Transmedia Stories: Narrative Methods for Public Health and Social Justice

Coda: "Fourcasting" the Future

graphic section header: coda: fourcasting the future

This book began and now ends in a transmedia era in which narratives can and increasingly do move across forms, media, and platforms. Perhaps the most popular and well-known contemporary example is the Marvel Cinematic Universe whose characters and storyworlds can be accessed through comics, novels, films, television series, YouTube programs, video games, virtual reality experiences, and amusement park attractions. A similar transmedia breadth can of course be observed across a number of other franchises such as Star WarsHarry PotterPokémon, and The Matrix. Beyond mainstream examples, transmedia storytelling has taken more experimental forms in realms ranging from electronic literature to NFT campaigns. While the research and social interventions we have explored in this book draw largely from earlier forms of digital media storytelling, the networked approach to storytelling that is evident in transmedia productions represents a promising future direction for this kind of work. As youth move with increasingly greater fluidity across media and platforms, and the narratives that exist among them, designers and researchers will benefit from studying and working within an ever-changing transmedia ecology.

The category of the alternate reality game (ARG), which served as the final method of this book, offers an exemplary case of both the genesis and future of transmedia storytelling. ARGs are an accumulative and proliferative form: they incorporate any media that are available at the moment of a game's production and they encourage a movement outward onto other platforms to continue their storytelling. While I am not arguing for the absolute centrality of this admittedly experimental form, it has pedagogical value in connecting the nodes that make up the contemporary network of emergent storytelling, including in popular culture. For example, the locative and mixed reality components of ARGs invite comparisons to and intersections with genres such as “augmented reality” and “pervasive” games (Montola, Stenros, & Waern, 2009). One such game that has achieved notable popularity is Pokémon GO (released approximately two years after S.E.E.D. in July 2016). Within months, this game broke previous videogame records with over 500 million downloads. The game’s revenue exceeded $1 billion in 2020 alone and over $5 billion in overall revenues through 2021 (Singh 2021). The success of this game suggests that though ARGs may have started as an experimental form, there has now been sufficient cultural and technological saturation to enable the design of such games for both larger and more diverse player groups, including via a mobile platform. If the fictional immersion of the “This Is Not a Game” aesthetic can be combined with pervasive game design techniques, such as those used in Pokémon GO, ARGs might expand from an experimental to a more common digital media form. We are already seeing more mainstream examples of ARGs that integrate with emergent platforms, such as the viral #PBhere experience on TikTok. Indeed, a platform like TikTok, in particular, is promising for the expansion of this genre because its algorithm promotes unusual videos that capture the attention of viewers.

Other technologies and platforms have expanded the possibilities for transmedia storytelling in the 2020s. One example that I will close this book out with is the growth of live-streaming platforms such as Twitch, which has opened new avenues for improvising with larger audience. This technological and cultural tendency has implications for bringing youth-centered narrative research and design fully into the transmedia era. In my own collaborative design and direction work on ARGs, my earliest projects were all largely based on a mixture of websites, social media, and live events, including ARGs about apocalypse (Oscillation, 2011), inequities in healthcare (Stork, 2012), the global financial crisis (Speculation, 2012), practices of play in everyday life (The Project, 2013), underrepresented youth in STEM fields (The Source, 2013), and new media literacies and STEM (S.E.E.D., 2014). Since these initial productions, I co-founded and have been collaborating with a group called the Fourcast Lab, which has turned to live-streaming as a core platform for ARG design. Since 2017, I have co-directed ARGs about diversity, difference, and dissensus (the parasite, 2017), climate change (Terrarium, 2019 and Cene, 2022), and the COVID-19 pandemic (A Labyrinth and ECHO, 2020). As with the earlier ARGs, each of these experiences combined challenges within physical and online spaces. Moreover, each game worked with technologies and platforms that were most available or salient to players at the time, so that as Stork depended heavily on websites and The Source on YouTube webisodes, the later games such as A Labyrinth and ECHO turned to Twitch and TikTok.

A short video that gives an overview of the Fourcast Lab transmedia design collective based at the University of Chicago, which creates alternate reality games (ARGs), pervasive games, cross-platform stories, and networked performances.

The S.E.E.D. ARG, which I described in Chapter 5, took place largely in a co-present physical space, with the addition of a few moments of online or mixed reality play. However, if we were designing this game in the 2020s, more of it would likely have moved online. While so many projects described in this book took place in person — from story circles to speculative design workshops — in later years the situation grew more complicated for a couple of reasons. First, at the start of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the world. Even following the introduction of a vaccine and boosters, variants such as Delta and Omicron continued to ravage the globe. Even with the gradual, sometimes temporary, return to in-person interactions, since 2020 so much of life moved online, including meetings and university coursework via Zoom, socializing with friends via Discord, and interacting with streamers on Twitch. By necessity, live events such as theater performances started to shift gradually online and forms like the ARG received new interest within this (to some) ubiquitous online ecology. Second, independent of the pandemic but accelerated by it, we have seen an expansion of always on and always connected computing. A greater number of platforms and services have shifted online, including storytelling and gaming experiences. The transmedia phenomenon that Henry Jenkins described as “convergence culture,” in 2006, has moved from an emergent trend to an increasingly normative state, and is likely to become even more familiar in the years following this book's publication.

This transformation and growing centrality of networked interactions has already changed ARG design. Instead of decreasing the improvisational and responsive quality of these experiences, this change has merely altered how they might take place. To offer a suggestive example, I will take one element of our 2019 ARG Terrarium. Like S.E.E.D., Terrarium put its participants (this time, incoming university students during orientation) in communication with a future thirty years hence. On a daily basis, players signed into Twitch to interact with a series of people in the future who were trapped in rooms in an experimental laboratory called the Terrarium and needed help to escape. In order to help these people and their future, players needed to learn about climate change and bring their STEM abilities into play. While these players did not get to step into something like the physical S.E.E.D. room, they saw and heard one futuristic scene after another appear on their screens. Moreover, they were able to type into chat and receive responses, via both voice and gesture, from the person in the future, who improvised based on the group’s utterances. Just as in S.E.E.D., the players of Terrarium were invited to imagine and co-create the future. While we felt the loss of daily in-person encounters from earlier games, this new platform also brought other advantages. Instead of spending the extensive resources to recruit and invite participants to campus for five weeks, we were able to scale the game flexibly, inviting large numbers of players into each livestream. Far from a passive experience, this environment was live and responsive to the words and actions of both individual participants and the player collective. Even as our resources for the S.E.E.D. program restricted our audience, a Twitch-based experience did not carry equivalent restrictions.

In the years that follow this book’s publication, technology will surely continue to change and new platforms will emerge in unpredictable ways, but the specific growth of live-streaming is likely to accelerate. Live-streaming has the potential to elevate ARGs and ARG-adjacent forms from the artistic and educational periphery to the center of entertainment. Such a change could, in turn, alter the affordances of ARGs and transmedia storytelling as a research method that can be used to intervene in areas such as public health, STEM, education, and activism. While ARGs are just as messy or have even more variables than the other narrative methods described in this book, they are promising for the way they combine digital media, networks, and transmedia storytelling into a synthetic experience. Moreover, through their blending of reality and fiction, these games have the potential to produce both critical distance from and immanent critique of the conditions of technological and social life. Arguably more than any other narrative form in this book, ARGs exemplify the “experimental constructivism” that I described in the introduction. Of course, this ethos extends beyond any single form or genre. Beyond representation, information, and learning, I believe we will benefit from an exploratory and active co-creation of collective visions of health, climate change, and equitable futures. Such visions, which emerge at the intersections of humanistic and technological thinking, between the arts and sciences, will be indispensable in facing the myriad challenges of the unfolding twenty-first century.

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