So What is Transmedia Storytelling Anyway?

Nowadays people are juggling a variety of media platforms including tablets, mobile phones, laptops and consuming, connecting, collaborating and creating content as never before. The internet has enabled the role and relationship between author and audience to become blurred (Jenkins 2006) leading to a new form of narrative that is native to the Internet (Rose, 2012).

When you delve into the world of transmedia storytelling, you will quickly realise there are many definitions for this form of storytelling and the term “transmedia” has met with its share of controversy. It can be confusing (and sometimes frustrating) wading through the differing opinions to work out what this form of storytelling is and what the hype is all about. One quickly finds out that the concept of transmedia is not new, it has been around for a long time however, the advent of the Internet has both enabled and expanded the possibility for audience participation in the storyworld. It is this audience engagement that is often the key goal of transmedia stories.


I will draw on a few different definitions in my attempt to explain transmedia storytelling but basically my understanding is that there is broad spectrum that covers transmedia storytelling. In simple terms, “Transmedia enhances a central story idea with a variety of components that provide additional information.” ( H. Pence 2012)

Dr Henry Jenkins (2006) describes transmedia storytelling as representing “a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story”. That is, transmedia stories are told across multiple media platforms.

The definition I like best is

A multimodal, multimedia story with nonlinear, participatory elements. Resources connected to the story might include print materials; documents; maps; web-based clues; mobile apps; cell phone calls; social media connections; activities and games; and media such as audio, video, or animation. The main storyline may or may not reside in one location, such as a traditional book or website. The narrative may be told through a series of media.  (Lamb, 2011)

Transmedia is sometimes referred to as cross platform storytelling, distributed narrative or deep media – to name a few terms. It is widely used in media and marketing but more recently the potential for transmedia storytelling to be used in education is being recognised. But whatever you call this form of storytelling, it lets you take advantage of multiple media in unique ways.

Since 2007, I began exploring and immersing my primary school students in design based learning activities such as game design and learning design and, by the time they began designing participative narratives in 2010, I had collected ample evidence that my students benefited enormously from a design based approach to learning – both in meeting and exceeding learning outcomes and the development of both metacognition and 21st century skills.

What is unique about transmedia storytelling?

In a nutshell, the audience expects to play a meaningful role (H. Pence 2012). Transmedia stories provide the audience with the opportunity to contribute and participate in the storyworld. Pence has also attributed the explosive growth of the internet as directing attention to transmedia storytelling. Frank Rose (2011) says, “… the Internet is like a chameleon. It is the first medium that can act as all media …”

With the imminent implementation of the BOS Syllabuses for the new Australian Curriculum English, particularly with a need for teachers to facilitate the ability for students to respond to and compose multimodal and digital texts and, the need to address the General Capabilities of Literacy, ICT and Critical and Creative thinking. Transmedia storytelling could potentially provide an engaging and effective way to meet these elements.

Developing a narrative over multiple platforms while interweaving learning outcomes creates transformational learning experiences. Participants engage, inform, inspire, connect and collaborate over content. It is this interconnectedness that fosters a dialogue which connects learners around the world. This global interconnectivity allows for the collaborative sharing and proliferation of knowledge. Transmedia storytelling exemplifies learning in the 21st century.” (Laura Fleming)

First Steps @ MacICT

Since 2010, MacICT has been exploring the potential of students designing cross platform or transmedia stories as a way developing literacy and skills that exemplify learning in the 21st century. Our first foray into this type of storytelling came from Sam Doust , Creative Director of Strategic Development for the Innovation division of the ABC who introduced us to ABC’s alternate reality interactive drama Bluebird to the staff at MacICT. Bluebird borrowed from some of the conventions of the alternate reality game (ARG) genre to develop a participatory drama based around a fictional scenario centred on the experimental science of geoengineering. Sam spent time with MacICT staff showcasing the project and discussing how it was created and implemented. In 2010 I was teaching Year 6 and was inspired to engage my class to create my first participatory story for a Year 5 audience. I managed to convince one of my game design team members, Anthony Fennell to work with me on this project and together we made our first foray into developing an alternate reality game and the ‘Lunacy Files’ was born!

