PICNIC: Everything We Know About Transmedia Is Wrong

This installment returns to our coverage of PICNIC with one of the “PICNIC Specials” sessions, and advanced masterclass entitled Everything We Know About Transmedia Is Wrong! It’s worth noting that some speakers referred to the session as Everything You Know About Transmedia is Wrong!, a subtle distinction. The panel was moderated by Seth Shapiro, two-time Emmy Award winner, principal of New Amsterdam Media, and a leader in the field of digital media, having worked for a number of media initiatives. One of these initiatives that may be familiar to our readers is Tim Kring’s Conspiracy for Good.

All of the panelists were first given the opportunity to introduce themselves along with a short presentation on their ideas on transmedia. First up was Dan Hon, co-founder of Mind Candy and Six to Start, currently a senior creative at the London branch of Wieden + Kennedy. Dan started by showcasing one of W+K’s recent major success stories, the Old Spice viral campaign. He then prefaced his definition of transmedia by discussing The Beast, a game that many consider to be the first alternate reality game. Hon reminded the audience that The Beast played out on the pre-YouTube, pre-Facebook and pre-Twitter “archaic web”, a time when sharing and collaboration online was synonymous with email. The Beast and its launch was based on the principle of “Internet archeology”: if you start digging for something online, you might just discover a story and even get involved in it. So, in the case of The Beast, people intrigued enough by a brief mention of a “sentient machine therapist” working on the movie A.I. to search further would stumble upon a deep narrative.

According to Dan, there’s a major challenge facing the traditional alternate reality game, something we might nowadays call transmedia entertainment: people seem to associate them with massive collaborative problem solving and puzzles. One of Hon’s major complaints with current alternate reality game and transmedia development upon which he as waxed eloquent in the past is that ARGs are not mainstream enough because they “incorporate obscure shit that no one want to see or do” by relying on tactics such as steganography, cryptography and solving stupid puzzles. Hon chastises developers, saying,

Stop doing this! Your audience is not stupid. If you put a work of fiction in front of them, they will understand what it is and we do not have to pretend that ‘it is not a fucking game.’ The number of people who are interested in mathematical cryptography is very very small; instead, let’s make stuff that just entertains people. I don’t want to jump through hoops to enjoy something, I want to view Charlie bit my finger on YouTube.

What if, Hon posits, the first alternate reality game wasn’t based on a scifi movie, catering to a geek audience? What if it was based on the movie Amélie, which also came out in 2001? An interesting question. What would have happened? It begs the question: are we are using the alternate reality gaming genre in the right way?

Before elaborating further on these thoughts, Tommy Pallotta took the stage. Pallotta is a filmmaker with a degree in philosophy and a penchant for applying technology to storytelling in ways that create interesting hybrid art forms, pioneering new applications of the technique of rotoscoping to create animated movies from live action film. Pallotta points out that because of this, his background in transmedia is from a creator’s point of view. I will be delving further into Pallotta’s work later in our PICNIC coverage: for now, I will focus on his discussion of his work on the rotoscoped film A Scanner Darkly.

During A Scanner Darkly‘s production, focus groups gave the film horrible scores. They were so bad, in fact, that Warner Bros. started asking Pallotta why he even made the movie, and balked at releasing the film. Taken slightly aback, Pallotta asked if he could take control of the advertising process. Warner Bros. agreed, telling him that they were fine with anything that didn’t cost the studio any money.

In an attempt to save the film, Pallotta took portions of the movie and put them into the public domain. He asked fans to participate in a contest to create a trailer for the movie, and got thousands and thousands of submissions from people who hadn’t even seen the movie yet. He then went on to create a graphic novel about the movie and used the stills from that to introduce a mobile app to get the content out on a mobile platform. The movie was not the commercial success Warner Bros. might have hoped for, but still succeeded in reaching out to a broad fan base and receiving critical acclaim.

Pallotta explained that he’s a believer in getting content now and not later, claiming to be a  “huge pirate.” Pallotta admitted to downloading True Blood the moment each new episode hit the torrent networks because living in Amsterdam made it impossible for him to see the episodes instantly by any other methods. Pallotta went on to make a movie explicitly intended for release on BitTorrent, wanting to give something back to the piracy community.

