Category Archives: design fiction

the power of detachment

Do we produce better stories together, or alone? Do we actually know of stories that are created solo? Auteur theory has always neglected the fact that every film is made by a creative pool of producers, writers, directors, actors, designers, programmers, camera person… These established routines are challenged by mass collaboration, audience engagement and immersive storytelling.

I wondered. What does it mean to collaborate with a diverse range of people, from all over the globe, who all bring different skills, cultures and sense of accountability to the table?

To find that out, I immersed myself into the production of Robot Heart Stories, an experiment that was facilitated by 5th-graders as well as among 50+ collaborators from eight countries. My case study of it premiered a few weeks ago when I had the opportunity to present my results in an interactive session at DocLab in Auckland. The New Zealand transmedia tribe around the Documentary Edge Film Festival had called for a 3-day incubator to train their finest doc-filmmakers. I combined my talk with an interactive storysprint and connected both thematically, first speaking about my research on collaboration and experience design at Robot Heart Stories. For the second part Jordan Bryon helped me running a 60-minute storysprint that involved everyone’s imagination. The goal was to teach transmedia design and to experience firsthand what it means to collaborate with teams that have different horizons, objectives and pragmatics.

Apart from having tons of fun, we tapped into the power of detachment. To exemplify why detachment is so important for a good story, I’ll describe the workshop briefly. It was the third time we ran the session; and apart from prototyping a multichannel storyworld, we experienced how letting go of ownership and control can benefit a story greatly.

Here’s a rundown of what we did
First the entire group had 4 minutes to generate 100 wishes around the premise to make the world work for 100% of humanity. We broke the group down into eight categories (urbanization, economy, education, humanity, cuture, health, sustainability, government) and with quick cheers we decided which one we would go for. Then – in the same manner – we turned that wish into a theme for a transmedia story. Ours was:

Make art not money.

We then broke out into three groups: the prototypers would build a transmedia structure, choosing platforms and channels; the storytellers would choose characters and trope to design a hero’s journey; the third group was a mix between scribes and social media, let’s call them the storyboarders. We gave every group a simple template that explained the basics of storytelling, media channels and scribing.

Imagine everything happening at the same time: Some storyboarders started planning their scribe wall while others choose a target audience, which we communicated to the two other groups. 

Within the first 5 minutes the storyboarders received the main characters from the storytelling group, which they passed on to the prototypers after they had given their first pitch to the storyboarders (within first 10 minutes).

The idea was that prototyping and storytelling group couldn’t communicate directly, only through two narrators in each group, who could talk to the storyboarders only. This way the storyboarders acted as ‘chinese whisperers’, so information between storytellers and prototypers would be filtered and reinterpreted – like in a collaboration between various teams in a transmedia production. Generally, nobody was allowed to talk without creating something with their hands at the same time. We provided play-doh, pens, butcher paper, paddlepops and other props. Tactile activity enhances creativity because it ignites both sides of the brain.

To communicate between groups, we had storytellers and prototypers pitching to the storyboarders. This was combined with a narrative game, in which the answer could only be ‘yes, no or maybe’. This had the purpose that content had to be anticipated and interpreted, empathy in practice. We made sure that information didn’t always flow freely to imitate real life situations. At certain points the narrators could help clarifying crucial points, in case the storyboarders would get stuck. The 2nd pitch later on would allow the storyboarders to ask questions but no answers were allowed. This had the effect that the prototypers went back and refined their work according to what was still too complex for an audience to grasp.After 30 minutes we disrupted the flow asking the groups to include their audience as collaborators. After ten more minutes the storyboarders got another brief and ten minutes later we merged storytellers and prototypers to converge their work. This way we developed two versions of the same story.

Final pitches: We had the storyboarders tell how they saw the story play out on the very platforms they had gotten from the prototyping group. They pitched using their storyboard, which was a scripted wall. After we had heard their story, one of the storytellers and one prototyper explained their converged version of the story.

The power of detachment
It was electrifying to see the gentle power of collaboration. The storyboarders had merged story and transmedia platforms coherently, dropping some elements, and tweaking others (given they missed out on using some of the transmedia channels proposed). They had no problem to do so, because they weren’t emotionally attached to any of the ideas. This was completely different when storytellers and prototypers came together and tried to merge their work. They were invested in their personal ideas and seemed to struggle to slaughter their darlings. I thought that outcome was a really powerful takeaway.

Thanks to all the participants for all their enthusiasm. I was blown away by the buzz and ideas we co-created! Transmedia activist Lina Srivastava had so much fun that she will integrate parts of the session at the Lincoln Center Film Society’s Convergence Program in New York. Yaysa!

The session was developed in collaboration with Lance Weiler (www.rebootstories.com, New York) and Jorgen van der Sloot (www.freedomlab.org, Amsterdam). After running several 72-hour sessions, we condensed our method, so that teachers can use it with their students in a 60-minute class (www.robotheartstories.com). We’re refining the process further to develop a solid rapid prototyping model for experience design but also for kids as a playful approach to collaborate and to learn creative problem solving skills in conjunction with story. If you have a wish for a better future, post it at www.wishforthefuture.com. We’ll curate and prototype the best ones.

research synopsis

This PhD investigates co-creative practices in participatory storytelling. I compare two transmedia productions – one commercial, one non-profit – that experiment with co-creative story development. One of the projects is a commercial TV production that engages a group of 30 skilled fans during production. First, these game designers, artists and storytellers re-enacted the back-story of the crime series in a three-day living drama. In a second step, together with the series’ transmedia production team, they develop games and challenges for a wider audience. The other project is an online/offline experiment among fifth-graders and fifty skilled collaborators from eight different countries, who jointly create a loosely framed emergent narrative. My interest lies in what facilitates and constrains collective storytelling whilst employing various media technologies. By filtering motivation, priorities, ideology, organization, context and skills among participants, I theorize on compatibility of media practices, facilitation of co-creative processes and incorporation of playful learning.

My fieldwork lends itself to i) to observe story development and compare if production techniques complement or exclude each other, ii) to derive how technological potential is tapped to enable co-creative productivity, iii) to track aspects of play and learning in collective storytelling. My data enable further theory building on the use of interactive and mobile technologies with respect to embodied performance. Findings will contribute towards theorizing transmedia practices within the field of media anthropology. Understanding co-creation among creative teams and their participating fans is pivotal for appropriating and developing emerging networked ecologies.

Conceptually I’m particularly inspired by Bernard Stiegler’s philosophy of technics as constituents of consciousness, Quentin Meillassoux’s notions on contingency and dynamics within a speculative materialism framework, Gilles Deleuze’s thinking about complexity and the philosophy of becoming, Judith Butler’s commentary on breaks of iterability as seats of difference and learning, Scott Lash’s discussion of people’s ontological relationship towards global culture industry, and Georgina Brown’s remarks on blurring lines of art and cultural production. In this framework, I intend to fill a gap that’s left by meta-level classifications that circle around the term ‘transmedia storytelling’. Thus, my research does not draw on concepts but on people’s practices.