Excolunt!: Academic Debate about Convergence Culture

Ian Bogost – respected ludologist, co-founder of Water Cooler Games and author of Unit Operations (his most recent book) — has reviewed Henry Jenkins’ book Convergence Culture. It is a lengthy review in which Bogost queries, of course, Jenkin’s introduction of his own terms and the use of ‘storytelling’ in ‘transmedia storytelling’. Jenkins has responded too, continuing the discussion at his blog with three lengthy posts: part 1, part 2, part 3. Jenkin’s is not concerned with Bogost’s complaint about his inventing words for phenomena that is already extant:

I see the varied terms as different ways of describing the same phenomenon. Each term helps us see some aspects more clearly and makes others harder to see. For that reason, there’s an argument to be made for keeping multiple terms in play rather than trying to figure out which one is best. If my words are useful, use them. If not, dump them.

I completely agree with Jenkins on this point. I started trying to find terms that straddled academia and industry and trying to figure out which ones already in existence were the best but ended up realising that the more the merrier. Each term denotes a particular lens into an idea, it doesn’t make it better or wrong, just different. There is specificity in diversity. Then onto ‘transmedia storytelling’. Jenkins responds to Bogost’s complaint about the narrativist approach as follows:

So, on the one hand, I would welcome Bogost’s efforts to broaden my term, “transmedia storytelling” towards something like “transmedia entertainment” or “transmedia authorship.” [NOTE: Bogost doesn’t suggest “entertainment”] It is certainly the case, as the passage above suggests, that narrative is simply one of a number of transmedia logics that are all expressive of the human condition. Perhaps I should have been clearer about this point in the book. I’ll take my lumps for that.

That said, I do think there’s an argument to be made for the centrality of narrative for understanding the specific examples used in the book — Star Wars, Harry Potter, and The Matrix. Just as one can argue that narrative may take a back seat to play mechanics, say, in our effort to understand how games work, most critics have argued that the American film industry has been driven from day one by the push to tell stories and that narrative imperatives dominate over all other factors in shaping the aesthetics of Hollywood entertainment. I could point you to a large body of literature which has made this point over and over. These particular worlds, then, were created for the purpose of generating stories. They may, as I have suggested, support multiple stories, they may also follow other logics and practices, but they are still part of a storytelling system.

I am on Bogost’s side about this one. I started this blog and my thesis with the term “multi-channel storytelling” and then “cross-media storytelling”. I took out the storytelling and changed it to “entertainment” because “storytelling” was misleading. I not only look at stories and games, but I recognise in well-written cross-media forms have a high degree of both qualities. As one commentor on Jenkins’ blog noted, this area is defiantely a continuation of Aarseth’s ‘ergodics’.  That is why am experimenting with terminology that is narrative- and ludic-agnostic in my research (my recent AOIR paper introduces the first set). Indeed, I’m clustering such a transdisciplinary approach into ‘transmodiology’. But back to ‘transmedia storytelling’. I should clarify the reason why I don’t call this blog transmedia entertainment. The reasons:

  1. I see it as Henry’s term and so don’t want to poach it;
  2. I use ‘transmedia’ to refer to a particular form, not all of them;
  3. I use cross-media to denote all the possible forms: adaptation, repurposing, transmedia, artistically-motivated franchises and so on.

That is why. Given the completely non-sensical (to me) use by industry of ‘cross-media’ to denote ‘digital media’, I think transmedia has alot more resonnance. [I’ve got alot to say about this and may do a post on that shortly too.] But as with the first point of this post — it doesn’t really matter that much. But must get back to Jenkins. He makes a great point about the urge to convergence without reason:

Right now, there’s a lot of uncritical excitement about convergence and extensions and this often clouds judgements. Not every story should be told across all media. Not every experience is enhanced by moving it between platforms. I would hope that the book gave us a vocabulary to push beyond celebrating convergence for convergence sake and begin to explore how convergence enriches or impoverishes our culture.

He will be talking about commercialisation in Second Life soon, which will be interesting. But anyway, get over to the posts and enjoy the read, especially if you haven’t got Henry’s book yet. I’m so pleased to see these debates in public.