Towards an Ordinary Transmedia Use: A French Speaker’s Transmedia Use of Worlds in Game of Thrones MMORPG and Series

Olivier Servais, Sarah Sepulchre

Abstract


Game of Thrones (GoT) has become the most popular way of referring to a universe that was previously known under the title A Song of Ice and Fire by fans of fantasy novels. Indeed, thanks to its huge success, the TV series is now the most common entry into what is today a complex narrative constellation. Game of Thrones began as a series of five novels written by George R. R. Martin (first published in 1996). It was adapted as a TV series by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss for HBO in 2011, as a comic book series (2011—2014), several video games (Blood of Dragons, 2007; A Game of Thrones: Genesis, 2011; Game of Thrones, 2012; Game of Thrones Ascent, 2013; Game of Thrones, 2014), as well as several prequel novellas, a card game (A Game of Thrones: The Card Game, 2002), and a strategy board game (2003), not to mention the promotional transmedia developed by Campfire to bring the novels’ fans to the TV series. Thus, the GoT ensemble does indeed look like a form of transmedia, at least at first sight.

Game of Thrones’ Universe

Generally, definitions of transmedia assemble three elements. First, transmedia occurs when the content is developed on several media, “with each new text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole. … Each franchise entry needs to be self-contained so you don’t need to have seen the film to enjoy the game, and vice versa” (Jenkins 97-98). The second component is the narrative world. The authors of Transmédia Dans Tous Ses États notice that transmedia stories “are in some cases reduced to a plain link between two contents on two media, with no overall vision” (Collective 4). They consider these ensembles weak. For Gambarato, the main point of transmedia is “the worldbuilding experience, unfolding content and generating the possibilities for the story to evolve with new and pertinent content,” what Jenkins called “worldmaking” (116). The third ingredient is the audience. As the narrative extends itself over several platforms, consumers’ participation is essential. “To fully experience any fictional world, consumers must assume the role of hunters and gatherers, chasing down bits of the story across media channels” (Jenkins 21).

The GoT constellation does not precisely match this definition. In the canonical example examined by Jenkins, The Matrix, the whole was designed from the beginning of the project. That was not the case for GoT, as the transmedia development clearly happened once the TV series had become a success. Not every entry in this ensemble unfolds new aspects of the world, as the TV series is an adaptation of the novels (until the sixth season when it overtook the books). Not every component is self-contained, as the novels and TV series are at the narrative system’s centre. This narrative ensemble more closely matches the notion of “modèle satellitaire” conceived by Saint-Gelais, where one element is the first chronologically and hierarchically. However, this statement does not devalue the GoT constellation, as the canonical definition is rarely actualized (Sepulchre “La Constellation Transmédiatique,” Philipps, Gambarato “Transmedia”), and as transmedia around TV series are generally developed after the first season, once the audience is stabilized. What is most noticeable about GoT is the fact that the TV series has probably replaced the novels as the centre of the ensemble.

Under the influence of Jenkins, research on transmedia has often come to be related to fan studies. In this work, he describes very active and connected users. Research in game studies also shows that gamers are creative and form communities (Berry 155-207). However, the majority of these studies focused on hardcore fans or hardcore gamers (Bourdaa; Chen; Davis; Jenkins; Peyron; Stein). Usual users are less studied, especially for such transmedia practices.

Main Question and Methodology

Due to its configuration, and the wide spectrum of users’ different levels of involvement, the GoT constellation offers an occasion to confront two audiences and their practices. GoT transmedia clearly targets both fiction lovers and gamers. The success of the franchise has led to heavy consumption of transmedia elements, even by fans who had never approached transmedia before, and may allow us to move beyond the classical analysis.  That’s why, in that preliminary research, by comparing TV series viewers in general with a quite specific part of them, ordinary gamers of the videogame GOT Ascent, we aim to evaluate transmedia use in the GOT community. 

The results on viewers are part of a broader research project on TV series and transmedia. The originality of this study focuses on ordinary viewers, not fans. The goal is to understand if they are familiar with transmedia, if they develop transmedia practices, and why. The paper is based on 52 semi-structured interviews conducted in 2012 (11) and 2013 (41). Consumers of fictional extensions of TV series and fans of TV series were selected. The respondents are around twenty years old, university students, white, mostly female (42 women, 10 men), and are not representative outside the case study. Therefore, the purpose of this first empirical sample was simply to access ordinary GOT viewers’ behaviours, and to elaborate an initial landscape of their use of different media in the same world.

After that, we focused our analysis on one specific community, a subset of the GOT’s universe’s users, that is, players of the GoT Ascent videogame (we use “gamers” as synonym for “players” and “users”). Through this online participative observation, we try to analyse the players’ attitudes, and evaluate the nature of their involvement from a user perspective (Servais). Focusing on one specific medium in the GOT constellation should allow us to further flesh out the general panorama on transmedia, by exploring involvement in one particular device more deeply. Our purpose in that is to identify whether the players are transmedia users, and so GoT fans, or if they are firstly players. During a three month in-game ethnography, in June-August 2013, we played Aren Gorn, affiliated to House Tyrell, level 91, and member of “The Winter is Dark and Full of Terrors” Alliance (2500 members). Following an in-game ethnography (Boellstorff 123-134), we explored gamers’ playing attitudes inside the interface.

