moloney, 2008.

Games

Games are an integral part of transmedia storytelling, whether covert or user-created as discussed in the last chapter, or as an officially released aspect of the transmedia story. They may fill Jenkins’ principles of extractability with something to take home, immersion with a way to put oneself into the story and with performance as a way of engaging with or role playing in that transmedia world.

In the post-modern era, “narrative” has been applied to all aspects of life. “Narratives of the world are numberless,” declared French semiotician Roland Barthes. “…narrative is international, transhistorical, transcultural: it is simply there, like life itself.” Equally, games are coming to be perceived as everywhere, and as game theoretician Jan Simons, of the University of Amsterdam, described, “[Game theory] has found its way into research areas such as economics, political sciences, physical sciences, biology, psychology, law and the philosophy of ethics.” Everything is a story, and everything is a game, according to students of each mode of perceiving the world. These frequently debated points of view fit well with transmedia storytelling, which eagerly embraces both narrative and game as storytelling components.

© Kevin Moloney

It is understandable why transmedia producers would embrace both, for together they attract a larger variety of consumers — the video game industry grossed in the U.S. a record $21.4 billion in its peak year of 2008 while Hollywood sold only $9.6 billion in U.S. movie tickets. “In its way,” Tom Chatfield writes in Fun Inc. Why Gaming will Dominate the Twenty-First Century, “the question of exactly why we play video games quite so much — and are certain to do so even more in the future — points toward a 21st-century cultural shift as profound as the explosion of mass media over the last century.”

Transmedia producers see that games also act on different modes of immersion. We sink into narrative through empathy with subjects in a story, though we may already know their fates. We may identify with them, but we do not become them. Games, on the other hand, are most frequently described as immersive by temporarily entering a world to act as an agent. What players feel has been described as more akin to first-person emotion than empathy.

Media studies scholar Christy Dena in her 2009 dissertation theorized an approach of transmedia as transmodal. “Meaning,” she states, “can be communicated in a number of ways, through characters, plot, game mechanics, settings, framing, sound, lighting, spacing, pacing, cursors and code.” Dena argues that “a fictional world is not specific to either the narrative or game mode. That is, narrative and game modes can modulate meaning for the fictional world.” She states there is no requirement for both modes to exist in transmedia production however. The two approaches to immersion are simply arrows in the producer’s quiver:

Transmedia projects aren’t always narrative-based, they aren’t always game-based, and they don’t always involve television, film, literature, theater, digital technologies or artworks either. Since the creative practice can be implemented in any of these forms, and analysed through any of these disciplines, it is inappropriate and methodologically corruptive, I argue, to compartmentalise or identify them as either one.

Wired contributing editor Frank Rose, in his 2011 book The Art of Immersion, illustrated the immersive quality of games and where they diverge from traditional narrative devices through a dog. Peter Molyneux, the founder of Microsoft subsidiary Lionhead Studios and creator of the popular three-game role-playing Fable franchise, put artificial intelligence decision-making systems to work in a dog character that shows up at the beginning of game play in Fable II. The dog travels with the player’s character as a loyal companion through thick and thin. The dog is ultimately used to create a moral choice in the story created by game play, when, after you’ve lost your dog and family, you are given a choice between being able to magically bring back the thousands of innocent people killed during the course of the game or you can bring back your dog and your family. “Molyneux got hate mail from players who found the choice too excruciating to make,” Rose notes. “It’s a personality test,” Molyneux told Rose in an interview. “It reflects on what you’re really like… [In a movie] you feel empathy for the character, but you very rarely feel guilt.” Molyneux adds, “If I can make you care about something then the story will be much more meaningful… So I wrap the AI [artificial intelligence] around a dog. He’s going to love you, he’s cute and fun as a companion, and in tests people can’t help but care about a dog. This is what we can do that books, TV, film cannot.”

Games take many forms, from the venerable Tetris, a digital plaything with no particular end or reward system, to first-person shooters, role-playing games and god games where the player is master over a world. As much as transmedia productions have embraced all of these, so have they built alternate reality games like Why So Serious? mentioned earlier, in which players gather clues and play/perform in the physical world. By nature these games are cooperative, an expression of French cybertheorist Pierre Lévy’s concept of collective intelligence. “None of us can know everything; each of us knows something; and we can put the pieces together if we pool our resources and combine our skills,” as Henry Jenkins described it.

An early and interesting alternate reality game produced by game designer Jordan Weisman in 2001 came to be known as “The Beast” because it started with 666 items of content hidden around the Internet in the form of Web pages to find and puzzles to solve. The game was a setup for Steven Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence, a film retelling of the Pinocchio fable about a robot who longs to be human. The game started 12 weeks before the film’s release with a tiny credit for “Sentient Machine Therapist” among the other often-ignored lines on movie posters and promotional materials. The idea was to let some abnormally attentive potential fan find and share the tidbit, leading to a treasure hunt that would help build the story world in the minds of the public. Within 24 hours, Rose describes, someone had posted the discovery online. Web searches of the therapist’s name led to a phone number that when called answered with a message that the husband of the therapist had been killed in a suspicious boating accident. Within days a computer programmer in Oregon had organized an online discussion forum around the clues. By the time the film opened some 3 million people around the globe were taking part in the game. “Not only do they have every skill set on the planet,” Weisman told Rose, “but they have unlimited resources, unlimited time and unlimited money. Not only can they solve anything — they can solve anything instantly.”

