The other day Tavis wrote a great blog post that introduced me to the term transmedia: “storytelling [where] content becomes invasive and fully permeates the audience’s lifestyle.” What the fuck is this thing? Where does it come from? How do we use it in our culture? And what do we do with it?
My earliest recollection of this phenomenon was when, at age 7, I looked at a breakwater at the Jersey shore. Big chunks of briny, barnacled rock, piled against a pier of rotting wood and rusty metal covered in verdigris. And I thought, “Those rocks look like Star Wars.”
And immediately, it struck me that everything looked like Star Wars. Every part of my existence was an evocation of Star Wars in some way: the sworl of fibers on my towel looked like a bounty hunter; the words my parents spoke connoted Star Wars characters; our spice rack was proof that the people who packaged McCormick spices were died-in-the-wool Star Wars fans.
Star Wars became a (literal) inter-media experience: it intermediated between any and all of my perceptions of reality. All that which exists contained a parable about Star Wars if I had but the wit to perceive it.
Same was true, at a different point of my life, with Marvel comic books. (With massive amounts of preparation I can still turn on “Marvel vision,” but it’s not a healthy thing for me.) I had some pretty unsettling experiences with Philip K. Dick’s VALIS as well. Curiously, I’ve never had this experience with role-playing games. I’ve never had “D&D vision,” though I suspect Tavis sees in this spectrum almost all the time.
This integration between consciousness and myth is old, old. You go to an art museum and for about 500 years Christian imagery dominates the entire output of pretty much every artist in Europe, in every creative medium. And for all we know this sort of imaginative immersion may be far, far older. Julian Jaynes, whose work I’m not really competent to evaluate, theorizes that for most of human existence we lived in a sort of low-grade delusional state.
Arguable basis for human consciousness and Neolithic priest-kings; foundation stone of Western culture. And it can now make us a shitload of money!
I went to see Harry Potter 7.1: The Deathly Inexplicables tonight. Obviously Harry Potter’s a transmedia thing, but so were all of the trailers: Chronicles of Narnia, the Green Lantern, the Green Hornet, Yogi Bear. All desperately trying to make kids see in “Green Hornet vision” wherever they go. (To make matters worse, all of this stuff is pretty much the same dang-ol’ thing, which makes me wonder how much of it we need. Apparently we need however much of it will continue to make a profit.)
About ten years ago I interviewed some of my father’s family to learn about life in the 1940’s. What struck me is how . . . barren their childhoods seemed to me, because they didn’t have any of the transmedial womb that so characterized childhoods in the last quarter of the Twentieth Century. They had “The Shadow,” and Superman comic books, and Buster Brown. But it’s not clear that they lived that shit. They (mostly) didn’t develop “Shadow vision” to see what evil lurked in the hearts of men.
I see my own childhood as a consumer interface with mass-marketed transmedia. (“Gee, this is the shopping mall where we bought this toy 26 years ago. Oh, and over there I read that comic. Oh, those were the days!”) I’m actually kind of proud and happy about this! It seems strange and sad to me that my father missed out.
But isn’t it odd that we have this seemingly age-old instinct to create not just an imaginary story, but an imaginary super-story, an imaginary womb?
Is it a healthy thing that we’re teaching children this stuff without any reflection? (At least a few of them have been dreaming in “D&D vision,” by their own account, the way I occasionally dream in “Ultima vision.” I realize modern kids will do this about Pokemon or whatever, but it feels a little strange to have introduced this particular theme.)
And, if like it or not this transmedia experience is an inescapable part of modern life – our films, our books, our politics are all turning into these meta-narratives, these lifestyle entertainment environments – how do we go about creating virtual experiences that are worthwhile and meaningful amid a flooded marketplace?
I think Tavis’s observation that RPG’s are pretty much nothing but the transmedia experience (“Okay, today I’m an elf”), and tabletop in particular is a DIY punk rock method of doing so. But why do we do it? And are there ways to do it better?