March 21, 2008
SCMS: Vast Narratives and Immersive Story Worlds

For a couple of weeks now, I've been planning to include some notes here on the Consortium's blog about a few of the sessions I had the opportunity to attend at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Philadelphia a couple of weeks ago. The event was a great opportunity to see many friends and colleagues, and it gave me a chance to learn more about the current state of a variety of research projects, as well as hear about some new projects and meet some interesting new faces as well. In the following series of posts over the next few days, I wanted to transform some of my random notes about the conference into a recap of sorts.

I'll start with the first session of the conference, which came at noon on Thursday. I had the fortunate opportunity to present first. I know many people probably feel that isn't so fortunate in timing, especially since most of the people I know weren't even arriving at the conference until Thursday, but I was excited about the opportunity to get the stress of my own presentation out of the way so that I could concentrate instead on enjoying other panels. Despite the early start time, though, the panel was standing room only, and I have the interesting work of some of my fellow panelists to thank for that.

My presentation was about a concept I've written on here on the blog from time-to-time: vast narratives and "immersive story worlds," a concept I have drawn on beginning with my Master's thesis work here at MIT.

As I am continuing to evolve and develop these ideas, it was great to see the reaction to an audience of which I knew precisely three people in the crowd: my wife, Amanda Ford; my boss and mentor here at MIT, Henry Jenkins; and my mentor from Western Kentucky University, C3 Consulting Researcher Ted Hovet.

The quick summary is that--at a time when academia and industry alike is discussing transmedia narratives, franchising, and a variety of concepts that build upon a wealth of content surrounding a media franchise--I wanted to get to the heart of what characteristics I feel create the groundwork for the largest narratives or the most immersive story worlds, looking particularly at official content produced in relationship with those who own the property. I started with the media properties I felt most exemplified this narrative type and the media I've personally been fascinated with for some time, as both an academic and as a fan: superhero comic book universes, professional wrestling, and U.S.-style soap operas.

This process began from a very introspective place: in an academic program that accepts the serious pursuit of studying entertainment properties, I found myself still alone in my interests in pro wrestling and soap operas in particular. Why was all of this discussion of transmediation, of complex narrative, and of media franchises often devoid of some of the longest-standing media brands in U.S. culture, and what could I bring to the discussion by looking at these often-ignored shows. While there's great value in having central texts that all scholars are familiar with (and it seems Lost is one of the programs of the current era in that regard, or else The Wire, judging from recent conversations I overheard at SCMS--and I'm not trying to single out Jason Mittell here, because those happen to be two of his favorite shows), I fear the cultural marginalization of soaps, wrestling, and comic book culture may often impair or limit the scope of current understanding of creating immersive story worlds for industry and academia alike.

So, while I'll continue to watch many of these central texts (my preferences at the moment are for Friday Night Lights, The Shield, and Curb Your Enthusiasm--The Wire is next on my list), I hope that this work on immersive story worlds help to bring some conclusion about what is fascinating and instructive about these narratives to a larger academic and industry crowd. In short, the characteristics I discussed in my presentation include the following:

1.) A Serial Storytelling Structure 2.) Multiple Creative Forces Which Author Various Parts of a Story 3.) A Sense of Long-Term Continuity 4.) A Deep Character Backlog 5.) Contemporary Ties to the Media Property's Complex History 6.) A Sense of Permanence

While the worlds I use to illustrate these characteristics most exemplify an immersive story world, I look at this as a mode of categorization to look at text, so I don't believe that narratives are either "immersive" or not but rather have degrees of immersiveness. For instance, in a short piece I recently wrote for David Lavery's forthcoming Essential Cult Television Reader on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report, I propose that those shows have many of the elements of an "immersive story world" as discussed above.

For those who were in attendance or those who would like to know more, I've written on these concepts in the past, for instance here, here, and here.

Also, thanks to Stanford University's Scott Bukatman for putting the panel together. His presentation was entitled "Creating Life in the Cinema: Uncanny Doubles vs. Sublime Transgressions." Thanks as well as fellow panelist Elliot Panek from the University of Michigan, who sent me his paper called "Enhanced Structuralism: Mapping the Range of Audience Knowledge Over the Course of a Film Narrative." Elliott applies an architectural quantitative model to looking at the level of knowledge viewers and various characters have, minute-by-minute, in Hollywood films as a thought experiment on how to incorporate a quantitative approach to humanities research. His presentation certainly drew some intriguing questions and lively discussion afterward, as is often the case when you bring up numbers at a humanities conference, I suppose...Also presenting on the panel with me was Kimberly Conely from Wayne State University, whose presentation was entitled "Digital Imagery as Evidence: Non-linear Editing as an Operational Research Tool for Historical Narrative Analysis."

Looks like we're still struggling some with our comments, so don't hesitate to e-mail me at if you have any thoughts.