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.

2 thoughts on “Excolunt!: Academic Debate about Convergence Culture

  1. Great commentary and thanks so much for posting. I’m wading my way through HJ’s book right now.
    I love academics. For folks that do an excellent job chronicaling story telling acorss platforms and media types they do a pretty bad job of story-telling 🙂

    Two questions: Why is cross-media equivalent to digital media? Whats a ludologist?


  2. Hello Siddiq,

    Yes, Jenkins has received some flack for his writing style, along with praise. He is trying to achieve something quite difficult: write for academics and non-academics at the same time. Rather than write one set of material and employ a specific set of terminology for academic readers and another for non-academics, Jenkins is trying to bundle them all together. I see him continuing the work of Marshall McLuhan — an academic who was perhaps the first ‘public intellectual’ in the age of mass media.

    As for why cross-media is equivalent to digital media, I have no idea. All of the industry talks I’ve been to and observed from afar that claim they are ‘cross-media’ always end up talking about digital media only. There are a few possible reasons for this that I should be exploring in an extended post but I will most probably just run out of time. So, here goes. For one, some areas of industry are still just figuring out that there is a digital media revolution, even though it happened 10 years ago! Another reason is that they just don’t know what cross-media or transmedia is and so don’t know how to select the appropriate speakers. As for the use of the term ‘cross-media’. I think they’re referring to the audience, to their target attendees rather than the topic of the conferences and talks. It is the audience that is crossing media. It is film and TV people who are crossing into digital media. Another posibility is that the term is popular in the media and so it is used to bring people in, regardless of whether the concept is addressed in the programme. They are the only justifications I could come up with for the use of the term. For me, though, cross-media is a phenomenon that covers properties or artworks that traverse media, as well as audiences that move across them etc. Jenkins views it that way in his book.

    As for what a ludologist is. A Ludologist is a person who studies games, game theory in particular. So, there are Narratologists — people who focus on studying the narrative aspects of books, film, tv etc and there are Ludologists who study the game, the LUDIC qualities, of games, books, films etc. The pivotal work on ludus or ‘play’ is Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens whereas the first work for Narratologists could be Aristotle’s Poetics. There are alot of links to ludology sites at the ludologist entry in Wikipedia. The emergence of a field of study that concentrated on the elements that aren’t narrative has been very important. But I feel that now another area that recognises the elements of both is needed.

    Hope that helps. And I like your site, you have a great mix of subjects and an accessible & entertaining tone.

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