The Users, TV Series, and Transmedia

The respondents usually do not know what transmedia is, even if a lot of them (36) practice it. Those who are completely unaware that a narrative world can be spread over several media are rare. Only ten of them engage in fan practices (cosplay, a kind of costuming community, fan-fiction, and fan-vidding, that is fans who write fiction or make remix videos set in the world they love), which tends to show that transmedia does not only concern fans.

Most of the ordinary viewers are readers, as 23 of them cite books (True Blood, Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, Les Piliers de la Terre), one reads a recipe book (Plus Belle la Vie), and seven consume comics (The Walking Dead, Supernatural). They do not distinguish between novelisation (the novel adapted from a TV series) and the original book. Other media are also consumed, however a lot less: animation series, special episodes on the Internet, music, movies, websites (blogs, fictional websites), factual websites (about the story, the production, actors), fan-fiction, and cosplay.

Transmedia does not seem to be a strong experience. Céline and Ioana respectively read the novels adapted from Plus Belle la Vie and Gossip Girl, but don’t like them. “It is written like a script … There’s no description, only the dialogues between characters” (Ioana). Lora watched some webisodes of Cougar Town but didn’t find them funny. Aurélie has followed the Twitter of Sookie Stackouse (True Blood) and Guilleaume D. sometimes consumes humoristic content on 9gag, but irregularly. “It’s not my thing” (Aurélie). The participants are even more critical of movies, especially the sequels of Sex and the City.

That does not mean the respondents always reject transmedia components. First, they enjoy elements that are not supposed to belong to the world. These may be fan productions or contents they personally inject into the universe. Several have done research on the story’s topic: Alizée investigated mental disorders to understand United States of Tara; Guilleaume G. wandered around on Google Earth to explore Albuquerque (Breaking Bad); for Guilleaume D., Hugh Laurie’s music album is part of the character of Gregory House; Julie adores Peter Pan and, for her, Once Upon A Time, Finding Neverland, and Hook are part of the same universe. Four people particularly enjoy when the fictional characters’ couples are duplicated by real relationships between actors (which may explain all the excitement surrounding Kit Harrington and Rose Leslie’s real-life love story, paralleling their characters’ romance on GOT). If there is a transmedia production, it seems that there is also a kind of “transmedia reception,” as viewers connect heteroclite elements to build a coherent world of their own. Some respondents even develop a creative link to the world: writing fan-fiction, poetry, or building scale models (but that is not this paper’s topic, see Sepulchre “Les Constellations Narratives”, “Editorial”).

A second element they appreciate is the GOT TV series. Approximately half of the respondents cite GoT (29/52). They are not fundamentally different from the other viewers except that more of them have fan practices (9 vs. 1), and a few more develop transmedia consumption (76% against 61%). To the very extent that there is consensus over the poor quality of the novels (in general), A Song of Ice and Fire seems to have seduced every respondent. Loic usually hates reading; his relatives have pointed out to him that he has read more with GoT than in his entire lifetime. Marie D. finds the novels so good that she stopped watching the TV series. Marine insists she generally reads fan-fiction because she hates the novelisations, but the GoT books are the only good ones. The novels apparently allow a deeper immersion into the world and that is the manifest benefit of consuming them. Guilleaume G. appreciates the more detailed descriptions. Céline, Florentin, Ioana, and Marine like to access the characters’ thoughts. Julie thinks she feels the emotions more deeply when she reads. Sometimes, the novels can change their opinions on a character. Emilie finds Sansa despicable in the TV series, but the books led her to understand her sensibility.

Videogames & Transmedia

The vast majority of transmedia support from the GoT universe primarily targets “world lovers,” that is, users involved in media uses because they love the fantasy of the universe. However, only video games allow a personalized incarnation as a hero over a long term of time, and thus a customized active appropriation. This is in fact undoubtedly why the GoT universe’s transmedia galaxy has also been deployed in video games. GOT Ascent is a strategy game edited by Disruptor Beam, an American company specialising in TV games. Released in February 2013, the franchise attracted up to 9,000,000 players in 2014, but only 295,107 monthly active users. This significant difference between the accumulated number of players and those actually active (around 3 %) may well testify that those investing in this game are probably not a community of gamers.

Combining role playing and strategy game, GoT Ascent is designed in a logic that deeply integrates the elements, not only from the TV series, but also from books and other transmedia extensions. In GoT Ascent, gamers play a small house affiliated to one of the main clans of Westeros.  During the immersive game experience, the player participates in all the GoT stories from an insider’s point of view. The game follows the various GoT books, resulting in an extension whenever a new volume is published. The player interacts with others by PVE (Player versus Environment) or PVP (Player versus Player) alliances with a common chat and the possibility of sending goods to other members. With a fair general score (4,1 on 10), the game is evaluated weakly by the players (JeuxOnLine). Hence a large majority of them are probably not looking for that kind of experience.

