„Transmedial Worlds in Convergence Media Culture“? At first glance the main topics of the highly anticipated Winter School at the University of Tuebingen (February 24-28, 2014) appear to be excellent candidates for a quick round of buzzword bingo at your average crossmedia marketing event: Transmedia! Worldbuilding! Convergence! Prosumer Culture! Bingo? Far from it! The Winter School offered not only a critical re-evaluation and in-depth analysis of said terms and concepts, but also facilitated some fascinating and reflective discussions revolving around the theory of transmedial worlds, the promises and pitfalls of transmedia storytelling, as well as a large variety of case studies on film-, comic-, or video game-based transmedia franchises.
While it is impossible to cover all of the ten keynote lectures (e.g. Espen Aarseth, Bernard Perron, Marie-Laure Ryan) and twice as many papers by the participants (click here for a full list), I will at least try to summarize the main threads of the discussions from my – admittedly subjective – point of view. While the Winter School’s first two days focused on theoretical aspects of transmedial worldbuilding, the last three days specifically addressed the role of different media in a transmedia context, namely: television, comics, and video games.
Ontology of Transmedial Worlds
One of the more prominent discussions revolved around issues of ontology: What exactly are transmedial worlds? While Henry Jenkins’ notion of ‘transmedia storytelling’ puts an emphasis on how different texts contribute to the representation of transmedial storyworlds, David Herman describes storyworlds as mental representations evoked by stories, Mark J.P. Wolf advocates the term imaginary worlds, and so on. And although most papers at the Winter School did not explicitly address those issues, the conceptualization put forward by Jan-Noël Thon in his keynote lecture offered a common ground: “Storyworlds are intersubjective communicative constructs with a normative component that are formed on the basis of narrative representations”. Similarly, Lisbeth Klastrup and Susana Tosca described transmedial worlds as “abstract content systems”, thereby also stressing that ‘worlds’ are neither textual properties nor individual imaginations. Still, this notion did not go uncontested and led to interesting discussions, for example when compared to Marie-Laure Ryan’s account of possible worlds, Jens Eder’s concept of ‘transmedial imagination’ and Espen Aarseth’s ludological reading of video games as ‘transreality game worlds’.
Descriptive Theory vs. Prescriptive Poetics
Another issue that repeatedly
plagued marked many papers (less so the discussions, though) was the tendency to treat some of the more normative/prescriptive arguments of transmedia storytelling discourses as analytical/descriptive concepts. Jenkins’ definition of a transmedia story, for example, was not only mentioned more often than the (equally ubiquitous) coffee break cake, but was also used as a benchmark for evaluating the ‘degree of transmediality’ and ’success’ of certain franchises or storyworlds. This certainly did not diminish the value of the respective case studies. Still, I was quite pleased with Jens Eder’s pointed objections (“reducing ‘transmedia’ to ‘transmedia storytelling’ (sensu Jenkins) excludes anything that is not entertainment, not fiction, not narrative, not unified, not licensed, or not coordinated”) and his critical account of the economy and politics of transmedial practices.
Transmediality vs. Medium Specificity
Finally, one of the most prominent ‘meta topics’ was the relation between transmedial phenomena (e.g. stories, worlds, imaginations, tropes, games) and their medium-specific realizations. With regard to television, Liz Evans’ highly interesting keynote lecture on ‘The Temporal Dynamics of Transmedia Television’ discussed how transmedia practices reshape the logics of broadcasting, leading (back!) to forms of linear and layered transmediality. Sebastian Armbrust discussed how Mad Men does not necessarily rely on transmedial distribuation of its storyworld, but instead on marketing a distinctive transmedial style of the fictionalized 1960s.
With regard to comics, Bernard Perron’s keynote lecture pointed to some fascinating similarities between transmedial Zombie fiction and the medium specificity of comics like segmentation, spatial description and ‘frozen moments’. He proposed that the story logic of Zombie fictions (survivors being trapped in remote locations, which repeatedly become infested spaces and have to be abandoned in search of new spaces) translates exceptionally well to comics, which “are all about thresholds and demarcated spaces” (Perron). A somewhat different, but no less fascinating perspective on comics was opened up by Stephan Packard’s keynote lecture on transmedial chronotopoi in comics. He argued that the Bakhtinian concept of the chronotopos (alongside concepts of dialogicity) can help us understand the specific emergence of convergence events in comic’s open spatial significations. Certainly something to ponder on (click here for a list of things to [re-]read/view/play).
