Media Analysis Journal: Creativity across the channels

Is transmedia storytelling primarily a method to expand the richness and depth of a fictional universe, or is it a raw cash grab? In his third chapter of Convergence Culture, titled “Searching for the Origami Unicorn,” Henry Jenkins attempts to wrestle with some of these issues. Jenkins uses the example of an origami unicorn in the movie Blade Runner, itself not originally a transmedia production, to define and describe the intersections of cult films and transmedia – creative works across multiple media formats, such as film, television shows, comic books, video games, and the like. As Jenkins shows, such productions have the power to add depth and breadth to the world of the franchise. And, as an undeniable bonus, by encouraging fans to spend more to gain full comprehension of the plot and characters, they can rake in oodles of dough.

Here it is: An origami unicorn. Image credit: Inception8.

Here it is: An origami unicorn. Image credit: Inception8.

Producers in creative fields usually declare that their intentions in transmedia works are to increase interactivity and enrich the fictional landscape, which are fundamentally artistic goals. But the monetary benefits can’t hurt. Video games, as we know, aren’t cheap, serving as just one more way to entice consumers to hand over real-world cash for another slice of information about a world that may be interesting but certainly isn’t real. Once fans are immersed in that world, though, they keep coming back for more… and more… and more. Corporate giants like Disney may look at their auxiliary creations as a key to “additive comprehension,” but without the dollar signs, none of them would see the marketplace.

For all its value in fiction, however, it might actually be argued that transmedia has had a comparable impact in some strands of nonfiction. For example, professional sports leagues like Major League Baseball and the National Football League have, in effect, adopted much of the transmedia approach in their own business operations. The NFL, for example, has evolved from an organization with one basic product (tickets to its football games) to a multibillion-dollar entity with games on television and the Internet, specialty productions (NFL Films), fantasy leagues (which, though independently operated, work much like fan fiction in driving product interest from an external source), and video games (which enable direct player participation in the worlds of their favorite teams and players). Although early video games simply represented generic players on a field with no ties to the league, the modern world of the Madden series by Electronic Arts (which holds an exclusive license from the league) not only represents the league and its players, but provides a distinct entry point for young fans.

Whether they know #Concomms theory or not, the NFL has used transmedia production to expand its sports empire.

Whether they know #Concomms theory or not, the NFL has used transmedia production to expand its sports empire.

Moreover, video games and fantasy leagues enable fans to effectively create a parallel narrative distinct from the on-field product, as they work ingenious machinations to put Tom Brady, Calvin Johnson, DeMarco Murray, and the Seahawks defense on the same virtual squad to answer those age-old sporting questions. What if someone really could put the best of the best on the same team? The NFL’s potential for further expansion in this field is somewhat limited because of the number of avenues already in use. But the league might be able to design new entry points, perhaps with simulations highlighting the dizzying financial processes used by experts (known as “capologists”) in navigating the salary cap. This could exploit the interest in the business side of sports already demonstrated by the Michael Lewis book Moneyball about baseball’s Oakland A’s and their innovative methods for accomplishing more with less. Similarly, the NFL could expand “character backgrounds” with occasional shows on the NFL Network profiling the stories of players ranging from star quarterbacks to obscure long snappers, helping to humanize these supposed warriors of the gridiron in a time of concern about players’ long-term health. This illustrates additive comprehension at work, as the additional productions would demonstrate other sides of the game that casual fans often are unable to grasp. Most likely the NFL had never heard of the transmedia concept when it began licensing video games or authorizing NFL Films production, but it has applied those principles well to supplement its standing as a national entertainment titan.

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