His latest project is a true transmedia production. Collapsus.com, made in collaboration with the Dutch TV network VPRO, is a documentary on the future of energy usage. VPRO wanted to reach a different audience from their regular, older, TV oriented audience. Pallotta succeeded in doing so for the Dutch market with a novel hybrid media experience.  Collapsus will have its worldwide launch in the near future.

The third panelist to offer insight at the panel was Anita Ondine, CEO of Seize the Media, a transmedia production company with a lot of experience in the horror, thriller, and scifi genres. Frequent ARGNet readers may be familiar with Seize the Media’s work on the interactive movie Head Trauma and Hammer Films’ Beyond the Rave. The company is on a mission to push the boundaries of entertainment through storytelling.

Ondine focused her talk on the use of transmedia as a tool for social change “in the real world” but first provided her own definition of transmedia. She recounts that Dan Hon has used transmedia as a form of advertising, and that Tommy Pallotta uses it to augment his story world by using multiple platforms to deliver it. In her view, transmedia is telling a story (or many stories) without boundaries or borders, using multiple media platforms and different story forms, but by bolting these platforms together, but by creating a unified story world inside which the multiple stories can exist: a fully integrated experience.

Another element of transmedia, according to Ondine, is that there is audience participation. Ondine describes this as leaving the door open. Seize the Media does not design exactly what will happen in the story, but instead creates a framework and then leaves open opportunities for the audience to influence the story. She paraphrases Henry Jenkins, explaining that storytelling originally was a participatory experience, in times when people still sat around campfires and told each other stories. Mass media made this much more a one way experience though and transmedia is here to take us back to those participatory days.

She also notes that “participatory” is on the progressive end of the spectrum and is quite different from “interactive”: it allows people to stand up and take action and influence the outcome, not just interact without impact. Transmedia should give you something to do. Traditionally, the “something to do” for a transmedia experience is something simple, like cracking a puzzle. But why not go further and try and have people go out into the real world and do something for good?

To try and achieve this, one should think about setting clear goals: what change do you want to create in the world? What does the story mean to me? Why does the story need to be told? What is the best way to tell it? Which are the best characters? What themes or motifs help amplify my journey? What emotional journey will the audience experience? (Do you want to motivate them? Scare them into action?) What call to action do you want to? How will the audience impact the outcome?

At this point, Shapiro opened up the floor to questions from the audience and the panel transformed into a participatory discussion. A representative from Unicef in the audience asks Ondine if she knows of any examples of successful transmedia experiences that created change for good, seeing that the genre still seems to be in an early stage of development.

One of the examples mentioned was An Inconvenient Truth, a transmedia supplement that added to the movie’s message and tried to get people to change their behavior.  Both Pallotta and Hon added that when you get people to go to a website, there needs to be something to do. You need hooks in each platform you use to reign people in. If you want them to use multiple platforms, create questions in the minds of the audience that can be answered by making use of the other platforms. Architect the story in a way that motivates action and gives people something to do. Ondine also referenced the Belgian indie docu-fiction, Miss Homeless. Its creators put the content out in the public domain and then encouraged people to premiere it themselves within their own communities. This proves the point that transmedia does not need to exist in a digital context exclusively rather nicely.

Dan Hon commented on some of the projects Jane McGonigal has developed in the “gaming for good” realm: you need to always keep track of what it is exactly that you are trying to achieve. What are your concrete goals? And, bluntly, what is the return on investment for what you do? Dan might have a point in that “creating awareness” by itself might not always be efficient. Hon claims that “not that many people actually changed their behavior after World Without Oil.” Anecdotally, I personally know of quite a few people who changed their behavior as a result of that game, even if only in small ways.

According to Hon, it works much better if you have to have a nice meaty goal that you can dangle in front of people’s eyes. Anita Ondine added that this is why Barack Obama was so successful utilizing social media: the goal to “get a president elected” was concrete, achievable and impactful enough for people to act. If “trying to create awereness” is your intended goal, Hon argues, you might be better off giving your money to a skilled advertising agency and rely on traditional advertising to create awareness.

Another question from the audience asked how transmedia can create collaboration in the real world, between actual people (not individuals on their computers). Hon responded by telling the audience about his work on Perplex City: the collectible cards were a way to get people to work together, have physical items that they could show to their friends, and sit around a table to solve the puzzles together. As it turned out, people treasured the cards, and some of the rarer cards became objects of desire that sold for huge amounts of money on eBay. Another cute and simple example is the iPad game Marble Mixer. In the game, you and your friend sit around the iPad and play with virtual marbles.

