How ‘Transmedia Play’ Can Help Build 21st-Century Literacies

April 09, 2013
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, United States
CATEGORIES Digital Citizenship, Digital Literacy, Research & Studies

You might have heard the word “transmedia” thrown around recently, but, as vague as it may sound, transmedia simply refers to storytelling across multiple forms of media. The concept has existed for quite some time, but recently teachers, experts, and developers have begun applying the idea specifically to education, creating new opportunities to deepen learning experiences in formal and informal environments.

Inanimate Alice is a great example of transmedia. The digital novel follows the main character on several journeys as she grows up to become a successful videogame designer. The authors tell her story through text, games, sound, and images. Inanimate Alice is designed as “a story that unfolds over time and on multiple platforms,” connecting technology and culture back to curricula through an accessible medium and riveting narrative.

Researchers at the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab are working to better understand how educators can use transmedia in today’s classrooms. Last month the lab, along with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, released “T is for Transmedia: Learning through Transmedia Play,” as a summation of their research thus far.

Writing at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center blog, Rebecca Herr-Stephenson and Meryl Alper further explained the impetus behind the new report:

[W]e suggest ways in which transmedia can be a resource for learning in various contexts, including schools, expanded learning programs, and at home. We promote the idea of “transmedia play” as a way of thinking about children’s experimentation with, expression through, and participation in a transmedia experience that acknowledges their cultural engagement, respects their thoughts and feelings, and builds up and upon 21st century literacies.

The authors say that transmedia experiences like Inanimate Alice are important because they encourage kids to read and play across different kinds of media – like a traditional book, a website, an ebook. These experiences help students dig deeply into narratives and topics they are interested in, and encourage media engagement with parents and caregiviers and both visual and oral literacy. See the Annenberg Innovation Lab’s work to expand the wordless picture book, Flotsam, for another great example.

Erin Reilly, Creative Director of the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab, explained why transmedia is so effective with students. “All of these are different ways for kids to participate in and create culture. They don’t see a separation between online or offline. They see that technology—this medium right here—is a representation of how they can actually share their voice in the culture,” said Reilly in a short video produced by the lab.

The new report highlights a few examples of where transmedia has been especially effective, and naturally applicable, to real-world scenarios. One of my favorite examples they point to is Caine’s Arcade, an interactive DIY arcade turned scholastic movement, spearheaded by an imaginative nine-year-old from California.

Caine Monroy spent an entire summer building an elaborate arcade out of old cardboard boxes left over at his father’s auto repair shop in East Los Angeles. The arcade has all of the typical games one might think of, as well as tickets, prizes, and even a fun pass, which gives you 500 plays for $2. The arcade had no visitors, until filmmaker Nirvan Mullick happened upon it while looking for a used car part, and purchased the very first Caine’s Arcade fun pass. One powerful short film, and over 100,000 “likes” on Facebook later, and Caine became an international hero, inspiring creativity in students and young learners across the world.

Caine and Mullick launched the Global Cardboard Challenge, during which over 100 schools in nine countries designed their very own cardboard arcades. Mullick also developed a scholarship fund for Caine, which is being matched dollar-for-dollar to help start the Imagination Foundation, whose mission is to “find, foster, and fund creativity and entrepreneurship in kids like Caine.”

“One of the things I learned from this experience is how a small gesture can change the life of a child,” said Mullick in his second short film about the experience. “And to think that there are so many other kids like Caine out there who just need somebody to come in and buy a fun pass.”

As it says in the report, Caine’s Arcade and the Imagination Foundation are building open-access spaces that allow for “rich transmedia world building.” These spaces, or “places to play,” include a web platform where students, parents, and teachers can share stories like Caine’s Arcade, as well as project-based learning activity kits that can help enrich in-school curricula. The collaboration has also jumpstarted a network of both permanent and pop-up makerspaces and “creativity playgrounds” in historically disenfranchised communities.

The story of Caine and Mullick, and the community of supporters who have helped their mission grow, is all a part of the magic of transmedia. Something that started out with one child’s imagination has not only encouraged young learners from all over the world to start creating, but has inspired a network where they can share this work as well.  Students can now visit Caine’s Arcade, watch the film to learn more about it, share their own cardboard arcade game online, and get feedback from other peer makers around the world. As researchers put it, “Taking part in the Caine’s Arcade transmedia play experience can also challenge the ways that children, parents, and teachers think about storytelling and about their own relationship to media and materials.”