Using Networks

For marketers, communicators and for the production of transmedia projects, those networked publics are critical for spreading information. As the public scatters from a few major producers of media content to an ever expanding array of professional- and amateur-produced content, transmedia projects must use those amateur and fan networks to engage a sizable public.

Yochai Benkler describes the social and economic functions of networked interaction and how technological change at the turn of the current century has engaged the public in a deeper networked environment than ever before. “The result,” he argues, “is that a a good deal more that human beings value can now be done by individuals, who interact with each other socially, as human beings and as social beings, rather than as market actors through the price system.” Continuing he points out that nonmarket collaborations are better motivators to creativity and work more efficiently than traditional market systems. This, he notes, creates a “flourishing nonmarket sector of information, knowledge, and cultural production, based on the networked environment, and applied to anything that the many individuals connected to it can imagine.” Benkler also outlines three ways in which the enhanced autonomy provided by the networked information economy improves the practical capacities of individuals:

(1) It improves their capacity to do more for and by themselves; (2) it enhances their capacity to do more in loose commonality with others, without being constrained to organize their relationships through a price system or in traditional hierarchical models of social and economic organization; and (3) it improves the capacity of individuals to do more in formal organizations that operate outside the market sphere.

Benkler points out that the advantage is much less to the formal structure found in professional media production companies. The speed of shedding old perspectives is perhaps inversely proportional to both the institutional history and the size of an organization. And the economics of traditional structures make adaptation more difficult. However, transmedia production has proven the viability of leveraging informal networks in favor of high-operating-cost legacy media.

In Networked Publics, media scholar Adrienne Russell analyzes Japanese anime fandom outside of Japan. She describes hungry-for-content fans quickly subtitling and redistributing the original copyrighted works in the U.S. Individuals and informal groups generate fan fiction related to their favorite characters both in and outside of Japan. However, “Rather than cracking down on the fansubbers [fan subtitle translators] and Net distribution, the anime industry has continued to take a relatively accommodating stance, which in turn has kept organized fan groups toeing the party line.” Informal fan collaborators generally honor the aims of the original producers in their amateur work, and when a time approaches that the Japanese anime industry chooses to directly enter the U.S. market, a much larger and more devoted fan base will await them than would have had they cracked down on the amateur production and networked distribution. As it has for the entertainment industry, the forces of informal networks have changed the way the news and advertising industries must operate. “Such developments will not be lost on marketers,” Russell states in relation to the newly viral nature of marketing. “They will have to adopt a view of the entire field of cultural production in order to successfully invite people to participate in constructing compelling marketing ‘experiences.’”


Though the music industry is renown for its crackdowns on networked redistribution, one of the most successful examples of embracing viral marketing and informal networks comes from a major actor in the legacy music business. Academy Award winner Trent Reznor, the front man and leader of industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, in 2006 contacted 42 Entertainment, the creators of “The Beast” alternate reality game, about the group’s latest project: A song suite about a dystopian America, ravaged by terrorism, climate change and a Christian military dictatorship. According to Frank Rose, Reznor was looking for a way to build context for the music by fleshing-out the world in his suite. In the age of music being delivered in bite-sized MP3 segments he could no longer depend on the liner notes and album art of the previous generation to hint at the world. Reznor and his art director had already constructed an online wiki describing this world and explaining how it had come to being, but he was looking for a way to draw his fans in deeper. In cooperation with the game company, the group built that engagement by, “creating a series of poignant emotional moments that people would seize and make their own.”

The network-engaging alternate reality game launched for Nine Inch Nails’ next European tour with subtle clues printed on t-shirts. Seemingly random bold-faced letters discovered by fans within the shirt’s text spelled out “i am trying to believe.” The hidden message was posted on fan message boards. This led the curious to iamtryingtobelieve.com, which sent them to a site for a fictional drug used in Reznor’s imagined world to sedate citizens. Email sent to the site’s contact link replied with the message, “I’m drinking the water. So should you.” Curiosity about the band’s next album was piqued among devoted fans. Next, hidden text on another t-shirt led to a Los Angeles telephone number that, when called, responded with a recording of a newscaster announcing “Presidential Address: America is born again,” followed by a distorted snippet of one of the album’s upcoming songs. Then, as mentioned earlier, a concert-goer in Lisbon discovered a USB flash drive in a bathroom at the venue. It contained an unreleased Nine Inch Nails song, which she promptly shared on fan networks. “With every new development,” Rose notes, “the message boards were swamped. By the time the album hit the store shelves in April, 2.5 million people had visited at least one of the game’s 30 Web sites.”

These fans, it must be noted, don’t show devotion to the company that produces the music of Nine Inch Nails, and it could be argued that their devotion to the band or Reznor is hard-won. Their devotion starts with experiences and how those are provided by cultural producers. As Jenkins argues:

If old consumers were assumed to be passive, the new consumers are active. If old consumers were predictable and stayed where you told them to stay, then new consumers are migratory, showing declining loyalty to networks or media. If old consumers were isolated individuals, the new consumers are more socially connected. If the work of media consumers was once silent and invisible, the new consumers are noisy and public.

The mediascape of the early 21st century no longer requires devotion to particular commercial networks nor media outlets, and it is the task of every communicator from the amateur on Main Street to the professionals in Hollywood, on Madison Avenue, Rockefeller Center or Times Square to reach that dispersed public, engage its individuals and activate its informal social networks.

Next Page: Where Journalism has Gone Before.


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