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May 11, 2017 Dr. Stephen Slota

When You Wish Upon a Star (Wars): Transmedia Storytelling & Design

In my previous blog post, I provided an overview of gamification with two specific goals in mind:

  1. Challenging the design community to ground projects in contemporary learning science rather than (or at least in addition to) any given technology.

  2. Defining gamification in learning science terms, with behavioral gamification, gamification for memorization, and gamification in character corresponding to behaviorism, information processing, and situated cognition, respectively.

Ideally, fulfilling these goals would be enough to ensure design success. But—even with attention paid to learning science—gamification is vulnerable to the same pitfalls as other instructional methods. Audience engagement and retention/application of learned information isn’t guaranteed, and some topics may be too abstract, too hands-on, or too reliant on specific tools to make for an engaging, instructionally-useful game.

So, if there’s no ‘right’ way to capture and present material, how can and should we proceed? What can be done to engage multiple learners at once, each with their own skill sets and backgrounds?

Here, I turn to another instructional concept called transmedia storytelling. Transmedia storytelling is the distribution of a particular narrative (i.e., the holistic story universe, not to be confused with an individual plot or theme) across multiple delivery channels and technologies (see: Slota, Young, O’Byrne, & Ballestrini, 2016). In general, this creates an integrated and coordinated experience that reveals different information about the story universe rather than simply revisiting the same plot multiple times via different media (sometimes called crossmedia storytelling). This definition applies to both small-scale transmedia storytelling (e.g., pairing a short story with a soundtrack and comic book to define facets of/perspectives within a larger narrative universe) and large-scale transmedia storytelling (e.g., creating a complex, multi-author narrative universe that spans films, books, comics, games, and--at the highest level--concerts, theme parks, and themed vacations).

Understanding the potentially transformational relationship between gamification and transmedia storytelling is critical to ‘thinking big’ about design. It’s one thing to teach an idea or skill using a single game (or gamified activity) grounded in a single learning theory, but it’s something else entirely to create an immersive, engaging, and instructionally-useful experience that utilizes elements of several major learning theories.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the best examples come from the entertainment industry, where colossal transmedia storytelling franchises aim to reach broad audiences and encourage individualized participation through massive (and massively diverse) tools (e.g., movies, comics, novels, games, amusement park rides, roleplaying experiences). Star Wars, for instance, isn’t something fans learn about through one piece of media—they experience lightsaber dueling through video games, popular planetary recipes through cookbooks, and the life of a Jedi through attractions like Star Tours.

This kind of cohesive, deliberate transmedia storytelling reinforces participation, interactivity, and performance in a way traditional instruction cannot. The depth and breadth of content (especially internally consistent, targeted ideals like the Jedi Code) is accessible to individuals across racial, gender, age, ethnic, and cultural spectra, and the narrative universe as a whole unites communities around characters, places, skills, and values. The Star Wars franchise gives Disney multiple platforms to educate audiences about said values and fulfill the organization’s mission to create dynamic problem solving spaces (i.e., learning ecologies) where audience members can write themselves into the narrative as they see fit; that is, to help fans make meaning in their own lives by engaging with, and relating to, the likes of Luke, Rey, Finn, Leia, and Darth Vader.

Although Star Wars isn’t strictly academic, it serves as a useful template for designing transmedia instruction. It demonstrates the potential effectiveness of roleplay for shaping thought and behavior (i.e., gamification in character) and highlights how fiction can be artfully designed to foster a time for telling. Rather than limiting our options, it suggests how we in the design community can (and should) think about learning theory and the tools used to implement theoretically-sound pedagogy; how we can (and should) establish multiple instructional threads under the same narrative banner to create a comprehensive, consistent user experience; and finally, how we can (and should) engage the broadest possible audience by offering varied avenues to learning and experience, including but not limited to gamification.

In short, transmedia storytelling is a logical ‘next step’ in designing effective, contemporary instruction, and the prosocial, interactive nature of Star Wars captures exactly the kind of experience we want our learners to have. As you begin your next design project, I encourage you to explore the transmedia Star Wars universe in hopes that it will guide you toward more effective and engaging design outcomes. 

After all, the Force is our ally, and a powerful ally it is. 

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Published by Dr. Stephen Slota May 11, 2017
Dr. Stephen Slota