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What’s the (Transmedia) Story?

Written by Laura Fleming
June 17, 2011

In 1999, when movie-goers first encountered Neo, Morpheus, and Trinity, many could hardly conceive of the story they were about to be immersed in, and not because of it’s dystopian vision of society. Instead, viewers were being drawn into a new vision of storytelling, one that would span three movies, animated films, comics, and video games, let alone countless discussion forums. According to Henry Jenkins, in his book Convergence Culture, transmedia stories unfold across multiple media platforms, with each new text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole. Jenkins highlights The Matrix as transmedia property, and elaborates on how it works: While a reader or viewer could enjoy any one of these media alone, the combined experience of reading, viewing, and playing games provides much greater insight into the overarching storyline behind The Matrix. Along with presenting critical parts of the story across multiple story spaces, transmedia storytelling also requires active participation. Jenkins has also coined the term “participatory culture,” and noted how new literacies such as transmedia storytelling pushes on our existing cultural norms, putting readers and writers of such stories in new roles as content designers and consumers.

Another transmedia pioneer, Jeff Gomez, the CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment, describes the power of creating a story franchise around a brand that can be told through books, comics, video-games, Web shorts, feature films and virtual worlds. Effectively implemented, transmedia stories are pervasive, and can be profitable for the companies that have the resources to produce them. The art of storytelling has undoubtedly been resurgent in recent times in commerce and in media. Marketers, for instance, have recognized the power that narrative has in engaging and informing us about a product or a brand. Consumers have not only had to analyze text, but have had to develop critical literacy skills needed to uncover underlying messages and hidden biases.

Yet, transmedia stories are not just media properties, as anyone with a personal computer, mobile device, or tablet PC can create one. In education, these same techniques can be used to create a powerful emotional connection with curricular content. Transmedia storytelling speaks to learners in a way that they inherently understand, and when purposefully designed, it can be an effective tool for all age groups and in all learning environments. Developing a narrative over multiple platforms while interweaving learning outcomes will create transformational learning experiences. They engage, inform and inspire participants (who are more than mere ‘readers’) to connect with and collaborate over content. Quality transmedia narratives are written with an openness that allows opportunities for extension using varying platforms that enable different entry points into the environment they have helped create. Understanding the affordances of transmedia storytelling, both as writers and readers, can help us see possibilities for use in the classroom.

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