Concept art from The Force Unleashed, courtesy LucasArts

This year I’ve been writing a series of columns around transmedia storytelling – the process whereby one story, in one medium, expands into other media, and other stories, and eventually into an entire world told across many platforms, with many points of entry – and participation – for the audience. The first column heavily referenced ideas from Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture. It’s a fascinating book and, you know, readable – meaning, not academic. But if you need a one-stop definition of what makes a story transmedia, check out this summary on his blog.

Jenkins and others have defined this concept really well. So what’s left for me as a columnist? We can still explore the political dimension of transmedia storytelling – for example, to look at a figure like Barack Obama, who’s as much a pop star as a politician. And the forms that this takes and the new ideas people experiment with make for plenty of column fodder.

But the direction I seem to be taking, without even planning it, is to look at what drives people to invest time in these sink holes – why there are some people who are fine with watching an hour of Law and Order and forgetting it the minute they go to bed, and then there are other people who watch every episode of Battlestar Galactica at least twice, listen to the podcasts, watch the forums, engage with the characters, write fan fic, and secretly hope there will be an MMORPG so they can walk up and “hang out with Starbuck” anytime they’d like. What drives their obsession? In other words, why do they love this stuff so much?

Like I said in the first column, I’m a pop culture junkie – and when I talk about Star Wars, or dig up old comic books that still find a way to hook me, I get why people want to immerse themselves in imaginary worlds, and hang out with imaginary friends. In fact, the characters in these worlds are the thing that interest me the most: we’re flooded with characters nowadays, and the ones that stick start to engage us on many platforms. Where do they come from? Why are we drawn to them? As I wrote a couple posts ago, video games can turn fictional characters into active love interests. Sure, this is a weird substitute for human company, but that’s just the extreme end of an urge that’s affected almost everybody who’s read a compelling novel or rooted for a character on TV.

But here’s the catch: the characters and worlds we’re talking about aren’t just getting richer and more interactive; we’re also scaling ourselves down to live in them. There’s been a lot of talk about the psychology around how we inhabit our avatars in online social networks or in virtual worlds. This BBC story gives a fascinating look at the spirituality of WOW avatars; in this recent piece in Gamesutra, Neil Sorens astutely points out that the appeal of MMOs doesn’t like in the social side as much as in the way you get “persistent character progression”: the character you create grows and evolves over time, and you keep that history for as long as you stay subscribed.

Avatars are many things, but they are not as rich and complicated as our real-life selves. There just ain’t the bandwidth. And that’s why an animated character doesn’t have to be as three-dimensional as a full person. If there were a Battlestar Galactica MMORPG, and you wanted players to feel like they were hanging out with Starbuck, you wouldn’t have to give them a life-like character – you just have to meet your players halfway. The non-player characters get richer, and the players become more constrained, more limited, and more archetypical. They become more like the characters they love.

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