The Power and Responsibility of Transmedia Storytelling

This is a story about transmedia, it’s power, and the responsibility of the people who practice it… but it takes a long time to get there. That’s because it deals with chess, cognitive science, the evolution of ideas, and the harmonization of marketing with narrative. That’s a lot of stuff to cover so I’m going to be intermittently spicing things up with funny pictures.



It all starts with board games, though. Back in the 1850’s, a psychologist by the name of Alfred Binet decided to try to understand how the human brain functions with abstract concepts. He used chess to analyze how the inexperienced and experienced differ when visualizing information. Chess had it all: long-term strategy, short-term tactics, and a play pattern that required as much memorization as imagination. How did the brain tie this all together?

Binet brought together groups of players from every level of skill—from novice to grandmaster—to answer this and other questions. Specifically, he asked them to play games and then draw specific board positions from memory. Inexperienced players, naturally, had a lot harder time remembering any board position, but what about the veterans? Classical science posited that grandmasters would visualize the board with perfect acuity. How could so many of them play a game blindfolded, after all, while novices would routinely overlook blunders that cost them games?

Like my high school strategy for wooing women, this was completely misguided.

Like my high school strategy for wooing women, this was completely misguided.

Binet’s findings shattered this notion. Experienced chess players drew the board as abstract areas of influence that made little sense to the outside world. They were utilizing a method of memory that was completely divorced from those of classical studies.

Left: Actual Board Position. Right: Grandmaster’s depiction.

Left: Actual Board Position. Right: Grandmaster’s depiction.

The chess masters in Binet’s study weren’t necessarily better at remembering information than their inexperienced counterparts. They just organized the data better by discerning what was important and then chucking everything else. Unfettered by useless board positions, they could think dozens of moves ahead, tapping their vast experience of openings, middle-game theories, and end-game scenarios that would help them win the game.

Among much else in the 19th Century, this revelation eventually led to a whole new area of study: cognitive science, and specifically the act of chunking, in which a human being groups responses together in memory. Think of it like this; it’s hard for a human being to remember eleven random numbers in a row…

But you can remember it like this, in chunks.

But you can remember it like this, in chunks.

It’s not just likeminded things, either. Humans group vast amounts of data in different pockets in their cerebrum. This is partly due to loss-prevention in the case of brain damage, but also because it’s a good trick to quickly recall important info. Those memory classicists got something right with their mnemonics and memory tricks: by tying useful information to jingles, sayings, and mental imagery, people were able to cut through dozens of hours of education and hundreds of thousands of hours of experience to the one important point they needed at the moment.

[My 6th Grade Math teacher would be proud that I remembered this…]

[My 6th Grade Math teacher would be proud that I remembered this…]

This explains why human beings want to codify things: it has an evolutionary benefit. When there isn’t time to make a rational, informed decision, we need to make a choice that leads to the best course of action. Swiftness in these situations is the difference between considerable success and abject failure. Tasty or yucky, pleasurable or painful: human beings group things principally based upon Good (safe) and Bad (not safe) because such decisions determine survival.

Example: two australopithecines see a yellow, furry thing running at them from across the veldt. One of the australopithecines doesn’t know what this is, but things tending to run at them aren’t all that fun to fling poop at, so he high-tails it to safety. The other australopithecine stares at the thing, trying to remember where he saw that yellow furry thing before… oh yes, it was that time when he was down by the waterhole and all the animals took off, which was quite nice because it left all the water for…

Oh, great. Now he's dead.

Oh, great. Now he’s dead.

Such pattern recognition allows human beings to make quick judgments based on limited information. In one sense, it’s the instinctual, gut feeling that many human beings ignore before walking down an alleyway and getting mugged; something doesn’t “feel” right. It’s also what keeps many of us from lending money to Nigerian princes; something doesn’t add up. It’s powerful because in any scenario, your brain wants you to make the right (or, at least, safe) choice. Unsafe equals death.

Of course, such things get cloudy when people begin to classify things without good reason. We can all agree that running away from a thousand-pound feline is a good thing, but what about when some begin associating “Good” and “Bad” with “Us” and “Them” or “White” and “Black”? Individuals are at that point grouping based upon familiarity and unfamiliarity, creating false associations that are further reinforced by the societal factors that surround them.

Keep that in mind for later: grouping things together is efficient but not based in morality. For now, it is important enough to know that human beings group ideas together for easier recall, and the most important or life-threatening of these lessons are the most deeply ingrained.

This process is externalized through the digression of memes.



...not this.

…not this.

