Organize a fake holdup. Verify that your weapons are harmless, and take the most trustworthy hostage, so that no human life will be in danger (or one lapses into the criminal.) Demand a ransom, and make it so that the operation creates as much commotion as possible — in short, remain close to the “truth,” in order to test the reaction of the apparatus to a perfect simulacrum. You won’t be able to do it: the network of artificial signs will become inextricably mixed up with real elements (a policeman really will fire on sight; a client of the bank will faint and die of a heart attack; one will actually pay you the phony ransom). [p. 20]
This quote, taken from Jean Baudrillard’s “The Precession of Simulacra”, gives a very precise idea of the role that simulation can play in human societies and perception.
If, as suggested by Baudrillard, we were to simulate as closely as possible a fake holdup, we just would not be able to do it, because the people and, in general, the “machine”, the process through which people constantly interpret the reality they have around them, would not be able to distinguish the signals of what is real and fake/simulated.
“This is how all the holdups, airplane hijackings, etc. are now in some sense simulation holdups in that they are already inscribed in the decoding and orchestration rituals of the media, anticipated in their presentation and their possible consequences. In short, where they function as a group of signs dedicated exclusively to their recurrence as signs, and no longer at all to their “real” end.”
We, as human beings, interpret what we perceive to be real by gathering a series of signals, of clues, from the context which surrounds us: gestures, patterns, things we recognize as meaningful in a certain way, objects, places and the context they suggest.
We, thus, use this series of clues coming from a variety of media (vision, sound, information expressed and communicated in different ways…) to form in our mind a description of what is real and what isn’t.
In this sense, the concept of Hyperrealism can help understand even further the ways in which we can imagine to use simulation to give credibility to a certain scenario, so that it is indistinguishable from truth.
In William Gibson’s “Neuromancer”, a terrorist sect called The Panther Moderns takes advantage of the fuzzy boundary between the simulacra and the real to create chaos at the Sense/Net Corporation:
Nine Moderns, scattered along two hundred miles of the Sprawl, had simultaneously dialed MAX EMERG from pay phones.Nine different police departments and public security agencies were absorbing the information that an obscure subsect of militant Christian fundamentalists had just taken credit for having introduced clinical levels of an outlawed psychoactive agent known as Blue Nine into the ventilation system of the Sense/Net Pyramid. Blue Nine had been shown to produce acute paranoia and homicidal psychosis in eight-five percent of experimental subjects.
In the narrative, the Panther Moderns combine multiple media and modalities to stimulate as many perceptive modalities as possible to make the people in the Sense/Net building believe that a fundamentalists have infected the building with a powerful hallucinogenic drug, thus causing violence and horror.
Images, sounds, physical presence and video are only some of the techniques and media they use to achieve this:
- 9 phone emergency calls trigger an emergency response by the police forces, who actually go to the building
- showing video footage inside Sense/Net that triggers seizures in a certain percentage of employees
- introducing images of contamination in the CCTV circuit
- diffusing in the sound system of the building audio of a news segment dealing with a dangerous human growth hormone
By creating panic among the Sense/Net employees, The Panther Moderns simulate the effects of introducing Blue Nine into the ventilation system to the security forces
At the same time, the presence of the security forces reaffirms the employees’ belief that there are biological agents in the ventilation system.
It only required nine phone calls and five minutes of video feed.
Again, the characters are placed in a situation in which they fail to distinguish reality from simulation: all the signals and hints from the surrounding environment suggest a version of reality which, technically, is not true, but which, in perception, is a real as they can perceive it.
a transmedia story represents the integration of entertainment experiences across a range of different media platforms
Henry Jenkins, 2007
Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.
So, for example, in The Matrix franchise, key bits of information are conveyed through three live action films, a series of animated shorts, two collections of comic book stories, and several video games. There is no one single source or ur-text where one can turn to gain all of the information needed to comprehend the Matrix universe.
In 2007 the band Nine Inch Nails orchestrated a very interesting Tansmedia Narrative: some songs from their Year Zero album were thought to have been leaked as they were found on a lost flash drive in a hotel room, while the band was on tour. On that flash drive there were songs and recorded phone calls, which later turned out to be parts of a previously made-up online experience for Nine Inch Nails fans. From the recorded phone call mp3 fans decoded a URL of a website that gave them further clues to decipher.
From Transmedia Lab:
“In 2007, the band Nine Inch Nails (NIN) created an Alternative Reality Game (ARG) for the launch of their new album “Year Zero”, thanks to the agency 42 Entertainment.
This treasure hunt took place in an alternate reality, clues were given through texts on NIN T-shirts, singles of the new album left on USB keys, everything hidden in the toilets of concert venues, on websites or through secret phone numbers. All these elements helped players move ahead in the dark story of Year Zero: a world ravaged by an infinite war and an environmental catastrophe.
