Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Closed or open participation in transmedia?

We hosted our bi-monthly MindClub in Vasa, Finland, the other day, and had the great pleasure of welcoming Christy Dena as our main speaker. Something in particular stuck to my mind from the chat with Christy and other participants afterwards, and that’s what this brief post is about.

See, transmedia is many times (and in my opinion most often should be) inclusive of the audience and encouraging audience participation in one way or another (just googling ”audience participation in transmedia” yields 80k+ hits, for instance). But then, opinions start to differ, especially regarding the level and the way and the openness of the participation.

Now, any participation must, naturally, make sense within the scope of the project and as a part of the story world. If this is a given, however, we come to the question of the nature of the participation.

Dirty Work, on the Rides engine
Will it be a closed participation, where the audience is given a set number of choices or alternatives to play around with, a participation that is 100% in the hands of the creators? The bonus is of course that the audience will experience more or less exactly what the creators have intended, the story arch will continue as planned and there will be no deviations, no trouble ahead, and the next instalment that follows will continue along a logical path and not confuse any member of the audience. The drawback is that it might be less engaging, as people do not invest anything of themselves in the content, and that the creators miss out on a potential huge mass of creativity by not encouraging the audience to create anything within the ramifications of the story world. The very interesting Rides engine by 4th Wall Studios could be considered to fall into this category.

Will it be a closed participation which gives the appearance of an open participation? This is most commonly referred to as ”sandboxes” or perhaps Jeff Gomez’ ”Swiss Cheese Model”, where certain ares, places or gaps in the narrative and/or the story world have been set aside for the audience to create stuff themselves. The bonus is a more engaged audience, a creative output within the context of the story world and the narrative superstructure and possibilities to spread the ”gospel” of the story world through eager audience members sharing their creations with their friends, becoming evangelists in the process. The drawback is an added need to create more in order to accommodate these sandboxes or cheese holes; they need to have logical places in the narrative superstructure. Another drawback is an added need for more manpower in order to moderate contributions and creations – a need that, with time, can be handed out to credible and realiable members of the audience, but in the beginning probably must be in the hands of the production team.

Or, will it be an open participation that also gives the appearance of an open participation? This then would go somewhere in the direction of the Shared Storyworlds propagated for by Scott Walker, for instance. I.e., the story world is created, a narrative superstructure is in place, and the audience is given more or less free reins within these parameters, to create, collaborate, share and design. Bonuses include a vastly increased mass of creativity around the content, the possibilities for new and unexpected (and brilliant) stories and facets to emerge and basically work power for free. Drawbacks include the need to be able to let go of the control of the content; either you don’t control it, and it’s open participation, or you try to control it, and it’s not. Can’t have it both ways. Moderation might still be implemented though.

Now, there is no way to say which of these is the right choice. Many I’ve spoken to would never go along with a totally open participation, which I understand perfectly. If I would propagate for any one model, it would be for an overarching strategy, planned for the very beginning, which gradually opens up the story more and more for participants. What starts off as a series of novels that no one can influence grows into an online experience with sandboxes for people to create their own characters and their own villages/cities/areas, which evolves into a shared story world where stories are told from all corners, within the parameters of the story world.

I’d join! J

UPDATE: Rob Pratten of Transmedia Storyteller and Conducttr wrote a post on his/their view of participation. This "layered participation", blending the ones defined above by offering one content "as is" to be consumed, while opening up the surrounding story world for participants to explore and add to, is definitely a very good way to go if it fits the context of the content on offer (and I'd imagine it'd do that for almost any kind of content, from fiction to documentaries and onwards). 
Layered participation could be seen as a well working blend of the types of participation outlined above, all according to the wants of the creators, the needs of the audience and the context of the content. 


Scott Walker said...

Simon: this is a recurring topic in my talks about shared story worlds.

I think any kind of either-or, dualistic approach unfortunately ignores the various shades of grey that creatives can take. "Open v. closed" so simplifies the concept of participation that it removes any kind of possibility for discussing the space between (and I won't even dive into the semantic implications of putting this kind of "unspeak" dichotomy to the audience - I mean, how many of us *want* closed systems?).

As I try to communicate whenever I talk about shared story worlds, the participation in an SSW is customized for both the creative who made it and the audience the creative invites into it.

Participation can be scoped, scaled, framed, expanded, and reshaped countless ways. Curation can be light, moderate, or very rigid.

Robert's post touches on the kind of narrative pathing I blogged about a few years back - the idea that the audience is given control over where, when, and how they decide to enter an experience and move around inside it. And for transmedia experiences, control over narrative pathing is an illusion, anyway (I choose whether I start with the comic and migrate to the game or enter via the TV show but then dive into the comic).

I suspect I need to write a post to further explore this, but it will have to wait until I'm back from the FMX conference!

As always, thanks for surfacing great topics and raising great questions. :)

Simon said...

Scott, thanks for your reply and very valid points.

I agree that - as with almost anything in media, art or even life in general - either-or approaches tend to limit the scope of how one can approach a certain subject. My intention with this post - where I'm, as always, writing from the select point of view of a format developer - was to get my own head straightened a bit around these points. "Participation" as a term can mean vastly different things depending on what project we talk about. In my mind, with regards to this post, I imagined "participation" to mean input of some kind from the audience.

To answer your question, how many actually want closed systems (and again, "closed" can mean so many things!) the answer is probably surprisingly many. Not only from a possible brand or marketing experience, but also from a creative point on view. We've been involved in projects - hired in as consultants - where the creators from our point of view would have benefitted enormously from simply letting go of control to a certain extent. In the end, they chose to SAY that the audience would play an important part, while actually NOT letting them do so. Frustrating to say the least.

I'm thoroughly looking forward to your post. Have a good time in Germany!

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