A follow-up question expressed concern about how to get transmedia to work for a good cause. Shapiro discussed his work on Conspiracy for Good, which got people out into the real world to meet others. Hon added that live events for Perplex City got people out there. MindCandy found that you can easily run events in the National Gallery (as long as you don’t tell them beforehand). They had three generations of players coming to these events because the players knew that it was going to be a fun day out with the potential for learning about art and other educational topics. The Smithsonian is developing a reputation for putting on alternate reality games, and locative platforms like SCVNGR enables you to make trails or adventures yourself to get your family and friends to play.

Another example closer to the charity-side of good causes mentioned by Shapiro was Charity: Water, a low-tech non-profit organization working on providing clean water for people in third world countries. They use statistics (such as the impact of building a well in an African village in terms of the number of families affected) in a viral way to try and get attention for their cause.

The next question asked how to incentivize early adopters. Ondine responded that it’s all about creating entry points for people to your story. While Hon agreed, he added that it’s essentially the same dilemma as “what is the incentive for people to watch the first episode of my TV show instead of getting the DVD box or downloading it.” This dilemma is a controlling factor in the delivery of all forms of media, new and old. Entry points are particularly challenging for transmedia projects, Hon noted, with regards to encouraging replayability and encouraging entrance into a transmedia experience halfway.

In ancient times, storytelling used to be a live event, happening on a stage or around a campfire, and if you missed it, it was gone. TV shows worked out a solution for this in the form of the thirty-second clips explaining what happened previously on Buffy the Vampire Slayer at the start of new episodes. Transmedia should be looking for its own equivalent, and as far as Ondine and Hon are concerned, it’s not going to be timelines. “They don’t want to wrestle themselves through a complete timeline, they just want their thirty seconds!”

Interesting developments with respect to incentivize early adopters include providing opportunities to earn social capital by being the first person to achieve something. Compare it to being the first in your social network to get a Halo: Reach achievement as opposed to going into the office after watching a program and saying you were the first to see something on TV.

One of the most intriguing questions to come from the audience questioned whether transmedia can make you cry. In other words, can transmedia entertainment have the same emotional impact as a movie can? Is drama possible in transmedia? Can the same emotional response be evoked if there is so much interactivity? Pallotta’s answer mostly focused on getting better technology to enhance the experience. Hon, however, responsed with a counter-question. Do we already have writers who understand the medium well enough? According to him, there certainly will be writers who understand it enough to get people emotionally involved.  He recalls the 6-word story Hemingway allegedly wrote demonstrating the possibility of eliciting an emotional response with very little material: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” If it’s that easy to evoke emotion, why can’t transmedia do the same?

It’s unfortunate that transmedia writers like Dave Szulborski, Maureen McHugh, Sean Stewart, Krystyn Wells, and Jan Libby did not get the recognition from the panelists that they deserve in this regard. Along with their transmedia writing compatriots, they have demonstrated the ability to reach out to their audiences on an emotional level, tugging at their heartstrings that went sadly ignored in the discussions.

This is where the panel ended. It was an interesting session, giving the audience a glimpse into the minds of some of the people currently working on initiatives that will help shape the future of transmedia. It will be very interesting to keep following them over the coming years to see what directions they will take us.


  1. “One of the most intriguing questions to come from the audience questioned whether transmedia make you cry.”

    Are people starting to ask if a transmedia experience can make you cry? Awesome! Maybe that means they’ll stop asking if a video game can make you cry.

  2. 3things:

    1) I was one of the hardcore players of CFG. I have to say that it drew an “audience” that was already attracted to the “social benefiting” side, however it did have some impact on the way I interact with the world, made me feel more inspired that my involvement with the world does have an impact. Also, the narrative allowed players to have a deeper relationship with the children who would be benefiting from the cause in a way that an emotional connection is not possible in traditional advertising.

    2) Yes it did made me cry. In fact, one of the most powerful moments that I have experienced in narrative was during CFG. Watch from 4:40-to the end


    3) Hemingway actually never wrote that. It’s from a fictional play from the 90’s? (oooh, i see your word “allegedly” there now–good job) 😀

  3. Solid recap. Thank you for sharing. I enjoyed attending PICNIC this year. Looking forward to 2011.

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