Transmedia storytelling (also known as transmedia narrative or multiplatform storytelling) is the technique of telling a single story or story experience across multiple platforms and formats using current digital technologies. It is not to be confused with traditional cross-platform media franchises,sequels or adaptations.
From a production standpoint, it involves creating content that engages an audience using various techniques to permeate their daily lives. In order to achieve this engagement, a transmedia production will develop stories across multiple forms of media in order to deliver unique pieces of content in each channel. Importantly, these pieces of content are not only linked together (overtly or subtly), but are in narrative synchronization with each other.
In 1991, then University of Southern California professor Marsha Kinder coined the term for this form of storytelling, calling franchises that use such a model "commercial transmedia supersystems". She went on to say "transmedia intertextuality works to position consumers as powerful players while disavowing commercial manipulation." In 2003, then Massachusetts Institute of Technology media studies professor Henry Jenkins used the term in his Technology Review article, "Transmedia Storytelling," where he reflected that the coordinated use of storytelling across platforms can make the characters more compelling. Scholari develops this further, “transmedia is a particular narrative structure that expands through both different languages (verbal, iconic etc.) and media (cinema, comics, television, video games, etc.) It is not just an adaptation from one media to another. (p.587) Kress & Leeuwen)help to identify some of the unique attributes of this type of communication tool. “Multimodal Communication” is concerned with how people use the variety of semiotic resources to make signs in concrete social contexts”. The creation and interpretation of transmedia projects could be seen as using many different semiotic modes or sign processes in design of a semiotic product or event,together in this particular these modes are essentially reinforcing each other.
Transmedia storytelling is the embodiment of the constructivist approach to learning. Notable constructivists include Jerome Bruner; Jean Piaget; and Lev Vygotsky, all of which supported the theory that learning takes place by the process of actively creating knowledge through making connections to existing knowledge and experience in a specific context. Children develop cognitive structures through play and transmedia not as a mechanism for delivering content, but as an educational tool is helping children with reading comprehension, building skills and resourcefulness, encouraging collaborative play, understanding their identities, and expanding their imaginations. “Good transmedia experiences scaffold children’s participation—supporting them through tasks such as asking and answering questions, making connections between information, creating media, and sharing creations with others" (p. 23) . In addition, transmedia storytelling incorporates all the hallmarks of social play structures. Sensorimotor (touching, moving, shaking, etc.), pretend play (acting out roles), Constructive (building, designing) and Games with rules (cognition changes from me towe) work together to create unique learning opportunities.
Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, explains the importance of developing these play stages, “Through movement and play our brains light up and such qualities as innovation, flexibility, adaptability, resilience are discovered. These movements and the rhythmic speech that accompany them help to sculpt the brain and ready us for the unexpected and unusual.” Developing skills in imaginative and pretend play builds innovation and creativity and is the basis for understanding, trusting others, and developing coping skills. Object play creates important connections in the brain through activities of hands on playing resulting in better problem-solving and is especially important when one joins the workforce. Social play, or the urge to play with others, in addition to being fun, is often driven by the desire to be accepted, to belong. Finally, storytelling or narrative play is one of the most effective forms of learning and is identified as the unit of human intelligibility. Through these acts we expand our own stream of consciousness, enrich our personal narratives with pleasure and fun.
Herr-Stephenson& Alper (2013) in cooperation with USC Annenberg Innovation Lab and Joan Ganz Cooney Center document transmedia learning for children ages 5 to 11in their slideshare project entitled, “T is for Transmedia”. They stress that some transmedia experiences are designed with learning objectives in mind; for others, learning is not an explicit goal. “The complex, interconnected, and dynamic narratives and vibrant story worlds characteristic of transmedia provide fertile sites for children to explore, experiment, and often contribute as story worlds unfold across media. The multi-modal, multi-sited nature of many transmedia productions challenge children to use varied textual,visual, and media literacy skills to decode and remix media elements.”(p. 1).