Memes, as described by Richard Dawkins (who coined the term), ” should be regarded as a unit of information residing in the brain… just as genetic information is stored in the DNA.” Memes are ideas, fashions, data, and cultural odds-and-ends (among much else) that evolve and persist, changing with the times… or else fading away because better ideas supplant them. They are the informational equivalent of genes, replicating themselves in such a way to “survive” through acts of generation and evolution.

This last part is the important bit: ideas, like species of animals, have to change to survive. By evolving and picking up extra bits of information here and there, they transform into something newer, discarding that which is unimportant and picking up useful bits along the way. Kinda like chunking, right?

Through this, memes can move from simple concepts to complex ones, or vice versa, as individuals, communities, and societies deem that which is important to share. They can interconnect to create mammoth amounts of dogma, related or unrelated to similar webs of information…


…or work independently to craft intense feelings in individuals with a single image.


In both cases, human beings can recall a lifetime of their experience to make judgments about an idea or situation, but most often these are expressed in emotions or indescribable thoughts. Coke equals tasty, Pepsi equals cloying sugar water… or Pepsi equals good times with Mom, while Coke equals your ex-husband’s favorite drink. It happens near instantaneously, and it is where all kinds of loyalty come from, and not just the branding kind. A person familiar with a particular writer may come to conclusion about that author’s new book based on past experiences, rather than accepting it devoid of context.

You see where I’m getting at with this?

You see where I’m getting at with this?

Remember, these ideas (and by extension, the narratives and brands with which they are associated) are tied in with deep-seated emotions that are both complex and difficult to describe. They are linked with an evolutionary process that makes them hard to dispel; as Ben Paynter writes while discussing the work done by Read Montague at Virginia Tech’s Carilion Research Institute, “When shoppers are exposed to a brand they identify with, their ventral medial prefrontal cortex lights up—the same part of the brain associated with reward recognition in drug users.” In other words, our brains reward us by seeking out the familiar.

Put that all together and you get:

➢ Cognitive Science – How our brains work
➢ Pattern Recognition – How our brains recognize stimuli from memory
➢ Meme Evolution – How ideas mimic both thoughts and genes
➢ Branding/Marketing/Distribution – How groups of memes, principally in pop-culture, spread.

…all converging to make it easy to manipulate people’s pre-conceived notions and hard to change them into something new, regardless of facts.

Get it? Memories and experience change how one perceives narrative. That seems obvious, but think of it this way: people make up their own stories from the narratives that are given to them. Why? Because every person’s own life story is infinitely more interesting than somebody else’s. Their imagination helps bridges that gap, so that a plumber from Idaho willingly and repeatedly goes on crusades with Henry Jones, Junior.

As every writing teacher has ever taught, spurring an individual’s imagination is far more powerful than simply stating things out-right. That which is known can be categorized. It can be understood, analyzed, mocked, trivialized. Showing the man behind the curtain ruins the illusion and it removes agency from the audience. Now that they know the way something is done, their interpretation of the narrative has proven to be misguided. People want to see how the magic trick is done but are then disappointed when they see it’s mechanics.

Such mental contexts are more complex than simply playing to perceived notions or defying expectations. They give importance to the audience. It is why, regardless of content, the prequels to Star Wars would never have appealed to old fans of the series (and why new ones still have a chance): people had already filled in the gaps of George Lucas’s universe to their own satisfaction. Han shooting Greedo first is important because people have shifted their own experiences around an imagined tale, woven long ago and far, far away… or rather, in 1985 on an old VHS player while Mom and Dad fight about money downstairs.

That example and instances like it are unique experiences tied to the past. To change it is to remove personhood. It is part of what makes transmedia so powerful, and the reason why it is so important to take its effects seriously.

Oh. Transmedia. Right. Finally.

Oh. Transmedia. Right. Finally.

Transmedia harnesses subjectivity to great affect in a completely subconscious way. As a form of narrative distribution, it utilizes multiple media platforms to each of their greatest strengths, not just encouraging fans to get involved but requiring participation. Users must jump from the moving image to internet-based short stories to mobile conversations to comics to whatever else the creative team has put together. The understood agency of the consumer is actualized by participation. The viewer becomes a character.

Powerful, yes, but not without drawbacks. Transmedia requires shorthand to showcase what is most important to the narrative and what is least in order for a “full” picture to emerge. There’s just so much there that it would be impossible to present a full picture otherwise. Certain transmedia narratives (particularly ARG’s) reward an audience member for digging deep and focusing on a few aspects and disregarding others by giving new narrative content or else allowing them to further the story. Others allow for more mass viewership (see: Prometheus’s roll-out), the imagery and symbols of which are more thematic than narrative: these are the bits that will inform opinion rather than future story. Both paths require individuals to act upon the most important part of the piece: the meaning of the narrative.

