The Uncertain Audience and the Paul Lynde Factor

I'm taking an internet vacation, but while I'm gone a few top-flight transmedia writers have graciously agreed to fill in and talk about... whatever they feel like. Today's guest post is by Jay Bushman, indie transmedia creator and master of Twitter as a literary medium. His vision for transforming great literary works into modern digital media is just breathtaking.




It's hard to learn how to play video games. Most console games feature controllers with way too many buttons, triggers and different contexts for using them. The learning curve is enormous. This is why, if you invite me to a video game party, I'll spend the week before trying to learn the basics of the game so I don't look like a flailing idiot. There's a certain level of pain involved before getting to the point where a game can be enjoyable – a long break-in period of figuring out the basic question: "What am I supposed to do next?" And that's merely for figuring out which button to press on a controller. Consider the dilemma facing a new transmedia audience. With so many avenues of engagement and so many possibilities to consider, a typical first reaction is paralysis.


When we first started playing and creating Alternate Reality Games, the wide-open feeling that anything could happen was a large part of the thrill. But the freedom of seemingly-unlimited possibility that excited some people was also the very thing that turned off many others. "This is too confusing." "Why would I want to do that?" "I don't get it." "I don't know what I'm supposed to do next."


The down side of an immersive entertainment is that it requires surrender, trust, and a level of commitment that only a small part of the potential audience will be ready to give. They rest are just too damn busy.


A lot of thought and effort has been spent on the question of how to make interactive experiences more welcoming for the casual player. For the Twitter story events that I produce, I've taken to calling this "The Paul Lynde Factor."


Paul Lynde's main claim to fame was as the center square in the old Hollywood Squares game show. As the cast of celebrities changed around him, Lynde was the stalwart who anchored every show with arch quips and witty pronouncements.







 


What does Paul Lynde have to do with transmedia? We work in a field which seeks to provoke user interaction, user-generated content and collaborative storytelling. As designers and producers, we tend to laud the exceptional, the complex and the most intricate of player contributions. There is a lot of talk about how to highlight the "quality" content, the material that seamlessly integrates with the story that we're telling. But in reality, the bulk of interaction is short, arch, and sometimes satirical. Many player contributions seek to interact with the story while simultaneously commenting on it.


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The Paul Lynde Factor is a reminder that we should welcome the simple forms of participation. We should continually remind players that, yes, simply making jokes on Twitter is a valid form of participation. A wry aside, a joke at a character's expense or the lampooning of a story element may seem on the surface to be cheap, inconsequential or besides the point. But what they truly represent are the first baby steps of engagement and the training wheels for the new transmedia audience. Whenever possible, we should design our stories with this low barrier to entry.


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