Sunday, April 03, 2011

New Questions Towards A Philosophy of Gaming, Transmedia and Myth: Repositioning the Role of "Marketing"

By Gunther Sonnenfeld

[This is a follow-up piece to James Curcio's post entitled "Questions Towards A Philosophy of Gaming, Transmedia and Myth", and in particular, how narrative constructs developed through gaming might transform culture. While this is actually a edited repost of a piece I wrote last year, it is timely given that the game featured as a use case has enjoyed incredible success, some of it attributable to the explorations discussed here. Enjoy.]

A game is released and it goes to market. Media buys are made. Various media assets are created and put out to pasture. Client and agency cross their collective fingers and hope for the best.

An all too familiar scenario. Yet, as marketers and product makers, we are often sitting on a veritable warchest of mythic value and storytelling possibility, whereby games, audiences and social movements have new opportunities to align themselves - to converge - around narrative.

The discipline of marketing, especially in the sense of stifling narrative and manipulating audiences through frequency of message, has made it a dirty word, and dare I say, a dirty practice. So for the sake of exploration, let's reposition it to become something along the lines of an "experience cultivator".

Recently, I came across a brilliant whitepaper from Kai Pata at Tallinn University’s Center For Educational Technology, one that addresses the dynamics surrounding participatory culture, and how storytelling swarms develop into a hybrid narrative ecosystem. Using design as the core discipline, what Pata has effectively done is outline the steps for dynamic artifact creation, as well as the some of the more accessible methods for extracting mythology from everyday circumstance (or creating/recreating it).
You'll notice how Pata uses the analogy of ant and hive-like food gathering and pheromonal signals to describe how the extraction & collaboration process gives rise to the evolution of new stories. Pata creates a distinct bridge between the sensoral and ephemeral aspects of everyday life, and uses community as a means for evaluating input and output values. What's really intriguing about this is that the signal trails, if unencumbered by manipulation (such as media contrivances or restrictive planning practices), suggest that new experiences organically reveal themselves, regenerate, and even more remarkably, create restorative feedback loops.
The ecosystem (or “echosystem” as one colleague wonderfully coined it just the other day) is activated by creating a storytelling playground that augments the real world. If we examine history so as to recontextualize it within present or desired future states (a form of what Henry Jenkins calls birthing), we can see how phenomena are adopted and developed into new, rediscovered (or even undiscovered) hypersocial elements that contribute to a larger, ongoing narrative -- one that hopefully carries profound educational, economic and environmental implications.
To put things further into context, I thought I would refer to a game launch initiative that I worked on in 2009 for Rockstar Games’, Red Dead Redemption. Digital Kitchen, the assigned creative shop that hired me, formed 4 teams (or hives) of 10 -- a mix of creatives and strategists -- who would ideate across its 4 offices in different cities around the U.S. (Seattle, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago). In true task force style, these teams worked off of a simple creative brief (and of course "rewrote" it), but used the notion of selective noticing as a mechanism for experience cultivation.
What made the project so fun and fascinating was the construction of a historical timeline that looked at specific cultural triggers and associated behaviors to transcend time and space, and those that could also turn integrated media assets into formative points in the overall story arc. Keep in mind that the completed elements (produced finals) of this launch initiative are almost irrelevant; what’s most important are the possibilities that unfold around collaborative development and their subsequent adoption.
The first game release, Red Dead Revolver, didn’t do so well; we deduced that the central character, John Marsten, among many things, was someone with great iconic potential but very little contextual foundation.

In looking more closely at the Marsten archteype, we found an interesting duality -- the empathetic renegade, and the contemporary anti-hero, both of whom are in need of redemption (Nietzsche's Zarathustra, reinvented). We determined that Marsten is actually a product of a modern environment in which nationalistic pride has been lost, oligarchy and imperialism prevail, abject greed pervades. And within all of this, everyone is on the search for higher meaning. These themes certainly aren't new; however, we knew that their currency could be presented in a wholly curious light. Therefore, Marsten also embodied a cause: he would become a martyr-like enigma, someone who could save people from themselves, even at his own expense, and like a true anti-hero, in ways through which people weren't necessarily aware.

