Simon Staffans: Closed or Open Participation in Transmedia?

written by: Simon Staffans

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We recently 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.

Transmedia is , in many instances (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). However, 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.

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 installment 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 reliiable 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.

 

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