If we focus on the top players in GoT Ascent, likely representing those most invested, it is interesting to examine the names they choose. Indeed, that choice often reveals the player’s intention, either to refer to a gamer logic or the universe of GoT. During our research, we clearly distinguished two types of names, self-referential ones or those referring to the player’s general pseudonym. In concrete terms, the name is a declination of a pseudonym of more general avatars, or else refers to other video game worlds than GoT. In GoT Ascent, the second category of names, those very clearly anchored in the world of Martin, are clearly dominant.

Is it possible to correlate the name chosen and the type of player? Can we affirm that people who choose a name not related to the GoT universe are players and that the others are GoT fans? Probably not obviously, but the consistency of a character’s name with the universe is, in the GoT case, very important for an immersive experience. The books’ author has carefully crafted his surnames and, in the game, assuming a name is therefore very clearly a symbolically important act in the desire to roleplay in that universe. Choosing one that is totally out of sync with the game world clearly means you are not there to immerse yourself in the spirit of GoT, but to play. In short, the first category is representative of the gamers, but the players are not restricted to those naming their avatar out of the world’s spirit.

This intuition is confirmed by a review of the names related to the rank of the players. When we studied high-level players, we realized that most of them use humorous names, which are totally out of the mood of the GoT universe. Thus, in 2013, the first ranked player in terms of power was called Flatulence, a French term that is part of a humorous semantics. Yet this type of denomination is not limited to the first of the list. Out the top ten players, only two used plausible GoT names. However, as soon as one leaves the game’s elite’s sphere, the plausible names are quickly in the majority. There is a sharp opposition between the vast majority of players, who obviously try to match the world, and pure gamers.

We found the same logic for the names of the Alliances, the virtual communities of players varying from a few to hundreds. Three Alliances have achieved the #1 rank in the game in the game’s first two years: Hear Me Roar (February 2013), Fire and Blood (January 2014), and Kong's Landing (September 2014). Two of those Alliances are of a more humoristic bent. However, an investigation into the 400 alliances demonstrates that fewer than 5 % have a clear humoristic signification. We might estimate that in GoT Ascent the large majority of players increase their immersive experience by choosing a GoT role play related Alliance name. We can conclude that they are mainly GoT fans playing the game, and that they seek to lend the world coherence. The high-level players are an exception. Inside GOT Ascent, the dominant culture remains connected to the GoT world.

Conclusion

A transmedia story is defined by its networked configuration, “worldmaking,” and users’ involvement. The GoT constellation is clearly a weak ensemble (Sepulchre, 2012). However, it has indeed developed on several platforms. Furthermore, the relationship between the novels and the TV series is quite unprecedented. Indeed, both elements are considered as qualitative, and the TV series has become the main entry for many fans. Thus, both of them acquire an equal authority.

The GoT transmedia storyworld also unfolds a fictional world and depends on users’ activities, but in a peculiar way. If the viewers and gamers are analysed from fan or game studies perspectives, they appear to be weak users. Indeed, they do not seek new components; they are mainly readers and do not enjoy the transmedia experience; the players are not regular ones; and they are much less creative and humorous than high-level gamers.

These weak practices have, however, one function: to prolong the pleasure of the fictional world, which is the third characteristic of transmedia. The players experiment with GoT Ascent by incarnating characters inserted into Alliances whose names may exist in the original world. This appears to be a clear attempt to become immersed in the universe. The ordinary viewers appreciate the deeper experience the novels allow. When they feed the world with unexpected elements, it is also to improve the world.

Thus, transmedia appropriation by users is a reality, motivated by a taste for the universe, even if it is a weak consumption in comparison with the demanding, creative, and sometimes iconoclastic practices gamers and fans usually develop. It is obvious, in both fields, that they are new TV series fans (they quote mainly recent shows) and beginners in the world of games. For a significant part of them, GoT was probably their first time developing transmedia practices.

However, GoT Ascent is not well evaluated by gamers and many of them do not repeat the experience (as the monthly number of gamers shows). Likewise, the ordinary viewers neglect the official transmedia components as too marketing oriented. The GoT novels are the exception proving the rule. They demonstrate that users are quite selective: they are not satisfied with weak elements. The question that this paper cannot answer is: was GoT a first experience? Will they persevere in the future? Yet, in this preliminary research, we have seen that studying ordinary users’ weak involvement (series viewers or gamers) is an interesting path in elaborating a theory of transmedia user’s activities, which takes the public’s diversity into account.

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Keywords


Transmedia; Game; TV series; users; Game of Thrones; reception studies; ethnography



Copyright (c) 2018 Olivier Servais and Sarah Sepulchre

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