This is the most important aspect of all because it gives a project purpose. Is this a story about free will and fate, or the unspoken issues of small-town America? Or both? Such underpinnings separate the mediocre stories from the good ones because they stick with us longer. People relate to those that they recognize, even if the story is completely new with a unique form. It takes them on a cab ride down memory lane, raiding their conscious and subconscious minds for bits and pieces that craft a larger whole.

This can affect more than the individual, however, which is why transmedia is often treated like branding and marketing. Shorthand and impressions are huge when trying to convey emotions and information in thirty-second commercial slots, among much else. They get people excited about what “might” be coming, rather than what “is,” and so spur discussions.  The fans spread the word and do the work to the benefit of themselves and the creators. When they come together to discuss it, they share their experiences to create a grander narrative. French troubadours spun tales over a millennium ago that still influence Arthurian legend to this day despite being written centuries after the “fact.” Marvel Comics offered “No Prizes” to fans who could come up with explanations for holes in continuity. Fan fiction, conventions, and forums interweave with officially branded spin-off stories that create a web expanding into multi-billion dollar empires.

You want to ride Dumbo? That’ll be $90. Each.

You want to ride Dumbo? That’ll be $90. Each.

As seen by that example, narratives can shape cultures beyond nerd-dom. The idea of the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy” was such a powerful idea that it shaped much of the identity of the Southern United States. This was an unrehearsed, unplanned transmedia campaign that has spanned  two centuries of film, literature, meetings, organizations, and individuals. Concepts like the New South, Religious Revival, and the War of Northern Aggression were amplified by artists who often didn’t even realize that they were participating. Think of that the next time you see confederate imagery in the state flags of Georgia, Arkansas, and Mississippi, or when people claim that such symbolism doesn’t support slavery: to some, it doesn’t.

Emphasis on 'some.'

Emphasis on ‘some.’

This is touchy stuff. Instead of discussing whether James Bond is one agent or a name assumed by a series of very different agents, individuals disseminate theories on why the Illuminati runs the F.B.I., or how Lizard-Men are trying to raise Lemuria from the depths of the Indian Ocean with the help of ancient crystal skulls. Agents Mulder and Scully utilized these narratives to great dramatic effect, but it’s not all little green men. Imagine if a horrific, consciously created transmedia campaign was planned from the start to lead to all-out war…

Oh. Right. One was.

Oh. Right. One was.

This last example was intensified by technology’s spread. Radicals are least dangerous when they are isolated from the public at large: their words may or may not have an effect, but they certainly won’t launch grenades at unarmed civilians when there are no unarmed civilians around. Give them a megaphone (or rather, Smartphone) and a soapbox (read: YouTube) and suddenly they can produce art. Soon, a cacophony of voices arises, influencing and distracting the path of humanity with each meme. These are people who suddenly have a voice, have agency, and have an audience with whom to share ideas about important subjects: religion, politics, death.

Media—or rather, transmedia—helps them spread, picking up new bits and pieces along the way. These aren’t the best ideas, remember; just those which are the most resilient to change. Al Gore invented the internet. Sarah Palin can see Russia from her backyard. You didn’t build that. The people that such words affect care little for evidence. These ideas fit the preconceived notions that they have in their minds. What else matters?

It is the paradox of modern times that despite all the information available to human beings, we as a species are moving further and further toward radicalism and fundamentalism… or are we? Are Americans really in more danger now than ever, or (as the evidence shows) is violent crime actually down? Are people actually dumber than before, or is that more stupid people have the ability to get onto the air to proclaim that one can’t explain how tides work? It is a narrative within a narrative that can be propped up or knocked down thanks to a global data stream just a mouse click away.

That is why creators have a responsibility to the world. Creators have the experience and finances to tell most appealing, beautiful, and popular narratives in the world. It is why no one should dismiss any movie as just a dumb piece of popcorn entertainment. Films, television, literature, mobile devices, video games, music, song, dance, and transmedia pieces weave tales that subconsciously influence the stories that human beings tell. They shape cultures and societies in ways that hundreds of years of colonialism couldn’t, carrying ideals of “Westernism” to the depths of Vietnam… and bringing messages back.

And so, the modern creator becomes Prometheus, bringing fire to the masses and asking them to do with it what they will. We are all the authors of our own stories, willing and able to spin their own narrative with the (dozens) of tools at our hands. Wouldn’t it be better if that narrative were positive?

With great power comes great… ah, you know the rest.

With great power comes great… ah, you know the rest.

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