Just as Brown (2013) has identified specific forms of play so too, have Herr-Stephenson & Alper (2013, this time associating each with a quality or a tribute of transmedia storytelling. There are five characteristics of transmedia play that help in learning. They are categorized as Resourceful, Social, Mobile, Accessible, and Replayable. Resourceful play is characterized by the ability to act with /react to diverse, challenging situations by thinking creatively about solutions that leverage any and all available tools and materials. Social play employs conversing with others who may be co-located or linked through media/technology, as in the case of social media or virtual worlds. Mobile play involves using mobile technologies,movement between platforms/media, and causing movement within media themselves.Accessible play describes the user’s ability to jump in from a variety of starting points and define a trajectory that takes into account people’s own unique contexts and types of access. Last but not least, Replayable play, is a quality of enticing people to revisit, explore and investigate rich worlds so intensive that they require multiple ‘visits’. (p. 3)
In addition to identifying how transmedia assists in learning, researchers also defined and framed three core principles for building these experiences. Play partners, Places to Play and Paradigm shifting play are essential components to effective learning outcomes with children and transmedia. The principle of Play Partners refers to the relationships between producers and audiences; and the conditions for people engaging together. Places to Play refer to the transmedia“universe” and physically the environments within which children participate.Paradigm-Shifting play refers to the act of modifying pre-existing concepts and routines to maximize the lasting positive impact of transmedia play. The authors then give the specific examples of Caine’s Arcade, the work of the Story Pirates, and the Flotsam transmedia experience, an organically grownproject from the information reached in the lab.
Youth have been leading the way in stretching the reach of transmedia projects. Jewitt explains when youth program games, animations, interactive art or digital stories, they not only create program code or texts in the traditional sense but also engage in creating, repurposing and remixing multimodal representations. Students are embracing the roles of designers of software and instructional simulation They are actively involved in programming their own computer languages in designing and modifying existing games. According to Buckingham and Burn and Salen using game design combines cultural experiences that vary by age, gender, cross-media knowledge and appreciation of particular features and genres. Game design encapsulates multiple professional practices, including expertise “in graphic design (visual design, interface design, information architecture), product design (input and output devices),programming, animation, interactive design (human computer interaction) writing and audio design, as well as experts in content areas specific to a game. (p.9)These experiences are not unique to this type of technical advanced thinking but also translate into other forms of expression.
Lankshear and Knobel observed youth blogs as a type of “Do-it-Yourself Broadcasting”, creating links to academic writing while making connections to potentially broad audiences,informing affinity groups among youth. In addition educators are seeing homegrown e-zines and activism demonstrated through media multimodal contexts.These aspects of transmedia creation were accomplished in educational settings and are considered part of classroom activities on literacy. Gatherings of these youth promote cultures of participation and more experiences that shape their world views. McGonigal tells the story of one such group, “The Cloudmakers” a group of online puzzle enthusiasts brought together when the movie “A.I” was building buzz for their opening. “The Cloudmakers provided new players and other online collectives with important tools for grappling with the game’s complex narrative – conceived and directed by lead writer Sean Stewart, it eventually evolved into three core mysteries and a dozen rich subplots about nearly 150 characters- and for navigating the game’s vast Web presence, nearly 4000 digital texts, images, flash files and QuickTime videos in total. These tools included a 130 page walk through guide of the Beast, written by 18 year-old Cambridge student and Cloudmakers co-moderator Adrian Hon, and a nearly perfect online archive of ephemeral and offline game content, such as audio recordings of voice mail messages and digital photographs of clues left in public bathrooms in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles “(p. 2)
“In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education awarded three grants through its Ready to Learn program to support the development and evaluation of transmedia properties for children ages 2-8.The three grants were awarded to support organizations creating transmedia properties that integrate math and literacy curricula for young children. The projects, funded through 2015, include: Expanded Learning through Transmedia Content, conducted through a partnership between the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB)and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS); Project LAMP(The Learning Apps Media Partnership), run by the Hispanic Information and Telecommunications Network, Inc. (HITN); and UMIGO (yoU Make It GO),created by Window to the World Communications, Inc. (WTTW).” (Herr-Stephenson& Alper, pp 17–18)
STEM,is an acronym describing Science Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education. In recent years their mission has included advocating for funding for innovative and effective federal STEM education programs at the National Science Foundation, the Department of Education and other S+T mission agencies.In addition, momentum is growing among educational experts in support of better integrating the humanities, arts, and design thinking with the national imperative around science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education. Developing,executing and participating in transmedia projects has the potential to develop individuals who possess not only technical but also advanced literacy skills that could produce well-rounded professionals in any number of careers. The knowledge society, that the UNESCO holds as a goal to the future foresees the workforce possessing many of these skills acquired in transmedia storytelling. However,there is a cost to developing these skills. This comes with any new innovation because laws and established ways of regulating industries require new solutions. In consequence it is important to keep the challenges and limitations in view when discussing this new learning tool.