The Winter School’s third medium-specific focus was on video games and was kicked off by Espen Aarseth’s keynote lecture on ‘transreality game worlds’. The “godfather of video game studies” (Thon) provided an entertaining and pronounced overview of state-of-the-art ludology (of the Copenhagen variety) and the ‘semiotics of ludemes’: While, according to Aarseth, fictional texts mostly signify fictional existents and events, games signifiy real ludemes (= conceptual game components like an /avatar/, a /game event/ etc.). During the discussions this conceptual distinction between fiction and games proved to be quite controversial, especially when compared to ontological arguments like the ones sketched above. However, thinking in terms of ‘ludemes’ and ‘game logic’ was a great way to flex one’s inner ludologist’s muscles, as not only most papers on video games, but also Benjamin Beil’s keynote lecture did indeed focus on the game logic and ludic aspects of transmedia franchises and their video game installments. Beil analyzed the various video game expansions of the Lost universe, conceding that most of them just replicate certain forms of narrative logic, while none actually captures the emotional core of the series. As an interesting counterpoint to my own paper on Game of Thrones, Beil remained skeptical about identifying a ‘game logic’ in complex narratives like Lost for fear of “reducing its narrative to a video game cliché”. However, in my own paper (which, incidentally, was the very last one) I defended the notion of ‘gameness’ of certain transmedial worlds. I argued that some fictions lend themselves particularly well to being instantiated as a (video) game, namely those, which feature a distinctive game logic, and that George Martin’s transmedial world of A Song of Ice and Fire is such a world. And despite everyone being bleary-eyed, the follow-up discussion touched on quite a few of the Winter School’s main topics and provided me with some valuable feedback.
So, to sum it all up, it was a really inspiring week with great papers and insightful discussions. Thanks to the organizers for being such wonderful hosts and all the participants for making it such a fun experience!
Things to (re-)read/viewed/played
As is typical for this kind of event, the Tuebingen Winter School reminded me of 1000 things that I should have read/viewed/played or are worthy to be read/viewed/played again. Here’s a non-comprehensive list:
- Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture, New York/London 2006 (It might all just have been a big misunderstanding!)
- Mark J. P. Wolf, Building Imaginary Worlds, New York 2012 (Apparently you cannot not quote this when talking worldbuilding.)
- David Herman, Story Logic, Nebraska 2004 (It has been a while…)
- Christy Dena, Transmedia Practice, PhD thesis 2009 (Look it up here!)
- Linda Hutcheon (with Siobhan O’Flynn), A Theory of Adaptation, 2nd Edition, New York 2013 (Have to catch up with adaptation studies…)
- Jens Eder, “Transmediale Imagination”, in: J. Hanich & H. J. Wulff (Eds.), Auslassen, Andeuten, Auffüllen, pp. 207-238, München 2012
- Jay David Bolter & Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media, Cambridge 1999 (The Jenkinses of remediation. Must-read.)
- Elizabeth Evans, Transmedia Television, New York 2011 (This promises to be an awesome read.)
- Sarah Cardwell, Adaptation Revisited, Manchester 2002 (Adaptation studies again…)
- Michail M. Bakhtin, Chronotopos, Frankfurt 1975/1986 (Looking forward to this one!)
- … and every Discworld novel (Thanks, Nicole!)
- Sherlock, 2010-2014, BBC (Wait, this is not set in the 19th century?)
- The Walking Dead, 2010-2014, AMC (More zombies!!!)
- About:Kate, 2013, Arte (Hopefully it’s available again.)
- Cloverfield, 2008, Matt Reeves (Come on, it’s just 84 minutes!)
- Night of the Living Dead, 1968, George A. Romero (Masterpiece!)
- Dawn of the Dead, 1978, George A. Romero (I guess, that’s somewhere on YouTube, too…)
- World War Z, 2013, Marc Forster (Bad, but with speedy zombies. And apparent game logic!)
- Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, 2010, Scott Pilgrim (Seems inevitable.)
- The Amazing Spiderman, since 1963 (Amazing!)
- The Walking Dead, since 2003 (Still more zombies!!!)
- DayZ, 2013, Bohemia Interactive (“Minimalist ludoforming”. And zombies.)
- Dear Esther, 2012, The Chinese Room (Just pretend it were a Lost-Game…)
- Minecraft, 2011, Mojang (It’s never too late to sacrifice your real life.)
- … every Lego game! (If only because of the complex theoretical ramifications!)
- Biblical Action Figures (Jesus action figure “with posable arms and gliding action”. Nuff said.)
- Slash fiction of any kind (Superwholock!!)