WTF is Transmedia?

Last year, I looked at the (nearly) decade-old question WTF is an ARG? I'd like to reflect on that topic a little more, now that some time has passed and new words are afoot in our shared lexicon.


Last time, I made this pretty diagram, and wrote:

We're looking for a name for all of the cool stuff that falls into that white circle in the center, which seem to ring our bells in a lot of the same ways. That white circle... that's what I'm interested in making. It's definitely bigger and more diffuse than that classic-ARG triangle, story + gameplay + community. I've been guilty of trying to expand 'ARG' to mean all of that stuff, but that's ultimately a bad idea, because people think they know what an ARG is... and it isn't that, not quite. 

Lately I'm reduced to calling it "Cool stuff on the internet." And that's why we keep going in circles about what an ARG is. We sort of know -- it's the stuff in the very center, but not all of the stuff in the center -- but we don't yet have a good name for whatever ARGs are a subset of. Digital culture? Guided pervasive experiences? It may be, in the fullness of time, that we need several names to accurately describe what the heck we mean.

Lately, we have a new contender for that whole "cool stuff on the internet" thing. If you've been following along at home, you already know that word is "transmedia." Is transmedia our umbrella term? Is that the magical word we've been looking for?

Well... yes and no.

WTF is Transmedia?

There is increasing inertia behind the word and its use to apply to ARGs and all its diverse cousins. No Mimes spoke at SXSW about the 10-Minute Transmedia Experience, which one might have called, not very long ago, a 10-Minute ARG. And I spoke at the MIT Story 3.0 workshop just a couple of weeks ago billed as an expert in transmedia storytelling, alongside Nina Bargiel and Brent Friedman of Valemont fame -- another experience you'd be hard-pressed to say was not an ARG. 

So what do people mean when they talk about transmedia storytelling? It depends on who you're talking to.

In one definition, admittedly the one I favor, a transmedia story is one that uses multiple media to tell disparate pieces of a single cohesive narrative. I call this the spiderweb definition. This is one of thousands of possible configurations for such a story, each using different elements:

Slide6
 

But there's another definition in play, too, and it heavily favors entertainment franchises. Under this model, a transmedia story is one that uses multiple media (generally three or more) to tell distinct stories in a consistent and unifying story world. Let's call this the sequential model. Taken to its furthest extreme, the Smurfs might qualify as a transmedia story because it takes place in a single universe, and there are comic books, films, and of course the cartoons, each with their distinct stories.

Slide8
 

Can the two definitions coexist peacefully? Hells yeah. This is actually my preferred outcome. I want to make narratives that are a hybrid of spiderwebbed and sequential elements linked together. But it's also possible that in the war for the word "transmedia," there will be a winner and a loser, and the fallout might not be pretty for the loser.

Let's put it this way. There's a reason we can't use, say, "interactive fiction" as our umbrella term. When was the last time you heard "interactive fiction" and thought of something substantially different from an Infocom game? That's because the consensus definition narrowed so tightly that it now excludes anything that isn't, essentially, a text adventure. Likewise, transmedia might eventually collapse to exclude the spiderweb definition.

So am I really a transmedia designer? Uh, I... guess? For now, anyway.

Defining Is A Process

Earlier today, there was a big announcement out of the PGA (the producers, not the golfers). They introduced a new credit for transmedia producers to qualify and join up. It's great news! Except for the places where maybe it isn't so great (but here's hoping).

Christy Dena quickly addressed the topic (though some of her points have already been answered; for example, video games were missing from the list by accident and not by conscious omission). There remain some concerns. It's fabulous that transmedia producers are getting this validation, but the PGA's definition of transmedia might wind up excluding a lot of the amazing work out there... including ours. 

To qualify, a project must have three stories told via three distinct media. It skews heavily to the sequential model, and doesn't explicitly account for the spiderweb model. 

Now, it's my understanding that this is just a first step; and you do have to start somewhere, with some definition. So I'm definitely not lighting the torches and sharpening the tines on the ol' pitchfork. From everything I know of Jeff Gomez, his heart is in the right place. He certainly isn't planning a campaign of exclusion. 

And let's not forget that this is by far the biggest validation our craft has received from a traditional media organization yet so far. We've received a lot of awards, sure, but this is the first step in turning transmedia from a gimmick into an accepted industry. This is our big break. 

We shouldn't turn our backs on the party because the invitations didn't spell our names right. If it turns out that the lines haven't been drawn in the right places, then the PGA will redraw them. Or maybe they won't, and we'll wind up in exactly the same place we were a year ago.

And in the meantime, we just keep doing the work. 

Why This Matters

To a very meaningful degree, this is all still wankery. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, yes? But like it or not, it's important wankery, because I need to know what to call the work I do... so that I can get more work doing it. It's sheer practicality. To wit, people know what an ARG is, or they think they do. As a freelance creator, this can actively work against me and my career.

If I tell somebody I'm an ARG designer, they might think "Oh, I don't want to do anything with puzzles," or "I don't want to do anything with live events," or worst of all, "But I'm not marketing anything!" Never mind the fact that I am very interested indeed in exploring all kinds of different forms and the stories you can tell with them. If I only ever call myself an ARG specialist, I promise you the opportunity will never arrive.

If I call myself a transmedia creator, opportunities might blossom that would have been otherwise unavailable to me. But if the word collapses toward a definition that explicitly excludes me and my work, then I've lost a big fight in selling myself and... well, my work. And folks, I rather like having a career. It brings me joy to bring you joy telling stories using these crazy new tools and techniques.

So is transmedia our umbrella term? I think so, I hope so, I'm working for it. But I'm not sure yet. Only time will tell. Maybe in the 2011 edition, we'll have our answer.