This post is one of a series based on my draft writings and thoughts for a current PhD research project, part of the UNESCO Chair project ‘Crossing Media Boundaries: Adaptations and New Media Forms of the Book’. I am working with a self-published author to create a co-creative online reader community where users can share their very own content, stories, artwork, etc. to expand the story world across media. Its an experiment, and the journey is only starting… http://naturemage.com All feedback / ideas welcome!
Image: Nature Mage logo, by James Ledsham – see his profile here: http://www.naturemage.com/people-working-on-this-community
The times for easy classification or taxonomies of media artefacts are gone. Increasingly what we see are overlapping forms in a media universe where convergence and hybrid forms abound, and where previously separated media and formats borrow from each other’s language, aesthetics and conventions. Let us think for a moment about book publishing and the move towards digital books, and more widely towards digital forms of storytelling. Printed books can be easily remediated into digital media as e-books. But authors and publishers are going a lot further than that, reaching a point where it is not clear whether we are faced with a ‘book’, or simply a story told in some other new way. We now hear about ‘enhanced’ books, for example digital books that not only contain text and illustrations, but also make more use of computational capacities, adding perhaps hyperlinks, video, game-like features, and other features. There are also ‘interactive books’, for example picture books for children on the iPad, whereby the reader can tap into objects to hear sounds, watch animations, unravel the story further, and so on. Some studies have shown that the number of ‘interactive’ features is such that they distract from the actual narrative (ref – Sesame Workshop). Then we also have interactive graphic novels, where the reader’s (or user’s) decisions reflect on different narrative paths, not too dissimilarly to what has been done long ago with ‘choose your adventure’ books. Some industry commentators (ref-DBW) have even considered certain games, such as The Walking Dead, for the iPad, as examples of the direction publishers should move in harnessing digital media to tell stories. The game contains a branching narrative decided by the player, and although it is classed as a game, it contains long periods where the ‘player’ is more of a watcher, or a reader, with some level of control over dialogue, but nonetheless pretty much directed towards a pre-defined narrative path.
So where does book stop and game start? Where do you draw the line between e-book and enhanced book? How different is an interactive book and an app that likewise tells a story? And what terms can we use or coin to refer to the myriad of possibilities? There is a context where problems around terminology often come to live in a clear way: the exercise of designing a research interview about reading and digital media, to be administered to the public. The challenge: how can one measure current levels of ‘digital’ reading across the myriad of formats? Will respondents consider enhanced books as, well, books or even reading? What about apps and games, do they feel some of these are like digital books? Do they care whether a story is told through a more or less recognised book format or altogether another format? It is hard enough to make sense of all the terms and taxonomies used within academia and the industry, never mind come up with terms in a questionnaire to understand general habits and perceptions.
Getting back to the Nature Mage project, and to the central question that was being discussed: is the project of bringing the story to life through an iBook an example of cross-media adaptation?
Is an iBook simply a ‘enhanced’ version of an e-book? A ‘normal’ e-book and a printed book are very similar, not so obviously when it comes to reading experience, but certainly in terms of content – both contain text, and in the case of Nature Mage, actually the same text, and the same cover. But an iBook integrates multiple modes, from text, to sound, to moving image, to 3D objects and even dynamic features (widgets) produced in HTML5. In many ways, an iBook is closer to a multimedia website than to an e-book. But it is presented as an iBook, produced with a software program called iBooks Author, and its visual representation remediates (ref) the format of a book. Even the iBooks menu on an iPad is a representation of a bookshelf where iBooks are exhibited; when you select an iBook, it pops out of the shelf, and as it gets bigger it is possible to see in some detail the edges and curves of the book cover (which remediates a hardback). At the very minimum level, the iBook adaptation is a ‘new media form’ of Nature Mage. It is not the first incarnation of the story on digital media (the e-book already exists), and it may still be read on the same device as the e-book (on a tablet) but it certainly offers a different multimedia and multimodal experience to the reader – or should it be ‘user’?
Linda Hutcheon (2006: xiv) suggests that different media – and ‘genres’ she adds – ‘represent various ways of engaging audiences’:
[Some] are used to tell stories (for example, novels, short stories); others show them (for instance, all performance media); and still others allow us to interact physically and kinaesthetically with them (as in videogames or theme park rides).
The Nature Mage digital media expansion project thus carries the story from a medium that just tells (printed book, e-book), to one where it mixes all three modes: tell, show, and interact (as reader chooses to engage with some parts); and besides these three modes, there is also a fourth one, which could be classed as participatory: the project invites readers and artists to participate in the expansion of the story, thus creating an experience which is in essence different from reading a book.
Hutcheon’s model of three modes of engagement seems to be to a large extent dependent on conceptualising of different modes – and media – as clearly distinct and separate from each other, which works well for older media, but not as much for the ‘new media’ described by Janet Murray and used to describe the UNESCO Chair project which this thesis contributes for. Hutcheon’s model can be intersected with Murray’s notion of deconstruction and reconfiguration of formats, which means that in digital media all three modes can be found simultaneously, or alternatingly. An artefact such as an iBook is capable of being programmed to tell (text), show (videos) and invite interactivity (puzzle game).
The Nature Mage iBook can thus be classed as an adaptation, in fact a cross-media adaptation, insofar as it creates a multimedia and multimodal work that, contrary to the adapted texts, can only be accessed through the use of digital media. But is it more than cross-media? Looking at some definitions of transmedia, it could perhaps be classed as a transmedia adaptation.