Ownership, is not a new dilemma faced in working and playing on the Internet. Lawerence Lessig, an attorney has changed history with his intellectual property law with Creative Commons Innovation. Lessig stresses that developing these transmedia projects has given the common man a voice thereby democratizing the process. Essentially taking the power from the large and powerful media maker sand placing it in the hands of the all of us. He explains that we are making criminals of our young people because we are not acknowledging their need to participate and share their voices through transmedia projects. He places the responsibility for providing an environment that encourages this type of sharing of our youth voices on the artist or creators of these mediums. This is done by allowing amateurs the opportunity to remix and mash existing media but only for their own enjoyment and not for the purpose of making money. For additional insights into Lessig’s work view his blog at
Jenkins identified three unique issues facing educators who are encouraging transmedia and participatory activities in the classroom. He observes, “Participation gap, transparency problem and the ethics challenges overshadowing these new learning tools.” For the purpose of this discussion I will focus on the ethics challenge. In professional contexts, professional organizations are the watchdog of ethical norms. Yet in more casual settings, there is seldom a watchdog. No established set of ethical guidelines shapes the actions of bloggers and podcasters, for example. How should teens decide what they should or should not post about themselves or their friends on Live Journal or MySpace? Different online communities have their own norms about what information should remain within the group and what can be circulated more broadly, and many sites depend on self-disclosure to police whether the participants are children or adults. Yet,many young people seem willing to lie to access those communities. Within these environments ethics concerns could become lost. Ethics become much murkier in game spaces, where identities are assumed and actions are fictive, designed to allow broader reign to explore darker fantasies.(p/17).
By the 1970s and 1980s, pioneering artists of telematic art made experiments of collective narrative, mixing the ancestors of today's networks, and produced both visions and critical theories of what became transmedia. With the advent of mainstream Internet usage in the 1990s, numerous creators began to explore ways to tell stories and entertain audiences using new platforms. Many early examples took the form of what was to become known as alternate reality games (ARG), which took place in real-time with a mass audience. The term ARG was itself coined in 2001 to describe The Beast, a marketing campaign for the film A.I. Some early works include, but are not limited to:
Many franchises have adopted this method to further enhance their products. Pokémon is a prime example of this. The franchise spans several different media platforms from a card game to a tv series, with movies, action figures, stuffed animals, merchandise, electronics, and video games all in between. It is all encompassed by one universal story that the participant takes part in. With the transmedia storytelling they are able to fully immerse themselves in the narrative on several different levels.
As of 2011, both traditional and dedicated transmedia entertainment studios are beginning to embrace transmedia storytelling techniques in search of a new storytelling form that is native to networked digital content and communication channels. Developing technologies have enabled projects to now begin to include single-player experiences in addition to real-time multiplayer experiences such as alternate reality games. While the list of current and recent projects is too extensive to list here, some notable examples of transmedia storytelling include: