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Introduction: Narrative Methods for a Transmedia Era
The end of the twentieth century saw a transformation in computers from the specialized calculation and business machines of earlier decades into expressive and networked media that, by the early twenty-first century, have been adopted by billions of people around the world. The capacities of computers for simulation have yielded an environment that enables a range of media — novels, news articles, comics, films, television serials, personal photos, amateur videos, music, video games, and virtual worlds — to appear, alongside each other, on a single screen. Beyond this “multimedia” dimension, the usage of technology has given rise to a “transmedia” environment of unprecedented interactions among media forms in which people move more readily between platforms and apps — and across screens on multiple devices that they access in a single space.
In addition to significant technological changes, the growth of digital and networked infrastructures has influenced transformations of culture and social life in the early twenty-first century. A widely circulating characterization of this shift has been captured through “participatory culture,” a term defined and popularized by media scholar Henry Jenkins (2006). In a 2007 white paper, Jenkins and his colleagues defined a participatory culture as “a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one's creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices.” Moreover, such a culture is “one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created)” (Jenkins et. al.). Admittedly, the term "participatory culture" has related antecedents in educational reform and radical theories of learning, going back to varied writing by visionaries including Paolo Freire, Seymour Papert, bell hooks, Jean Lave, and Etienne Wenger. Beyond technology and education, the participatory has a much broader application to a range of creative and political practices that exceed screens and classrooms. This longer history is a reminder that participatory culture need not be entirely or even primarily about networked platforms or digital technologies but is instead fundamentally about social practices and cultures. Nevertheless, the accelerated spread of computer and internet usage in an increased number of contexts, including through the proliferation of mobile devices, has turned participatory cultures from a fringe or specialized concept to a common practice. In particular, the emergence of social media and the broader branding of Web 2.0 gave these ideas a mainstream cachet.
The concept of participatory culture, which gained much of its initial energy in educational changes starting in the mid-twentieth century and found extensions through technological developments in the late twentieth century, found a dialectical synthesis in digital media and learning initiatives in the early twenty-first century. During these years, scholars such as Mizuko Ito and scholar-practitioners such as Nichole Pinkard deepened and popularized the field of media-enabled participatory learning (Ito et. al., Pinkard). Admittedly, numerous scholars have criticized participatory culture for the ways the term has been commercialized and coopted, as well as for its unearned optimism about participation being equally available or meaningful to anyone with Wi-Fi access (Jenkins, Ito, and Boyd). Even as it can neither be celebrated nor rejected entirely, the term names a cultural counterpart to a multimedia and transmedia environment.
In a further development that is particularly important for this book, the transmedia environment and participatory culture of the early twenty-first century have influenced changes to the realm of storytelling, in terms of both form and habit, in profound ways. Already in 1974, media critic Raymond Williams remarks, in his writings about television, that media was becoming increasingly integrated into “the rhythms of everyday life.” He observes that dramatic storytelling, in particular, had expanded to the point that “what we now have is drama as habitual experience: more in a week, in many cases, than most human beings would previously have seen in a lifetime” (4). Alongside the quantity of storytelling, digital media has expanded the qualitative possibilities of narrative through forms that were not yet imaginable from Williams’s vantage point in the mid-1970s. At the beginning of the 2020s, narrative is conveyed through formats such as webisodes, podcasts, Twine games, Twitter plays, webcomics, multilinear interactive fictions, alternate reality games, TikTok videos, Twitch streams, and more. Stories created and distributed in these formats are commonly experienced by numerous viewers, listeners, readers, or interactors, both synchronously and asynchronously, across networked environments.
Beyond entertainment and artistic innovation, networked and digital media have also influenced ways that storytelling can be used as a transdisciplinary method for conducting research and designing interventions in fields such as public health, medicine, and anthropology. Such methods have also received some attention in fields such as new media studies and the digital humanities, including extensions to fields such as user experience design and aesthetic interaction (Bardzell and Bardzell). Alongside this digital and networked revolution, a diversity of humanistic thinkers — postmodern critics, postcolonial and feminist theorists, and activist scholars — have heralded the rise of the participatory turn (Gubrium, Harper, and Otañez 15). This turn has seen a gradual rise in diversity of underrepresented people who can now contribute as media makers. Alongside the inclusion of new voices, digital and networked media introduce possibilities for participatory research, including increased collaboration with communities that were once treated merely as research subjects or objects.
This book, Transmedia Stories: Narrative Methods for Public Health and Social Justice, examines ways that techniques, methods, and practices in the arts and humanities can be used to generate new knowledge and social interventions within public health, education, the social sciences, and social justice activism. These methods (described in greater detail below) include story circles and digital storytelling, narrative video games, transmedia history, speculative design, and mixed reality alternate reality games. In addition to a theoretical introduction to these methods, this book proposes to make use of developments in digital publishing in order to introduce readers to a full range of media through which these methods might be practiced. This dimension of the project enables a deep dive into a series of case studies that I oversaw and participated in, especially during the 2010s, via the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab (which I co-founded with medical doctor Melissa Gilliam) and Transmedia Story Lab (which I co-founded with Dr. Gilliam as well as social work and adolescent health researcher Alida Bouris) at the University of Chicago. All of these cases involve co-creating media with Black and brown youth on the South Side of Chicago, a context that I elaborate upon below. Along with descriptions and analyses of these cases, this book includes images, GIFs, audio files, videos, interactive timelines, and samples of curricular materials. In a variety of ways, this book explores narrative forms, cultures, and methods in a transmedia era.
When I use the word “methods” in this book, I am usually not discussing traditional research methods such as archival research or close reading (in the humanities), surveys, ethnographic participant observation, or interviews (in the social sciences), or experiments or randomized controlled trials (in the biological sciences). Many of these kinds of knowledge-producing approaches do, in fact, inform the analysis in this book. However, my usage of the term “methods” seeks to capture the transdisciplinary story-based techniques used and created in order to undertake interventions within fields such as public health specifically and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education more broadly. A method, in this book's usage, may include a designed object such as a game or video or a process such as a curriculum or workshop. In all of our cases, whether they involve media objects or curricula, design that is informed by artistic and humanistic ways of thinking attempts to influence participants’ knowledge, attitudes, behaviors, and ways of relating to each other while also creating new transdisciplinary knowledge in its very application. In other words, narratives we create or co-create with youth in turn have effects on their health and well-being. This approach is analogous to Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein’s concept of “data feminism” that calls for an expanded sense of how we understand “data science” in a way that expands from scientific and algorithmic methods to cultural contexts. In line with this approach, our work on narrative methods calls for a broader understanding of what research is and can become if we take the stories that people tell and participate within, and the contexts within which they do so, seriously. In some cases, such as the digital stories in Chapter 2 and the narrative video games in Chapter 2, researchers who contributed to projects described in this book evaluated some of our story methods and cases using social scientific methods. In other cases, such as the Transmedia History workshop in Chapter 4 and the South Side Speculations workshop in Chapter 5, we did not include a systematic evaluation with a mixed methods approach. Nevertheless, even the latter cases demonstrate ways that artists, activists, and community members can also participate in forms of research that produce new knowledge, sharpen analytical precision, and suggest alternatives to social, political, and medical norms.
All of the methods described in this book relate, in one way or another, to storytelling. In some cases a narrative-based video game or board game serves as the intervention in which a story elicits responses or alters the learning processes of participants. In other cases, the participants themselves learn how to tell, write, and compose stories through various media, thereby learning through acts of critical making. Even as these cases exist on a spectrum, a fundamental way in which a story can serve as a method and an intervention is through what we might call experimental constructivism, a term that combines two key concepts that I would like to expand upon up front.
First of all, I consider the methods in this book to be experimental. In my last book, Experimental Games (Jagoda 2020), I explored contemporary experiment as that method moves across science, art, economics, design, and other domains. As a scientific research method, experimental design can be contrasted with observational design. Observational approaches, from phenomenology to ethnography, involve studying subjects in their natural environments. Experimental approaches, by contrast, create an artificial intervention that seeks to compress experience, or to modulate an independent variable in order to study the effects or changes upon a dependent variable. In this way, experiments both test and produce reality. Given this reality-making quality, experiments can be both dangerous and powerful. On the one hand, the serious dangers of experiments, and the power dynamics they establish, are now well known. Extreme, if nonetheless historically exemplary cases, range from Josef Mengele’s experiments in the Auschwitz-Birkenau Nazi concentration camp to the United States Public Health Service and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Tuskegee syphilis experiment that kept penicillin from Black men in rural Alabama. In the United States, standards for the protection of human participants in research were only established in 1979 via the influential “Belmont Report” (National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research). On the other hand, countless experiments, including those reviewed and monitored by institutional review boards across the U.S., have been ethical, beneficial, and creative in demonstrating and generating knowledge that did not preexist them. In the present context, I will not repeat the claims of my earlier book by elaborating the different qualities that experiments take on when they move from the sciences to the arts and to other areas. Suffice to say, the cases explored in this book are experimental in ways that draw from both experimental research methods in the sciences and experimental forms and processes in the arts. In exploring topics as different as contraceptive usage, sexual harassment, and the likelihood of underrepresented youth pursuing STEM pathways, we often put forward a hypothesis and look at some variable human behavior. At the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab and Transmedia Story Lab (more on those below), we create designed experiences, across media, which intervene in the status quo ways of thinking and doing — and we subsequently evaluate the results.
Second, the methods and interventions in this book are constructivist. As I already explained, experiments themselves are inherently artificial rather than observational in design. In emphasizing constructivism, we also lean into an activist model of scholarship. For me and my collaborators, activism does not merely have to do with advocating on behalf of a particular perspective or ideology but rather of actively creating something new and emergent together with a group of stakeholders who are invested in the process and outcome. For us, health education (or any form of education) must exceed the colonial impulse of reproducing oneself in another person. Instead of assuming that there is absolute truth that can be discovered, we acknowledge that truth is always, at some level, constructed. This is not at all to say that anything goes, a perspective that has become widespread in the landscape of post-truth politics (McIntyre). Even as we remain open to various results and surprises within our interventions, our work contributes actively to the construction of areas such as reproductive justice, public health, and greater educational equity in STEM fields. To put this another way, the digital stories and games we create with youth help to construct a collective vision of health and wellness that often departs from dominant perspectives. The multi-level work we do can be admittedly messy in its movement among disciplinary methods and their often incompatible vocabularies and processes, though I would argue no less rigorous than standard research in its components. In our projects, we do not merely report on the world as it is, but also draw from evidence-based approaches, trial and error, and artistic innovation in order to test out alternative, and hopefully better, ways that the world could be in the present and future. Moreover, as I will emphasize throughout the book, we do not merely construct standardized interventions for young people (though we do this as well), but more often co-create stories and systems with young people. The movement from youth as research subjects to youth as collaborators is crucial to the constructivist world making to which all of our projects attempt to contribute.
While experimental constructivism is the overarching methodological framework that this book seeks to demonstrate through its cases of multimedia and transmedia storytelling projects, each case featured in this book also has an ambivalent relationship to two other methodological terms that are already in broad circulation: design thinking and participation. To be clear, by ambivalence, I do not mean a sense of vague or not-fully-committed rejection. For me, ambivalence marks a deep and reflective engagement with a present or emergent situation that brings potential harms or simply has known limitations, but that also reveals generative affordances, applications, uses, or adaptations. Even as we often discuss the limitations of design thinking and participation, both concepts have been integral to our shared work with young people and so are worth introducing here. Indeed, as I hope to suggest, the latter term can be seen as mitigating the shortcomings of the former.
The first term with which the contributors to this book consistently grapple is design thinking. Though grounded in an expanded exploration of design in the 1960s and 1970s, design thinking emerged as a generalized approach only in the 1980s and 1990s and then received popular attention in the 2000s and 2010s (Kimbell 2009, 2). Though the term was used in earlier writing, an important text that shifted the term’s meaning to its contemporary usage was Richard Buchanan’s “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking” (1992). This paper describes design thinking as exceeding a “trade activity” undertaken in particular product-oriented fields such as “industrial or graphic design” (5). Drawing from designer and mathematician Horst Rittel’s work in the 1960s, Buchanan argues that design can better be understood as a process for defining and solving so-called “wicked problems” that are poorly formulated, confusing, or not belonging to any particular discipline or way of thinking (15). Commonly identified wicked problems include climate change, structural inequality, racism, poverty, and the obesity epidemic. Instead of a set philosophy, design thinking has emerged as an approach to problem-solving that exceeds the traditional disciplines. Moreover, by the 2000s, creativity of the type practiced in creative writing or improvisatory performance workshops, and originating in the arts and humanities, started to play a more central role in domains such as science and business (Maciver, Malins, Kantorovich, and Liapis 2465). During this period, design thinking became institutionalized through academic programs such as Stanford University’s “d.school” (the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design), design and consulting firms such as IDEO, and publications such as the Harvard Business Review. At its core, design thinking shifts attention from the world as it is to the way designers believe it could or should be.
Alongside the celebration of design thinking, there has been extensive critique of the approach as a “failed experiment” (Nussbaum). Those critiques are too numerous to summarize in this introduction, but I will rehearse two of the most prominent attacks. First, at the broadest level, design thinking has been accused of operating within a “managerialist framework” that is capitalist and apolitical, especially in the way it has been used by design firms (Kimbell 2011, 293). A recurring argument is that the uncritical embrace of design thinking has left us with an ideology that is insufficiently defined and more anecdotal than evidence-based. For these critics, it amounts to an overpriced product that does not add enough to commonsense problem solving (Iskander 2018). Beyond the question of efficacy, one implication of the limited managerial scope of design thinking has been its tendency to instrumentalize creativity, treating it as a problem-solving tool, instead of an open-ended or problem-making process. Amy Zidulka and Ingrid Kajzer Mitchell, both of whom have taught business-school courses predicated on design thinking, acknowledge that the approach may marginalize “less instrumental forms of creativity, such as creativity for the purpose of self-exploration and creativity that calls into question relationships of power and domination, which we also believe have a place in our classrooms” (750). In other words, this version of design risks reducing or even misapprehending creativity by making it merely productive.
Another critique of design thinking is that it gives over too much power to designers. As Natasha Iskander argues, “Design thinking privileges the designer above the people she serves, and in doing so limits participation in the design process.” Admittedly, design thinking does often espouse a “human-centered” approach that foregrounds the perspectives of customers or so-called end users in a design process. Nevertheless, this might not be sufficient to bridge the gap between a consultant and people being consulted on their perspectives. Iskander again argues that “because the designer herself generates the tacit understandings she uses by connecting empathetically with potential users — the ‘empathize’ mode — whatever needs of product users and communities she perceives are refracted through her personal experience and priorities” (2018). In this process, the sociopolitical position or identity of the designer receives significantly more emphasis than other participants or users of a product. The risk of this focus is that treating design thinking as a generalized problem-solving process risks ignoring the context and world within which a designer operates. Some critics have gone even further to argue that the design workshop format has historically been “a privileged, White, youthful, and upper to middle-class approach to innovation that consists of activities that implore participants to rely on ideals of imagination, creativity, and novel insight.” For a variety of reasons linked to culture and access, design thinking can generate “an ethos that can be exclusionary to communities that have historically faced systemic discrimination” (Harrington, Erete, and Piper, 216, 2).
The projects described in this book could be characterized as borrowing from design thinking, including in their relationship to experimental constructivism and the ways they approach wicked problems such as structural inequality in fields such as STEM, public health, and education. However, the way that we critically address the flaws and mitigate the limitations of design thinking is in part through a second key concept: participation. To be sure, participatory culture has received some of the same criticisms as design thinking (Jenkins, Ito, and Boyd). Nonetheless, when these two concepts are combined and adapted to specific design workshops and contexts — as I argue, later in the introduction, we have attempted to do on the South Side of Chicago in our work with Black and brown youth — a different potential emerges. Regardless of particular media or techniques, every one of our projects has focused on knowledge and practice that emerges from communities of color or historically marginalized stakeholders. In turn, we have sought to share the emergent knowledge at which we arrive with those broader communities, exceeding a model of scholarship that merely extracts information from a community en route to generalizable knowledge. In this approach, we draw directly from research methods developed through the “participatory turn” (Gubrium, Harper, and Otañez 15) and the “participatory culture” described earlier in this introduction (Jenkins 2006). Many of our projects borrow theories and processes from “Participant Action Research” that emerged through the work of thinkers such as Kurt Lewin and John Dewey, was developed by critical educators such as Paolo Freire and bell hooks, and became systematized by social scientists such as Aline Gubrium and Krista Harper (Costanza-Chock; Gubrium and Harper). Many of our frameworks adapt elements described by these scholars, and all of our cases are informed by or in conversation with their own projects and practices.
Even as we borrow from prior participatory work, we tend to emphasize different models of collaboration rather than a flat or fully democratic participation that secretly upholds a hierarchical liberal empowerment narrative. The work that scholars and designers at the University of Chicago do with youth and community members from the South Side of Chicago are meant to be collaborative. That is, we try never to treat participants from outside of the university as mere research subjects. Even beyond this type of research frame, we do not claim to “empower” people (a unidirectional operation) or help “at-risk youth” (a stigmatizing category that deemphasizes creativity and knowledge). Instead, we work across experiences and identities of age, race, gender, sexuality, and class in order to equip participants in our projects with capacities that allow them to discover new ways of thinking and encourage them to tell their stories. For instance, instead of focusing on the “resilience” of Black and brown youth (an occasionally valuable category though one that often puts undue burden on people who are not given equal or adequate resources), we instead try to emphasize their determination and capacity. All of the cases involve collaborative research in one form or another, though this book also seeks to complicate and think through the limits of participation within already existing power structures.
In a variety of ways, meaningful participation complicates design thinking. Along with Cynthia L. Bennett and Daniela K. Rosner, we advocate a movement from an emphasis on empathy to relationality in design. The standard design thinking process entails a designer understanding and empathizing with an end user. Though long celebrated as a paramount ethical value, empathy has limits. Bennett and Rosner offer the common example of “designers who use disability simulation techniques such as blindfolds to empathize with blind users.” One shortcoming of such a technique is that designers “may not need to consider the user with disabilities; instead, they may focus on their own experience wearing a blindfold” (1). Drawing from feminist theorist and philosopher of science Vinciane Despret, they argue that instead of aspiring to “be like” someone, designers should find better ways to “be with” them (1-2). That is, instead of replicating, simulating, or representing a position, it is more important to attune oneself, listen, communicate, and cohabitate a space with others. As Bennett and Rosner further point out, “Rather than attempt symmetry, we recognize and work with asymmetry” (9-10). Thus, to distill this principle to its fundamental form, participation should be the work not of symmetrical representation but of asymmetrical encounter. In the material space of a storytelling workshop, this might mean acknowledging the huge gap of experience and expertise in design techniques between adult designers who are part of a preexisting and well-trained team on the one hand and youth who might be editing a video or designing a game for the first time on the other. In such cases, in order for student work to communicate clearly and to reach a larger audience, professional designers can help by engaging in co-making or post-production.
Importantly, particularly when working with youth from marginalized groups, participation cannot simply entail inviting people to step into a fully planned space of activities in which the participants take part in the organizers’ program. In other words, access is not yet equivalent to participation, even as it is a prerequisite for it. As the following chapters will demonstrate, a storytelling program can be carefully organized while still remaining open to adjustment or even significant change when a planned process does not seem to be working as expected. Instead of applying a design thinking method to every project or topic, it is important to maintain ongoing self-reflexivity about the positions and needs of all participants. This way of working has much in common with Natasha Iskander’s “interpretive engagement,” an alternative to design thinking that constitutes a process of community “problem finding, as opposed to a process of problem solving.” (Iskander 2010, 13). This collaborative process of contemplation means that even core rules of engagement that were initially established by a designer can be discussed and renegotiated by workshop participants. A key value of this process is “tolerating the confusion and indeterminacy” that comes with different perspectives and interpretations that become apparent within a design process (15). In the space of the design workshop, whenever there is a conflict between producing a polished product on the one hand and ethics and inclusivity on the other, a participatory ethos always favors the latter.
The methods and projects introduced in this book raise questions about the affordances of digital media interventions: How can digital and transmedia storytelling methods help youth living in challenging or underserved conditions define their identities, understand their histories, and imagine their futures differently than before? How might creating a digital story — a short documentary film — affect a queer, Black high school student on the South Side of Chicago who is exploring their sexual identity? How can a narrative video game about sexual harassment and sexual violence inspire a young person to become an active bystander who intervenes in harmful situations and participates in their community? How can training in oral history and speculative design methods invite groups of young people of color to imagine alternative pasts and futures for their neighborhoods? Moreover, how can such projects most effectively introduce youth to systems thinking that helps them understand the interrelated parts — the biological, social, cultural, economic, medical, and political elements — that make up their lives? Finally, how do these interventions help youth develop and focus their digital media capacities in ways that help them beyond the particular project at hand?
All of the methods and cases explored in this book share a fundamental commitment to social equity in general and racial justice in particular. Among the many critiques of the broad field of digital humanities and digital media studies is its limited engagement with issues of marginalized identity and sociopolitical equity, especially pertaining to race. In many cases, digital practitioners have bracketed or ignored issues related to race, class, gender, and sexuality in favor of working through computational methods or programmatic frameworks. This cordoning off or containment of social justice has not been an incidental operation of the fledgling field. As media studies scholar Tara McPherson has convincingly argued, the “difficulties we encounter in knitting together our discussions of race (or other modes of difference) with our technological productions within the digital humanities (or in our studies of code) are actually an effect of the very designs of our technological systems, designs that emerged in post-World War II computational culture” (2012, 140). In both the computational structures and racial ideologies of the 1960s, McPherson sees modularity as a logic for both organizing data and perpetuating urban segregation.
Even as such inequality persists in the early twenty-first century and across media cultures, there have been a greater number of models and opportunities for combating and complicating earlier approaches to technology and design. Some scholars in the digital humanities (e.g., Kim Gallon, Jessica Marie Johnson, and Richard Jean So) and digital media studies (e.g., Wendy Chun, Kishonna Gray, and Lisa Nakamura) have researched and complicated the gap between technology and culture. Building on this work at a different scale, this book seeks to outline other methods and alternative ways of thinking and doing. Central to this project is the exploration of collaboration as an underlying method and ethic. Contrary to unidirectional claims to “empowerment,” which have been challenged by researchers such as Lauren S. Berliner, the projects analyzed here experiment with and strive for multidirectional processes of intergenerational making and transdisciplinary research. Though this book focuses on processes, a number of our completed digital stories and games have also achieved results that we discuss. Drawing from mixed methods research and design experience, I examine how using transmedia storytelling can create nonjudgmental spaces for underrepresented youth to explore difficult feelings and emergent identities, change their attitudes and behaviors about public health issues, learn twenty-first century literacies and media skills, pursue science and technology careers, and imagine community-based models of social justice.
In order to show how these narrative methods operate in practice, the book zooms in on a series of cases taken from an assemblage of projects that were created primarily in the 2010s. Before introducing the specific cases, I would like to provide some additional context regarding the university labs and city of Chicago in which this work took place, as well as my own position as a writer and the collaborative processes that generated this work over the last decade. While we see the methods in this book as generalizable and extendable to numerous content areas, locations, and institutions, the specificity of our own design decisions and contexts matters for the chapters that follow.
All of the projects described in this book were organized by two interdisciplinary labs at the University of Chicago: Game Changer Chicago (GCC) Design Lab and Transmedia Story Lab (TSL), which fall under the umbrella of the Center for Interdisciplinary, Inquiry, and Innovation in Sexual and Reproductive Health (Ci3). Among the centers on the University of Chicago campus, Ci3 has been one of the most diverse across lines of race, gender, sexuality, and age. The leadership of the center has been intentional in hiring and developing team members who reflect the populations with whom we regularly collaborate for our research. The collaborations undertaken within Ci3 have also crossed countless disciplinary lines. In certain cases, which I elaborate in the chapters themselves, we also collaborated with community and university partners. All of the digital projects created by the labs invite collaborations among researchers, practitioners, youth, community members, and others.
While drawing on a variety of storytelling techniques derived from a range of disciplines, the GCC and TSL labs have focused most regularly on the content area of sexual and reproductive health (SRH) and the demographic of adolescent youth of color, primarily in the United States but also occasionally in other countries such as India. Rather than treating SRH as a narrow medical area, these labs approach public health from a broader perspective. We believe that issues such as unplanned pregnancy or the spread of HIV/AIDS, for example, stem from structural inequalities in the lives of disadvantaged young people, including poverty, unsafe neighborhoods, low-quality health care, underperforming schools, transportation limits, inadequate access to healthy foods, and the lack of guarantees of personal safety. Particularly for people of color, in the United States and around the world, continuous exposure to uncertainty and insecurity as a result of these structural factors leads to chronic stressors that undermine the possibility of resilience and ultimately lead to poor health. Even in the face of such inequities, our research draws on theories such as Positive Youth Development and youth asset-based approaches that focus on building young people’s skills and capacities, instead of stigmatizing them.
Our first lab, the GCC Design Lab focuses on designing both digital and analog games that tackle issues at the intersection of public health and social justice. This work began as a series of conversations and pilot projects in 2011 and 2012 that sought to use digital and interactive media to explore the field of sexual and reproductive health. In early 2013, the lab was officially co-founded by two University of Chicago faculty: Melissa Gilliam (a medical doctor and professor of obstetrics and gynecology and pediatrics) and myself (a game designer and professor of English at the time of the lab's formation). At the beginning, we hired a lab director and small game design staff, and began to incorporate graduate and undergraduate student fellows as well as high school youth from the South Side of Chicago. Over time, our collaborators have included researchers in fields such as medicine, reproductive and sexual health, business, economics, psychology, history, and social work, as well as practitioners coming from fields as wide-ranging as computer science, game design, film production, creative writing, digital storytelling, and activism.
Many of the games created at the GCC Design Lab can be characterized as experimental in terms of their genre and production processes. None of these games had a commercial component and instead served the primary purposes of research and education. Some of our early projects included an interactive narrative game about teen decision-making and sexual health (Cache), an alternate reality game about economic and health disparities in America (Stork), two story-based video games about sexual harassment and violence (Lucidity and Bystander), a card game about sexually transmitted infections (InFection Four), a digital game prototype about decision-making and empathy in high school (A Day in the Life), a digital simulation game about public health (Prognosis), a mobile game about HIV testing among men who have sex with men (The Test), a storytelling card game about healthy relationships and sexually transmitted infections (Hearsay), and two citywide games about youth civic engagement and STEM pathways (The Source and S.E.E.D.). As of the writing of this book, our ongoing projects include a board game suite about Chicago-specific social issues (Hexacago Health Academy), a role-playing video game about STEM career pathways for underrepresented youth (Caduceus Quest), and a tabletop role-playing game about reproductive justice and histories of injustice (Lineage).
Our second lab, TSL, explores ways that the narrative arts — especially emergent digital media and transmedia storytelling forms — can influence broader publics, impact policies, and improve health. Along with Melissa Gilliam and myself, this lab was co-founded with Alida Bouris, a professor of social service administration at the University of Chicago. TSL launched officially in 2016, even as the work began several years prior. Since that time, we have sought to produce a body of knowledge about digital media storytelling that explores intersections between the arts and sciences as well as critical making and practice-based research in the humanities. In addition to faculty, TSL has included a lab director, an audio-visual specialist, and associated researchers. As in the case of GCC, the focus of TSL was on youth-facing work, especially focused on high school aged Black and brown youth.
The story-based interventions created by TSL reach back prior to the official establishment of the lab. In 2013, Ci3 began to conduct South Side Stories, a two-year project with Black youth, which serves as the core case of the first chapter of this book. Following the founding of TSL, other projects have included speculative design workshops focused on intersections of futurism and social justice (Imagining Futures), workshops oriented toward constructing both the pasts and possible futures of the South Side of Chicago (Transmedia Collage), a multimedia storytelling project in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh in India that takes up reproductive health and family planning via education and financial autonomy for girls (Kissa Kahani), a series of “bodymapping” workshops that used narratives plotted onto body-sized outlines as a way of eliciting thought about issues of race, gender, sexuality, and health (Adolescent X), and a speculative design workshop for LGBTQ youth (Queer Speculative Worldbuilding). In distinction to GCC, the projects undertaken by TSL were more focused on process and education than product or outcome. That is, instead of completed prototypes or games, these projects focused on acts of storytelling by participating youth, even as several of these processes also yielded videos, artworks, and other completed pieces.
One overarching quality of all of the projects at GCC and TSL has been an emphasis on “transdisciplinary” work. The term transdisciplinary stands in contrast with arguably more common approaches such as “multidisciplinarity” (which juxtaposes discipline-specific methods, assumptions, and theories from multiple disciplines to work through a shared domain) and “interdisciplinarity” (which integrates frameworks from more than one discipline into a project). A transdisciplinary project is not inherently of, and by necessity exceeds, existing disciplines and divisions of knowledge (Meeth 10). The fascinating, though often difficult, transdisciplinary moments that we encounter might also be described, along with media theorist W. J. T. Mitchell, as moments of “indiscipline” in which we encounter the “turbulence or incoherence at the inner and outer boundaries of disciplines” (541). For example, creating the Lucidity video game about sexual violence or the The Source alternate reality game about STEM pathways exceeded the core techniques of any field, whether it be literary or narrative theory, health education, or video game design. The problems that we faced, in both of these projects, had to do with teaching young people about scientific topics without resorting to a quiz-like or information-focused structure of most “educational games.” Such design processes have involved careful balancing between narrative and nonnarrative mechanics; between ludic possibilities and medical facts; and between the emerging procedural rhetoric of game processes and core educational literacies (Jagoda, “Gaming the Humanities”). Many of our projects have complicated key assumptions of our core research team members who were trained in fields such as medicine, public policy, economics, design, literature, science education evaluation, and social service administration. Instead of merely suturing together these disciplines, as they already exist, GCC and TSL have attempted to begin with the clearest possible articulation of a problem that we subsequently address via a patchwork of methods and knowledge bases.
All of the projects described in this book took place on the South Side of Chicago and recruited primarily youth from this part of the city. While many of the researchers and designers at Ci3 take this part of the city for granted as our home, a brief overview might be useful for readers who live in other locations. Even as the methodologies defined and elaborated in this book are meant to be generalizable or adaptable, the specificity of this area matters for understanding the context and motivations for the cases described here. As a summary, this part of Chicago includes neighborhoods such as Brighton Park and Englewood in the southwest, Hyde Park and Woodlawn in the south, Beverly and Morgan Park in the southeast, and Chatham and Pullman on the far south side. In 2016, the overall population of Chicago was almost evenly split among white (32.6%), Latinx (29.7%), and Black (29.3%) inhabitants (as opposed to the overall U.S. split, which is closer to 60.1% white, 18.5% Latinx, and 13.4% Black) (United States Census Bureau and Armentrout). Though these numbers may suggest a remarkably diverse city, which is the case in some respects, these groups remain immensely partitioned. As Chicago historian Natalie Y. Moore writes, capturing this disparity, “Chicago is one of the most segregated yet diverse cities in America. Chicagoans typically don’t live, work or play together. Unlike many other major U.S. cities, no one race dominates” (1). As she notes, early in her childhood, she “learned that the terms “South Side” and “North Side” were shorthand for “black” and “white”” (2).
The South Side of Chicago is simultaneously home to extremely vibrant cultures and to some of the worst poverty and inequality in the United States. For example, despite extensive news coverage about murder and crime rates in the city, Chicago has not historically had even close to the highest crime rates of a major U.S. city (St. Louis, Detroit, Baltimore, and Memphis are among the many cities with higher rates). At the same time, other factors undermine this point. For instance, teen unemployment, especially among Black teens, has been disproportionately high and arguably linked to a great deal of the violence that does occur (Moore 176-9). Large parts of the South Side are littered with vacant lots and broad swaths of food deserts that stand in sharp contrast to large portions of the more affluent, and more white, North Side. Employment and income disparities between parts of the city are also stark. For example, the North Side neighborhood of Forest Glen (which has a population that is over 70% white) had a 2021 median household income $112,032, while the far South Side neighborhood of Riverdale (which has a population that is approximately 95% Black) had a median household income of $15,894 (Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and Kolmar). This huge disparity holds beyond these cases, as many of the most economically disadvantaged Chicago neighborhoods are located on the South Side.
Even with the structural inequality that has underdeveloped the South Side of Chicago, it would be a mistake to represent it only as a dystopian zone of the city. Without looking away from the segregation and related problems, Moore characterizes this area, where she lives, as making up “a magical place.” She writes:
It’s the heart of black America, with its miles upon miles of black middle-class neighborhoods and strong political and business legacies. In summertime Chi, the aroma of barbecue wafts from backyard grills and smoky rib joints onto the Dan Ryan Expressway. Chicago is a soulful city that gave us Sam Cooke and Common, Koko Taylor and Chaka Khan. Driving east on 79th Street toward Lake Michigan is a colorful trip: men sipping out of bottles on corners, vibrant businesses, bars, funeral homes, foreboding boarded-up structures, liquor stores, churches, Harold’s Chicken Shacks and sounds of house music dancing in the air. This sense of place is special. I would never want to erase black Chicago (2).
Historically, the South Side has been notable for many reasons — from housing the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 to giving the United States its first Black president in Barack Obama in 2008. The area has also inspired countless artists, including representations in popular television series such as Shameless (2011), The Chi (2018), and South Side (2019); powerful films such as Hoop Dreams (1994) and Chi-Raq (2015); and popular music by prominent artists such as Muddy Waters, Kanye West, and Chance the Rapper.
Another feature of the South Side that is particularly important to the context of the methods and cases that follow in this book is the presence of the University of Chicago. The role of the University of Chicago in this area is complicated to say the least — and I come to this point with particular ambivalence as a white professor who holds a tenured position at this university. On the one hand, the university appears in many rankings as a top 10 institution of higher education in the United States, and even the world, bringing countless scholars, artists, events, and resources to the South Side. The neighborhood within which the university is located, Hyde Park, is less segregated than most South Side neighborhoods with a 2020 population that is 47.6% white, 26.8% Black, 12.1% Asian American, 8.5% Latinx, and 5.0% other races or people identifying with more than one racial background (Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning). Moreover, in the 2010s, the university has also significantly increased its admission of students of color. Additionally, the institution supports the community-oriented work of centers such as Ci3 and labs such as GCC and TSL.
On the other hand, the University of Chicago has had a deeply problematic, even racist, relationship to its surrounding community. The university did not have the direct ties to slavery in the same way as other prominent institutions, such as Harvard University and Princeton University. Of course, this can arguably be attributed in part to the fact that that the University of Chicago was established in 1890, twenty-five years after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the U.S. At the same time, there was an older and short-lived version of the institution (sometimes called Chicago University) established in 1856 for which Illinois politician Stephen Douglas served as the first president of the board of trustees. Douglas used his Mississippi plantation (with 142 enslaved Black people owned by his wife) as “collateral” to purchase land in Bronzeville. It is worth noting that it was only in 2020 that the University removed a stone and plaque that commemorated Douglas and his contribution to the old college (Burton). Beyond links to slavery itself, the University of Chicago supported racist covenants in the 1930s and 1940s that promoted ongoing segregation (Moore 45). To the present day, members of the University of Chicago, including a growing number of faculty of color, have continued to fight the institution’s racist foundations and the ongoing legacies thereof through contributions to movements such as #shutdownSTEM (in the sciences), establishment of the More Than Diversity campaign, and eventually the Department of Race, Diaspora and Indigeneity (with faculty in the humanities and social sciences). Even as racial and ethnic diversity at the university increased significantly over time, this was a recent change and one that still remains more of a quantitative than qualitative measure of difference at the institution.
The University of Chicago is admittedly a complicated site from which to work with Black, brown, and LGBTQ youth. Even as the university has taken steps to focus more on “community outreach” and “diversity and inclusion” in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, the campus does not yet feel like a fully welcoming space to many of the students of color, especially those who do not attend the University of Chicago, with whom I have worked over the years. Even when these students attend South Side high schools that are just a few miles away, the university often feels like a space that is not for them or sometimes is actively opposed to including them. Across the programs described in this book, our teams regularly use ice breakers, open conversations, and storytelling methods in order to engage — instead of ignore — the common ambivalence of youth of color toward the university where we work and where we house our programs. The point is never to convince participating youth that the University of Chicago is really a good institution that is open to them. Instead, we want the tensions and inequalities that structure their relationship to the place, and therefore their relationship to the artists and researchers who run these programs, to be part of the very fabric and process of engagement. Rarely do students come out of our programs feeling reconciled with or even fully safe at the university, nor is this ever our goal. We do hope to contribute to changing the University of Chicago for the better, a goal that we share with many of our colleagues. At the end of the day, our objective is to promote open conversation, knowledge sharing, a small redistribution of the resources of a private university, and the possibility of social change.
In addition to the context of the University of Chicago labs and the location of the South Side of Chicago, I would like to say something about the situated perspective of this book and of the projects that it takes up. My own particular identity, perspective, and motivation as the lead writer of this book, and a co-founder of the two labs in which this work was conducted largely in the 2010s, brings with it both advantages and limitations. I hesitate to veer into an autobiographical mode that might distract from the core people, projects, and concepts that are the focus of this book, but the deeply personal nature of this work requires some acknowledgment and reflection. Across my career, I have worked as a literary and cultural critic, a media theorist, a game designer, a storyteller, a digital media artist, a health activist, and a researcher who uses social scientific methods. These roles may at first appear discrete or unrelated but are in fact thoroughly integrated across my life and work. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, I was influenced most by two overarching forces. The first was the example of my mother who participated in the Solidarity movement and fled Poland as a political refugee, subsequently raising me to think about a range of social and transnational issues (as we moved from Austria to Australia and finally to the United States). During my childhood, I grew up in exile from most of my family, speaking Polish in mostly English-speaking contexts and steeped in the politics of the late twentieth century. The second was the rise of computational and networked technologies during this period that captured my attention from an early age. The fusion of these two influences led me to a series of projects that concern the sociopolitical impacts and experimental possibilities of media technologies. While I have been steeped in the humanistic fields of literary and media studies since my graduate training, it was the collaboration with and mentorship of Melissa Gilliam that motivated me to focus increasingly on the fields of sexual and reproductive health, public health, and STEM education. Along with my core appointments in Cinema & Media Studies and English, I also took on a secondary appointment in Obstetrics and Gynecology and an affiliation with the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality.
It would be reasonable to ask why a Polish immigrant decided to devote a decade (and counting) of their career to using digital media to improve the health of Black and brown youth in Chicago, and why I am specifically qualified to write this book. After immigrating to the United States, I lived briefly on the West Side of Chicago, an extended area that contains the largest Polish community outside of Poland itself, before spending a decade of my life in California and North Carolina. Currently, back in Chicago, I live in Woodlawn, just south of the University of Chicago and the Hyde Park neighborhood in which it is located (according to 2000 census data, Woodlawn has a 94.2% Black majority and as of 2020 a $25,807 median income) (Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning). During my time in Chicago, I have witnessed structural inequality, including racism and segregation, impact so many people around me, which motivated me to learn more and try to make modest contributions to counter these tragic sociopolitical systems and cultural developments.
While this description of my background might account for my motivation in working on the media interventions described in this book, in terms of qualifications, the honest answer is that I am not qualified to write this book. As an immigrant who was not a native English speaker, I lived the earliest years of my life in a government housing project in Sydney, Australia and eventually settled in the United States where my family eventually moved into the middle class by the time I reached high school. For these reasons, and because of my neurodivergence, I faced some discrimination in my youth. Given this national and class background, as well as my subsequent adoption of a life that I would characterize as queer, I was arguably more attuned than some to intersectional experiences and opportunities. That being said, I am visibly a white man with the significant privileges that this visual and legal identity affords, so I never suffered the forms of severe racism or the cumulative microaggressions that people of color have lived with for centuries. In the United States, in particular, the legacies of this racism go back to processes such as the indigenous genocide that occurred amidst settler colonialism and the chattel slavery that served as a key foundation of the U.S. economic system, while also stretching forward to ongoing processes of segregation, rejection of undocumented immigrants, and a prison-industrial complex that discriminates against people of color. Despite my commitment to justice, equality, and intersectionality, it is important to emphasize that I have not been the direct target of these systems and therefore could only have an external perspective on them.
This limitation of my own point of view is precisely why this book is the result of both direct and indirect collaboration. Directly, I have collaborated on this particular book with two incredible colleagues who have served as the visual and multimedia designers of this book, but have also worked with me on the projects that serve as our core cases and as readers of chapter drafts. Both of them are Black designers who live in Chicago. My first core collaborator, Ireashia Bennett, served as the audio-visual production manager at the Transmedia Story Lab from 2017 to 2021 where they designed multimedia works, videos, and youth-facing workshops. Bennett is a Black, queer, and disabled filmmaker and designer who seeks to bring a compassionate perspective to communicating social issues in accessible formats through multimedia storytelling. My second collaborator, Ashlyn Sparrow, worked as the director and lead game designer of Game Changer Chicago Design Lab from 2013 to 2018 and has served as a director of the Weston Game Lab from 2018. Sparrow is a Black game designer who creates socially impactful digital, transmedia, and analog games, as well as youth-facing workshops.
I have served as the sole writer of most chapters of this book in order to maintain a consistency of voice and a continuity of perspective, as one of two principal investigators who has been present to all of the projects described here (the only major exceptions being Chapter 2, in which I co-wrote the core chapter with Alida Bouris, and supplementary sections and media such as the short documentary segments such as the videos in Chapter 6, directed by and co-created with Philip Ehrenberg, that are credited locally). At the same time, Bennett and Sparrow have taken the lead on the visual, audio, and interactive components that are aligned with the types of work and vision that they contributed to each of the labs to which they have contributed. More profoundly than this simple description of the division of labor, I want to emphasize that the thought and interventions in this book would not be possible without the intelligence, creativity, and perspectives of these collaborators. With the exception of very early projects, one or both of them were on the ground with me in all of the projects undertaken by GCC and TSL.
Beyond the three core writers and designers of this book itself, the work described and analyzed in these pages belongs indirectly to a much larger community. We have done our best, in each chapter, to credit the faculty, staff, students, community members, and youth who contributed either to elements of the chapter or to the project described in that chapter. Our approach to collaboration — in planning, executing, and in post-production or writeups of projects — resonates with Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren F. Klein’s call to “show your work” and “make labor visible” in collaborative projects in fields such as data science and the digital humanities (173). A similar principle is at play in collaborative projects that occur in the areas of digital media and activism. While our credits will not perfectly account for the life worlds and communities that brought forth these projects, we have sought to name at least key contributors.
Along the way, the status of different projects precludes us from sharing full names in all contexts. For instance, the South Side Stories case covered in Chapter 1 was an IRB-supported study that involved certain digital stories about sensitive sexual topics. While we are able to attribute authorship to sample stories that we share because of participant consent, we retain anonymity in sharing focus group data. In other cases, as with the Transmedia Collage program described in Chapter 3, this workshop was run as a critical pedagogy intervention rather than a full-fledged study. Moreover, students created collaborative historical projects, instead of individual pieces, and consented to their circulation through exhibitions and online contexts, thereby making attribution more straightforward. In each chapter, we seek to describe the specific nature of the intervention and our logic of attribution.
Beyond credits in particular chapters, I would like to single out Melissa Gilliam, who founded and directed Ci3 and co-founded the labs that fall within that center and that oversaw the projects described in this book. In conjunction with her work as a medical clinician and a professor, Gilliam also served as the dean of diversity and inclusion for the Biological Sciences Division at University of Chicago Medicine and vice provost at the University of Chicago. In 2021, she transitioned to the role of provost and executive vice president at The Ohio State University, becoming the first woman of color to ever hold this role. Since the time I arrived at the University of Chicago, Gilliam generously invited me into a decade of collaborations that are still ongoing and, despite our drastically different trainings, trusted my judgment and contributions to our collaborations. Given the stark hierarchy between the sciences and medicine (in the upper echelon of most universities) and the humanities and arts (at the bottom tier and often on the chopping block), it feels especially remarkable to me that she would include me as a partner in this work. This book or the projects analyzed within it would not be possible without Gilliam’s leadership and vision.
I would like to end this section on two notes about collaboration. First, collaborative authorship and intervention design have long been a norm in the sciences but remain an anomaly in many humanities and arts fields. Though ideas are regularly generated in groups — in workshops, at symposia and conferences, and through editorial processes — the production model of the humanities favors single-author monographs or edited collections of single-author essays on a shared topic. Similarly, in the arts, many media such as painting, sculpture, or novel writing are organized around an individual artist. Even collaborative art forms, such as film, sometimes overvalue or disproportionately reward a director or even co-directors over a huge group of collaborators, including cinematographers and editors who often have an equal or even greater impact on a resulting film. Admittedly, in the early twenty-first century, we also see that fields such as new media studies and digital humanities have explored alternative models of collaborative making and scholarship through research infrastructures such as the humanities lab. In our work together at GCC and TSL, we have sought to expand this emergent humanistic direction, while also delving into collaborations with the biological sciences, social sciences, and arts.
Second, we credit youth for projects whenever that is possible. As I noted, in some cases IRB protocols require privacy and anonymity that limit the inclusion of full names. However, some of the projects included in this book were run as collaborative workshops, rather than full-fledged studies that included quantitative or qualitative evaluation. In those latter cases, we are able to provide the full names of the young creators, sometimes alongside the collages or digital stories that they created. As such collaborations between the humanities, arts, and sciences continue, and hopefully proliferate, ethical negotiations about inclusion and credit will continue to be a major issue. We do not claim a one-size-fits-all solution to these tensions, but do discuss various ways that we approached this issue at different moments in the book.
The six chapters in this book introduce and complicate a range of methods that use multi-level collaboration and transmedia storytelling tools in order to intervene in areas related to public health and STEM education. Following this introduction, each chapter takes a slightly different emphasis. For example, Chapter 2 takes up digital storytelling and the South Side Stories project in order to focus on ethical issues in program design and qualitative data drawn from youth participating in this project. By distinction, Chapter 3 about narrative games and the Lucidity and Bystander projects extends more emphasis to workshop and game design decisions. While the approach to each method and case is different, the book is meant to be modular in its construction. In other words, even as elements of the chapters inform each other, I have organized this book in such a way that readers can easily move from the introduction to whichever chapter or chapters interest them most.
Additionally, in order to show how these methods operate in practice, the book works through a series of cases selected from a larger assemblage of projects. Along with traditional textual chapters, this book takes advantage of the multimedia publication format for reasons that are both theoretical and practical. Theoretically, digital concepts call for contemporary tools to enable ways of thinking and navigating information that are proper to digital and networked environments. As Anne Friedberg already pointed out back in 2009, with the digitization and online access to content across media formats as well as the emergence of new platforms and cultural practices, “we are now able to write with the very images and sounds that we have been analyzing” (Friedberg 150). Of course, there is not a universal need to write with images and sounds, in all cases, but opportunities for multimedia scholarship introduce new forms of knowledge making, analysis, and pedagogy. This project thinks not merely about but also with these historically new media and modalities. Practically, continued innovation, meaningful experimentation, and widespread adoption of these new methods is only possible with greater engagement by scholars with digital materials, in addition to secondary accounts of such projects. For example, though many scholars may understand the form of an alternate reality game in theory, seeing footage, timelines, and accompanying materials that make up such a project makes it more possible to reproduce or adapt such a technique. The multimedia form of this book intends to provide greater transparency and information sharing, so that such work can continue and develop in new directions. Without overwhelming readers with an excess of design materials, we nonetheless seek to offer greater access into what Dan Cohen has called the “hidden archive” of transient documents such as sketches, notes, and documents that may not be part of a final work, but still have value to researchers and makers.
Beyond using digital media to communicate more clearly with readers, this book also foregrounds cases of digital media that we have ourselves created as a way of asking and testing research questions. In this way, the book is in resonance with projects by hybrid scholar-practitioners such as micha cárdenas. She helpfully describes “practice-based research" as "a form of research driven by creating art, media, performance, networks, or community engagement instead of relying only on close study of archives of text or media” (19). Though this book includes some close readings, more often it uses precisely art making and community engagement as a way of thinking.
Chapter 2 (“Story Circles and Digital Storytelling”) offers an overview of story circles and digital storytelling methodologies. Story circles are a facilitated process for soliciting self-reflective participation through a series of oral and written prompts related to an overarching theme. The democratic impulse of the circle, which consists of check-ins, group agreements, deep listening, and witnessing, seeks to foster a safe environment for learning across a broad range of capacity and experience. Digital storytelling, which can follow from story circles, involves a production-driven workshop, in which participants craft a script and use video editing tools to integrate images and audio. This process results in a short digital video akin to an in-depth interview or short autobiographical essay film that blends moving images and audio.
This chapter focuses on the case study of South Side Stories (2012-2014). South Side Stories used story circles and digital stories to explore how identity, space, and context shape young people’s sense of self, relationships, sexuality, and health. The stories that youth created with adult facilitators conveyed the lived experiences and determination of young people growing up on the South Side of Chicago. The stories showed how experiences with stigma and segregation, as well as violence and victimization, influenced youth perceptions of themselves, their futures, and the resources available to them. The conclusion of this chapter gestures briefly toward a second TSL project, Kissa Kahani (2016-2019), which used story circles and digital storytelling to identify social and structural factors that contribute to widespread gender inequalities in Lucknow, a city located in Uttar Pradesh in India. Working with young people and local community partners, TSL ran workshops and began the process of co-creating media with youth. This chapter features both images and actual digital story videos that emerged from these workshops.
Chapter 3 (“Narrative Video Games”) expands the scope of multimedia and transmedia storytelling by considering the category of narrative video games. Games can be studied as simulations with mechanics, rules, and objectives. However, they can also be approached as interactive narratives that enter into conversations with both print and electronic media. With a diversity of intersections between games and narrative, it is important to think with greater care about ways that digital games expand and complicate how we think about storytelling. Increasingly, digital games blur with categories such as interactive narratives or fictions. Many twenty-first century video games such as Gone Home (2013), Life Is Strange (2015), Disco Elysium (2019), and The Artful Escape (2021) are concerned, first and foremost, with world creation, decision-making, and storytelling. The field of so-called “serious games” has also expanded the range of interactive stories that can be told in service of social, educational, and political objectives. Moreover, in the field of adolescent sexual and reproductive health, researchers have become increasingly interested in interventions that rely on gamification, game mechanics, and game-based narratives.
Following a short overview of narrative in video games, this chapter turns to the more focused topic of how narrative games can be used in participatory contexts and as research interventions. The case studies in this chapter are Lucidity (2013) and Bystander (2016-2018): two video game prototypes created by the GCC Design Lab to tackle issues of sexual violence and sexual harassment. The multimedia video game Lucidity (2013), co-created with a group of youth, follows the life of one character, a young Black woman named Zaria who remembers and grapples with a sexual assault from her past. The player discovers parts of the story by reading comics, watching videos, navigating interactive websites, and playing short video games. This earlier game represented a collaborative process of discovery that informed our move towards intervention to shift outcomes. The second game, Bystander, offers a different model of participation than its predecessor. Instead of focusing on youth-created work, this game was designed and developed by the university-based GCC team but in consultation with youth who represented the likely eventual players. This mode of player-oriented experience design (or human centered design) influenced the narrative, the dialogue, and the style of the game. This chapter explores this process of participation as well as the potential learning benefits of narrative video games. In addition to this textual argument, we will also include screenshots and GIFs that feature game mechanics and key details of levels from both games. The chapter also incorporates a video essay that features footage from the Lucidity workshop.
Chapter 4 (“Transmedia History”) explores a technique of media making as a way of understanding and reimagining history. Though this process drew from the elements described in earlier chapters, it is not a concept with as precise a set of historical coordinates. This chapter introduces the concepts of critical pedagogy and critical making. It focuses on how a wide range of media literacies and creative techniques can be used to teach, study, and remake history. Beyond the autobiographical narratives elicited through story circles and digital storytelling, media making can also serve the collaborative production of community-engaged public history that combines archival research, oral history interviews, and imaginative synthesis through historically-informed fictional production.
This chapter uses the case study of the first year of the Transmedia Collage: Histories of Violence and Futures of Health on Chicago’s South Side workshop (2017-2018). This project explored how a climate of structural violence has impacted the health and well-being of youth of color and the communities they live in on Chicago’s South Side. TSL and the University of Illinois at Chicago’s “History Moves” initiative, led by History and Gender and Women's Studies professor Jennifer Brier, worked together to create new narratives about the city of Chicago. The multi-institutional team recruited students of color from a group of South Side neighborhoods. Youth learned to conduct and record interviews that helped them learn about histories of the South Side. Using this research, they created text, image, and audio collages that reimagined the pasts of their neighborhoods. Each collage exemplified how both participatory maker culture and digital media can alter how we understand key concepts including urban space, publics, and the relationships between violence and health. This chapter includes reproductions of the youth collages, images and audio files from the workshops, and original collages created by the TSL team.
Chapter 5 (“Speculative Design”) follows closely on the preceding chapter. It takes up the practice of future-oriented speculative design. Commonly, “design” refers to the use of creative and artistic techniques to solve problems and enable innovations. Instead of proposing concrete solutions or even predicting the future, speculative design is more exploratory and constructive. Specifically, this approach uses techniques of critical making in order to imagine alternative social and political futures. In the past, however, speculative design has often privileged the technological imagination over structural inequality and racial injustice. As I emphasize in this chapter, artists and designers have also increasingly challenged this approach by putting this method in conversation with ideas taken from critical race theory, gender and sexuality studies, and activist practice.
The case in this chapter is South Side Speculations (2018-2019), the second year of the Transmedia Collage program. This project sought to disrupt dominant narratives about “the future” as a monolithic concept that often comes from technologists and policymakers. In order to garner a more heterogeneous vision of alternative futures (plural), we asked youth participants to use historical and media work to lay the foundations for speculative narratives about possible futures of their neighborhoods. In workshops, we asked: What will the future of Chicago look like in thirty years? And more importantly: How do we want the future of the South Side of Chicago to look? Inspired by sources ranging from Afrofuturism to speculative design, we created short films about the future of the South Side of Chicago. The process yielded a bottom-up futurism: an imagination that unfolded not at the more abstract “global” scale or the isolated “individual” scale, but rather at the “neighborhood” scale that is both communal and concrete. Instead of claiming to solve problems, the group sought to find, stage, and make problems of the future in order to inhabit the many complexities of the present. This chapter includes elements of the workshop curriculum, production images, and final speculative short films.
Chapter 6 (“Alternate Reality Games”) brings together several threads of the book to examine a live-action mixed reality game genre that depended on a transmedia narrative. Alternate reality games (ARGs) are large-scale, participatory narratives designed for multiple players. ARG narratives use transmedia storytelling, whereby elements of the story are distributed and conveyed across different media. These media may include (but are not limited to) TikTok videos, radio broadcasts, blog posts, social media, and invisible theater performances that unfold in public or unconventional spaces. As players move through the narrative, they encounter an assemblage of short games, puzzles, and playful experiences that use both physical and online spaces as their platforms. Explicit gameplay challenges may require players to crack codes using cryptography, engage in social engineering experiments with non-player characters and actors, and play traditional digital or analog games. Moreover, ARGs prompt collaboration and crowdsourcing among players to enable progress through a media-based scavenger hunt and narrative. Investigation drives gameplay, leading some players to solve a puzzle or uncover a new detail of the story before others. Consequently, any single player is unlikely to ever have a full grasp of the entire narrative. Since ARGs take place across extant real world and online spaces, they break down many of the boundaries associated with other forms of storytelling.
This chapter explores the educational and social potential of ARGs by describing and analyzing the design, curriculum, and objectives of an ARG entitled S.E.E.D. (2014) that was created by the GCC Design Lab. The overview of the game and argument uses some of the transmedia assets that made the game itself possible, as well as video documentation of the game, in order to give a fuller account of this genre and its affordances. S.E.E.D. unfolded on site at the University of Chicago and, for select portions, online across three weeks in July 2014. The purpose of the game was threefold. First, S.E.E.D. sought to transmit STEM knowledge and career interest. Second, the game developed new media literacies through hands-on and game-based learning. Third and finally, this ARG included exercises to promote political participation and civic engagement. Across these objectives, the program relied on the framework “connected learning”: an approach that advocates for expanded access to learning that is socially embedded, interest driven, and oriented towards educational, economic, and political opportunities. S.E.E.D. invited its participants into a science fiction narrative. Following these three weeks of gameplay and collective storytelling, the design and research team broke the fourth wall and debriefed students about the experience. Participants then continued for two more weeks through a camp in which they learned how to design board games and ARGs about self-selected serious social topics, such as gang violence, water scarcity, teenage pregnancy, and gender discrimination in the workplace. These final weeks invited players to become game designers. As I argue, this five-week program was at once an out-of-school educational program, a practice-based digital humanities experiment, a designed game, a research study about alternative learning forms, and a scalable social intervention. The conclusion takes up questions of infrastructure and what it might mean to build or scale large ARGs. This chapter includes three distinct pathways for understanding alternate reality games as a method: the traditional chapter, a short documentary film (split up into five parts) that features game designers and players describing the S.E.E.D. ARG, and an interactive timeline that includes over 100 major events that made up the development and execution of the program. Given the complexity of this particular method and case, we hope these distinct pathways will engage different kinds of readers of this book.
A short final section, (“Coda: ‘Fourcasting’ the Future”), follows closely on the sixth chapter. Here, I explore how transmedia storytelling and the growth of live-streaming platforms such as Twitch could open up new possibilities for narrative methods that include improvisation with larger audiences. This coda gestures toward the next step of ARG design taken up by another group with which I work at the University of Chicago, the Fourcast Lab, which has organized this form around live-streaming platforms in order to tackle issues such as climate change, diversity and inclusion, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Transmedia Stories is in conversation with fields that include media studies, digital humanities, public health, public anthropology, Black studies, education, sociology, and game studies. The text includes both theoretical overviews of core concepts and methods — and extended cases, augmented by media assets, with which we hope to bring those cases to life. The purpose of this book is not merely to archive a set of experiments that I contributed to in the 2010s. Much more than this, I hope that these cases serve as inspirations for future projects undertaken with different participants in varied places. As I have tried to emphasize in this introduction, there is a specificity to the execution of our projects that has to do with adolescent youth of color on the South Side of Chicago and researchers, artists, and staff at the University of Chicago. At the same time, with adjustments to scale, budget, or content, many of these methods can be adapted and extended by projects in very different cities such as Oakland, Detroit, or Boston (or internationally, as our labs have done in workshops in Lucknow or Hong Kong). Similar interventions and research could be undertaken at public universities, community colleges, or middle and high schools. Instead of a more technical presentation of results, which our labs have veered toward in some of our publications that appear in public health or STEM contexts, this book seeks to make transdisciplinary and transmedia interventions accessible to readers, designers, and researchers.
As a final note, given the piecemeal nature of academic funding, scientific norms, and other factors, many university labs produce article-length rather than book-length publications. With this book, we hope to move beyond the presentation of results about individual projects. Instead, this book presents a decade’s worth of thought and work, showing myriad ways that narrative methods can be used to target different aspects of sexual and reproductive health among youth of color.
Historical amnesia blocks the construction of potentially successful social movements. As the gap between the past, present, and future diminishes, individuals can acquire a greater sense of becoming the “makers” of their own history. Thus, for the oppressed, the act of reconstructing history is inextricably linked to the political practices, or praxis, of transforming the present and future.
— Manning Marable (Living Black History)
When we entered racist, desegregated, white schools we left a world where teachers believed that to educate black children rightly would require a political commitment. Now, we were mainly taught by white teachers whose lessons reinforced racist stereotypes. For black children, education was no longer about the practice of freedom. Realizing this, I lost my love of school.
— bell hooks (Teaching to Transgress)
A careful analysis of the teacher-student relationship at any level, inside or outside the school, reveals its fundamentally narrative character. This relationship involves a narrative Subject (the teacher) and patient, listening objects (the students).... Education is suffering from narration sickness.
— Paolo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed)
Storytelling is the norm in the field of history. While other disciplines discussed in this book, including public health and STEM fields, have discovered new ways to introduce storytelling as a method or mode of communication or intervention, history relies fundamentally and explicitly on narrative techniques in order to organize and animate the past. Beyond historical research, history education (from elementary through high school) has relied upon conveying a narrative of the past, or varied pasts, to students. Various critics have denounced the limits of traditional educational methods, including in the field of history. For example, as Brazilian educator Paolo Freire observes in the third epigraph to this chapter, which derives from his radical education text Pedagogy of the Oppressed, education generally suffers from “narration sickness” (52). In the case of history, where narrative is unavoidable, the problem is with a specific narrative relation between the teacher as narrator and students as passive recipients. Freire identified and described this hierarchy between teachers and students in the 1960s, but this relation remains common even in contemporary schools with experiential or alternative curricula. As his influential concept of a “banking” model of education suggests, a teacher’s “task is to ‘fill’ the students with the contents of his narration” which turns education into “an act of depositing” (53 and 52).
Writing originally in Portuguese in 1968, Freire posits that we can do significantly better in how we conceive of and practice pedagogy. As opposed to a form of education that serves those in power and reinforces the status quo, “Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other” (53). While an older paradigm of critical thinking remains important, the early twenty-first century has also introduced new modes of thought that accompany computational technologies. Such technologies open up and layer on new opportunities, but also restrictions. This is to say that digital computers and computer networks have not merely inaugurated liberatory change across the board. In fact, this is far from the case, especially if we consider phenomena such as algorithmic bias, surveillance technologies, and platforms that are designed to promote hatred and discrimination. We have already seen decades of uneven access to emergent technologies, which is evident in the ever-present gap between public and private schools, let alone between schools in a country such as the United States versus the Global South. Even with growing accessibility, technology has not proven a panacea within education, as we see with the limits of massive open online course (MOOC) offerings by companies such as Coursera and edX in the 2010s or the ambivalent affordances of widespread online education during COVID-19 in the early 2020s. Nevertheless, when coupled with older critical pedagogies introduced by practitioners such as Freire, Henry Giroux, bell hooks, Gloria J. Ladson-Billings, Ira Shor, Howard Zinn, and others, new technologies have introduced experimental possibilities for motivating, engaging, and transforming both learners and teachers.
This chapter explores ways that narrative can exceed “narration sickness” in historical education that takes place with Black and brown youth. Following an overview of the benefits of critical media making and project-based curricula, I turn to the case study of the first year of a two-year workshop-based program entitled Transmedia Collage: Histories of Violence and Futures of Health on Chicago’s South Side that began in 2017. This project explored how a climate of structural violence has historically impacted the health and wellbeing of youth of color and the communities they live in on Chicago’s South Side. In addressing a social and economic climate that disadvantages communities of color and neighborhoods that face persistent poverty, this project actively countered narratives that describe these communities as essentially violent or historically productive of violence. Instead of beginning with a model of interpersonal violence, we adopted a frame of structural violence. Such violence is apparent across the South Side of Chicago and exceeds actions committed by a specific person against another. As I elaborated in the introduction, this part of the city has some of the city’s highest rates of school dropout, obesity, commuting times, drug arrests, and incarceration. Across these areas, young people have been among the most heavily impacted. The case described in this chapter seeks to counter these forms of violence through participatory design and collaboration.
The Transmedia Collage workshop serves as a case of the method that I will call transmedia history. The project was designed in a collaboration between the University of Chicago’s Transmedia Story Lab (TSL) and the University of Illinois Chicago’s History Moves (HM) initiative as a way of creating new narratives about the city of Chicago. The team recruited students of color from a group of South Side neighborhoods. During the program, youth learned to conduct and record oral history interviews. From this information, they created text, image, and sonic collages in order to reimagine the pasts of their neighborhoods. Each collage exemplified how both participatory maker culture and digital media can alter how we understand key concepts including urban space, publics, and the relationships between violence and health. Alongside this analysis, we include reproductions of the original youth collages, images from the workshops, an audio file of remixed oral histories and historical recordings, and original collages created by TSL team member and co-designer of this book Ireashia Bennett. To disrupt (in an admittedly modest and local manner) the processes that fuel structural violence, we turned to the method of critical making and the specific form of collage. A key underlying question of the project is: how can universities both public and private, which seek to work in ethical and equitable community partnerships with young people, grapple with histories of structural violence by incorporating digital technologies, artistic tools, and cultural forms of the historical present? In order to think through how social structures are produced, maintained, mediated, and changed, we worked with young people to understand and use transmedia tools to mediate and transform historical knowledge.
Before turning to the case of Transmedia Collage itself, I would like to introduce the critical making paradigm that that guided our work in this program (Jagoda 2017). Critical making is an interdisciplinary mode of research, culture, and pedagogy that departs from traditional forms of critique. Anne Balsamo explains that this mode draws from DIY culture, the maker movement, the creation of handicrafts, and modes of tinkering, “modding,” and hacking (177). David Staley has argued that, in academic fields such as design, media studies, or human-computer interaction in the twenty-first century, there has been an expansion of critical making practices, many of which involve engagements with non-textual physical and screen-based objects. Matt Ratto describes a broad range of “critical making projects” that undertake “scholarly research on critical social issues and design methodologies” and that further “critical knowledge through joint material production” (252). Instead of creating polished objects that can be monetized or broadly disseminated, critical making focuses on “the act of shared construction itself as an activity and a site for enhancing and extending conceptual understandings of critical sociotechnical issues” (254). In this category, one might include projects such as the prototypes of nineteenth-century wearables and the early twentieth-century optophone created at University of Victoria’s Maker Lab in the Humanities, the experimental video games and game mods developed at the UC Davis ModLab, the “tech for good” prototypes designed at the University of Waterloo's Critical Media Lab, or the speculative design projects constructed by the Design Fiction group at MIT.
Instead of being opposed to a concept like critical thinking or more conventional humanistic activities such as reading and writing, critical making combines analytical capacities with more experiential, creative, and collaborative work. From another perspective, the experiential dimension of critical making might appear as a version of clichéd hands-on education that promotes a neoliberal concern with skills over the liberal arts. Yet as I seek to emphasize across the projects described in this book, experience can also entail a deeply ethical and involved approach to creating knowledge with other people. To this point, architect Christopher Alexander argues that there is a difference between an architect “designing” versus “making” an object like a building. In this case, “design” implies a more abstract, specialized, and distant contribution. By contrast, “When I make something . . . I am deeply involved with it and responsible for it. And not only I. Whether I am head of some project, or a person making some small part of it, the feeling of total responsibility is on my shoulders. In a good process, each person working on the building is—and feels—responsible for everything. For design, schedule, structure, lowers, feeling—everything” (13). Making, especially collaborative making, foregrounds a connection to the created thing, but perhaps even more importantly emphasizes our responsibility to and interdependence with others. As opposed to the rote memorization encouraged by the banking model of education or the distanced mastery that sometimes accompanies critique, making also emphasizes materiality. Even more importantly, making involves a learner in not merely accumulating knowledge but transforming it.
Another advantage of critical making is that it promotes what Freire calls “problem-posing” education that celebrates “acts of cognition” over “transferals of information” (60). In this system, according to Freire, “The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach. They become jointly responsible for a process in which all grow” (61). Both Alexander and Freire prioritize a sense of mutual “responsibility” among everyone who participates in a making process. Beyond the care for one another, this responsibility extends “problems relating to themselves in the world and with the world” (62). The construction and response to live problems in the world encourages a sense of active and motivated commitment to learning.
Since Freire’s articulation of problem-posing education in the late 1960s, education scholars have developed versions of this idea. Problems that are difficult to solve, or even address, can serve to engage students in an active manner (Jonassen). Social problems, such as racism, sexism, immigration policy, or climate change, can all motivate students to investigate, generate mental models, and construct creative responses. Particularly since the early twenty-first century, scholars have also examined the benefits of a “multimedia learning environment” for supporting problem-oriented curricula (Saye and Brush 77). While such environments might not improve “disciplined inquiry,” studies have suggested they have “considerable potential for encouraging engagement and empathy” (Saye and Brush 82).
Though critical making practices and problem-posing curricula have become more prominent in research university contexts, including in emergent humanities labs, they have not become equally available to BIPOC youth or even most students at lower grade levels. Even at universities, there have been numerous critiques of the ways that the digital humanities, for example, have historically neutralized or limited critiques of power or media in favor of methodological contributions (McPherson; Hall; Allington, et al.). At the same time, digital humanities work has also started attending more carefully to matters of race, class, gender, and sexuality (D’Ignazio and Klein; So ). Regardless of these scholarly dynamics, and more importantly in this context, the availability of both technical and sociopolitical resources is still more abundant at the university level than at the high school level or below. In the next section, working through the case study of Transmedia Collage, I argue that a curriculum based in critical making, problem posing, and transmedia making offers unique advantages for co-constructing marginalized histories that have previously been ignored or silenced.
Transmedia Collage was an Andrew M. Mellon Foundation funded collaboration that was supported by the Humanities Without Walls consortium. This project emerged between two organizations: the University of Chicago’s Transmedia Story Lab (TSL) and the University of Illinois at Chicago’s History Moves (HM), an organization led by History and Gender & Women's Studies professor Jennifer Brier. Prior to this project, TSL worked primarily on digital stories with LGBTQ+ youth and youth of color. For this project, the collaboration with HM allowed us to learn from their expertise in oral history and design methods to create community-engaged public transmedia history projects.
The Transmedia Collage program promoted collaborative, interdisciplinary, and multimedia investigations. Specifically, we explored the history of structural violence, the health and well-being of young people, and community identity on the South Side of Chicago. In 2017, the first year of this two-year project, on which this chapter focuses, we ran daily workshops that introduced historical research and oral history interviewing skills to high-school-aged participants. Following an introduction to historical content and interview skills, students were introduced to critical making methods in which they created collages, across different media, in small groups. The goal was to use humanistic and artistic methods to influence research, policy, and public discourse about the city of Chicago. The team included historians, literary and media theorists, storytellers, a graphic designer, community elders, and fourteen high-school-aged youth. This group joined a workshop at the University of Chicago in Hyde Park in order to create narratives about the city of Chicago. We also incorporated speakers from fields such as history and journalism. In this pilot project, we were less interested in scaling (a topic to which I return in the coda of this chapter) than in creating an intergenerational community interested in learning about and transforming the history of the South Side.
During the first year of “Transmedia Collage,” young people learned from both historical archives and participating elders about the neighborhoods of South Chicago. They read and imagined new narratives about the South Side, one of the largest contiguous Black communities in the United States. They consistently sought to counter the national and local media’s representations of the area, and its young people, as dangerous and even criminal. Over the course of three weeks, the youth participants created transmedia collages in text, visual, and sonic forms in order to reimagine the pasts of their neighborhoods. Each collage exemplified how digital media and participatory maker culture can enable transmedia storytelling and a reimagination of history. The storytelling, in turn, fundamentally altered how we understood key concepts including urban space, digital publics, and the relationships between violence and health. Through engaged study and critical making, participants brought to life the history of Black and brown cultures, including the effects of racial segregation on South Side communities that have been isolated from the rest of the city. The remainder of this section provides an overview of the recruitment process, curriculum, and three weeks of the program.
Even in a smaller workshop or collaboration, every detail of the process matters and contributes to shared dynamics and the possible parameters of trust among participants. For us, this began with the recruitment process, which unfolded over the several months leading up to the first set of workshops. The Transmedia Collage team, especially our graduate student colleagues, focused outreach on schools, churches, youth programs, community councils, non-profit organizations, and community centers across the South Side of Chicago in order to find youth who wanted to commit to this shared project. In particular, the team focused on the South Side neighborhoods of Englewood, Greater Grand Crossing, North Lawndale, Washington Park, and Woodlawn. As such, we communicated with youth from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, educational settings, and geographic location, while also being mindful to tap into organizations committed to community organizing, adolescent health, recreation, spirituality, and social justice. Recruitment yielded fourteen youth who were all enrolled in high school, most of whom were about to become second or third years. Additionally, we recruited seven community elders (most of whom were in their 40s and 50s) from this same grouping of neighborhoods.
The recruitment of even a modest number of participants was difficult for a variety of reasons. One key factor had to do with a history of distrust by the communities of the South Side of Chicago about the motivations of a program organized at the University of Chicago. I elaborate on this point in the introduction to this book. Nevertheless, it is worth remarking again that while this university has national renown and is regularly rated as a Top 10 research university in the United States, it is part of a layered history in relation to its surrounding and proximate communities that suffer from institutionalized racism and inequality at every level of sociopolitical life. While a single project could not possibly overcome this history, or transform relations between the University and the South Side community, we sought to acknowledge and address it across our shared conversations, including at the moment of participant recruitment. The project team was composed primarily of people from the academic class who belonged to two prestigious universities. At the same time, the group of organizing adults was diverse, especially along lines of race, gender, sexuality, and age.
Another reason that recruitment was difficult had to do with the economic situations in which some youth in this area find themselves. Taking three weeks off of work, which many young people needed during the summer, was not a realistic prospect. For this reason, in planning the project, we prioritized giving youth stipends for the work. Arriving on site at the University of Chicago each day was also a nontrivial logistical matter. For this reason, we offered lunch and covered transportation to the University of Chicago throughout the program. These elements, however modest, were crucial for our ability to recruit and retain students over the summer.