The goal of the project was to immerse fans in an experienced linked to the universe of the album.
The leader of the band, Trent Reznor, qualified this experience as a “new type of entertainment”. According to him, the combined effect of entertainment, word of mouth and engagement of the audience, made this ARG the perfect tool to promote this album. For more information on their transmedia experience see the case study of the agency 42 Entertainement here.”
Characteristics of Transmedia Storytelling Elements
From what we have seen so far we can say that Transmedia storytelling involves orchestrating multiple media and communication modalities to produce a Simulacrum, a simulation of a scenario or context which is able to immerse people in an overall experience, a “world” in which the Simulacrum is real.
Hence, it is of particular interest trying to understand the ways in which we can build the various elements which make a Transmedia Narrative.
Most elements in the following sections come from various posts on Henry Jenkins’ blog.
Spreadability vs Drillability
Spreadable media encourages horizontal ripples, accumulating eyeballs without necessarily encouraging more long-term engagement.
Drillable media typically engage far fewer people, but occupy more of their time and energies in a vertical descent into a text’s complexities.
In designing a Transmedia Narrative we might become interested in achieving a specific balance between spreadable and drillable media, and to distribute these two characteristics accordingly.
We might, for example, use more spreadable media experiences to suggest sharing on social networks, thus widening our audiences.
On the other side, we might use more drillable media to suggest immersion in a specific part of the overall experience, creating more lasting engagement and involvement.
On top of that, we can imagine creating links (more on that later) to suggest people to go back and forth between the two modalities, to capture them through spreadable media experiences and to make them go below the surface using more drillable ones.
Continuity vs. Multiplicity
Some transmedia franchises foster an ongoing coherence to a canon in order to ensure maximum plausibility among all extensions.
Others routinely use alternative versions of characters or parallel universe versions of their stories to reward mastery over the source material.
Both modalities are really useful.
Continuity suggests the possibility to describe a world which is coherent.
Marvel Comics represent a very successful example of continuity: the heroes of the Marvel Universe live in a coherent reality and many efforts are put in place to ensure that this happens. Each character possibly influences the development of their peers, in a whole, continuous, consequential reality that is crafted in order to ensure the opportunity to make explicit connections between one plotline to the other, possibly suggesting consumers to buy more comics to see stories unfold from different perspectives.
In Marvel’s continuity, one comic might see the Spider Man fight a certain villain and, in the end, receive the help of the Hulk to defeat him. While another comic might focus on the Hulk’s struggle to locate the same villain, from an entirely different point of view, to find him in the end while he is fighting the Spider Man.
The other modality, Multiplicity, is also very useful, to suggest the possibility of mastering the capability and the complexities of the characters involved in the narratives.
From the point of view of the Transmedia Storyteller, Multiplicity represents the opportunity to generate parallel narratives: “Wat if …?” universes; parallel or alternate realities and timelines.
These can leverage existing characters and settings and expand them through the power of multiplication. For example, through the “What if ….?” mechanism deeper insights can be created for existing characters, by exploring the opportunities that could have been brought on by making different choices at the times of the difficult decisions they made during the plots.
On the other side, Multiplicity is also a very powerful way to suggest engagement. For example the idea of fan-fiction and mash-ups which are found all over the publishing industry comes directly from this possibility: to suggest, through various schemes, consumers to become performers, and to create themselves the alternative stories.
Transmedia extensions, often not central to the core narrative, that give a richer description of the world in which the narrative plays out.
Both real-world and digital experiences can be used for this purpose, and it is often the case in which people are pushed to move back and forth from one domain to the other.
This modality often leads to the fan behavior of capturing and cataloguing many disparate elements.
Mentioning this modality, Janet Murray argues that stories will have to work for two or three kinds of viewers in parallel:
“the actively engaged real-time viewer who must find satisfaction in each single episode and the more reflective long-term audience who look for coherent patterns in the story as a whole (…) [and] the navigational viewer who takes pleasure in following the connections between different parts of the story and in discovering multiple arrangements of the same material.”
There are two main ways in which Worldbuinding is performed:
- Negative Capabilities
- Migratory Cues
Each is often combined with the other, to obtain “collaborating” push-pull effects that are able to help users traverse the stories through their transmedia elements.
About Negative Capabilities Geoffrey Long says:
When applied to storytelling, negative capability is the art of building strategic gaps into a narrative to evoke a delicious sense of “uncertainty, mystery or doubt” in the audience.
Simple references to people, places or events external to the current narrative provide hints to the history of the characters and the larger world in which the story takes place.
This empowers the audience to fill in the gaps in their own imaginations while leaving them curious to find out more.
