Transmedia on a Budget: Intertextuality & Cross-Media Narratives in the Classroom


The following is a guest post by Jeff Gomez.  Jeff is the CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment, a New York-based production company specializing in transmedia development, production and implementation. Jeff and his team are developing various transmedia curricula, and consulting with educators around the world to teach transmedia around the world. Follow Starlight Runner Entertainment on Facebook, and Jeff on Twitter: @jeff_gomez. Jeff has had the most significant impact on my instructional practices and one would be hard-pressed to find someone more inspiring.  If you haven't seen Jeff's TED talk, check it out here.

Transmedia storytelling in the classroom and the application of transmedia techniques to teach are just starting to proliferate in schools around the world. There are teachers out there who are determined to convey transmedia literacy to their students, but who are faced with no formal programs and extremely limited budgets. As a writing teacher in mid-1980s New York City public schools, and as an occasional teacher to this day, I’ve faced these very issues. Here are a few chewing gum and Kleenex solutions:

I. Cross-platform story worlds.

The goal here is to get students to think about how different media evoke different emotions and responses from audience members, even if similar content is being conveyed. Students are asked to think about their favorite story world, whether that is Harry Potter, Twilight, Lemony Snicket, Hunger Games, etc. They are also asked to think about how they feel when watching television with family in their living room, viewing something alone on their laptops in their bedroom, enjoying a film in the dark of a movie theater, or even how differently they feel between reading an old fashioned book versus text on their digital tablet.

The assignment then is to choose a story world and make two different types of comparison. The first is to describe both the differences and similarities in the way that the story is told on at least three of these media platforms. What unique story elements can be conveyed in a novel that can’t in a theatrical feature? (Interior monologue, memories, richness of backstory, etc.) What is lost when you watch a theatrical film on an iPhone? Is anything gained? Does an accumulation of viewings and readings of the story world on multiple platforms increase the student’s understanding of the characters, themes and narrative? Or does this repeated exposure simply provide a comfortable, familiar environment in which to hang for a while?

The second type of comparison is designed to get the student to think about his or her emotional response to the story, again comparing and contrasting similar stories on different media platforms. How do novels touch us in ways that no other medium can? What feelings are being evoked when we manipulate characters and achieve incredible feats of strength and skill in the midst of a video game? How do the changes made to the story between each medium affect you as a reader/viewer? (The ending of the final Harry Potter film, for example, was altered from the book to make it more visually spectacular. How did this affect you? Did you resent the changes, or appreciate them?) Are all of these changes necessary, or should the filmmakers and game designers stay more true to the original text?

For students who have a knowledge or facility with video manipulation, what role do YouTube mash-ups and other reinterpretations of the story play as a form of creative expression for the student? What about for the student’s audience?

II. Transmedia story worlds.

To take this all a step further, there is a subgroup of story worlds that manifest themselves with different narratives on different media platforms. These are now sometimes referred to as transmedia story worlds. The classic example of this is Star Wars, where there are six feature films, two animated TV series that take place between the second and third features, various video games, novels and comic books fill in blank spots across the franchise’s chronology, etc. We can also observe that studios like Lionsgate are emphasizing different aspects of story worlds like The Hunger Games with online and social media content. They do this to familiarize potential audiences with the property, and get them excited to see the film and delve more deeply into the mythology of the narrative.

So again, the student is asked to think about how their favorite transmedia story worlds manifest themselves on different media platforms, and how successful each aspect of the story is conveyed given the strengths and weaknesses of the platform.

The five Battlestar Galactica webisodes that followed the character of Gaeta on a solo adventure, for example, gave us remarkable new information about that character, and deepened our insight into the themes of the whole television series. (For example: Could our preconceived notions about what is right and wrong about the Cylons be entirely false…?) What makes us want to move from one platform to the next in order to take in more of the story? How are we rewarded as fans for doing this extra work?

Finally, as we become more deeply involved with a transmedia story world, how do we define our relationship with the storyteller(s)? Do we think about this person (Joss Whedon, George Lucas, Suzanne Collins), or do we just care about the characters and situations? Do we have a mediated way of telling one another how we feel about the story (such as social media, blogs or book forums on webs ties)? Is there a sense that the storyteller is somehow listening to us? Do we feel we have some kind of impact (however small) on how the story is told, or how it turns out? (It can be said that George Lucas diminished the role of Jar Jar Binks after much fan criticism of the character, but increased the role of Boba Fett after fans declared him super cool.)

Getting young people to understand the similarities and distinctions between various traditional and digital media platforms is a vital first step toward considering how best to use them for academic and creative self-expression. Getting them to understand how to design and orchestrate narrative elegantly across an array of audience touch points is to grant them incredible new powers in a rapidly changing age.