Following recruitment of the collaborating youth, the first part of Transmedia Collage ran for three weeks in the summer of 2017. The students met with members of the project team each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, for six hours on each day. Given the complexities of the racial histories of the South Side of Chicago, as well the meanings associated with running the program at the University of Chicago, we recruited Black storyteller Marquez Rhyne as a lead facilitator, instead of the two white scholars (myself and Dr. Jennifer Brier) who served as principal investigators on the project grant. Rhyne had years of experience working with Black, brown, and LGBTQ+ adolescents on a range of storytelling projects, and I was fortunate enough to work with them for several years at TSL. Alongside Rhyne, core participants included digital storyteller Ireashia Bennett, media studies graduate student Gary Kafer, and myself (from TSL) and history graduate student Chelsea Ridley and Brier (from HM).
The focus of this three-week sequence was on historical research, interpretation, and critical making. Following an orientation session about shared goals, the first week introduced students to core methods of oral history research and the transmedia collage format toward which we would be working. The second week focused on practice-based methods of collage making. Finally, the third week opened space for collaborative work that involved polishing historical narratives and composing collage projects. For the remainder of this section, I offer a more detailed overview of this curriculum as a model for critical historical education with youth of color that focuses on critical media making and project-based work.
In the Orientation session, the facilitators shared cases of what we called transmedia storytelling, which addressed structural violence on a local and global scale. In particular, we discussed projects such as High Rise and Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Both pieces illustrated ways that digital technologies have unique potentials to transform and disrupt dominant narratives and to compose historical narratives that foreground marginalized voices. In response to these cases, youth began to share stories they had heard from family members who grew up in the public housing project of the Robert Taylor Homes, challenged dominant narratives of Black and brown youth in Chicago, and shared their own lived experiences dealing with structural violence. These moments of sharing introduced language and tangible experiences to abstract concepts. In addition to this historical introduction, we also introduced collage as an artistic expressive form and storytelling technique. The facilitators discussed elements and genres of collage. We also presented curated cases created by Black artists such as Krista Franklin, Romare Bearden, and Wangechi Mutu who use remixed and reused images to communicate ideas, build new worlds, and promote Black radical imagination. In addition to examples of audio-visual collages, we also presented cases from contemporary meme culture, transmedia storytelling, remixing and sampling in hip hop, and contemporary Black art and culture.
In Week 1, we began by exploring historical narratives that offered different types of responses to the question “What happened?” From the beginning, we were interested not only in traditional history, but also speculative historical narratives that could address counterfactual questions such as “What if something else happened?” and ethical questions such as “What should have happened?” In terms of core activities, facilitators guided participating youth in locating archival materials via online academic archives, research databases, and university library resources, so that students could engage with historical documents, photographs, and audio clips. In advance of the workshop, we also compiled media packets unique to different South Side neighborhoods that youth could read, interpret, and curate. For example, one of the packets focused on Englewood: a neighborhood on the southwest side of Chicago that, in 2010, had a population that was made up of 98.5% Black residents (Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning 3). This packet contained 15 historically and culturally diverse items, including items specific to Englewood:
- A JPG of a 1933 advertisement of the Englewood Sears building
- A JPG of a Chicago Tribune headline of the protests and riots that broke out in Englewood after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. from April 6, 1968
- An MP3 of a 2014 Outside the Loop radio interview with Elaine Hegwood Bowen about her book Old School Adventures from Englewood
- A YouTube link to a trailer for the film Chi-Raq (Spike Lee, 2015), set primarily in Englewood
Each packet, including the one for Englewood, also contained materials that were more general to the entire South Side of Chicago, such as:
- An animated GIF of a map of Chicago that shows the changing racial demographics, by decade, between 1910 and 2000
- A PDF of the Chicago Department of Public Health’s report, STD/HIV/AIDS Chicago, from winter 2005-2006
- An MP3 of Chance the Rapper’s song “Summer Friends” from the mixtape Coloring Book (2016)
- A PDF of a research report from the Metropolitan Planning Council, “The Cost of Segregation” (2017), which is focused on Chicago
These packets introduced a range of scenes, topics, and media in order to jumpstart the historical imagination of the youth and encourage additional research. Youth participants used their engagement with archival material to begin to form sharp critiques of the dominant narrative of the South Side of Chicago in popular media where more nuanced histories of neighborhood practices and inequalities have been historically ignored.
In addition to research, we also introduced youth to oral history interviewing techniques. The goal was for pairs of youth to interview adult participants from five different South Side neighborhoods. For this activity, we recruited seven adult participants. Based on the archival online research they had conducted, youth developed and workshopped questions for each interview. Youth focused on topics that included the elders’ lived experiences of structural violence, their memories of the changing economic landscape of Chicago since the 1960s, the role young people played in civil rights, and models for community building in the face of structural disinvestment. In addition to these stated topics, elders also shared childhood memories and family histories, which allowed youth to foster personal connections on topics such as play, transportation, school, and music. Following the interviews, the Transmedia Collage team generated transcripts and distributed them to all the interviewees and interviewers for further review.
These oral histories encouraged youth to build intergenerational connections with elders and to collect local, first-hand accounts of various neighborhoods directly surrounding the University of Chicago, where we learned together each day. Beyond the archival research, these interviews contextualized the current climate of each neighborhood. These interviews introduced issues of housing, employment, healthcare, and police brutality that became central to the entire Transmedia Collage program. Observing how elders envisioned the future of their communities when they were young also served as inspiration for the critical and artistic work produced through the remainder of the workshop.
In Week 2, we moved from an emphasis on historical content to narrative form. Youth gathered the material elements they would need to work on their collaborative collages. Though research and interview methods integrated digital tools, we also made analog materials available for the initial collage work. Based on interests in different media, we divided youth into three groups: Text, Image, and Sonic. For this division, we drew loosely from theorist Roland Barthes’s tripartite media aesthetics scheme from his book Image, Music, Text. Instead of beginning work on collages, each group was first instructed to create a collaborative fictional or speculative historical narrative that focused on young Black and brown people whose livelihood, health, and sustainability were affected by structural violence. A central part of this process involved establishing a protagonist or key characters to inhabit the world they were constructing. Facilitators challenged groups to contextualize these stories and characters based on their research and interviews. The groups ended up landing on three major events around which to construct their narratives: the Great Migration of the 1940s, the criminalization of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, and the school-to-prison pipeline of Black and brown youth in the 1990s. This process of composing fictional narratives encouraged youth to challenge history as a chronological sequence or already-existing resource in order to question and talk back to dominant historical narratives. During this week, we also welcomed guests, including Pulitzer Prize winning historian of U.S. race and ethnicity Marcia Chatelain. Chatelain spoke with the group about the lives of Black girls during the Great Migration in Chicago, sharing examples from her book, South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration. She also encouraged responsible social media usage around topics related to race, gender, and politics, and shared her own experience of growing up as a Haitian-American in Chicago.
In Week 3, once groups finished conducting research and saved their acquired materials, they began world-building with text, image, and sound media. Collage construction began with storyboarding and prototyping. Collage is fundamentally a form of recombination and revision, and the young people embraced the significance of this work in the final full week of the summer workshop. The Text group focused on collected quotations from New York Times and Chicago Tribune articles from the 1980s and archival excerpts and prepared to combine them with their own narrative and formal work. The Image group created a visual collage and filled negative and positive space with repurposed images and photographs. The Sonic group created sonic collages with archival materials individually before combining them into one master audio file. Throughout this process, adult organizers offered light guidance but ultimately took a step back from the process to allow teen participants to lead. In this sense, we attempted to act less as teachers who had the correct answers to deliver (as in Freire’s banking model of education) than as facilitators who could guide participants through the historical and formal dimensions of their projects. On the final day of the three-week workshop, each group presented their narratives and collages.
Before analyzing the implications and benefits of this combination of oral history and collage-based historical storytelling methods, we offer an overview of each of the three stories, team processes, and collages created by youth who participated in the first year of Transmedia Collage. Instead of providing the full story, we share an overview of the premise, characters, and key themes that the students created during the workshop in order to give an impression of the process. We imagined each of these narratives as operating within the realm of historical fictions that drew from historical details but speculated about the way that singular subjects might operate within that context. By considering the socioeconomic climate of each era, youth reflected on how humanistic methods and digital media tools might aid in the fight against structural inequity locally in Chicago, nationally, and globally. Youth did not merely recognize the role dominant narratives played in silencing counter-narratives and counter-histories, but also used their collages to intervene in those narratives. These projects operated at the intersection of archival research, speculative imagination, and transmedia storytelling that combined academic theory, historical methodologies, and creative outputs.
It is 1983 and the Green family lives in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago. During this period, HIV/AIDS is on the rise while both the War on Drugs and mass incarceration are significantly impacting Black communities. Matt Green has recently graduated high school and is attempting to enroll in Kennedy King, a local community college. Matt has a job but also feels that it is necessary to sell drugs in order to support his family. His sister, Maddie, is slowly turning to the streets and finding herself in frequent fights. His mom has become addicted to crack and is not doing anything to benefit herself or her family. Matt and Maddie’s father is not in their life, having been shot by the police and then unjustly prosecuted. One day, while making a sale, Matt notices in the midst of a crowd, that his sister Maddie is in a fight with a local teen. Matt quickly stops what he is doing to break up the fight when the police arrive and wrongfully accuse him of causing the fight between the two young women. While searching Matt, the police find his last bag of cocaine and rejoice when stating that up to five years will be added to his sentence.
Through their story, the Text team addressed themes including the War on Drugs, homophobia, and their characters’ responses to structural violence. The collage is fully text-based, employing different colors and sizes of script. The youth participants explored online materials from newspapers, websites, books, journals, magazines, and Google searches to research issues of structural violence during 1983 in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago. The final collage places positive and affirming text inside the silhouette of their protagonist Matt and negative text on the outside. During the three weeks, the team became more proficient at locating sources that pertain to their story and began to use multiple search engines for better results. They also learned how to work collectively, both in collaboration with their team and with facilitators, in order to combine individual ideas into a shared collage. Their research led them to conclude that their contemporary society had not changed as much as is commonly claimed, particularly for Black and brown folks living in Chicago.
It is 1995 and Chicago has been hit by its deadliest heat wave, which took 739 lives across the city. The story follows Alex, his girlfriend Jessica, and their friend Keisha. Alex (17), Puerto Rican, poor, and homeless, lives a life of petty crime to survive. He lives under the Dan Ryan expressway while the rest of his family lives in the Cabrini Green public housing projects. Jessica (16), Mexican-American and pregnant, faces shame and abandonment from her family who disapprove of her pregnancy. Keisha (16), Black American and bisexual, is a basketball player who excels in school and hopes to attend college. During the height of the heat wave, the youth ride around the neighborhood in a car that Alex stole as they search for cool, fresh water and a place to rest. Alex parks his car and walks into a corner store. While in the store, he pretends to shop for a few minutes. He robs the store while Keisha and Jessica wait for him in the car. He rushes out with money in his hands and drives away. Keisha and Jessica wonder what is happening but quickly recognize that Alex robbed the store in order to take care of them. The remainder of the narrative involves a series of risky choices that result in the incarceration of both Alex and Jessica.
The Image team produced a visual collage in which the youth participants collected photographs of Chicago from the 1980s and 1990s in order to create what they thought Alex, Jessica, and Keisha’s world might look and feel like. Given that the story takes place before the youth creators were born, this process involved historical immersion and speculation, as well as learning from the interviews conducted with elders who had lived through this era. In particular, the team dwelled on the ordinary effects of housing inequity and poor living conditions heightened by severe poverty. To explain why Alex might have robbed the corner store, they explored the structural violence that might lead some young Black and brown people to resort to interpersonal violence as a means of survival.
In the 1940s, in the Bronzeville community on the South Side of Chicago, Gus (16) and his mother DonnaJo find themselves in a financial crisis. Having traveled from the South during the Great Migration, DonnaJo and Gus live in poverty. DonnaJo asks Gus to find a job. Gus finds work at a steel factory, but quickly becomes sick, contracting tuberculosis. As a result, he is immediately fired. From here, he has a difficult decision to make: he can either attempt to find another job or sell stolen items as part of the street economy. He chooses the street, survives it, and fortunately is successful enough to be able to start his own legitimate business in Bronzeville in later years.