The Lunacy Files: Cromer Public School

Like Bluebird, the Lunacy Files drew on elements from the alternate reality game genre. It took the form of a participative narrative that was situated in LAMS, a Learning Activity Management System. Using Google Docs, students contributed ideas to the narrative and then, as a class we voted on the best idea and jointly constructed the plot outline of our narrative. A smaller group then took on the task of writing up a version which Anthony and I polished it up. Once we had the narrative worked out, students were organised into smaller groups and were responsible for creating their part of the story – this included the challenges, clues and assets required by the participant to unlock that part of the story. Some of the assets students created as part of the unfolding story included:

  • fake newspaper articles created with Web 2 tools
  • codes that had to be cracked
  • cryptic clues to specific locations in Google Maps
  • fake emails
  • online diary entries
  • videos
  • a Kodu game – Hackerbot to discover the secret IP address
  • and a myriad of other assets using a variety of digital tools.

The students rose to the challenge, immersed themselves in the storyworld and continually surprised me with what they could do when designing an experience for an audience. When our narrative was finished, one hundred Year 5  students had the opportunity to participate in the storyworld in the course of one day. Once the Year 5 students had unlocked most of the story and worked out the conspiracy, they had to write the final conclusion and upload it to the community in the LAMS sequence. It was an incredibly rewarding experience for my class as co-designers of the narrative and for the participating Year 5 students. My class also were able to present the narrative at the MacICT, Students as Designers Showcase, where teachers, students and academics participated. Sam Doust, my original inspiration was also present and participated in our narrative!

Project Utopia: Northern Beaches Secondary College – Manly Selective Campus

My next involvement in this form of storytelling was in 2011 when I was fortunate to be invited as a critical friend on Project Utopia – an ambitious and truly exceptional full year project run by Kate Farrow a TAS teacher from Northern Beaches Secondary College: Manly Selective Campus. Year 10 IST students used the gaming paradigm to design, build and run an alternate reality game to deliver cross curricula course content for Year 7 over three days. This game would help the Year 7 students understand problematic knowledge in making ethical decisions. Kate run the project through Edmodo and divided her Year 10 students into teams of programmers and content developers.  Year 10 programmers worked with a PHP developer mentor to build the site that would host the content. Student content designers (multimedia and digital media) liaised with Year 7 teachers across all Key Learning Areas to identify curriculum outcomes that would underpin the content they developed and wove throughout the game. The final outcome – Project Utopia was an outstanding testimony to what students can achieve when given the opportunity and guided by an exemplary teacher.

2013: Next Steps in Transmedia Storytelling

Proof of Concept: Liverpool Girls High School

This year, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with Katy Lumkin, Head Teacher eLearning National Partnerships at Liverpool Girls High School and previously the project leader on MacICT’s Virtual Worlds project. Katy ran a Transmedia Storytelling proof of concept project with a group of girls from Year 7 and the Head Teacher English – Judith Harris. Read more about the project here. Below is a presentation Katy and I delivered at the 2013 Inspire Innovate Conference.

Year 3 Transmedia Storytelling Project: Weaving a Storyworld Web

During Term 2, 2013 MacICT’s research advisor, Dr Nerida McCredie and I will be embarking on a research project with three Year 3 classes across three different schools to answer the question, “in what ways might transmedia storytelling allow teachers to re-imagine how they currently engage their class in an immersive literacy environment through the process of collaborative design?”

We will be posting the results of this case study on MacICT’s website sometime in second semester, 2013.

So you would like to give transmedia storytelling a try?

Margaret Looney (2013) has a few suggestions:

  1. Keep content unique – use different parts of a story to match a platform’s strength and maximise user experience
  2. Provide a seamless point of entry – make sure whatever platform you are using gets readers to interact in a very simple way
  3. Partner up – one person can’t do it all. Work in teams

and most important of all

4. The story is number 1. Don’t get caught up in all the bells and whistles and ignore storytelling basics.

The story comes first, always.