0imageTo expand on the real world application of the new Marsten archetype, we then explored the physical kinetics of what this could mean. One primary insight was that in order for Marsten to be a transformational figure, he needed the benefits of more modern technology, but nothing illogical, or too far advanced. Time-wise, the Industrial Revolution overlapped influential or demiurgic periods of the Wild West, so we knew this would be a seamless integration and one with which people could suspend disbelief, at least to a degree.
Next, we would align Marsten’s core character attributes with those of timeless film icons – Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, et al.

Through this, we would then draw a cultural parallel between old and new by redefining the term “Original Gangster”, and align this with elements from the contemporary hip-hop and urban environments, since we knew we would engage many of our core audiences there.
Then came the formalization of the new Marsten world. What’s interesting to note here is that while it is ideal to develop narratives alongside or within the properties themselves, mythological or archeological extraction affords us great flexibility. For RDR, this would actually provide some of the most engaging pieces, including exciting new AR (augmented reality) components, not to mention a slew of relevant options for co-branding, and more dynamic ways to engineer digital OOH vehicles, interesting outdoor placements, retail displays, ad displays & rich media, kiosks, product installations as well as graphic novels... all of which have the potential to be woven into culture at large and developed as stories of their own merit.

Overall, the makings of a revolution around a cause (or many causes) become very clear, and those parallels can be drawn to key historical events within an interactive and highly entertaining framework. More importantly, this framework creates relevancy for inciting actions around a cause specific to a particular geographic region or mind state.
Krzysztof Kieslowski, whose Decalogue served as the cinematic epos for the Polish Solidarity movement (and others like it), drew similar parallels and depicted similar Marsten personas. Imagine talking to high school kids about Solidarity using the John Marsten phenomenon as a backdrop. Or, talking about Solidarity as it relates to film theory. Or, talking about film theory as it relates to fictional literacy. Or, how all of these elements combined provide new perspective on the American or Russian Revolutions. Or, even better, how the subsequent, combined parallels created by the writers and artists of these periods lend new perspective on the Russian Avant-Garde movement and the ripple effects of secular interpretation. You get where this is going... The possibilities now seem limitless, with discerningly mined commonality serving as a thread throughout these expositions, and iconography making it all palatable to a broader audience of people.
Has the RDR game itself changed on account of our marketing efforts or expanded thinking? Not exactly. Can it be serialized into other forms of media on account of some of the assets that were created? Perhaps.
And so a bigger question emerges: why do we look at games, and the act of playing them, through a binary lens that asks us whether they are good or bad, moral or immoral, or even described as pervasive on some level? Don't they inherently represent more to us than rudimentary question sets? And doesn't all media?

Let's return to the narrative possibilities.

It is important to remember that a transmedia narrative can evolve from pre-existing assets, or those we foster from the environments around us. Transmedia narratives are often non-linear, and can scale up or down, with all the comprising elements being recursive on various levels (like their authors ;). To be more media-minded, in this particular exploration we find:
  • Micro-adoption (storymaking & storytelling)
  • Hyper-targeting (contextual value)
  • Geotility (location and environmental relevancy)
  • Collaborative, hive-like creation (a form of crowdsourcing)
  • Story arcs as extended products (narrative commerce)
  • Truly hypersocial experiences (cultivation & birthing)
  • Course mediation by media environment (adaptive planning)
  • Micromedia syndication (spread metrics for engagement & conversion)
  • Dynamic feedback loops (adaptive analytics)
We must all realize that experience cultivation gives us far greater opportunity to turn product into utility, and in ways where informational value through exploratory asset creation (and artifact preservation) results in purchasing patterns that are empowered. Even more important is the idea that we can change behavior and enable people to look at culture differently, even through the use of mythical lenses that force us to confront some of the harsher realities of a post-industrial world.

Perhaps this is what rationalizes our obsession to play games in the first place, and to make them relevant in the pursuit of dollars and sense.

What do you think?
Pre-order a copy of The Immanence of Myth, published by Weaponized in July 2011.

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