In the TV serial “Columbo” (“Il Tenente Colombo” in italian) the detective’s wife is never shown on screen throughout the many seasons. Nonetheless she is constantly mentioned throughout the episodes, and becomes a main character in its own right. The fact that se is never shown on screen, even on a single picture, allows each member of the audience to create in their own mind a mental representation for her, using imagination to be more deeply engaged and involved in the world of the detective’s life, imagining his lifestyle, daily routine and habits, inferring them from the many clues disseminated throughout the episodes.
This fact would give a Transmedia Storyteller many hooks to enact a Migratory Cue.
For example, once the detective’s wife “absent” character was established, a website of her recipes and tips for housekeeping could have been launched and would probably have become a success.
A Migratory Cue, thus, is the stimulus to change media, to follow one of the “hyperlinks” exposed by the transmedia narrative, and to engage in a different chunk of the world which it refers to and actively manages to build.
The letter in Matrix is a sample of a Migratory Cue – when used at the beginning of the second Matrix movie it exists as a hint to look for more information in Animatrix and in Enter the Matrix.
Yet the story functions even without audience members having experienced either the anime or the video game, as they can imagine their own answer to the question of where exactly that letter came from.
They retain the option to go and track it down, and their understanding (and enjoyment) of the story would be increased by their doing so.
Understand: any reference to external people, places or events as utilizing negative capability to craft potential migratory cues, and become actualized as migratory cues when those extensions become available.
Seriality is an element which has been mentioned extensively in the previous sections.
Transmedia storytelling has taken the notion of breaking up a narrative arc into multiple discrete chunks or installments within a single medium, and instead has spread those desparate ideas and story chunks across multiple, different, disseminated media segments.
We might understand how serials work by falling back on a classic film studies distinction between story and plot.
The story refers to our mental construction of what happened which can be formed only after we have absorbed all of the available chunks of information.
The plot refers to the sequence through which those chunks of information have been made available to us.
A serial creates meaningful and compelling story chunks and then disperses the full story across multiple installments.
We can think of transmedia storytelling as a hyperbolic version of the serial, where the chunks of meaningful engaging story information have been dispersed not simply across multiple segments within the same medium, but rather across multiple media systems.
The notion of different subjectivities participating to forming the overall narrative has, too, already been mentioned in the previous sections. For example while making the example of Marvel Comics and their continuity, in which the same story is viewed from different points of view.
Transmedia narratives often explore the central narrative through new eyes, such as secondary characters or third parties.
The diversity of perspective often leads fans to more greatly consider who is speaking and who they are speaking for.
In mainstream media productions (for example in the case of TV serials) different subjectivities are often pursued using backstories, mobisodes and webisodes.
We can define this modality as the ability of transmedia extensions to lead to fan produced performances that can become part of the transmedia narrative itself.
Some performances are invited by the creator while others are not.
Fans actively search for sites of potential performance.
In the notion of Performance, as enacted by Transmedia Storytelling, two definitions are of particular relevance:
- Cultural Attractors: draw together a community of people who share common interests.
- Cultural Activators: give that community something to do.
It is by combining these two that performative dimensions usually take place.
For example: by combining spreadable media, to gather people, and the combination of negative capabilities/migratory cues, people can be suggested to transition from “passive” to “active” conditions – represented by the platforms which are used to build the cultural attractors/activators – to engage the performative state.
Fan fiction, mash-ups, memes, collaborative encyclopedias about TV serials, flash mobs and more, are all examples of the performative modality.
Simulacra, once again
Thus, from what we have seen in the previous sections, we can imagine our initial view of the Simulacra as taking the form of a Transmedia Narrative, in the shape above.
The object of simulation, the dashed circle in the image above, is the concept of the world we wish to describe.
The object of our simulation does not exist, it is fake (the holdup, in Baudrillard’s example).
Through the simulation we wish to make it believable, by producing its manifestations in the world (the fake holdup in Baudrillard’s example).
From what we have seen, if we do it well enough, taking special care to preserve the credibility of the chunks of the transmedia narrative, and by following the principles according to which they can be created (as seen in the previous sections), we can imagine achieving a condition in which it is hard (if not impossible) for people to distinguish the fake from the real.
We might, at this point, continue our investigation, by examining the actual possibility to create new-real from fake.
Which is something that is incredibly fascinating, that has been extensively discussed (for example here, here, here, here, and in many, many more places) and that we commonly wo in our practice, as artists, scientists, philosophers, communication experts, designers, makers etc.
Fake is Real.
[NOTE: this is an excerpt from our first lesson at the 2013 Master of Exhibit & Public Design at “La Sapienza” University of Rome where we teach the ways in which it is possible to design new forms of engaging, interactive, performative communication]