The Sonic team crafted a minimalist frame narrative that explores the economic transition of South Chicago in the 1940s. For many Black folks during this period, the economic transition could be felt at many levels. Globally, World War II had dynamic effects on the economy. Locally, however, Black folks faced limited access to transportation within the city and mixed employment opportunities in factory settings. The Black experience at this moment was difficult and complex as it responded to events like the Great Migration, the Great Depression, and War World II. One axis of response by the Black community to structural violence took place through the Black Renaissance in places such as the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago. To capture this historical moment, this team researched sounds in the 1940s, particularly around the end of the war. Their collage is structured around the economy in three parts: the war, transportation, and industry. The collage includes sounds from the Black Renaissance, including jazz and blues songs, speeches, poems, and atmospheric audio. This group learned that after WWII, there was still economic hardship in the U.S., but this period also saw the rise of a new Black culture. Throughout the process, this team reflected on the difficulty of sound-based research. For optimal results, they could not rely on platforms and search engines they already knew, such as YouTube and Google. Instead, they had to engage in research to discover and allow themselves to be surprised by sounds from the 1940s.Building on the account of the first year of the Transmedia Collage program in the earlier section, I would now like to elaborate why we focused on oral history and transmedia collage-based storytelling methods in order to challenge the common top-down approach to historical education and to introduce an alternative model of historical work among youth of color. Our team could have started with traditional historical texts or media but decided instead to focus on oral history. Interest in local oral histories, ranging from anecdotes by residents of a place to family members, has grown among historians, especially since the 1970s. As Barbara Allen and William Lynwood Montell observe, elements that make oral history unique include the following:
Disregard for standard chronology; emotional association of persons as a primary organizing principle; clustering of oral accounts around significant events or persons; reliance on visual imagery and striking detail; compression or telescoping of historical time; displacement of original actors in a historical event with others; migration of dramatic narrative elements among historical accounts; and patterning of oral accounts of different events along similar lines (Allen and Montell 26).
The format of oral history “collects spoken memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through recorded interviews” in both audio and visual formats (Ritchie 1). In just this way, during the Transmedia Collage program, youth learned about oral history alongside practical skills that included interview techniques and recording processes, so they could study interviews for later application in their collage projects. UIC’s History Moves initiative, under the leadership and disciplinary expertise of Dr. Brier, was crucial to this training process. There were three primary reasons why we turned to oral history as our primary technique for this program, including (1) the importance of the method for recovering stories from marginalized communities such as the South Side of Chicago, (2) the link between oral history on the one hand and visual and sonic collage on the other, and (3) the appropriateness of the form to relational or non-hierarchical pedagogy that we sought to foster. I will now elaborate briefly upon each of those forms.
First, instead of exclusively textual or media-based history, we identified oral history as the ideal fit for the specific space and marginalized community with whom we were working. To be clear, our goal was never the production of academic scholarship that relied on oral history methods. Instead, we sought to use oral history as a method or technique that could make history more accessible and present as well as to garner engagement among our high-school-aged participants. Many of the youth with whom we worked had encountered history primarily via generalized chronologies and top-down lecture, which often excluded histories of Black Americans and the South Side of Chicago. Oral history provided an alternative. Starting in the 1970s, oral history took off as a method for bottom-up histories, including more popular examples such as Studs Terkel’s Hard Times (1970) and the fictional text Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976), which drew from these methods. Given the exclusion of Black experience from mainstream American history, “oral histories and ethnographic interviews” have become a crucial source and resource for filling in archival silences and transforming historical pedagogy (Robinson, Cambrice, and Earles 172).
Beyond general oral histories of South Side neighborhoods, we were interested in emphasizing sociopolitical histories. Often, a pedagogy like Freire’s “problem-posing” approach is connected to political or civic competency (Parker, Mueller, and Wendling). Such competency involves using “critical reasoning” and a knowledge of social problems to foster “the ability to make competent civic decisions” (Saye and Brush 78). The Transmedia Collage program was not opposed to this kind of thinking but also had a more activist dimension. Civics emphasizes the rights and responsibilities of citizens who, in a democratic society, engage in activities such as community participation and voting. In some ways, this language implies a rational and equitable public sphere. However, the access to historical information and rights has never been so straightforward for Black and brown people in the United States. As historian Manning Marable writes, “Everyday events that have occurred under a racist society, such as a lynching, or the unjust arrest and incarceration of an innocent black person, are denied historical significance or merit, and are therefore not mentioned in standard narratives about the past” (20). In other words, civics relies on learning about the rules of political engagement as they already exist. Unfortunately this approach is inadequate by itself because white hegemony has ensured that those rules have never been equivalent for large parts of the U.S. population. Moreover, the histories of inequality that demonstrate these crucial differences have been silenced or eliminated altogether. For this reason, a focus on social movements and historical struggles took on greater emphasis in our exploration of South Side Chicago histories. At the same time, we also did not focus merely on histories of trauma, such as slavery, which are important but are already the most common dimensions of Black history taught in many schools today to the exclusion of other complex factors (Garcia and Tanner; Provenzo, Shaver, and Bello; Childs).
Second, oral history provided us with connections to the sensory dimensions of collage making toward which we were working with the participating youth. The link between audio interviews and the sonic collage was perhaps the more direct. However, it is worth emphasizing that a fundamental understanding of oral history already includes a sense of the visual. As Allen and Montell note, “Orally communicated history contains a wealth of images and details that serve to conjure up, in the minds of listeners, vivid mental pictures of the past” (33). Moreover, “Through the use of visual imagery, whole events in a community’s history can be compressed into emotionally powerful symbols” (34). Our oral history interviews built on this principle, and we supplemented those with images from the history of the South Side of Chicago through the twentieth and twenty-first century. We did not ask students to memorize and regurgitate key dates or chronologies via tests or to make standard academic arguments in a paper writing format. Instead, we used the materiality of history to engage with what Manning Marable calls “living history” that is not merely about the world but also contextualized within the process of that world’s unfolding. Marable calls for method that uses a transmedia approach ranging across “oral history, photography, film, ethnography, and multimedia digital technology” in order to “stimulate a new kind of historically grounded conversation about race and the destructive processes of racialization” (xx). Indeed, one example of a project that uses multiple media in order to encounter history is the 2000 web-based version of W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk to which Marable himself contributed (32). The power of this kind of approach is that it inspires students to know their history well enough to intervene in it and imbue it with new life. Instead of fetishizing technology through this process, we used it as one of many methods for historically informed storytelling.
Third, oral history was the right methodological fit with the non-hierarchical or relational pedagogy that we hoped to model within the workshop. This kind of pedagogy depended, first and foremost, on all participants marking their situatedness and embodiment. For example, even within our curricular team, my own status as a white tenured professor at the University of Chicago who served as a principal investigator on the grant that supported this project was different from that of my collaborator Ireashia Bennett, a Black media artist who worked as the audio-visual production specialist for our Transmedia Story Lab, or Chelsea Ridley, a PhD Student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. As curators of the workshop, all of our statuses departed from those of Black South Side high school students such as Lauren Johnson or Kaya Thomas who participated in the entire program or community elders such as Regina Dixon-Reeves and Terrence Miller who generously joined us as interviewees for the interview portion of the workshop. Acknowledging and naming these differences, up front, was meant neither to neutralize them nor to inscribe the same forms of hierarchy that are inherent in most pedagogy. Without dismissing the hierarchies across the group, we celebrated the benefits of intergenerational participants from high school students to graduate students to faculty and staff to community members who brought different knowledges and experiences to the project.
Our use of an oral history method served as a microcosm of our broader pedagogical ethic insofar as it made interviewers and interviewees crucial collaborators in the process of remembering, conjuring, and constructing history. Youth did not merely record or write up the interviews in which they participated. As I attempted to show in the description of the workshop, they found notable convergences and divergences between interviewee experiences and their own, and they weaved together the stories that they heard with their own stories that they expressed through various collage formats. Drawing again from Freire, we began with the belief that the efforts of an educator “must be imbued with a profound trust in people and their creative power” and a willingness to become “partners of the students in their relations with them” (56). As he further emphasizes, thinking that engages with and shapes reality cannot occur in “ivory tower isolation” but only in “communication” among students, teachers, and others that encourages “action upon the world” (58). Building directly on this idea, bell hooks describes a pedagogy in which “everyone’s presence is acknowledged” in order to spur “collective effort in creating and sustaining a learning community” (8). Beyond articulating a utopian discursive desire, we attempted to model this mode of relation by participating in exercises and sharing our own stories both during the workshop and in conversations during breaks.
Oral history was certainly not the only route into the way of thinking about and acting upon history that we sought to emphasize through our pedagogy. Nevertheless, oral history helped us all encounter and practice a materialist engagement with the world. It built up a relation that was sometimes non-hierarchal, sometimes multiply hierarchal, but almost always reflexive and communal during our weeks together. The historical and artistic work of this intergenerational cohort sought to imagine and build a more equitable and just community. This working method also changed how we all understood what history could be — not just in the past but in our ongoing present and future.Our team did not enter into the Transmedia Collage workshop with a preconceived intention to scale the project up to a larger group of youth. The locality of the work, on the South Side of Chicago, was irreducibly important to us. Instead of the more common goal of scaling (a concept to which I return, from a different perspective, in the coda of Chapter 6), we sought to model a way of working together and respond to the singularity of the group that gathered together, day after day, in a specific location. This workshop model was never imagined as a one size fits all. We knew that our oral history and collage program would have worked very differently on the resource-rich North Side of Chicago or in a differently resource-poor part of the United States such as parts of Oakland or Detroit. The local nature of our work might have felt limiting to some foundations or grant-giving bodies (even as we were fortunate to receive grant funding for it), but it is precisely what created an interest and attachment by the participating students and adults. Even as we cannot generalize the design of this program, we believe there are principles that we learned and practiced that could be extended to other sites and curricula.
In other writing, I have asked the following question with different collaborators: what does it mean to scale up modes of learning or play from intimate to larger groups? (Jagoda et al.). On its surface, the terms “scaling” and “play” may appear to be opposed, the first as an industrial-era ambition for standardization and the second as a postindustrial-era mode of improvisation (Davidson). For the Transmedia Collage team, the concept of “play” was very closely linked to the radical pedagogy imagined by thinkers such as Freire. So, for us, the classroom space was sufficient for the kind of collective experiment to which we aspired.
A related question that follows on this seeming paradox that I would like to add now is: what is the value of a curricular case, beyond questions of replicability and circulation? Indeed, this book is filled with cases, only some of which have been scaled beyond individual workshops or classrooms. Despite the digital ideology of instant distribution and spreadability of media, there is value in thinking with the singular case (Jenkins, Ford, and Green). Arguably, one of the major differences between the humanities and arts on the one hand and the physical, biological, and social sciences on the other is that the former are committed to the irreducible value of the cases. While social science research may seek to generalize from either quantitative or qualitative data, humanistic thought proceeds from the wisdom gained from a close reading of a novel or the cultural nuance of a well-contextualized and carefully constructed artwork. One can and does generalize from a case as interdisciplinary methods such as “critical theory” demonstrate. At the same time, the value of a case is what can be borrowed, learned, modded, or improved based on a careful engagement with all of its non-abstracted dimensions. Indeed, we present the Transmedia Collage program here with the hopes that this case can inspire related and even more robust programs in other contexts.
Beyond scaling itself, one can study a case through social scientific research. Though we did not implement an external study in the specific case of Transmedia Collage (as we did with the projects analyzed in Chapters 2 and 3), this would be a next possible step for understanding the efficacies of such a program. A possible lens to pursue such research through would be that of a design experiment. As Saye and Brush note, “Design experiments view innovative teaching as an experiment occurring in the ‘multiply confounded’ world of real classrooms rather than controlled environments” (83). Such research might not feel as clean as the randomized controlled trial or clinical trial that is regularly used to study a new medication or vaccine. However, classrooms will always remain “multiply confounded” spaces that resist more systematic forms of research, except in artificial conditions that entail their own limitations. Nevertheless, uncontrolled or less controlled studies can still have value when coupled with humanistic methods and orientations. Through the Transmedia Collage project, and the other cases in this book, this is the type of hybrid method toward which we hope modestly to gesture. In the next chapter, I move this way of thinking from possible pasts to preferable futures, with the method of speculative design.